Why strap fireworks to a bull?

Latin America loves a Christian festival. No-one seems to know when they are supposed to happen, or what they are celebrating. They just happen, and involve fireworks. A group of locals walked past my hostel in Montanita just before 11pm on a Sunday night, shouting for us to join them to watch the “bulls and the fireworks”. We followed, making our way to the square in front of the church where a large crowd was milling. A band was playing, a few spherical women shuffling side-to-side like jolly hippopotamuses. In front of the church was a tower rigged with fireworks. Beneath the tower were two small painted bulls, about the size of a sheep dog. There were ice cream trucks and stands selling fired potato, pork and corn to the growing crowd. Something big was going to happen, but we couldn’t figure out what.

The crowd was getting increasingly edgy. Finally, a man walked over to one of the bulls and hoisted it onto his head. All hell broke loose as his companion lit the fireworks which were strapped to the bull. The man charged into the crowd as rockets were flying off the bull in all directions. The locals were ecstatic, waiting for the fireworks to get close before trying to find cover. As the bull teared into the crowd near me I hid behind an ice cream truck. As I re-emerged a rocket tore from the bulls arse, just missing me, but leaving a black mark across the white polo shirt of the grey-haired man to my right. Finally the bull ran out of fireworks, and the crowd returned to a smiling throng, checking their neighbours for burns and lost eyes, reassuring them all was well.

But it wasn’t over. A lady wandered over to the remaining bull, lifted it onto her shoulders and the carnage started again. At one stage she ran to the entrance of the church, fireworks shooting into the roof of the church veranda, scattering the hippopotamuses. After the games of cat and mouse between the bull and the crowd had finished, the fireworks show started. Spinning fireworks launching to the sky, before the flaming remnants crashed down into the crowd. The plaza had been rimmed with fireworks, explosions tearing around the plaza at great speed. The tower in front of the church lit-up with spinning fireworks one side at a time, before revealing the finale, a picture of the Virgin Mary on top of the burnt out structure.

Grainy screenshot of my video of the bulls

Walking back to the hostel, stepping over pieces of burnt wood, we were still trying to figure out what the hell just happened. The words of a beautiful airy French girl I had spoken to earlier came to mind — “You could never do this in Europe. It is so fascinating because it is so dangerous. Everyone knows they could get burnt or lose an eye but they do it anyway”.

*******

I came to Montanita in Ecuador to surf, not be chased by bull carrying nut jobs bearing fireworks. I’m not sure why, as I’m uncoordinated at all activities which involve standing on moving objects. Attempts at sandboarding, wakeboarding, ice skating, body boarding and skateboarding were all hilarious for bystanders and dismal for me. After three decades of evading surfing, it was time to give it a shot.

The lesson started with the instructor David giving me a five minute briefing on how to position myself in the surf. It was in Spanish, but with the aid of the sand sculpted “waves” and popsicle stick I think I had a decent handle on what was expected: keep the board straight, don’t catch a wave if it close to another one, watch the ocean. We then spent a few minutes practicing jumping up on the board, which involves a push up like motion and a violent rotation of the waist to land your feet in the correct position.

Then David took me out to the waves. You learn the basics by “surfing” the foam, well-after the wave has broken. When instructed I lay on the board facing the shore and David pushed me as the foam arrived, shouting encouragement. The first few attempts at standing ended as expected: a backwards flop, face plant and particularly pitiful attempt where my feet slipped as I pushed up and my chest slapped back onto the board. On attempt number four I stood up! I spent the remainder of the lesson working on my technique, falling off a lot but also sticking some landings and “surfing” the foam until it ran out of momentum. Landing your feet in the correct position is difficult, and once you try and increase the speed from laying down to upright, it becomes increasingly so. My initial exuberance at standing shifted to frustration, as I tried to accelerate the time taken too stand-up, and kept ending up in the drink. My feet were too close, too far, standing on my leg rope or pointing in the wrong direction.

I will end this rambling tale with an exchange I had with an Englishman in a terrible flamingo shirt over a few beers one pleasant Montanita evening:

Flamingo shirt: “Mate, I don’t mean to be impolite, but what’s the end-game with your mustache?”

Me: “Too have a dirty mustache like the blonde DEA agent off Narcos by the time I get to Colombia”

Flamingo shirt: “It’s working. I had a dirty mustache once. I turned it into a Hitler mustache. I had to get rid of it because I was getting too many strange looks. Are you going to do that?”

Me: “No”

The gringo trails of Latin America are full of weirdos. Sometimes, I worry that if I stay here too long I will catch their weirdness. Or, will they catch mine?