The question of what constitues the culture of a place is one without an answer. When we decided to start this journey, we wanted to observe and absorb the culture of the places we went by being there passively. We followed that path for most of the trip. One huge exception was when we decided to go to the day long party of La Tomatina, in the town of Bunol, near Valencia.
Shane first learned about it when researching Spanish festivals online. We decided to head to Valencia after we left El Campello, and to incorporate that festival into our agenda. In general, I don't like to read too much about an event or a place before I go there. I prefer to explore or jump into the experience and then learn more as I go along or as things start to interest me. All I knew about La Tomatina was that it was "the world's largest food fight," that we had to take a bus from Valencia, and that we needed to be prepared to throw away the clothes and shoes we wore to it.
We purchased the required tickets through an "official" distributor, which included a bus ride, T shirt, shower, locker, and beer tickets. We also booked an AirBnB in Valencia for the night before the festival and for a few nights afterward. We thought we might hit Barcelona next, since we had loved that city so much in 2012.
A few days before the festival, I realized that the train from Alicante to Valencia was going to be pretty expensive. We had heard about BlaBlaCar from our French friends, and decided to give it a try. Through our Spanish friend Carlos, we coordinated a ride to Valencia with a stranger, who was charging us 10 euros each for it.
The next afternoon, we said our tearful goodbyes to Nan, to Carlos, and the town of El Campello, and piled our suitcases and backpacks into Jesus's small car. Jesus spoke about as much English as we did Spanish, so we did a lot of hand motions to try to figure things out. It turned out he had 2 more passengers coming, and he didn't know if or how much luggage they had.
We helped Jesus locate the Australian backpackers in the parking lot of the Spanish equivalent of Costco. They were young, friendly, and headed to the same festival as we were. We rearranged things and ended up sitting with our backpacks underfoot. It was great to talk to them, and to learn about their thirst for travel and interest in seeing the world. The drive north was uneventful, and we watched the sun set over the dusty mountains. Spain as a whole is so dusty and dry that even the sea left salt dust on my skin and on my clothes.
Valencia was very much alive, and we had a wonderful first night exploring the center of the old city. We had tapas outside next to one of the historic cathedrals, and listened to a great classical guitar player who had set up a spot in the street. When he started playing "Romance," I messaged my father to tell him that I was listening to someone play a song that he would play for me in my childhood bedroom as I drifted off to sleep on nights when he wasn't playing in bars. He messaged me back immediately to say that he had first heard the song when he was in Zurich in the 1970s, and had convinced the guy playing it to teach it to him. I felt the connectedness of this world wash over me. Here I was, almost 40 years later, hearing the same notes while on a similar journey, and remembering Monday nights with my father when I was 8 years old.
The next morning, we rose before dawn, put on our throw-away clothes, and headed to the train station. We lined up to board our pre-assigned bus with a few dozen others in the surreal dampness of early morning in a strange place. A few people started drinking beer already as we headed to Bunol. I realized pretty quickly that the crowd was going to consist primarily of American sorority girls, shirtless Austrialian backpackers, and elaborately costumed groups of Japanese people.
When we disembarked in a massive parking lot full of other buses with nearly idential passengers, I realized that this "traditional Spanish festival" was going to be the least Spanish and least European event of our trip. We followed the guide around still-sleepy streets and to a grassy area with huge tents where we received wristbands, put our valuables into lockers, and had our one "free" beer. Vendors hawked their wares along the way: goggles, flip flops, beer, water, and fedoras. Most of what they were selling was neon. The town's walls were covered in tarps, and photographers and locals filled balconies above the mass of people, holding cameras wrapped in plastic bags. I saw the people we had ridden with the day before, beer in hand, and full of smiles.
The crowd of people filled the streets, and gradually the group flowed toward a security line. One patron's ninja costume had proved to be a concern, and he was pulled aside and required to relinquish his plastic sword and fighting stars. We became more and more packed together, until we were all crammed into the main street. Some of the people started pushing, and the claustrophobic demon on my shoulder started whispering stories of human stampedes in Spain that resulted in injuries and death.
The crowd was antsy, and started chanting, singing, and pushing around.
Every so often, a lone tomato would fly up, and land on someone's head or face. Finally, at 11:00, a truck started coming through the street, pushing us closer into each other. The demon was screaming warnings to me then, and Shane could detect the panic welling up when he saw my face. We made friends with the people nearby, none of whom were local, including a man from Iraq who had once lived in New Jersey and now lives in Amsterdam. I started to feel safer once we were no longer surrounded by complete strangers. As the truck came closer, we were pelted by increasing numbers of tomatoes, and when the truck passed us, the half-dozen occupants of the truck bed lobbed handfuls of the fruit onto the smiling, yelling faces below.
The trucks passed us about 5 times, and with each fresh load of the red goo, we were more and more soaked with juice, beer, and who-knows-what-other-liquids. People bent down to get the chunks of tomatoes and relaunch them, dirty, back into the air and into the faces of people who, like me, had decided that they wanted it. By the end, the street was filled with a saucy red sludge, and the skin on my arms started to sting from the acidity. People scooped up the chunky liquid in cups and poured it on others' heads, soaking us all to the skin. There was a lustful brutality to it - and the fact that the juice kind of looked like blood made it even more strange.
Once the last truck had made its way through, we headed back to the area where the lockers were, with the promise of a shower on our minds. Once we arrived, we realized that the "shower" was actually just a garden hose, and the line for it was about an hour long. We literally baked in the hot sun, rinsed off as much as we could, and waited for an hour for our very late bus without the benefit of shade or water. Despite the physical discomforts, we were happy we were there, in the bizareness of a Spanish festival with no Spaniards, in a small town covered by dust and tomatoes.
words + photos by Kara