Wednesday, August 27, 2008

La Tomatina, Bunol, Spain

Before we came out to Spain, I heard about a festival called La Tomatina, in where the sleepy town of Bunol holds a massive food fight each year, hauling in truckloads of tomatoes which are hurled about wildly in the streets. It turned out that Bunol is only 20 minutes outside of Valencia, so we began to plan a trip there. We enrolled the kids, who were very excited about the concept of throwing/squashing tomatoes and we used this to keep them excited about our upcoming adventure year. As it turns out, this fiesta is definitely NOT for kids. Basically you have over 40,000 young, drunk people swarming into a town of no more than 2,000 all packed like sardines into the town plaza throwing projectiles at each other. After viewing some videos on YouTube and talking with local residents, we decided to leave the kids behind, promising that we would organize our own, kid version back in Javea. With that in mind, I set out to Bunol on a “reconnaissance” mission. As I pulled off the motorway and headed into town, I realized that this was going to be big. There was a huge line of cars and busses headed into town. I pulled off the main road and found a dirt lot to park the car and started the walk in. It reminded me of football games at UM, where thousands of people would start the march towards the stadium, with beers in hand and lots of excitement. As we got toward the town center, you could hear the energy and cheers of the crowd, who had already filled the plaza and were packed along the side streets. I made my way around the back of town and slowly worked myself into the main street area. Immediately, I was doused by a bucket of water from one of the balconies above. People were lined up above on balconies and out windows, armed with buckets and or hoses and were dousing the crowd below. The challenge was to find a spot that was not directly under a balcony/window, but it was impossible to stay dry as many locals were hiding and/or coming out to the streets with buckets. Before the tomatoes, there is a “contest”, where they tie a large Jamon (cured pork leg) on top of a very greased flagpole in the town square – whoever can make it to the top and grab the ham can take it. At times, there were 10-15 people piled up along the flagpole, but as far as I could tell, nobody was able to get to the Jamon. As it got closer to the start, there was a larger surge of people, all of whom were trying to get into the main street and it felt being caught in the front section of a U2 concert. It was almost impossible to move at this point. People (sorry, predominantly men) began taking off their shirts and tossing them at each other, which apparently is part of the tradition. Then suddenly, about 15 minutes before the tomatoes were scheduled to arrive, several people started pushing their way down the main street and they were splattered with bits of crushed tomatoes. A cheer started from the far end of the street and as I turned down to look, the first truck had arrived. Now for those of you not familiar with small European towns, a main street should not be interpreted as wide. This particular street led into the town plaza where there are lots of shops and could barely handle two cars passing by each other, but that is about it. So when the truck started to make its way down the street, there was only about 3 feet on each side of the truck. This was a hauling truck, similar to those you see in the states for taking away dirt or broken concrete. Except this truck was packed to the brim with tomatoes, primarily of the roma variety (slightly bigger than an egg). The crowd started to part as the truck passed, going at a snails pace so as not to crush anyone. Reader Discretion: The following material may be considered inappropriate for sensitive children and/or those fighting to eradicate world hunger… Everyone crammed back along the walls, as about 20 people on top of the truck dropped and threw tomatoes off the truck. Hundreds of tomatoes were being lobbed into the crowds and it appeared that there was a melee brewing behind the truck. It was time to put on the swim goggles. As the truck slowly passed me (which took about 3-5 minutes), I was basically a sitting duck as tomatoes were raining down from above and I couldn’t move out of the way. Once the truck had finally passed, we began to pick up the tomatoes and hurl them into the crowd or back at the truck. It was hard to describe just how many tomatoes were in the air, which at one point appeared as a massive swarm of giant red bugs. Except these bugs landed with impact. When the truck got about 50 yards away, it began to dump the tomatoes. I worked my way towards that point, where there was now a pile of tomatoes about 3 feet high and people were diving on top and throwing them about violently. These were not all squashed yet, and stung on impact. After a few blindsides to my face, I hastily retreated back where there were fewer tomatoes, wading through a river of tomato puree, which had now reached my shins. Tomatoes were flying from all directions and I was getting pelted mercilessly, all in a spirit of good fun. All I could do was pick them up and throw them back, trying to avoid slipping on the squishy mess below my feet as another truck began to work its way through the crowd. It was hilarious. By the time the third truck arrived, it was not so hilarious any more. There were five truckloads in all, so a lot more tomatoes were coming. I was already covered from head to toe in sticky red goop and was exhausted from the constant rain of tomatoes in the air. I started my retreat out of the red zone and began to make my way to fresh air as the sun had begun to ferment the tomato puree on the ground! People began retreating from the battleground, all covered with tomato pulp and all looking quite weary from the melee. As the cannon shot off signaling the end of the trucks, I made my way back up from the town, welcoming the spray of hoses from the locals who were kindly offering to clean off the worst of the mess. I could see the bomberos (firemen) sitting back with their trucks, shovels, brooms and water cannons getting ready to clear out the crowds and begin the thankless job of hosing down the town square, returning the town back to its sleepy, peaceful state for another year. At the car, I toweled the pulp off my face as best I could to clean the sting out of my eyes. I looked back on the town, shaking my head with a mix of wonder and disbelief as to what I had just seen. This event could only happen in Spain. These people know how to throw a party!


Kim said...

That is way crazy sounding! so will you replicate a 'tomatina de roy fiesta'? post some photos

Carolyn said...

We just were watching La Tomatina on the news! Too bad we didn't see Steve(in his goggles!) getting pelted by the masses. Can't wait to catch up with you via your blog...great idea

Vera said...

It seems your tomato project in business school was destiny and a foreshadowing of things to come! Who knew it actually had relevance to the real world?!