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Football was not the only sport which Colombians followed. As in many Latin American countries, bullfighting still holds an attraction especially in rural areas. A great horse festival was taking place in a small mountain town called Darien, about twenty miles north of Cali. Graeme, Chris, myself and a Colombian friend of Chris decided to go up to it, and take in the bullfight happening on the Saturday afternoon. Mauro steadfastly refused to go, there were a few things which he objected to in his country’s culture, and he was quite upset that we considered supporting the event. We talked it through and I said that I did not really understand what happened at a bullfight.
He thought that since I knew the bulls suffered and were killed at the end of each bout that was reason enough not to go, but I wanted to see why it was so attractive to so many people. Graeme drove us up towards Buga and then up into the cloud forests of the western Cordillera. The swirling clouds obscured the mountaintops and we circled a small reservoir perched high in the mountains and arrived in Darien, which sat on a slightly sloping plateau near the lake. It was cold and grey up here. As we sat in a bar having lunch, a bunch of cowboys arrived on horseback, huge beasts with flowing manes, and the horses were similar.
Wearing their dressy spurs, jeans, jackets and hats they looked like the worst excesses of a Las Vegas dance show. They let off a couple of pistols in the air and headed back into the village. So, I realised, we were now truly in the Wild West. We saw many more horses dolled up with fancy cowboys, most of them drunk on Aguadiente, and struggling to control their fiery charges.
We headed to the edge of the village to where the bullring was situated. It was a surprising place, not fully enclosed like the bullrings I had seen in movies, it was a rather rustic wooden construction. About two thirds of the ring had concrete seating, the other side had a series of pens for the horses and bulls. The central ring was neatly raked sand, and directly opposite our seats a long wooden channel staggered up the hill to where a series of lorries stood, the six bulls who were going to die stood inside one apiece. In the other pens, you could see the preparations going on for the horsemen or Picadors. The stadium filled up in the following half hour, we took swipes of Aguadiente from Chris’s Leather water bottle and waited in anticipation for the festival to start.
No one had ever bothered to explain the ritual of bullfighting to me before, I had a load of piecemeal images of people on horseback, big swirling mats and a man in a Deputy Dog outfit trying to pierce the back of a bull’s skull. Nothing coherent about it. Once shown the sequence of activity it made it all the more obvious why it was done that way, and why no bull ever got a second chance. First a series of four matadors came into the ring with large capes, pink on one side, yellow on the other. They took their bows in front of the mayor and the audience, and then stabled themselves around the ring facing the wooden channel.
PLEASE DO NOT OPEN IF YOU ARE OFFENDED BY BULLFIGHTING
With a clatter, the doors on the lorry at the top of the channel opened and the first bull stomped down the ramp. From our position we could see its progress down the long channel, occasionally stopping to sniff the people on either side watching him go down, at other times hurtling headlong down towards the ring. On its entrance, it would almost always get bullish, trying to take in the curious surroundings, a screaming crowd above him, this wide open sand and these curious men in funny suits waving huge capes at him. Since they were the only things he could vent his anger on, he would start chasing them around. And of course, this is what the bullfighters want. This bull, fresh from his pen and bursting with energy, needs to be tired sufficiently before the matador can do his fancy work. So the four sub-matadors run around the pen, alternating between teasing and distracting the bull. If the bull gets too close to one matador, another will charge past to make sure he does not injure the man. And so it goes on for a few minutes, the bull racing around after these guys. The bull does not get very tired running around like this, so the matadors have to find some other way of wearing him out. They bleed him. Reaching out of the ring they can be handed these long metal spears, bandilleras, adorned with coloured bands that flutter in the wind. While one matador is distracting the bull, another can run up to it and spear the back of the neck of the bull. If he gets a firm purchase, the barbed bandillera lodges in the nape of his neck and flaps around as the bull runs. If it does not get good purchase then it glances off with little ill effect. The bull does not get away with it for long, though, as another spear is lodged in, then another. By the end of this segment, he may have half a dozen of these bandilleras in his back. Each one rubs on the others as he moves around, aggravating the gash and further enraging the bull. However, now he is also losing blood and is injured, which does slow him down from his initial bravado.
Sometime around now, the matadors head off to one side of the ring and the picadors take their place centre stage. Riding on large horses, they look like medieval knights, covered head to toe in protective clothing, the horses themselves heavily shielded in a strong cloak from hoof to head. The picadors carry a sort of lance, rather blunt after the spears. Their role is to plug the centre of the back of the bull from atop their horses. The matadors stay around in case they get into trouble, but the action is all the picadors now. They try to come alongside the bull and jab the lance straight down into the back. The bull has other ideas and turns to face the horse, thinking it is this creature that is trying to harm him. Using the fierce horns, I saw one bull able to turn a horse about thirty degrees from the vertical but the sure footedness of the horse ensured it stayed balanced. Of course, while the bull was turning its attention to the horse, the rider was able to get a close shot with his lance. Several times the bull would be punctured with the lance, and the damage was far more severe than before. On some occasions, I though they may have found an artery as the spurt of blood was visible from the other side of the ring. Thick lines of blood matted the dark skin of the bull and dried black on brown. Fresh blood, like a lava flow, gushed down the side of the beast over the older leak.
Only the strongest bull would have been able to put up with the torture without diminishing his power. The bull occasionally staggered, and found it difficult to run for more than a few seconds at a time. It was at this point that the master matador would come out into the ring to show off his artistry. The six matadors for the day helped out in the ring to start with, but each one in turn got to show off his skills at the end of the kill. They showed off much more than that in their tight sequined suits. Either it was true that these men were testosterone filled machos or the sock trade in Bogota got a roaring trade from them. They certainly attracted a lot of admiration and wolf whistles from the women in the audience. I was a little surprised how old some of them appeared, about half seemed to be over fifty, but perhaps having to face half a ton of raging bull aged you considerably.
When the single matador entered the ring, the brutal damage had already been completed. The tired, injured and dazed creature in front of the man was not the defiant bull that had come out into the ring. Only capable of short spurts of running, the matador was only of danger from the bull if he took his eye of the bull for too long. The matador took up a small red mat, hardly enough room to write “Welcome” on it, and enticed the bull past his torso to within a few inches. Inevitably, the bull, once the momentum was running could not change direction quickly and the matador just had to step to one side at the appropriate moment to avoid being gored. Now knowing what had gone before, most of my respect for the skill of the matador had gone out of the window – he was toying with an animal on its last legs, not bravely fighting a fierce wild creature. The band would strike up a tune while he danced around the bull and the crowd sang along and cheered every time the bull made another confused lunge.
One of the matador’s tricks was to theoretically hypnotise the bull. He would come up in front of the bull’s head and stare directly into his face. The bull would often go down on one leg and stay almost completely mesmerized by the sight of the matador. In reality again, I think it was done at the moment when the bull had lost its consciousness and was acting like a sluggish automaton. But the crowd thought it was wonderful and all cheered. After much playing with the bull, the matador finally became merciful, and taking a thin sharp silver sword, walked directly up to the bull, found the point where the skull met the neck and plunged the sword into the creature’s spinal cord. Death was almost always instantaneous and the only delay was in the bull’s legs crumpling and the body falling sideways into the dust.
I watched this ceremony six times in the course of the day. The bulls varied in their ability to put up with the punishment, and the matadors varied in their skill at playing the audience. As with Gladiators in Rome, the best matadors were not the best killers, they were the ones who knew the tricks to keep the audience entertained, the apparent lack of control when a bull gets within two inches of the matador, the hypnotism trick. If the mayor thought the matador had performed particularly well for his people, he would offer him an ear off the bull, more exceptional performances guaranteed two ears, and the ultimate (one ultimate during the day seemed to be the norm) gave the victor both ears and the tail.
Although rather disgusted at the one-sidedness of the competition (not one of the matadors got as much as a scratch during the day), and the goriness of the different stages to wear the bull down, I was morbidly fascinated with the whole theatre of the day and the incredibly important ceremonial nature of the whole event, even in this small provincial town. The matadors themselves were highly revered by the crowd, heroes who slayed the livid beast. I do not think many Colombians took the ceremony quite as seriously as I seemed to have done, as evident when the biggest cheer was given to three busty girls who came in late and made sure they were seen sidling around the seats to a vantage point in the centre of the stadium.
We headed home. Graeme and I, who had never seen a bull fight before, had mixed emotions, although I concluded that I would not be seeing another bull fight out of choice. But I could not deny that I had been mesmerized by the whole affair, and caught up in the crowd spirit. Several times I had found myself cheering a particularly clever more by the matador, or wondering at the play off between him and the bull out there on the sand.
In the end, it was just another part of the rich tapestry of the people who lived in and around Cali, a city that does not accommodate you, you have to keep up with it or else get left by the wayside. Although I enjoyed my first two weeks in the city, I thought it was time I saw another side to Colombia.