By Zoe Hatton
Prior to this trip, the Katy Perry song “Roar” did not mean much to me. It was one of those annoying pop songs that came on the radio I had to tolerate until I reached a stoplight to switch the dial. By the end of my trip I would feel differently.
It was August 27th, the big day of departure. After three years, I would be returning to Spain, to celebrate my birthday at La Tomatina, the Tomato Fest, no less. It was a day you got to splat everyone with tomatoes in the small town of Buñol, Spain—something I had wanted to do desperately before I went abroad to study in Barcelona three years ago. Rumor has it the tradition started in 1945, although no one knows the exact story – a food fight among friends, the rubbishing of a musician, throwing tomatoes during a parade. The tomato fest was banned during much of the Franco years for having no religious significance, but was revived during the ‘70s. Today a crowd of 20-50k people come from around the world to celebrate, although now they offer a finite amount of tickets per year.
So how did I end up here? In 2010 I decided to spend New Year’s in Sicily with a friend who was studying in Besançon, France at the same time I was in Barcelona. But it had been a lifelong dream to see Rome and some major sites first. I was only going to stay in Rome for two days before moving on to Sicily, but tickets for the night train were sold out until 4 days in, forcing me to prolong my stay. What resulted was meeting Imogen, an open-faced Australian with a broad striped shirt, smiling and making friends with an Argentinian family who taught her some Spanish. For the first time, I felt compelled to break out of my shell and introduce myself to her and the family. We became an odd quintet—Australian, Chicana, Argentinian mother and two sons about our age. Imogen was about to study pastry making in Paris, but dropped by in Rome first. I spent the next day with her and Jennifer, her longtime friend who was staying in another hostel. And so a travel friendship formed, and they agreed to meet me again in Barcelona, where they would visit in two months. Since then, I friended Imogen on Facebook, and every once in a while I would ask where she was living or going next- for she was always moving between Canada, Thailand, South America, etc. By 2013 I caught up with her again, three weeks before la Tomatina.
“I’m going to the Tomato fest to celebrate my birthday, you should come!”
One thing I love about Imogen is that she always invites me to go somewhere as though if I just said yes, I could get whisked away to any one of those places. My birthday was also coming up – six days after hers as I discovered, and I had been thinking of doing the same thing! It was fate, I decided. I requested time off and bought a ticket at three week notice. It was a hassle—she worked at a Canadian airline so I waited to get a hold of her to buy tickets to Spain and for the Busabout Tomato Fest tour. The tour went through on my card, but the bank bounced my flight tickets since it was through a Canadian agency. I ended up shelling out 200-300 extra bucks to buy a round trip, then if I had just got them on my own in the first place.
When I made it to the airport, I felt strange, surreal—would it be that easy to hop a flight to reenter Barcelona life? Could I really take off whenever I wanted and come live here? I wanted to cry at the pain and ease which I now felt. But the worst wasn’t over—I realized I couldn’t go to Valencia straight from the airport- a serious dent in my time cushion. I would have to go to the main train center first- Sans Estacio. I tried not to panic, since missing the train to Valencia would force me to wait another three hours for the next one. I went to a small café where old men read newspapers. In awe of this magic space, I bought an overpriced bottle of pineapple juice priced three euros. I smiled and did not care, I was using euros again. At last the train to Sans arrived. At this point I stopped staring at my useless American cell—it was out of my hands now, all up to fate.
In the time it took to get there, I had forgotten another caveat—there was a long line to buy a ride to Valencia. By the time I reached the counter I still had twenty minutes to catch the train—but the tickets were sold out. I had to wait three hours at the train station. Fortunately this gave me the time to lock away my Barcelona bag, and keep my camping bag on hand. I would be spending two nights at the Busabout tour camp site during festivities. I was comforted by the fact that there were others, mostly British youth with camping gear also headed to the fest. It was disheartening to see the train I wanted fill up and leave. When at last ours came I felt sweet relief—once again it was out of my hands. I took a nap, woke a few hours later and I had no idea what the stop would look like, or how I would know if we passed it. I frantically glanced around and asked the conductor if we already passed it. He told me what time we would arrive. I resolved to stop napping and stay alert. I’m glad I did, because there were no obvious signs, just a few passengers gathered in the car. He slid open the door. At last I embraced the golden light of day, the fresh air whipping past my face as the train came to a halt. I stepped out into a vast station with high ceilings, and I could not help but feel a tingle of magic, that this could even be a Harry Potter station. The magic soon faded when I realized a) I did not have a map, and b) I had no idea where I was going. I tried asking other tourists who likewise had no idea. I asked customer service. Eventually they realized my company bus was a separate service than the city metro. I cursed myself for being so unprepared for having that “I’ll figure it out” attitude with no responsibility to back it. Why wasn’t I more like Dad or any of my mature and organized friends? If I had been on time I could have been picked up by a hostel and dropped off at the camp site like everyone else.
After wondering the station searching for maps in vain, gave up, and stepped out boldly to determine my surroundings. I reread my printed instructions which made less sense than I hoped and walked over to a bus stop to examine the map route. I stared until I got a good feel for the street names and do what I always do when I’m not sure which direction is which—walk around in a big circle and look at every street sign. None of them matched the street I needed- Gran Vía- our equivalent of Main Street. Amazingly, none of the passersby, even people who appeared to be locals, could point me out in the right direction. After half an hour of frustration I realized I needed to go purely by landmarks—the street I needed seemed to be along the left side of the big train station. The man at the train station also said I needed to go by the bull arena, which was across the street. My final confirmation was with the bus company itself, once it dawned on me that I could actually use the phone I just purchased to confirm what streets I needed. So, I walked eerily by the side of the station, where my only company was the long expansive tracks that crossed another to a ghost like path. I had only my mind’s eye and a cell phone to clutch in my hand for confirmation. She said. He said. I have no choice but to run into the street if I follow this shady road. A construction worker about half way down the road—finally a human presence—I realized I better talk to him because he would probably be the only official help I would get. He confirmed that yes, this was Gran Vía- in fact the road changed names HALF WAY DOWN to Gran Vía so I had been on it all along. I sighed with relief. Finally I had some confirmation. I found the street corners indicated on my printed instructions right away but saw no bus stop sign. Another form of help arrived and some local boys my age tried to help out since they said I looked lost. They were not familiar with the bus company but knew that the yellow buses that passed by belonged to the city. They thought I could ask a bus driver for the right one.
Across the street I noticed a lively group of British teens that could not stop talking about the Tomato Fest. I thought I could maybe ask them if they were taking the same bus, and feel less on edge, maybe even feel some of that infectious excitement again if I stood near them. A pretty Indian girl laughed and seemed approachable enough. She was not familiar with the company bus and was staying the night in Valencia, but they were going to the Tomato Fest. Finally in an hour elder locals began to gather around what I realized was a small post for the bus stop. I took advantage of my Spanish fluency to see if they knew more. An old man with a kind smile showed me what bus he was taking, the route it would follow and did not know the price because he had a card but I should let him know. My eyes saw the name on the stop, the destination was the same, and it clicked—this was it! I had been standing here all along for the last hour. The bus pulled up not five minutes later, and I was charged the glorious price of 1.5 euros. I had been praying for 9 or less, since that’s all I had in cash. True to my word I let the man know, and he was grateful for the information. I finally relaxed in my seat—it took a full on day but I was here, I was safe, I was on my way. At that moment a powerful song came on: “I’ve got the eye of the tiger, a fighter! Dancing through the fire! ‘Cause I am a champion, and you’re going to hear me rooooar!” Never before I had I felt so euphoric, and yes I was a champion, me. Yes it was a struggle, yes it was chaos and I had flung myself straight into hell on earth without thinking twice. But I got myself out of it. I made it safely, and now I was about to go on the greatest adventure of my life.