Having run with the bulls and proven just how stupidly macho I can be, I met up with everyone at the bag check. Phil, Vin and the girls were going out to a campsite as there wasn't a room to be had anywhere.
The night before I had commented on this American kid's pants. They happened to be a brand we sold at the raver store I used to work at. That lead to a conversation with Chloe and Connie, who told me about a Goa festival in Brussels that weekend.
Goa or Psy-Trance is a sub-genre of electronic or techno music. It has as much in common as popular trance as later Beatles has to early Beatles. Also, the Goa community is different from rave culture. It's kind of a neo-techno hippy kinda thing.
Regardless, I like the music. So saying goodbye to my friends, I made plans to reach Brussels by Thursday. Naturally, the train timetable I have is out of date and no new timetables are available yet, so this process was trying.
The end result was I elected to stay in Pomplona another night rather than go south to Barcelona or Madrid to catch a connecting train.
This is great because it gave me chance to watch a bull fight, one of the most remarkable experiences of my trip.
Scalpers are all over selling and you can easily get a cheap ticket by waiting or moving from one scalper to the next. Seats in the sun are cheaper for two reasons, one not obvious to me until I was inside.
My stomach told me to bring a snack and some water, but after the third fight something akin to the seventh inning stretch takes place and everyone in the arena takes out a sandwich and eats a picnic lunch.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I go inside and take my seat, on a balcony but with a terrific view. I watch the careful preparations which include watering the sand and painting two concentric circles in what I assume is wine. When this is done, there was a ceremonial procession where the bull fighters and their crew present themselves.
At this point I should mention the people in the sun seats because the only comparison I can draw is to the Green Bay Cheeseheads. They wear funny outfits and throw wine at each other and are generally very rowdy. I was glad to be seated in the shade with a more subdued group.
What follows can be called brutal, cruel, inhumane and sick. But at the very same time it's beautiful, intricate and exciting with a strange dignity and honor.
Bull fights are hardly fair. The bull is drugged before hand, after being taunted by the Matador and his assistants it is speared by a man on an armored horse. Then it is bled slowly and worn down by six spears (delivered by the Bandolier) until it's almost in a coma on its feet at which point it's cut down by a quick blow to the spine or a sword through the heart.
The only thing is the description doesn't do justice to either the bull fighters or the bull. Even as it's being tormented and murdered, the bull has a dignity about it. Granted, when the horses come out and drag away the carcass, there isn't much dignity to be had. But it has a better last gasp than any animal slaughtered for food.
Again, I'm ahead of myself. There are three Matadors who each fight two bulls. The same bulls run down the alley in the morning. The first Matador was skilled at his craft but he lacked any kind of flare. I guess it's best to say he was good but not great.
The Second Matador and his team were more impressive, a certain style and artistry to what they did.
It was El Juli who really blew me away. At age 19, he's the best Matador they've seen in generations. All matadors are young, the average age hovering around 23. They pay to fight the bulls, hoping to make a name and I guess earn a living through endorsements or perhaps they have sponsors. There is no prize, nor is there any reward for a performance beyond a token ear or tail. (actually both are great honors, proceeding from one ear, two or two and the tail)
El Juli was part dancer, part surgeon, part tamer and part showman. He played to the crowd and came within inches of the lethal horns. Juli spends a good deal of the considerable bull fight alone with the bull. Waving away the assistants who help to distract or herd the animal. He acts as his own Bandolier and never failed to deliver a spear. And his control of the bull, his control of the situation, was compete.
And a word about the killing blow. it can be done two ways, one is far more difficult. The first is a jab at the base of the neck, severing the spine. The second is to drive the sword deep into the body and pierce the heart. I don't know much about the traditions or the choice of each method, but I know that Juli never failed to drop the bull with a single blow. The other Matadors rarely moved as precisely.
All told, I can't describe or justify bull fighting. I can only convey that it is something that must be seen before it's judged.
After the bull fight, I wandered the town. I dozed on benches and just basically hung out. I was feeling a little down after losing my companions until I struck up a conversation with another American. His name and identity escape me, as does everything we talked about, but there's something about idle conversation between backpackers that satisfies. maybe it's the isolation you feel in a foreign country, maybe it's just that backpacking attracts a certain type of person. It doesn't matter, by the time the sun had set I was feeling much better.
The following night doesn't make much sense to me, primarily because of the same wine and Coke drink I couldn't stand when I arrived.Ã‚ I like it even less now.
I arrived at the train station for my train around 4AM only to discover it was closed until 5. That lead to an unsteady and uncomfortable hour crouched in a door way.
The train ride to Paris was unremarkable except for the extraordinary rudeness of a Frenchman. Not to me, as I was too miserable to complain about his smoking in the cramped non-smoking compartment between cars. It was the way he treated a frail looking French woman who did speak up. How they've received a reputation for being ladies men I have no idea.
Back in Paris, I had a lay-over until my train to Brussels. I spent it wandering in the drizzling rain and stopping at every market and bakery I passed. I must have eaten a dozen eclairs, crossaints and two baggettes by the time I left. It was possibly the best time I had in Paris.
I stayed one blissful night in the spectacular Sleep Well Hostel in Brussels. Maybe it was the 5 days without a bed, but that was one of the best nights sleep I've ever had.
That day I wandered the city and generally relaxed. I tried to buy tickets for the festival but I was told they were being sold at the door. So, catching a local train I went deep into the Belgian countryside.
Getting off the train, there were only three other people with me. I wound up spending the next three days hanging out with them.
The first was Sigi, short for Seigfreid he was from the Netherlands and became my host for the weekend. He shared his tent, offered to share his pot and graciously spoke English for my benefit. We had a great rapport and were generally fast friends.
The other two were Japanese students in London who were selling handcrafts to pay for the festival. Natoko and Emma were sweethearts and we wound up watching the sunset every night.
Another American who pitched right next to Sigi and I was Ian. He's a firefighter from New York who had so many stories to tell and so many opinions to share that we talked endlessly.
I could go into specifics about the festival, but there were so many small things (and big ones) that trying to mention them all would be like describing a symphony in words. What it comes down to was a chill, fun time like any weekend spent with friends and strangers listening to music without any responsibilities.
The venue was an old race track with the camp grounds in the center and the actual music inside the grandstands. The promoters began charging for the use of the bathroom to try and recoup some of their money and I don't need to repeat how much I loathe pay toilets. However there was a shower on hand, which by the third day was a blessing even with its ice cold temperatures. Ice cold. Ice.
Anyway, there was a stretch of tents serving everything from Thai food to sushi to Vegan fair. (completely animal product free) There were hand crafts and buskers and one of those bouncy clown things. Children scampered abut and a half dozen dogs mixed with the ravers, hippies and international mix of people from Australia to Japan, China to Europe, the States and Brazil.
One dude who I never learned the name of was the wildest cat I've ever met. I gathered he was Japanese but beyond that I couldn't make out much of what he was saying. Kid loved to dance though.
All told, it was so very different than the last month that I was drowning in endorphins. (figuratively speaking of course) The Goa festival was a much needed break and the music was amazing. Infected Mushroom, one of the really big Goa names, headlined and their set capped off the weekend.
One thing, I met up with Chloe and Connie the first day and Sigi offered them a spot in the tent as well. Only, by 2 AM they had disappeared never to be seen again. I think they went to Amsterdam to meet up with a friend, but it was strange. I'm certain nothing bad happened, that was the safest place I've been in years, but I never even got to thank them for sending me to the festival.
As a group, Sigi and I along with a couple of English girls we'd hung out with headed back to Brussels and the goodbye at the train station was sad. I spent another welcome night at the Sleep Well ad lit for Italy in the morning.
All aboard for Venice,