Travelling authentically, but at what cost?

Small town traditions have big repercussions

The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. 
Credit: 
via Wikipedia

Pamplona is a quiet, rural Basque town in the north of Spain for all but one week of the year. During that week, a festival known for being loud, thrilling, and infamously violent transforms it: the Running of the Bulls takes over Pamplona.

Spending five months studying in Pamplona, I had a first-hand, eye-opening experience into the making of the event and it made me question how cruelty to animals fits into tourism and entertainment.

The Festival of San Fermin, as it's called in Spanish, attracts masses of people. From adrenaline junkies who take on the actual running, to people just excited by the craziness, thousands cram the tiny streets of the old town.

While this weekend is filled with what tourists may see as an 'authentic experience,' the experience culminates in the gory death of innocent bulls. 

Does playing the most high-stakes game of catch-me-if-you-can sound exhilarating? In theory, totally. But, when looking into the details of what is classified as “a fun-filled weekend living authentically Spanish,” things get pretty gory.

The tradition of the San Fermin festival dates back to the Middle Ages. Originally a religious tradition, San Fermin has morphed into a fiesta that ends in Spanish bull fighting.

“In reality this festival contains some level of animal cruelty, but the focus is not to submit the animal to cruelty, but to involve the animal in the festival and celebration in which people are exposed to harm at the same level as the bull is,” my neighbour Rodrigo Martin told me after he'd participated in the festivites.

It’s difficult to ignore the potential harm to both parties during the festival’s grand conclusion: the bullfight. But while the people are submitting themselves to the potential for harm, I couldn’t help but think that the bulls have no choice in the matter.

Take me for instance. Before actually asking someone what occurs during the festival, I was gearing up for the races. But once I knew about the violence behind the tradition, I had the choice to not attend.  

These bullfights consist of three stages. The bulls are first forced between the crammed city walls to run through streets filled with thousands of screaming people visiting for the festival.

Then, each stage of the bullfight puts the matador in a more advantaged position. The bull is stabbed from the start to weaken it and the matador then taunts it to learn its weaknesses. After exhausting the animal, the matador finally stabs it in the chest, killing it. The bull usually lacks the energy to even fight back.

“Tradition is part of human culture and society, and this celebration is full of tradition and history. Bulls are part of this festival, which is based on hundreds of years of history and tradition, and the fate of these bulls isn’t exactly the most graceful,” Martin explained.  

While the concept of keeping a cultural event alive for hundreds of years is both admirable and meaningful, to me, the reality is people and often tourists find it easier to turn a blind eye to the cruelty in favour of experiencing the authentic tradition.

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