You’ve Heard Of Running With The Bulls? This Is Running From the Bulls.

A Day In Bukittingi, A Night at the Bullfights

“What if I went to Spain and grew a moustache,

Strummed my guitar and worn me a sash

Became a torero and fought me a bull?”

–“I’ll Always Be Irish,” from the Walt Disney musical, “The World’s Happiest Millionaire.

A bull psychs itself up for a bullfight, Bukittinggi-style

Bukittinngi may not be Pamplona, Spain, but it’s still a good place to see a bull fight as long as you aren’t looking for matadors, toreadors, humidors and lobster thermidores. That’s because Indonesian bullfights are a strange variation on the theme. Instead of having a battle of wits pitting a half brain with high water pants, a blanket and a sword against a bull with superior intellect, a pair of horns and a Thompson sub-machine gun, they are battles between bulls. The two bulls go at it until one draws blood or chases the other out of the ring, often chasing innocent bystanders along with it. 

Being a lover of kitsch, the strange and the downright curious, I knew I had to see this odd take on an old sport, so I bought a ticket for the event first thing in the morning. Unfortunately, the fights weren’t scheduled for much later in the day. Fortunately, there are plenty of things to do in Bukittinggi including visiting the market, seeing historical caves and trying to get the town’s only Indosat phone to work so you can call home. I wandered through the town’s market, visiting underground caves where the Japanese imprisoned the populace during World War II and looking out over Sianok Canyon on the edge of town.

The sky was overcast and threatened rain throughout the day, but the downpour held off until the extremely crowded van I was riding in was halfway to the bullfights. Although I had taken my raincoat, I hadn’t taken time to change clothes so I had to slog through open fields in a torrential downpour while wearing shorts and sandals. 

Once I made it to the ring, I was met by the curious sight of four water buffalo contentedly sitting in a mud puddle on the edge of the makeshift ring minding their own business while a crowd of goofballs of all nationalities gawked, inspected the contestants and just generally hung out doing nothing. Because the fights are probably about as legal as cockfights are in the U.S., there wasn’t an arena or many covered bleachers to provide protection from the rain. In the few areas where there was shelter, the crowd tried to remain dry until the festivities started.

The fight is on even as bystanders stand a bit too close for comfort.

And start they did without much warning, sending all the adults and children who had been playing in the ring scrambling for cover. Then came the gut-wrenching sound of horn on horn as the two bulls butted heads with the noise of impact echoing over the shouts of on-lookers in the same way that the sounds of crunching bones seem to ring out over the roar of the crowd at professional football games.

All this occurred as I was wondering how the owners of the animals were going to get the beasts riled enough to care, much less butt heads together. After all, one of the buffaloes was so happy sitting in the mud that it was even allowing children to come up and kiss it. The best I could figure, it must have had something to do with the love pats the owners kept giving their animals during the matches. To most bystanders the touches must have looked like caresses along each animal’s backside and down its tale, but every fifth downstroke seemed to take longer and go further. The more I watched, the more I realized the owners were either goosing the bulls or quickly reaching between their legs and pulling their testicles. At a distance of about 20 feet from the action, it was difficult for me to tell whether they were being pinched or pulled, but does it really matter? I don’t know about most people, but I know having a guy reach under me and pulling every minute or so would make me pretty damn cranky, pretty damn quickly. 

The bulls appear to be more lovers than fighters until the man in a hat on the right gently reaches between the legs of one…and pulls.

Regardless, the first fight started with the bulls hooking horns and moving around as they sized each other up. In many ways it was like watching the Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno fight of a few weeks before, only more interesting because it didn’t have two hours of commentary before or repeated breaks for Fruit of the Loom sarong commercials. A few more faints and jabs later the crowd was treated to the sight of one bull drawing blood when the tip of its horn hit the corner of the other’s eye. The match quickly unraveled as the first bull pressed its advantage and eventually chased his opponent out of the ring. While many of the bystanders who had been standing behind the winner cheered as they followed the victor, running along in his wake, the people who had been petting and standing around the loser sprinted in all directions to keep from being trampled by the rapidly retreating loser or members of the group who, in other countries, would have been referred to as “bullfight hooligans” (who are similar to soccer hooligans, except that they wear poofier pants). 

The second match went pretty much the same way, only it ended faster, leaving the crowd to slog back through thoroughly muddied fields on the way back to their cars, vans, utility vehicles and buses. Because I had to run through the puddles in open-toed shoes, I wasn’t in a rush to leave. Lingering for one last look at the now-quiet field where there had been a deafening commotion moments before, I managed to turn in time to see one of the bulls that had been all riled up moments before lean over and lick the face of a small child.

Although I don’t like coffee, I felt no trip to Sumatra would be complete without a coffee plantation tour. I had planned to visit a plantation three hours away from Bukittinggi until I heard about a package tour on the edge of town including a crafts village, a mill and a plantation where coffee, tea, rice and other crops were grown. I usually don’t like pre-arranged tours because they’ve always seemed like an excuse to get a bunch of rubes out of town just so tour operators can sell their customers crafts they wouldn’t have purchased if they didn’t fear for their lives. I will occasionally go on them, however, if they aren’t expensive and they take me where I want to go even if the tour stops in a few places that I could care less about. That was the case with this tour. 

For about $3, the all-day excursion included a visit to a village known for its crafts and ornately carved wooden houses, a supposedly-traditional style settlement far from Bukkitinngi, a stop at a farm where everything from tea and coffee to celery and cumin were grown and ending with a stop at a Pedang restaurant. I didn’t expect to enjoy the first village because of what I thought would be an emphasis on purchasing crafts. As it turns out, I was not only pleasantly surprised to see that there was no pressure to buy, I was also thrilled to find two things that fascinated me. The first was the looms where local women weaved rugs. Having written about Oriental rugs, I knew a great deal about how they were made, but I’d never seen the process. The second was the village’s traditional woodcarving. While most decorative woodcarving had never done much for me, the work on some of the houses took my breath away. From a distance it looked like the houses had been painted in highly colorful floral patterns in the middle of a brown diamond with the yellow flower in the center surrounded by blue, red, yellow and brown curlicues. As I neared the house it appeared that the structure was made up of hundreds of foot-long panels with the same design. When I finally walked up to the house, however, I realized each of the panels was hand-carved and painted. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t imagine how long it would take to create just one panel much less a multi-roomed house exterior filled with them. 

A look at a house from a distance, closer up and at a single panel.

The next stop was straight out of my college geography books. Although the book mentioned alternative agricultural methods and showed farmers growing crops on “terraces” carved out of inclines, I couldn’t imagine how it worked. It all made sense when I saw it in person. 

Terracing in action.

Looking up at the fields it appeared as if a contractor had built a set of stairs for giants in the side of the hill but had gotten the dimensions wrong because each stair was shorter than it should have been and wider than necessary. In addition, each level was dedicated to one crop, ranging from celery and chili to turmeric and rice. As odd as it sounds, it was pretty cool to see each of the ingredients I’d cooked with growing in front of me. I always knew rice had to come from somewhere, for example, but I never knew it grew like wheat with the rice coming from the top of each stalk or that the tops had to be beaten to get the covering off of each individual kernel.

What made climbing from one terrace level of the rice cultivation area to the next cool was seeing all of the stages of its growth from small shoots and the thinning zone to where the plants are replanted and the harvested rice is dried. The only blemish on the experience was that rain from the night before made climbing from one level to the next treacherous. While it was fun to watch others stumble, I didn’t enjoy it as much when it happened to me. 

The eight-hour trip finished with a stop at a Pedang restaurant. Even now, I’m not sure whether this type of eatery is the development of a forward-thinking civilization built on creating a paper (menu)-less restaurant or a backwards society that never had menus in the first place. Regardless, the approach to dining and tallying up the bill is brilliant. It’s like going to a cafeteria in reverse because the food comes to you rather than the other way around. Waiters bring individual-sized serving plates filled with the restaurant’s offerings to each diner, and then customers help themselves. Once the customer is finished, the waiter calculates the bill by charging for what’s missing. 

There were other impressive parts of the tour, of course, but they all began to blur together as I realized I was ready to leave Bukittinggi for Bukit Lawang, home of the Orang-utan Rehabilitation Center, a place every backpacker told me I must see before I left Indonesia.

Too bad I never got to see it.