Sunday 22 April 2012

What a load of bull

If surveyed, the majority of people outside Spain would probably give bullfighting the thumbs down. The UK, the land of the pet-lovers, tuts in unison at the mention of the (blood) sport. But its namesake in the region of Arequipa in Peru is an altogether different bull game.
Replace an agile, bloodthirsty specimen with a rugged, oaf-like beast. Replace the matador with, well, another rugged, oaf-like beast. You end up with two huge creatures quite literally going head-to-head: in a brutally simple game, the winner is the one who head-butts his opponent into submission.

Watching the first few bouts is a strange initiation. There's a respect for the size of the animals, who throw their 1,000 kilos around with no restraint. Pieces of their horns fly off like sparks, dust rises off their backs to form big ash-like clouds, adding to the drama.

As if to emphasise the drama, there are long pauses mid-battle. The two animals stand in close proximity but it's a real effort to get them to even face eachother, let alone enter in battle. Their refusal is almost comical in the face of the outpouring of adrenaline from everywhere else.

The commentator's ongoing account, broadcast over a loud tannoy, slips into fan mode as he excitedly urges on the animals. The fans are playing their part in the experience too, in stereotypical Latin male fashion. Within half of an hour of entering the stadium, I had been repeatedly been offered beer, the opportunity to take part in clandestine betting, and asked whether I was into cockfighting as well as bullfighting. Stood awkwardly at the top of the bottom tier, fellow fans (clad in a quasi-uniform of cowboy boots, jeans, chequered shirts and rodeo hats) made sure I had a decent view of the arena and slapped me on the back at the end of each of the six bouts I witnessed, a little harder than was comfortable.

My welcome made a farce out of the warning I'd be given that gringos might not receive a warm greeting from the locals. Bottles were opened by teeth, and the plastic crates, once emptied of their twelve large bottles of Arequipeña, were quickly converted into seats. The smell of chicken hearts grilling on the barbecue only added to the atmosphere.

Also pleading with the beasts to get stuck were their owners, stood awkwardly at the centre of the huge circular sand arena, near enough to their prized assets to cheer them on, but not so close to risk getting caught in the crossfire. The animals paid no attention, even when pushed or slapped on the backside - they will be the ones to decide the pace of the contest.

After a few minutes of non-action, your attention begins to wane, you might even start looking at the poor housing on the hills behind the stadium or spot a few startled children in the stands, looking confused as they witness their first combat.

Then, out of nowhere, it's like there is an explosion. The bulls charge full throttle at eachother's heads. The crowd leap to their feet. The announcer's voice jumps an octave or two.

Like two heavyweight boxers in the closing rounds of a long bout, the fighters have their defences down and muster one last effort to end their opponent. Their heads are a few inches off the ground, their front legs practically flat to the sand and their back legs provide the spring board for their bodies to launch forward.

And then, it's all over. The weaker animal most of the time shows no evidence of physical injury, simply runs away to the edge of the stage when it's had enough. But one one occasion, the defeated animal suffered a more severe injury than a bruised ego. As he ran away from its conqueror to our side of the stadium, his skin had been torn off all the way down the side of his body. It hung off him like a slice of turkey being sliced off the breast of the bird.

Underneath, the clear outline of a network of muscles was revealed. I was told that their physical condition was honed by long arduous walks in the days before the fight. The hard work that goes into rearing the bulls does not induce sentimentality though, an injured animal is taken off straight away to be put down.

Maybe some Spanish bullish mentality was exported after all.