Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Toros a la Tica

Having not had our fill of farmyard animals, Colin thought he would find out whether he was allergic to bulls as well as horses. So yesterday, we went to see Toros a la Tica. Las corridas (literally: the runnings) of the bulls is the Costa Rican answer to bullfighting. This event takes place in many locations around Costa Rica, but at this time of year the main event is at the Fiestas San Jose (which opened on the 25th December and ends on the 4th January). Toros a la Tica is very popular and is shown live on national television.

Fiestas San Jose is a huge party with fairground rides, megabars, concession stands and of course Toros a la Tica, which takes place in Zapote on the other side of San Jose to where we live. To get there we had to take a bus into central San Jose and then another bus out to Zapote. Total cost one way, for one person, was 480 colones – a bargain considering that parking at the Fiestas costs between 2500 and 7000 colones. We weren’t quite sure where to get off the bus in Zapote but it became obvious when we saw the cordoned off roads, police officers and tall structures of fairground rides.

We arrived shortly before 12 noon, and as we wandered through the quiet fairground – most of the stalls were still closed or just opening - we saw a queue forming at the boleteria (ticket office) of the redondel (bull ring). So we joined it without knowing how long we would have to stand there.

Fortunately for us, the ticket office opened shortly after 12 noon and the queue started to move. Upon reaching the front of the queue we encountered an improbably small and low down hole in the wall (you had to bend down and even then it was difficult to see the person you were talking to). We managed to get our tickets for the afternoon toros without a problem, they cost 5000 colones each.

After leaving the fairgrounds in search of something to eat (we stumbled across the Zapote branch of Vishnu, a nice vegetarian eatery which has a branch in Heredia), we returned just before 2pm to find small queues at each of the entrances to the redondel. So once again we joined the queue without knowing how long we would have to stand there. Again, fortunately for us, the doors opened about 20 minutes after we joined the queue (just after 2pm).

When we entered the redondel we were greeted by about 8 rows of “seats” – somewhat like an amphitheatre where the “seats” are also the steps. We made our way to the top and sat down. In hindsight we’d have entered at a gate slightly further round the redondel so that we had a seat in the shade as it quickly became very hot. We dutifully applied more suncream, but being in the sun also meant that Colin had the opportunity/perfect excuse to buy a cowboy hat to provide some shade (Zoë had taken a hat with her).

I’m a cowboy. Howdy, howdy, howdy.

The first hour was filled with pasayos, oxcarts and a marching band from Guanacaste advertising the Fiestas in Santa Cruz in January. There were also some folk on horses (the horses appeared to be marking time – though Colin thought they were moonwalking), an announcer wearing yellow, and another guy dressed as a clown with a red nose. There was also a man in drag who arrived on an oxcart and made frequent appearances throughout the afternoon running with the bulls, acting as a cheerleader and jumping on and kissing men in the crowd after leading chants of “Beso, beso, beso” (“Kiss, kiss, kiss”), after which he would give them a prize of a stuffed toy.

At 3pm, about 100 young (mostly) men* entered the ring. They gathered together while a prayer was said, and then it was time for the first bull. They huddled round the gate, from which the bull would enter, before running away as soon as the gate was opened. Several seconds later the bull came careering out, to cheers from the crowd. Once the bulls initial charge was over, the men proceeded to try to get as close to the bull as possible and provoke it into charging at them.

They employed several methods to achieve this: waving an article of clothing at the bull (for example a scarf or t-shirt) like a Spanish matadors cape, kneeling down with arms outstretched in the bulls eyeline, jumping around waving their arms, or running quickly past the bull (brave men ran in front of the bull, those not so brave ran behind it patting its buttocks a they passed). Most of these attempts at provoking the bull had no effect whatsoever, and the bull just looked on with either disdain or confusion (depending on the age and experience of the bull). However, occasionally, the bull would enter into the spirit of the game and charge at one of the young men. This would always encourage large cheers from the crowd.

On the very odd occasion that the bull caught up with one of the men and either trampled him or tried to gore him with his horns, the crowd would go silent until the man got up. Whereupon, there would be a really loud cheer. We are not sure whether this cheer was for the man or for the bull.

Whenever one of the men did have a close encounter with the bull, their first stop was to get interviewed (and of course show their battlescars to the cameras) and then on to visit the Cruz Roja (Red Cross) for treatment if necessary.

Each round lasted between 10 and 20 minutes, whereupon two cowboys on horseback would come out to lasso the bull and take him away. Then it was time for another bull to come out. Sometimes, there would be a different challenge: occasionally, the bull would come out with a rider on his back, and there was a strange game that involved three men standing on beer crates while another man ran around them being chased by the bull (the object seemed to be to stay on the crates).

The last round finished at about 6pm, and the unluckiest man in the ring (who had turned his back on the bull thinking it was all over) was attacked by the bull as the cowboys were coming out. He was taken out of the ring by his fellow young men, and although he was then scooted off to the Red Cross on a stretcher he did have the wherewithal to ask for his cap back (which the bull had trampled in to the dirt) before being taken out of the ring, so we don’t think he was that badly injured. And we didn’t see any blood as he was taken past us.

Overall, it was a fun (if somewhat bizarre) afternoon. We didn’t want to see people being trampled or gored, but at the same time when the bull charged it did add some excitement to what otherwise looked like 100 young men running around playing “tag” in the playground. To the Ticos, this is a national sport and a fun, family, day out. When you go to the toros you are hoping for something to happen, but at the same time, hoping it won’t. As with many spectator sports a lot of the attraction is the atmosphere.

This bull decided to change the game by entering the "safety zone",
causing the men to flee into the ring, rather than out of it.

All in all, it seems that this is a somewhat more civilised (if you can call it that) way to mess about with bulls in a ring than anything involving a matador. The word matador comes from the Spanish word matar, meaning "to kill". At least here the bulls seem to be the stars of the show, and leave the redondel alive (and often kicking), if maybe a bit miffed or bemused.

*There were no women in the ring. Either they are not allowed to take part, or they are just more sensible.

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