La Tomatina is a yearly festival in Bunol, Spain that began because of one lovesick man. He tried to win over a woman with song until townspeople became so fed up that they started throwing tomatoes at him (so the legend goes). It is now a massive event attended by 30,000-40,000 people.
Most people arrive into Bunol by train and head to the town center to witness the glory that is the ham pole, a wood log greased in lard with a ham attached at the top. There would be no tomatoes until the ham was brought down.
This ham could have been brought down in fifteen minutes if everyone worked together like in those human towers, but every guy there wanted to be the hero. One man would get close and another would try to climb over him to a chorus of boos. Girls who attempted to mount the log would have their shorts pulled down. The base of the ham pole was not very different from a mosh pit, with fights, bloody noses, and boob grabbing. I was content taking pictures from a distance.
It was very obvious that the thick, white lard made climbing the pole very difficult. After about half an hour the main goal of the climbers was getting off as much of it as possible. Guys who made it high enough would have shirts thrown at them for grease wiping. The grease-wipers would get the most cheers as blobs of the Crisco-like substance landed on the crowd.
By 11:30am there were a few guys who got tantalizingly close to the ham. Patiently, the crowd waited by singing, chanting, and throwing random objects in the air. Finally, at noon, a young man brought down the ham with the help of a muscular man who supported him. A cannon boom was heard and the man and his ham was carried off into the crowd, a hero. Off in the distance, the first of five trucks was making its way to the town center. Little red balls could be seen flying in the air.
The next stage of the festival was the tearing of the shirts. If you had a t-shirt on, there was a very good chance it was going to get violently ripped off. The locals usually led the effort but tourists such as this one caught on quickly. Tearing shirts was harder than what I remembered from watching Hulk Hogan as a kid: you really had to yank and pull the victim in all directions to get the initial tear going. These shirts were then wetted with dirty water from the street and thrown into the crowd.
The first truck got closer and the noise from the crowd grew louder. Everyone wanted tomatoes. I put away my digital camera in a plastic bag as the first wave of tomatoes landed around me. Inside the trucks were at least half a dozen people shoveling and throwing tomatoes into the crowd. Security in front of the trucks moved people away.
There were a good amount of tomatoes being thrown in the air after the first truck passed, but it was less than I thought. I was barely messy and hardly getting hit. Was this it?
Then the second truck arrived. Instead of proceeding on like the first one, it stopped about ten feet away from me and lifted its bed. Several tons of tomatoes were dumped onto the street. Then it all happened so fast.
One minute I was wondering where all the tomatoes were and the next minute my eyes were burning and I was slipping into a river of tomato sauce up to my ankles. People were falling all around me and whole tomatoes were hitting me in the face. It took only a couple minutes for everyone there to get completely duped in tomato.
I kept getting hit in the head so I had to stay low, close to the tomato river. I’d bend down, scoop up some tomatoes, and hurl them at no one in particular. The smell of the river was getting to me, the product of 40,000 stinky bodies, a city square freshly coated with beer and urine, and a concentrated quantity of tomato that does not happen in nature. I gagged every time I reached for more ammunition.
Ten minutes felt like eternity. You get tired quickly and want to rest but there is nowhere to go; the tomatoes don?t stop flying and the tomato river continued to get higher after the remaining trucks dumped their load. The best I could do for rest was to go towards a wall and huddle against a mass of bodies. Once in a while I would take out my waterproof disposable and take pictures.
Many people there had a strategy to inflict pain. They would grab one tomato and try to beam you in the head. I tried doing this but it didn’t bring me as much satisfaction as the pie-face strategy. I would scoop up sauce from the river and make sure to leave out any large tomato pieces. I’d stand up, bob and weave like a boxer to avoid getting hit, and search for a victim close enough to nail but not too close where I’d get easily identified as the thrower. Then I would very slowly sling the sauce directly in his face so he was forced to stop whatever he was doing to wipe off the mess. (Imagine someone opening a large bottle of spaghetti sauce and tossing it at your face from six feet away.) I wanted people to go home and remember my toss. The discomfort I created with my pie-face throw put a smile on my face every time, except for the couple of instances where I was caught and dealt with in a swift and furious manner.
After an hour of fighting, after tomato pieces entered almost every crevice of my body, a cannon went off and it was over. Disgusting, outrageous, unique, filthy: this is something you can only do once. I got hosed off and took out my camera bag to take pictures but it was halfway filled with red water. It wouldn’t work again, but it was a small price to pay to take part in the ultimate tomato war.
Five days later I was served gazpacho, a tomato soup appetizer. It brought back vivid flashbacks of the river, the smell, the pain, and the days spent digging tomato seeds out of my ears. I couldn’t finish it.
-Don’t bring anything you don?t mind losing. Your clothes will be destroyed.
-Don’t worry if you lose your flip flops. There will be hundreds to pick from afterwards.
-You need a shirt to get back on the train. Buy a souvenir shirt for twelve euros.
-Always keep your head down, looking at the floor. Don?t show people your eyes!
-When the fight nears an end (you?ll notice the tomato river starting to thin), go to the water hose platform in the center. They are powerful enough to clean you off.
-Don’t bother with goggles. Your eyes will burn initially but they adjust after a short amount of time. Most people with goggles had them on their heads.