One of my favorite year end activities is watching the local version of the bulls. Ticos have developed their own version of bull fighting where the bull is the aggressor and the fans or “improvised bullfighters” try to get as close as possible without injury. The best runs feature a few poor souls running for their lives and possibly being tossed or trampled but hopefully with no serious injury (to person or bull). Sprinkled in between the amateurs, there will be a real cowboy who rides, or attempts to ride a bull with a silly name.
The most famous of these events happens in Zapote under bright lights, with TV cameras, half a dozen color commentators, spokes models, controlled access, insurance policies and no drinking. Fun to watch from home, but right now I have none of them and all I want are the lights.
My back is already stiff and the event is an hour late. I’m ten feet off the ground in rickety grand-stands fashioned from roughly milled boards arranged in such a way that leg cramps are guaranteed. And I’m in the expensive seats. The cheap seats aren’t seats at all, but standing room under the stands, on the fence rails or in the bull ring itself, whatever you feel like. The bulls were on time but the if Ticos in the Central Valley tend to be late, then out here in Filadelfia, Guanacaste it’s twice as bad. They don’t start till the stands are full about an hour behind schedule.
The down time lets me find my camera settings. The light is terrible. I suspected I would have this problem and had hoped to got to an afternoon event. It turns out they stopped having afternoon events a while back and now it’s night time or nothing. I finally settle on a compromise that will get me a shutter speed fast enough to freeze action (1/400 second) at the cost of introducing noise and a loss of detail in my pictures. I’m using ISO 12,800 and an fixed length lens at f/2.0. It occurs to me that these pictures would have been virtually impossible a few years ago or even with my other camera, but the technological advances save the day. I opt to shoot in black and white since it hides the noise produced by such a high ISO a little better. The noise tends to look more like old film grain instead of splotches of purple red and green.
By sheer luck tonight is a championship bull-riding event. One of the event organizers boasts a personal money-back guarantee to anyone not satisfied with the show. That’s the kind of statement you can make out here, away from San Jose, away from the lawyers, away from the health ministry and away from the cops. Even the sponsors seem emboldened as the announcer routinely spouts a line touting how you’ll always have a lady by your side if you buy their brand of car (trust me it’s a big one, look at the pictures you’ll figure it out). Throughout the evening the announcer requests that folks keep away from the bull while it’s being ridden, not drink in the ring, and that remind people that minors aren’t allowed inside the rails. He summons the private security to help clear those folks out, but it’s lip service. I was there for 5 hours and never saw a single cop or security staff of any type. By the end of the night there are dozens of empty beer cans and bottles in the ring.
After some pomp, the riders names are drawn against the bulls. Luck would have it that the best rider has drawn the best bull, fans and organizers are pleased. When the riding finally starts it’s a fast moving affair. A new bull is sent out just a soon as they round up the previous one. The action is impressive and I have a blast photographing it, though my camera does have some trouble keeping focus in such low light. I’m not an expert but I can appreciate a strong ride or a fierce bull even while trying to keep things in frame.
Amidst all the action and the dust, there are poignant moments as well. The organizers pass the hat to help a well-known local rider who is permanently injured. The hat goes back around for the house-wife bull rider who makes mean tamales, but needs a hand as well.
The bulls are allowed to run free for a couple of minutes after they are ridden to chase those brave enough to stay in the ring. One of the ranchers even sends out a “gift” bull just for the improvised bullfighters. I’m betting nothing will sober you up faster than 1200lb bull snorting and chasing you down. Most keep their distance and are openly mocked by the announcer. One fellow stands out and make a number close passes but ends up with little more than praise for his efforts, since even he doesn’t get close enough to touch one of the horns and earn himself concert tickets.
By the end no one has requested a refund, no one is hurt (somewhat shockingly to me) and the crowd retreats to the fairground for a few more brews, food and dancing. I don’t want a refund either, just a painkiller for my back and a computer to review the pictures.