The train ride was a bit of a hassle if you don’t know Spanish, which we didn’t. The day before our trip from Barcelona to Pamplona, we took a trial run to the station, to see if we could navigate our way. July in Barcelona is hot and sticky and if you are twenty weeks pregnant, which I was, it is even more so. But the excitement carries you through because you are in Spain, about to embark on an adventure that has been months in the planning. The trek from the hotel to the station is interminable, but finally, you are there.
The signs on the walls and indeed above the station agents are unreadable and finding someone to translate or help is impossible. After hours of wandering the crowded station, full of hopeful travelers like ourselves, we complete our transaction and are on our way. We are out on the streets of Barcelona again, finding a different route to our hotel. How easy all this would be today with smartphones, digital maps, translating apps. But it’s 2006 and our fancy smartphone purchases are a year away.
We leave our hotel earlier than we think to give ourselves plenty of time to find our train. Tickets in hand, unable to decipher which car is ours, we choose one at random because this is how it usually works in the States and Jim stows our suitcases in the space above us. Fifteen minutes pass before someone tells us we’re in their seats. We show them our tickets but are unable to bridge the communication gap so we continue to another car until we find seats that look like they could be ours. Again, we stow our bags and settle in and I pull out Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. You might think this is too obvious a choice, I can almost hear your droll laughter at my lack of imagination. Reading The Sun Also Rises on my way to Pamplona, our journey mirroring that of Hemingway’s. I’m captivated for the next few hours.
We meet some other Americans at the train station and after waiting two hours in the useless taxi queue, decide to try our luck by walking to the nearest pub and see about finding another way into town. It’s too far to walk even if you aren’t pregnant and sweating from the formidable heat. Thirty minutes later we are on our way. This trip was arranged for my husband as a Christmas gift, before I was pregnant, which we had been trying for without success for the three years of our marriage.
The hotel was booked on Travelocity, indeed the entire trip had been booked that way but the hotel didn’t have our reservation. I was in near meltdown stage at this point because I hadn’t felt my baby move yet, the travel had been a strain and I was hungry and tired. I’m not sure which of these was causing me the most distress. Jim took over and somehow, by a miracle, a room was found. It was small but beautiful. Any room would have looked beautiful to me by that point.
After a nap and shower, we took to the streets of Pamplona, eager to find something to eat and to take in the culture of the city. We found the restaurant servers did not speak English so instead, we navigate the menu by closing our eyes, putting our finger on a random choice and hoping for the best. We got used to the fact that most meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) came with two fried eggs. Ravenous from the journey, we would eat anything. The meal over, we continue into the square of Pamplona, the scene would be only a shadow of what was to come. We shop for the white clothes needed for the run and souvenirs for ourselves and our unborn son before we head back to the hotel to rest up for the festivities the following day.
July 6th is the is the pre-party and it puts all other communal gatherings to shame including New Year’s Eve at Time Square. Beginning at noon, revelers enter the main city of Pamplona, celebrating the feast of San Fermin, dressed in their running attire – all white with red bandanas. Here everyone is a new friend and if a pregnant lady is about to be squashed by the crowd, several people will come to her aid, lifting her up to place her out of harm’s way. The party continues well into the night but this pregnant lady is tired and ready for bed.
The morning dawns, and there is excitement, but apprehension too. What Jim is about to do is dangerous and it becomes very real. I’m going to be on my own for several hours as he makes his way through the crowd to the place where the race is to begin. I sit on some steps outside the pathway that is the Running of the Bulls, legs tucked under, Hemingway’s tome in one hand and a water in the other. The crowd grows steadily and within an hour it is wall to wall people and I have been uprooted from my spot at the wooden gateway that cordons off the event. The rising sun carries a fresh heat and discomfort and the crowd kicks my claustrophobia into high gear. When will the race be over? I want it to be over soon.
Finally, there is movement. The spectators have been continuing the party from the previous evening and it seems some of them have yet to sleep. Some have passed out in a nearby park and did not make it for the day’s run. I can’t see anything. I want to know what’s happening. I can hear a thunder of hooves and sneakers running in tandem and imagine the fear of those inside the gated path. Everything is unknown to me. Why did I plan this trip?
And then it’s over. I frantically make my way to our meeting spot and I’m the first one there. I wait and wait some more. Finally, I pick him out of the crowd of white-clad runners, a smile lighting up his face. He jogs to meet me and embraces me in a much-needed hug and then puts my hand on his heart that hasn’t stilled from the adrenalin of the race. From his shirt pocket, he pulls out two cards: his health insurance card and a mass card with his brother’s picture on its face. This was a race they had been meant to run together, the reason for the trip, but David’s time ran out too soon and a promise is fulfilled.