This story is a part of Rambling & Roving’s “What a country!” series showcasing funny stories of culture shock from all around the world.
There are things in life that should never mix; Don’t get me wrong, mixing things you shouldn’t definitely make for a good story, but not one you’d tell your mom or your kids. Take, for example, machetes and motorcycles on jungle roads; contemporary, simultaneous girlfriends that know nothing about each other; straying too far away from the boat in shark-infested waters, among a whole world of dangerous combinations that spell the perfect recipe for disaster. Human creativity and human stupidity are boundless—and they tend to mix quite a bit too.
This is a story about a prime example of things you should never mix: angry bulls, Guatemalan booze and an unhealthy dose of good old testosterone.
Just how the hell can one manage to mix those unsavory ingredients? Well, our story starts while I was staying in the sleepy rural village of San Antonio Aguas Calientes, where I was volunteering teaching English to native kids in a local school. The town was located in the hilly, rural Guatemalan countryside a short distance away from Antigua. It was a beautiful town, surrounded by a ring of high hills covered with stepped coffee plantations and tropical broadleaf forests.
One day, after finishing with my lessons for the day, I set about making myself a cup of local coffee. Since coffee can be sourced from the farms that dot the hillsides just outside of town, drinking the local brew was a particularly delightful pleasure to partake in. Willy, my Guatemalan friend and the guy in charge of the school I was teaching in, was there with me, along with a couple of the older students I’d befriended over the past weeks.
It was the middle of June, and the local festival was going to take place over the course of the next days. In the Catholic calendar, June 13th is Saint Anthony’s feast day; basically, the patron saint of the village’s birthday. This meant that there would be celebrations all over the village for the next few days. Some of the more zealous celebrators had already begun shooting rockets into the air every couple of hours; these went off with a boom that echoed ominously all over town, sounding as if the sleepy, little Guatemalan village was being shelled with mortars from the hills.
The school’s housekeeper, a woman by the name of Dolly, came up to me. She wore a perraje, a traditional Mayan shawl, slung sideways around one shoulder, in which she carried her sleeping baby on her back as she swept and mopped the floor. It was a funny sight to see the sleeping child drooling while Dolly nonchalantly went about cleaning the school. An endearing reason that might explain why Guatemalans are so close to their mothers.
“Miguel, are you going to step into the bullring tomorrow?” she asked.
I looked at her, not understanding what she meant. “Excuse me, what?”
“There’s going to be a bull rodeo. The boys around here go in and get chased by the bulls.”
Willy, my Guatemalan friend, “You’ve got to do it!”
“I don’t know…” I said hesitantly, “that honestly sounds kind of dangerous.”
“But you’re Mexican!” chimed in Willy, who was joined by the rest of the boys. “You’ve got to do it! We’ll all go in together.”
With Mexico mentioned, it was now a matter of national pride that I step into the bullring. I wouldn’t want to shame my country, certainly not with our southern neighbors. It’s a critical diplomatic conundrum I found myself in. “Well, I just might!” I said, not wanting to lose face in front of my students. The words that came out of my mouth felt as though someone else was saying them, and I instantly regretted opening my mouth. The Guatemalans, on the other hand, cheered and clapped me on the shoulder
Why would I say such a stupid thing? I knew these guys wouldn’t let me back down now. Getting into a corral with bulls sounded like the perfect way to get injured or, if you were lucky enough, die. I didn’t even believe in being macho.
“By the way, do any people die?” I asked Dolly. Crap, I should’ve asked this question before agreeing!
“Oh, yes, the bulls get one or two people every year.”
“And they don’t cancel the festival?”
“Of course not!”
“Well, I hope it’s not me this year,” I laughed. Brushing off her revelation with wanton negligence that passed for a bit of peace of mind.
It seemed strange that stepping into a bullring would be a part of a traditional Catholic celebration in veneration of a saint. The church has historically opposed the “festivities of horns,” as they were called in the papal bulls that banned them. Some popes even went so far as to threaten excommunication for those who participated in the fiesta brava and eternal damnation for those who died trampled or gored by the bulls. The reasoning behind the prohibition was that wantonly risking one’s own life was a sin akin to suicide—which is, really, a fitting comparison.
However, given Guatemala’s macho culture, it’s not surprising that these festivities have survived. Gender violence is a country-wide cultural problem, and it’s quite common to hear women’s stories about physical or psychological abuse by spouses struggling with alcoholism and other issues. As Dolly, a victim of marital abuse herself would tell me later, ‘We don’t take their beatings anymore, and men hate us for it.’
Traveling around Guatemala, it’s not hard to feel a hidden rage inside the older men. Maybe it comes from the abject poverty in which most Guatemalans live, maybe it’s the lack of good opportunities and the inability to properly provide for one’s family. Whatever the cause of their anger, they carry it around like a dark secret, repressing it and covering it with a tight lid until alcohol opens the closet door and the skeletons come out. Most Guatemalan women simply shake their heads in resignation and sigh. What can anyone do in such a world but bear it in silence?
Finally, June 13th arrived. Willy canceled school for the patojos (a Guatemalan nickname for young children and teens) that day so everyone could go to the festivities.
“They’re not going to come, anyway,” he said with a shrug, “so we might as well enjoy the festival too.”
I got on the back of Willy’s motorcycle and held on. We drove through the streets of San Antonio Aguas Calientes, winding around the chicken buses on their way back to Antigua and down narrow alleyways to the outskirts of town. We then took a dirt road that led to the festival grounds, where a corral had been set up among plots of land covered with coffee bushes.
The corral was around two meters tall, and the entirety of its outer side was covered with a crowd of people who’d come see the bulls. Some had even brought chairs and set up small tents by tethering plastic covers to the corral. Since it had been raining on and off for the past couple of days, the ground around us was muddy.
We made our way through the crowd, trying to get as close as we could to see the goings-on, peering in between the dangling legs of the people perched on the corral, like a flock of clothed parrots. There were so many people I was surprised the corral hadn’t collapsed beneath their collective weight.
We watched for a while from the sidelines, which took a great deal of work, since the corral was packed to the brim with people watching the spectacle. On the outer part of the corral, a wall of humans barely left an opening to see what was going on.
“Do they kill the bulls?” I asked Willy. Having never seen something of the like, I didn’t want to be a part of a blood sport.
“No, they just dodge it.”
We eventually found a small opening and observed a group of men running away from the bull, which was right on their heels. They flew out of its way like sparrows evading a swooping hawk, laughing like lunatics and whistling to confuse the bull. The smell of testosterone was in the air, although I couldn’t tell if it was the bulls or the crowd of drunken men in the ring.
My students looked at me expectantly. “Are you going in?” they asked. There was a moment of tense silence while I considered the possibility. One the one hand… bulls. On the other… shallow macho pride.
“Oh, what the hell!” I said and we slipped into the ring between the wooden planks of the corral. For the briefest of moments, I felt like a gladiator stepping into the middle of the arena, basking in the adoration of the crowd. Next moment, however, I turned to see the bull lunging straight towards me, his head lowered in a full-on charge.
“No mames, no mames, no mames!” I yelled out and ran out of its way. The bull ran past me, swerving along the fence as if trying to get the people sitting on top of the corral.
It was like stepping into a warzone. People ran in every direction. There was mayhem and chaos everywhere. Things had gotten very real, very fast. I felt completely alive; the danger brought me a state of total awareness of my surroundings— or maybe it was the sudden rush of adrenaline. Having a bull charge at you will work wonders to get your blood running!
I looked at my students; they were just as out of breath as I was. I gave them a look that said, ‘you guys are crazy!’ Nevertheless, we stuck by each other, watching as the bull ran at someone else. Seeing the crowd of grown, drunk men scattering before the bull was mildly entertaining, reminiscent of cartoon chase scenes. Some of the men had brought bright pieces of red or yellow cloth with them, which they used to get the bull to give chase. Amateur bull-fighting seems like a profoundly stupid hobby to have.
The bull did a few more passes towards us, causing us to scurry out of its way like cockroaches making for the safety of the fridge’s underside. After several more minutes of this, the bull had grown visibly tired. It had been driven against the pen, from where it refused to budge. Though the men weren’t visibly harming the bull, it was a sad sight to see the creature, big as it was, cornered and stressed out. The rest of the men in the ring didn’t seem to care, and they whistled and shouted wildly at the bull, trying to coax it into charging again. When it was clear that the bull was completely spent, a cowboy came up, lassoed its head and drove it back into its pen.
By then, a fresh batch of bulls was being readied. They wouldn’t leave their pens, and there were several cowboys trying to get them to run out. I took a moment to look at the people around me. Mexican ranchero music sounded out over a pair of speakers in the background. Many, if not most, of the men in the ring were drunk to some degree. I had a distinct impression that they were venting their repressed anger, their problems and God only knows what else onto the poor bulls, which made the scene I was witnessing even sadder.
The corral door opened and four huge bulls, kicking up a plume of dust behind them. Their humps swayed from side to side as they came around the edge of the fence towards me.
Nope! I thought, immediately springing for the safety of the corral and climbing to the top like a panicked monkey. Nope, nope, nope, nope! I found a small space to cling to among the rest of the people and held on, trying to keep myself from falling back into the ring just as the infuriated bulls passed beneath me in a veritable tide of pissed-off flesh and bone. My machismo had run out when I saw those meat tanks about to trample me. Jesus Christ! Why would anyone risk facing one of those things?
Most of the other men had already climbed over the sides of the rodeo. A parcel of stubborn idiots, however, remained in the ring, huddled together in a little line behind a stump that stood in the middle of the corral. It seemed like awfully flimsy protection from the bulls. The commenter yelled at them over the microphone to get out of the corral like an angry parent telling off a couple of children who were being stupid. Most of the guys decided to keep playing macho and cower behind the tree stump.
While this was going on, a pair of rodeo clowns ran around the bulls, dodging them with clumsy elegance and getting them to go for the bright colored cloths they held in their hands. They looked like third-rate drag queens who’d gotten together and decided to dress up as skanky cowgirls for a hillbilly Halloween party. Hairy beer bellies notwithstanding, they were astonishingly quick. I guess no one really knows just how fast he’s capable of running until he’s being chased by a bull!
I felt some clap me on the shoulder. I turned to see Willy’s round face looked at me, amused.
“Hey,” he said. “How was it?”
“This is crazy!” I said. My head still reeled from the adrenaline.
“Let’s go get a couple of beers and play pool,” he said. In a village this size, there’s little else to do on a Saturday other than drink and play a couple of rounds of pool at a local bar— that is, of course, unless you had the chance to show off a bit of your macho bravado by getting chased by bulls.
We walked back to Willy’s motorcycle, making our way through the packed crowd. It had grown visibly rowdier; there were drunk men everywhere. Most of the people on the outer edge were women. They looked on, more out of small-town boredom than actual entertainment. This was a man’s sport, same as most things in Guatemala. They simply sat by the edge of the corral and watched their brothers, friends, husbands, and fathers running like teenagers around the ring.
Willy and I got on the motorcycle and drove north along the path in between coffee plantations that led back to town. Since it’d been raining on and off for the past day or so, the roads were completely muddied up. Willy did his best to dodge the puddles that had formed while I held on for dear life, hoping the bike wouldn’t tip over onto the cattle wire that protected the side of the road.
On the way back, I saw the signs of the toxic masculinity I’d noticed in the people at the bullfights. It was everywhere. As Willy drove around small clusters of women and children walking down the path towards the arena, I saw an old man stumble to the ground, completely drunk. He tried standing up and fell back into the mud on his ass. He’d likely had two or three more bottles of Gallo –the national staple beer that tastes like pond water that fermented spontaneously on a warm day– than he could handle. That, or he’d gotten stupid drunk on Quetzalteca, a cheap Guatemalan aguardiente (literally, “fire-water”) that has more in common with elephant tranquilizers than rum.
As the adrenaline in my blood subsided, I was struck by the realization that we’d just jumped into the corral and ran before charging bulls, laughing like children playing chase without a care in the world. If Saint Anthony were here, I wondered what he’d say about his fiesta.
I heard a shrill whistle rising above us followed by a boom that resounded over the surrounding hills. Someone had fired another one of those mortar-like rockets, followed by a series of whistles erupting from somewhere beyond the tropical forest and coffee bushes.
Jesus, what a country!