As almost every Albertan knows, the Calgary Stampede is a ten-day event featuring rodeo shows, art exhibitions, parades, agricultural shows and live concerts. The Stampede is almost a hundred years old and is a major tourist attraction from all over the world. Therefore, it came as no wonder that Stampede was the first thing I heard about Calgary when I decided to join the university as a graduate student last fall.
Opinions about Stampede from those who have already experienced it, however, were mixed. Some were plain ecstatic, telling me that the festival does full justice to its tagline as "the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth." Others were less thrilled, although they said it was definitely worth one visit. Nonetheless, I bought tickets for some of the Stampede shows along with a few friends from the university. It would be fair to say that none of us had any idea what all this was about. Ignorant as we were, we were still excited. The only concern was the notorious Calgary weather, which had almost ruined the festival last year.
Being a foreigner to this part of the world, I had no prior experience of witnessing any kind of Western event. Sure, I have grown up on a healthy dose of Alistair MacLean adventure novels. Also, I am a huge sucker for Western movies. The words "rodeo" and "cowboy" conjure up images of Clint Eastwood lookalikes in my mind, complete with cowboy hats, slinging guns, rugged jeans and lassos. The Calgary Stampede, famous for being one of the biggest Western festivals, was a good- if not the best- opportunity to get a glimpse of that. That's where the major attraction was for me- to experience Western culture firsthand. I had little interest in the Stampede breakfasts or theme parties before and after the event, or even in the parade which was attended by some of my friends in order to get a glimpse of the royal couple, the official guests this year.
As we entered the sprawling Stampede Park, an exhibition of First Nations culture caught our attention. Several brightly-decorated teepees were on display, and a native war dance performance was being held onstage. My first impression of Stampede Park reminded me of a fair (or mela, as it is called) back in India, with food vendors, games and rides crowded together.
People were dressed for the occasion in cowboy hats and jeans and wide leather belts. The distinctive feature of the Stampede has got to be cowboy hats, with almost everybody wearing them in accordance with the Western theme. Not to be the ones left out, my friends and I quickly bought our hats and joined the crowd. The first show we watched was the chuckwagon race. Honestly speaking, after a few rounds of racing, we began to lose interest. Luckily there were enough friendly people in the audience to chat with; one man even tried to get "the wave" going for a while.
The Grandstand Show blew all of us away- it was easily one of the best live shows we had ever seen. Performances included singing, dancing, standup comedy, acrobatics and a lot more. The spectacular fireworks deserve a special mention here; I hadn't seen anything quite like it before. For those who missed this show, I would highly recommend watching it next year, even more so since it might be more spectacular in 2012 when Stampede celebrates its 100th anniversary. The Grandstand Show ended at 11:30 p.m., after which we spent some time hanging around the Stampede Park. I was amazed to see the bustling crowd at this hour; more astounding was the fact that streams of people were pouring in even at midnight, and the festivities showed no signs of slowing down. All the shops were open and were doing quite well. For those who complain about the lack of "action" in Calgary, this was a good time to prove them wrong. The carnival mood was in full swing, and it's clear that the city takes on a party atmosphere during Stampede. This struck me as the most striking aspect of the Stampede- it's amazing how the festival can infuse so much soul into the city.
We went again the next day to catch the rodeo show as well as to cover the rest of Stampede Park. In the beginning my friends and I were a little bit skeptical, particularly because the chuckwagon racing didn't exactly register an enormous excitement among us the day before. To our great relief, however, the rodeo show was far, far better. The participants were enthusiastic, the crowd was cheerful, and frankly, what else do you need to put on a good show? Honestly, I was not even aware of what terms like "barrel racing" and "steer wrestling" meant, but that didn't get in the way of my enjoyment. Everything being properly explained, it did not take long for me to get into the spirit of the rodeo. This show lasted a little more than three hours, leaving all of us fully entertained in the end.
After the rodeo show, we decided to take a stroll inside the park to see the rest of what Stampede had to offer. First of all, we saw a very entertaining one-man band show and some stalls set up by the Canadian army to display uniforms and artilleries. Then we checked into the BMO Museum, where amazing works of art were up for sale. We spent a considerable amount of time checking out paintings, wooden handicrafts, bronze statues and assorted artworks. This was a caveat for someone who actually planned on buying art, but these were extremely costly. Either that, or we were just poor graduate students.
As an outsider to North America and its culture, I have found that there can hardly be another show that captures the heart and spirit of the West as precisely as the Stampede does. If you are a new international student at the University of Calgary, this is an event that should not be missed.