Maya Poulton

Does Your Vacation Make You an Asshole?

Maya Poulton
                       Does Your Vacation                                           Make You an Asshole?

I recently mentioned to friends I was planning to attend the Running of the Bulls and it raised questions regarding the ethics of such a vacation. Should the moral implications of a nation's traditions be part of our thinking when planning where to travel?  Particularly in the case of Pamplona's yearly spectacle in which hotels and restaurants massively inflate their costs in-line with the surge that it brings in visitors. Is what is often an inhumane practice being kept alive by tourism? 

I began to wonder, should we think of our travel from an ethical standpoint, just as we might do when planning our food or clothing purchases?

Thanks to Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises’, the city of Pamplona and the Festival of San Fermín have been on the map for many foreign tourists since the 1920s.

Pamplona is most famous for the Running of the Bulls, an event where crowds form each morning, filling every balcony and crevice of the city, to catch the hectic two to three-minute spectacle of bulls charging through the narrow medieval streets, before they ultimately reach the bullfighting arena. There, each evening, the chosen six bulls that run are “honoured” in a death-match with the matador.

I didn’t run with, or away from the bulls, but I did step in some authentic Pamplona bullshit (*mostly of the human variety).

This annual festival of animal death is an extreme example of how us tourists impact our surroundings all the time.

Case in point: Venice, Amsterdam, Hvar, and any other major beach or city in Europe during the summer. If you’re looking for an “authentic” escape, you’re not going to get it. We tourists have all but ruined it for the locals - the democratization of travel (via such culprits as Airbnb) has lowered barriers to entry so far that sometimes local people can no longer afford to live in their own home towns. If you google “Running of the Bulls,” half the results are for exorbitantly-priced tours, and the other half for animal rights groups who slam the event and its historic religious ties (back to the 13th century).

I wanted to explore the “ethics of tourism” further, via attending the San Fermín festival. I was acutely aware of the ethical ramifications of this activity, both internally and externally. Internally, because I’ve been an on/off vegetarian since the age of eleven (and an adamant animal lover throughout my life). Externally, because even posing a question concerning the event on Facebook incited public rage from “friends” I barely knew.

For me, it wasn’t even a question to attend an actual bullfight, that was an adamant “no.” I wouldn’t enjoy seeing an animal tortured like that, and I wouldn’t feel like a good human supporting it by purchasing a ticket and feeding into the frenzy.

Yet I do realize the irony of this choice, given just my presence there, and how I was indirectly supporting the journey of getting the bulls to their 20-minute death-match thereafter. I get it. But I decided to go, and to write this article framed around the ethics of tourism.

So - How does one witness the “Running of the Bulls” and not feed into the ultimate death-destination of it all?
 I’m still on the fence about how “bad” a human I am for even going, but as a dedicated explorer, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I think the “Running of the Bulls” is intellectually interesting, as the event calls up difficult questions around history, tourism, and ethics. Does that in itself make me an over-privileged asshole?

Armed with Gloria Steinem’s memoir, “My Life on the Road”, as well as an iPhone full of research, I ventured north of Barcelona on a train bound for Pamplona with two girlfriends – one quite keen to run, and the other not so much. We spent 6 hours that day emailing and messaging people, reading everything we could get our hands on, and fretting on ‘To Run, or Not to Run.’ We ultimately decided to not, the gory articles were pretty scary, and we’d spent 300 EUR booking our balcony to boot (going to Pamplona during San Fermín is elitist and crazy-expensive). Hemingway didn’t run, anyway!

Upon arriving, our taxi left us at the base of what looked to be a medieval castle. We walked on past where the cars could enter, and were immediately slammed with the scent of urine and alcohol. The festival was in full swing, and people had been drinking and pissing publicly for days already.

My Texan friend decided that “it smells like a Frat House.” There indeed appeared to be more men there than women, and drunkenly they were answering the calls of nature wherever they pleased in their red and white festival garb. It was only 4pm, and I was ready to leave already. Instead, we checked into our 700 EUR a night hotel – this was apparently the going rate due to the demand from the festival inflating prices (despite the room being tiny and reeking of stale cigarettes). “Luckily” three of us “career women” were able to afford splitting a room. We checked in, donned our whites, and headed out to be a part of the festival (slash get drunk quickly, in order to try to semi-enjoy it). The red scarves we purchased there to complete our “uniforms” pay homage to Saint Fermín, who was beheaded by the French in 303. He is said to have picked up his head and walked back into Spain. Hardcore.

That night and the following morning, I chatted up as many locals as possible (interestingly, I’d say 80% of the San Fermin crowd was Spanish, so at least tourists were local natives. For the true locals I spoke to, the Run of the Bulls and the consequent bull fights were an “honour” for the bulls. This was interesting to me, so I enquired further.

Many bulls are raised there every year, and just 6 black ones are selected (to run per day) to participate in this “right.” I was pleased to know that each bull has a name. Each bull that has been selected that year is treated better than the others, revered if you will, before the festival. Each young “green shirt” bull trainer (who runs with the runners) started his career with the bulls as a child. The local trainers and the bulls grow up together. Many local runners have also been running for decades- it started first with the town butchers, which is perhaps why everyone wears white (it harkens back to the white butcher aprons).

I can only imagine how difficult it is for the Green Shirts to see stupid tourists trying to run and take selfies with the bulls (this happens, though you can be arrested for it) and hitting them to veer them off course for the “glory” of social media – and of course how difficult it must be to see them sacrificed slowly but surely in the ring that evening in the fight itself.

Over time, humans and animals who spend quality time together form bonds. So I personally believe that the Green Shirts can feel empathy for their friends. However, I also think they must take pride in the religious tradition. San Fermín is the patron saint of the city, and human involvement in the run can be linearly traced back to the 1800s. It’s a lot easier to judge things from a modern perspective when you come from a country that just celebrated its 150th anniversary (ie Canada), so I tried my best to keep an open mind.

Perhaps the most interesting realization for us the next morning, when we awoke at 630am to get to our balcony in time for the Run, was that we started to side with the bulls. The final reason why none of us ran was that we realized the true danger was the people, not the bulls.

The people will push you hard to get a rise out of the bull, a photo, or a moment under the TV cameras.
The people will act stupidly and not let the bulls and their accompanying steers run their course. In the end, we were rooting for the bulls and not for the humans down below. We saw one trampled, but we couldn’t see why he fell...part of me wondered if it were an audacious attempt at suicide. The festival is televised and is a REALLY big deal in Spain, as well as in many other areas of the world- so who knows. Regardless, just so you know that I’m not a total asshole (just kind of one), the man who was trampled just got up at the end and was totally fine. It was pretty miraculous, actually.

The actual run we witnessed, from our privileged balcony over “Dead Man’s Corner,” lasted just over two minutes. I can tell you firsthand that it felt like much longer, the energy of hundreds of thousands of people holding their breath was intense. Though quick, the anxiety and excitement seemed to last for ages.

In the end, we descended from our balcony around 8.10 am- the infamous Bull Run had taken just two minutes to be over and done with. There were no tourists gored that day, and no bulls injured by human stupidity (at least till that night).

So after a brief pit stop to have “Hemingway’s Breakfast” at the most famous churro and hot chocolate spot (I was shocked that his breakfast wasn’t a double whiskey), we left Pamplona as quickly as we could.

What I’m left with from this experience is still a vivacious desire to continue my life “On the Road” as an impassioned traveler, but I have learned that for me at least, perhaps further research and consideration of what I’m setting out for is needed in order to have a truly good and meaningful journey. At the end of the day, the best traveller is finally one who suspends their judgement in order to open herself to a place and people. I think, in short, that’s the most ethical form of traveling.

@mayapoulton