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Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Long Night Before the Big Tomato Fight

There comes a time when traveling that one is sprawled out in a flea-infested bed, sweating from the sultry climate, wondering about the price of the place, whether he is getting gyped or not, contemplating this or that, perhaps in a state of loneliness, or at least heightened irritability, when he or she poses the question to him or herself, “What exactly am I doing here? Why am I here?” And this question cuts deeper than the usual existential ramifications that such questions have that we are all plagued with from time to time. But very poignantly, this question arises from the practical aspect of all the money that you are spending and all the miles that you have chalked up, to be in the strange, bizarre location that you find yourself, usually with discomfort, maybe with anxiety, and often times in isolation. “Goodness. So why did I come all this way? For this?” And the answer is usually never found in the quiet solitude, whether in your hostel room, out amongst the bustling faceless crowd, or even in the midst of tranquil nature, if I dare admit this last one which I esteem so much. No, the answer of what traveling is all about, is found elsewhere. For traveling isn’t about this mountain or that sea, or this castle or that relic or masterpiece. No, traveling is always when you get right down to it, about the people you meet. And the very fun thing about this is they tend to be traveling too. Whether it be just down the street or around the globe. And yes, given existentially, everyone’s on some type of journey whether they think they are or not. We usually think that we are stuck, or perhaps worse, think we have arrived, until we meet someone else traveling. And from their worn-down soles, their footsteps whether jingling or thudding, we become aware of our own path and our voyage of all sorts. Not only of what rivers we have crossed or hills traversed, but what ice caverns and deserts lay before us. I may camp on the side of a star one day, though I may now tread the trench of an ocean floor. All these intersecting paths gives us perspective, but always something more complex that can only be seen in a multitude of nuances. There is perhaps only one geographical rule; there seems to be no terrain that is just strictly black and white.

How it was that we all assembled in one place was to be the fault of the famous Tomato Festival, at the end of August every year. 40, 000 meet in a small little town to throw tomatoes at one another. This is Spain. This is small town, festival life. This is La Tomatina. You may have seen videos on it. The people drenched in tomato paste, seeming to be swimming in river’s of blood. But having copious amounts of fun.
What a brilliant idea! The world’s largest food fight! And thousands of people flock to it every year.
The first character I met, was this fellow from London, though, his accent was purely American. He being born in NYC, and then carted off to the UK where he became a Londoner. As we waited on the train that would take us from Valencia to the little Spanish town of Bunol, where the notorious tomato festival takes place, he talked about being a sort of musician, writer, and film-maker in London. Which translated for him, a person who could barely afford to get to southwest Spain for this festival. He had hitchhiked all the way from Paris. And had arrived just in time to make it to Bunol the night before. Our strategies were similar. Take the 40 minute train ride the night before, get there for whatever festivities takes place early, (in Spain you can’t go wrong here.) and maybe either camp out or not sleep and the next day be early and ready for the tomato fight to commence. Though, I think he was really planning on sleeping that night, and I was going to once again forego it. Which I seem to do so well.

While we boarded the train. And yes, I did pay this time. Another chap comes up with his backpack, A guitar strapped to it. A patch of the Yellow Submarine cartoon Beatles stitched onto this guitar, and wearing a Bob Dylan T-shirt, (I knew I was going to like this guy.) sits down across from me. He had tufts of blonde curly hair issuing from underneath his cap. He was tall and lanky. Looked very lean, and was caring all types of sacks with him, what he lived off of mostly dried biscuits. We all fell into talking with one another. This guy’s name was Toby. He was Australian. And had been backpacking the past year around Europe. And never really wanted to go back home. Mainly because he thought how weird it would be to go sit on his friend’s couch and ponder things. How surreal it would be to have gone through so much that he has in the past year and go back home and realize that nothing has changed. He feared this feeling and so wanted to keep his foot on the road, or tracks, or whatever means of transportation in Europe. And I understood his feeling exactly, having many of those surreal “couch” experiences myself. Though, I don’t find them as dreadful. It would seem I’m addicted to them.

So the 3 of us sat on this train, conversing with one another as though we had known each other for a long time. Travelers are always this way. When Mike, the Londoner, began to tell us his long eventful story about hitch hiking from Paris and he being stuck in the very hot, and dead city of Zaragoza with no luck, and sweating madly.
He was a skilled story-teller. The kind that draws you in, focusing on the details and making you give your utmost attention. And just before he finishes, these 3 cute girls come and sit down near us. And just as the story is ended, we learn that they are all 3 students in Valencia. One is from the Czech Republic. And the two others are from Lisbon, Portugal. The Czech girl, with short blonde hair, is the most dominant one. And talkative. These two lovely dark Portuguese were much more quiet. Well, they issue into the conversation as well. Pretty soon, Mike is telling another story about some other festival he went to in Serbia. And everyone is listening to him. Mike is an expert talker. Highly extroverted. Got to have an audience. Probably a closet thespian.

We get to Bunol and the 6 of us, have already formed a sort of group. And we begin to march downtown. Where the action is to be the next morning. Both Mike and Toby brought all their luggage with them and wanted to stash it somewhere. But this turned out being much more difficult than we could imagine. We begin to make our descent downwards towards the city center. I walked beside the cutest Portuguese girl. Her name was Katerina. And we talked about Journalism, what she is studying in Valencia. The other Portuguese girl was much too quiet for me. While the Czech girl was too loud and bossy. Somewhere along the way, a group of German guys sort of attached to us. I think some of them were just after the 3 girls, though some were being cool and handing us free beer because we didn’t bring any with us. We get to the main area of the Tomato Festival and lots of dining tables are pulled out into the middle of the street. And families sharing and eating nice, fine-dining before the streets are to be caked in tomato debris. We sit down in the city center, when this group of another ragtag bunch of travelers next to us, start talking. I come to find out that they are couch-surfers. An online organization that I am apart of. Which I’ve only recently used, while in Ireland, me and some friends stayed at this man’s house, (surfed on his couch, so to speak) way out in the middle of nowhere.
What seemed to be the leader of this group was a Polish guy. Who was very social and nice. Right beside me, I noticed this other tall, lanky fellow, with a dark beard. He was carrying a hiking stick. And I saw etched on the stick, “Camina de Santiago”. And I grew excited. For this was the same pilgrimage up in Northern Spain that I had wanted to go on, but couldn’t because I had to catch a flight back to the States only a few weeks before. We began talking. I knew from his lilt, he was from Ireland. He was from Galway, Ireland. Where I had been earlier that summer. So we began chatting about this and that. And had I gone on that month long pilgrimage like I had intended I probably would have met him then and traveled with him for a number of days. But now, having missed the opportunity for the Way of St. James, I happen to meet this character just before La Tomatina. So interesting.

Well, all of us, begin to get antsy. We notice music being blasted nearby. And dancing people out in the street. So we rushed right over and began to join in. Now, it was actually some sort of wedding party, maybe a rehearsal dinner/ party for this local couple. But because it was La Tomatina and because they were Spanish and therefore festive, they didn’t mind the other throngs of people coming and joining in. So we all began to hit the dance floor. While still talking to one another. I met these two American guys who were from Jacksonville, FL. They had travelled on a yacht across the Atlantic to get here to Spain. By far, the most impressive way of getting to a place. Everyone must’ve danced what seemed to be hours, and as the Spanish goes, it was not winding down. I began to disperse, mainly because I had heard about other areas of town that were equally as festive, and I wanted to go explore. So I began walking. And somehow winded up getting far away from a lot of things. And found myself, trying to find a place, if not to sleep, to at least get some alone time. Yes, even in the midst of a thriving fiesta, I can be that guy, that needs to be alone. On occasion that is. So I climb the hill of the town. I find all types of little neat places to sleep. But as usual, sleep comes difficult in such circumstances, so I just lay there.

Eventually, even laying there gets me a second-wind. Sleep can be overrated. So, I desire to be around people again. So, I make a rush to find some of my compadres. It’s after 3 and the streets are thinning. I find a group of ours left. The 3 girls were among them and Toby. Mike had earlier gone off to find a patch of ground to try to sleep on.
These girls looked as though they were desiring sleep. So I told them that I knew of a place. Quieter and out of the way of everything. Toby started digging through some trash, finding old cardboard boxes to make sleeping mats out for us, and the 5 of us went trudging up this hill. I felt sort of bad for leading up a great distance for a nap when climbing up hill was so tiresome for them. But oh well. I showed them this place underneath the stars, that I had previously found before. And we had just laid our mats down, when the notion that I wanted some water crossed my mind. And I asked, “Does anyone else want any water?” At which Toby, chimed, “Yeah, I’ll go with you.” And all the girls wanted water. So it turned out to be this quest for a very chivalric thing of getting water for these ladies. Toby asked if they would like some teddy bears for the night also. At which they said they did. So I and this Australian went in search of some waters, with an eye out for any teddy bears that we may run across. I figured that we could just make a short trip down the hill to fetch the water and we’d be back in no time. But Toby didn’t like the idea of having to hike up that steep hill again, so we figured that the train station was not too far away. We just had to find it through some of these weaving streets. So we began walking this way and that talking. When we came out and noticed the train station off in the distance. And the quickest way to get to it was by walking on the railroad tracks. So about 4 or so in the morning, here we were scooting down railroad tracks and nearby it seemed some late night club was going on, playing very loud and horrible techno music. Toby began to complain. And I consented and we both began to talk about Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, how what we both were doing, walking on a train line would both be sung about in their songs. We finally got the water, and then turned around and came back. Toby was intent on finding a teddy bear, to the point that he wanted to make one. So he was looking around at discarded pieces of trash. I tried telling him that no matter how cute and creative you make it, most girls aren’t too fond of things that have been in a dumpster. We were in the process of coming back while looking around for something to make teddy bears out of, when , in one of the alleyways, there was these two other blonde fellows walking. And we ended up talking with them for awhile. One was also from Australia, the other from Ireland. And they kept rambling on about this backpacker’s paradise in Portugal, where the women are easy and everything is dead cheap. Toby and I had a hard time ending the conversation to let them know that we had 3 girls waiting on us for their water. Meanwhile, the Australian began to show Toby these pictures of these English girls back at this place in Portugal where they mud-wrestle. Until Toby, exclaimed to him that he really didn’t care. Well, we told them that we would see them the next day and we split. And by the time we got back to the spot where the girls were at, they were gone. Long gone. Not even their cardboard pallets were there. Toby throws down his water in frustration. And I just laugh. Knowing that the night had probably gotten too cold for them. And so what, we may have missed out on some cuddling but that was okay.

We went down the hill, half in search of the girls, half not really caring. We met this Spanish family, this one Spaniard named Albert who had been to America before gave me a free drink while I told Toby and him stories about the time that I decided to get a night shift job at Waffle House for a week or two. We split from him and managed to find a nice little courtyard where various people were sleeping. Toby fell right to sleep. He is one of those fortunate people that can turn it off at any moment. I just lay there. While the sky began to turn lighter shades of blue.

Eventually, I get bored and I begin to walk around, as the dawn arrived. When the morning is clearly present. I run into the 3 girls. And as I had guessed it, they had gotten too cold that night, and decided to find some more clubs to go dancing in. Well, on the Czech girl’s prompting, of course. So they had not been to sleep at all that night either. We bought are morning caffeine from a vendor and sat on the town square and waited for the Festivities to be kicked off and some Tomatoes to be thrown.


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