Caught Red Handed: my experience at Spain's La Tomatina

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Food fights are usually only seen in movies or on television.

Sure, tossing tomatoes looks like fun. The type of fun that would never really happen.

One festival will bring that food fight fantasy to fruition.

La Tomatina, the world’s largest food fight, takes place every August in Buñol, Spain with more than 100 metric tons of overripe tomatoes. The 9,000 residents of this tiny town in Spain’s Valencia region cover their windows and walls in preparation for 20,000 tomato-throwing adventure-seekers who attend.

Ana Garcia, a Spanish professor with a colorful flair at San Francisco City College, hails from Barcelona, Spain.

“I would love to participate in La Tomatina at least once!” Garcia said. “The festival is a celebration that gathers a lot of people together from all areas of the world. It’s a social thing.”

Traveling a great distance with friends for something ridiculous but unforgettable should be at the top of the list of things-to-do for adventurous spirits.

Even folks on a budget can find themselves in Spain ready for the ultimate food war.

People from all over the world including London, Tokyo and San Francisco rode a chartered bus for four hours from Madrid to Buñol.

Loud Spanish music, mixed with the shouts of street peddlers, greeted their arrival to La Tomatina’s 70-year anniversary.

“Sunglasses and goggles!” shouted one peddler. “Selfie sticks!” shouted his competitor.

The food fight takes place every summer in Plaza Del Pueblo, the center of town. In the surrounding streets, some spirited attendees sipped sangria and beer while wearing red face paint and Heinz Tomato Ketchup onesies.

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None of the rumors about how La Tomatina started in 1945 have ever been confirmed.

Most common is the tale of two boys who launched tomatoes at city council officials during a campaign parade. In another story, the boys playfully fought each other with tomatoes from an overturned vegetable cart.

During the rule of Dictator Francisco Franco, La Tomatina was banned entirely. Franco disagreed with celebrating anything that held no religious significance. When Franco died in 1975, locals returned with their own tomatoes to keep the tradition alive until the city took over organizing the festivities in 1980.

Professor Garcia says the festival’s waste of tomatoes is controversial in Spain. “They are concerned about waste, but it is not a serious waste. It’s not as bad as the pollution of the Blue Angels, cutting down trees for Christmas or killing turkeys for Thanksgiving,” she said.

Originally used just for decorative purposes in Spain, the tomato, a member of the nightshade plant family, was considered poisonous. It wasn’t until the 17th century that tomatoes became incorporated into the cuisine of Spain.

Now Spain produces more than four million metric tons of tomatoes annually, according to the 2012 Food and Agriculture Organization corporate statistical database. By comparison, California produces 13 million metric tons of tomatoes according to a 2014 report by the United States Department of Agriculture.

City College Professor Paul Glick is not keen on this type of festival. “I couldn't take someone seriously who did it, just as I couldn't take someone seriously who runs with the bulls,” the Spanish instructor said. “I love Spanish culture, but I don't find those festivals becoming.”

A professor with 22-year tenure at City College, Glick does see the value of adventure. “It’s important for students to travel internationally. It’s a fun way to learn languages, cultures and lifestyles. International travel and studying opens doors,” he said.

Flying internationally might seem nearly impossible on a budget, but with proper planning the trip is yours for the taking.

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The festival was a sloppy good time.

Drivers of seven truckloads of tomatoes cautiously descended upon the densely crowded street and pure chaos ensued.

Plaza Del Pueblo’s narrow streets flooded ankle-deep with sloshy tomato juice as the anxious crowd plundered one another until everyone was coated in a dripping paste of tomato pulp.

From the apartments above, locals became both sitting targets and participants as the crowd below included them in the fun. Their protective tarps — once neatly draped — sagged and drooped under the weight of tomato splatters.

Walls and windows dripped in vivid red in the wake of the tomato bloodbath. With tomato-chunked hair and shoes squishing at each mushy step, everyone was drenched and smelly.

After visiting La Tomatina it took a while before I could even consider eating pasta or pizza.

It was impossible to pull out a Smartphone to snap photos. Some had “tomato-proofed” their GoPro cameras to shield damage while others had tucked away waterproof waist pouches to keep wallets, phones and ID cards safe.

One festival attendee posted the aftermath on Instagram. “Everything on us was literally destroyed, stained red, and reeked of tomatoes and/or alcohol,” the caption read.

Generous locals offered their water hoses to rinse off the crowds. People lined up for a spray — yet many trekked on to find a better option.

What they needed was a thorough shower with shampoo, conditioner and a body wash that smelled like anything but tomatoes.

Unfortunately, that shower was a four-hour bus ride away, so some tomato-soaked revelers resolved to rinsing with water bottles behind secluded bushes.

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Here are tips for getting to — and surviving at — La Tomatina:

1. August 28, 2019 is the next festival.

2. Know how much you need to save. Start by researching affordable flights, lodging and food options.

3. To book your chartered bus service, TomatinaTickets.com is your best bet, or email info@tomatinatickets.com for more details.

4. Make travel decisions in installments. Take a few months to fundraise and save the amount necessary for a roundtrip plane ticket. Once you’ve made the biggest splurge, airfare, you will inherently continue saving up.

5. Pack smart. Bring an extra set of clean clothes for after the festival because you will want to get out of those soaking pink clothes after being battered in pulp.

6. Bring water. A water bottle will do. Not just for hydration, water makes the peeling-off of clothes process easier.

7. Bring food. The bus ride is nearly four hours from Madrid. Snacks are helpful after building an appetite catapulting squashed tomatoes.

8. Waterproof your camera. You’ll go viral once you upload a picture of yourself mid-tomato madness. This is the kind of experience that you have to see to believe.

If traveling to Spain is truly out of the question but you cannot shake the desire to throw tomatoes, Reno, Nevada hosts their own La Tomatina festival on the last Sunday of every August. This event began in 2009 and is organized by the American Cancer Society.

After visiting La Tomatina it took a while before I could even consider eating pasta or pizza. I have a new connection to tomatoes and will never think about them the same way again.

The trip resulted in my bonding with my traveling companions, I visited a town that I would not have known about, and I participated in an international cultural festival that many people will never experience.

The jury is still out on whether I would attend again, but it is certainly a highlight of my life so far.

Tony Taylor