Sunday, August 29, 2004

Toro Embolado

They are insane in Spain. No, this is not an Eliza Doolittle-esque exercise; I quite literally mean to say that the Spanish are raving mad.

I guess the following comes under "the Rest": on Wednesday Zsolty, Anita, and I went to Spain. We flew to Madrid, and then rented a car to drive to Valencia where we met their Spanish friend David, who let us stay at his weekend house in Godolletto for two nights, and then at his flat in Valencia city for the last two nights.

Zsolty had been telling me about toro embolado for a while, but I never really understood what he was talking about. I thought it was something like the running of the bulls in Pamplona. But I had no idea. Toro embolado is a week-long fiesta that almost every village in Valencia region has in which a section of the old town of the city or village is closed off by wooden-slatted barricades, and a raging bull is set loose within. The embolado part refers to the flames that are set to the tips of the bull's horns. But this description does nothing to convey the absolute insanity and pregnant danger of this ritual.

So consider my second night of torro embolado in Villa Marchat: we had gone to one the first night we arrived, waited for hours, and a toro never showed. And then when I saw the toro the second night from behind the barricade, I thought the thrill of the thing was merely seeing a bull ablaze. The toro was exhausted, having been running around already for an hour and a half. Yes, it was surreal: such a massive animal set loose in the village streets with two fire balls atop its horns. That was exciting. But afterwards, I remember thinking, "Ok. I saw the toro, I did this. We can do something else now. Let's drink sangria." So we went for a walk around the city outside the barriers. We came to the center again from the opposite side, and we saw men pulling back one of the barricades and a white truck pulling in. We thought that they were coming to collect the exhausted bull, and oh won't this be interesting, let's watch.

But the van started to shake from side to side. They weren't collecting; they were depositing. Zsolty had bought us Cuba libres, and maybe it was the rum that made me so dumb. I stayed there along the flank of the truck amid the other onlookers. And then they let him out. I heard a terrible long low moaning-- the sound of sentient misery. Then I remember the sound of thunder, the shouting, and furious running in all directions. Zsolty and I ran about fifty feet toward one of the barricades and scrambled up to the top, while Anita slipped through to the other side. I remember telling Zsolty that we were stupid, and why hadn't he protected his wife. He said that the toro brings out the baseness in humankind-- that all you care about it protecting your own miserable life. Then I saw people scattering at the cross street in front of us. The toro was coming.

I thought we were safe atop the barricade, but this was an illusion. Also illusions are the iconic images of the toro. They are not true. No depictions of toro can communicate the force, the power, the smell, the sound, the shaking of the ground that is toro. These I experienced when the toro ran toward us. A man scrambled up the barricade and pressed against me. I prepared to jump off on the other side, believing I was potentially done for if I didn't risk a jump. The house next to us had hung a small human-like decoy from their balcony by a rope. The toro gored it and not us, though only a precious meter away. My memory of the toro now is only a flash of beast and fire and cold fear. It's the remnant you experience the next day afer a dream, a nightmare. You can't remember the narrative of the nightmare, but you can still see the scene of your fear emblazoned in your mind.

We went to a final embolado on Saturday night in a larger city called Illyria. Many of David's Spanish friends came along. We all sat outside in a square and drank sangria beforehand. Deafening fireworks went off, and Zsolty, Anita, and I covered our ears while the Spanish kept on with their chatter. This was a repeat of earlier in the day in Jerica when we had climbed to the top of a bell tower, where men swung around a 10 foot bell. Spanish children, women all seemed unaffected by the deafening decibels, while the three of us pressed our hands against our heads.

We finished our sangria and made our way to the fiesta. The enclosure was the largest I'd seen and there was about a half kilometer of barricades with people already sitting atop them. So many people made me nervous. Nowhere to scramble up. I contemplated staying outside the enclosure, but I'd been branded the night before as surely as the toro himself is branded. I needed to be close to him again. We gathered in the main square where the truck had already pulled up. A band was playing on a platform, mostly an unvaried drumming. I had the feeling I was walking to my doom. The truck was shaking. One of David's Spanish friends told us that we needed to plan our route of escape. This is perhaps the most frightening moment of all: waiting for toro to let loose.

I came close to him many times that night, out of some unquenchable, maybe base attraction. I don't know yet what this all means. I don't know if it's something as explicable as adrenalin, or if there is something more profound that has taken hold of me. I must wait for the fire to burn down and then examine the ashes.

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