An usher led us to our ringside seats, after which he whispered something - "....lo que gusta..." - I took the hint and slipped him some pesos; next it was the seat-mopper's turn - even the most expensive seats are made of cheap ferrous stuff, designed to hold a suspension of rust and dust in rainwater - a swish of a rag, and a few more pesos changed hands.
If you're interested in taking photos of a bullfight, take my lesson: dont get seats in the Barrera, the rows closest to the arena, or at least not the first few rows: a bright red fence comes in the way of most shots. The first row of the Tendido should do quite well. The ring is about a third of the size of a soccer field, so you'd need a 200mm lens to get really interesting shots. And make sure it's fast autofocus. I didnt satisfy any of these requirements, and so all I have to show is this pathetic shot.
I found the term Bullfight somewhat misleading: something signifying a Ritual Sacrifice would be more to the point. The sacrificing priests (or the matadors, to use the more conventional term) are dressed in ceremonial costumes from period films, and the proceedings are initiated by a blast of bugles from the top of the stadium: the big, black beast charges into the red arena. Junior matadors (or failed senior ones) occupy positions a quadrant apart on the circumference, baiting the bull to charge them with a swaying pink cloth, and then ducking behind a red, wooden guard as the bull chips its horns against it. Apparently, the red cloth is a privilege of the High Matador, who, if he's particularly smart, will kneel at the centre of the arena, swaying the cloth in front of his body, inviting the bull to gore him through it: Poor Bull, it hasnt an iota of a chance of doing that - by all evidence, it has been trained on a rewards & punishment regime to charge at red and red only - the moment the animal gets within striking distance, Senor el Matador moves the cloth away from his body and the bull ineffectually gores that; even if senor was buried in the ground with only his head and arms sticking out, the bull wouldnt know what to do without a red rag in sight.
This actually is the relatively sporty part of the proceedings. Soon, things move into phase two, marked by another blast of the bugles. Enter two gentlemen on horses: these chaps are known as picadors. Theirs must be the most sickening job on earth: from the safety of the height of the saddle on a well-padded horse with covered eyes to prevent the noble steed from taking fright at the misery of the bull, with the convenience of an eight foot long pica, the picador drills into the bull's shoulder, driving it in insistently, repeatedly to leave before us a bull more enervated than enraged. The bulls usually attempt protest, but rarely do their protests go beyond butting ineffectually against the padded body of the horse; the tormentor sits eight feet away at the other end of the dripping spear.
Another blast of bugles, the picadors exit, enter the Juniors with decorated sticks with sharp pins at the end. This is the last time that the fight will have anything to do with speed: the bull charges the junior, who nimbly leaps into the air, deftly plunges the sticks into the bulls shoulder, and swiftly moves out of harm's way. A pair of such sticks, hanging on either side of its shoulders, leave the animal looking a consummate fool: red blood shining even on the deep black body, trembling, slow, weakened, only at the mercy of the High Matador, who now hides a slim sword behind the red cloth. He will lead the animal through, as it were, hoops - the red-obsessed animal repeatedly butting against the cloth, oblivious to the man standing next to it. This seemed laced with nuances and connoisseurship, with greets of Ole going up at intervals from the discriminating crowd. Next to us was a top-to-toe black-leathered, cigar-wielding, wannabe aficionado, Oles badly out of sync with those of the rest of the crowd.
Ritual requires the matador to kill the bull on the second or third jab at its neck. Sometimes a jab would leave the sword sticking in the wound, till the bull managed to obligingly shake it off and return it. Finally the animal collapses, the bugles ring out again, a pair of horses are brought in to tow away the dead animal, more bugles. Aficionados call for Cerveza, take refreshing swigs at the beer; the blood on the arena is smoothed over with sand.
Of the six bulls that we sat through, only once was there a departure from this routine. A deviant bull actually managed to have contact with the matador, and if it didnt quite gore him, at least trampled him a bit. Half a dozen assistants ran in to pull the bull away, while the matador rolled away to safety, limped a bit supported on shoulders of two men, then resumed the fight, with much ovation from the crowd. This bull was rewarded with a quick death, a neat plunge of the sword into the opening marked by the picador; copiously vomitting blood, it collapsed. The matador took a lap of honour, the audience throwing jackets, hats (our aficionado threw in his leathered one, and quickly had it recovered) in appreciation of his valour, while point-and-shoots flashed away.
I was hoping maybe the later bulls would be stronger, the matadors braver, the picador part would go away, but it was always the unvarying unsporting ritual. Lights had come on in the stadium: the LP guide had prepared us for only six bulls - we decided to leave.
In the next day's newspaper, Soccer led the sports section with color photos;
Bullfight was tucked away somewhere inside, the black and white halftone hardly
doing justice to the bloodiness of it all.
Next Chapter: Shop and Sprint; Future Work