Did you know that I am a retired bullfighter?
A friend and I were having lunch, talking about the zaniest things we had encountered while traveling in foreign countries to do business. It felt like two grizzled soldiers reliving their war experiences.
I told him about the time I was invited to lunch in Mexico City by two lawyers from Tlaxcala, the smallest Mexican state. We were discussing a business deal involving their client at a ritzy restaurant. I had never met anybody from Tlaxcala, and they had never met a New Mexican. One of the lawyers got a sly smile on his face and asked if I would like to try a Tlaxcalan specialty. Wanting to be a good guest, I eagerly said yes.
A few minutes later, the waiter brought a steaming plate of what looked like orzo pasta on steroids. I watched the lawyers as they scooped these kernels onto a hot tortilla with salsa and began to eat.
As I was scooping the mystery food onto my tortilla, I asked what I was eating. “Escamoles, ant larvae,” said one of the lawyers as he watched my reaction. I instinctively paused, and one of the hosts said that it was alright if I did not partake.
Knowing that we were on the cusp of a business deal, I did not want to insult them over one of their local delicacies. I scooped the fried larvae onto my tortilla and bit into the metallic-tasting food. I washed it down with big gulps of the beer I was drinking.
The lawyers applauded my acquiescence, which broke the ice.
When the plate of escamoles disappeared, one of the lawyers commented that I must have really liked the food, and he promptly summoned the waiter over and ordered a second plate. Through sheer willpower, I finished my second share, having to order another beer.
My friend laughed and then proceeded to tell me how he was prodded into running with the bulls in Pamplona while on a business trip in Spain. He told me about running down the Pamplona boulevard terrified, but not wanting to reveal any fear to his colleagues.
When he finished, it was my turn to laugh. I told him that I was very familiar with bulls and had been in close proximity to them. My friend asked me when that had happened.
“Did you know that I am a retired bullfighter?” I replied. His face froze, and then he started chuckling like I was pulling his leg. I told him that I was serious.
When I lived in Mexico City, I was working a business deal in the Bajio region of Mexico, about three hours north of the capital.
After our meetings, my Mexican colleagues took me to a restaurant that appeared to me to be an old hacienda off the main highway. We ate delicious regional dishes and then went out to the patio to have a glass of tequila.
On the other end of the patio was a small stadium that looked as if it would hold up to 100 people. I asked what it was for and one of my companions said, “It’s for bullfighting. Do you want to try?”
I thought he was joking and said “Sure,” but added that it was sad that there were no bulls in sight. He got up from his seat and was away for about 15 minutes. He returned with a weird look on his face, half amused and half nervous. He motioned for us to get up, and we walked into the small stadium.
On the other side of the stadium, a couple of ranch hands were at a gate. Behind it was a young bull, the kind that novilleros (aspiring bullfighters) practice on. I asked what was going on, and one of my colleagues told me that any guest was welcome to try their hand at bullfighting, if they signed an agreement absolving the property owner of any responsibility.
I looked at my companions thinking that they were putting me on. Not wanting to show fear or weakness, I said that I was ready. They quickly climbed into the stands, and one of the ranch hands brought me a red cape.
Two ranch hands walked into the arena with their own capes, one on either side of me. I kept telling myself that this was a joke, and I was not going to give my friends a good laugh by chickening out.
Suddenly, the gate swung open and the bull ran around the stadium until it caught sight of me in the middle with my red cape. It made a turn and did a slow charge towards me. I felt like I was moving in slow motion as I stepped out of the way and pulled the cape above its head as it passed by me.
It turned around and started back towards me when one of the ranch hands distracted it in another direction.
This break in the action gave me just enough time to run into the stands where my colleagues were laughing so hard that they were crying.
They all slapped me on the back, congratulated me and proceeded to serve me tequila on the patio.
I felt like I had been admitted into an exclusive club, even though my bullfighting career lasted less than 30 seconds. This goes to show that sometimes you have to eat larvae and fight bulls just to get a deal done.