On our last night in Costa Rica, our friend and surf guide Andres told me about the tradition of local rodeos being held in small rural villages during the Christmas holiday season. He talked about how the entire town would gather to party, eat, drink, dance… and dodge bulls. And by dodge bulls, he literally meant that the spectators would be the participants, and that it wasn’t uncommon for folks to be gored or trampled by a few thousand pounds of beef. I’ve been around the world… but this kind of Latin American Machismo was something I just had to see.
Any professional photographer will tell you that light is everything when it comes to making a creative exposure. Decisive moments, emotion and storytelling details are all critical components of photojournalism… but without light and the proper lenses to capture that light, well, you’re in trouble. That being said, I showed up to this rodeo like a kid wielding a knife at a gun fight: I had no flash, no spare camera backs, no telephoto lenses: nothing that I would typically use to cover fast action. So bear with me here, the following images might not be technically perfect, but they help share a great story.
One aspect that I did have working to my advantage was access. Logs had been assembled with bailing wire on the village soccer field to form a ring. Spectators stood or sat on the fence or in the ring to watch the bull riding.
I wandered near the cattle truck that held the bulls, and an older man quickly motioned to me to climb up INTO the chute that led the bulls from the truck to the ring. As an understatement, let’s just say that there were no restrictions, no OSHA, no insurance liability wavers to sign… and as important, no one there to tell me (the blond idiot in flip flops who spoke almost no Spanish) when to get out of the way.
As luck would have it, the first bull came out of the chute so fast that a rider couldn’t get on it’s back in time, which scarcely mattered much as the real entertainment was watching the spectators almost get trampled by the bull.
Is it possible that there is such a thing as calm mayhem? I would think not, but there was a sense of fun and calm and relaxation amongst the tortured animals and the bleeding, sweating men. It was incredible to take it all in.
The taunting of the bulls…
The end result of taunting the bulls… an injured teenager is taken to a waiting ambulance.
A rider straps in for his ride. Note the taught rope around the bull’s neck.
As a journalist, I often hear that I’m supposed to suspend my judgement and emotions… just capture a story with integrity, creativity and depict scenes honestly. It’s with complete honesty then that I’ll say it was sad to see these bulls being zapped with cattle prods, poked with spurs and generally manhandled for entertainment. I’m not a member of PETA, nor a vegetarian… but I was close enough to touch these bulls separated by only a flimsy wooden board. I found myself whispering apologies to them as dozens of men attempted to incite them.
There really was no fight in these bulls. They wanted to get away from the cattle prods, the jeers, punches and spurs… but they were at once powerful and dangerous while simultaneously being timid and scared. It was a strange feeling to be so terrifying close, yet feeling so much empathy for them.
I had my fill of bull riding pretty quickly. Luckily, Costa Rican Rodeo’s lack of security allowed me access to the ambulances and ringside triage centers.
Maybe the coolest taxi on the planet?
As I’m taking that photo of the CTITW (Coolest Taxi In The World), this guy runs up on me and starts smiling. At first I think he’s drunk, so I do the obligatory smile and snap a photo of him. But then he dashes off into the darkness and returns with his young son. He’s not drunk, he’s just PSYCHED to have his photo taken. Next thing I know, I’m following him down some darkened street, prepared to either be mugged or to learn something new about Costa Rica.
The guy leads me into his home and shows me all the amazing food he has prepared for the rodeo. He is asks for photos of each dish, and then tries to feed me after each picture is made. He is proud of his kitchen, his cooking and his home. I’m not fluent in Spanish, but I can understand his pride and appreciate his enthusiasm. Beyond the dusty dirt streets, beyond the relative poverty here, beyond that bullring that’s filled with machismo, adrenaline and pain… this guy is just thrilled to share with me his food and his home. It’s a connection that transcends cultures.
It’s another reminder for me that happiness is a state of mind… and this guy has it. As I leave his house to return to the dark streets, he calls back to me for one last photo with his wife. Just as I release the shutter button, he turns and plants a kiss on his “amada.” His beloved.
What a night.