justin adler, blog, buenos aires, bahia blanca, university of arizona, brooklyn, basketball, travel, paul mcpherson

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Pamplona & Corn Flakes

On Monday morning, I woke up, ate some cornflakes, paid a credit card bill, and checked my bank accounts. “OK… So if I don’t eat for the next two weeks, that should make up for all the money I’ve recently spent,” I said to myself.

I had little on my agenda other than entertaining a friend, JT, who was in town, and neither of us had much interest in Pamplona's Running of the Bulls.

Personally, I'd never read Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises (or actually any Hemmingway book). The event as a whole didn’t really interest me and its timing fell outside of my just-completed six-week tour of Spain and Portugal. 

I'm not sure why JT wasn't into it, but that's probably why we've been friends for nearly 20 years. 

After my mundane morning routine, JT’s law school chum, Jake arrived to use our place for a temporary layover between Geneva and Pamplona, where he would actually take advantage of the San Fermin festival.

By afternoon JT was contemplating tagging along to Pamplona, but my early morning budget review was still weighing me down. I couldn’t justify taking a spur of the moment trip after just completing a 43-day adventure, especially when a few hours earlier I considered starving myself to save some dinero.

I told the guys to have fun, then I bounced out the door to head to Carrefour to buy more corn flakes to cheaply sustain myself for the next few weeks. On my walk, indecision became an even more crippling disease than it normally is for me.

I paced in circles for a few minutes, then I met JT and Jake on the street and further  dragged out my indecision as I walked them to the metro that would take them to the train station. Halfway through the walk, I said, "You only live once," remembered how much I hate people who say YOLO, and decided to go with them.

They had no plan on where they were sleeping that night in Pamplona, but I convinced myself that it would be part of the fun and that sleeping outside wouldn’t suck that much.

A four-hour train ride later and we were in Pamplona. The station was full of the worst kind of people, by that I mean drunk guys with fedoras and sleeve tattoos. 

We walked through the freshly imported revelers to the bus stop, where there were scotch-taped flyers advertising rooms for rent.

I called the first number. No answer.

I called the second one. A guy named Maximo answered  and after some quick negotiating we had a room for 20€ a person. Better yet, Maximo was going to come pick us up and take us to the place

While we waited for Maximo to drive up, we gained a fourth member to our team. A guy from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania who was as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania as they come. He sported a weird crew cut, grey wifebeater, camo Lee Dungaree shorts, black high-tops, and the most PA hick voice you’ve ever heard.

Harrisburg (we never got his name) didn’t speak a lick of Spanish, so the kind soul that I am, I took him under my wing and told him he could tag along.

Fifteen minutes after I called, a very gruff, very suspicious looking fellow in a dirty Nike sweatsuit walked up, sans car. He flashed a smile that revealed all of his two teeth and said “Soy Maximo.”


I made sure Maximo had a room for Mr. Central PA and we were off.

As we walked through the outskirts of Pamplona, I make small talk with Maximo. I learned that he was from Russia and is control of filling various resident’s apartments with tourists.

The small talk took my level of suspicion from 80% to about 10% that Maximo was walking us into a back alley to rob us.

We got to the apartment without having a gun and/or knife shoved in our faces and were shown our room. There was a single bed and a double-bed with a headboard that read “Mami” and “Papi.”

I told JT and Jake that I’m engaged and can’t sleep with anyone else so they’d have to take the double bed for a night of mami-y-papi role playing.

I then helped Harrisburg straighten out his accommodations with the Spanish-speaking-only Maximo.

At one point Harrisburg asks where Maximo was from. I told him St. Petersburg.

Harrisburg said, “FLORIDA?!” in the most beautifully ignorant PA twang you’ve ever heard.

“No. Russia,” I replied.

We asked Maximo a few more questions about la corrida. At this point I realized that the entire running lasts just over two minutes, as I had thought it was a full-day festivity.

"God dammit," I said as I began to feel that I was not that much smarter than Harrisburg.

Then we tried to crash before we’d all have to get up early for the running which starts at 8 am.

Jake was the only one of us who planned on running, so he had to get up at 4:30 to get a spot in the run. JT and I would watch, which meant we had to get up at 6:30 to secure a spot for the spectacle.

Part of me wanted to run, but the other 99% of me realized the possibly getting killed, gored, or put in a hospital where I might be deported (this was before I learned about Spain's anti-extradition laws), all outweighed whatever street cred I stood to gain. And Sarah made me promise I wouldn’t run.

Right before I passed out, Sarah called to tell me she learned that Ben from Thrillist would be running and I should look for him.

There were two Bens at Thrillist when I worked there (actually there were three, but the third was a feminine homosexual who never seemed like Running of the Bulls type).

I assumed the Ben who was there was Ben Lerer, Thrillist’s co-founder, who with his shit ton of money could easily afford to fly to Spain just for the Running of the Bulls. Plus the whole machismo-running thing seemed like something Lerer would do. 

I got mildly depressed over the obvious microcosm. The fact that I’m watching, while Lerer runs is why he’s a millionaire with his own company and angel fund investment firm, while I’m a broke-ass copywriter who has to sustain himself on cornflakes. (The fact that Lerer was born into Manhattan royalty, while I was born into a family that ran a suburban Chicago hot dog restaurant doesn’t play into this equation.)

Later I learned that the Ben that ran was Ben Robinson, who writes 2,000 word recaps of every episode of The Bachelor*. I could live with him running while I watched.

As the sun began to rise like Hemmingway said it would, JT and I headed to Pamplona’s old city.

I’d never seen a grosser first-world neighborhood in my life. Every square centimeter was covered in alcohol, broken glass, and trash. The smell of booze was 100 times more pungent than anything I ever witnessed in college.

At 7 am bars were still selling booze to patrons who appeared to be going on hour 96 of thrashing their livers.

Sixty minutes before the run began, it was nearly impossible to find a spot with a view. Twenty minutes into our search, the best we could find was a position, kneeling in the aforementioned grossness, peeking through dangling legs and two barricades that lined the route.

This would have been OK if I were 10 years old sneaking into Yankee Stadium to catch a glimpse of Babe Ruth, but there was no childhood Americana charm and a bunch of drunk tourists ain't no Babe Ruth.

Within two seconds, we went off to find a better spot. We discovered the Town Hall building's elevated statues, which we could climb and see the start of the race.

We spent the next 30 minutes standing between a statue of a soldier and two columns. This eclipsed my previous record of standing between a statue and granite columns by 30 minutes. 

As I stared into the densely packed crowd of white and red, my half-awake mind sputtered introspectively and realized this event was no different than a NASCAR race to the novice viewer. I came there to see a crash dammit, I just hoped that crash (in this case a goring) wouldn’t involve Jake or whichever Ben was there.

Finally, the fireworks blasted and the run was on.

No more than 20 seconds later, the runners and bulls had passed and my viewing experience was over. The Run made the Kentucky Derby seem like an 18-inning ballgame.

Even with a great angle, I didn’t see anything. I maybe saw someone twist an ankle. Maybe.

Underwhelming would be an understatement.

We walked back through the stream of street alcohol to the bullring, where the run concludes.

We squeezed our way through the masses and watched all the runners “play” with the bulls in the ring. I’m still not sure what the goals were, but jumping over the bulls was applauded and any attempt to subdue the bull was greeted with boos and a human-powered ass-kicking.

I learned the rules while watching. Others learned first hand, such as the kid who hopped on the back of the bull and rode it as it bucked three times. Shortly there after he was pulled off to be kicked in the head and chest a handful of times until security could pull him out of the ring.

Another guy tried to control the bull by grabbing its horns. He too had the shit beat out of him by a roaming mob as the spectators chanted “coño” and threw whatever they could at him.

By 8:30 in the morning all the running-related festivities were done and we had the rest of the day to explore a town that had little to offer other than their festival.

Seeing San Fermin in person was slightly better than going to market, but not by much. I think next time there's a tourist-trap festival in Spain, I'll save myself the trouble, pour a bowl of cornflakes, and just read the classic novel about it**. 

*I should note that Ben Robinson is an amazing dude and I respect his collection of model Deloreans and Wu-Tang records just as much, if not more than I respect Lerer’s attempt to own a stake in every Manhattan-based start-up.

**On that note, if anyone can recommend me a book about La Tomatina, that would be great.