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Thursday, 12 June 2008

More Death In the Afternoon

Please don't recoil in horror, but I once went to a bullfight. Circumstances had left me temporarily stranded in Quito. I'd been supposed to travel down into Ecuador from Columbia by road but there was too much criminal activity and both the Foreign Office and my insurance company weren't too keen on the idea. So, I'd flown – bypassing that section of my trip and arriving several weeks early. As I'd already planned a three week stop over I now had rather more time there than was necessary.

There are worse places to get stranded than Quito. The city is divided into four bands. There are the southern suburbs which are residential and of little interest to the traveller; the old city where you can wander around taking an endless stream of gorgeous pictures; the business district where the only reason for my regular visits was the chance for Spanish Lessons and superb full English breakfasts at the British Council. In between the business district and the old city is the new city where all the backpackers hang out and there is a restaurant and bar every dozen yards.

I'd found a decent cheap hotel, checked out the best places to eat and drink and – best of all – discovered the Reina Victoria. This was a reasonable facsimile of an English pub complete with bitter and stout to complement the ubiquitous South American Lager and a dart board. It was at the time being managed by an ex-pat American, Captain Ron The Captain was a good host who had taken to South American life with an almost Hemmingway-esque zest.

Given the grimness inherent in living hotels the pub was where I spent a lot of my free time and so I got to have many long chats with mein host. Around town I had seen posters for "Dia de Quito". The Captain explained them to me. It was the annual five day bull-fighting festival that celebrates the founding of the city. He was, it transpired, a keen aficionado. He had tickets for every day. Not only that, he had extra tickets for each day as he liked to take guests along. He invited me to accompany him on day one but I was unconvinced. He did his best to persuade me. He talked of the essential nobility of it all. He explained what a great honour it was for the bull. Bulls that had put on a good show were, he told me, cheered from the ring. I couldn't help noticing that cheered or not they would still be quite dead.

In the end though he persuaded me and, on a hot bright afternoon we set off by taxi for the bull ring. The streets and buildings were all still covered with a light dusting of ash from the recent eruption of the Guagua Pichincha Volcano which towers menacingly above the city.

The Captain looked like a character from a novel. He was wearing a cream coloured suit and a wide-brimmed Fedora. A wineskin on a narrow leather strap was hanging from his shoulder, pulling creases into his jacket. I'd made an effort myself, putting on a long sleeved shirt to go with the jeans I'd been wearing for six months.

We had to leave the taxi about half a mile from the bull ring – the crush of people and traffic being too severe to continue by road. The approach was like a carnival. Hat salesmen had their wares spread out on the road. Salesmen with buckets of flowers and broad smiles worked the crowd on foot. The avenue approach was lined with rows of astonishingly beautiful young women scantily garbed in red and black handing out free cigars and cigarettes.

Inside we took our places on the narrow stone seats. At the Captain's suggestion I had bought a cushion from one of the kids near the gate. It was, I discovered, a wise investment. I sat and surveyed the crowd. It was an eclectic mix. There were family groups with everyone from the babe-in-arms to the wizened old grandmother. Teenage boys sat with their arms around their seductively costumed girlfriends. Besuited businessmen sat side by side with fat old men in vests pouring streams of wine from wineskins with practised accuracy into the perfect ‘O’ of their tilted mouths. Gangs of teenagers laughed raucously at jokes which though I didn’t understand the language were clearly obscene. Elegant ladies dressed as if for a night at the theatre stepped gracefully to their seats and took out their opera glasses. There was not one empty seat in the arena.

The proceedings got under way with colourful carnival of flower decked carts parading around the ring. It was loud and lively and buoyant. I found myself enjoying the afternoon. That soon changed when the bull fighting itself began.

There were six fights on the program and they all followed a broadly similar pattern even though two of them were fought from horseback. The bull is first of all goaded by toreadors to enrage it and put it into a fighting mood, it is then weakened by sticking barbs into the neck muscles which make it drop it’s head both restricting its view and making it look more dramatic. Then after some time taunting it with a cape to make the spectacle entertaining for the crowd the matador takes a sharp sword and stabs it down between the shoulder blades and through the heart to kill the bull. There is a theoretical chance that the bull might harm the human participants but I saw no sign of it progressing to a reality. The first gouts of blood falling in the sand and staining the black hide of the bull with their sticky ichor had my stomach churning but it passed quickly. Sure enough as the first bull was dragged from the arena, unceremoniously hauled by a chain around its hind legs the crowd were on their feet whooping and hollering and stamping their feet. Only once was the pattern broken, in the last fight, and there we got to see what was for me the most significant and telling moment in the nature of the game. The last bull wouldn’t play. It stood to one side of the ring and resisted all attempts to goad it into a fight. Numerous barbs stabbed into its flesh simply made it cower away even more. As more and more of it’s once white coat became a gory crimson it stopped even backing away and simply stood there as if it knew the inevitable outcome and refused to give anyone the satisfaction of performing. Finally, in disgust, the Matador stabbed it and it dropped instantly to the ground. The spectacle had reminded me of nothing as much as the sight of playground bullies taunting the fat kid at school. The crowd, as predicted, booed their disapproval.

Later, over dinner, the Captain quizzed me about my impressions. As he had paid for everything – beer, wine and this meal included – it seemed to be monumentally ungrateful to be completely dismissive of what I'd seen. I tried not to offend him by mumbling something vaguely non-committal about recognising the skill of the participants but not approving of the activity. He didn't seem too crestfallen by my admission. After all he had four more days to make converts to his "sport".

For my part I never wanted to encounter it again but though it had confirmed all my prejudices I could now, at least, argue against it from a stand point of knowledge rather than ignorance. And if I tell myself that often enough I expect that I may, one day, come to believe it.

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