Tag Archives: spain

Thrill seekers converge at Running of the Bulls

The smell of sangria and cigarette smoke clings to the 7:30 a.m. air. It’s persistent, much like the lively crowd of revelers, adorned head to toe in white and red, vying for the best seats in the arena.

If their shirts splattered with the red Spanish cocktail are of any fortuitous and symbolic indication, there will be blood — just how much and whose, there’s no telling.

It’s July 10 and just as in the past eight centuries, hundreds of people will risk their lives for the thrill of feeling six bulls’ hot breath against their backs — and some ridiculous bragging rights.

The Fiesta de San Fermín is best known for its gory morning spectacle, El Encierro or Running of the Bulls. The event takes place every year from July 6 to 14 in Pamplona, Spain.

Though a long-established local tradition, it was author Ernest Hemingway who helped the festival gain international recognition with his depiction of the event in his book “The Sun Also Rises.” He wrote that he enjoyed watching two wild animals running together at once, one with two legs, the other on four.

To run with the bulls is the ultimate bucket list item that few are brave enough — or reckless, depending on your take — to cross off.

July 9

Of all the festivals I’m attending this summer, Fiesta de San Fermín has received the most hype.

Mom says our health insurance plan doesn’t cover stupidity. If the bulls don’t kill me, she will. Dad says he’d join me for a brisk, little run in northern Spain if he had the time and money.

As someone who has auditioned for “American Idol” on a dare and gotten into a pit with a 13-foot alligator, I am my thrill-junkie father’s daughter. But then again, I’m in Pamplona by myself with no one nearby who loves me enough to drop off a “Get well soon” balloon. That’s kind of sad.

My mind is telling me no, but my feet, my feet, are telling me “yes.” (Read to the tune of R. Kelly’s “Bump ‘N Grind” as that it is how it was written. You’re welcome.)

While on the bus to the campsite I’ll be staying at during the festivities, a tour guide has a few sobering words of warning.

“It’s not a matter of being heroes. It’s a matter of getting in the stadium and just finishing it,” he says.

This, of course, comes from a man who has run once himself. But no one who makes a pilgrimage to Pamplona simply goes for the heck of it. Ask anyone around here, local or tourist, and they’ve at least toyed with the idea.

For some, those who have dived off cliffs and swum with sharks, the decision is as natural as deciding what cereal to eat for breakfast.

For others, myself included, there are much weightier questions to consider: Do overpronated feet excuse me from the Running of the Bulls like it once excluded men from military service during World War II? Is risking my life worth the street cred? Do I want to be buried or cremated? Have I ever heard of the Book of Mormon? Do I know where I’ll spend eternity?

No matter how acquainted you are with the half-mile course, which starts near the river and ends in the center of the city at the bullfighting arena, there’s no guarantee you’ll walk away from the mad dash unscathed.

Upon arrival to the campground, word gets around that an American man who co-wrote the book “Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona” was gored today — a slicing bit of irony. Bill Hillmann has long been seen as one of the best young American runners. Another man’s trachea was pierced in the same run.

“It’s not a matter of being heroes. It’s a matter of getting in the stadium and just finishing it.”

Maybe I’ll run after I watch it once from the barricaded sidelines or on the big screens of the bullfighting arena. Yeah, yeah, you know, I can pick up on the best techniques that way.

July 10

I’ve determined that to wait would be the best game plan as I head into the arena for the fourth day of the Encierro, which is my first. After all, I have two more opportunities to run if not today.

In the moments leading up to the run, participants can be seen engaging in a warm-up stretches and rituals. Many jog and jump in place. Some cross their chests and look up to the sky. One man draws a long puff from a cigar.

First-time spectators quickly learn that the run is a sport, one that you must take seriously — or the seasoned attendees will have your hide.

Before the run even begins, two men and a woman run into the arena early and are pelted with trash as the crowd chants “tonto, tonto,” meaning “stupid” in Spanish. To the crowd, those who only pretend like they’ve just ran for their lives are better off gored.

Stadium crowd
More than a million people are estimated to attend the festival every July, but the city isn’t that large. It’s home to just under 200,000 people.

After the unfashionably early are escorted out by police, pictures of the six bulls that will be taking part in the day’s festivities flash up on the big screen along with their weights. The cheers getting louder as the size of the bull increases.

Soon, hundreds of red scarves appear in the air as the run is about to start.

“A San Fermín pedimos, por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro dándonos su bendición,” the runners sing, asking the saint for his blessing.

The festival actually has surprisingly religious ties. San Fermín, the patron saint of the Spanish region of Navarra, was beheaded after becoming Pamplona’s first Christian bishop. The red scarves, or pañuelos, are said to represent his blood and sacrifice, while the white outfits are symbolic of his holiness.

It doesn’t take long for the first shot to be fired, signaling the release of six bulls and six  steers from the pin, but few of the runners move. They wait for the bulls to barrel at them before they start to run. If you’re going to cheat death, make sure you cheat it right.

Before officials even get the chance to shoot off the second rocket, signaling the bulls’ contact with the runners, a man is flipped upside down by a bull that’s run astray 21 seconds in. That’s one man down out of dozens who are generally injured each year.

Some runners carry rolled-up newspapers to divert the attention and ultimately the horns of the color-blind bulls. I wonder if they’ve bothered to read about the previous day’s injuries on the front page.

Maybe it’s not print that’s dying but those who don’t read it, those who don’t head its warnings.

Runners come flooding in the stadium and bulls barrel closely behind them. Thunder erupts from the hooves of the horned animals galloping triumphantly against the arena’s sand, embracing their believed victory. But with bull fights scheduled each night of the festival, all bulls will ultimately lose the battle.

Human participants celebrate by whipping out their GoPros and smartphones for post-run “selfies,” making me wonder what compelled people to run before their still-in-tact guts could be glorified with 200 “Likes” on Facebook.

Post-run selfie
Many runners take selfies once the run is over, but doing so during the run could mean harsh penalties to the tune of about $2,050.

To the first-time viewer, any run is gawked at as a gory and violent one. But it could be worse. Thankfully, no one died on the race’s course today, and no one has since 2009. There have been 15 recorded deaths since 1924.

Perhaps the odds of surviving are quite good given that there are thousands of people who run every year.

For now, the few brave souls who ran earlier in the morning — some of whom were inspired by a bit of last night’s liquid courage — stare blankly ahead pondering at their accomplishment in wonderment, the adrenaline still pulsating through their shaking fingers and legs.

They collectively agree that it was the most thrilling moment of their lives but one not worth repeating. It’s a good day to be alive.

Maybe I’ll be missing out if I don’t feel this thrill for myself. Perhaps I’ll run tomorrow.

July 11, the run

I decide to catch the earliest ride out in the morning to see if I still have a shot securing a good spot to watch the run. Though I’m on the fence, everyone else on board is running.

Much to the dismay of their girlfriends, Darren Stone and Anthony Mogridge are among them.

They’re two of the many Australians I befriended this week, convincing me that once you can get past a continent’s deadly pythons, dingoes and sharks, nothing truly phases you anymore. If there’s one concrete lesson I’ve taken away from my time in Pamplona, it’s this: Live every day like you’re Australian.

Taking on Pamplona
Cheers to the great group of friends I made from Australia and all the hours we spent laughing over inside jokes about Michael Jordan and Adam’s apples!

A survey conducted this year by the Pamplona City Hall has found that the majority — about 56 percent — of those who now participate in the festival are foreigners.

“It’s starting to rain. Does that make you nervous?” I ask Stone as droplets of rain collect on the bus windows at 6 a.m.

“Now it does,” he replies.

“Dear diary, today I just died,” Mogridge says as a form of greeting when boarding the bus.

Our laughter, though earnest, is uneasy. We’ll laugh harder if the number of people who boarded the bus this morning is the same on the return trip.

“Dear diary, today I just died.”

Upon arriving at Calle Estafeta, the main stretch of the run where I will watch it all unfold, Stone and Mogridge leave me. I tell them I’ll see them later, I hope.

Waiting for the run to begin, I chat with a man who ran the day prior. He said he didn’t let his family or friends know that he was running until after he did so, a common course of action among many participants I spoke with.

Before they’re even out of the gate, today’s bulls already have a reputation for their viciousness — they hail from the notorious Jandilla Ranch. The last time someone was killed in the Running of the Bulls, July 10, 2009, was at the horn of Capuchino, one of the ranch’s bulls.

Aside from a bull and runners losing their footing, particularly around Dead Man’s Corner, a tight bend where Calle Mercaderes meets Calle Estafeta, the run is much calmer and less memorable than the previous day’s.

There are no gorings to report, only seven trauma injuries — not a bad day. But many expert runners say a run is only good when you can feel the bulls’ breath against your back for multiple seconds at a time. Today’s bulls kept their distance.

Waiting on the bus to head back to the campsite, I’m relieved to see Mogridge hop on.

“Hey, you survived,” I exclaim.

“Yeah, I’ve got a bit of sad news, actually,” Mogridge says.

I then become intensely aware that Stone did not return to the bus with him.

“Oh my God, where’s Darren? Is he all right?”

“Oh, he’s fine. I mean that I didn’t get to run. The police saw my GoPro and threw me out,” Mogridge says.

With more phones and cameras floating about than ever before, Pamplona police now has a zero-tolerance policy for technology use among runners in an effort to keep the event, albeit an event where bulls run wild, safe.

July 11, the fight

Stone and the other runners might have been spared a trip to the hospital, but the day won’t be free of carnage. There’s still the evening’s bullfight.

Always a step away from becoming a vegetarian, I was initially hesitant to go to a bullfight. I actually had a nightmare two nights before the event that all the addictingly spicy crawfish I had ever eaten avenged me by taking my life.

But in order to make a remark about a culture, you must first experience it.

The atmosphere inside the bullfighting arena isn’t all that different from what I’ve experienced at any college basketball game or MLB game. Fans are cheering and chanting, but for whom or what, I’m not entirely sure.

Are people cheering for the bull, hoping it’ll give the man seeking to kill it a good scare with its horns? Are they hoping the matador finishes off the bull with one clean strike of his sword? Are they cheering only because so many did the same before them?

Spain’s relationship with its bulls is a complicated and divisive one.

To many, the bull is revered as a strong and beautiful creature. The matador, the man who fights it, is responsible for showing off its strengths before its demise.

Locals who run often rub their hands along the length of the bulls’ backs but will not touch their horns, out of reverence for their power.

The power dynamic can be confusing for just about any non-Spaniard, but even locals grapple with mixed emotions about all the bloody pomp and circumstance.

Bullfighting tradition in Spain is largely associated with the country’s former dictator  Francisco Franco, who ruled from 1939 to 1975.

During his contentious rule, the sport was a state sanctioned activity steeped in patriotism. Disapproval for Franco and bullfighting grew simultaneously in the push for democracy.

Catalonia, an autonomous and relatively progressive region of Spain, drew a line in the bullfighting ring sand when it banned the sport in 2010.

Curious but cautious, I asked Spaniards about their thoughts on the fights, but I find that they only answer me with questions, wanting to know my thoughts on the matter as an American.

Some I speak with say that bullfighting is deeply embedded in Spain’s culture, without it there’d be a gaping hole. Others say it’s senseless violence and sad to watch.

Regardless of our differing stances, we sit among each other in the stands.

With a pretty blue bow tied around its neck, each bull goes into the fight alone. It’s not long after it comes barreling out of the gate that its shoulders are washed with seeping blood.

First come the picadors, the matador’s assistants who ride on armored horses. One delivers the first blow by lancing the back of the bull to make its back muscles weaker.

Then the banderilleros follow. These men are on foot and are responsible for driving several barbed stakes into its back.

With each strike, the bull’s movements become increasingly labored. Now the animal is too weak to furiously ram its head against the barricade.

In his brightly colored suit, with its sequins glinting in the setting sun, the matador makes his way to the center of the ring to finish the job.

Matador and the bull
Six bulls are killed each evening. Three matadors take turns fighting them.

He gracefully twirls his cape, taunting the bull to dodge forward. Behind it, he hides his long sword that he’ll use shortly. Again and again, he pulls the cape up as the bull dizzily runs back and forth.

Finally, the matador pulls out the sword, gives it a light toss in his hand and stabs it right through the bull’s back. If he is lucky, he’ll pierce the bull’s heart in one strike and will be met with the adoration of the crowd. The bull in that case will be lucky, too, finally being put out of its misery.

With the animal’s every twitch, I find myself shifting uncomfortably in my seat. As it struggles to breathe, so do I.

The bull takes a mighty bow to his matador before he plummets to the ground, front hooves first.

If it’s a good fight, its ears and tail are cut off to be given to the matador. The carcass is promptly tied up and dragged behind a set of horses for one last circle around the ring.

Then it’s on to the next bull and the one after that and the one after that. As rowdy attendees cheer on from the cheap seats and throw sangria on one another, I sit in silent reverence for the fallen beasts.

I don’t know if I’ll understand the bullfighting, but I do know one time watching is enough for me.

July 12

I board yet another 6 a.m. bus after getting four hours of sleep, the same amount as the two previous nights.

Eyes drooping and patience wearing thin, I begin to wonder how Spaniards have the stamina for partying until dawn days in a row. Not much into nightlife myself, I feel exhausted for them.

Again, I find myself on the sidelines instead of the frontlines of today’s run. It’s raining yet again, which helps me rationalize that it probably isn’t the safest of days for a run. Those darn weather patterns.

Much to my surprise, the run goes pretty smoothly. Just as in Friday’s run, there are no gorings. Only a couple of bulls threatened to charge some runners. You never can tell how the day’s run is going to be until after it’s over.

I guess I’ll stick to risking my self-respect — instead of my life to a bull’s horn — by streaking public places and competing on televised karaoke programs. Yeah, that sounds good. Well, for now anyway. Ask me again next week.

IF YOU GO

Where to watch: There’s a bull run at 8 a.m. each day of the festival. Late-night revelers hyped on sangria extend their party into the morning, snagging all the good vantage points on the sidelines by 6 a.m. If you can’t beat them, join them — or buy a cheap ticket to watch the run unfold from the safe grandstands of the bullfighting arena.

What to eat: La Mañueta, a 140-year-old churrería,  is a rare, authentic find among a dying breed of establishments selling the traditional Spanish breakfast item. Here, churros are fried and hand-sprinkled with sugar right before your eyes. With the long line of people outside, the place is easy to spot. Buy a cup of thick hot chocolate for €2 next door.

When to run: Daredevils be warned. There’s never a truly safe day to run. To lessen your chances of getting gored, run mid-week when festival attendance drops and on a day with nice weather. Rain makes the course’s stones slippery.

Strangers like me: Meet 20-year-old Ana

Boy, did ever get to know the person I interviewed for this week’s installment of “The Strangers Like Me” well. We didn’t stay in the same hostel like the other people I typically interview. Nope, it was more like we slept on the street next to piles of trash, in an ATM vestibule and at a bus stop on a single night in Pamplona. Why? Despite both arriving three hours early to the station, we missed the same bus to Paris that ran from the Spanish town famous for the Running of the Bulls. (Blog post on that festival forthcoming.) That’s what happens when a bus station chooses not to post an up-to-date schedule of departures and hires unhelpful transportation officials.

With hostels all booked up and the bus station closing at midnight, we faced the harsh reality that we would be spending a night roughing it in the streets among all the drunken revelers partying until sunrise. Alone, I would’ve been petrified, but I was so glad to have Ana with me for this experience, having only met her after we both realized our bus left Pamplona without us.

We frantically booked a flight for the next day while in a bar blaring Jennifer Lopez at 2 a.m. We laughed hysterically about our exhaustion. We sang Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” to ourselves — ironically, of course. But honestly, despite all headaches, what a wonderful place the world truly is that two strangers could lift each other up in a traveler’s worst-case-scenario situation. She might have been a stranger, but she was a stranger … like me. Here’s to hoping our paths cross again soon, Ana!

Ana

Meet Ana from Chicago, Ill.

Where’d I meet her?
Pamplona, Spain

Why she’s in Europe?
She’s doing a two-month research program in Madrid, and she was looking for a weekend adventure.

Where else would she like to go?
Somewhere to see the Aurora Borealis — the more exotic the location, the better.

Why does she believe schools should teach students more about empathy?
“It’s not as much as a focus, especially in America where it’s always you, the individual. You work as hard as you can, and it’ll be worth it in the end. I don’t think that the impact that people have on each other is really emphasized anywhere.”

What’s on her bucket list?
She wants to do a poetry slam and paint something large, abstract and colorful that could go on a wall.

What’s the weirdest thing she’s ever done?
“Once I went to the mall with my friend, and we were just having a really bad week. Everything was so hard, and we were like, ‘I just want to get out of here.’ So we went to the mall and went up to random people and asked them, ‘If you had a super power, what would it be?’ They had interesting responses. My favorite one was from a girl who said, ‘I would want to have all the candy in the world. That would be my super power.’ I was like, ‘Would you share it with people?’ And she was like, ‘Nope, no one can have candy except for me.'”

Strangers Like Me: Meet 22-year-old Catherine

It’s time for another weekly installment of “The Strangers Like Me.” Hostels are a funny thing, you know. For reasons unexplainable, you share a random room in a random hostel in a random city with a random person on this random night. You think to yourself, “What could I possibly have in common with this person?” But you both came from somewhere and you’re both going somewhere. They might be strangers. But then you realize they’re strangers … like me.

Catherine

Meet Catherine from Yoshkarola, Russia

Where’d I meet her?
Barcelona, Spain

Why is she traveling?
She just finished up studying abroad in Germany and chose to vacation in Spain. 

Where else would she most like to go?
England, both London and the countryside

What’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to her?
Attending university in St. Petersburg, Russia, which is 24 hours away from her village by train. Though it’s been a challenge, it’s given her more career opportunities.

What’s on her bucket list?
“I know that it’s never happened, but I’ve always dreamed about some specific skills, like (learning how) to control wind. It’s like a fairy tale, a thing that’s never happened  but still, maybe.” (She also wants to go parachuting and visit famous world cities.)

Let her tell you about the first time she saw the ocean.

“Until I was 21 years old, I had never seen the ocean or swam in it. It was in Italy, and it was good weather, and everything was beautiful.”

“What did that feel like the first time you touched the water?”

“Ahh!” (Laughs.) “I can’t (name) this emotion, but it was, ‘Ahh!'”

El Colacho takes leap of faith in Spanish festival

When you ask 17-year-old Estafania Gonzalez about the time her parents laid her down on a mattress in the middle of the town square for a man dressed as the devil to jump over her, the details might get a little hazy.

“It was good although I can’t remember it because I was a baby,” she coolly tells me in an interview conducted in Spanish.

Maybe it’s for the best that she doesn’t. If it weren’t for the event’s holy Catholic ties, this could be the sort of thing that haunts you for years.

At the El Colacho festival in Castrillo de Murcia, Spain, the discordant clanging of church bells overhead and a single foreboding drum can’t hush the wails of infants dressed in their laciest bonnets and softest onesies.

Parents tenderly coo and cradle, but not much can be done. What’s seen cannot be unseen. After more than seven hours of preparatory festivities leading up to the main event, the babies know what — or rather, who — is coming. It’s time for a dance with the devil.

El Colacho babies
All  participating babies are less than a year old but are wise and wary about what’s in store.

Getting myself into something

Prior to leaving for Europe, when curious friends asked me to rattle off the festivals I’m attending this summer, I’d always say something along the lines of, “Oh you know, Running of the Bulls, La Tomatina, a baby-jumping festival … ” I could never get farther in my list without first clarifying what I meant by “baby-jumping.”

“Like, a festival where a bunch of babies jump?” some would ask.

No, no sillies, that wouldn’t make much sense, now would it? Babies don’t have the motor skills for that.

I only confused them more when I went into further explanation. The only fact I could really offer up is that families in this tiny Spanish village cleanse their children of original sin and protect them against childhood illnesses by having a man dressed as the devil, or “El Colacho,” leap over them. The ceremony falls on the same week as their baptism.

To be honest, I didn’t know much more than that. For a festival that’s been around since 1621, not much information can be gleaned from the web aside from a sparse Wikipedia page and the same wire story.

With a population of about 300 people, Castrillo de Murcia isn’t exactly a happening place. There are no hotels, no markets. The village used to have a school when there were actually enough children who lived there. Nowadays, a book cart will occasionally pop by in the summer to provide some entertainment.

The village is located in northern Spain, about 19 miles away from Burgos as the crow flies. On Corpus Christi Sunday, the only ways to get there are by taxi or by rental car, the latter of which is out of the question for someone who doesn’t know how to drive a stick shift.

Terrified of what I was getting myself into, I obsessively emailed the owner of my Burgos hostel asking if he had any tips about getting to the festival or knew of anyone else going.

Even he had never heard of it and only had so much advice to offer. “We can find you a taxi to get there, but don’t forget you’ll need to get back,” he wrote.

(I envisioned El Colacho to be a testament to my capabilities as a solo-traveler. If I could make to and from Castrillo de Murcia alive, I could survive anywhere else.)

Of course, the hostel owner didn’t know of anyone else going either. That is until an Italian photographer, who was also staying in my hostel, said he was going, too.

I was relieved to have company for the day and not to be slapped with an $136 cab fare for a round-trip ride. I learned later we’d be among only a dozen or so other non-Spaniards attending the event.

From the moment we arrived to the town, I felt as though my presence was a surprise to locals. Wearing jeans, Nike sneakers and mammoth of a camera bag strapped across my body, I clearly didn’t know what I’m getting myself into.

But I don’t have much time to be self-conscious about my laughably textbook American appearance. As black birds loom overhead, I begin to hear the beat of single drum, its pulse stirring whoever could hear it into frantic shuffle out of its way.

Then, a canary yellow figure appears. Its mask features a menacing black smile, furrowed brow and two red circles dotting the cheeks. He has no eyes and holds a whip in his hands. I swear I’ve seen this guy in a nightmare before.

It’s 11:30 a.m. and El Colacho and La Cofradía, or the church’s black-cloaked brotherhood, make one of the first of many saunters around the village.

El Colacho lunges forth,  repetitively swatting at those who taunt where it hurts most, and he does not care if takes out a few openly fearful and innocent bystanders either.

Wise village elders scatter out of the way.

Local teenagers with their surging testosterone linger a little longer, pushing their luck and El Colacho’s patience.

“El Colacho está boracho,” they shout, playfully accusing the masked figure of being drunk.

As for me, I just run.

But American Amy de la Fuente, whose husband is originally from the village, tells me the taunts are all a part of the fun. She took me under her wing after spotting my reusable water bottle, very American.

“There are certain chants they will say, so basically it’s kind of like, ‘Na-na-nana-nah, you can’t get me,'” de la Fuente says, who lives in Chicago, Ill. but visits Spain with her family every year.

“You see how close you can dance to him and how fast you can run away before he gets you.”

Taunting the devil
El Colacho spares no one from his whip. Those who tease get especially harsh lashings.


A family affair

As a fellow American, I’m fascinated by de la Fuente’s love for the festival. When her children, now 11 and 9, were babies, she made it very clear to her husband that she, too, wanted them to be jumped by El Colacho.

De la Fuente said the festival provides her the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than herself. She believes traditions can sometimes get watered down in the United States.

“I feel like with my heritage, I didn’t grow up with my mom’s side of the family, so when we went to visit, there were things that we did. But because we didn’t visit all the time, it was just occasional,” she says.

“And with my dad’s side of the family, there wasn’t really any tradition.”

Was she scared before El Colacho jumped over her children? A tiny bit, but her husband’s aunts reassured her that no baby had been injured in all of its history.

In fact, everyone I asked about injuries at the festival was proud to reiterate that fact.

“No, nunca ha pasado.”

“No.”

“No, nunca.”

When I’ve mentioned the festival to those who have never heard of it, they sometimes have scoffed at the seemingly reckless disregard for health and safety regulations.

In recent years, even Pope Benedict XIV has encouraged Spanish Catholic leaders to not become involved with the festival.

But to those who have been partaking for years, the day’s rituals still hold deeply religious meaning entrenched in greater family bonds.

Estephania Gonzalez’s younger brother, 16-year-old Carlos Gonzalez, is finally getting his chance to play devil, a goal held among many of the younger local boys.

It’s his first year dressing up as El Colacho, and he can’t wipe the smile off his face now that he’s among a rank of men wearing the notorious yellow mask.

Carlos Gonzalez
The opportunity to become El Colacho is a privilege granted by La Cofradía of the church.

Though he can’t jump over the babies until he’s older, he seems content enough running about the streets in a deviant manner while whipping revelers with his hand broom. And he’s is learning what it takes to be a good Colacho, if there can be such a thing:

“Well, he is tall, fast and drinks lots of milk.”

He just has to look to those born before him if he’s in need of pointers. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather have played the role as El Colacho, his mother, Marife Gonzalez, says.

In many ways, I begin to feel as though I’m a part of the Gonzalez family, the de la Fuente family and all the families I speak with.

After learning that I only brought a bag of peanuts to satiate my growling stomach, Amy de la Fuente invites me into her father-in-law’s home to make me a sandwich.

Though I’m sure she would say a croissant filled with cold cuts and cheese is nothing, it’s the closest I’ve gotten to home-cooked meal in the five weeks I’ve been traveling. In this moment, it tastes like the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten.

And as my tongue messily fumbles over my interview questions, those I converse with in Spanish with answered me with a great amount of patience despite the language barrier.

El salto

Following the day’s earlier pageantry and church service, the village settles down for a mid-afternoon siesta, and I retreat to the fleeting shade to wait three hours for the festivities to continue.

All at once, Castrillo de Murcia springs to life again as women hang their finest linens outside their balconies and adorn them with roses. Originally a pagan festival, the people have sought to make it a more consecrated, Catholic one.

Four mattresses dressed in pastel sheets appear in the town square, and the crowd is abuzz with excitement. Soon, the babies are set in their places. They can wiggle all they want, but they won’t get far.

After taking pictures with their children to commemorate the moment, parents retreat to the sidelines with the exception of a couple of mothers who can’t will their bodies to leave the bedside of their babies.

After another few beats of a drum, quiet falls over the crowd. Before your mind can process that the jump, known as “El salto,” is about to happen, it does.

Two colachos this time take running leaps from the staircase descending from the churchyard, heading right towards the babies. Their sneakers, a blur against the pavement. Their masks, off  thank God.

It is believed that as the colachos make mighty leap after leap, so do the evil spirits from the souls of the babies.

In order to be eligible to jump, the men must be from the village himself or married to a woman from the village.
In order to jump, the man must be from the village or married to a woman from the village.

There aren’t any gasps from the crowd, only cheers with every successful jump. Within seconds, it’s over. Make that 393 years without an injury. To anyone who comes to this festival year after year, it comes as no surprise.

Girls recently confirmed into the church throw petals over the babies, and the priest blesses each of them.

To the American eye, the festival seems strange, yes. But for the people of Castrillo de Murcia, El Colacho is just a day in the life,  a day that recognizes just how fleeting, sacred — and yes, odd — this very life can be.

PHOTO GALLERY:

 

Strangers Like Me: Meet 24-year-old Maryam

It’s time for another weekly installment of “The Strangers Like Me,” but this week comes with a twist. I’ve met so many interesting people in Barcelona, so choosing a person to profile was a challenge. But as it turns out, serendipity had a very specific person in mind I should interview.

On Wednesday, my friend Gabriella and I trekked up to Antoni Gaudí’s whimsical dream of a place, Parc Güel, where we met Maryam, a dental student at the University of Pittsburgh. Due to some ticketing issues and time constraints, Gabriella and I couldn’t actually go inside the main part of the park. (No worries, we’re saving it for another day.) This meant we had to quickly bid farewell to our new friend after only having met her just moments before.

A few hours and a couple of pit stops later, I found myself getting off at the same Metro stop as Maryam on the way back to my hostel! For city with 1.62 million people with a big tourist pull, what are the chances?

Now generally, I only interview the strangers-turned-friends I meet in hostels, but rules are meant to be broken. Afterall, Maryam is traveler too and a pretty cool one at that. We both came from somewhere and we’re both going somewhere. She might have been a stranger. But then I realized she’s a stranger … like me.

Maryam

Meet Maryam from Dallas, Texas

Where’d I meet her?
Barcelona, Spain

Why is she traveling? 
Having just finished up her second year of dental school, she doesn’t get a lot of free time. Now that she’s on a month-long break, the longest she’s had in a while, Maryam decided to travel all over Europe instead of returning home to Texas.

Where else would she most like to go?
Amsterdam, Netherlands

Where is she happiest?
“I don’t think it’s like actually a place that I’m happiest. It’s more like the people around me and the things that I’m doing that make me really happy. When I was younger, my home, Dallas, used to be my happiest place ever, but then I moved around and  went to college, and I went to grad school. Everywhere I go and the people I meet, that becomes my new happy place, if that makes sense. My happy place is really anywhere that I’m happy.”

What’s on her bucket list?
“Well, I feel like people’s bucket lists are huge things like skydiving, which is also on (my) list and ziplining. I want to zipline in a really amazing, beautiful place. But another thing that is small but I really want to do  because I’ve always lived in big cities  I want go somewhere where there are no lights and stargaze. I just want to spend the whole night stargazing because I love stars and I never get to see them that well at night. It’s so small, but I’ve always wanted to do it.”

Let her tell you about her family’s unlucky luggage.
“Well, this doesn’t happen to me anymore, but I’ve been traveling since I was younger to Pakistan because my grandma and my other family lives there and other places. Every time we would travel, every single time, our luggage would get lost. No matter what. We plan for it, like, ‘Our luggage is going to get lost.’ Every time I travel with my mom and my brother together as a family, our luggage gets lost.”

Photo Gallery: Symmetry and sunburns in Seville

After nearly three weeks in the United Kingdom, I continued my journey to Spain, where I’ll be staying for about a month. My first stop? Hot, hot Seville. The temperature was pushing 100 degrees the first few days I was there, making me feel like I was right back in the South.

Even better, I kept recognizing familiar faces of other travelers in the city’s quaint streets where everyone strolls at a slower pace. I wish the same could be said about the way Sevillianos talk, but alas, my ears were given a major workout trying to understand the Spanish spoken by quick Andalusian tongues.

Despite some messy miscommunications, I loved it all. Pay a visit. But first, check out my favorite pictures from the trip: