What they “forget to mention” about this overly popular touristic-festival.
"The world-famous festival has been held in the Valencian town of Buñol on the last Wednesday of August since 1945. The event sees tens of thousands of tourists join the town’s 9,000 inhabitants to throw tonnes of tomatoes at one another," says the Guardian. An estimated 20,000 people attended the festival the year I went.
You will not find any photos of me at this festival. And it’s not because I didn’t go…
I wake early, maybe 4am, from my hostel in Barcelona to catch the party bus to take me to the “La Tomatina” Festival. I am not particularly a partier (I don’t drink and I am not keen to hang around people that do) but the overly popular festival was difficult to get to on short notice from Barcelona and I was only in Spain for 10 days between jobs and wanted to have a mini adventure in-between.
Truth is, now that I think about it, although at this point I had already been living abroad for 5 years, because I had been WORKING I had never actually gotten the chance to just TRAVEL. This was to be my first official experience traveling somewhere in Europe without the responsibilities of having to go to work the next morning after a late night out. I was excited to explore a small piece of the country and throw my hat into a touristy activity because: #YOLO. (You Only Live Once.)
I was solo, of course, and had no one to sit next to on the bus. I looked around for other solo travelers to chat with, as was my habit, but quickly realized I was on the “wrong bus.” It was mostly either couples or groups of friends and partiers who’d joined forces with other backpackers early on. I sighed and took my seat up front to instead enjoy the scenery during the long bus ride there. The bus rolled away from Barcelona and carried us into the sunrise.
Eventually a woman stood up and introduced herself as one of the organizers for the party bus. She explained to us what to expect during the festival and what time to meet back at the bus. Due to it being a long drive, we were expected back on the bus shortly after La Tomatina was to finish and only would have enough time to change into our spare clothes (that we were instructed to bring and leave on the bus.)
“What about cameras and taking pictures during the festival?” One of the backpackers chimed in.
She grinned, a sly grin, the kind of grin you make when only you know the full force of what the group is about to get themselves in for. “Leave your phones and cameras on the bus,” she said, “unless you have a sealable, waterproof bag. I also highly recommend you wear a pair of goggles, you can buy them from us or find some on the walk to the famous street where the event takes place. The unspoken rule is that when you get the tomatoes, your supposed to squish them in your hands before you throw them, otherwise it hurts…” she added as an after thought, “but no one seems to remember to do that so any protective eyewear you can find will be best. Don’t bother with sunglasses, they won’t survive.”
I looked around at the others. I didn’t have a waterproof bag, nor did I have any friends to take a before and after photo of me (at this time I had never heard of a thing called “selfies.”) Although I wanted to have some hilarious photos of me covered head to toe in tomatoes, it wasn’t worth the risk of damaging my camera forever. When we arrived, I did as instructed and left my small bag with my spare set of clothes and camera in the bus.
Unsure of where to go, I followed the pack to the famous street where the festival would take place. Even though we arrived quite early before the event would begin, it seemed as if we were the last to arrive. From my vantage point I could see the masses of people stuffed into this tiny European sized road…and I was all the way at the back of the pack. I began to panic as I realized I was so far in the back, I wouldn’t even be anywhere near the tomato throwing. And that was kinda the whole point, wasn’t it?
In this case, being the solo girl was an advantage as I began to squeeze my way through the crowd. I noticed that plastic tarps had been draped across all the buildings and I began to wonder if it was necessary to protect the fifth story. Did tomatoes reach that high up? I wondered. I pushed and shoved my way to the very FRONT of the pack. After all, I had been informed that the festival wouldn’t begin until a man successfully climbed up a tree and captured the dangling pork as other men tried their best to prevent him from doing so. No way was I missing that. La Tomatina, I was told, would begin upon the capturing of the pig.
I watched from my now perfect viewpoint as the men fought with one another up the tree. Although entertaining, for ten minutes, eventually it began to drag out and I began to wonder if I would ever see tomatoes. I didn’t know where the tomatoes would come from, after all, I was squished in this tiny road in the middle of down town with absolutely no exits near me. I saw the swarm of people behind me, blocking the one and only exit, and it suddenly dawned on me that maybe I wasn’t in the right place after all. What would happen in case of an emergency? Again I wondered, nothing to entertain me apart from my own thoughts. Would I be the last person to be evacuated? My claustrophobia of crowds sank in as I realized just how trapped I was.
The crowd around me went wild and my eyes flashed towards the men trying to catch the pig. Through the arms of the screaming men beside me I saw that a man had been successful at capturing the piece of pork. In a flash, La Tomatina began as the sound of a large dumpster-like truck plowed its way through the street. The crowd of people and the tiny road and the large truck made for a bad combination. In order to make its way through the street, the crowd was forced to pile themselves as close to the buildings as possible to allow the truck to pass. People inside the dumpster-like truck threw tomatoes from their vantage point at the people below as the truck dumped and spread the piles of tomatoes in its wake. The truck drew near to me and I suddenly found myself squashed, body upon body between a crowd of men as they pressed me against the building.
I’m not exactly short, in fact, I’m usually the tallest woman around, at 5’8. But I felt like a dwarf as the mixture of European and touristy men surrounded me. I couldn’t see over their shoulders as the truck passed and suddenly I was being pushed and pulled into the mix of the crowd. I realized very quickly that I physically would not be able to bend over to pick up a fallen tomato because of how tightly pressed I was to the swarm of men beside me.
Actually with the first passing of the truck, I had been caught with my arms resting at my sides and I was unable to wiggle them free. The men showed me no mercy. I had been an idiot and failed to purchase a pair of goggles and I soon regretted it as I was pelted in the face as hard as the man could throw it. The tomato hadn’t been squished as promised and my sunglasses broke in half, scratching my face and disappearing into the soupy mixture formulating at my feet. I stood there, helpless, as I was hit again and again in my face, with no means of protecting myself. I shut my eyes and prayed for it to end.
The crowd parted as the next truck full of tomatoes began to pass. I took advantage of the movement and raised my arms above my head. This time I would be ready. The truck passed and I covered my face as the people in the trucks pelted me with tomatoes. (Also not squished.)
I would like to add here. I am by no means a wimp. I ride horses. I fall off and go to hospitals and break bones WITHOUT PAINKILLERS. That’s just another “day at the office” in the life of me. But let me tell you… THOSE. TOMATOES. FREAKIN. HURT.
The truck passed and my plan worked. I was still squished, body on body as the men dwarfed me, ignoring my presence except when to pelt me as hard as they could with the tomatoes. At least this time I had my arms above my head, and could somewhat shield my face. The tomatoes were flying from every direction and it was IMPOSSIBLE to block them. A few men directly beside me, obviously having some kind of grudge against women, decided to press the tomatoes directly into my HAIR.
If I was crying, you wouldn’t know it. I wouldn’t even know it, the constant stream of tomato juice pouring from my face, blending into my skin.
To be honest, I don’t think I threw a tomato the entire duration of the event. I also had a strong sense that War must feel something similar to this. I know I wished I was dead in the moment and the hostility and sheer volume of testosterone around me was too much for me to handle.
Several more trucks would pass. The entire thing lasted probably 30 minutes or so…the longest, most painful, horrible minutes of my life. As soon as it ended I was amazed I was still alive. I bruise rather easily and was somewhat grateful there would be no photos to remind myself of this horrible experience.
The tomatoes were covering the floor, so much so that I stood ankle deep in the stuff. I made my way out of the crowd and found some locals with hoses, willing to spray me off (another demoralizing moment of my life.)
I climbed back onto the bus, as miserable as could be, vowed to never eat another tomato for as long as I live, and reeked of rotten tomatoes for a week (no matter how many showers I took!)
For photos of the Festival check out: The Guardian 2014 La Tomatina
The Moral of the Story?It ain't called "tourist trap" for nothing! This is one item I will forever put on the top of my Bucket List To-Don'ts. (And that's saying a lot considering I've gotten Lost in Romania, Jumped by Monkey's in Nepal, was Homeless in India for 24 Hours and had a hellish Escape from Balibo Fort in Timor-Leste.)