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El albergue

El albergue

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

And so it begins....

Right now, I’m sitting on my cute little bed in the hotel room that Hilda and I have booked for tonight.  It’s small, true, but the furnishings were all chosen with an eye towards esthetics.  The Vora Fira Valencia Hotel as a whole is, in fact, very impressive in its physical appearance, especially considering that this room was basically the cheapest in Valencia that we could find for tonight.  Tomorrow though, we are going to switch over to a hostel closer to downtown, tomorrow when more of the Tomatina hordes leave and open up the rooms that were completely booked when we were trying to find lodging in June.  Which reminds me, you probably want to know how La Tomatina went.  I mean, it’s an internationally renowned, all-out food fight for Pete’s sake, right? 

To start with though, let me fill you in on the details of my flight.   My friend Hilda and I flew out of SFO at 7:30 pm, and everything went well the whole way through the ridiculously long flight that touched down in Zurich around 4 in the afternoon, which puts it around 7 in the morning Pacific time – talk about messing with your body, we had breakfast around 4 am Pacific time on that flight, and my stomach was really confused!    The transfer to our flight to Madrid went well, and we arrived in the Madrid airport around 7 pm.  We spent a while wandering around the airport, figuring out customs requirements, where in the world to store our luggage, and how to get to the metro.  It all turned out well, and we were able to get to the bus station on time to catch our 10:30 bus to Valencia.  Now, I had luckily been able to doze some during the plane ride, but the entire four hours of this bus ride were sleepless.  I tried, but it just didn’t happen.

Around 2:30 am, Hilda and I stepped off the bus in Valencia.  We didn’t want to hire a taxi, so we tried to make it to the train station that would take us to Buñol (where La Tomatina actually takes place) on our own with the guidance of a few scant directions from someone who worked at the bus station.  Well, we still don’t know whether or not we were really lost, but after walking for about half an hour without being very sure of where we were, we finally flagged down a taxi that zipped us over to the train station for only 6 euros.  As we meandered around to the front of the station, we could see a few workers cleaning the floors, so we assumed we weren’t going to be allowed in and continued a little across the area in front to find a place to camp out for the next few hours (keep in mind that it was a little after 3 am at this point).  Getting close to the fence surrounding the area, we could see over into another open area across the street with dozens of sleeping bodes strewn across the pavement.  Yes, there were other Tomatina-goers staking their claim in line at the train station.  Finally the doors were opened at 4:30 and bit by bit the crowd found its way inside, with Hilda and myself in the forefront.  We sat on the ground next to a really nice family from Yorkshire as we waited for the ticket windows to open, and wouldn’t you know it, as more people came in and the level of craziness milling around increased, the information relative to how we were supposed to get to La Tomatina seemed to change every minute.  Fortunately, the dad from Yorkshire found some solid info out, which Hilda actually heard from a station employee as well around the same time, giving us welcome confirmation.  Of course, the rest of the growing crowd had received the same reassurance and we all rushed to get the Metro tickets that we needed to get to the train station that would take us to Buñol.  That’s right, we thought we could get to La Tomatina from where we were, but turns out we needed to be at the Estación Saint Isidre instead– bummer.  We joined the crowd around the metro ticket booths and scampered off with the herd nosing its way.  The metro platform slowly filled up as we all waited for the metro to come at 6:15, and when it did, it was a mad rush to get in and get a seat.  However mad that rush was though, it was nothing like racing everyone else as we made the small trek between where we got off the metro and where we had to get on the train.  In fact, from the train platform the last of us had to sprint down to the last car, trying to beat each other out for a place to sit – it felt so strangely energetic for the early hour.  There was this one group of girls that sat near us; at first they were all drinking Red Bull, chatting about the upcoming extravaganza, and giggling and taking pictures like only a passel of girls will do.  Two minutes later they were all leaning on each other’s shoulders, asleep. 

At last, we arrived.  We were in Buñol.  Granted, it was only about 7:30 am, but the crowd was already bigger than just that which came on the train with us, and everyone was already hitting up the many booths selling cervezas and sangrias.  The two of us changed from our travel clothes to our Tomatina attire in the port-a-potties, trying not to touch anything as we did, then took our backpacks to a luggage storage area before following the general direction of the swirling crowd, figuring that someone in the crowd somewhere knew better than we what to do and where to go.  And then we found ourselves in the street were the main action was supposed to take place.  Not a whole lot was happening as people continued to pour in and the press of the crowd grew so strong that most of the time there was no way to avoid the things people started to toss around of their own accord.  After we had been standing in the street for over an hour and a half, amusing ourselves with a highly varied case study of people watching (there was an abundance of different costumes and personalities), they put out the greased pole.  This pole is the traditional start of the last (and most well-known) day of the week-long tomato festival – once someone climbs up and cuts it down the tomato trucks are supposed to start rolling in.  Mobs of guys (and a couple adventurous girls) tried to shimmy their up the log of lard, finally pulling together enough teamwork to for ladders that wiped off successively higher levels of grease.  And still very few people got close.  A few minutes before 11, one guy amazingly actually touched the thing, but his grip failed and he slipped down before he could cut the ham down and give a proper official start to one huge tomato fight.  However, the trucks started to role anyways, and the fight began, and we were all completely covered in tomato.  Well, that’s not exactly how it happened for Hilda and me.

Around 10:30, the two of us got stuck in the middle of what I shall here call the “splash zone,” the area next to the “water tower,” the iron cage/platform in which different people from Buñol were stationed with high powered hoses that spewed forth ice cold water pumped up from the local stream/river.  At first, it was wonderful, since the day had started to get warm, but after getting blasted without let-up for half an hour, we realized we were getting hypothermic!  We tried to fight our way out of the path of the liquid ice, but the crowd was such that we couldn’t do much of anything, sometimes we weren’t even really in control of our own feet.  Finally we got to a fairly sheltered spot closer to the side of the street, and when the trucks started coming through, we were pushed so far back by the splitting of the sea of people that I was afraid of crushing those behind me, even though there wasn’t really anything I could do about it.  The circumstance of our position plus the fact that most of the fighting was apparently concentrated a little farther up the street, meant that we actually missed most of the combat.  In fact, we got more tomatoed after the fight was officially over than when it was in progress, because as we made our way to the river to rinse off we were in very close quarters with those who had been completely smeared, sharing the tomatoes off their clothes and the ones they gleefully kicked up from the inches-deep rivers running through the parts that had the heaviest fighting.  

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