Monday, 11 June 2007

The Teasing of the Cows

Sahagun, our nearest real town, is "en fiestas" right now (not to be confused with "infested"); five days or so of concerts, speeches, parties, fireworks, random explosions, rosary novenas, closed shops, drunkenness, and general merriment all around. People are pouring in from all the surrounding villages, and many, apparently, brought along saxophones. (more on that later.)

Others brought bulls. Bulls are apparently a vital part of the Feast of St. John of Sahagun.

Not that St. John of Sahagun is a bovine patron of any sort, (nor is he the only local saint!). Seriously, he is considered the Father of Anthropology, the study of human societies. He was a brilliant local boy, a priest in Sahagun's mighty Benedictine monastery, and went over to the New World in the 16th century of so, to help evangelize the Indians. He actually TALKED to some of them, and listened to their stories, and wrote down the folklore of native tribes, information nobody else bothered with. (This was, presumably, just before his fellow Spaniards carried the injuns off into slavery.) No report on whether John saved their souls, but he did save a little bit of their culture, God bless him.

But let's not rain on the parade. One of Sahagun's ways of celebrating John is to spend weeks installing steel and wooden barriers and gates all over the downtown, tying up traffic in a most effective manner. (they also installed a huge collection of carnival rides right on the state route through town. God knows where you get the bus these days!) The gates and barriers are designed to move a dozen or so young cows safely from a corral downtown up the main street, across the railroad bridge, and into the decrepit old bullring, where they can then be either teased or killed.

I don't go in much for the Corrida, the slow, balletic butchery that we call a "bullfight." I saw a performance last summer I promised would be my last. But Sahagun's saving up its corrida for Tuesday. Today, Monday, was "just the encierra," our neighbor Segundino told us. "Local boys go in the ring with the bull. Young bulls. No swords. The bull gets to live. And he gets ahold of somebody, sometimes. The bands play, and everyone dances."

Wow, a bullfight where the animal has a chance, along with a "running of the bulls" through the streets of dear old Sahagun! Who could pass that up... especially when the option is staying home and swatting flies and finishing the laundry?

We got there on time, managed to squeeze our bulks through the bars on a few barriers, and staked out a place on the bullring lawn near the ice cream truck. Soon the parades came up the street: "Penas," groups of friends and associates dressed in matching outfits, each one sponsored by a local bar whose name was prominently displayed on their flashy sashes or kerchiefs...and whose produce was swigged from enourmous plastic cups all the way up town. Each pena had a band, too... and each band featured (for reasons I must explore further) several saxophones. They played a strange assortment of tunes: paso dobles, Herb Alpert's "Whipped Cream," "Beer Barrel Polka," and even, yes: "Found A Peanut."

One group, "La Rueda," was too full of beer to carry a tune together, so the six saxophonists each just played his favorite. All of them, simultaneously. But they kept to the drumbeat, may god be praised. Nobody seemed to care, and the members shook their booties all the way into the ring. The lawn filled up, the crowd thickened, the beer and calimocho flowed.

Eight penas paraded, and then the explosions started: the beloved petard, noisemaker of choice in Spain -- these people LOVE a good, simple, solid "boom!" to clear the streets. The gates were closed, the barriers in place, and then the bulls released... into what appeared to be a crowd of drunks.

Who suddenly came alive, transformed in a moment into "encierrados" or some such thing: valiant young men pitting their testosterone against fast-moving half-ton ruminants with pointy horns. They ran down the avenue, and they ran back up, and the bulls, I suppose, went back to their pens all fired-up by their quick dash downtown.

The crowd poured into the bullring seats; the penas took up assigned spots around the arena, their green, blue, yellow, and pink matching shirts all together; their bands taking turns playing snappy tunes. And into the sandy center the civic workers released the bulls, one at a time. Waiting for them were high-school boys, our plumber, three guys with magnificent mullets, the local notary (who's getting a little old for this kind of thing), and a few eagle-eyed 20-something athletes who were really taking this seriously.

The bulls were way young... just out of calfhood, a couple of them. And they really gave the local boys a good workout. It's hard work, teasing a calf into chasing you, then diving behind a wooden barrier or up over the bullring wall the get away. A couple men got very close, and twisted elegantly above and around the bulls' horns at the last moment. Another one, (a guy who works on the Sahagun road works crew), actually vaulted up and over the charging beast. But most of them just ran away a lot. It made me understand what kind of guts a real bullfighter's got to have, to stay in that ring the whole time, to keep moving, and keep the bull moving, too.

When the bull got tired, or stopped charging, the fat little guy who runs the candy store opened the gate and let the animal go back to its pen. The bulls seemed to delight in charging the fat guy, so I wonder if he spent his Monday afternoon hanging out in the bullpen, poking them with a stick or something.

There's another encierra tomorrow, just before the big 6-man Corrida, but I may opt for the Solemn Novena. Or finishing the laundry. We have company coming this week, and we have to keep up appearances. Even if it's just a less-than-toxic bathroom, or a kitchen/sitting room with floors that do not crunch underfoot!

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