A sea of red and white, now stained purple. Moisture rolled down my forehead and into my eyes and mouth. Rather than the salty sting of sweat, it had the sickly sweet taste of cheap sangria. The red from the wine seeped into the cotton of my once pristine white shirt, dying it a purple color that matched the people around me.
There was a time when I could lift my arm to sip my sangria or to sling the crimson liquid on the crowd around me. Those moments were gone.
For no particular reason, the crowd would erupt into song.
“Alcohol, alcohol, alcohol, alcohol / Hemos venido a emborracharnos y el resultado nos da igual,” they shouted.
Loosely translated to, “Alcohol, alcohol, alcohol, alcohol / We came here to get drunk and the rest doesn’t matter.”
I mumbled along to the Spanish words, shouting the only word I recognized … “alcohol.” With each outbreak of song came a fresh wave of sangria raining onto my head.
Empty plastic bottles of Don Simon flew through the air, mostly thrown from the lucky spectators perched on the balconies overhead. At times, the bottles would bounce off my head before joining the tangled mess of feet and empty containers on the ground.
Sometimes we stood still and, at other times, we moved with the push of the crowd. Like pillars that kept me from crumbling, the sturdiness of others seemed to be the only thing keeping me upright. I grasped to those around me. I finally understood what it meant to be at the mercy of others. And nothing seemed scarier, not even the bulls that would run the streets the next day. Adrenaline pumped through my veins, dulling the terror that had taken hold in my mind.
I’d read somewhere that the majority of injuries reported at the festival aren’t even from the bulls. Sure, the bulls inevitably maul a few people each year, but they aren’t the most dangerous part of the run. The most dangerous part is the other runners. Driven by the fear of the approaching bulls, they trample over the people who have fallen in their path.
“Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé!”
I sang along and tried to forget the crowd that pressed against me. But it was impossible. With each moment of stillness came a wave of movement. Each time worse than the last. As noon drew nearer, more and people managed to fill invisible cracks, testing the limits of the square. If squares could burst, this one would have. I lost sense of myself and others; instead, everyone was a continuous blob. Where one arm ends another began.
“Please let go of my hand,” said the stranger next me with the same amount of desperation in his voice as I felt inside. Without realizing it, I had been using him as an anchor. I let go, feeling slighted by his request and suddenly unstable.
As the excitement mounted, so did the pushing. People chose who to protect. Some of the stronger men shielded two or three girls. Couples gripped each other, but my friend and I stood alone with nothing to stabilize us. The next five minutes dragged on in a blur of shoving and stillness, shoving and stillness, shoving and stillness…
Five minutes before noon, we met eyes with expressions of defeat. We knew we wouldn’t last another five minutes. We broke away, desperately pushing through the crowd until we were once again able to move our limbs freely.
Then came the countdown. Red bandanas lifted by thousands of hands. Now it was a sea of red.
Despite the terror from which I had just escaped, I smiled at the surreal scene. Such unification in the midst of chaos. Though we were no longer in the tiny square, we heard the cannons, and we knew that San Fermin had begun.
As we left El Chupinazo, my clothes were ruined, my body was sticky and my hair crunched from the excessive wine showers, but I barely noticed. I was intoxicated by the enduring adrenaline high.
As the day continued, I stood below balconies begging to be drenched by buckets of water. I kissed strangers on the cheek. And I felt a sense of comradery with all of those who were heavily dyed purple. I knew that they had been in that square with me and that, somehow, our experience was more authentic than those who were still clothed in clean white. I had earned my right to be a part of the festival. I had handed my body over for the sake of the ceremony.
Later, I would come across photos from the opening ceremony. I would see aerial views of that tiny square and realize just how packed it had been. Part of me would think I was crazy, but most of me would feel a sense of pride.
“I was there,” I’d say, as I pointed out where I stood in the chaos. And I know that if I were ever to do it again, I’d remain in that square until the canons burst at noon.
All photos provided by Stan Olszewski.