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Attack of flying tomatoes: My La tomatina experience

Attack of flying tomatoes: My La tomatina experience

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…

Everyone goes wild as one of the dump trucks laden with tons and tons of tomatoes. Photo: Carlesboveserral (Wiki commons) Photo above: flydime (Wiki commons)

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.

This is wicked. I grab some more and hurl with full abandon. I wipe my  tomato-stained goggles to regain a clear view of the whole pandemonium.  One hits my mouth and its acid and putrid taste makes me spit it as hard as I can. Still, I get to steal some photos from my camera.  Ouch! A large one slaps  half of my face. You sonofagun!!! 

La Tomatina Bunol Spain
A sea of red. Photo: flydime (Wiki commons)

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.   

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 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. 

And the locals?  Well, they might also have  partied all night long with their drinking guests but they had to psyche themselves up to ignore the  hangover as they  had  to assemble and set 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. 

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.  

La Tomatina Bunol Spain
Before the battle of the berries, spectators try to climb up a greased-covered pole to reach 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. 

Attack of the rotten tomatoes begins

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.

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Just like in any battles, 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.         

La Tomatina Bunol Spain
The author with his friend in the middle of the tomato fight in La Tomatina festival in Bunol, Spain.

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.  

Tips on the ultimate La Tomatina 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!!!

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! And a whole lot of 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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