Sunday, May 26, 2013

Boulder Pulling

As you drive through Spanish Basque country, the landscape feels rugged and wild.  You feel isolated, seeing few people but many sheep.  This quiet wilderness is turned upside-down once you experience the life in Basque country, where the people are warm, welcoming, and live life to the fullest in their remote corner of Europe.

No experience better captured the vitality of Basque life than watching the gizon proba in Deba last weekend.  Gizon proba is one of the traditional Basque rural sports.  It literally translates as "man test", and consists of 8 men attached to a metal harness dragging an almost-2000-pound "boulder".  For a set amount of time (about 30 minutes), the men pull the weight back and forth across a proscribed distance.  The number of lengths is recorded on a scoreboard as hundreds of locals cheer on the men.  When the first group is done, their competitors warm up and attempt to best the first team's score. 

The idea of 800 or more people standing around in the rain on a Saturday afternoon, shouting and cheering as a bunch of guys lugging a giant weight for half an hour sounds crazy and even a bit boring.  The reality is certainly unusual but completely engaging.   The home team, from Deba, went first.  Almost the entire crowd was from Deba, so the cheering at each turn, and the encouragement as the task became increasingly difficult, was deafening at times.  Local kids watched with the same intensity as American kids watch the NBA finals. 20-somethings stood in the back, alternately cheering and drinking.  A quartet of EMTs were on hand in case of injury.
And they're off!

The coach keeps them going strong.

This is serious stuff.

The first 20 lengths or so come across as child's play.  Soon enough, however, it becomes clear that this thing they're pulling is really, really heavy. 
Yeah, this is hard.

And finally, time is called.  The team literally collapses in relief.

Then the next team warms up. They were from the neighboring town of Mendaro, and could not hold a candle to our Deba team (we stayed in Deba, so of course felt a natural affinity for the home team).  The man we rented the apartment from later suggested that the event was rigged, but I think it's hard to give anything but your most in this environment.  Plus, I was there and both teams were working hard.  Deba won, 40-35. 

I have never experienced anything like gizon proba before.  Not just because it was so foreign to us, but because we felt we really experienced an authentic community event, the kind that regularly marks the lives of the Basque people.  Afterwards, we walked back to the center of town with what felt like every person who lives in Deba, and we ate at the restaurant in the town square with dozens of other families and townspeople, all basking in the excitement and energy of the feat of strength we had all witnessed.