The Chosen One: Stoke’s San Fermin
Editor’s note: over the winter we ran a competition to find the “Chosen One”, a one-of-a-kind, absolutely average, everyday hero who would win our Most Ordinary Extraordinary Job In The World — a summer of back-to-back Stoke Travel trips, where not only would they be expected to have the time of their life, but to also much in and set up tents/serve you heathens your beer. Well, our old mate Ryan is the winner, the Chosen One, and this is his blog about his time with Stoke Travel. Three trips down, who knows how many to go, get ready for the most fun of your life, Ryno.
Outside the city of Pamplona sits a small village named Mendigorría, notorious for noise complaints on the campground below. Legend dictates that in the valley below, thousands of strangers congregate to drink excessively, have promiscuous (and oftentimes unprotected) sex, and to risk their lives running with half-ton animals for their live Facebook stories, Instagram photos, and Snapchats.
Our hero arrives eventually, having lost all track of days at this point in his trip, to the campground, and is greeted with coldish beer and a chorus of greetings from the Stoke staff he previously met at San Vino. Registration is hot, but filled with laughter and new friends, as eventually the crowd dissipates and I am escorted to my lavish dwelling, a two person tent for one. As we walk, my friend Sparkles explains in some detail the commodities of the grounds: the river behind the on-campus bar, the on-campus bar, the guru tent and wheel of misfortune. “This is where the party exists until 12 AM,” he tells me, “after which, we all congregate under a cabana, in front of a DJ booth, and near a second on-campus bar. That party ends around 4 AM, but the second bar is in close proximity to the pool, so the fun need not ever end.” Energetic, curious, and slightly aroused, I consider all the possible options as I drift to the pool, preparing tentative plans for the opening ceremony on the next day.
I dress in what may be considered fresh whites (read: the only entirely white outfit I own at this stage of my life), eat breakfast, and hope onto the bus, traveling with the other festival-goers into Pamplona where we are poised to hear an almost musical speech by the mayor. We are giddy with excitement, sangria in our hands, in our stomachs, and our hearts, and wind through the city’s streets in route to the city center. A giant, stone gazebo looms over the crowd, peering into it from all sides except where a stage is set. A loudspeaker erupts as the speaker tells us something in Spanish. Me, nor any of my friends, pay the slightest attention to the words being said, awaiting only a cannon’s blast; and, without warning, the air shook, the sky turned purple from sangria raining from above, and we danced with the locals in the streets well into the night.
Some of the more sensible of our group thought it would be prudent to catch some shut eye for the night, others to stay in the city; and those who either chose to return or stay arrived around city hall, dressed in some variant shade of white now, for the first day of running with the bulls. The nervous excitement droned out the construction of barricades and the murmuring of spectators as we waited until just about 8 AM. We drowned out the repetitive safety video, slowly losing interest in the animation warning us all of the dangers of the event, and at just about 8 AM, the police began ushering us forward, patting us down and letting us move up ahead so that we had our fair chance at a race. We all knew this fruitless venture would only be worthy of a story, but we would try.
I lined up well past “Dead Man’s Corner” (because momma raised an ugly kid, not a stupid one) and a cannon exploded in the distance. I fought my reflex to run from cannons and stood in position. A second cannon exploded in the distance. I held out a little while longer. Masses of people began turning the corner, until the bodies flooded to one or the other side. The only thing I could do was to run. I held my arm out in front of me, knowing I should be wary of staying out of the way of the bulls as much as I should stay out of the way of the flailing bodies. I never heard them coming. On my side were six large, horned beasts, moving with the force of a freight train. I opened up my stride, but immediately came to a stop as two people tripped in front of me and one of the animals tripped over them. I held a distracted eye contact with the bull (he faced upwards and left, and I was keenly aware of the wooden barricade now next to me) for what felt like an eternity until he raced forward. I followed cautiously after him, trying to always be aware of the second wave of bulls behind me, and towards the arena.
Like a scene out of Gladiator, I sprinted into the coliseum when, upon entering, two tiers of red and white dressed Spaniards cheered wildly at the contestants celebrating in the sand. We met each other with wide smiles, laughing and winded, but before we could take a breath, the group fled from the remaining bulls, still making their way into the arena, until all the gates were closed. A loudspeaker erupted through the stadium, and we listened to the announcer seal our fate as four large screens, facing each other across the stadium, counted down from 5…4…3…2…1! A bull charged into the arena and we scattered! Some of us taunted the beast, others actually managed to reach out and touch the animal (met with jeering from the audience), and most of us found a way to stay well away from the bull as it made its rounds through the stadium. Two wranglers came in with the big bull to round him in, and after he went through his own gate, we ran toward it, forcing the second bull to hurdle us as it entered the coliseum! After its stint, another bull ran into the coliseum like the second, and one person, separated by none, as we all crowded the inner ring of the coliseum, when the animal bellowed forward at him. We watched, the man jumped with his legs spread, and the charging bull ran under him! Three more times bulls came into the arena, each different than the next, until all six of the animals were penned, we were exhausted, and the gates in which we entered opened once again for us to move to libations.
The nine day festival ended with locals flooding the streets well after the fireworks went off every night, and the closing ceremony showed the most incredible display I ever witnessed. In all the time we spent, once as strangers and now as friends, sitting by the pool, drinking at the bar, spinning the wheel, or headed in-and-out of town, we marveled at our company as the sky flashed brilliant combinations of lights. As our eyes glittered with the sky, as our ears rung from the many-days’ activities, as our bodies leaned against each other in mostly empty bus terminals or watching the wheel of misfortune spin, we experienced something incredible. We cheered with each other in the streets, where wine came from the sky. We ran with the bulls. We would drink into the mornings of every night, giddy and unapologetic, with Stoke by San Fermin.