...the statement I was going to use (borrowed from an old friend, Christian Beine) can have positive & negative connotations. This weekend, it's a little bit of both.
It is not often I go to New Orleans in a month which is not spelled with an "R" somewhere within or at the end. Sure, there's the August trip to do the NOH3 Red Dress thing...that's a situation where I kick myself while pulling funky, nasty sweaty red dresses out of the back of my car, asking the un-askable question: 'What in the world was I thinking when I registered for this?' Then I realize I added a few too many words to the front end of the sentence & should have started the question with: 'Was I thinking...?' Naturally, my wife reminds me it is all in good fun.
This time we went, not to commemorate a hasher hook-up (I never knew that was the story behind the RDR!) but to take part in a variation of a ritual steeped in lore & tradition, immortalized by Papa Ernest Hemingway in the last three chapters of his novel, The Sun Also Rises. Seems someone felt like there was a need for another reason to party in New Orleans & the Fiesta de San Fermin seemed like as good a reason as any. I never knew the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona was part of a religious festival, but I guess when you're in a nation as Catholic (with a capital "C") as Spain, nearly everything has religious undertones.
And when you have the amount of spare time to research stuff I do...in between doing real work...you do have the opportunity to learn the history & significance of things. I think it makes the experience that much more meaningful, personally. The San Fermin web site, http://www.sanfermin.com/, not only had photos & commentary about the history, but even a little bit about Hemingway's visits there through his middle age. Even better, the site was set up in Spanish, Basque & English...with links to an on-line store for shirts & stuff. Hey, even the Euros feel the need to be capitalistic. Every so often.
But I digress.
Bulls are deeply tied into Spanish culture, long before even the Umayyad (sic?) Caliphate took over the Iberian peninsula. That much I recall from some multimedia thing I watched while I was studying Spanish in college. Somehow, I guess there was some machismo thing going on in the ability to avoid getting stomped or gored by some bull being taken down the main drag to it's eventual death in the bull ring. Not quite certain where San Fermin falls in there, save for the fact he's the patron saint of Pamplona, in the province of Navarre.
I guess during the seven or eight days of the festival these bull breeders in the region send eight of their fighting bulls to die for the pleasure of Spanish aficionados. And the last 800 meters or so of the trip is through the center of town to the bull ring. Barricades abound. Oh, & did I mention the very slippery cobblestone surface & the hard ninety-degree turn near the end? First time I had the chance to see this was not long after I first moved to Pensacola; Outdoor Life Network (now called Versus) would show it in the afternoons...guess Craig Hummer & Al Trautwig needed something stranger than cycle racing to commentate upon, huh? Bizarre thing to watch a ton of angry hamburger try to take a hard right on cobblestones...slide like he's on ice, & BANG! Into the barrera.
All right, so New Orleans' San Fermin is a little more kind & genteel. At least for New Orleans. First year's encierro had a few hundred participants & maybe a dozen "bulls," well, roller derby chicks with horned helmets & whiffle ball bats. This year, the third, had around five thousand participants & probably a hundred "bulls" from all over the southeastern U.S. And the blend of tradition & whimsy is perfect.
The start of the encierro is at the northern end of the Vieux Carre', winds through the Quarter, and finishes in the Warehouse District. The event started officially at eight o'clock, but if you weren't at the corner near the balcony at 7:05 the odds were good you were not going to have a good spot for the beginning of the festivities.
At (probably...I haven't worn a watch in six months, so time is relative!) 7:55, the caretakers of San Fermin's statue marched up Rue Conti, led by a squad of drummers. San Fermin was then followed by a flight of rolling Elvi on mini-motorized scooters. Once San Fermin was installed in his proper place, the Padron stepped out onto the balcony of the Three-Legged Dog & gave his welcoming speech. This was immediately followed by the kneeling & invocation of the participants to (who else?) San Fermin, asking him to guide them safely ahead of the bulls. Immediately afterward, unlike the real encierro where a rocket is launched to send off the runners, we were sent down the course.
The pace for the run was closer to a dawdle. Enough for us to think, 'heck, no worries...this is going to be an easy little Saturday morning jog in the FQ.' No sooner did that thought cross my mind than we made a left-hand turn through what appeared to be a barrier of spectators standing in the middle of the street. At that point I looked to the right.
Ever watch those old movies where Godzilla, or some fifty-foot tall, radioactivity-enhanced thing rises out of a body of water and begins to stomp its way into a major metropolitan area? Think about the people (who have screams of terror dubbed in) as they look back at the creature about ready to turn them into a grease spot on the sidewalk. That's the look we all had. Why? We just turned onto the point of the course where the "bulls" were waiting to be released. Screaming? Absolutely. Like a seven-year-old girl, I was.
We began to run like Kenyans at the Classic. And behind us we could hear the plastic 'whonk' sound of whiffle ball bat meeting body part, which only made us more panicky. My wife took the smarter plan of action, and stepped off the course onto the sidewalk. She told me while she thought this was all in good fun she was not in the mood to be whacked in the fanny with a plastic bat. So, she managed to come through the day un-bruised.
On the other hand, I received the beating of a lifetime, the sort I hadn't received since nearly failing middle school English grammar so long ago. It could have been a grounding, but noooo... These hits weren't just gentle 'whacks.' Some of these girls were out to make up for ex-boyfriends or something...one of them had a forehand which would make Serena Williams proud. I still have the mark.
Of course, with all that humidity & sweat flying around someone's going to lose a bat, & someone's going to lose control. One bull & I ended up in the San Fermin in Nueva Orleans version of a Mexican Standoff; she lost grip of her bat, which fell to the ground at my feet. I picked it up: Any other situation would call for payback. However, the second rule of the run, 'Do Not Touch The Bulls,' applied. So, I shook the bat at her with a small amount of menace, then smiled and handed it back to her. No good deed goes unpunished; she responded with a swat in the keister & a blown kiss for my reward.
While some of the NOLA roller girls were probably familiar with the terrain, it's hard to say whether the imported "bulls" were as well-prepared. The pavement can be rather unforgiving if you don't keep your wits about you...while the cobblestoned last two blocks of the encierro provided payback to the "bulls," there were a few places on the course where I watched "bulls" succumb to the laws of physics or crash into "innocent bystanders." If you're standing on the side of the road for the express purpose of watching this particular spectacle, the term "innocent" does not apply, in my humble opinion. Some guy complained about a bull causing him to spill his drink all over his shirt. Neither bull, nor runner, nor fellow spectator felt the least sympathetic.
The bulls quickly realized trying to roll over cobblestones would lead to accidents which could put this years' Tour de France to shame, so they lined up in a gauntlet formation & proceeded to beat upon the runners who had the temerity to run behind them on the course. The sound of whiffle ball bats could on that block from Tchopitoulas to Julia leading to Ernst Cafe' for blocks around. I rejoined my wife, who was standing at the entrance of Ernst Cafe cooling off. We watched for a few minutes the spectacle of runners staging photographed whacks with imported & domestic bulls, then retired, like Hemingway & his companions once did, to our hotel room to prepare for the next stage of our Fiesta experience.