12 September 2010

La Tomatina: Just add tomatoes - Bunol/San Sebastián de los Reyes [Day Five]

Up before 5am, on the bus, and on our way. I attempted sleep, which came in short ten minute stints. It didn't help that the bus driver had the aircon set to 'freezer'.

We arrived in Bunol to total chaos. Buses, cars, trucks, scooters, people everywhere. The staff gave us a very quick run down on the festival... actually, that is giving them more credit than deserved, it was the information sheet that we had already been sent via email. We could not find a park for the bus, so we all piled off and within a couple of minutes, we were off into the madness.

The crowd got thicker the further we walked. The sides of the streets were lined with locals selling goggles, drinks, all kinds of food. I'm not sure if you are aware, but Bunol doesn't have a lot going for it. This is their one chance in the year to make some money - and they took the opportunity for all it was worth! Within about 10 minutes I could only see two others from the group through the crowd, so we decided to stick together. Finally we came to an open square that was absolutely packed with people. There were high buildings on every side with walls covered in thick blue tarpaulin. This looked like the spot! We pushed our way through into the centre. The atmosphere was insane! The sun was beating down, thousands of sweaty people crushed into a small area, chanting, jumping, yelling, singing. There were people throwing down buckets of water into the tangle of bodies below, each followed by a huge roar. People chanting "AGUA! AGUA! AGUA!" (water) and singing Spanish songs. Beach balls were being bounced around over peoples heads, it reminded me of a festival, but about 100 times more intense.

We stayed in that spot for about 45 minutes. Unfortunately there were a group of Spanish teenage girls just beside us. FYI - Spanish teenage females have the most shrill, piercing, annoying voices, and believe me, they love to share it. Another observation, everyone was quite happy to stay where they were in the crowd, except all the really large people. Big people seemed to be forever trying to squeeze through the crowd, into gaps they really could not fit.

The shot went off, signalling the start of the fight. We waited for a good 15 minutes before we saw the first signs of any movement. A HUGE truck appeared, almost as wide as the alley. It slowly made its way forward, people struggling to get out of the way. It finally arrived at the square where we were standing, but alas, no tomatoes. OK I thought, they probably drop them at different stages along the way, there will be some coming to us soon. Another three trucks came and went, still no tomatoes. About 40 minutes had gone by at this stage, and we decided we needed to do something. We started to make our way forward through the crowd and down the alley. It was just plain mental. The amount of people was ridiculous. We managed to move about 40m forward, then at the far end of the alley another truck started to appear from around the corner. It inched forward about 10m, stopped, and the tray started to raise, dropping the tomatoes behind it. It was still a good 30m from where we were, but FINALLY, we were going to see some tomatoes. As the truck started moving forward, everyone started pushing back in our direction to get out of the way. We decided to make our way towards a small alleyway off to one side. As the truck crept forward it went from mental to off the scale insane. We were pushed and pushed down the alleyway by hundreds of people. My feet were hardly touching the ground, I was being held up by the mass of people jammed in around me. If someone had lost their footing, there is no doubt they would have been trampled; there is no way to fight against the crowd, you just had to go with it. That combined with some complete idiots in the crowd pushing people unnecessarily and just generally creating havoc, it was a pretty scary experience. After about five minutes I had lost my friends and found myself about 30m from the opening of the alleyway. As the truck came past I witnessed just how ridiculous this whole thing was. People were being crushed up against the truck, feet were being run over, people were having to roll underneath the moving truck to avoid being crushed. As the truck passed the mouth of the alley people on tray were throwing out handfuls of tomatoes into the crowd. That was as much tomato-action as I got, a light 'spattering'. Now you understand the title of this post... About 30 seconds later the shot went off signalling the end of the fight. A massive surge of people started pushing outward. Again, there was nothing to do but go with it.

Ten minutes later I was standing in the beating sun, soaked in more sweat than tomatoes, all alone. I managed to orientate myself and headed back up the main street. The sides of every road filled with locals selling beer, sangria, paella, and chorizo sausages straight from the barbecue. There were people with buckets of water and hoses washing off the mashed tomato, and for those who missed the tomatoes, it was just a chance to cool down for a second. I had absolutely no clue where the bus had dropped us, and couldn't see anyone familiar, so I just sat and waited. Finally I saw one of the girls from the group. It slowly dawned on us that it was about three hours until we were meant to be leaving, and there was no sign of the bus. With no food, water, money, sunscreen... it was going to be a long wait. A few people from the group started to show up over the next hour or so, all with similar stories to ours - little or no tomato action, and no money. Luckily one smart guy had bought money, and leant me €10, which only just bought be a big bottle of water and one of the most dodgy looking sausage baguette's I have ever eaten. Seriously, there was raw meet sitting in the direct sunlight for who knows how long, covered in flies. I was way too hungry to care...

A couple of hours sitting on the side of a dusty road later, the staff and bus show up. A quick change of clothes and we were heading back toward Madrid. Overall, the experience was a huge disappointment. For me, this festival is a once in a lifetime deal, I won't be coming back. The problems started right from the beginning - we simply arrived way to late. Even people that had pushed through the crowd right from the first gun only managed to get into the tomatoes right at the end. Most people, myself included, saw almost nothing. There was a total lack of practical information, we had no idea what to expect. It takes two seconds to tell people 'if you want to get right in amongst it, you are going to need to push way down the alleyway'. Most of the people I spoke to also had no idea that we would not have access to the bus for three hours, so like me, had left everything on board. So utterly disappointed, and completely exhausted, I spent most of the return journey asleep.

Back in San Seb. I had a quick shower, then went out to get some FOOD! I joined a couple of others from the group and we found a nice air conditioned restaurant. I had at set-menu, with an amazing salad starter, grilled fish main and ... a nectarine (random!) for desert. But it was all sooooo good.

That evening was the opening ceremony for the bull festival. We headed down with a few beers and bottles of champagne (seriously cheap! €4 for 12 beers, and €0.60 bottles of champagne!). There were brass bands playing, people spraying champagne, dancing, drinking, lights hanging from every street lamp... it was awesome! Then they had the laser show (one of the best I have ever seen!) followed by a fireworks display. Those Spanish really like to go all out.

Less than five minutes after the ceremony ended an industrial clean team swooped in. We were quickly ushered off the main square to make way. So efficient! The streets were littered with champagne bottles and crazy people drinking and dancing. Again, people were throwing water down from the houses onto the crowd below. They also had these amazing lights hanging above the streets (see photo) everywhere throughout the town. We found a cool bar - well, it wasn't so much a bar as a brick room between two shops. All they had was a bar, fridge and a stereo system, not even a bathroom! We quickly got in the spirit of things with plenty of drinking and dancing with the locals. One Spanish woman was trying to teach me to dance Spanish style, but I was completely hopeless. There was one old guy who was really friendly, and kept coming up and trying to communicate (he didn't speak any English). Later he danced with some of the girls and tried to balance a beer on his head! (all these links here are videos, check em out!) There was a brass band that we were talking to (some spoke English) between songs - all really friendly and welcoming. The bar ladies loved one of the guys in our group so much that they swapped his t-shirt for one of the festival ones they were selling. They then cut his in two so they could have half each! I had such an awesome time. The festival is still quite unknown on the tourist circuit, so the locals aren't yet sick of all the idiot tourists that come and disrespect their festival.

About 3am I was falling asleep on my feet, so packed it in. The locals were still out partying in force, in fact it looked like there were more people out than there were for the opening ceremony! You can't say the Spanish don't know how to party. There were hundreds, no thousands of them in the park beside our hotel. And the whole place looked like a rubbish dump! Bottles, food wrappers, plastic bags, everywhere.

The day can be summed up by really low lows, and really high highs. Le Tomatina was a huge disappointment, but the opening ceremony and festivities afterward were really cool. I was still in two minds about weather I had made the right call to travel with a group, especially after the rigmarole at La Tomatina. But I decided what's done is done, and I'll just make the best of whatever happens.

Next Post - 'RUN!'

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