The clock strikes 11, the siren sounds off and the crowd goes wild. I can barely move as thousands of bodies push themselves back against the wall giving way to the five giant dumper trucks laden with 125 tons of overripe tomatoes that are slowly crawling in the middle of the narrow street of this small Valencian town of Buñol.
Everyone becomes rowdier and restless. As the first truck gets closer and closer, I duck behind the 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 has begun. Just right after the first truck dump its load, thousands of tomatoes start catapulting 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.
From brawl to berry battle
As early as January, I had already planned to spend the last Wednesday of August in Buñol, a sleepy town 38 km from Valencia to participate in the annual La Tomatina festival, also known as the attack of rotten tomatoes festival. 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.
Without any religious significance and the violence it promoted, the festival was banned by the Franco government but only to be resurrected in the 70´s, 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 o ´clock this morning and the town was already up to get ready for the main event. Actually, the party had already began a day ago where merrymakers mostly coming from Australia, Japan and the United States drank the night away with live bands and shows.
We followed our fellow revelers towards the entrance of the main street where everyone 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.
A number of daring souls tried to climb up but only slid down a couple of inches later. The crowd howled and hooted at each failed attempt. As we were 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. 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
I look up and see a chopper roaming above us like a hungry hawk waiting to attack its prey. Is it going to toss some more tomatoes at us? Everybody is totally covered with red; running, gliding, jumping shin-deep in 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 even if I have carefully sealed it, bits of tomato tissues have entered the plastic cover.
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 revelers 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 o´clock. 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!!!
In real life, it is true that being thrown at with tomatoes is usually humiliating. But in La Tomatina, it is always exhilarating.
This article was first published in the 2015 Summer Issue of The Filipino Expat Magazine.
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Nats Sisma Villaluna has been serving the Filipino community in Spain for more than 13 years. His volunteer works include teaching Spanish to Filipinos, and as artistic director of the Coro Kudyapi, a group of musically inclined young Filipinos in Barcelona. His passion to serve the Filipino community now extends to other countries in his role as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the new The Filipino Expat Magazine.