Sunday, June 6, 2010

Bullfight in Lisbon

Day 11, May 29

We jumped off the Metro, and immediately heard the crowd at the big bullfight ring. But not, as we expected, the happy crowd. No, the shrill whistles and yelling all were from the group of animal rights protestors, carefully contained (protected?) by quite a few police.

We found everyone, got in line, the 8 of us (me, David, Fred and Shelley B., Taylor, Hyun-Ji, Chrissy and John). The ticket lady made sure to warn us that this wasn’t a traditional Spanish bullfight, but undeterred, we got our tickets. For this event, there was no assigned seating—which would have been a challenge, given the intricacies of sun or shade or part sun, the distance from the ring, the relation to the bull entrance, and so on, with tickets up to 100 euros apiece. But today, just 15 euros, find a seat.

And after rather lengthy opening parades and speeches by local politicians, and presentations and flags and marching bands, after all that—how to describe this. There was no matador, no horses, no swords, no blood. Instead, about 18 (if I counted right) guys assembled inside the ring, in and around this large wooden contraption, a vaguely triangular set of posts, perhaps meant to be an oversized bull. They lifted it, moved in unison, and then the bull was let out. After a few stares at the crowd, the bull charged this wooden contraption full of men, locking horn to wood, sometimes flinging it up, almost exposing the guys on the front row, more often spinning the whole contraption around at odd angles, so that the solitary “steering” man at the back was lifted off his feet.

The bull would back off, circle, charge again. Sometimes, the men would scoot forward, in a knee-bent shuffle and deep grunting chant, that echoed some of the Greek shield columns we would have heard on the film 300. People in the crowd cheered good clashes, murmured at feeble ones. Lots of guys on the stand-on-the-ground inside the barricade area had t-shirts with that same wooden device sketched on the back, celebrating the 2009 season, or other bullfight events.

Well, the wooden contraption part lasted a while, then they backed off, rested the contraption against the barricade, then dozens of young men just jumped in the ring, and began taunting the bull to charge. The point seemed to be personal bravado, being able to slap the bull’s backside, or touch his horns, or tap his nose. The bull would spin, sometimes kick, often make fast, fast charges that would send whole arcs of the players jumping over the wall, just shy of a horn. A few seemed crowd-pleaser show-offs. One guy in a green t-shirt apparently lives for his moments in the ring, making lightning dashes in front of the bull, making a good move, kneeling on the ground to await applause. A red-haired guy mocked the bull, pawing his feet at the ground, daring a charge.

Eventually, one of the specialists (I assume) at tail-grabbing would make a dash and grab the bull’s tail. If he could hold on, he would spin round and round, his feet surfing in the dirt, his taut arms just out of reach of the circling horns. This tail-grabbing usually had to take place several times, but when the bull tired just enough, the crowd in the ring would literally pile on the bull like some rugby match and the 20 or so of them hold the animal still. As far as I could tell, this was “winning.” The men would turn loose, scatter, steers would be let out to lure the bull out of the ring, and the next round would feature a new bull.

No blood, and each round would go about the same. Such an odd event, it’s hard to frame it well. Obviously, there were many culture-codes at work which I couldn't see. And this was an event that whole families attended. One father near us kept trying to slip his 6 and 7 year old sons down to the just-inside-the-barricade seats, but a stadium cop came over and had them return to the less-cool seats (though he let one boy sit there for a few minutes while they talked. No doubt he'll be charging bulls too in 10 years.) Certainly a high-testosterone challenge (no women ventured to jump in the ring, or even seemed ready to challenge this domain—and I was glad Chrissy had on sandals and didn’t have to be dissuaded). And it seems disorganized, at first, the men in the ring just running at or past the bull, with no preset order.

But then, in another way there was an elegance to this. Remember those Jack London stories, the ones set with pre-historic tribes in the far north? I recall one where the tribe set about hunting down a wooly mammoth, there at the end of the last big ice age. They had no grand weapons beyond a few stone spears, and were tiny and slow compared to that great beast. But working in harmony, in a group that just wouldn’t stop, they exhausted the beast and fed themselves. I felt some of this in the loose fraternity of bull-runners there in Lisbon.

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