We leave this morning for an unplanned outing. A 1 and a half hour drive along the crazy twists and turns back tracking the road through the mountains we took yesterday. We saw this suggestion in Rick Steve’s book yesterday and when Nicole presented it-at first I was sceptical. But when she said, “Karen, we need to know why”, I was sold.
This is something I thank my sister for early in life. She always pushed me to find out Why-and that has been my mission ever since. Human behaviour is fascinating-and even when you don’t agree with the behaviour, or the reasoning, to me WHY is vastly more important then the who, what, when and where. If we never ask why, how do we understand any culture? Or our friends, mates, enemy’s, and the list goes on. And this is something I try to remember in my personal life-and have to push myself to remember… “before you react, Why is this person treating me this way, or why did my husband say that or Why did that coworker make such an obviously wrong decision”.. After I know the why, I tend to deal with a situation very differently-empathy can replace anger, understanding can soften the landing when you jump to a conclusion. And I think I’ve gotten better at this-because Of travel. When it comes to travel,, my mandate has ALWAYS, effortlessly, been a quest for why. Never forced-but chased after.
So again, when Nicole suggested we visit a true working Matadors bull raising farm-The very thing we watched Ferdinand cry about in the movie on the way here-my why won out over my hesitation- Why is this a passion for the Spanish? Can I wrap my head around it? On our way there, we are chatty in justifying our visit to this farm, Although a working bull raising farm, owned by a man who takes pleasure in killing bulls for fun, our visit in itself won’t fuel the Bullfighting he is engaging in. We won’t have to see a fight in any way. We will certainly voice our opinions on this barbaric sport and as much as they think they can justify this “thing” they call a Spanish passion, we can ask the why, and leave, and feel better that we asked, and disagreed, and were able to see these poor animals before they are lead to the ring.
My mind was about to be-I don’t want to say changed-but opened. And perhaps even blown a bit.
We drive up to a beautiful farm-called Reservatauro Ronda- and see that it is indeed a farm-however its much more then we expected. Beautiful traditional stucco buildings and well manicured dirt roads-vans and buggies all emblazoned with a lovely logo-two back to back R’s with a T in the middle, and the name Rafael Tejada.
We walk up the path and are met by the cutest little Spanish woman I’ve ever seen, and immediately I’m friends with her. Like Immediately. She is my people-you know how you just know sometimes? She has an easy laugh-and she speaks the cutest Spanish accented English I’ve heard-taking her time to pronounce each word. She introduces herself as Fancesca, but would like us to call her the shortened version of this in Spain-Paqui (pronounced Pack-ee). We chose the shortened one hour tour, but assumed there would be a number of other people on tour with us. But we are thrilled to find out that we are alone-the Spanish group is loaded-about 15 people, but our little group is just how we like it…it will be more bulls then humans-and thats fine with us. It strikes me that perhaps it is odd for them to have English speaking tours-I’m not sure many would be willing to ask “why” without feeling complicit-we are trying. And I can tell right away that Paqui knows this. She realizes quickly that we know NOTHING about bull fighting. I’m sure she can tell this by our reactions to things….for example the first time we ask her about a calming goat and she looks at us like were absolutely nuts. Apparently thats not an actual thing. They use calming oxen. Not half as adorable. Humph. Or when we see our first full horned bull and scream “FERRRRDDINNNNANNNNNDDDDD”. But even more then that, she can tell we need kid gloves. She explains that Rafael Tejada, the owner has made it his mission to explain to people why he does what he does, why its a passion for his people, and why we shouldn’t fear it. Its like she knows why were here. SHe knows from our squeals of delight everytime we see a baby cow, Gary’s constant interruptions to pet kitty’s, and my awe for the beautiful big horse in the distance that we are animal lovers- not here for the sport-here for the animals. I tell her this, and she says that bull fighting is not a sport. Its an art. I still don’t have my why answer. .
She starts the tour at what I assume is a simulated bull fighting ring. Its yellow sand base and stone walls make it beautiful to look at. But she explains that this is actually the viewing ring for the testing of the bulls. This is where they bring the potential bull studs and test their bravery. This is not where they chose bulls for fighting. There are VERY few fighting bulls chosen actually, and the ones that are, are required to have NO testing or excessive human contact. They are to be untrained. This ring is where they chose the bulls and cows that show bravery and passion-and then they are kept to become breeding bulls and cows. An offspring bull gets 60% of the cows attributes and 40 of the bulls attributes. So, if they chose a bull or cow that is brave, stout, fast, muscular and passionate-they are honing the breed. So the ring we are in is for that purpose. Rafael chooses the animals that he wants to keep in the fold to become breeders. Its a huge decision. He is choosing the linage of his bulls-trying to make the perfect winning bull. One that he will present for fighting and hope to save. Wait…save? What? She says she will explain more later.
She shows us the windowed room in the wall of the ring from which Raphael watches the bulls as they “show” and present themselves. THe bulls that are not chosen are given for meat. And as awful as that sounds-I eat meat. And it strikes me that all of these bulls are meat….and oddly enough I’m okay with that prospect. Eating the bull. I am an animal lover, but I’m also a meat eater. I understand I have those reading that are vegan’s. I can think of one gentle woman that I know that refuses to eat meat-and when I asked her husband the “Why” last week just before we left, with a twinkle in his eye he said its because of her feelings about the cruelty of animals. I could tell this made him proud (even though he’s a meat eater himself). And I can appreciate that-and I feel privileged to know someone who feels that deeply about animals. However, although I deplore cruelty to animals, I have never been that person-I’m a meat eater and come from Newfoundland-a place where hunting has always been a way of life. Seals, Moose and fishes. Do I hunt? No. Could I? No. Which in itself is confusing. The fact that I can as a human appreciate that I want meat in my diet-but don’t want to think about killing an animal.
Paqui is familiar with this struggle. She sees my face when she says that the bulls and cows not chosen are sent for meat and I think she can tell the very minute that I realize that this is the way with all farms….and she says “si si. I love animals too. But also, I eat meat-Its a confusing world. But these animals are not pets. Bulls are not pets. They are volatile and wild. Not pets. Ever. They are workers or meat.” And I’m instantly seeing this whole thing from a different perspective. This is a farm. I still don’t understand the thought of the fight, but I can’t help but agree that raising animals just for meat is not abhorrent to me.
She shows us the pens where the farm vet takes care of the bulls-all the wile with her calm voice and passion for the animals. She is infectious. I’m taking her back to canada.. She explains that because bulls are so volatile-they have to be separated. They separate them in to 1-4 year pens. And keep the bull away from the pen of cows until they are ready to breed. They don’t do artificial insemination here-all natural. So bulls are presented to a group of cows as nature intended. But before that can happen they must be vetted and healthy. And calm. So the pens are designed to calm the bulls. So the doors close behind them and in front of them and they are given time to calm down before they are checked and given medicine. Then lead back to their 25 acre field to graze and unwind.
We leave this area and as we walk we see three men coming towards us. One of the men is in deep conversation with the others, head down and nodding. But Paqui says something in Spanish-and He comes over. He introduces himself as Rafael. The owner of the farm. And as this incredibly gentle man grasps my hand to shake it I melt even before I realize that I am meeting a bullfighter. He introduces himself and asks if we are enjoying ourselves-I am mesmerized as, I can tell, is Nicole. He has to be the most charming Spanish man I have ever met. His kind eyes and slight build make him calming and un-intimidating. He is on his way to practice-but wanted to make sure we were having a nice time and enjoying the farm. I assure him that Paqui is doing an incredible job-and he says “I’ll ask you again at the end-see if you still feel this way-maybe she will change” And has an easy flirty laugh. I. Am. Smitten. He is beyond charismatic. Not at all like the Gaston from Beauty and the Beast that we had all expected. I thought a bull fighter would be large, boisterous, loud and obnoxious. He is so far from those things that I am ashamed to admit I’m a little weak in the knees! What is happening. I glance at Chris and he is looking at me like he can read my mind. We all giggle-I think the boys are a little awestruck as well-like we’ve all just met a movie star. Looking around, we see the Spanish speaking group gaping and taking pictures.
As we walk away we ask Paqui (who is also a little smitten) if he is famous here. She says “SI SI VERY”. I say “too bad he isn’t good looking”. Honestly hes like Spanish George Cloney. She finds this so funny she has to stop for a second and put her hand on me to hold herself up while she laughs. Apparently I’m not the first woman to find him handsome-but I may be the first fat white woman to admit it out loud.
On we go for the rest of the tour. We get into a large van and Paqui, who can bearly reach the pedals drives us around to the different pens. She points out the different aged bulls and tells us about how they have to be separated from the other ages because they will fight if not and harm themselves. The goal is to raise strong happy bulls who are ready for breeding or for the ultimate privilege of becoming a fighter. I ask her to explain the word “privilege” to me. Surely these bulls want to live long lives and have no interest in being provoked into a fight. But the truth is, if not here, they would all be meat by now. Also, hundreds of bulls from other farms are sold to the bull runnings that take place all over Spain, which I can tell is a bit of a sore subject with Paqui. She tells us that the running of Bulls is not what we think. Bulls are used to walking on earth, sand or mud. Not cobblestones. When bulls are used in the running-like in Pamplona-they come away from the run with basically broken legs and are in pain and good for nothing but meat. Hundreds of bulls. Butchered after being run for show. I had never realized this. I hadn’t even heard of people protesting the running of the bulls although I’m sure it happens. But in actuality, maybe 5 of the current bulls at the farm will be fought, as opposed to hundreds of bulls that will be hurt and ran through the street. All in the end meat.
As we stop at the different pens and the acres and acres of grassy fields we start to ask Paqui questions about the bull fighting that she insists on saying is an Art. She explains a few things to us I didn’t know-given that i have VERY limited knowledge of the fight. First she explains that it is not a sport because there is no competition. In a match there are 6 fights, but there is no winner crowned. No competition between the fighters…they are all friends. Bringing a show to the people-actors that are revered for their bravery and skill among the Spanish. She explains that the goal of the bullfighter is to have the audience save the bull. If the bull shows enough bravery the audience will vote to save it….and this is all achieved by the slow caped dance the bullfighter does with the animal. He is trying to bring out those qualities that the bull has been given by his breeding linage. The bravery, speed, muscle. And they are trying to achieve a connection between the fighter and the bull. She says that it is a beautiful dance when it is done well-and Raphael is good at it. He can look into the bulls eyes and gain his trust (I shudder)-and dance with him and preset an artistic rendition of the taming of a bull. Because this is the goal. To either have the bull earn its freedom, or present itself for slaughter (after the fights the killed bull is sold to restaurants in the immediate area for meat).
But, it is done to make the audience believe the bull is so brave and is showing such tenacity that he is the one bull that should be saved out of all the bulls-if not he has the same fate as all the other bulls. To save him-make him the one bull that lives the rest of his life in retirement-never to be used for meat. this is the rule. If a bull is saved by the audience-he is never allowed to be killed. He goes back to the farm that raised him and lives out his life in retirement. In fact, Paqui shows us a bull on the farm that has been saved. She says it with such reverence. “This is our saved bull.” She explains that Raphael actually was the matador that was able to get the audience to save this particular beast. “Raphael saved this bull” she says. It wasn’t one of Raphael’s bulls.. It is very rare for a bullfighter to fight his own bull. ITs a lottery before the fight. You fight the one you are given. So when Raphael saved this bull he wanted to have it at his farm. He wanted to take care of this brave bull for the rest of his life. Never meat, Never running. So he begged and begged the owner of the bull. And finally after many years of negotiation, he was allowed to buy the bull. Its the prize possession on the farm. We take tones of pictures and call him Ferdinand of course.
She then takes us to a pen of Andalusian Horses-they are STUNNING. Huge crop-maned beauties. With their colts sunning themselves in the fields. She says its rare to see them laying down-and we do! The sound of them Whinnying is so soothing. They are happy and well taken care of.
Next we go to the working horse pen and one of the workers of the farm takes the horse out and brings all the bulls to the edge of the enclosure and they show themselves for us.-except one- who does downward bull and assumes the fighting position with the horse-who is completely in control and backs away. Paqui says that both the horse and the rider are aware that this one bull is extra cranky. He loves to fight. He says at the edge of the pen, but the others come forward. Beautiful and strong. Intimidating and muscular. They are magnificent animals. I’d save them all. But thats not how the world works.
After the horse is done herding the bulls Paqui brings us close and shows us how he is trained to lean into the bulls to herd them. She makes a noise with her mouth, walks to the side of the horse and says “Uno Dos Tres” and the horse and all his rippling muscle leans into her while she pushes on him. AMAZING. We are then given time to pet him. And he is magnificent. Lets me kiss him on the forehead and rub his face. I make the mistake of saying “between you and Raphael-the men on this farm are amazing. I may never leave”. Paqui DIES with laughter. She gathers herself long enough to tell the horse handler in Spanish what I just said. Then the Spanish tour guide-who runs off laughing – on a mission.
Then we are lead into the bull fighting practice ring. No bulls will be brought here-this is where Raphael trains. We are shown his capes and tools-a cart with horns, fake swords etc. What I didn’t realize is that he never trains with the bulls…Matadors only ever fight a bull when they are in the ring at the show-NEVER before. With any bull. This is not about murdering a bull-its a show. I’m beginning to see why she calls it art-even i I don’t agree in its form.
Gary of course runs over and puts on the cape-Paqui tells him this is okay….but somehow gary manages to make the pink and yellow cape look like transgendered Dracula-Wrapping himself up and doing a little dance. Paqui is again laughing. Then we see her straighten…..as Raphael comes through the door. (Followed by a giggling guide…..clearly she told him what I said about him-comparing him to a stallion and what not. This is becoming a whole thing!). Honestly. Its ridiculous. The air changes. He is clearly royalty- and he carries it well. He walks towards us, asks us if we still feel that Paqui is doing a good job-and we assure him she is AMAZING. Hugging her while he asks. Honestly, I want her to come home with us. Then gary says-can you show us how to use the cape. gasp! I’m pretty sure this is paramount to asking Brett Farve to show you how to throw the foot ball, or asking Mario Andredi to show you how to use a stick shift. Even Paqui seems excited at the prospect…but worried we’ve asked too much.
But he does. There is Spanish music playing in the background from the horse demonstration…..and He walks over and picks up the Cape. . He stares into the dirt, holds the cape like its a delicate woman, and starts to brush the dirt with the bottom of the cape….dragging it back and forth…pulling it behind him and assuming the perfect matador pose. I take video and again, none of us can speak. Its one of the most beautiful demonstrations of passion for an art I’ve ever seen. The music, the look on his face, the hot air and the smell of the farm. Its only described as infectious by Nicole and I for the next 3 hours as we chat about that one time a Famous Matador gave us a private showing……
In the video of his demonstration you can hear me say “yeah. I’d charge that”. …..MEANING I can see why the bull charges!! OF COURSE it sounds much worse after it comes out my mouth and again Nicole and Paqui are having fits of laughter-while I try to explain myself. Its embarrassing.
He says thank you to us, gives us all more handshakes and then humbly leaves us to see the rest of his farm.
After this Paqui says that our tour is over…we ended up being 2 hours with all our questions. THe longer tour came with wine and tapas at the end-but we thought we’d be running out of here-appalled and discussed. But thats not the case. We ask if there is a place we can buy a tshirt and are led to a large eating area. Paqui runs around getting us shirts in various sizes and then says “you know what? Just stay here. I will bring wine.” And she does. Another reason I’m looking into adopting her.
We sit at the farm in the most beautiful setting. Animals (well taken care of animals) all around us, the purchasing ring in front of us, and drink beautiful Rioja and are abuzz from our tour. I google Rapheal, and yes,….he’s a big deal! I think the demonstration he gave us was a huge deal-unheard of…very rare. We were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.
We leave after buying some of the delicious wine and head to Ronda-one of the beautiful hill top towns in the area. We have seafood tapas and beer…and walk past the local bull fighting ring. I will NEVER see a fight. Never. But my why has been answered. These bulls are not being taken away from a life of rest and grazing. They are food. And every now and then, a brave bull is saved.
My mind isn’t changed. I still think its unnecessary for a show to be made of an animals killing. But I can see where its become a cultural experience for these Spanish. Before I came today I thought that Bull fighting was deplorable. A sport that brutal men engage in so they can see an animal die before them and show how barbaric they are. But i don’t see it that way anymore. I see it is, to them at least, an art and a cultural expression that is steeped in tradition and their heritage. They are in their minds, honouring the strongest bulls by giving them a chance to be saved, or a brave death.
I don’t agree with it, but I understand where they are coming from now. And i can’t bring myself to condemn that gentle man I met today. Can I see eye to eye with him? No. But can I understand his passion and his heritage? Yes. He has softened the landing of the conclusion I had been jumping to. And i am thankful for a day spent among these animals, and this wonderful woman Paqui , and her boss-a charming man with a passion he only started to follow when he was 34-before that he was an engineer-and fought fiercely with his father when he decided to pursue bull fighting.
I get it, I don’t like it, but i get it now.
Tavel has done it again and taken me out of my comfort zone-lead me down a path I never thought I’d attempt to traverse- and left me in the end a more well rounded person. With a little less hate, and a little more knowledge. And perhaps many things in our world could be changed if we just listened and tried to understand-even if we don’t’ agree.