Tomatina – Part 1

In the fall of 1998, I was a freshman at the University of Georgia. I remember doing a report for my Spanish class about different festivals in Spanish-speaking countries. It was then that I discovered La Tomatina, a massive tomato fight that takes place on the last Wednesday of August every year in a small town called Buñol, Spain. Each year, some 40,000 people flock to this tiny town less than an hour outside of Valencia to participate in the huge mess. I was fascinated by this event. And I wanted to be one of those 40,000 people.

More than a decade after that Spanish project, I was preparing to move to Germany to be with Andy and planning a 4-5 month trip, when I realized I could actually make my dream of tomato throwing happen. I started talking to some of my Twitter friends to see who would be in Europe at the right time, and I found that Val and Jaime both wanted to go to La Tomatina as well. We seemed to all be procrastinators about finding a place to stay, but finally we booked an apartment in Valencia through Airbnb for the week. I was so excited about finally going to Tomatina, excited to see Val again (Andy and I met her in Vancouver a few months ago) and excited to finally meet Jaime.

Andy & I on the train to Bunol – taken by Jaime, Breakaway Backpacker

Once we got to Valencia, we did some research about how to get to Buñol and found that the train to Buñol leaves from the St. Isidre train station (thank you Cailin for making sure we didn’t go to the wrong one) and the earliest train leaves at 6:30AM. There are later trains that will still get you there before the actual fight starts, but there were already TONS of people there when we arrived, so I highly recommend just pushing yourself to get up early and make that first train. We decided to arrange for a cab the night before so we didn’t have to deal with public transportation at 5:30AM, and with four of us splitting it, the cost was less than 4€ each. There was a line at the train station that went out into the road, and luckily Jaime went to the front to make sure we knew what we were doing. Turns out they were only letting one person from each group wait in a different line to buy the tickets (4.80€ round trip per person) so he took care of that while we held our place in the rapidly growing line.

We brought almost nothing with us. Digital cameras safely covered in ziplock bags, a little bit of cash in a bag in a pocket. We were told there was nowhere to store anything, but we did see quite a few places that offered bag holding services. I didn’t look at the prices since we didn’t have any bags, but it is an option if you go. Once we wandered through the town and found the center, Andy decided to wait in the long line at the port-a-potties. Knowing it would be virtually impossible for him to find us afterwards, and knowing how important this was to Jaime, Val and me, we all agreed on a meeting place for after the fight. Note to all future Tomatina participants: make sure you make a meeting place even if you don’t plan on splitting up, and try to find out where the road will be blocked off for the fight so your meeting place can be outside of the fighting area. But more on that later. Jaime, Val and I kept walking, noticing the crowd getting thicker. Shortly after we sort of randomly picked a place to stop, we heard cheering in front of us. The pole was being raised.

Guys trying to get the ham off of the greased pole at Tomatina – taken by Jaime

Part of the tradition is that a greased pole (imagine a 30 foot pole covered in Crisco type grease) with a ham hung from the top is put up, and participants are supposed to get the ham down before the tomato fight can begin. It was probably around 9AM when the pole was thoroughly greased up, and people started trying to climb up it. In case you were wondering, there were many drunk people in the crowd, and I’m guessing most of the people who attempted to rescue the ham were drunk. Because really, if you were sober, why would you think that was a good idea? But it was very entertaining to watch. Some people realized they had to work together as a team and help each other out if they were going to succeed. But of course, there were a few who wanted to be the hero, which meant they ended up just pulling everyone else down. There were also lots of people throwing things like empty water bottle, beer cans, flip flops, a broom, a dust pan, and a yoga mat. Seriously, who just happens to bring a broom or a yoga mat to a tomato fight? At about 10:20AM, the guy we had all been rooting for finally got the ham down from the pole. Someone told us earlier that no one had gotten it down in 7 years, but I don’t have any verification on that. Regardless, it was amazing to watch and we all cheered like crazy as the guy crowd surfed with his ham.

In reality the tomato fight starts at 11AM whether or not the ham is retrieved. We heard the signal, and then waited. It was kind of a let down that it took a good 15-20 minutes before the first truck crept towards us to dispense the tomatoes. Watching the truck inch towards us,it was kind of scary wondering how it would ever make it through the crowd, but everyone crammed towards the buildings on the side of the road, and somehow the truck made it through. The people on the truck started hurling tomatoes at the crowd. The moment had finally arrived, and I had a tomato in my hand.

To be continued…