Technology has totally reshaped the way we consume information. Facts and trivial knowledge are available at everybody’s fingertips in an instant. What used to be the meat and potatoes of our daily learning experience has been broken down into tidbits. These delicate morsels of info are leisurely shoveled into our brain mouths at our own individually fickle becks and calls. People read blog entries like these to share experiences, not facts. Am I right? You could easily google the fact that Tomatina started in 1945 and the true origin story is unknown. Everybody’s best guess places blame on Bunol youth retaliating against some kind of authority for being left out of some kind of parade. I won’t bore you with trivia like 130 tons of tomatoes are grown in the small community of Extremadura specifically for use at La Tomatina. You could get that from Wikipedia. I’ll miss you with yawn inducing tidbits like 20,000 people showed up for the festival in 2013 which is the first year there was a participation limit enacted. In years prior up to 40,000 people were in attendance. I will, however, tell you this….
Bunol is a small town of 9,000 people located about 38 km west of Spain’s third largest city, Valencia. Bunol is a peculiarly unassuming town. The local people are warm and friendly. The landscape is pastorally idyllic, yet modern enough to be charming for all travelers. It appears as though with the exception of the week leading up to La Tomatina, absolutely no interest or effort is put into pushing the festival. This is a refreshing change of pace from American ideology. We will turn a town known for a specific niche into a 24-7 advertisement for the attraction (think Disney World in Orlando). I stepped off of my bus at approximately 9 am, still buzzing with excitement from the previous night’s festival. The bus backed in to a designated spot on a sparsely vegetated plot of land about 100 ft. from Bunol’s sole Renfe train stop. We watched briefly as a train slowed to a stop at the platform. I can only assume the throngs of passengers that exited the train were in town for Tomatina along with us. Even at our location almost a mile away from the center of town, the festivities were already buzzing. Vendors were weaving in and out of the unyielding mass of foot traffic offering goggles, food and beverages for sale. I was dressed from head to toe in white, with the exception of a red bandana tied around my neck. Attire perhaps more suited to dodge bulls in Pamplona, but an ode to Spanish tradition nonetheless. In instinctive unison, the entire building crowd slowly slinked its way towards the center of town. The slow walk gave me plenty of time to take in the scenery as we approached the square. Tree lined walking paths gave way to cobblestone streets flanked by white and beige buildings on either side. Some Spanish style villas with ornate tile roofs and some more utilitarian looking buildings that housed 5 story apartments and small family owned businesses. Many of the windows, balconies and edifices were already covered in tarps to protect the properties from tomato damage. I quickly whipped out my camera and pointed it at Rome. He rattled off a quick narration of the bustling scene as I captured footage of the people and atmosphere. By the time we arrived in the town square, storm clouds were building overhead. We came to a stop about 20 feet from a gung ho group of festival organizers with their own water cannons. We were about 100 feet away from the palo jabon. The palo jabon (loosely translated to greasy pole) is an event that ceremoniously signals the start of the tomato fight. Basically, a pole is greased from top to bottom and a ham is hung at its apex. Festival participants chosen by the Tomatina organizers take turns attempting to scale the pole and retrieve the ham. In the early years of La Tomatina, the festival would not begin until the ham was retrieved. Nowadays, the trucks start rolling in at 11 am, regardless of if the ham has been captured or not. In a frantic build up to the pending food fight, the crowd huddled tightly together, to chant, sing and cheer the palo jaboners up the pole. Shortly after 10, those ominous clouds opened up and it started drenching everything in sight. To add karmic insult to injury, the water cannon crew decided to open up full blast on the crowd! Within seconds I was drenched from head to toe. I could hear the water sloshing around in my shoes with every step I took. The revelers were resilient though. There was only a slight lull of disappointment in the rain before the crowd was cheering and dancing again. Rome and I put on our goggles and gasped to narrate the events at hand in between huge bursts of water. Before long, it had stopped raining and the energy of the festival shifted its attention to the svelte Spanish man ascending the palo jabon. He hugged the top of the pole with all his might and reached out with his left hand to pluck the ham from its tether. Everybody erupted in joy! The water cannons went crazy, soaking everything in sight. The people that lived in the apartments lining the street began dumping water on the crowd below (a welcome tradition after the tomato fight). Shortly after the ham was snared, a loud cannon went off and hordes of officials wearing bright green t shirts filled the street. They began corralling the herds of people as close to the buildings as they could possibly get to make room for the huge truck load of tomatoes that was making its way through. I’m sure this was particularly uncomfortable for the people closest to the buildings. They were more than likely smashed between brick walls and rows of people continuously being told to back up. Miraculously, enough room was made without anybody’s foot being run over. The organizers began throwing tomatoes out of the bed of the truck. As the truck approached the center of the mass, it stopped completely. The back gate was lifted and the entire load of tomatoes was dumped on the ground. At that point, chaos ensued! The frenzied crowd, already soaked with rain and still being bombarded by water cannons, dove at the tomato mound placed before them. I grabbed two fistfuls of tomatoes, crushed them in my hands (as is the etiquette to prevent any serious injuries) and flung them wildly in the air. The crowd was literally so close to me that I could do nothing more than either toss the tomatoes airborne, or smash them on the head of the person closest to me. As the rain subsided and the temperature rose, things got steamy. The goggles that I was clinging onto dearly for eye protection were rendered useless. Between condensation and tomato skins, I could no longer see out of them. I lifted them off of my face and slowly but surely began to go to war. Before it was all said and done, 8 to 10 trucks rolled through the battle zone. Each one dropping its lycopene rich payload before driving off into the proverbial sunset. Every time ammo was dropped, I pounced fiendishly on the red fruits of chaos. As space was made, it became easier to crush and hurl bombs at specifically selected targets. The pretty girl that you saw in your hotel lobby, BOOM, right in the forehead. The guy that kinda looks like a Spanish version of the guy at work that you don’t like, WHAM, right in the chin. As the trucks rolled in and the crowds got pushed to the side, I got separated from my brother, Rome. I sloshed through the ragu under my feet back towards the water cannons where I was hoping to find him. Rome was nestled under a small tree covered in tomato from head to toe. He was holding his camera high in the air, surveying the madness at hand. “Yo Dirty Ice”, he said as he saw me approaching. His greeting served as a notice to the patrons in his immediate area that there was fresh meat in town. They instantly began pummeling my big bald head with tomatoes from every direction. I ducked and scooped up an arm full of tomatoes from the ground. I threw them in the air like LeBron James powdering his hands before a game. I don’t even know if they hit anybody. I don’t even know if the celebration is truly about hitting anybody. At precisely 12 noon we heard another cannon go off. At this point all tomato throwing ceased. For the first time, I was able to look around and survey the damage. Tomato juice and pulp flooded the ground shin deep at some low points in the road. The first thing that hit me was the shear amount of tomato in my vicinity. The second thing that hit me was the heat! Just as instinctively as the crowd descended into the pits of hell, we also instinctively migrated back towards the highlands from which we came. I felt like rigatoni noodle in a mobile baked ziti. The sun was baking the tomato to our skin and the acid was making everybody itch furiously. The crowd, ever so anxious to find a place to clean up, was pushy to say the least. At one point, I stopped walking and let the festival goers behind me literally push me along the walkway. My lower legs cut through the sea of tomato goulash like a speedboat.
Two things became blatantly obvious to me as we ascended the walkway back towards our respective conveyances. Number one, there is a reason these tomatoes were used for fights and nothing else. They tasted horrible! They were extremely acidic with a bitter note that lingered on my palate for hours. Number two, it was going to be extremely difficult for me to find a place to wash off. The local gentlemen made sure water hoses were readily available for all of the lovely ladies. They were not so eager to enter me in that same wet t-shirt contest though. I wonder why! I was fortunate enough to find a splash of water here and there. By the time I returned to my bus, I had rinsed all of the solid tomato pulp, skin and seeds off of my body. The white ensemble that I wore for the event was of course permanently stained pink. I found as much of a secluded corner as I could to remove my pink Tomatina gear and put on some clean clothes for the bus ride back to my hotel. On a humbling note, as I tossed away my soiled clothing away, it was immediately fished out by somebody that I can only assume was either more thrifty or less fortunate than I am. As I turned to walk back to my bus, the gentleman yelled out “Hey”! I turned around to face him and he held up one of the shoes that I threw in the dumpster just seconds before. “I can’t wear this shit….it’s too big”, he said with a smile and a wink. I laughed and continued on my way to the bus. When I got back to my room, my eyes were bloodshot red from exposure to all the tomato juice. I was digging tomato bits and pieces out of every crevice on my body. I stood in the shower and watched the water run from ketchup red to finally clear after about 10 minutes. Overall, I can say it was a great experience that I will treasure forever. Can I say I would do it again…….no. I would participate in the festivals and fanfare that lead up to the event in a heartbeat. The province of Valencia is a wonderful place to visit. I could even see myself living there and being happy. I’m even down for another gargantuan food fight. Just not tomatoes…..please god anything but tomatoes.