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The International Writers Magazine
Hacktreks travel in Spain

El Dia de San Sebastian
Mitchell Pickett

San Sebastian, Spain, is located in the northeast part of the country about twenty miles from the French boarder. Surrounded by the dark mysticism of the Pyrenees’s mountains and set on the bristling coast of the Atlantic Ocean, San Sebastian truly has earned the nickname, "The Emerald of Europe."

In February of every year San Sebastian, known as Donosti in the Basque language erupts for forty-eight hours of debauchery to honor Saint Sebastian, the city’s patron saint.

The festivities began in my small flat that overlooked la playa Zurriola. I watched waves crash as the grayish water lit up with a thousands shades of red and orange by the setting sun. To the right a small but steep mountain centered the town and on top of it stood a tall statue of Jesus that could be seen from virtually any part of the city, as if saying wherever you are, Jesus is watching.

The imitation bottle of Absinthe that I had bought only two blocks away from my apartment from a bodega would be my spirit for the remainder of the evening. I prepared the drink by copying a method I had seen a Frenchmen do in Biarritz. I poured the strong liquid into a short glass and marveled at how unique the color was; somewhere between lime-green and moss. I dipped some of the Absinthe onto a table spoon of sugar and lit a match. The concoction ignited and blue flames danced and writhed from the spoon caramelizing the sugar which I stirred into the drink. I took a quick sip and my eyes watered and my stomach burned. Absinthe is not a drink for the taking; it is one that must be earned.
After an hour of drinking the strong liquor, I looked out the window and noticed that night’s darkness and exciting mystery had consumed the city. Locals and tourists alike were already gathering in the streets, the feeling of anticipation was electric.

I stumbled and wandered into the growing hoards of people. Basque men and boys were clad in a traditional sense, wearing chef’s uniforms and carrying large military drums. To the tourist the uniforms represented fruitfulness and prosperity and symbolized the men’s abilities to provide for their families. To the Basques they represented clandestine cooking societies that were forced to go into hiding when Franco’s regime made them illegal. This public display was their way of spiting in the face of the fascists who most of them believed still held their country in an icy and suffocating grip.

I made my way through the town towards la parte viaja, the old part, where the heart of the celebration was forming. In the center of the old part’s labyrinth like streets was the central plaza and it was nearly impossible to gain access. The amount of people that had assembled in a small area was an amazing and terrific spectacle to be a part of. It was an ocean of bodies that swayed and moved together like the tides. Our full moon was approaching, the midnight hour when the fiesta officially began.

As the minutes ticked away the crowd’s energy was like a caged lion, dying to bust free from his restraints. The gathering of people stopped and grew quiet; the final minute was at hand. The drummers poised with the urgent need to bring life to their silent drums. Midnight strikes.

Hands and drums in formation clapped down and the perfect unison of a thousand bodies boomed the first beat which was stronger than thunder. The crowd erupted in jubilation. In total sequence the gathering moved like liquid celebration as the drummers ceaselessly crushed beats into their drums. Strange dances and exotic chants in Euskera, the Basque language, were all around.

The fiesta was climaxing and every fiber of the drummers was calling them to squeeze the essence of the moment from their instruments that was fueled by the vigor of the crowd. The spectators could sense the changes of rhythm from slow and methodical beats, to frantic and insane pounding. The masses hopped and swayed together in harmony with the collective sounds. The feeling of a thousand feet stomping together with the drums urgently called me to join along. For a brief moment I was alone, so foreign to the event. But as I began to jump to the enchanting sound of an army of nameless drummers it wasn’t long until I was lost in it all. Every ounce of my youthful zest was contributed to the crowd. It was a therapeutic cleansing of the wild side of soul. For that moment we were only the sound of the drums. Nothing else mattered.

We were mostly strangers sharing a bond that would not last long. There were no taxes, racism, countries or religions. There was only the sweet soul of celebration. A reminder that life is a gift, although sometimes may feel like punishment.

It was a night like the one before the end of the world. Strangers passionately kissed and friends intimately hugged one another. We were dancing to bring joy and it mattered not who was watching. Viva La San Sebastian!

Mitchell Pickett

PS From the UK you can go by Ryanair to Biarritz daily and take a bus or taxi to San Sebastian which is just across the border or go by Eurostar (changing trains in Paris)

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