Just as I’m fastening my goggles to my face, the crowd pushes inwards and my ribs are almost crushed. I can’t breathe, and thanks to the fogged-up goggles I can’t see either. My feet are being trampled and elbows are jabbing me from every direction. The first tomato hasn’t even been thrown yet.
A firework screeches above our heads, signalling the start of the world’s biggest annual food fight. The usually quiet town of Buñol, near Valencia in Spain, turns into a fiercely pumping heart with clogged arteries, as the crowd of 45,000 people spilling down every side street surges with even more urgency towards the main square. As the first tomatoes fly overhead we’re soaked by water from the hoses of gleeful locals atop their tarpaulin-covered apartment blocks.
I slowly push through the crowd towards the main square. Within seconds everything turns red and my feet are standing in five inches of tomato juices, water and most likely urine. My goggles snap and fall off my face just as a tomato whacks me full-pelt in the right eye. I turn around and another tomato hits me in the neck. Even though it hurts, I can’t help but laugh.
The tomato truck full of locals pelting us with rotten fruit starts lurching closer, constantly sounding its horn. The crowd, which is already filling the main square, splits down the middle to let the truck through, with people climbing walls – and each other – to avoid being run over.
The sour taste of rotten tomatoes and sewage fills my mouth, as I crunch down on something gritty. I have no time to think about what I’m ingesting as a brief gap in the crowd finally allows me to bend down and scoop up smashed tomatoes and street juices in my goggles and tip them over a stranger’s head. Someone behind me grabs my shirt and rips it to shreds, leaving me with just a long trail of material swinging around me, sodden with tomato juice. I bend over and pick up a T-shirt from the ground, swing it above my head and fling it over the crowd. It hits a girl on the head from behind, wrapping around her face. Her boyfriend just looks at her and laughs. Then someone tips a bucket of floor juice over my head, just as a wet T-shirt smacks me around the face.
Finally another firework goes off, signalling the end of the hour-long tomato fight. But as the locals brandish their brooms in the clean-up competition, the fight continues for the hard core. The rest of the revellers trudge off into the hot afternoon, caked in tomatoes and goodness knows what else, en masse to their awaiting coaches, via the odd roadside dance party and communal river bath. I slope off down a side street filled with clean onlookers. I bear hug as many as I can to soil their spotless clothes. Why come to La Tomatina if you’re not going to get messy?