For a moment, the Bull stops to weigh up his options. There are people everywhere, taunting him, laughing, showing no respect whatsoever. There are rock walls, and wooden barricades, and more people on those walls and barricades, exuding a cacophony of celebration. Around the Bull’s neck is a thick rope, held many yards back to several men dressed in white. They’re supposed to condition his movement, but the Bull knows, and they know, it’s more of a nuisance than anything else. A nuisance like the young men who dare to step forward, threaten him with movement from jackets or blankets or hypnotically twirling red umbrellas. The impetuousness! To dare to challenge such a beast, so strong and muscled that cows shudder their udders at the sight of him. A young man crosses the imaginary line and the Bull springs forward, horns primed, an unstoppable tank of nature. But the man sidesteps, deftly turning in a circle, and while the Bull is a fast and the Bull is big, the Bull does not have power steering. For a moment, it looks almost comical, like a cat chasing its tail. They play this game, closely bonded, man and beast, until the man skips away to the applause of the crowd. The Bull has choices. Should he charge into the crowd to send them scattering? Should he make an unexpected leap over a low wall where many others stand in mistaken safety? Should he trample the man holding a notebook, with his baseball T-shirt and distinctly un-Portuguese appearance? The Bull turns his thick neck towards me, and in the black orbs of his eyes, I see him weighing up his options.
I’m in the Azores, and the Azores lie in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. Nine islands, straddling the intercontinental plates, 950 miles from Europe, 2400 miles from North America. An important trading post going back as far as the 1400’s, the archipelago is part of Portugal, has a population of around 240,00, and is blessed with fertile land, diverse scenery and its own unique culture. Think of the Azores as Europe’s Hawaii. I’m on the island of Terceira, with a long and storied history, and a chequered green countryside that easily recalls Ireland or Newfoundland. It’s summer, and the annual festivities are full swing, with glittering coloured streamers over the streets, lanterns, bright flags and flashy fairs. Each island in the Azores has its own appeal or attraction this time of year, and in Terceira, the biggest drawcard is touradas à corda – the Bullfight on a Rope. Not one mind you, but hundreds, taking place throughout the summer, attracting visitors from the mainland and beyond. The bullfights can take several forms, and differ from other bullfights you may have encountered in Spain or Mexico. For one, it is illegal to kill bulls in a Portuguese bullfight. While it’s up to you to decide how heavy this all sits on your personal scale of ethics, organizers stress how well the festival bulls are treated, prepared, rested, and fed for the occasion.
My first encounter with the touradas was on the beach of Angra do Heroísmo, Terceira’s main city, with its UNESCO World Heritage Site old town. I expected a baby bull for the kid’s bullfight, but arrived under an overcast sky to find a chest-high baby bull capable of causing bodily harm to child and adult. Two men held a long rope attached to the bull’s neck, while teenage boys ran up and taunted the bull. The bull would charge them right into the sea, where they could swim just a few metres to safety. The baby bull didn’t charge everyone on the beach, but rather seemed content to go after only those who dared to challenge him. Kids under 10 were on the sand, with plenty of distance to run to safety should the bull move in their direction. Confirmed by the hysterical laughter of the kids, it all seemed like harmless fun, providing the bull doesn’t get too close. After a while, I got a little braver, walking closer to the action, seeing how the braver teens kept still until the last moment, when they would dart in circles. I was taking some photos, when suddenly; the bull took off in the direction of the shelf on a wall, where the majority of spectators were watching the action, including our crew. It was at this critical juncture that we all learned something else about bulls. They can jump. The bull tore up the ledge, sending everyone scattering up stairs or spilling onto the beach. Somehow, of all the places to run on this wide-open beach, the bull managed to get tangled in Paul’s wholly expensive sound gear. I can’t exactly describe why it’s so funny to see a baby bull roped in electronic equipment, with a sound guy from Whistler charging the bull down in a sudden act of bravura. As I was to learn later, Paul was unexpectedly demonstrating some key aspects of bullfighting – machismo, testosterone, the public demonstration that man can stand up to the mighty beast. With the bull seemingly intent on mounting Paul’s fur-covered boom microphone, and the crowd tearing up in hysterics, it also proves the age old truth about show business. Never work with children, never work with animals, and for God’s sake, never work with children and animals at the same time.
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