Thursday, August 30, 2012


Yesterday was the Tomatina festival. This is our experience.

Mala and I had done minimal research about the festival, which mostly consisted of reading accounts on other people's blogs. Mala watched a few videos. I went to the festival website to look up the rules. (I love rules.) We had prepared thusly:

  • Bought/brought crappy shoes, shirts, and shorts just for this event that are essentially disposable. Thanks H&M and Old Navy.
  • Packed swim goggles to wear to protect our eyes. These were superseded by woodworking goggles brought by Patrick which were far superior to the ones I brought.
  • Bought a disposable, waterproof camera

Morning of:
  • Brought no cell phones, wallets, passports, or other essentials to the actual festival; only a few of us brought money or credit cards in plastic bags shoved into shoes or buttonable pockets. I brought nothing but gave 50 Euro to Mala to hold.
  • Brought two towels between the six of us. We left the towels in the cabs we took there which also took us home.
  • Hair up. Sunscreen for the white folk. Disposable cameras strapped to arms.

And so we were ready. We took a before picture at the apartment. We left the house at 7am.

Tomatina Morning:
We opted to take taxis to the event. We hemmed and hawed over it, but after realizing the train station was probably a half hour from our place (by subway), and that a bus may indeed make me carsick, we booked taxis using the concierge at the hotel across the street. They didn't have any van taxis available, so we booked two cars. Bus would have been 16 Euro round trip per person, taxi was 30 Euro. Totally worth it.

We met our taxis at 7am outside our place. The sun wasn't up but it was light out. We were pretty amped. The drive only took about a half hour. We were told to get there early, and that traffic might delay us, so we left plenty of time. The actual tomato fight starts at 11am.

Our taxis dropped us off a bit outside of the main part of town. They parked on a small cul de sac off the main street. We walked the additional half hour or so into the town square. I imagine this was not a typical Wednesday in  Buñol, Spain.

Buñol is a town of 9,000 people. It's tiny and run-down and kinda dirty. There are nearly as many empty lots of dry weeds as there are decrepit businesses along the walk into town. On Tomatina day, vendors line the streets. Not, like, Heineken stands, just people cooking sausages and other assorted meats and serving sandwiches and drinks. People are selling cans of beer out of plastic bags for a Euro each. Hand-drawn signs indicate that you can leave your belongings with someone and pick them up later for a small fee. Music blasts from various locations, all hip-hop/techno/dance music that has the morning people bouncing around and the rest of us smiling.

The crowd is decidedly, and not surprisingly, young. Probably majority college kids. Lots of Aussies. Probably at least half the people or more seemed to be speaking English. Some people were in silly outfits like onesies or tutus. Most people were in shorts, crappy shoes or flip flops, and t-shirts or tank tops.

As we entered town with the rest of the influx, the sun was up. It was probably 80 or 85 in the sun before 9am. We followed the masses down a road on a large hill, meandering through the residential part of town. Houses and small apartment buildings lined the streets, some on cliffs above; the landscape was quite steep in some parts. There were few trees; the housing in this part of town had no yards. We passed Buñol Castle from across a ravine, with run-down houses built right up to it on one side. We passed the police station, ambulances poised to receive the carnage of the day.

We reached the bottom of the hill – downtown. The city is small, the streets are narrow. Small businesses and apartments line the streets on both sides with no setback from the sidewalks. Windows are shuttered, only select businesses are open to cater to the Tomatina-istas. I made that word up and I like it. I should have sold t-shirts.

It was probably only 8.30am by this point; we had time to kill. After walking around and scoping the lay of the land (and finding the center of the upcoming festivities), we found a quad to share a few drinks and sit and wait. We established said quad as our meeting spot in case we got separated, which we saw as a likely possibility.

We sat for a few hours, drinking, people-watching, and wondering what was going to happen. It seemed to be the general consensus that people did not know what to expect. There were locals around, and surely this wasn't everyone's first time, but the people we spoke to and overheard had all the same questions we did: Where were the tomatoes dropped off? Where should we stand? Why was this and that road being blocked off? What time is it?

At about ten till 11am, we decided to head into the crowds that blanketed the streets. We had seen the center of town hours earlier and it had already been packed at that time. We decided that none of us had any interest in trying to get back there; it was going to be the center of the madness.

Instead, we stood in a moderately crowded T intersection of two streets. Six-ish story apartments surrounded us on all sides. A short bridge lie behind us, leading back out of the town center. People on the surrounding balconies dumped buckets and emptied hoses of water onto the crowd. Said crowd squealed with delight and invited more. It was hot, the water felt good.

Then we heard the cannons that started the tomato fight. The crowd roared.

Tomatina, a Tomato Fight:
For the first half hour or so (no one had a watch), we stood in that small street with hundreds of others. We got water dumped on us intermittently from all sides. We dried almost immediately. It was probably close to 100 degrees in the sun. Our major tomato focus during this time was one particular balcony of a few men who had tomatoes to throw into the crowd. Everyone within a block radius was focused on them as they pelted people with tomatoes at a leisurely pace. People tried to throw the tomatoes back at those gentlemen, but they were on the fourth floor and were hard to hit. Lloyd was the sole success; he chucked a perfectly aimed tomato and whacked one of the shirtless men straight in the chest. Congratulatory high fives were exchanged by strangers and friends alike. He later smacked a person on another balcony with a tomato. Good aim, that one.

This is when it occurred to me that it would be pretty easy to get hurt. We had goggles on (Marisa's boyfriend, Patrick, had actually brought nice woodworking goggles for us all to wear, so we were saved our sad swimming goggles), but being pelted in the head with a fast-flying tomato was a real possibility. At least compared to my normal life.

I spent most of that half hour looking around vigilantly. Smiling, but watching. Ducking randomly and not really at the right times. My first hit was straight in the mouth. It wasn't a hard throw, considering, the tomato wasn't huge and my mouth wasn't open. But it was startling, and I learned something very important very quickly – the tomatoes are gross. Do not let them get in your mouth. We learned to despise the smell right away.

Then the first tomato truck came through. It came from in front of us, from the direction of the center of the festival, and continued past us down the bridge behind us. It was supposed to bring tomatoes, but it had already run out. The truck itself was a large dump truck with people in the bed who were charged with throwing tomatoes out into the crowd as the truck scooted down the street at a snail's pace. This truck was empty except for the people who were completely covered in tomato remnants.

The second truck came about ten minutes later with the same results. We were disappointed. We decided to head toward the action.

The six of us formed a line, holding hands and shoulders and waists to stay together. Jeremy, Marisa's British friend and the tallest of all of us, led us through the crowd. We weaved and snaked and managed to stay together. We approached the T intersection of the next street just as the third truck was coming through. Though we had only moved forward a couple hundred feet, the situation was entirely different.

The crowd had thickened to a suffocating density. And, as the truck inched through the street, the people were displaced to either side making it that much more crowded as the truck passed. Seeing the truck was about 50 feet in front of us, Jeremy and his friend Lloyd took it upon themselves to shove all six of us into the heaving crowd that was bulging from the side street of the T intersection. This was done with great difficulty, as there was nowhere to be pushed. It was like those Japanese subway cars where the guards just grab hands and mush people closer and closer together until there is literally no more room.

It was fun though. Most people were smiling. Yelling. Laughing. The crowd swayed uncontrollably – where were we trying to go exactly? You could nearly raise your feet off the ground and remain just where you were. It was lung-crushingly, heart-poundingly mad. The six of us made an amoeba-group with Marisa and Mala in the middle-ish, and the four of us surrounding them, all with our backs facing out. We had arms around each other and hands held tight. We moved together with the crowd, all keeping our footing and keeping together. It was awesome.

After a few minutes the truck finally came parallel with us. It still had tomatoes. The only problem with our six-person amoeba was that there was no defense against flying foods (and clothing). Not that anyone else had better access to defenses, really. The tomatoes came down like rain. They weren't whole tomatoes, more like tomato mush. As though the people in the truck had stepped on the tomatoes first, mushing each tomato into a dozen pieces of juicy, seedy, tomato skin.

Tomato pieces flew everywhere. They were in your hair. Your mouth. Your sports bra. The truck was loud, diesel. The crowd was screaming, cheering, rabid. Twice, Marisa was pelted with an article of clothing in the face. Lloyd yelled “Gross!” before grabbing the clothing and flinging it elsewhere into the crowd. A boy mushed a tomato-covered shirt into Mala's hair for some reason. She yelled in disgust. Patrick's goggles were ripped off. The rest of us were extremely thankful to still have our goggles. We struggled to maintain our amoeba. Which became more difficult as I realized we were ankle deep in a rushing stream of tomato sauce on the ground. The gutters were literally flowing with tomato juice and tomato pulp. It was incredible.

The canon sounded to end the fight. That's one of the rules – when the end cannon sounds at noon, you can't throw tomatoes anymore. This rule was not followed. The fourth truck was just about parallel to us when the cannon sounded. The people in the truck made no move to stop and hurled tomatoes at the crowd just as the truck before had. We decided to head out and amoeba-d our way down the side street into which we had pressed ourselves to escape the path of the tomato truck.

The crowd quickly thinned as we proceeded down the alley. We took stock as we walked down the road, still densely crowded, but now you could walk without having to hold hands. We were covered. Our hair, arms, legs, clothes. We looked like you had tried to make pasta with us. Our shoes were the worst, the tomato paste just perched on the tops of our feet like bruscetta. We smelled like hell. We spat out seeds. We picked mess out of our hair. We, finally, removed our goggles.

Getting Out of Tomatina:
Many  Buñol residents take to hosing off the tomato-covered visitors after the festival. We stopped at more than one person with a hose to get cleaned off. We ladies stripped to sports bras, the boys to bare chests. We carried our smelly, stained shirts and tank tops and goggles as we talked and laughed our way out of the town.

Our taxi drivers were supposed to meet us at the same location where they had dropped us off. Some of us were skeptical that this would actually happen. We had paid them in advance. Some of us had left clothing in their cars (not me). Would we be able to get back to them in time? Would we be able to find them again? Would they have indeed waited for us? Yes, yes, and yes.

We retraced our steps after only a small amount of inter-amoeba arguing about which direction we were facing, and were back to the taxis after about a half hour walk. We weren't totally clean, but we were far better off than many people who had apparently left with no rinsing. They were disgusting. I kept thinking someone might accidentally rub up against me and was dreading the possibility.

The festivities continued on the streets upon our exit, much as they had been earlier that morning. Many people were stopping to eat, drink, pee (in a port-o-potty or not). Tour buses lined the streets waiting to take their charges back to the nearby town of Valencia where most everyone was saying (us included). Aside from Lloyd stopping to buy some chips (Really Lloyd, chips? Not water?), we made it un-rushed and un-hindered to the taxis with plenty of time to spare.

Our drivers were there. They shook our hands and kissed our cheeks as though we were friends. They had fitted the seats with plastic bags so that our tomato filth and stench wouldn't get in their seats. They drove us back to Valencia as we all dozed happily in the air conditioning.

After Tomatina:
We got back to the apartment, payed homage to the gods of air conditioning, and started alternating shower usage. We stripped our filthy clothes off and lay things on the balcony to dry. I showered. It was heavenly. The tub looked a bit like I was making a marinara sauce, flecked with tomato peel and seeds from my hair, arms, legs. I didn't want to see another tomato again for at least a week.

We napped. Then we reminisced. We agreed that we had a perfect Tomatina experience. We got there with plenty of time to spare. No one had lost anything, not even each other. We started in the “beginner” area on the outskirts, which let us get used to the situation and not tire ourselves out, then we moved into the action for just the right amount of time to have fun but not so long that we got tired, hurt, or claustrophobic. The taxis were a godsend – the perfect way to get there and back. The day was hot and sunny, but the water being dumped on us had kept us cool for most of the time. None of us even got a sunburn.

The only issue I had was that the tomatoes seemed to provoke a reaction from my skin. I was itchy the rest of the day and the following day. We were trying to deduce why I was so itchy (new soap? something i ate? bug bites?), but I concluded that it had to be the tomato juice or acid. I was itchy starting only after the festival, and only on my arms and bottom half of my legs – the exact parts (besides my face) that were covered in tomato goo. I am very glad my face was spared from the itchyness; I assume that's because I wiped my face more often than the rest of me during the fight. Also, this is an ailment particular to me – no one else in our group felt any ill effects from the tomatoes. Weird.

So, that was Tomatina. It was mad fun. The group of six was absolutely perfect, in quantity and quality. It was as smooth an experience as possible, I'd say, and I'm very happy we went. Pictures to be posted upon my return.

Next up... Barcelona with the Smallster (Mala)...


Quinn said...

Why was I not invited along?

Daddyo said...

Wow, I am exhausted just from reading that. Sounds like Carnivale from Star Trek.

Lloyd J said...

This is absolutely spot on Angie. Love it and we had a brilliant time!!