bulls and beers

We were nearing the end of our month-long trip backpacking around Europe, and the mighty city of Madrid was our last stop.  At least it was for me, I was quickly running out of money and had to head back to the States after Madrid.  My pal, Khan, still had some bread left, so he was going to stay an extra week.  Yet, this was it for me and damned if I wasn’t going to enjoy our last official stop on our European tour.

Upon entering the city, we immediately checked into an apartment-hostel.  In reality, they are called hostels but you are really staying in the extra rooms of someone’s house.  An elderly couple was in charge of the one we checked into.  They seemed very nice at first, yet did apply a strict curfew to their rooms.  I believe we had to be in by 1am; otherwise the doors would be locked.  With this in the back of our minds, we headed out on the town to see the sights of the night.  First stop: Burger King.  No, we weren’t hungry, though we did grab a bite to eat there as well.  The main reason was to drink beer.  Yes, that is right, we went to BK to drink beer.  It was great.  You could order a 24oz draft beer for a couple of bucks.  We saw this as excellent value, especially since we were down to our last few bills.

The plan was to go to BK and get a head start on the night’s drinking in a very cheap way.  Once we had satisfied ourselves with enough beer, we would then head out to the clubs for dancing.  In fact, when we went up to the counter to order our first beers, we stayed standing a little to the right of the main counter, drinking away.  So in effect, we created a bar scene atmosphere right there in BK.  Before too long, a few other patrons joined us in beers and conversation.  This soon forced the management of the place to close off a section of the counter to accommodate it’s new “bar” patrons.  It was really a trip, drinking big beers and sharing some great conversation in the middle of a BK.  Only in Europe could you experience something like this.

As our group grew larger, we soon noticed 2 lovely American girls from Chicago.  The 4 of us hit it off right from the start.  They too were backpacking around Europe in search of adventure and good times.  After a few drinks at BK, the four of us now headed off as one group to hit the club scene.  We had a blast that night.  One of the more memorable spots was a jazzed up club in the heart of Madrid.  It was here that we proceeded to dance a good portion of the night away.  One dance I remember doing was the “Macarena”.  At the time, this song was hot in Europe and hadn’t even made it’s way over to the States yet.  So, in essence, we got to dance the “Macarena” before anyone back home.

By the end of the night, we had obviously passed our hostel curfew.  The girls also asked if they could stay with us, since they had not checked in anywhere and needed a place to crash.  Once back at the hostel, we finally managed to wake up the elderly couple.  They were not happy and kept referring to the curfew.  Needless to say, we got past this lecture and made our way to our room.  The next part of the plan was sneaking the girls in.  We knew darn well that the couple would disapprove of this action.  They would see this as trying to pay for a room for 2 and having 2 more come along for free.  We didn’t see it that way –we saw the girls as guests to the room we already paid for.

Initially, all seemed to go well.  We managed to get the girls in without creating much of a stir.  However, 10 minutes later, in came the couple shouting and screaming that we were trying to cheat them.  They immediately told the girls to leave and even threatened to evict us if we didn’t follow the rules.  We obviously didn’t want to lose our beds, so we told the girls to take off.  Unfortunately, the girls had to sleep outside for the night in a park down the street.  These things happen when you are packing around Europe.  Sometimes you have to brave the elements.  When this occurs, it is best to drink a few beers, so that it will be easier to pass out on the hard earth.  Before they went off into the night, we told them to meet us the next day to go to a bullfight.

To our surprise, the girls did show up the next day, though they looked a little rough from their sleepless night.  The big day was upon us.  One of my goals on this trip was to see a real-life Spanish bullfight.  I wanted to see what Hemingway had seen.  I wanted to feel the excitement of the fight as Ernest had so soulfully described it in his many novels.  We headed off to the Madrid arena with a sense of thrill in our step.  We didn’t know what to expect.  All we knew was that people cheered the killing of bulls.  It was a horrible image to see an animal being treated so cruelly, all at the expense of entertainment.  Yet, it was a revered pastime, with a very loyal following.  Hey, if the locals were good with it, then maybe I could be too.  We were about to find out.

The arena was an awesome Coliseum-like structure.  On this day, there were going to be 3 matadors engaging with the bulls.  Outside, there were souvenir tents everywhere.  I bought a cool poster with the date and names of the matadors.  We soon entered the packed arena and found our seats on the sunny side.  The sunny side was where the cheaper seats were, with the shady side being more comfortable and therefore more expensive.  Once seated, we quickly ordered a few bottles of San Miguel from a man walking around with a bucket of beer on his shoulder.  At that moment, you couldn’t ask for a better scenario –sipping cold beers with great company and waiting for the excitement of a bullfight to begin.

When the event started, our eyes quickly focused on the first bull in the arena.  This would be the first of six bulls to face the sword.  The matador had yet to make his entrance.  As the bull made his way around the circle of sand on the floor of the arena, a few men on armored horses entered the scene.  I soon found out that it was their job to weaken the bull with mortal wounds by piercing the bull with long heavy swords.  So, this wasn’t going to be a fair fight between the bull and the matador.  By the time the matador entered the ring, the bull would be half in the bag and ultimately bleeding to death.  Thus, it was only in this near-death state that the matador could have any chance of slaying the bull single-handedly.

The matador entered the ring with all the majesty of a sitting king.  He had his trademark red cape and began to showoff his skill with it.  He taunted the bull in every direction.  It was a magnificent display of hypnosis between man and beast.  The final moment soon arrived and the man rose up with the shining sword to strike down the helpless beast.  You could see the blade going deep into the neck area of the bull.  As the sword was pulled out slowly, you could see the life of the bull withering away.  Once the matador moved away, the bull made a few drunken steps and collapsed into the dust of the afternoon.

Seeing the first bull die, I felt nothing but pity for the bull and hatred towards the matador.  Yet, as the show continued, I began to look past the unnecessary act of death and started to admire the skill of the matadors.  This is what the crowd was there to see.  They wanted to see the skill of the matador in full display.  They did not care about the fate of the bull. They only cared for the thrill of the moment and the skill level at which it were executed by the matador.  When the matador displayed a flawless act of killing, the crowd went wild with praise.  The matador was then given permission to cut off the ears of the bull.  He would then present the ear to the local political official overseeing the event.  One time, he threw the ear into the crowd and I almost managed to catch it.  On the flip side, when the matador was slightly grazed by the horns of the bull, the crowd would boo him for being too slow and not graceful enough.  As for the rest of the bull, I learned that the meat goes to the poorer sections of town.

We were emotionally drained by the time the last bull was dragged out of the arena by the team of horses.  It had been an exceptional experience to see how and why this ancient sport still thrived in our modern world.  Later that night we bid farewell to the girls from Chicago and soon said goodbye to Madrid as well.   I would eventually manage to get the poster home in good enough shape to frame it and stick it on the wall.  Now, when I look at it, I always go back to that exciting day of life and death.