I lay down and created a snow angel in the ankle deep tomato slush as calm returned to the streets of Buñol. Red pulpy evidence of another Tomantina Festival was being hosed off walls, thighs and streets.
The goggle-wearing crimson-tinged mass had begun their ascent out of the fleshy red pit of food warfare. I lingered in the pulpy red river with strangers of another tongue. All of us giggled, relishing the glorious freedom that comes with going completely feral and bonding over a unique grittiness that comes with having tomato seeds in your bum crack.
Reality had been suspended as soon as I stepped onto the packed train carriage headed for Tomatina in the early hours of that Valencia morning. Groups sculled and shared sangria while discussing food fighting tactics. Friends helped each other get ‘battle-ready’ by tying up loose white shirts from charity shops and adjusting each other’s giant tomato and doctor costumes. It felt like we were on school camp and had just left without the teachers.
We arrived into sleepy Buñol tipsy and full of jumpy excitement. As we got off the train I blended into the mass of food fighting enthusiasts and we burst into the town’s tarpaulin covered streets like the Lost Boys from Never Never Land — if the Lost Boys ever discovered alcohol and went on a buck’s night. I chatted to fellow food fighters and skipped as we all spiralled down Buñol’s steep streets. I skipped past waving locals with a knowing twinkle in their eye, and chairs on their plastic covered balconies. They were ready to watch the spectacle. I skipped past a church handing out free sangria and bread through steel bars. Then we came to a sudden halt; we were finally in Plaza del Pueblo — Tomatina’s hallowed ground.
It was a few hours before the official food fight was to begin, but having scored prime spots in the centre of the plaza, myself and my Tomatina accomplice decided to stay put and let the billowing mass of white shirted tourists surround us. We felt like the prized toy buried deep in a skill-tester machine as thousands rumbled down into the plaza and squashed up against us — an impressive force that increased the town’s population from 9000 to around 40,000 in a matter of hours.
The elusive prize
As we waited for the 11am water cannon to mark the official start of Tomatina, the excitement around and in-between squished bodies transpired into a rumble of screams, chants, cheers and claps. A massive wall of sound eventually directed at a thin two story ‘palo jabon’ (basically a greasy pole) in the centre of the plaza. One by one, intense and focused men approached the pole and let a mass of sweaty hairy men at the bottom thrust them skyward towards an elusive prize — a massive ham balancing at the top.
Also see: CHUCK THIS: La Tomatina – seeing red
One by one, they fell short of a victorious meaty embrace and the crowd oohed and ahhed at their bravery and failure. Eventually a Buñol native did reach the ham. The locals went wild. The winner had defeated the tourists and with that, defended the honour of their town. Now that was done, it was game on. The water cannon fired.
The first truck, filled with its share of 150,000 tomatoes, crawled through the 40,000 strong hyped-up, tipsy, sweaty crowd, none of whom seemed to mind enduring a moment of terror as the vehicle passed, squashing people into brick walls and strangers armpits. These trucks were delivering tomatoes, and they could do whatever they God damn liked.
The next hour was chaos personified, as tonnes of tomatoes were unleashed on the screaming, manic mass. I dived into tomato puddles and let tomato flesh flow into my ears. I pelted. I squashed. I rammed and mashed tomatoes into stranger’s heads and anywhere else my squishy red ammo managed to hit. People shrieked with laughter and shock as they rolled into each other, relishing the freedom and absurd excitement that comes with being in the personal space of a stranger and allowed to throw food in their face.
When the water cannon went off 60 minutes later, it was time for the carnage to stop. The street now resembled a Venetian canal filled with scarlet slush and I collapsed into its ankle deep, pulpy goodness to catch my breath. I then joined fellow war-weary and wounded tomato warriors at the bank of the clear Buñol River. Fresh water soothed the eyes of the goggle-less and cleansed crimson-tinged skin.
The manic had calmed but the chaos had not been forgotten as strangers shared knowing smiles, acknowledging a bond we all now had. A bond not based on similarities in culture, gender or religion, but a simple bond based on the fact that we had all just broken the first rule most learn in life — don’t throw your food.
When is La Tomatina?
La Tomatina takes place on the last Wednesday of August each year. The next one is 28 August 2019, followed by 26 August 2020 and 25 August 2021. So start planning now!
TOP IMAGE: By flydime (La Tomatina / Spain, Buñol) [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons