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   Travels with Steve
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
   The Bullfight


You have to suspend some of your own beliefs and assumptions to go to a foreign country. The things that you take for granted, like sewage and safety, treating animals humanely, and barely attached handrails on steep narrow steps and safety rules for public events and slightly bared electrical cables that run across public sidewalks to power rickety childrens rides by the water and rules of the road and the machete used to chop up your coconut gets slammed into a nasty chewed up log outside under a tree after every use and the best of all, the public arena where we saw the best and the worst of Mexico. At least in my limited experience.

We were walking along the quaint, rustic streets of tiny downtown Isla Mujeres our first night here, accosted the whole way by timeshare offers (all for the same place) and invitations to look at everything in every store, where we should "check it out" and "cheap, almost free!"everything. Most of it was made by their grandmother or grandfather, even though we saw the same items everywhere on the island and in cancun.  That is one busy-ass set of grandparents.
Cuban cigars is apparently what it looked like I needed. When I refused that, an offer of pot was always quietly whispered to me. Honored, once again, to look like the hippies and bikers that created the reputation that dogs my long hair everywhere I go.

So we get to the end of the downtown area and I hear music. Sounds like Banda music, my favorite, the blat of the tuba echoing through the night streets. A concert? I hope so.
The music is blaring, distorted, from some large speakers on the top railing of a small round arena of some sort. I ask the man at the gate if he speaks english, then what was happening?
"Taurus!", he exclaims. 25 pesos to see el toro, the bullfight! And only 10 pesos for cerveza fria!

Iīve never seen a bullfight. Visions of the grand matador flash through my head, the training, the giant bull, the fight to the death, the women swooning and throwing flowers, the crowd shouting!  Needless to say, I wanted to witness this grand spectacle. I donīt think I can describe any of this to do it justice, and can't really tell you what it was that made me laugh so hard that I cried, but I did.

The arena was.....uh.....slightly to the polar opposite of grand. It was round. There was a thin metal frame, and old wooden planks were (barely) attached to it. We climbed up the steep steps to get to the walkway. The entrance was almost straight up, almost a wide ladder, no railing, the steps about 4 inches wide and about 18 inches apart.

The walkway was planks that were just laid across, little bridges from metal frame peice to next, and as far as I could tell, they were not actually attached....sort of like boards laid across a puddle at a construction site. I was actually afraid to walk on it. They were all at a different level, some had nails sticking out. It wasnīt really bleachers in the traditional sense, as there were just rows of planks. Seat or walkway? That was determined by who sat and walked on them. I had knees in my back and people sitting between my legs.

The vendors (we resisited the urge to call out "beer man!") carried "Sol" Beer in plastic buckets, and little baggies with tiny peanuts, pepitas and those greasy little fried things.
The vendors stepped between our feet, and sat down a lot, sometimes almost in my lap.
The pricing of the beer was arbitrary, one time 10 pesos, one time 15, one time 20.

There were a couple of other americans there who told us what to expect, but we didnīt really believe it. He said that it starts with four matadors, but as the evening goes on and the mexican men drink, they start jumping into the ring and challenging the bulls.

Nothing happened for a long time. There was an announcer who chattered constantly, turning down the loud and distorted music to speak, then back up, seemingly louder and more distorted.  Finally, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something shiny. A Matador!  Skintight, red outfit, sequins, a purple and red cape. Then there were more, and soon there were four matadors in the ring, widely ranging ages.

The arena was round, with a sand surface, the bullchute in one corner and a large 25 ft. tall plastic pole right in the middle of the circle, like the spindle on a record player. We guessed but couldn't really figure out what that was for.  At opposite sides of the arena, there were two little fences, only about 4 feet wide, parallel to the wall, with about a foot of space between the fence and the wall.  This is where the matadors hung out, usually two behind each of the guards. We soon found out what they were for.

They were for hiding. Anytime a bull got near them, they ran behind the wall. Between the 4 matadors, one or two of  them would walk out in the general direction of the bull, and if the bull so much as looked at them, they bolted like scared rabbits to behind the fence. The older of the matadors actually went out and challenged the bull, swinging his cape, the bull snorting and charging and it was kind of cool, but not the fight to the death Iīd come to expect. But then, one of the younger matadors would come out, swing his cape, the bull would charge, and the lad would run as fast as his legs could go to behind the fence.
So all this went on for awhile. The crowd was also involved, waving things to get the bulls attention, throwing things, grabbing the bulls tail, anything to get him riled, as the bulls really just wanted to be left alone, all of them. One man was waving a colorful mexican blanket (thats what they say on the street anyway) and he fell over the non-railinged fence into the arena. As the bull charged him, he pulled his fat, short body back over the fence, legs flailing, the bull charging, and the crowd went wild, laughing and cheering. The Matadors spent a lot of time behind the little fence. A few times, the bull charged them and they went behind the fence, and the bull would try to follow, only to be stopped by the narrow passage and his wide horns. It seemed as though the older matador had control, and would work the bull in that matador way, swishing the cape and letting the bull get very close to him. The others, seemingly relative to their age, were less machismo as they got younger. The youngest would challenge the bull from the opposite side of the ring. If the Bull made any move whatsoever, he jumped back behind the fence, tossing his cape in the mud, hoping that, if the bull in fact got anywhere even remotely close to him, the cape on the ground would distract el toro.  He actually never really strayed that far from shelter.

Then came johnny. A slight, dark man,wearing grey sweatpants, a white t-shirt and a satiny blue baseball jacket. He somehow just appeared in the ring, hopped down from somewhere, and was swaggering across the arena towards the bull.  The announcer was chanting "john-nee, john-nee" and the crowd was with him. He walked within 20 feet of the bull and shouted. The bull turned his way, really just to see where the irritating noise was coming from, and Johnny skittered across the sand and started climbing the fence before the bull could take a step, hanging his leg over, as he tried to get purchase, just in case the bull actually charged him. Within seconds of the bull turning his attention elsewhere, johnny had dropped back into the sand and was swaggering into the realm of the bull, and yes I mean that in two ways.  At some point, he looked up to acknowledge the crowd and one of the Matadors shouted something to the effect of "look out!!" and though the bull was absentmindedly peeing in another corner, Johnny high-tailed it, scrambling up the fence while the crowd hooted. Johnny would dissappear and suddenly re-appear many times during the evening. The announcer was laughing uproariously on the mic every time anything happened and it was infectious. I couldnīt stop laughing til tears came to my eyes.
At various points in the evening, many others entered the ring and with various degrees of bravado, chased, teased, poked or were chased by the bull. Including the guy with the blanket, who fell over the railing again.
Along with the amateur entrants, every 15 minutes or so, theyīd rope the bull, bring him in and send a new one out. The smallest was first, the biggest was last and when it shot out of the pen, bucking and snorting, even the crowd knew the stakes were higher and that beer-driven stupidity along with stronger bull equals big entertainment value.

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above: one of johnnies wild rides
left: holding beer and court with his many admirers after the show

This particular bullfight is not the kind where they kill the bull, but they sure tortured it...mostly to try and incite it to be pissed. Hitting, tail twisting and roping...but the thing that really pissed them off, and I canīt say I blame him, was this stick with a pointy metal end, called a picadoro (maybe). It is held by the hand holding the cape, and if the bull gets close enough, you poke him. And it hurts, so the bull is pissed.
The rules were really unclear at this bullfight as to what you could and couldnīt use in the ring, but at one point, one of the matadors decided he would use the spike. As he was `preparing his weapon, two of the wranglers, one with an electric cattle prod in his hand, came running down the plank walk (no small feat in itself) to where the matador was preparing his picadoro and started yelling at him....we assume it was that he not use the spike. An argument ensued. The wranglers both jumped into the ring and started chasing the scoflaw, cattleprod raised, and then they started fighting, all of this while the bull was wandering around, being taunted by the other matadors. Finally the older Matador punched the electric-outfitted wrangler in the nose and the fight was over, and the spike stick was no longer used. How could a fight break out during a bullfight? It was truly like a circus. Machismo run amock like a prodded bull.

Almost like telepathy, even though a bull was still in the ring, everyone started to get up and leave. Itīs remotely possible, I suppose, that some announcement was made in spanish, but other than "toro,toro,toro" and "Johnny, Johnny Johnny" and "Ole!ī", I didnīt understand a word.

We did understand the word mañana, though. We were walking around town the next day, minding our own business when we noticed a crowd gathering at the bullring again.
We peeked in. Another bullfight, but this time with women!  We had arrived a little later and the crowd was much much bigger, so seats were scarce. We finally settled uncomfortably on a plank.

The bullring had four beautiful, very shapely women, in short dresses and little tops, and pantyhose. They were all very lean and muscular, with heavy make-up, festive!
What was to happen here? The dark mexican cowgirls, in from the ranch, to show the men what for?  No!!  It was the men again, the same guys as the night before, but in drag!

If the night wasnīt special enough, the crowd was huge and the cerveza was flowing. Men would return from the gate with dripping six packs in their hands, and Iīm pretty sure when they sat down with their amigos they saidĻ"so what are you drinking?" and meant it.  It was a party. Laughter, yelling, and beer, lots of beer.

It got wild early on. The girls pranced around the bulls again, and darted away at any bull move, but this time they were salsa dancing. If the bull didnīt respond, they went closer and danced for el toro. The night before, I had thought to myself that those were some really pretty boys, those matadors, then here they were, in drag, doing the slinky dance of salsa love for a cow.

We finally found one of the reasons for the pole in the middle. The miniskirt matador teased the bull near the pole and he charged. Mini tried to shimmy up the pole, but forgot he was wearing pantyhose. The bull, and his horn, helped him up, the hard way.
The other reason for the pole became clear. Ropes came out, and the bull was lassoed and they used the pole as leverage to pull him around. More ropes and the bull was tangled and felled to the ground. This was our opportunity to ride the bull. Someone gets on the bull while itīs down, then they release the ropes and the bull jumps up and the announcer starts counting. Many times, the rider got on and fell off before the bull even moved. Many times, the bull just got up and started walking, no bucking, as the announcer started the eight count, but then stopped every time the bull sauntered.There were fights about who would be the one to ride, as more and more men had jumped from the stands to the ring.
I can only assume it was the combination of beer and machismo that, at one point, saw 17 men in the ring at the same time, young and old. They were dropping out of the stands like paratroopers, hanging on the edge, and scrambling up the wall as the bull came charging.

Enter our friend Johnny, making his appearance for this night. How did he enter?
He was on the walkway and when the bull trotted by, and he lept, balls first, onto the back of the bull. The crowd went wild.

The last bull was the biggest, but his horns were small. Who would have thought this would be the bull to wreck the joint?
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above: girlyboy matador taunts bull by salsadancing
below: clowns and men who jumped down from the stands subdue a bull.

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A rider jumped on his back and the bull ran....right into behind the little fence where the girls were hiding. Until Mr. Shorthorns, the width of the bulls horns had prevented them from entering the sacred chicken space but this one charged in with confidence. So the bull was stuck between the fence and the wall, and the riders legs squished between the fence and the bull and the bull and the wall and the fence wouldnīt budge and the bull wouldnīt move. The other matadors and drunks started pulling on the fence to ease the way a little. They eased the way by pulling down the fence, which was half of their hiding place.
This was a good bull, and many in the audience came down to play. Never have I seen so many near death experiences in the name of machismo, fun and beer. People were stomped, thrown, lifted by horns, tossed and rammed against walls. And then, on another heroic ride where someone jumped onto the bulls back, the bull shot straight into the other shelter, where the girly-dores were hiding. They popped up into the stands to sit with us. The bull cracked that fence to the ground on his own.

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girlydors hop up on the fence to take a little rest while the audience does the work in the arena
this man lept from the stands onto the bull, but it got too wild for him. Arms struggling to hold the fence, his feet on the bulls bucking, running back (lower right)

I canīt help it...I laughed so hard through all of this that I was crying, couldnīt see through my tears. Darwinism being cheated again, a few limping clowns at the end, a bull that, by most americans standards was mistreated, but by god, was the most ridiculous thing Iīve seen since the demolition derby and was high slapstick comedy of the naturally occurring kind and we did enjoy it.

The evening ended abruptly with the rain that has plagued us since we arrived.
As we filed out under the stands, we saw Johnny. I know just about no spanish, so I called him by the name of a mexican restaurant in chicago, "el famous!" He took the title with beaming pride. As we stood there, pretending to speak spanish with him, more people filed by and shook his hand, and I could swear I heard someone else call him "El Famous!"

It just goes to show you....american, mexican...we can all share a good time when someone is getting a bullhorn up his cervaza con butt-o.

That makes no sense, but I remain faithfully your reporter from abroad,
Esteban, with the scoop on the poop and the bull by the horns!

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