At first glance, it's easy to see why people might snub La Tomatina as a tourist trap. As the day begins, droves of tour buses filled with rowdy Australians and Go-Pro cameras swarm the town's entrance, equipped with lame tomato-themed t-shirts and cheap canvas shoes from Primark. The Tomatina's saving grace, however, is the international crowd it manages to draw. For one summer day, Buñol plays host to everyone from giggly Japanese schoolgirls in plastic pink high heels to middle-class Indian tourists in speed dealer sunnies and three-quarter-length denim jeans. Anyone, regardless of age, race or background, comes willing to hurl and be hurled at. It makes for a good time. As a man who stood in the thick of it, believe me - there is nothing more exhilarating than ditching a handful of rotten tomatoes at the face of a decrepit Chinese lady, only to turn around to a large German man waiting to smoosh a whole one in your eyeball.
The day begins as some 40 000 people descend the hill into the Buñol town square. From the heights of town houses, locals peep through the protective blue-and-white tarps that cover the sides of their home to watch, point and squirt hoses of water at the punters who squeal in delight, chanting "Agua, agua, agua!" desperate for some refreshing relief from the 35-degree sun. The chanting continues - "OLE, OLE, OLE!" and the opening chords to Seven Nation Army fill the streets. If you've been to a Spanish festival before, you may have observed this strange tradition. No one knows why the Spaniards have an inclination for The White Stripes 2003 rock anthem - they just do.
As 10am rolls around, the crowd thickens into a pasty, excitable mass. The day begins as various men and women scramble up a greasy pole in an attempt to retrieve a leg of netted ham from the top. Yes, you read that correctly. The historical reasons behind this are few and far between - it's easier just to shrug your shoulders and accept it as the way it is. It's no ceremony for the light hearted. The contenders scrap atop one another, kicking at the faces of strangers and standing on their shoulders as they cling on for dear life, desperate to be crowned the champion who will open La Tomatina.
As I stand there, I take a moment to remember the festival's origins. The groups of young boys who were detained time and time again by local authorities, only to be released by defiant residents who mocked the police's attempts to stop their celebration. In 1957, locals (Buñolians?) carried a coffin down the main street with an oversized tomato inside while a marching band played the funeral march to protest against attempts to shut down La Tomatina. Brilliant.
My attention is diverted. A young woman has almost made it to the top. Her fingers gingerly brush against the side of the ham, earning a cheer of anticipation from swarms of people hanging three stories beneath her feet. Almost as soon as it comes within her grips, a brass-muscled man rises from beneath her and slaps his hand against her leg with such ferocity that it rings across the packed crowd. "BOOOOO!" booms the crowd raucously, disapproving of the poor sportsmanship. As he wrist-locks the bottom of her heel, the woman, with her arms wrapped firmly around the pole, wrestles her leg free, levels her leg up and kicks him square in the face with the boot of her heel, sending him tumbling to the ground below. The crowd bellows with approval as the atmosphere goes from excited to electric. 11 a.m. rolls around but the ham remains firmly fixed to the top of the pole. A canon filled with gold glitter shoots out into the air. The world's biggest food fight has begun.
Without warning, whistles ring through the air. Down the narrow street comes a tip truck filled with tomatoes. Crazed locals, perhaps 20 of them, swim in the enormous tank carried on the back of the truck, hurling tomatoes wildly at punters as they pass. Up, down, up, down, up, down, the Spaniards bop in and out from the truck, red bullets soaring out of their hands and into the crowd. Everyone begins picking them up and flinging them at one another. The truck stops momentarily in the middle of the street to rear its tipper backwards, dumping a cascade of tomatoes as it goes.
The crowd scrambles toward the mash, clutching onto one another, grabbing for any ammunition they can find. Sounds of gleeful squealing can be heard through the turmoil as a giant Spanish man in red dress sits on the ground beside me and begins handing up tomatoes to people, who take them from him without thinking twice.
Just as I think the madness had reached its peak, I hear the sound of more whistles. Another truck is making its way down the street. Holy fuck.
The dumping ritual repeats itself and the pebbled ground beneath us transforms into a pond of tinned tomatoes. I feel them squish beneath my naked toes and jump up and down, giggling like a five-year-old girl discovering puddles for the first time. I grab Monica, the four-foot fashion designer from Sydney beside me, in a fit of excitement and pull her down into the abyss, where we roll around in the red sea, making tomato-angels and bumping heads with others who braved the vile mosh pit in all its glory. Surfacing from the depths, I pelt a ripe one at a girl who has foolishly taken a ride onto a mate's shoulder, only to make herself a prime target for the little red grenades.
There is tomato everywhere. Seedy slush fills my ears, submerging the sounds of the ruckus around me. I run my hands through my hair, shaping it into a mohawk as though I was a kid again playing with shampoo in the bath. I taste tomato. I smell tomato. I have tomato in my fingernails, in my underwear. I'm almost certain I can feel a spaghetti bolognese brewing beneath my ass cheeks. My eyes burn from all the citrus, but there's no time for complaining.
I try to look around and take it all in, but the Tomatina is ruthless. The whistles sound again. Yet another truck, filled to the brim with hundreds of thousands of tomatoes is making its way down the street.
In that moment, as I stare down the narrow street, tomatoes soaring through the air one after the other in a non-stop, mad man's rush of bizarre human energy and merriment, like flies buzzing around a fresh pile of shit, I realise how far away I was from ever understanding what this, what any of this is for - so I pick up a handful of rotten tomato mush and slam it into the face of the stranger standing beside me.
This article originally appeared on Global Hobo, a on online hub for world-savvy dirtbags who like to roam.