Travel writing: La Tomatina, Bunol, Spain

“Is anyone missing this?”  A lone hand rises high and waves a passport in the crimson haze. The world’s largest food fight has claimed its first victim.

A gun-shot cuts through the roar of the 40,000 strong crowd as a lorry commandeers itself through the sea of international revellers, dissecting it into a battlefront.  The momentary sense of anticipation returns an eerie hush to the sleepy Valencian town, until the heads of passengers can be seen jutting above the rim of the container on the vehicle.

Smack! The first tomato missiles begin hailing down. Soon the intermittent hits are replaced by a wall of red balls splattering from all directions. As the lorry passes, it reveals a fresh set of targets.   Puddles of orangey red hues begin to form and a tangy taste hits my tongue. There is no room for manoeuvre, there is nowhere for cover.  Peripheral vision disappears as lumps of tomato skin spread across my face. I manage to stay upright by bouncing off the waves of jostling bodies swaying in derision. I’m like a ball in a pin-ball machine.

As I march forward the tomatoes squelch beneath me and the acid bleaches the rims of my moccasins white. I bend down to reach the tomatoes lodged between the cobbles of the street, as cackles of laughter erupt from the crowd each time a new batch is launched air bound.  Random chants of ‘Ole, Ole, Ole’ echo out chaotically through the plaza, and temporarily ceases warfare as everyone gets in embroiled in the revelry.

A mixed splash of water and sangria falls from the balconies of crowded families above, who laugh down at the chaos from their plastic covered homes.  As I squeeze out the liquid from my clothing, a concoction of scents infuses the surrounding air. The crowd thins as the tomatoes gradually erode down to pellet-sized ammo, and people scurry away like ants to even the feeblest forms of shelter. Behind me another ecstatic roar lets out, as an individual climbs atop a tall greased pole and dislodges a wad of ham atop it. This would usually signal the beginning of festivities, though this year nothing could delay the brimming excitement.

As the supply of missiles wane, the brawlers innovate.  Tomato-soaked t-shirts are dispatched sporadically like trebuchets and splash against the old town walls, claiming a range of onlookers. A loud gun-shot rings out again through the mayhem.  A red river vectors through the cracks in the street. Its journey is halted by a lone shoe, creating a lake of thick tomato water behind it. The heat of the crowd subsides and a wave of cold air blasts through the town, as opportunistic revellers dive into the warm red pools.

I venture back through the town like the lagged member of a stampede, wading through the remnants of drenched goggles and t-shirts. Large water hoses clear the path behind me. Covers fall off homes, window shutters unlatch and balconies awash with clothes again, as Bunol is returned to its residents for another year.

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