My lifelong friend, Ann Swallow recently gave this bit of advice to another friend on the facebook:
“You have the chance to do something you've never done before. Put on your best pair of shoes, grin, and go! This applies to just about everything.”
It’s sparkling advice from a sparkling person whose opinion I deeply respect. I had such an opportunity this past weekend, but there’s a bit of back story we need to visit first.
Back before the turn of the century (so pleased I was born at I time I can use that phase) – around ’92 or ’93, I travelled with a friend for a weeklong getaway to sunny
Acapulco. It started with severe sunburn
(self-inflicted and the result of astounding stupidity on the part of two
people who should have known better). In
fact, there were so many opportunities for the pair of us to contend for the
Darwin Awards that week that I almost have to believe that luck is a true power
in the universe. This story involves
death and near death, but not for the two of us.
Dave (always best to travel with someone who shares your first name. Makes it easy on those you meet.) and I got chatting with a pair of concierges who worked at the hotel (I believe their names were Hector and Luis). It was late morning on our third day down there. Nursing our two day old sunburns, we hadn’t planned on spending too much time on the beach and were looking for suggestions.
“How about the bullfights?”
How about the bullfights, indeed.
Both Dave and I grew up on farms. Both of us had a realistic view of large animals, a respect for their size and a farmer’s gut reaction against inflicting harm on an animal. Both of our new Mexican friends nodded enthusiastically and told us how much we would enjoy an afternoon of drinking cerveza and watching the Novilleros – the novice bullfighters slated to perform in the ring that afternoon. Like I say, Ann’s philosophy is very much my own, so – believing it would be an afternoon that I would hate – we agreed to go.
Shortly after lunch, we climbed into a bus with a few American and German tourists from the hotel. The bus driver began to tell us about the importance of bullfighting in Spanish culture generally and
specifically. He told us about how it is
as much an art as a sport and that if a bullfighter fails to deliver a swift
and successful killing stroke with his sword, that bullfighter may face a hefty
fine from the City of Acapulco
for cruelty to animals. He also told us
that in the past the meat from the vanquished bulls was given to the
orphanages. “But today?” he said and
rubbed his index and middle fingers against his thumb. “Too expensive. Now the meat is sold at market.”
How much of the driver’s tale is true and how much is theatre? I don’t know and I don’t want to know. I’ve never fact checked his claims and I never will because his story readied me for my afternoon at the bullring.
When we arrived, we tried to seat ourselves among the Mexicans who were out for an afternoon of entertainment. I’d had enough of Americans, Germans and Dutch at the hotel. We settled in among a few families but an American family sat next to us. It was just as well. I was interested to see how a pair of middleclass teenagers reacted to
As it turned out, not very well.
The afternoon began with colour, fanfare, lots of beer, music, laughter a number of friendly pats on the back from Mexicans who were more than happy to share their sport with us. An older gent worked with all the English he had to encourage us in our appreciation of bullfighting.
The afternoon wore on and novice after novice faced the young bulls. Some showed skill and were rewarded by cheers. Some were not so skilled and gained the contempt of the crowd.
“Toro! Toro! Toro!”
Once the crowd starts cheering for the bull you’re done, son. If I remember correctly, that particular novice ended up being gored high on the thigh by the bull to the thunderous delight of the assembled crowd.
Sometime during the afternoon I came to the realization that bullfighting isn’t about watching the bull die – it’s about the real chance that you might get to watch a person die. And this isn’t just about bullfighting. Car racing isn’t about running around in perfect ovals forever and ever. Car racing is about the crashes and the chance that someone might die. Alpine skiing, too. Football. Boxing. Even diving. Anything with that element that something can at anytime go terribly wrong and injury and death are only a small misstep away.
As I rode the bus back to the hotel with the Dutchmen, the Germans and the Americans and their traumatized teens, I realized I kind of enjoyed my afternoon at the bullfights. It’s not something that I think I’ll ever do again, but because I had been prepared for it by
natives and I sat among the Mexican crowd, I think I could see how compelling
the sport could be. Later that night,
Dave and I happened upon the nightclub where those Novilleros were spending
their evening and drank each of them under the table with their libation of
choice. That might also be a factor in
my enjoyment of the day.
There have been other experiences that I was either hesitant to take part in or felt from the start that it was something I would neither understand nor enjoy. I had just such an experiential opportunity a few weeks ago and I relate that next time…