I know. You’re immediately thinking this is some kind of a bull story. But it’s not. I promise. Yes, this story involves a bull, but the story is completely true. I was actually in the ring with a live, breathing, charging, pulsating behemoth, one that I honestly think was out to get me.
If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you may know that I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Costa Rica from late 1973 to late 1975. Before our supervisors sent us out into the countryside to begin our actual work, however, we spent our days at a training center in San Jose brushing up on our Spanish, learning about the local culture, and becoming familiar with our job responsibilities. Our group had about 40 volunteers, and each one of us lived with a local family. I lived with Roberto, his wife, and their young son. I blame Roberto for encouraging me to try this perilous activity.
He explained that the Christmas bullfights in Zapote were much more humane and entertaining than the bullfights in Mexico or Spain. The bullfights in Costa Rica were humane because the matadors didn’t kill the bulls, and the bullfights were more entertaining because they allowed anyone to enter the ring.
“Seriousamente?” I asked in my crude Spanish.
“Si, si, señor ,” he replied.
Roberto went on to explain that after the professional matadors are finished for the day, the promoters open up the ring to anyone who is brave enough — or foolish enough — to enter. I was definitely in the latter category.
I wasn’t foolish enough to commit immediately; rather, I’d told Roberto I’d have to see what it looked like before I made my decision. So on Christmas Day 1973, Roberto, his wife, and I spent the afternoon watching the professional matadors dance, prance, and advance as they mastered the bulls with only their wits, their athleticism, and their capes. I was impressed, I have to admit.
Once the professionals were done, however, the real show began. The promoters opened up the side gate, and hundreds of fools rushed in. Then, the promoter released a bull, and bedlam ensued. Some amateurs tried to be serious matadors, and some of them got hurt in the process. Others were seriously intoxicated, and they demonstrated their inebriation either by trying to ride the bull or by pulling on the bull’s tail, actions which usually led to an injury and a call for the medical staff. Most amateurs, though, were wise enough to avoid the bull at all costs, and if the bull got too close, they simply hopped over the four-foot wall to escape. “That’s what I’ll do,” I told myself, “if I decide to enter the ring.”
As mentioned earlier, the Costa Rican matadors did not kill the bulls. Instead, the bulls were allowed to exhaust themselves, and at the end, the professionals stood over them as conquering heroes while the amateurs piled on top of the collapsed bull, much like American athletes will crush a teammate who hits a game-winning homerun or scores a touchdown in overtime. As I watched this scene a few times, Roberto gently reminded me that time was running out. If I really wanted to write home and tell my friends that I had entered the bullring, I had to make a decision. Only one bull remained. I decided to go in — with a plan, of course.
My plan was to survive at all costs. I would stay as far away from the bull as possible at all times. If the bull moved to the left, I would move to the right — and vice versa. And if the bull ever got too close, I would simply hop over the wall as I had seen the others do. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, first of all, Roberto neglected to mention that the promoters always saved the biggest and the baddest bull until the very end. On top of that, I think this particular bull was anti-American. Seriously. Unlike the previous bulls, who had calmly surveyed the entire landscape before being provoked into action, this bull came charging out of the gate like Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes. And he had his eyes on me. Again, seriously.
Just as I had planned, I was standing at the opposite side of the ring, ready to employ my avoid-the-bull-at-all-costs strategy. Yet, at 6’ 4”, I towered over the mass of shorter Costa Ricans in front of me, and I’m pretty sure I heard the bull say to himself, “Go get the big Gringo with glasses.” As the Red Sea of Ticos in front of me parted, I was still somewhat rational. “Just get over the wall, Big Guy,” I told myself. And that I did. Then, I found myself inside this exterior ring, a ring that was about ten yards wide, with 20 or 30 others who had the same idea. I was safe, I thought. Wrong again.
This bull, all 2000 pounds of him, had built up such a head of steam that when he approached the wall, he could not stop. Thus, he simply lifted his front legs and toppled over into my sanctuary. There, he stood, no more than five feet away from me, kicking ferociously in all directions. I immediately imagined him kicking out my front teeth or piercing my heart with one of his horns. Honestly, the scene reminded me of all the cartoon images I’d seen of a mad bull with steam escaping from his fiery nostrils and my heart visibly throbbing and vibrating beneath my “I ♥ NY” tee-shirt. I needed to escape again.
This time, I had to hop that same four-foot wall and get myself back into the ring; this time, though, I also had to climb over all the other prisoners who were trapped inside that small escape hatch with me. Fortunately for all of us, the nearby, angry bull could not generate enough momentum within that small space to again follow us over that small wall, so once we skedaddled out of there, we were free to physically exit the same way we had entered; emotionally, we would never be the same again.
Almost 50 years have passed since that frightful Christmas Day, and I will never forget this extraordinary experience. Today, my students probably look at me and see and old, out-of-shape, white-haired professor and think, “That guy has never done an interesting thing in his life.” Now, they know better.