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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Things I Learned in the Tomato War

Yes, I am now a lived, tried, and tomato-initiated survivor of the world’s largest food fight. My war stories are numerous; my scars though few. This is how it all goes down.

If you can get to the little village of Bunol, Spain the 3rd Wednesday of August then you can contribute to the tomato-shed. Whoever thought the idea, to throw tomatoes at one another for a festival was a genius. Now, these brilliant war hawks of the produce section have caused this little town outside of Valencia to swell with tourists at the end of August every year. Thus boosting tourism in an unlikely place, and giving a tiny dot, a place and an identity on a world map. I think that I shall do the same for my hometown of Dothan and introduce to them the idea of throwing their claim to fame, peanuts at one another. And maybe the same thing will happen.

But no, the history of this tradition in Bunol goes back only 50 or 60 years ago. When it was believed some politician was coming through town and the village people (the locals; not the band, though that would make an even more interesting story) didn’t like him, or his speech, so they began to throw tomatoes at the poor fellow. (At least it was tomatoes thrown back then and not BS about fictitious “death panels”.) Well, the next year came up and I could see the locals collaborating and thinking, “Gee, that was so much fun last year. Why don’t we do it again this year? What politician is coming through town this time?” But after being told that no politician was coming through town. (I could see why most politicians would omit it from their circuits.) they decided to just throw tomatoes anyway. I guess they figured that while, yes, smiting politicians with tomatoes may have been the most possible fun a person could have. That flinging tomatoes at one another is only a step down. -Seeing how it is usually each other who is behind the politician, and you may be able to pelt so-and-so, who voted for that particular politician. (I know a good many of people who’d like to throw tomatoes at the people who voted for Obama; but I also know some people who’d like to hurl pineapples at the people who voted for Bush.) Ah, the wonders of democracy. But truth be told, I don’t think that politics had anything to do with the tomato-tossing. Judging even the constant political mud-slinging that goes back and forth in our country, I think that bottom line, humanity has a innate proclivity to indulge in flinging crap at one another. And politics is usually just the excuse to do so. We either haven’t evolved very far or biblically our own best interests are pooey to the other guy. Probably both.

Now, the tomato festival has evolved into one of the biggest festivals in Spain. With tens of thousands of people flocking every year to this small town with a population of 10,000 people. There is much waiting and eager anticipation for the rocket to go off when it will be the first time in one’s life where it is perfectly alright and legal to pelt random strangers out in the streets with food. There seems to be only one rule and that is you must squish the tomato before you toss it. Although, during the whole fight, you were lucky to get your hands on a tomato that even remotely resembled its authentic shape. Half the thing you are throwing are fragments of tomatoes.

There are other things going on during this waiting period. Like for instance, in the city center this is this pole that is greased down and a large ham is tied to the top of it. Participants make a usually sloppy attempt at retrieving this ham by climbing up the greased pole, most of the time falling off or sliding back down. Then there was a space in the middle of the crowds where an opening occurred. Here, a group of guys waited for any unfortunate people to cross, if it was a guy than their shirt was usually ripped from them. Many of the guys at La Tomatina go shirtless. So this group found their kicks by seizing any guys with a shirt that crossed through their territory and just tearing their shirts off them. I watched from a distance with my shirt still on me. Mainly because I heard that the train back to Valencia doesn’t allow you to board without a shirt. And this was the only shirt I brought with me to Bunol. So, I was going to hold onto my shirt. But this spectacle with the shirt-ripping was entertaining to watch. Oftentimes, the guy was aware of what was going on until he was ganged up on and his shirt was in rags being thrown from the circle. Many times, I felt like if you descended into this circle then you deserved to have a good shirt torn from you, just because of not being observant. But many of the people who did walk into this circle did so with the full intention of going shirtless. Though, there was this one guy who strutted into the circle and when the shirt ripping committee advanced, he seemed outright ticked, and bowed up as though no one was going to rip his shirt from him without a fight. This insolence was repaid with a slap in the face from one of the shirtless group. And of course, the usual tax was seized with a rip. This about ignited a riot. Except, this alone guy was the one about to take on 4 or 5. He tried kicking and punching, but the shirt-ripping guys were all, fortunately, in a fun-loving mood, and only pushed him out of the circle to say that they didn’t care to fight it being tomato-throwing time.
When the rocket goes off, locals on the rooftops appear and begin to toss tomatoes on the people. It is only a handful tomatoes at a time. And it is pretty slow coming, and you think that it will be awhile until they have the streets awashed in tomato juice like in the pictures. But eventually, the tomato trucks arrive with people sitting in the back of the them flinging tomatoes every which way. Truck after truck roar in and begin to dump the tomatoes into the streets. The streets become saturated in ketchup.

I was not situated in the very heart, the very thick of it. And I really believed that I was missing out of the most intense experience of the fray. But as I found out later, I was possibly in the best position to be. Mainly, because when I ventured up to the heart of it. I found it impossible to move I was so surrounded by people. And I mean, move at all. Even when a tomato slapped my upper chest and fell to the ground at my feet, I couldn’t bend down to pick it up because I was jammed, people’s elbows on all sides. This lead me to believe that people in the very thick of it just stand around getting pummeled by tomatoes without being able to throw anything back. Not a whole lot of fun. Unless they catch one flying. Which I was able to do once. No, the most throwing I did was back a few yards away on a sort of raised patio area. This allowed me to see and take aim at more people. And it also allowed me to scurry about the place grabbing tomatoes. And I was pretty dexterous at it. There was only one time that my quick reflexes caused me some trouble. And that was when I stooped down to pick up a tomato that was just thrown and this girl wanting the tomato also, stepped on my hand. It didn’t hurt. But I aptly repaid her the gesture by giving her this tomato…that is my rubbing it all in her hair. Then, she retaliated by rubbing the fragments of the tomato on my lips when I wasn’t looking. But I seemed to take most of my targeting at people unawares back away from the main skirmish who were on the outskirts of it all. I was really doing these people a great favor because they had every intention of engaging in the melee, but few tomatoes found their way back that far.

As for military equipment, I was only armed with a pair of goggles, which I hardly used. For they fogged up real bad and it was always a difficult thing for me to see out of them. So I just situated them on my head. And I never suffered a tomato in the eye.

The only casualty to the war, well, the only one I heard about, were my flip-flops. I had heard that if you wore flip-flops in the fray you were sure to lose them because of stepping around in tomato paste. So, to avoid the prospect of going shoe-less on my journey back to Valencia, I slipped them off in a corner of this patio area. I did the fight barefoot. When, the battle was over, my flip-flops were gone. And I had to go barefoot the rest of the day. They were probably hurled out as ammunition. As tons of articles of clothing and other debris were also. In the aftermath of the war, the streets were strewn with this stuff, but I never found my flip-flops among the piles of rubbish steeped in tomato stew. As I walked about the main street after the fight, I walked to where the tomato juice lay like entire bodies of water, flooding whole portions of the street. People were skidding face first into the streams of marinara sauce. And if you weren’t dirty enough, they yelled. “Limpio! Limpio!” and splattered you with the tomato juice. This happened to me and there was not sense in fighting it. The locals, meanwhile, were trying to clean people off by dangling water hoses from their balconies. After that one hour of tomato-chaos warfare, everyone began to go home in droves. Having not slept the night before, I waited awhile, even tried sleeping in the hot Spanish afternoon. But eventually, hopped on the train headed back towards Valencia.
Thus ends my foray into La Tomatina.


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