When was the last time you did something for the first time?
On Wednesday, August 28th, I went to la tomatina – something I have wanted to do for the bloody yonks now. It was ridiculous and fun and most certainly the most life-threatening situation that I have willingly thrust myself into. This vegetal war is not to be taken lightly. Yes you will laugh and you will have fun but make no mistake, you can bloody well hurt yourself or even kill yourself if you’re not lucky. And for being a tiny 5-foot-zero creature, I am fucking grateful that I made it out of there alive without any crazy injuries or broken bones and with all facial features and dignity intact.
It’s not like I was planning to go to the tomatina wearing a silk evening gown. I had already packed a ratty old white tee-shirt and board-shorts. The tee-shirt, I was ready to discard, the shorts, I figured a good rinse would restore them to their ratty glory (for future wakeboarding). I landed in Madrid on Tuesday afternoon and in what was a happy coincidence, my driver (limo pickup for the win, people!) was a tall, strappy blond fellow from the village adjacent to Buñol. Given that I speak Spanish, the blondie launched into a detailed lecture on the tomatina and all the debauchery it entailed. I had had a preview through casa’s fiancé who was also obviously concerned as to whether I would make it to the wedding alive. Here is what I did not know until then:
1. You must be prepared to discard every article of clothing on you, including underwear and shoes
2. As a girl, you must accept that there is a real threat of being molested and/or having your clothes ripped off. You must wear a bikini to hedge this risk.
3. You cannot wear flipflops but rather strong, covered shoes to protect your feel from getting squashed. Flip flops are useless in a slippery ocean of tomatoes
4. There is no space. At all. You may move without having any control as an ocean of humans takes you with it.
5. You must wear swimming goggles to protect your eyes.
6. You must not, at any cost, fall.
Right. Fuck. Okay. Forewarned is forearmed. I was only carrying a rather pricey Brazilian bikini and Brazilian Melissa ballet pumps. I was not prepared to discard either of those. So blondie told me to find a Chinese store selling cheap things and buy all my supplies for the day. He also told me to be close to the buildings to minimize my risks. That I should buy a waterproof bag and let my male friend carry my valuables for me. He said Spaniards get hideously drunk at these events and “go to this event for the women”. He said that before the municipality introduced the 10 Euro charge for entering the festival, 40,000 people went to the tomatina. This year 20,000 were expected. Gulp.
Game plan: The fact that my tomatina-compañero was a tall, muscular fellow with Israeli military training made me less likely to shit my pants in fear. Still, not getting separated from Soljaboy itself was going to be difficult in a sea of drunken rioters. First things first, wardrobe, of course. We were in Valencia the previous evening taking in the streets and sights of the cute and compact city. Luckily for us, we found exactly the Chinese store we were looking for. We bought swim-goggles, waterproof sling-bags to carry our passports, replacement contact lenses and some cash in, white loafers with strong treaded soles (they were fucking cute, for what it’s worth!) and the world’s tackiest bikini. All this for the princely sum for 19 euros. (The swim goggles were purchased on the street for 5 euros but they only cost 1.5 euros in the chinese shop. I got ripped off!)
That evening we met up with a couple who were also guests at the wedding and who had offered to drive us to Buñol and then onwards to Granada as well. Aren’t I lucky? We had a lovely dinner of pimientos padron and esparragos a la plancha and beans with chorizo and paellas, all washed down 2 bottles of house red. If all house reds were this delectable, I’d save a shit-ton of money.
We got up early in the morning, 6.30 to be precise. Showered (as if) and changed into our battle-gear. I was in all-white (again, as if), save for my tacky naval-themed and ill-fitting bikini. We grabbed sandwiches at starbucks (yeap, in valencia!) for the four of us and met our couple friends at their hotel. Arranging our massive suitcases in the boot was like playing tetris but the men pulled it off and off we went. It was a short ride with most of the time spent circling the town for the right place to park. We didnt find a parking lot and ended up parking right by where the ticket collection stand was. Leaving everything we owned including our wedding outfits was a gargantuan risk but we hoped that the civil guards being right by the roundabout would ensure that no one could walk away with our luggage unnoticed. Gulp.
The line for ticket collection moved quickly. The line for the port-a-potties, not so much. Most of them were filled up. The stench was abhorrent and my ten seconds to go in and out of one when my turn finally came was certainly among the top five most repugnant moments of my life. You could probably catch some kind of jungle herpes just from the smell. Fucking horrible. Moving on.
It started to drizzle. We entered the arena. Which was basically a tiny, very crowded street. The four of us held hands and pressed on till we were at the top of the street (it’s on an incline). This was a very smart move as it plonked us in the heart and soul of the tomato action. It was quarter to eleven. And then, we waited. While the drizzle turned into a downpour. Shivery, cold European rain, you are not like the warm monsoons I love. You can appreciate how ironic it was that it didn’t at all rain after the tomatina ended (which is exactly when a free shower would have been fucking handy).
There were many false starts, especially when the people in the buildings right above us hurled the solitary tomato every now and again. Wouldn’t it be great if they fired a gun shot or a siren to herald the start of the war, we said. And then a gunshot went out loud and clear and the crowds went mental. The trucks weren’t even there yet!
And then they came. The narrow lanes which already full of people, bodies touching with zero personal space had to now accomodate dumper trucks carrying tomatoes. Everyone to the sides. Uh oh. Everyone previously packed like sardines in a 10 foot wide space was now cramped into 2 spaces each 2 feet wide. It didn’t help either that trucks stank of garbage, presumably because the bottom layers of tomatoes had gone rotten. It was fucking nasty. And this is where I thought it got slightly life-threatening. I genuinely feared suffocation, what with being 5 foot zero and my face being up to every guy’s chest. And that’s how I ended up playing the entire hour of the tomatina on my tiptoes. It was not an easy task but thankfully I have strong calves and a stronger resolve to not fucking die in a food fight.
That was before I got pelted with tomatoes falling straight from above. Kaboom! Pow! My head, my face, my eye, Ow! I didn’t fear black eyes as much as I feared losing an eye or a tooth or a broken nose. I checked gingerly on several occassions. After the first truck passed, we collected the tomatoes that were strewn around us (well, a 10 cm radius) and the ones that were lodged in our chests or armpits even and hurled it a small distance. In my case, on Soljaboy’s shoulder, a whopping 1-inch distance.
We weren’t that dirty either…hmmm I felt a bit shortchanged. This is not the Tomatina I had envisioned. One truck, a few lame tomatoes among several thousand people? Boy, was I mistaken. The second and third trucks came in quick succession and the streets were coloured scarlet. I was ankle deep in tomatoes. And broken bottles, flip-flops, rags that used to be teeshirts and swaths of rubber (huh?). Grabbing a mound of tomatoes with your two hands, you had to be slightly discreet – at the very least so as not to be the asshole that wantonly tossed a shoe at a stranger.
This is not to say that it wasn’t fun or hilarious. What can you do but laugh when your mate scoops with his hands and pours a bucket’s worth of cold tomatoes on your head, and return the favour of course. I always made sure to squeeze the tomatoes before hurling them – a written rule of the tomatina that many seemed to ignore. Wearing swim-goggles was therefore imperative (especially after I saw the girl next to me turn to face the wall and cry after getting pelted in the eye).
Soljaboy and I were still relatively closer or even on the pavement as opposed to the middle of the street where the real debauchery was taking place. And by real debauchery, I mean hideously drunk, shirtless men trying to rip off other peoples’ shirts, scrambling uncoordinatedly and unintentionally separating friends. Soljaboy and I tried not to mingle with these brutes.
Sidebar: My usual affinity for alcohol notwithstanding, I highly recommend staying completely sober during la tomatina as you will need your wits and your balance. Falling is not an option if you value your life (see above, rule #6)
And then came the last truck. It was just like the ones before except there were no men inside it hurling tomatoes from the top (and straight onto our heads). I was dangerously close to the truck, right by its wheels – easy enough to blend bits of my feet into tomato sauce. But I held on, propping myself on my toes and with hands on the truck itself so as not to get pushed into it by the people behind me. The truck came to a halt and lo and behold, it was a dumper truck. But of course! And it started dumping. As I precariously balanced myself, I gazed at the road through the gaps in the truck’s chassis – tomatoes flowing out like water, it was a sight like no other. We were knee-deep in tomatoes.
“Are we going in?” , Soljaboy asked.
“We go in”
Laughter and more hurling of tomatoes ensued. There wasn’t a square centimetre on my person, or on the people around me, or the streets or the walls that wasn’t red.
And then it started to feel even more crowded, even more packed than it was. How is this even posssible, you wonder. Something happened, I wish I knew what, and suddenly the crowd started moving down. We had no say in the matter – we got pushed and shoved. I did not have to take a single step, I was being “carried” forward. I did not have to worry about losing Soljaboy as we were pretty much glued to each other. At one point, my hand was jammed between his chest and another person with increasing pressure on my elbow. “Are you in pain?”. I was, I feared very literally that my arm would snap in half. I somehow wriggled it out though. Another one of those moments when I wondered why I was risking my life for a food fight.
The human tidal wave ended up pushing us out to the lower levels of the city. We awaited the hosing down from the locals but this just turned out to be a few denizens pouring water from their balconies. It was like trying to put out a forest fire with a syringe. The lines around the public hoses were ridiculously long. I ditched my gross teeshirt and goggles (rule #1). Shivering, we waited in several different lines for public hoses. Where’s the rain now? Nearly two hours later, we were all cleaned up. We walked to the car and were relieved to find that we hadn’t been robbed. All our belongings were intact. I ditched my shorts, shoes and my tacky bikini and slipped into a boob-tube dress (rule #1, again!). I felt human again.
The wedding party then drove to Granada – safe and in one piece, largely unharmed save for a mild eye infection (as all the tomato juice worked its way out of my eyes – it was not pretty). That evening in Granada, the cotton balls that wiped the cleanser off my face were bright orange. The bathwater ran red. Between the furious scrubbing and multipled showers and baths with boiling hot water, I must have lost a layer of skin!
I am still glad I did it and yeah, I’d probably do it again if the stars aligned again. La Tomatina – gross and not for the faint-hearted but still a truckload (or four) of fun!