As thousands of young tourists crowded at the entrance to the festival area in the little town of Bunol near Valencia, Spain, armed with goggles, scuba masks, bee-keeper outfits, silver latex bodysuits, disposable waterproof cameras, and ziplock bags containing tickets and passports, I had only one coherent thought in those wee hours of the morning: I am about to make some wicked memories here. We’d gotten to the venue at 6AM, as had most other tomatiners, based on recommendations on numerous travel websites. The festival was to begin at 11AM, so we had some to kill. Which of course we filled with lots of delicious sangria and a random on-the-go breakfast from a food cart that had conveniently set itself up nearby.
I took a moment to observe my surroundings. Most of these people were tourists. Young tourists, in fact. There were a lot of Australians and Japanese tourists, which gave you an idea of how well-known and vastly bucket-listed this festival is globally. Groups were dressed in themed t-shirts with cool logos such as Heinz Tomato Ketchup substituted for La Tomatina 2013, for example. There were men (definitely American) dressed in pink lingerie, guys with their heads completely shaved except for a tiny piece in the middle cut like the top of a tomato, girls wearing swim caps and goggles, and us.. all white with red bandanas. The plan was to look alike so we’d be able to find each other, but no one considered the fact that we’d ALL look the same once this was over.
Our tickets bought and our passports safely in our pockets (bad idea!), pinned to our bras (bad idea!), or pinned to the inside of our shorts (me – bad idea!), we headed with the crowed to the festival area. As we walked over, a very smart person in our group (who i can’t remember now) pointed out a vet hospital with a huge sign that could be a meeting spot if we were to get seperated. Safety protocols in place, we headed over to the festival area, ready for war.
Before the fight starts, it is tradition for a greased ham pole to be setup in the midst of the crowd, at which point brave souls try to monkey-climb up and get to the piece of meat. It’s a ridiculously daunting task as it was soon discovered by many that tried their luck to no avail. While this ritual continues, the crowd below jostles and shoves while cheering on the climbers. Meanwhile the entire town watches from their balconies and terraces, enjoying the chaos from afar and hosing down any climber that gets too close to the ham.
Honestly, the entire experience was exhilarating. You became a part of this herd mentality of shove or be shoved, push or be pushed, keep moving or be trampled. Unfortunately, my small frame and short height was a disadvantage, and although our group of 9 was firmly locked together for protection, somehow, I was separated and pulled into the crowd. I could still see them though, so it wasn’t an issue until I started to be shoved into people’s armpits and felt my ribs being squeezed from all sides. At that point it was just more important to get the hell out of that situation because it was getting really difficult to breathe. I don’t remember ever having pushed that hard without any kind of give. It was so crowded and the people so jammed together that I wasn’t able to push my way out! At that point it was all I could do not to panic. Ducking under arms and rudely pushing faces out of my way, I sluggishly made my way to the nearest wall (bad idea!). When I got there I realized I had just made things worse, as the wall obviously would have NO give, and I could really be crushed there. So I turned to the guy beside me, PRAYING he spoke English (many didn’t in Spain, it was crazy), and asked him to help me because I couldn’t breathe and needed to get out. His incredulous response of “Are you serious?!” was sweet American/Canadian music to my ears, and his painfully hard push against my back was the greatest feeling ever because it got me through the crowd and out onto the sidelines of the madness. I ran to the nearest pavement and sat down, holding my head between my hands and focusing on my breathing. I’d probably become semi claustrophobic in there (although I’m not claustrophobic normally), which had made my breathing shallow. I felt better right away but remained sitting just to be sure. Just when I thought I was ready to get back into the chaos, it started to pour.
Normally I wouldn’t have minded but the rain was cold, so I sought shelter under an awning in a parallel street, where all the emergency vehicles and cops were stationed . The rain continued for quite a while, which gave me time to get friendly with several Spanish cops (yes they were gorgeous!) that were sharing the awning with me. No one understood anyone, of course, but I like to think the conversation was meaningful? I told them I’d lost ‘my amigos’ (you can’t say I didn’t learn any Spanish in Spain!) and they seemed to understand, but couldn’t do much for me. I tried to tell them my ‘amigos’ were pretty close to the ham pole but I didn’t know how to say ham so I ended up miming a pole and saying ‘pollo’ which means chicken. I don’t even want to know what they thought I was saying – I mean a girl miming a pole? Come on. No wonder they looked confused. And very amused.
As I stood there watching the rain and fretting over finding my friends, a cannonball-like shot was fired somewhere in the distance, immediately followed by a huge uproar from the crowd. As I craned my neck to see what was going on, the policeman nearest to me yelled ‘La Tomatina!’, pointing in the direction of the closest side street. I looked up. The rain was still coming down heavily but it was now or never. I had come all the way to Spain pretty much for this festival, and there was no way I was missing out just because I was alone. Waving to the cops, I raced up the side street, slipping and sliding in my waterproof flats, my excitement building as I ran. I was not even a little bit prepared for the scene that awaited me.
The main street was utterly and completely red. The walls, the concrete, the pavement, the people, the trees, the buildings, the trucks…the trucks?! I suddenly became aware of the humungous trucks that were slowly making their way down the main street, forcing the crowd to part. These trucks were full of people armed to the teeth with squished tomatoes. And they were merciless. It suddenly dawned on me that the trucks were the source of the tomatoes, and every time one passed the side street I was holed up in, 20 people would pelt us with tomatoes. As more trucks passed us we got creative with our attack methods. Two Asians in beekeeper outfits (I swear I’m not making this up) acted as our frontline defense. Larger, football-player like guys crouched behind them, using their expert aim to hit targets square in the face. I hid behind these guys, protecting myself for all I was worth. Using these human shields for protection, I managed to get several sneak attacks in myself before deciding I wanted to venture out into the madness to find my friends.
Since the tomato-throwing began, the crowd had gotten a little less tight, and I was able to weave my way through it without feeling suffocated. With tomato juice stinging my eyes, dodging crazy Koreans swimming in the pulp, and avoiding beefy drunk guys smacking everyone with wet tomato-soaked t-shirts, I waded through the mess, hoping to come across my friends at some point. But then someone decided it would be fun to start kicking tomato smush in all directions, which of course led to a crowd frenzy once again. Abandoning any attempts to find my friends now, I swam/waded/ran towards the nearest wall, where I’d seen a girl standing high up on a ledge. It would be the safest place for me. As I approached the wall at a flat out sprint, preparing to do an Olympic-style high jump (which would have failed miserably for sure), like four pairs of hands hoisted me up on the ledge, while the girl standing up there grabbed my hands and helped me up. They didn’t know me and I didn’t know them but at that moment, in the middle of that tomato war, we were allies. She was Korean I think, and spoke very little English. Not that it mattered. We couldn’t hear each other over the war cries anyway.
Of course climbing up on that ledge made me a sitting duck and an easy target. Seeing a new ‘duck’ on the ledge, people took aim and showed no mercy. It was like a dance of danger, balancing on that narrow ledge and constantly dodging tomatoes. One guy actually threw a tomato-soaked t-shirt at me! Once again my Korean ally came to my rescue. Picking up the ‘Specials’ board of the bar whose ledge we were apparently standing on, she used it as a shield against the the tirade, allowing us to not only be protected, but to attack right back as well. I was in complete Xena warrior princess mode at this point. It just brings it out in you, this madness.
When the cannon sounded to signal the end of the greatest food fight on earth, we trudged back through the streets of Bunol, exhausted from the battle. But the fun was just beginning. Residents all across the town had set up food carts on the streets, water hosing stations outside their garages, and music and alcohol flowed freely everywhere. Illegal vendors ran around, dodging cops and selling flip flops and clothes (they were selling goggles before the fight – so resourceful haha!).
I met up with my friends at the vet hospital – again – the smartest idea we came up with that day. We exchanged stories and it sounded like theirs was a tale of epic proportions as well, with lost and found passports, crazy hair pulling and group protection strategies to make it through the battle.
La Tomatina has now officially been checked off my bucket list. It was nothing like I’d imagined, it was infinitely more stressful, fantastic, exhilarating, amazing, scary, and fulfilling. The feeling of accomplishment is indescribable. HIGHLY recommended, but not for the weak of heart!