An Adventure in Teruel, Spain

A bull jammed its horns through a man that I have probably walked by recently.

Preparing to write this, I sat with Kristina’s mother sharing a beer and a conversation. She had just returned from the supermarket where everyone knows everyone. It is how she came upon the news.

Mari says, this year out of two thousand bulls released into Spain’s small village streets there was one fatality. A thirty-six-year-old man was running with the bulls in Villarreal when he was gored through his carotid artery, spine and arms. He had tripped, fallen and was trying to rise to escape the beast that was closing in on him. That is when the powerful animal rammed into the man, probably relieved to have finally caught up with one of its many tormentors.

I was at one of these events in Betxi. Kristina wouldn’t let me run with the bulls. She said I didn’t know the technique and asked her friends to block me from escaping the cages behind which most of us watched. I complained. But now, with hindsight, who knows, Kristina probably saved my life.

The man died on his way to the hospital. He was from the town in which I now live. Most will see his death as a regretful tragedy, but he knew the risks and next year nothing will be done to change anything about the same festival in Villareal.

Townspeople will throw sand at bulls to taunt them, others will slap their tails if they can get close enough, many will gesticulate wildly from a reasonable distance, everything will continue as it has for hundreds of years. Running from enraged bulls is a sport here, a family event organized by local youths, dared mostly by young adults and watched by everyone in town. Death will alter nothing because that is the sort of country Spain is, a great nation of tradition first. And for some reason culture in Spain has a lot to do with bulls, I am yet to ask why.

About a month ago, the world-famous San Fermin festival took place in Pamplona. Kristina and I didn’t have the budget to travel that far from Castellon so we decided to do the next best thing, well, the next closest to us.

I had no idea what we would be up to, only that we were heading to La Fiesta del Angel, or as the locals more commonly call it, Torico. I didn’t ask many questions about where we were going. I just knew a friend of mine, we will call him George, was visiting from the United States and that I wanted to show him how special Spain is.

I prepped George for a delightful time, packed equipment, some old clothes, and then Kristina drove us to her father’s house where we would spend the night resting for the affair.

A few of Kristina’s friends accompanied us, Marta, Sarah, Mireia and Spencer (also visiting from Washington D.C.). We were to head to Teruel, a place of which Sarah quipped, “Teruel no existe.”

I asked why.

She said that there was a strong political push in Spain to transform the city of Teruel into a touristic destination. She said that at one point, most Spaniards couldn’t point the place out on a map.

Implemented to transform the city’s fortunes, was a very expensive strategy meant to raise the region from obscurity. Vacation homes were built, masseuses hired for Spas and ski slopes constructed. Millions of Euros were spent on advertising the new identity of small Teruel, but nope, nothing. In Spain, Teruel is still mostly known for two things, a failed marketing campaign and Torico, the wine throwing festival. The area is famous for two days.

Our breakfast that morning was particular, I wasn’t allowed to nibble on breakfast as usual. Kristina kept sliding my bocadillo in front of me, warning, “if you don’t eat this, you are going to regret it. Eat.”

I complied.

Next, we marched into the supermarket. We were an army of seven, but the girls had lists written in habit. They snatched up cheap wine, soda, cups, water, jamon, a few snacks and we were out of there. Kristina added a twist. She bought water guns so we could shoot ourselves with wine.

It ended up taking us a bit more than an hour to get to the venue.

We drove up to a street corner in Teruel and parked the car on a sidewalk like everyone else. Kristina and her friends already knew the traditions that make the event. I just had to follow long. It was time to unpack and relax with friends from different towns. If you ever travel, I hope you get to experience your destination through the eyes of a local. It is far more enriching.

There were hundreds of people sprawled out on the grass lawn in front of the Teruel train station, adjacent to the stairwell leading to the city center. I was the only person wearing back. Everyone else was wearing white. I met a few guys from Kristina’s town. They mixed me a cup of calimocho, and I continued to apologize for my scant understanding of Spanish.

George looked like he was struggling. I thought he would have been more excited, but you can’t expect people to react to things as you would. I still believe that it is amazing, how a town could set aside a day where people from anywhere could come, celebrate, meet new people and then throw wine at each other. A water fight with wine, I couldn’t wait.

George was barely reacting. He wasn’t moved by the anticipation of what was to come until he saw that the people on the lawn got up to urinate under bridges and behind cars.

“There are no bathrooms here?” He was aghast. Disappointed and nearing disgust.

I still don’t understand his reaction. We are both from Lagos, Nigeria where open gutters line the side of streets. The place we both once lived is hardly a model of cleanliness. We certainly aren’t going to win any global sanitation awards. A least not yet. Spain, on the other hand, probably would. I don’t complain in Nigeria, and I didn’t see what there was to complain about in Spain, especially to Kristina who was desperately trying to be a good host.

“I am not going to pee out in the streets,” George said.

“Then you better have a strong bladder,” I thought.

When you travel, allow the experience to open your mind. Do not use your standards of home as a measuring stick of the outside world, especially not immediately, and especially not if you are at an outdoor festival. Enjoy. Like I always say, the places you go, do not owe you the experience you expect.

About two hours of conversation passed.

“Let's go,” Sarah ordered. Those on the lawn were making their way up the ornate stairs. We were to follow and begin towards the parade approaching the center.

I had a water gun filled with wine. It was emptied thrice before we got to the fun part. I was using Kristina and the girls for target practice. But I also had an action camera mounted on my head recording the event. It made me an even bigger target. I didn’t have to worry about finding alcohol. People threw wine at me and handed me cups so I could throw it at other people. I gladly obliged. Often. You only live once, and Spain is a good place to take pleasure in that life.

The scenes were insane. White shirts were purple. Wine was no longer for drinking, and no one had a care in the world.

I felt bouncy with vigor or maybe that was just the wine.

Those in the homes parallel to the streets of which we slogged through threw water down on the rest of us below. Buckets of water. If washing us was their plan, it was to no avail because as soon as the water hit the ground, everyone around me would refill their cups tossing its content in no particular direction.

“Be careful Bayo, sometimes people throw vodka,” Kristina cautioned.

I’d like to think George was delighted at this part of it. I was too busy going crazy with glee to check on him intently.

Groups of people bounced in front of me so they could be recorded in their festivities, others grabbed jugs of wine, dumping the entire thing on my head. I wailed and gave a high five to the person nearest to me when my eyes weren’t burning. Kristina wasn’t exaggerating about the vodka. It would continue like this for about thirty minutes.

Suddenly, we all stopped. The hoard of screaming Spaniards drenched in wine grew rowdier. They were chanting and waiting for something. I went with it. George didn’t, he was wearing shades, sort of scanning for what his opinion should be of the entire raucous.

If you are going to travel to experience a culture, go with it, be with it. It is why you left home. You didn’t get off the couch to judge things that may enrich you.

“Why are they going crazy,” I yelled, leaning into Kristina’s ear. She pointed ahead of us.

“That!” She screamed.

I could barely make it out. We were a bit far off, but two men were scaling a pillar atop which sat a small bull looking figure. Just can’t get away from the bulls in Spain. The thing looked like it could fit in a medium sized pouch.  One of the men carried a red flag and was trying to tie it around the statue’s neck. The other pumped the crowd up with his palms flapping up towards the sky. Or maybe it was the same guy, I forget.

“Ole, Ole, Ole, Oleeee,” rang out mixed with laughter, there were loud and merry conversations obscured by random bursts of singing. I doubt that anyone at the spectacle could think about anything else but living up that moment, perhaps except for George. Travel to take time out for yourself.

“This is amazing,” I kept shouting wiping wine from my face and wringing it out of my shirt.

A massive hooray and all the noise settled into some murmuring completion as soon at the knot was tied on the sculpture. That was it. No more water or wine being flung at my face. Unfortunately.

On our way back, I lost Kristina in the crowd amidst the pushing and bustle. I turned to Marta in a panic asking where Kristina went, but Marta patted my anxiety down with the flick of a wrist. Kristina and her friends had a system that I was still yet to understand.

“Don’t worry. She knows what to do. We all know what to do. When you are separated from the group, you go straight to the car,”  Marta reassured. And that is precisely where I would find Kristina, after a lot of worrying. What would I say to her mother if she had disappeared? I tend to be dramatic when caught off guard.

It couldn’t have been two minutes after we arrived at the implicit rendezvous point when Mireia got busy with the next phase. A quick snack and then it was time to clean up. I looked around as hundreds of people filed towards the same direction with towels on their shoulders and waists.

“What is going on now,” George asked with a bit of frustration. He hadn’t had much sleep since his flight landed. Plus, he didn’t realize parties last until the following morning in Spain and that we were yet to begin.

“We are going to shower,” Kristina answered for me.

“What?! You know someone who lives here,” I asked. As far as I knew, we were going to be sleeping in her car, and that meant no amenities. Kristina smirked mischievously. She already knew how I would react to what she would say next.

“We are going to the river,” she said. “We bathe in the river now.”

I exploded. “No Way!”

I love stuff like this, things you have to try once, like bathing in a river with hundreds of wine soaked strangers in an almost forgotten town.

George, on the other hand, shook his head. “No way.”

He thought showering in a river was indecent to say least. Geez-us, we used lived Africa, I remember thinking to myself. I know people that still shower in rivers daily. But, to each their own.

If you are going to travel with people, you owe it to everyone around you to get out of your comfort zone. It helps the entire experience. I brought George with me, well most honestly because I had no choice, he was my guest. But also because I wanted to see someone else excited about how others lived. I hope he comes back with more energy and a different attitude.

George followed us to the river but kept shaking his head at the thought of jumping into a crammed stream near a railroad track.

“El agua esta frai. Pero fria fria,” I heard someone say. I didn't care. I had never jumped in a river before, and I couldn’t imagine it being that much colder than the sea.

We found the corner of meander for our group and inched into the water. I was wrong. It was like being in a liquid freezer. I thought I was going to die. But hey, I did it.

George waited for us to be done laughing and hollering about the freezing water. And I wish he had joined in, he would have realized travel its not about what things look like, it is about what it feels like, to say “wow, I can’t believe I just experienced  that.”

After the river, everyone got with their groups or with new friends for dinner and then drinks. The party begins when it gets dark, though the disco plays music throughout the entire day.

We walked upstairs for the real fiesta, and I danced. Well, I’d like to say I danced. Kristina and her freinds were teaching me how to move like a Spaniard, and I was trying not to step on their feet. It was fun for the forty minutes it lasted.

George was exhausted. His tiredness finally caught up to him, and he couldn’t fight it anymore. I saw him lean off the railings near the loudspeakers. He walked towards us and clapped, “ Alright. I have seen enough.”

It was time to go.

I don’t blame him, but I would have appreciated a small consideration. Perhaps something closer to, “Hey guys, is it ok if I head back? You guys can stay, but I am tired.”

It would have been easier to understand, and of course, we would have accompanied him, though Torico was the first time Kristina and I had done anything together in a long time. We had been working hard on building the basis of our brand. I had shut myself in for about seven months, rarely engaging with the outside world except for talking to my parents on the phone. I was looking forward to finally cutting loose.

Be considerate, even more, than you think you already are. Because I am sure there is no way to convince George that he did anything wrong. But he was drained, poor guy.

No matter, we headed back around two in the morning, five hours before anyone else would have considered ending the dizzying experience. We managed to make three beds out of Kristina’s car, and we endured through one of the most comfortable night's sleep imaginable. The girls would lay blankets out on the grass instead.

We woke up, grabbed some breakfast at a cafe then headed home.

And now, the next time I hear about childhood and water fights, I will remember an adventure and skin sticky with wine. You really ought to travel. When it isn’t profound, reflective or jaw dropping, it is a whole bunch of uncomplicated and mindless fun. Especially if you come here.

When you are booking your next flight, I hope you consider Spain.

Spain is such a precious country, a gem hidden in plain sight. I have been to Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. They are as you would expect of the three biggest cities of Europe’s vacation nation. These places are teeming with tourist eating their tapas, strolling through museums, and taking selfies at world famous attractions. But you won’t find the actual Spain in any of these places.

This country is about customs that identify the very wondrous variety of social expression, born from small towns.You would hardly find the same irreplaceable experience that is Torico at the center of a metropolis. You have got to step out of your comfort zone to find where life is. Take a leap of faith and try something new, that too is your chance at a small adventure.

Until the next one, we can share with you, live a little.

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