Prince Malik, General Yeager’s friend since 1971-3, and a direct descendant of Alexander the Great’s best General, gathered us up in the truck to go to the bull races. He gave General Yeager the seat of honor in the cab of the truck with the driver and took a seat in the open back of the large truck. After climbing a ladder to get in, I sat there with him and 4 of his men, all armed to protect us.
It was quite a wild ride – I decided to stand up holding on for dear life – but it gave me a great view over the walls of peoples courtyards and the schools.
I had a lot of ducking to do unless I wanted to wear some branches. One time I was watching a schoolyard when one of the guards called Memsaab! I ducked just in time. Those branches could be prickly.
At the race grounds, we drove carefully through the gathering crowd, across the levee and onto the field next to the racetrack. Such as it was.
We got the best seats in the house. Lots of people wanted to be near us so tried to sit right in front of us or park next to us thus blocking the General’s view.
The surrounding spectators cleared them out to honor the Prince and his foreign visitors especially the revered honorable General Chuck Yeager who had helped the Pakistanis in 1971-73 and his wife. Frankly, there was no need for the others to park so close, there were other areas with good views as well. And having others so close could have been dangerous. Crowds in a panic (with bulls chasing) are perhaps a good thing to not be in.
This first day the 2 year olds were racing. They put a yoke on two bulls. Two ropes went to the what looked like an upside down trashcan lid without the handle on top. One rope went from the yoke to the jockey’s hand. The jockey stood on the upside down lid, held the rope and a spear.
The spear was to jab one or other of the bulls in the derriere to keep them running straight..ish…on the track.
There was a crowd at the start with trucks with bulls and some enclosed trailers. Some people walked their bulls to the races.
Suddenly a shout would go and out of the crowd of people and bulls, a jockey on his upside down, colorful trashcan lid would erupt driving 2 bulls with someone on either side holding on trying to keep up.
These two men or boys – one on either side – would hold the bull on his side. At the start, these two men would run with the bulls for several steps or as long as they could keep up, trying to keep them straight on the track.
If the bulls left the straight dirt track or finished without a jockey, they were disqualified.
This happened often.
The crowd was good – if the bulls looked like they were veering off – some of them would wave at the bulls to deflect their direction back straight on the track.
A couple sets of bulls ran right where the judges had been sitting. It was funny to see them diving for cover. I wondered out loud if this was the bulls’ opinion of the judges?
More often than not, the bulls would veer within 20 yards of the start and turn back towards the starting crowd and then often veer to the side and keep running for dear life, trailing an empty, bouncing upside down colorful trashcan lid. The jockey had long before jumped off.
From the truck we could see the various sets of errant bulls.
Prince Malik said: They are running home.
Indeed it did seem so.
We watched as various bulls actually made it to the finish line amongst great cheers. One fellow when skipping down the racetrack after his bulls did well, shouting joyfully, “My bulls did well! Look at my bulls!” In Pashtun. Prince Malik translated for me.
Many people came up to the truck to say hello to Prince Malik. Each would take his hand between theirs and bow. Or just bow.
I like this custom – no bone crunching handshakes, just a gentle touching of hands.
I looked at all the colorful turbans – many in dark blue and red all wound above their heads.
Many looked over to see who we were, especially the unusual Caucasians as well as the tribal chief, Prince Malik, and his guards.
I took several photos. At one point, one of the men with us served me tea. Afternoon tea at the bull races. How civilized.
My mother always said hot tea in the hot summer cooled her down; something to do with body temperature compared to outside temperature…or just because.
I was drinking my tea out of my cup, no, no little finger raised when we noticed the bulls running in our direction….and not veering.
I had the tea in one hand and the camera in the other trying to position it while not spilling the tea. But no hand to hold on should they bang the truck.
I put the camera down to have two hands to put the tea down. Where to put it that it wouldn’t spill should we get banged…?
Finally as time was running out for me to make decisions, and the bulls, having already dispersed the crowd in front of us, people flying, diving, leaping everywhere out of the way, were not deviating from their head-on collision course with us, I just put it down, grabbed my camera to take a photo, decided I best just hold on, when at the last second, the bulls diverted.
Geez, if I had known that I could have taken the photo, gotten a great shot, and kept holding onto my tea. Ha ha.
The bulls took off for home.
It might have been then that Prince Malik commented: “This is not very interesting – the bulls aren’t tossing anyone in the air. It’s because the ground is too wet, slowing them down.”
I laughed – he may have forgotten that I live with Gen Y who can be known to say things for shock value or for a laugh.
However we had had lots of unusual weather, lots of rain and some very cool days. I had almost left our fall/winter coats in storage in Kuwait but decided maybe air conditioning would be cold so brought them. Thank goodness.
For a moment, I thought Prince Malik might be serious about the uninteresting bull races, when another set of bulls dove into the crowds just beyond us and headed for the “snack bar”, an overhead tent under which were open fires cooking food.
The presumable owner got out in front waving at the bulls to divert them. He should have known better. They took him and his snack bar out. What was he thinkin’?
I glanced at the Prince to see if the bull races had now become more interesting. Instead, Prince Malik was looking at the man on the ground quite concerned. The laughter at the silly idea of the man trying to stop the bulls by standing in front became a shock of concern that the man didn’t dive out of the way at the last second when it became clear the bulls weren’t going to heed the man’s commands to stop.
What I noticed is those successful at diverting the bulls waved at them from a little to the side, with big gestures or cloth just as the bulls were thinking of turning. Timing was everything. Once they had turned it was a bit late re keeping them on the track. On the race course, a big name for a wide long dirt track that was straight, not an oval; men and boys would jump up and wave pieces of cloth, their unwound turbans, to get the bulls to stay straight or get back to going straight down the track.
Once the bulls went off the track and somehow surprisingly came back on the track with the jockey still on (lot of ridges and mini hills to go over once one is off the track) and finished the race. I think they were already disqualified due to the detour though. I think extra points were in order.
It was a hot day and Prince Malik had wisely brought an umbrella. Not for the rain but for the sun. I had seen this the first time when a Member of Parliament in the Indonesian government, a friend of my mother’s, had taken me to see a monument while I was visiting her, and she brought us umbrellas. I wondered how she was predicting rain on this beautifully sunny day in winter. She insisted I use the umbrella for the sun as she did. She was in beautiful shape – I realized why her skin was so perfect.
What was pretty funny was the bulls often veered right where the judges moments before had been sitting. It seemed to be the perfect place as many bull teams veered right there. Was this a comment of how the bulls felt about the judges?
While many tried to grab the bulls’ harness to stop the bulls, the men and boys often got tossed or overrun. But one young man had the timing down perfectly. He caught one set of bulls and just steered them in a circle till they stopped. That’s how I used to stop horses that were trying to run off with me. A guy in East Africa with whom I had ridden racing along with wild animals, and I had been racing and the new horse I was riding showed no signs of heeding my signals to stop.
He had played polo and told me to just turn it into a circle. I thought, “Great now the horse and I will start spinning and I will surely come off.” I can do straight (and in a plane I’m fairly good at straight and level but the potential off balance of a turn….However I did as he suggested and viola, the horse came to a stop.
That’s what this young man at the bull races did. And it worked within seconds. Even Prince Malik was impressed.
I watched the huge crowds (5000 or more) which were only 1/100th of the normal crowds because it was wheat harvesting time, the bulls all decked out in glittering refinery, the various bright busy designs of the trashcan lids, the “snack bars” – what a glorious day.
Dark clouds started forming though so the driver decided it was time to go. But the truck’s battery was dead. The guys got out and tried pushing, rocking, anything. Heavy truck. A few of the crowd tried to help. That truck wasn’t going anywhere.
A guy in a small tractor came over – he was going to save the day for the Prince and his distinguished guests. He pushed and pushed. It wasn’t working. The idea of course was to pop the gear into starting.
So they pushed it backwards to get it up the hill a little with a running start. They rocked it with the tractor and some of the crowd and viola – it started. Phew.
As the truck turned around, I was shouting Thank you! with a wave. They all smiled back happy that we were happy and that I was smiling and saying thank you to each and waving as we drove off. They waved back: happy in their mission accomplished for the Prince and his guests.
As we drove out, my bird’s eye view was wonderful. I could see what they were cooking in the snack bars – a man squatting in front of the large bowl on the fire, stirring it occasionally. I had already not had a great reaction to the water and some food so thought fleetingly: “It would be interesting to try”; followed quickly by, “Probably too spicy for me”, and “Probably wouldn’t last long in my stomach”.
We threaded our way through the crowds and on the levee – unfortunately a narrow-ish one – so people had to move off. The levee though was at the end of the race. If those bulls didn’t stop after the finish line – all these people would be diving. A funny, but exhilarating if you like the threat of being run over or tossed by a bull, place to watch the races.
We started to race home, but Gen Yeager suggested to the driver that we did want to get home so slow down. We passed several farms where the women were working while the men were playing.
The 2-year-old bull races were a good training for the bulls and for the younger jockeys trying to get experience.
When I mentioned to the Prince that I thought I was the only female there, he confirmed it. He said with great respect: “But the women are the ones who care for these bulls at home.”
Prince Malik had earlier suggested I try being a jockey behind one of these sets of baby bulls. I considered it – I had my jumping vest and riding helmet….A few years ago or more, I might have tried it and probably done okay – I used to be pretty good at balance, having waterskied and skied since I was 12 and 3 respectively, and if all else failed, I was good at tucking and rolling.
But the hospital was a few hours away and fortunately I had forgotten to bring along my helmet and vest and no one, including or especially me, mentioned it again.
Another fascinating day in the life of Prince Malik Atta Mohammad Khan in Pakistan.