Sweat flowed freely down my bare torso. I felt a bit strange being the only person not wearing a shirt, but the desire to stay cool won over the embarrassment. The sun hung low in the west, blazing right in my face. This is what they meant by sol seats. Directly in the sun. I had seen an advertisement for the bullfight early this morning on my way to breakfast, and I had trekked to the Plaza de los Toros to purchase a ticket. The cheapest they had was €18 for sol. It was more expensive than I had expected it to be, but I was intent on seeing a bullfight, at least once in my life. I shielded my eyes to check out the arena below. The ring is fairly small. The ground is a yellowish-brown dirt. There are two white concentric circles about twenty feet from the perimeter. I got a whiff of manure. It reminded me suddenly of the sheep auctions I frequented as a boy.
It was unbearably hot. People handed out paper fans, which advertised various businesses and services. Several pipes ran around the plaza about five feet above our heads, and every few minutes sprays of water shot out from them. The mist from these sprays hung in the still air, making it humid and the heat even harder to bear. I wondered how much of the stuff dripping off me was sweat and how much was water. I also wondered how useful this cooling system was until the woman sitting in front of me started fanning herself. The air hit my soaking chest and instantly cooled me.
Suddenly the woman sitting on my right pushed my knee toward me and scolded me in Spanish. Unknowingly, I had let my knee lean on hers. I sat up straighter and pulled my knee closer. Over the course of the bullfight, it would fall on her again and again, and by the end she would be thoroughly pissed off at me. I covered my head and face with my towel and waited for the fight to start.
The two musicians I could see suddenly launched into a marching song of sorts, and a procession of men on horses, bullfighters, and mules emerged from beneath the sol seats. They marched across to the other side of the arena, accompanied by the band and the ruckus of the cheering crowd. Then the men on horses and the mules turned around and left the way they had come. The bullfighters — I counted five at least — stayed in the arena and stood practicing with their pink cloths. They were dressed very flamboyantly. Most wore sparkling white pants with short matching jackets. A horn suddenly sounded, and some men who had been tamping down the dirt in the arena hurried out. The bullfighters edged behind wooden barricades at three exits around the perimeter of the arena.
There was a loud knock as of a mallet hitting a wooden door, and suddenly a big, black bull with jutting horns came charging into the arena. It looked like a healthy animal, full of spirit and energy. A bullfighter flicked his cloth from his barricade, and the beast charged towards it. The bullfighter disappeared behind the barricade. Then the bullfighter at the next barricade on the left flicked his cloth, and the bull raced that way. Then the third did the same, drawing the bull in a semi-circle around the arena. This went on for some time, back and forth. I was surprised. I hadn’t expected there to be more than one bullfighter. Yet it was a team effort. They all worked together to draw the bull this way and that way. Then a man on a horse emerged, again from beneath my section. While the bullfighters kept the bull occupied, the horseman rode towards the bull from the right until he was about fifteen feet away. I noticed that the horse was blindfolded and its body covered with what looked like a heavy cloth. The horseman wore what resembled large, metal clogs on his feet and full armor over his body, including a helmet. He carried a lance in one hand. The bull suddenly spied the horse and charged. Just as it plowed into the startled horse, the horseman drove the tip of his lance into the bull’s neck. The bull continued to push the horse and even managed to lift up its haunches. The bullfighters, however, finally managed to distract it and lead it away. The horseman prepared another lance and drove the tip into the bull’s neck once more. The poor horse escaped a pummeling this time. The man and horse then retraced their steps and disappeared under my section again.
A shiny, dark band of blood now coated the bull’s neck, and it seemed to have lost much of its energy. One of the bullfighters then approached it with two short spears with colorful hilts. He provoked the bull to charge him, and at the last second he dodged to the side and stuck the two spears into the bull’s neck. The bull gave chase, but the other bullfighters distracted it. Soon a bullfighter approached the bull with another pair of short spears. He, too, provoked the bull and proceeded to thrust the additional two spears into the bull’s neck.
For the next fifteen or so minutes one bullfighter demonstrated his ability to maneuver and outmaneuver the bull. He drew the bull to him by flicking his cloth, and when the bull seemed close to goring him, he stepped to the side and waved his cloth around, leading the bull right past him. He did this several times and even got on his knees at one point to enhance the risk and the perceived danger. I knew by now, however, that the bull really wasn’t charging the man. Frankly, the bull didn’t appear to be an enraged, vicious animal that was intent on killing. If the bullfighter stood still — even right in front of the bull’s face — it did nothing. The bull was drawn instead to movement, and as long as the bullfighter shrouded his movements with that of the bright pink cloth, he was easily able to deflect the bull’s attention away from him.
When the bull became too tired to respond much, the bullfighter unsheathed a long, thin sword, and while the other bullfighters helped draw the bull away from him, he plunged the blade into the animal’s neck. Two bullfighters then cornered the agitated bull by waving their cloths on either side of it. The main bullfighter removed another sword, stepped closer to the bull, and knocked it once again on the neck. The effect was instantaneous. The bull crumpled to the ground, dead. The crowed cheered enthusiastically while an assistant bullfighter retrieved the main bullfighter’s cap from the center of the arena where he had tossed it at the start of the fight. The mules emerged from beneath my section. A man chained the dead bull to them, and they dragged it out of the arena.
This whole drama was repeated another four times with another four bulls with little variation. There were some close calls. A bullfighter once slipped and fell right in front of the bull. He immediately threw his sword and cloth to the side and sat completely still, unharmed. Another bullfighter fell another time, but his teammates quickly drew the bull’s attention to themselves. The horses definitely felt the brunt of the bulls’ attacks, but none of them was badly injured either. It wasn’t until the last bull, the sixth one, that I experienced the true thrill of a bullfight.
By then the stone bleachers had gotten quite uncomfortable, and the woman sitting next to me kept giving me long, mean stares. The sun, thankfully, had set, and it had gotten much cooler. The lights of the arena were lit, and they cast a bright white glow over the grounds.
The mallet pounded against wood, and the last bull charged into the arena. Five of its brethren had already bitten the dust, and each had emerged with a similar energy. However, this one surpassed all of them. It galloped around the arena, driving its horns into the wooden barricades and kicking up dust all over. At one point it ran into the middle of the arena with its head held low, ready to buck anything or anyone unlucky enough to be in its way. Maybe it didn’t realize how long its own horns were because suddenly they dug into the ground, and carried by its momentum, the poor bull somersaulted through the air and landed on its side. A surprised gasp escaped from the spectators. The bull quickly got to its feet, shook its head, and charged in the opposite direction. Again its head was too low, and its horns drove into the ground once more. The bull faltered but regained its footing this time. I think it learned its lesson after that because it didn’t have the same problem again.
The bullfighter who emerged to face this bull, I could tell right away, was different. For one, he did most of the work himself. Whereas the others had let their assistants drive the two sets of short spears into their bulls’ necks, this bullfighter did both sets on his own. After the first set he had to run and jump over the side of the arena because the bull went right after him. When he began maneuvering the bull, his tactics were much riskier. He stayed close to the bull and even outran it at one point, instead of just letting the assistants distract it. He kept turning the assistants away when they moved in to help. He had several close calls, but he managed to avoid serious injury each time. One of the bull’s horns even grazed his arm in one particularly close encounter, which lent greater credibility to his performance.
After he finished the bull, the audience gave him a standing ovation and shouted ¡otra! – another! He walked around the arena bowing to his fans who showered him with all kinds of gifts, from flowers, hats, and shawls to paper fans and purses. His fellow bullfighters threw most of these dubious gifts back into the audience.