I stumbled on the bullfight by accident. I was at the start of an 18 day trip to the Iberian peninsula and I was traveling by myself, hoping to do something my later trip partners might find repugnant. My research told me that the first week of April was early for bullfighting, so I had decided to let fate make the decision of my attendance for me.
Walking back from the beach in the Spanish town of Málaga, I noticed a crowd of men standing, waiting for something. Seeing nothing of note around them, I happened to look up to see what appeared to be a renovated Roman Colosseum. La Plaza de Toros La Malagueta. A bullfighting arena.
I scalped a ticket and was ushered onto a stone bench next to some excited British men. The arena filled to capacity, the thousands of people being mostly older men, but with many wives and children accompanying them. We sat hip to hip, knee to back, struggling to fit modern bodies into a space designed for the nutrition of the past. Hands were shaken, beer was purchased and peanuts cracked.
The corrida de toros began. Three ostentatious toreros strode into the dirt arena, followed by banderilleros (“flagmen”), picadores (“lancers”), and numerous hangers on. The crowd cheered and the parade eventually exited. When the arena had calmed, the trumpets announced the arrival of the true star. El toro bravo.
Through the open gate came sprinting the most beautiful and muscular bull I had ever seen, snorting, stomping and charging, a locomotive of muscle broken free from his tracks. He chased the banderilleros and their pink capes behind the protective ring at the edge of the arena floor, his horns clanging against the metal with each near miss.
The first torero, Javier Conde, took to the center of the arena and began to dance with the bull, pulling him close with his cape, only to step aside or whip the cape away at the last moment. Whenever the bull began to tire, a new horrific measure was introduced to give the bull new life.
First, the picadores, men on blindfolded and cloth-armored horses, used lances to stab the bulls’ back. The bull would attempt to ravage the horse with its horns, but the armor provided enough protection that the bull would soon gave up. Later, decorated javalins were stabbed into the bulls back by the toreros. After three failed attempts by Conde to strike the bull through the heart with a sword, banderilleros tried to get the bull moving by pulling its tail. The bull lay defeated, but not dead. The latter was accomplished by a knife, twisted once inside the bulls skull. A horse drawn wagon came and hooked the dead beasts’ horns and dragged it across the arena, out the same door it had entered.
The trumpets sounded again, and through the open gate came sprinting the most beautiful and muscular toro I had ever seen, snorting, stomping and charging, una locomotora de músculo, broken free from his tracks. The second torero, El Cid, was much more skilled. Each swirl of the cape had more flourish, more confidence, and he brought the bull closer to his body on each snarling, rampaging charge. El Cid managed to strike the bull through the heart with his sword on the first attempt. The bull lay panting, dying, and was finished with the same flick of the knife.
The mood of the Brits sitting next to me had changed. Gone were the smiles, the jokes, the eating of snacks. The closest to me turned and said “We’ve seen enough.” They fought to find a way out, their empty seats quickly cannibalized by space hungry Spanish bottoms.
Then, with trumpets roaring, through the open gate came sprinting the most beautiful and muscular toro bravo I had ever seen, snorting, stomping and charging, una locomotora de músculo, liberado de su pistas. He chased and charged the hapless banderilleros, the master of all in his domain. Then came El Fandi.
What happened next was the most graceful, poetic and loving murder of a dangerous animal I could have imagined. El Fandi’s dance was so fluid, so sure, you could almost see him caress the toro‘s brow as it roared past him, trying to kill him with every muscle in its body. The bull was stabbed, taunted and provoked, all so that El Fandi could dance ever longer. I was mesmerized, only snapping out when the knife was twisted and the bull let out its final twitch.
Through I had only seen half of the corrida, as each torero fights twice, I realized that I had seen enough, and walked out in the chaos of intermission.
Most cattle that have died for my benefit have done so in factories, leaving this world in a mechanized ritual with no celebration. I doubt I will ever pay to see another animal tortured to death, but if I had been born a bull, I would rather die in the arena than in a factory.
Only in the arena, in front of an audience of thousands, can you stare your murderer down and, with a single twist of your horns at the final moment, make him look like a fool.