The clock strikes 11, the siren sounds off and the crowd goes wild. I can barely move. Thousands of bodies push themselves back against the wall giving way to the five giant dumper trucks filled with 125 tons of overripe tomatoes, slowly crawling in the middle of the narrow street of this small Valencian town of Buñol. The crowd turns rowdier and restless. As the first truck gets closer and closer, I duck behind two tall men in front of me for protection. I try not to lose my balance as one hand lands on my face causing my goggles to dangle a bit. I hurriedly arrange my shower cap, ready my plastic-wrapped camera and brace myself for the battle! This is it! “Tomate! Tomate!” Shouts the crowd. And then…
￼Bam! La Batalla begins. Just right after the first truck dumps its load, thousands of tomatoes start to catapult in every direction. All hell breaks loose. Bedlam at full throttle! Men and women hurling tomatoes at each other, unmindful of who gets hit and smacked. A big one sails past my left ear and smacks against the wall. I grab it and throw it at nobody in particular. This is wicked. I grab some more and hurl with full abandon. I wipe my tomato-stained goggles to get a clear view of the whole pandemonium. One hits my mouth. The acidic and putrid taste makes me spit it out hard. Still, I get to steal some photos from my camera. Ouch! A large one slaps half of my face. “You sonofagun!!!”
FROM BRAWL TO BERRY BATTLE
Buñol is a sleepy town 38 km from Valencia. It only comes alive every last Wednesday of August as it celebrates the world-famous La Tomatina festival, also known as the `attack of rotten tomatoes’ festival.
As early as January, I had planned to participate in this annual fiesta. Together with a friend, I took a very early bus from Valencia (where we spent the night after a 4-hour ride from Barcelona) to Buñol.
La Tomatina festival started in 1945 as a local brawl, a fight among the youngsters of the town. Instead of stabbing or shooting each other, they hurled tomatoes at one another and soon it became a practice year after year. Without any religious significance and owing to its supposed violence, the festival was banned by the Franco government but only to be resurrected in the 70s, this time in honor of the town ́s patron Saint, Luis Beltran and the Mare de Deus del Desemparats (Mother of God of the defenseless).
HAMMING IT UP
We arrived at the place at exactly 7 am and the town was already up to get ready for the main event. Locals were assembling and setting up their food stands and souvenir booths that are now dotting the streets of Buñol. Shop owners have already covered their storefronts with huge plastic covers. The party had already began the day before wherein merrymakers mostly coming from Australia, Japan and the United States drank the night away while watching live bands and shows.
Nearing the main event, it seemed that the number of warm bodies had doubled. Last year, Buñol officials estimated around 40,000 people attended the festival.
Will this year surpass the number of last year ́s visitors? Aware of the wetness and wildness of the event, I knew that my good old camera would not be spared so I wrapped it with plastic.
At the entrance of the main street revellers had to surrender bottles or any sharp objects at the checkpoint guards. We positioned ourselves in front of the palo-jabon or the 20-feet high greasy pole with a fat ham at the top. The objective of the game is to climb the pole and reach for the prized ham.
Daring souls struggled to climb up only to find themselves sliding down. The crowd howled and hooted at each failed attempt. At last, somebody had reached the top and the ham finally found its rightful owner. The crowd went wild as water cannons were fired as the signal for the beginning of the fight.
…BACK TO THE BATTLEFIELD
As I look up, a chopper roams above us like a hungry hawk waiting to attack its prey. Is it going to toss some more tomatoes at us? Everybody is totally red; running, gliding or jumping in shin-deep tomato-juice-flood. The siren sounds off again. 12 o ́clock marks the end of the battle. Everyone grudgingly drops fistfuls of squashed tomato pulps and checks the “damage” caused by the fight. I take out my camera and true enough, bits of tomato tissues have entered the plastic cover. Just like in any battle, the aftermath is unspeakable. The street is a total mess.
Broken flip-flops and goggles float pitifully in the sea of tomato juice. Now that nobody is allowed to hurl tomatoes at anyone anymore, we busy ourselves posing for photos.
Time to clean up. I feel cold water surging from the rooftop above me. Some locals are hosing us down from their terrace. Fire trucks start trudging in with powerful water hoses to clean up the whole mess. My friend and I march down the end of the street up to the shower stations set up by the town council. Some tomato- drenched revellers walk straight to the nearby Buñol river for a quick splash.
ULTIMATE TOMATO EXPERIENCE
Totally cleaned up, we race down to the nearest food stand and grab a couple of grilled pork sandwiches. Halfway through my sandwich, I am still feeling high from my just concluded tomato experience that I start texting my friends about one of the craziest festivals I have ever attended.
My tips for those who want to come and experience the battle? Well, now that the town council has limited the number of participants, secure an entrance ticket first. It costs 10 euros. Be there early. Ideally, before 7 am. You can take a bus or a train from Valencia to Buñol and it’s a 45-minute ride. As much as possible, don ́t carry valuable stuff with you. I had my phone, wallet and camera wrapped in plastic and tucked in my small hip bag tied around my waist. Wearing goggles and shower caps is advisable. Old clothes and shoes too. The ones that you can throw away after the mayhem. I wore flip flops and they nearly gave in. And lastly, get dirty and have fun!!!
You may think that an hour of hurling tomatoes at each other is childish and nonsensical. Wait till you get hold of those rotten pulps and start screaming and throwing that you will realize that yes, it ́s indeed childish and nonsensical! Not to mention, total madness! After all, this is what it is all about, isn ́t it? This is what you are here for. To be like a child and be silly for one hour.
In real life, being thrown at with tomatoes would usually be a humiliating experience. But not in La Tomatina. It is always exhilarating. ←