The last thing I had expected to do in Madagascar was wrestle a bull, but that's exactly what happened. While exploring the Central Highlands, in the territory of the Betsileo tribe, I heard talk of that tribe's traditional rodeo, called a savika (SAH-vee-kah), in which young men display their bravery by grabbing hold of the humps of angry bulls and holding on for dear life. I was determined to see one firsthand.
There are two kinds of savika. I could have attended the professional-sports variety at a big arena in Ambositra, but I was hell bent on finding the real deal – a traditional cultural savika performed in a tiny village, not a souped-up sporting event. Trouble was, first I had to attend a circumcision festival.
Cultural savikas coincide with one of two major events: Famadiahana, when families exhume the bones of their dead relatives; or a circumcision festival, a two-hour party during which an entire village's toddler boys all get the snip. I attended the latter. And dig this: afterward the boys' grandfathers each ate the foreskins – with a banana. Later, when I visited one of the boys to pay my respects, he sat bouncing on his mother's knee. Gifts were piled high in his lap, including a box of cheese and a toy gun. I'm still scratching my head over the meta messages.
The following day, it's the older boys' turn to prove their manhood. The rodeo master corrals mean-tempered zebu bulls into a makeshift pen filled with mud and cow shit, then spectators poke them with sticks to raise the animals' ire. Right when the bulls are at their angriest, huffing and snorting and clawing the ground with their fore hoofs, the young men jump into the ring. Some fell and got caught beneath the massive beasts as they charged, nearly getting trampled.
I watched enthralled, cheering and sometimes wincing at the edge of the pit, sandwiched between hundreds of people who had descended from the surrounding villages. When the rodeo master gestured for to me to enter the ring, everyone stared at me in a moment of silence. Then they started to laugh. I had no choice but to say yes.
To wrestle a 2000-pound Malagasy zebu bull, you sneak up beside the animal, grab the giant hump behind its neck, and hang on tight as the bull whips around in circles, trying to buck you off. Twice the bull paused, cocked its head to look me straight in the eyes, then—wham!—whacked me right under the armpit with its giant horn. Then it spun around again. And again.
I only let go once the rodeo master looked truly terrified for my welfare. Later I found out I was the first-ever Westerner to have participated in this savika, and all the men of the village shook my hand. It seems that I cracked a rib, and for a month afterward it hurt to laugh hard. But I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
John Vlahides travelled to Madagascar on assignment for Lonely Planet. You can follow his adventures on Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled, screening internationally on National Geographic.