Let’s all go to the country fair, there’s blossoms and ribbons and hope in the air. -Unknown
“You should all go to Olé Olé Alfeizerão this week. It is just over the hill and it is an interesting festival,” our friend Richard explained. We were in transition, moving from one place to the next, with Easter preparations and competing priorities from every direction. We were running faster than we have in a long time, feeling disconnected, when our daughter said, “It’s Sunday and we are due for some family fun!”
As we looked at the unpacked suitcases and boxes, papers stacked around us, we knew she was right. We walked out the door, followed the sound of Portuguese folk music, and the smell of barbecue chicken wafting over the fields in the spring breeze until we arrived “just over the hill.”
Alfeizerão is a town of 3,800 inhabitants and what we found felt very similar to the country fairs of our childhood. Time was suspended as soon as we lined up for bumper cars, shooting matches, and cotton candy. The familiar haze was about to come to an abrupt halt as we felt the anticipation building around the ring …
We strategically perched ourselves around the steel-clad arena and waited. The announcements bellowed over the loudspeaker in Portuguese and we watched the crowd for reactions as we tried to figure out what was being said. The sun was high in the sky and the dust seemed to cloak the creaking bleachers.
The Campinos, or Portuguese cowboys, came into the ring on massive yet graceful Lusitano horses. The men and women were dressed in perfectly tailored traditional suits, with long wooden sticks used for herding cattle. There were a few demonstrations and then it happened. Two young men opened the gate and outrushed the bull. As the crowd cheered, my husband and I exchanged nervous glances as our oldest son asked, “Are we at a bullfight?”
In Portugal, the Cavaleiros, Matadores, Bandarilheiros, and Forcados are not trying to kill the bull as in some other bullfighting traditions around the world. We watched the Lusitano horses dance around the ring, as the bull darted after them and we could not look away. The grace of the horses and riders anchored by the power of the bull was intoxicating. As the horses exited the ring, men jumped over the gate to challenge the bull with their bare hands. Some kissed their girlfriends before making the leap while others were clamoring to safety.
As often happens when we see things for the first time, we were stunned into silence. There are many strong opinions on either side of this aspect of Portuguese culture. All we know is that we were given an opportunity to look through a window into another culture. We cannot deepen our understanding of anything without our willingness to learn …
Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are? ― William Golding, Lord of the Flies