About 40,000 young people from all over the world on Wednesday in the eastern Spanish town of Buñol participated in a gigantic food fight with ripe tomatoes, the popular “Tomatina” festival, which this year was transformed into an act of collective catharsis whereby people could - for a while, anyway - forget the effects of the country’s serious economic crisis.
The yearly hour-long tomato war was begun 67 years ago as a game by local youths but it has steadily been gaining greater attention worldwide.
European and Asian participants have long been regulars at the messy event, and this year people came to lob tomatoes at one another from Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Latvia, and many other countries.
The preparation for the ritual, which is traditionally held on the last Wednesday in August, began on Tuesday at sundown with a marathon of parties, dances and concerts that lasted until dawn.
After a break for the revelers to sleep and gather their strength - which they did on the grass in local parks or in sleeping bags laid out right on the streets - the excitement among the thousands present started to build as they awaited the arrival of the trucks loaded with 120 tons of ripe, deep red tomatoes and the beginning of the tomato-schlacht that really put Buñol on the international tourism maps some 10 years ago.
In the hours before the arrival of the tomato trucks, those present braved the day’s increasing heat and bought food, drinks and clothing at the stands and kiosks that had sprung up along the streets of the Mediterranean coastal town. Many also bought diver’s goggles from opportunistic street vendors as protection against the acids in tomatoes, which would soon be smashed all over everything and everyone.
The “uniform” worn by most people, at least by those who were familiar with the event, consisted of a white T-shirt and shorts or a bathing suit, all specially selected for later use as rags or to be discarded in the nearest wastebin.
Some of those on hand even dared to complete their outfitting with a bit of peculiar cranial protection: watermelon rinds cut into the shape of helmets.
Also, there were many people dressed in costumes of various kinds: pink rabbits, samurais, cooks, karate fighters and traditional Spanish outfits of one sort or another.
As the hour drew near when the tomato battle was to begin, in the narrow street along which the tomato trucks would come, impatient and nervous smiles began to appear on the faces of the thousands in the crowd.
Right at 11 a.m., a rocket announced the official start of the event and the five trucks loaded with ripe tomatoes appeared and dumped their cargoes. People grabbed up the vegetables and began hurling them at one another and smashing them onto each other, quickly coating everything in sight and creating a red pulpy, juicy mess in the historic town center with its white houses and building fronts.
This year, the tomato war became a cathartic event, given the uncertainty about the country’s prevailing economic crisis, as participants did everything they could to recover their spirits, which have been beaten down a good bit by so much negative news of late.
The gigantic food fight was recorded, photographed and written about by reporters with about 50 media outlets from Japan - some 4,000 Japanese youths participated in the event - Australia, China, South Korea, Germany and France, among many others.
Sixty minutes after the first tomato was thrown another blast of gunpowder signaled the end of the fight, and after things settled down one could see the true extent of the monumental mess. Nevertheless, from years of experience with this event, local municipal cleaning crews and residents had once again made the area amazingly spic and span within just a few hours.
Meanwhile, the exhausted but exhilarated participants headed to the river and the portable showers set up for the occasion to rinse off the tomatoes that covered them and soaked their clothing.
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