Saturday, February 20, 2010


The drive from Guadalajara went quickly through pasture, low bushy trees and cactus, undulating golden fields, a patchwork of green and tan with seams of low rock walls, the whole peppered with weathered red brick, lowslung farm buildings. Cattle country. We drove into Janostitlán (the heart of the highlands), still unsure as to whether the mention of toros on an obscure website was going to translate into the bullfight we'd been so hoping to experience before heading home. The town was so dusty and sleepy it was hard to imagine that anything was going to be happening here anytime soon. We got closer to the Plaza de Toros and ran into a roadblock. We talked to the policeman manning the barrier. He motioned to a guy across the road and then let us through the barrier to park in an empty lot two blocks from the Plaza. "Can we stay here for the night?", we asked him. "No, but I'll sleep in the little cement bunker and watch your car for you." Excellent. We walked over to the taquilla and bought five tickets in the shade. We walked toward downtown to see about getting a room and quickly discovered why the road was closed as cyclists whipped by us toward the finish line. The first hotel we tried was full, the second only had one room with a double bed, the third had a room with two doubles. The room she showed us was small and claustrophobic. Do you have one with a window? Yes, on the second floor. Deal. 

In a schoolyard by the side of the road leading back to the Plaza were five men in fancy dress, red pants banded in gold and orange, white shirts covered with an embroidered sash that hung over one shoulder, little caps with a vertical triangular crest strung with colourful ribbons five feet long. One of them was playing a little flute and drum. Then we noticed the 30 metre post -- the Voladores from Papantla (our one regret about the drive down the Gulf Coast was having missed them at El Tajin and here they were in Janostotitlán!) We watched them haul themselves up the post to sit on this little square contraption that wobbled on the top. As they sat, they spun the square, winding four ropes around the pole as they went. The musician played a haunting little tune and then climbed past his friends to a higher little perch in the middle of the four. He played the tune again, an offering to the four winds, each time laying down to hang his head backward. When he was done, he stood up and did a stamping dance as he played and drummed. As he played, the four voladores threw themselves off the platform backwards, hanging upside down with their legs wrapped in the rope tied around their waist. They swung around and around, in widening circles around the post, ribbons flying, the little mirrors on their hats flashing, haunting tune from the flute, getting closer and closer to the ground, righting themselves at the last second to land on their feet.

We hurried back to the Plaza which had undergone a transformation in the hour we were gone. Along one side ran a large white tent with folding tables and chairs and a long bar chock-a-block with people. Just outside one corner of the tent were four walls of steel about 10 foot square and three feet high. In the middle was a raging fire and around the fire were vertical lengths of rebar sharpened at the tip, strung with coils of chorizo, rabbit, sheep, goat, beef, pork. The aroma was literally mouth-watering. We elbowed our way up to the bar and ordered refrescos for the kids, a little sipping Pueblo Viejo Tequila for  Wil and me and a mixed plate of meats. A variety of succulent bits were wrapped on a plate in foil for us, then on to the condiment lady for a plastic bag of chopped tomatoes, jalapenos and cilantro, a bag of salsa and a bundle of warm tortillas. 

We moved around to the entrance, got frisked, and went through a short low passage into the arena. We weren't sure where to sit so we moved along to the edge of the shade section and sat in the front row just behind the really expensive seats. The place was bubbling with energy. Simple white concrete steps rose from the central ring, the even ground painted with circular white lines. Enclosing the ring was a five-foot high red wooden fence with a large gate at one end and several smaller ones that opened up on to the bull enclosures. Inside the ring were four evenly-spaced four-foot wide stretches of fence about two feet inside the main fence, a blind of sorts which protected escape routes for the torreadors. 

We opened up our bags of yumminess and made ourselves some killer tacos. There were, of course, a hundred vendors selling everything from seat cushions to cigars to keychains. The tequila vendor sold drinks by the vaso or the bottle. We couldn't resist a plate of freshly roasted peanuts with a squeeze of lime, then more Pueblo Viejo, nieves for the kids. Needless to say the mood was high. The place slowly filled up. The men wore cowboy boots, slacks or black jeans, and shirts, wine gourds strung over one shoulder and, on their arm, a lady dressed to the nines. Teetering on at least three-inch heels, lots of leg and bust, hair in loose curls or straightened but without exception long and down, clothes clingy and short and low-cut, made up with every colour of the rainbow and with so much of it. I think I probably stood out more for my unfeminine attire and lack of makeup than for my gringoness. The people here looked less what I think of as Mexican than any other group of people we've seen. This was definitely an occasion for the haves.

And then the other show began, the brass band struck up a march and through an opening in the arena emerged seven torreadors. Leading the group was a man on horseback, dressed in crimson bolero jacket and matching pants, high glossy black boots, and grey wide-brimmed sombrero on a horse that was the image of perfection. We found out later that he was the star attraction, Pablo Hermoso, a torreador invited from Spain who fights the bull from horseback. The toreros on foot were all in classic bullfighting dress -- short, heavily-embroidered jacket, short pants, hot pink socks and a mantera (the black bicorn hat). The first two, the matadors, wore blue & gold or purple & gold, the others were in more muted shades. All of them entered the plaza with an embroidered sash over one shoulder that held their left arm in a sort of sling. They walked straight across the arena to remove their hats in a bowed salute to the judge who sat in a high loft over the audience. They then shed the slings and were handed their capes -- hot pink on one side, yellow on the other. They walked around the arena gracefully swinging round their capes and then moved toward the four openings in the fence. 

A few minutes later a man walked out on the field with a hand-painted sign announcing the name of the breeder and weight of the bull. A trumpet sounded from the judge's booth, one of the small red gates opened and seconds later out charged a massive snarling black bull looking for someone to kill. The half-ton bull lunged around the ring as the toreros flashed their capes over the side of the blinds. The bull circled and circled, occasionally ramming the wall which hid the toreros. After a minute or so, the toreros emerged and started doing their thing, taking turns calling the bull's attention to themselves and keeping him on the move. It became obvious pretty soon after that that one torero, the matador, was actually fighting the bull while the others only stepped in in moments of need, to keep the fighter from getting gored. 

I hadn't realized how very formal and structured the whole event is.  Very luckily, a very kind man who sat directly behind us seemed very happy to explain the happenings. Through the whole event, the banda played, highlighting the dramatic moments, signalling shifts in the action. There is a very set sequence and timing to the fight, all of which is managed by the judge. At his signal, his trumpeter sounds and the fight moves on to the next stage. After the initial introduction of bull to toreros, the trumpet sounds and out come the picadors, two men astride horses heavily wrapped in red padding and blindfolded. The picadors hold a long lance (a vara) and one of them sticks it into the bull's neck as the bull tries very hard to disembowel the padded horse. The thrust makes the bull bleed and also makes him angrier. Exit picadors. 

Next, the toreros invite the bull to charge them and then, at the last second, sidestep the bull and stick him with a pair of banderillos, three pairs in all. The toreros don't always manage to land all the banderillos. Cue trumpet and the matador exchanges the pink and yellow cape for a red one (a muleta) in which he hides a long sword called an estoque. Who he's hiding the sword from is another matter as the bull doesn't seem to pay much attention to anything but the cape. The matador does some more swishing of the cape, sometimes going down on his knees or turning his back on the bull, swinging the cape back and forth on either side of himself in a show of daring. The bull gets scarily close to the matador at times, leaving streaks of blood in the armpit of the matador's jacket. Sometimes when the cape is aflash, blurring the line between cape and matador, you are sure that the matador got clipped. 

Then, at what the matador deems the appropriate time, out comes the sword which he holds dramatically overhead, pointing at the bull. He gets the bull to charge him one final time, sinking the sword up to the hilt into the bull's back. In theory, the blade severs the aorta or pierces the heart, which is meant to bring him down fairly quickly. Once the bull goes down and will not get up again, another man enters the ring with a short blade which he uses to kill the bull instantly.

The matador from Spain was incredible, a dashing perfectly-coiffed figure atop these gorgeous beasts trained to overcome their fear of the bull to canter sideways, diagonally as close to the bull as possible. The matador changed horses between each sequence, planting a series of shorter and shorter banderillos (the last pair were a few inches long). Some of what the matador did was without benefit of reins, controlling the horse with subtle shifts of weight and leg movement, running tight circles around the furious bull.

After the death of the bull, the crowd goes wild waving white handkerchiefs at the judge who then waves one or two or none signalling how many of the bull's ears the matador's show has earned. If the crowd disagrees with the judge, they wave, they whistle or shout, and occasionally the judge caves and pulls out another flag. The matador salutes the judge and does a little victory tour of the ring. People in the stands launch their hats or their wine gourds down into the ring, the torreros collect them and hand them to the matador who then throws them back to the crowd along with a little bit of the bull's blood.

Bullfighting is a gory and fairly disgusting sport and, while I would never ever get in the ring with one of those bulls, in no way is it a fair fight. It is not a spectacle for the faint of heart but what a spectacle and, as they say, when in Rome.

The crowd poured out of the ring and headed toward the last night of the carnaval downtown. Well, we thought, this little town managed a crowd of three thousand for the bullfight, the fiesta might actually be fun. We were SO not prepared. The centro was throbbing with people and music. Getting through the crowds required some very hard hand-holding with the kids and a lot of little rocking steps. The zocalo was hemmed in with white tents set up as full bars and bandas, brass bands all doing their level best to outdo each other. And we're not talking about two or three bands, there were at least fifty, groups of ten men or more in matching suits of powder blue or lime green or yellow with the name of the band embroidered across the back -- a couple of drummers, a tuba, trombones, trumpets, clarinets and a singer or two. Can you say no volume control? Thirty bands playing at the same time, often within twenty feet of each other. Unless you were in the circle the banda formed to welcome dancers, you were listening to at least two songs at the same time (this for the woman who can't even deal with music on in my kitchen and hold music on the phone at the same time.) Right behind any performing band was another waiting impatiently for them to stop long enough to take over. The dancers were all young couples decked out in their friday night outfits doing the high-speed banda dance which is far more up and down than side to side. 

Of course, there was also lots of food, some little stands dishing out corn off the cob served in a styrofoam cup with mayo and cheese and chile sauce, but mainly taco stands with a row of clients on stools and another crowd behind them chowing down. After a snack and a couple of loud laps around the zocalo, Wil and I found a spot on a bench to watch the kids run in and out of the gazebo. The young guy beside us struck up a conversation and we talked a long time about Canada, the US, Mexico and then about the carnaval, which he was visiting with his brother because "las mujeres de Janostotitlán son muy guapas". I'd noticed the incredible number of young women, in spike heels and skin-tight outfits, dolled up in a way that would only suggest one line of work in Canada, most of them with a collection of roses in hand. Antonino pointed out a long line of the young ladies on the road around the zocalo  and explained that would-be suitors walk past and offer a rose to the girl that strikes their fancy. According to Antonino, if the girl says so, the young man has to follow up his advance with a visit to her home the next day to ask her father if he can take his daughter out on a date. "It's too old-fashioned for me, he said. You don't even go home with a kiss."

We finally had had enough of the sensory overload and decided to head back to the hotel. As we struggled through the bands and dancers and revel-makers, I started thinking about just how close our hotel room was to the action. In the afternoon as we headed off to the bullfight we didn't even know there was a fiesta. The usual advantages of being in the centro were suddenly looking like a major drawback. Antonino said that the partying on the last night often lasted until four in the morning. We walked two very short blocks and walked up the stairs to our hotel room. Only once we were inside with the door closed did the ridiculousness of the situation really hit home. I can only liken the volume to standing in the bottom of an empty swimming pool that is being used as a rehearsal space for marching bands. Hmmm. Should we make the kids get dressed and do the long walk back to the van only to perhaps find it in a locked lot? Should we leave the kids, sneak over, steal our own van, come back to collect the kids, drive ten blocks, park and sleep in the blessed quiet? Should we bomb the zocalo? And then, miraculously, one by one the kids fell asleep. Wil and I watched one of the Back to the Future movies, soundtrack by Banda Ruido Infernale. I finally drifted off. Wil lay awake forever listening to the bands peter out one by one. The last, he said, kept at it until four, going from one last slow, romantic number into a four-song speed banda marathon to kill the early morning.

For a look at what banda music & dancing is like check out

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