The Dance of Death

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Figure 1: Up close image of a veronica pass in a bullfight in the Madrid’s Las Ventas- taken from Wikimedia Commons, 2014.

 

As the first bull entered the ring through the gate charging with a soft galloping rush, the matador and his team immediately began assessing the bull’s reactions using their capote and their voices.  The work with the capote is often seen as one of the most visually appealing parts of the bullfight. The basic and most classic pass performed during this phase is called the “veronica”.  Each bullfighter tries to give a personal interpretation of this pass (Fig 1).

 

It was a known fact that Ernest Hemingway the writer, was a regular at bullfights across Spain, forming friendships with some leading matadors of that time (http://www.telegraph.co.uk).  He explored his own thoughts on the fear and courage involved in bullfights.  If there was anyone who could describe a “veronica” pass well,  it had to be Hemingway:

“Without hesitation, the bull charged at Chicuelo.  The kid stood his ground, simply swung back on his heels and floated his cape like a ballet dancer’s skirt in to the bull’s face as it passed.  “Ole” roared the crowd. The bull whirled and charged again.  Without moving Chicuelo repeated the performance again.  His legs rigid, just withdrawing his body from the rush of the bull’s horns, he floated the cape with that beautiful swing.  Again the crowd roared!  Each time he gave the bull a free shot at him, missing him by inches”

(1923 Hemingway Papers, Ernest Hemingway)

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Figure 2: End of Phase 1, the matador in green suit of lights together with his band of support crews of banderilleros and picadors (on horse-back) (as seen from the top of the stadium where we were seated).

I heard many ole from the stands that Wednesday evening (Fig 2).   All of a sudden, the entire stadium stood up exploding in a gasp of horror, triggered by an adrenaline rush. A body was suddenly tossed up into the air by a bull in a moment of a careless pass.  Even though the toss was not fatal, it was easily an eight foot toss no doubt.  The matador picked himself up while his banderilleros tried to avert the bull’s attention with their capes and voices. But his finery was stained by the bull, bloodied by the piercings of the lances of the banderillas and picadors.

 

It seemed that some matadors were not so lucky.  In early July 2016, 29 year old professional matador Victor Bario was tossed into the air and then gored in a bullfight in eastern town of Teruel.  He died on the way to the hospital.  Incidentally Victor Barrio was at the San Isidro Bullfighting Festival in Madrid in May 2016.  He was probably one of the matadors on the Wednesday bullfight that I attended in Las Ventas.

 

Once the matador gained control over the bull, a picador (wearing wide flat hats) sitting squarely on horseback, entered the arena for that final spike of the lance to inflict injury to the large muscle on top of the bull’s neck, the “morrillo”.  There was argument made by a veterinary group in a Madrid’s university, claiming that with each spike of the picador’s lance or the matador’s sword, the fighting bull would release high levels of beta endorphin hormones which produce pleasure, switching off the pain (https://www.telegraph.co.uk). Spain’s animal-rights group may not agree.

 

THE COUP DE GRACE

The final phase was the matador’s one-on-one encounter with the bull using the famous one-handed red cape, the “muleta.   The performance with the muleta, was the climax of the matador’s artistic display. The matador strove to display an aesthetically and technically coherent performance which culminated in the killing of the bull.  A skilled matador could kill a bull with one artistic pass and a swift, precise single thrust of the steel blade into the bull’s neck (the coup de grace).   The perfect kill comes from a perfect sword thrust accompanied by a stroke of good luck.

 

A few tourists left halfway through the bullfight, unable to continue watching the gory scene. The dead bull was dragged around the arena by the horses as  the entire  stadium grew aesthetic.  The crowd sparked by intense euphoria and chanting all the time, rushed into the midst of the arena to ‘shoulder’ and parade the king of matadors around the arena.  Even though Ernest Hemingway never apologized for it, there is no other way of looking at bullfighting as just a systematic and brutal killing of an animal for sport, putting aside the artistry of matador passes and technical precision using the banderillas and the cape.

 

Opinion polls have shown that 60% of Spaniards do not want the bullfighting tradition to continue. Despite the argument that bullfight enthusiasts put forth that execution of passes and the final kill is a dance of skill and art, the animal rights activists claimed that bullfighting is a cruel, barbarous blood sport in which the bull suffers severe stress and a slow tortuous death.

 

It seemed that bulls killed in the Las Ventas are sent to a slaughterhouse.  In Portugal, it is unlawful to kill the bull but in Spain, the bull is killed at  the end of the bullfight.  As one matador, Juan Jose Padilla put it, “In our culture, bulls are born to be killed” (vice.com, Guille Alvarez, June 2017).  I thought I saw  a restaurant in the neighbourhood of Madrid’s Las Ventas, suggesting “rabo de toro de lidia” which is a stew made of the tails of fighting bulls which came from the bullring.   Bull meat has a wild taste because the bull dies in the fever of the fight, according to http://www.livescience.com.

 

There were two images that would haunt me for a very long time.  One was when the bull’s legs buckled under him, staggering and collapsing as the steel blade was driven into the back of his neck in the midst of the cheering and screaming of approvals by the stadium.  The other was when the dead bull was dragged around the arena by the horses for everyone to see.

 

During the long walk back to the hotel, I began to understand why, on my way to the Plaza de Toros, the taxi driver kept asking me if I knew anything about bullfights and if I was really sure I wanted to watch one! No matter how one sees it, a bullfight is just a cruel, elaborate dance of death between man and beasts.

(May, 2016,  1133 words)

 

Romancing the Bull

Figure 1: Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza de Caballeria de Sevilla, dating back to 1762-1881, Seville.

Ernest Hemingway, the writer, believed that there are only three activities that could be called sports, namely: bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering. All the rest are merely games, he said.   Later on, perhaps driven by moral dilemma, he changed his opinion about bullfighting:

“Bullfighting is not a sport.  It was never supposed to be.  It is a tragedy.  A very great tragedy. The tragedy is the death of the bull played in three definite acts. Bullfighting symbolises a struggle between man and beasts”

(Hemingway Papers)

 

To others, bullfighting is never a sport.  It is often considered a ritual, an art, but never a sport.  Aficianados, lovers or fans of bullfighting, insist that bullfighting is an art form with a sporting character.  Whatever the opinion  is, watching a bullfight for the first time, can be a mix of emotions…intrigue, artistic, dangerous, heart-wrenching.

 

I could not appreciate the fascination people have for the bullfighting ritual.  However when we arrived at the hotel reception in Madrid on 24 May, we were told there was a bullfight at 7pm that very evening, if we wanted to watch one. Even though bullfighting was never on our to-do-list, we decided to give it a shot.  After all, we were first-time travelers to Madrid.  I was advised to go with an open mind, since I was seeing a bullfight for the very first time.

 

I heard that the best time to watch a bullfight is in May or June, when Madrid holds its world-famous bullfighting event called San Isidro Festival.  Ticket price depends on how close your seat is to the ‘arena’ and whether you are in the sun or the shade.  I saw a website called madridbullfighting.com offering tickets at €149 for a platinum seat, €89 for a gold seat and €45 for a bronze seat. We got our tickets from the ticket counter at €10 each so it’s not hard to imagine where our seats would be located….right at the top of the stadium, with the afternoon spring sun shining brightly.

 

THE BEST PLAZA DE TOROS

The best plaza de toros in Spain are in Seville, Cordoba and Madrid.  The magnificent bullring La Monumental Maestranza (Fig.1) in Seville together with Las Ventas in Madrid (Fig 2) are considered to be two of the oldest and most important in the world.  The best bullfighters fought in them and is the perfect place to experience the electric atmosphere of a corrida (bullfight).

 

The Maestranza building with an impressive baroque façade dates back to 1762 – 1881 with a seating capacity of 14,000.  Despite its size, the acoustics allow you to hear everything wherever you are seated.  Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas is the 3rd largest bullring in the world and is the most famous with a reputation for being the hardest bullring for matadors to succeed.  It is located in Guindalera quarter of the district of Salamanca, east Madrid with a seating capacity of 25,000.  It was built in 1929 and held its first bullfight in 1930.  Every year, 2000 bullfights are held here which meant a total of 12,000 bulls would have been killed every year.

 

While some cities have banned bullfighting altogether, Madrid has taken it to a new level, protecting bullfighting as an art form, of special cultural value.  Given the huge economics of the bullfighting industry, it is understandable that the city refused to consider a ban.  Anyone guilty of trying to stop bullfights is subject to fines for attempting to damage Madrid’s cultural heritage.  In fact a Royal Decree was drawn up in 1996, which laid out standards for the characteristics of bulls to be used in a bullfight.

Figure 2: Plaza de Toros de las Ventas, Madrid, where San Isidro Festival is held.

 

THE ENTHUSIASTS OR THE AFICIANADOS

I was wondering which sport commands a bigger following in Madrid – bullfighting or football?  Despite thousands of protesters demanding an end to bullfighting, that Wednesday evening saw the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas (Fig. 2) overflowing with enthusiasm and brimming with excitement. The Plaza was full.  Before the doors to the Plaza were opened, we decided to walk around the grounds of the Plaza.  There were hawkers selling all kinds of nuts, sweets, drinks and souvenirs.  Enthusiasts were lingering around waiting for friends to show up.  A group of matured Spaniards were deep in discussion, some laughing away in the shade of the endearing copper statute of El Toro (Fig. 3).  This must most probably be those highly opinionated group of enthusiasts called aficianados.

Figure 3: A meeting of aficianados in the shade of the endearing El Toro, Plaza de Toros, Madrid, during the San Isidro festival in May.

The majority of the enthusiasts were elderly or matured male Spaniards.  It seemed bullfights attract real ‘aficianados’ of the bullfighting world and they are ‘devotees’ of the bullfighting ritual. It seemed good aficianados watch the bull as closely as they watch the bullfighter.  But some older aficianados watch mainly for the bull’s courage, strength, determination and ferocity. They spent time to speculate on the bull’s character and look for defects.  One can easily recognise these aficianados; they come in small groups, armed with crates of beer in their arms, ready for the two hours or so of an adrenaline rush.

 

That Wednesday afternoon, a fairly good mix of age groups were lingering inside the stadium.  Some were a younger (most probably) local crowd and some were tourists like me, with a dubious curiosity for the sport.  I was seated next to some tourists from Taiwan, who came armed with cameras and field glasses.  A beautiful green-eyed Spanish young lady came “dressed for a party”, carefully picking her way through some 10 or so flights of tight, narrow steps on her 6-inch stiletto!

I could feel the excitement building up as the crowd started filling up the stadium…

 

THE FORMAT

The traditional and most common bullfight format sees three matadors alternating in facing and ultimately killing six bulls over the course of roughly two and a half hours. This format is followed in Spain, Mexico, France and other countries with this tradition.

 

The opening parade or paseíllo was led by two horsemen called marshalls, in black velvet with ruffs around their necks.  Behind the two horsemen came the bullfighters with their support crew.  The three matadors (the star performers distinguished by wearing a suit of lights with gold embroidery) entered the ring together with their cuadrillas, their support crews of banderilleros and picadors.  The parade also included the red-shirted monosabios who smooth out the sand between bullfights.

 

The bullfight would commence in three phases (or tercio).  The First Phase saw the entrace of the bull and the act of the lances.  The Second Phase commenced with the act of the banderillas.  The Final Phase saw the use of the muleta termed Moment of Truth.  Each phase was distinguished by the equipment used to maim or kill the bull – the lances, the banderillas and the seemingly-innocent muleta. 

 

It was a dance of courage, fear and grace between man and beast.  After all, at the heart of all romanticism is suffering….a suffering that ends in the death of either the bull (most probably) or the matador (occasionally).

(Check out the second installment on bullfighting titled “The Dance of Death” in the upcoming 15th February post).

(May 2016, 1218 words)

TO SPAIN BY TRAIN

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“For many hours, I used to stand by the window of the K3 coach, trying to catch glimpses of village life as the train snaked its way across the Gobi Desert and the steppes.  The steppes, populated mainly by horses and camels, were huge rolling grasslands sometimes dotted by one or two white felt yurts or gers, a symbol of nomadic lifestyle still predominant in Mongolia today.  After a total of 26,000 kilometres of changing landscapes crossing China, Mongolia, Siberia, the Baltic and the Balkan states, I was convinced that the most comfortable way of travelling long distances is by train……this, despite having to spend six straight days in a cubicle 1.5 meters wide, squeezing between oversized luggage bags, tight bunk beds and often, caught in the cross-fire of contentious travel mates…..” (adapted from my first book “A Train To Catch”, 2016, Husna Kassim)

 

Train travel, as Paul Theroux would have it, is:

“…a far cry from the anxious seats of doom aeroplanes inspire, or the nauseating gas-sickness of the long-distance bus, or the paralysis that afflicts the car passenger…”

(The Great Railway Bazaar)

 

Travelling on a train around Europe is far more complicated than crossing the Siberian.  Even though crossing borders of most European countries was simplified by the Schengen Agreement allowing a passport-free movement, getting from one place to another can be a headache if you are unfamiliar with the local ways or don’t speak the local language.  Carefully-laid plans get derailed.  Our first class Eurail tickets got downgraded due to ineffective communication at the chaotic ticket office at Lyon train station.

 

Despite everything, the train is still the most delightful and generally pleasant way of travelling around Europe.  We took the train about seventy percent of the time.  With air travel, the checking-in at airports (especially now with the phobia of Islamist terrorism), are long and gruelling.  The bus is probably the second most convenient travel option for journeys which take three hours or less because it is almost hassle-free.  You get to see miles and miles of rolling hills with rows of olive and rapeseed trees carefully tended.  The downside is the limited leg-room and the long hours.

 

High speed trains travel through Europe covering large distances quickly.  As these trains offer more comfort & service than regional trains, they are more in demand and reservation is necessary to ensure seat availability. Both raileurope-asean.com and eurail.com, recommended making seat reservations as far back as three months before travel but a traveller has to be vigilant about fine print, in case things don’t go as planned.

 

Renfe-SNCF en cooperation is one of the international high-speed trains that connects Spain and France.  It allows you to travel quickly and comfortably between cities like Madrid and Barcelona in Spain to cities like Paris, Marseille, Lyon in France at speeds as high as 240 to 255 kilometres per hour.  Some trains have facilities to charge-up your mobile phones which comes in useful.  Depending on the train, a wifi-facility can also be available. Some train stations provide lockers for your luggage.  I paid €5 for the storage facility for 5 kg bags.

 

But that afternoon, there seemed to be a lot more happening than lugging bags and boarding the trains.  Ten minutes after leaving the Valence train station, 100 kilometers from Lyon, I heard a thud as if the coach hit a wood stump across the track.  The train stopped immediately to investigate.  After what seemed like eternity, I heard the sound of a police patrol siren some distance away and I knew there was an accident on the track.  Immediately afterwards, an announcement in French came on the air. The passenger seated in front of me (a “couple”) kindly interpreted that there was an accident.  As we sat waiting, I was apprehensive.  If the accident did not clear in time, we would all miss our train connections.  An hour later, we were informed that it was a suicide.

 

It was another two hours before the train moved again.  It seemed that suicides on the train track was not uncommon.  In 2012, 12 people committed suicides on French railways between Saturdays and Mondays (according to amp.france4.com).  In France there are 11,000 suicides each year according to suicidesinfrance.tumblr.com.   Figures from Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development or OECD, indicated that France has one of the highest suicide rates in Western Europe.

 

In France it seemed suicides tend to be public in nature than anywhere else, as if symbolic, making a statement or delivering a message to the society at large.  It made me wonder what the push was to complete the “final act”.  Throwing oneself in the path of a train travelling over 300 km per hour, takes a lot of ultimate desperation, hopelessness and despair for that final step into the realm of darkness, a ghastly escape from reality…….