Thursday, July 13, 2017

On the Camino, Part 2: Atypical day in Pamplona

There's a certain rhythm on the Camino. Alarms start waking people up at 5 am, sometimes earlier. The sun rises. The hostel clears out by 8 am. You grab breakfast at the hostel or on the road. You walk a couple of hours. Stop for water. Walk an hour. Stop for lunch. Walk a couple more hours, taking breaks as needed, and soon you'll arrive in time to settle into a new hostel. Check in, shower, laundry if you need to, dinner, downtime, sleep.

Repeat again the next morning. And the following morning. And every morning for the next month. Even if the views are spectacular and you meet amazing people on the way, the schedule can become a bit monotonous.

Pamplona broke all of that for me.

I honestly didn't think I would even have the chance to stay the night in Pamplona. Everyone warned me there would be no beds. Hotels and hostels get booked months, if not a full year, in advance, and charge exorbitant prices. I took a chance.

As I walked into Pamplona I started walking alongside another solo pilgrim. We talked about Pamplona and whether we had any chance of finding a place to stay. We both went in with the same plan: find the one open hostel we knew about, ask for a room, and move on to the next town assuming we were denied.

Instead, we arrived at a German-owned albergue and were told we would be guaranteed beds for the evening and at the regular pilgrim's price. That changed everything. We could hardly contain our excitement as we started chatting with other pilgrims sitting around the bench outside, also waiting for their beds. Since I never thought I would make it this far, I realized I had no real plans for Pamplona. See the running of the bulls, I guess? Wander around and explore?

We wandered around for the day. The sea of white outfits and red bandanas was incredible. This is not your typical Pamplona. Any other week of the year and the streets would look entirely different. When I say everyone buys into the Fiestas de San Fermin, I mean every single person on the street. I felt completely out of place in my black shirt and khaki shorts but it didn't stop my from exploring the city. I sat with two Canadian friends I had made that day and we downed two pitchers of beer, just enough to get us in the spirit of the week-long party that is the Fiestas de San Fermin.

It truly is a 24-hour party that lasts a full week, with people drinking into the night and well into the morning and continuing on the next day. The streets were ravaged with trash and the stench of piss and stale beer haunted the alleys. Small bands paraded the streets at random. Street performers gathered crowds around them. We made our way to the large stage in the Plaza de Castillo and watched musicians pour their hearts into a medley of pop hits sung in chunky English. It was a blast.

Between the light showers and the 10 pm hostel curfew, we couldn't stay out as late. We also had tickets for the next morning's festivities at the Plaza de Toros.

Another pilgrim who had stayed the night before had encouraged us to pick up the 6 euro tickets for the show at the arena. From there we could watch the running of the bulls live on large screens and would be able to watch as the bulls and the hoard of runners with them poured into the arena.

It was a sight to see. The excitement was electric as the pack of bulls charged in through the gates and the arena filled with a sea of white and red clad runners.

The large bulls which will go on to fight later are herded away and then, in an entertaining yet still dangerous show, smaller bulls are brought into the arena one at a time and the runners face off with the animal, goading it and running out of the way when it charges. The more acrobatic among the runners will square off against the bull and manage to leap completely over it when it charges at them. These usually elicit the biggest cheers from the crowd.

While I only saw one serious injury during the show, I can clearly see that this has a more gruesome side. I can't imagine that the festivities in Pamplona will continue the same forever, especially the bull fights. I was having dinner the next night at a local bar frequented by the locals. Men from the neighborhood and some of their wives came out to drink and watch the fights. I sat, cutting away at my pork cutlets, watching the bloody mess on the screen in front of me. I can understand where sportsmanship is involved, or at least a level of athleticism mixed with artistic expression. I can see how the men appreciated that aspect, while remaining numb to the pure and plain animal cruelty on display. Bull fights are rare and I imagine will one day be history. I know people will disagree with my choice to partake in any part of the Fiestas, but I was there at a time to witness what many have heard of but few actually get to experience. So I did.

It was a welcome break from the grind of the Camino. As one of my Canadian friends and I walked out of Pamplona after everything, I said, "Back to reality."

She laughed.

"Whatever that means," I added.


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