Sunday, 27 November 2011

Hang a Donkey,Throw a Duck.

Spain and the Hispanic world are renowned for their odd festivals and quirky traditions, so before any animal rights activists hunt me down and maul me for that title, I'd like to quickly point out that I'll return more powerful than you can possibly imagine... OK, so that was stolen from Star Wars, and as far as I know neither ducks nor donkeys were injured during the making of those films. Although I'm betting that the line 'the plum sauce is strong with this one' would have definitely improved A New Hope; Darth Vader  must have eaten something, and I reckon duck would feature on the menu of someone in charge of a Deathstar.Yet I digress - my disclaimer was supposed to be that these practices and games no longer use the animals in question.

Let us begin with the donkey, which just so happens to be a potent symbol of Catalunya. It is a trusty beast: hard-working and considered to be the best sort of donkey according to the Fuives website. Fuives is a conservation centre for el ruc catalĂ  because it was, at one point, in grave danger of becoming extinct despite being an old race - Pliny the Elder himself spoke very highly of them. So if someone calls you a donkey here, it may not be an insult but a wonderful compliment that you are a rare species indeed. Or Pliny has come back from the dead and is speaking to you.

In western Catalunya there lies a town called Solsona, in the vicinity of Lleida. In days of yore, when donkeys frequented the dusty village paths and were quite possibly more intelligent than the local residents, the church belltower became choked with weeds and unwanted greenery. Legend has it that whilst the townspeople were together discussing the best way to clear the belltower, a lone donkey wandered into their midst. Some bright spark suggested that if they could somehow persuade the donkey up to the roof it would eat all the nasty weeds. They all agreed and hauled the poor donkey up to the belltower on a crude pulley system. Nobody knows what really happened that day, but perhaps this provides us with an explanation as to the disappearance of the donkey in this area: some swear the donkey was fine and did its job, peeing on the townspeople as it did so - something that was supposed to be extremely fortunate. Others say the spinal cord was broken before it even made half-way up the church. Nowadays, Solsona Carnival string up an inflatable donkey - so the only danger here is if an eagle mistakes it for the real deal and while attempting to carry it off punctures it - and spray water on each other, which is an infinitely more acceptable substitute for urine.

Now we cross the Atlantic ocean, flying on wings of imagination or those of a duck, skimming the frothy waves until we land with all the delicate grace of Peter Kay in Argentina, where the national sport is one that has its roots set firmly in animal cruelty and (it has to be said) hilarity. I mean, who thinks of throwing around a duck in a basket? On horseback? It was even called pato, meaning 'duck'. At least the duck got some sort of credit but I'm not sure that's any consolation for being tossed about in a basket for a few hours. It's a sport very similar to polo and is now called 'horseball', after the change from live duck to fiddly ball with many handles.
Incidentally, the hoops one has to throw the ball through are suspiciously reminiscent of Ms Rowling's invented Quidditch...meaning that Harry Potter's wizarding sport is one based on duck-hatred.

Anyway, the first time I heard of this game was when one of my students made an oral presentation about her hobby, horseball. It's something that sticks very clearly in my mind because at one point the poor thing mispronounced the word 'horseball' and accidentally said 'whoreball'. I'm assuming this is another game entirely.