Bloody good fun
It was hard to believe there were going to be any tomatoes at all. The main street was rammed with muchachos and chicas, buzzing while they waited for the battle, chanting ‘‘Ag-ua!’’ to provoke the residents on the roofs, then ‘‘To-ma-te’’, and of course the song ‘‘O-le, ole, ole, ole…’’, as twelve o’clock approached. The crowd were strictly eighteen to thirty, thirty-five max down Calle de la Pueblo, the main road where the tomato fight was about to take place, wearing goggles round their necks, and clothes they were prepared to ruin. It was an international crowd, but the local boys were recognisable by their carefully sliced T-shirts, (think Morten Harket) and the chanting they initiated. The careful nicks made earlier in the shirts of those that knew, grew in the water-sogged wait until the T-shirt became a soggy ball to be hurled around the crowd, or was torn and fashioned into a bandana and missile twinset. We crept further into the crowd. We hurled wet T-shirts when they came our way. In some pockets of crowd the throwing got quite over-excited. I kept my own clothes on – it was a men’s thing.
How else could it begin? Yup, a big bang, a classic Valenciano mascleta sounded 12 o’clock. Bless the tourist near me who jumped out of his skin and said breathlessly, ‘‘What was that?’’ (It’s always worth remembering that some of those Antipodeans haven’t seen fireworks for years. They’re illegal in New Zealand. Imagine, Fallas veterans.) We were all uncertain as to what to expect, though. There had been talk of trucks of tomatoes, but I just couldn’t see how that was possible. The crowd was too solid for that. Then someone said they would funnel them from the roofs This seemed to be confirmed when, after that first bang signalled it was time to start, the water throwers on the roofs turned into tomato throwers. No funnels, just single handed hurling. I thought I’d never get my hands on one. Those media images that appear everywhere every silly season didn’t seem possible. Then, the first truck chugged into sight. It was a huge tip up truck, full of plum tomatoes, with about twenty grinning men hurling tomatoes into the crowd. A couple of people on board were wearing masks, adding to the weirdness of the festival. Was that Jesus, or Ossama Bin Laden? The truck came slowly down the main street, and although it had seemed there was no way it could possibly get through, it did, leaving more room, and plenty of tomatoes in its wake.
When the second tomato truck came through, it tipped up just where we were standing. This was when we got abundance. I was up to my knees in them, bending down into the slush, standing up with full handfuls of red slushy hand grenades, pelting them any old which way. After a few seconds it was impossible to see anything through my goggles. I would wipe them away, get a sense of what was happening around me, then get covered again. A plum tomato can have a fair impact on your head, it can dislodge a goggle, but I don’t think they leave any lasting scars. And, the beauty of it is, even a girl can make them go quite far! I could throw! Delirious! Happiness! The sounds I can remember are the sounds I made: shouting at the men on the truck, screaming with delight as I lost my footing, but realised I wouldn’t get swept under the wheels, and that I was safe; hysterical giggling, the smacking of lips because you can’t help licking away that sweet and sickly flavour… What an adrenalin rush.
A third truck came by, depositing fresh ammo on top of the now ankle deep gaspacho soup. It was at about this stage when all the floating flip-flops appeared.
Wet T-shirts were no longer being thrown and instead they floated in the swamp. Reaching down you got the choice of T-shirt, flip-flop or tomato. Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes…
You know those rooms full of balls that shopping centres sometimes have as a play area for kids? Well, in the thick of the tomatina, you get the feeling you’re supposed to get in one of those play pens. The idea that they intimate but fail to create. The point is to flail about, gurgling with happiness, like a baby. To submerge yourself, then fling frantically amongst those bare-chested tomato-lubricated hunks. It’s a drug rush. It’s quite delicious, good humoured, hilarious, eccentric fun.
The story as to how it started, is that a fight broke out down the street many years ago. The protagonists grabbed tomatoes from a stall and began pelting them at each other, and everyone around soon joined in. The story goes, they had so much fun, they decided to do the same every year…
How Utopian is that? Is it just me, or does that sound like a society that’s getting a few things right? After the fourth truck we made our way out of the crowd. People were helping each other get something out of sogged cigarettes and dead lighters. I realised my mobile had gone to tomato hell and would vibrate itself to death. The pictures of the tomato throwing crowd are media favourites all over the world. Yet there is no sniffof a sponsor anywhere. There’s barely any recognition of an opportunity to sell: hotel owners very kindly held on to rucksacks for visitors for no charge, the high quality bocadillos and beers were served at every day prices. Just as a big bang signals the beginning, it tells the crowd when to stop. And they do. And on the walk to the station and on the train home, (which smells quite disgusting), the people that came in flip-flops are now wearing one of their own, and one of someone else’s. Or are those two that are new to those feet, united in the haphazard aftermath of a stream of tomatoes?