Wednesday, October 22, 2008

august closing

It's morning-time in Madrid. The sunlight and the blue skies are soft above the rooftops around me. The heat will be intense later today, but for now, it feels cool, and perfect.
I've taken this week off from class to make a sidetrip from San Sebastian to Valencia on the Mediterrenean coast. This last Wednesday, in a small town 35 minutes by train outside of Valencia, there was an obscure yet semi-infamous festival called the Tomatina. It started back in 1944--no one is exactly sure how--and has become a massive annual tomato fight. The town ships in 240,000 pounds of tomatoes and for one hour there is a free-for-all of tomato chucking. I had heard about the festival 6 years ago and wanted to experience the madness, so made plans to go this summer.
So the rundown...we made it to the town of Bunol at about 9am and were greeted right out of the train station with techno and a row of beer and sangria stands. Oh, and this is to follow the large group of Brazilians who were already cheering, dancing, drinking Sangria (?) and smoking joints on the train out there. Everyone, at 9am, is ready to party. We decided to head away from the madness for a bit and find some breakfast and coffee, so we wandered through the small streets and found a bar to serve us espresso and a little bakery. We sat talking and eating on a bench in the street as a stream of old spanish grandmas, tourist tomato-fighters, dirt bikes, 4x4s, and little kids on bicycles continued to wind its way past us. strange mix. We got up and walked more through the town, stopped in the church and talked with the Romanian man who paints and does its upkeep, checked out an olive grove, and then decided maybe we were ready to check out the festival we had come for. We started following all the other foriegners in their array of tomato-fighting in pink speedos, fairy wings, belly dancing skirts, home-made t-shirts with tomato bulls-eyes, duct-taped shoes, plastic-wrapped bodies, wigs of all shapes and colors, and general randomness. We finally reach a bridge in the center of town where the crowd is getting thicker, the walls of the apartment buildings are covered with plastic and there are people on the balconies above throwing buckets of water onto the festivalers below. We hold back for awhile, not sure if we really WANT to be in the middle of 40,000 people throwing tomatoes, but then eventually head in.
There are so many people trying to push towards the center of the fight that we never really make it very far, but as each big truck passes by us with its remnants of tomatoes, we get stray bits of juice and peels flung at us. The crowds are yelling--tomate, tomate!! The guys in the trucks shrug their shoulders and point further into the mass of people, telling us they've left their load back there. We can see chunks of tomatoes flying up now and then, and red splattered all over the walls. After each truck passes, we push in further, until all movement stops--if we want to keep going, we're going to have to be militant about it. In the meantime, we're getting splashed every few minutes by the buckets of water still coming from the balconies above us and people who have had enough of the tomatoes are streaming out of the center past us, covered and matted with red. We hang for another few minutes and then move back out, checking out more outfits, walking past groups getting public showers from hoses in the streets and drink a glass of sangria.
A few hours later we were back inValencia, showered and resting. Walked through the old city, through big plazas with fountains, old churches and coliseums and arched stone entryways. We went to an amazing italian dinner that night, and the next day I was on a bus back to Madrid.
So, I'm here for another day before I make my way up to San Sebastian and have my last week of classes. All has been going well--meeting people in class (a lot of italians and germans) and getting to know Basque country. I found a couple of hikes to do along the coast up there--really beautiful, green hills, big crashing waves against the rocky coast and farms with wheat, grapes, sheep. The green-ness reminds me of Seattle, and the landscape is a bit what I imagine Ireland might be like. San Sebastian is full of people because it is summer-time--Italians, French, Spanish escaping from the center of the country. There was a week long festival called Semana Grande with fireworks every night, bull fights, concerts, parades, displays of typical basque culture...And after it finished, the festival moved to Bilbao, an hour away, to start all over again! They really, really do like festivals here.

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