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Running with the Bulls

In the early 1920s, Ernest Hemingway and his Paris-based ex-pat buddies went to Pamplona for the Fiesta de San Fermin. Hemingway ran with the bulls, got drunk every night and saw his friends and himself in a new light. With the success of his first novel, “The Sun Also Rises” in 1926, he put the Pamplona festival on the pre jet set map.

Hemingway captured San Fermin’s seductive vitality and it’s that same kind of 24/7 ego abandonment and cultural immersion that drives today’s Facebook junkies to go in search of festivals.  In our virtual age we crave the ritual exuberance festivals deliver through music, art, film, food and religion. Some festivals are centuries old and link generations; others are new but bring locals and foreigners together. There are rites of passage festivals in scores of African villages that no foreigner has ever seen.

Some festivals attract over one million like India’s two month long Kumbh Mela while others are more intimate. Spain’s El Colacho features men dressed as devils jumping over babies on mattresses lying on the cobblestone streets of Castrillo de Mucia. Less than 100 attend, but if a foreigner shows up they are invited to someone’s house to share in the after-jumping victuals.

Festivals although bound by tradition, are far from static. Hemingway would be convulsing in his grave if he could see today’s San Fermin Fiesta. PETA protestors run nearly naked through the Pamplona streets decrying the killing of the bulls. Investment bankers and NFL football coaches don red neck scarfs and get among the Spaniards running with Pamplona’s pampered bulls.  In his novel Hemingway writes, “The fiesta was really started. It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences.”

Although much has changed in nearly a century, festivals still offer us a chance to live in the moment without thinking of the consequences. We escape our self-imposed ego-laced straightjackets and get down with the bulls and locals. You could find a new wife or a career at a festival; you could get wasted, enlightened or perhaps killed. You could father a child, or a charity.  In any case you will be moved.

Woodstock to Oaxaca

In 1969 I was working at a summer camp in upstate New York and on a wet August Saturday night happened past the bus station in New Paltz. There were mud-stained hippies spilling out of the station several dazed and glassy-eyed. These were Woodstock’s refugees who left the festival’s torrential rains. I sat down to listen to their stories.  They had aged in a few short days, by what they had seen and experienced.  Babies being born, people getting crushed by tractors in the mud, good/ bad acid trips, Jimi Hendrix’ version of the star spangled banner, were among the experiences they shared. I knew I had missed something epic and if given the chance would not miss being part of the festival.

Some 25 years later while driving from LA to Belize, I luckily happened to be in Oaxaca, Mexico in early November. Day of the Dead festivities were flowing throughout the city. On a main thoroughfare closed to traffic sculptors from many countries stood before massive stones chipping their visions. The cemeteries were filling with costumed descendants of the deceased willing to share stories of their loved ones. Music was pouring out of homes and cantinas, mole was being dished at the restaurants and everyone was in a communicative mood. It may have been the day of the dead,  but I never felt more alive. With all the creative juices being spilt it felt like I was in Florence or Athens during their golden ages. You didn’t need to get high to escape your demons, drinking in the evening’s life affirming/death accepting vibe was enough.

Burning Man/Freezing Man

In 1985, Larry Harvey stood on a beach in San Francisco with 25 friends and burned an effigy of him to purge his bad luck.  Last summer Harvey’s Burning Man festival a celebration of art and spiritualism attracted 68,000 in the Nevada desert. The site is Spartan, cell phones don’t work, yet it was covered by international news media.

Chip Conley was there and is a board member of the festival. He is also the creator of Fest300, a new website devoted to the top festivals in the world. After selling his boutique hotel company, Joie de Vivre Hospitality in 2010, Conley hit the festival circuit. In 2013 he attended 32 festivals in 20 countries and hopes to become the go to expert on festivals. He is rapidly building a treasure trove of festival experiences, some good, some bad, all enlightening.  He nearly froze to death at the Harbin (China) Ice Festival where it was -30 degrees making the mistake of going to Manchuria directly from Malaysia where he attended the Thaipusam festival. There he watched Hindus skewering themselves in devotion rituals inside the 90 degree Batu Caves. He survived but when he was at Kumbh Mela there was a stampede in a train station killing 37 Hindu pilgrims. He plans to attend what could be the world’s best, but most dangerous music festival, Mali’s Festival au Desert. It was canceled in 2013 because of civil war but is on again in 2014 after being moved to Timbuktu for security reasons. Tuareg bands are the main attraction. Conley rates India, Spain and Japan as the world’s best festival countries primarily because of their generational festivals that date back centuries.

“There has been a resurgent interest in festivals partially because the more digital we get and more cell phone driven, there is a need for face time. Festivals are a living museum of the world’s cultures and in today’s Facebook generation you get more status by being at a cool festival than having a BMW parked in the driveway,” Conley said. “When I go to Bali or Burning Man my ego evaporates, and I can escape my shell and get beyond the things that separate us— ego, competition and the what’s in it for me thinking.”

Conley is convinced the future of festivals will be less commercial and run by non-profits. Burning Man despite its huge success or maybe because of it is being transformed into a non-profit.  Instead of corporate sponsorships more festivals will gain support from wealthy individuals. The Telluride Film Festival is now supported by wealthy individuals who prefer to spend more time in the Rockies watching independent films and less time peering into a computer.

African Genesis

Attending festivals in Africa can be dangerous especially in warring countries, but also the most rewarding. Where else are you going to be able to see fully made-up Wodaabe herders dancing and singing for five hours to impress young Wodaabe princesses?

African fests often offer minimalist accommodations at the site. At South Africa’s Oppikoppi Music Festival in Limpopo, located near the hard scrabble mining town of Northam, most throw up a tent in the scrub thorn although some bring their furniture from home. Judge any festival by its Lost and Found Department. The items that show up there demonstrate how out of their mind attendees get. If you’re not concerned about possessions and getting back to the nine to five world you’re having a good time. At last year’s Oppikoppi, there were eight credit cards turned in, a leopard skin hat, a shredded sofa, six pairs of car keys and a blackberry that may have been lost on purpose. The festival grew from 27 acts in its 1994 debut to 130 acts last year and has been expanded to Cape Town.

In Niger, the Wodaabe Gerewol may be one of the world’s best gender bending festivals that no developed country could conceive. It’s a weeklong beauty contest where the men are put on display to impress both judges and the bevy of beautiful eligible females. In this cattle herder culture the nomadic men seldom have a chance to find wives but this flirtation festival is their best shot. They wear makeup and sing and dance in five hour shifts rolling their eyes and showing their teeth to demonstrate their stamina and beauty. The dancing is followed by a weeklong barter session over who will marry whom. In a polygamous culture that values beauty and tradition, the negotiations can be complicated.

This is not the kind of festival where a male foreigner shows up, jumps in the line and starts dancing in hopes of going back to Omaha with a Wodaabe princess. Romeo, stick to For many, the cultural experience and the Facebook photos are enough. And that’s the thing about the festival circuit. You don’t need to go native to be swept up by the event. Being there says a lot about you and your willingness to go beyond your narrow world.