Chicken Gladiators is about seeing a cockfight in Bali.
At first, Ian I weren’t too keen on hiring Josee as our guide. He was a Yogyakarta University student who talked us into hiring him on by claiming there were far more interesting things on Bali than mentioned in our Lonely Planet travel book. The deal was he’d show us some offbeat stuff as long as we’d stop to see his cousin over in some remote village. Right from the get-go Josee proved to be an invaluable guide by steering us to the best places to eat and sleep. He was as thrifty as we were.
“We’re going to a temple?” I asked Ian, as I mounted my rented motorcycle. I didn’t relish going somewhere where ancient rituals and customs could bite stupid bloody tourists hard on the ass. We’d already committed a few faux-pas putting us in awkward and one dangerous situation.
“That’s right mate,” replied Ian, kick starting his bike. “And that’s just for starters.” He turned to Josee. “Tell him, Josee.”
Josee smiled and adjusted his blue printed sarong, readying to hop on behind Ian. “We go to a cock fight.”
I looked at Ian. “Chickens fighting? That doesn’t sound too exciting. What do they do? Scratch and peck?” But this was a land where chickens fly high into trees, so I expected almost anything.
“Yes,” said Josee. “And they kill. Cock fight today.”
Josee had it on good information a nearby temple was celebrating some god or other, and the festivities were kicked off by a sacrifice of animal blood–a rooster’s.
“Chicken gladiators, mate. To the death,” said Ian. “Rock on.”
We roared off on a hard-packed red dirt road, cruising through the afternoon heat along the southern coast. Flooded rice paddies with wallowing water buffalo and kids leading small flocks of ducks and geese were common sights. Bali is an idyllic postcard everywhere you look. Chickens crossed the road before us and thought nothing of it.
We entered a small village and parked our bikes outside a stone-walled temple. Josee led us around the back to a growing chorus of howls and chatter. Under an open air pavilion about 50 sarong-clad men milled about. They jammed around a cordoned off dirt floor where two men squatted, grasping two roosters facing each other, trying to get them to peck each other. The crowd held up fists of rupee notes to bookies who deftly threaded their way around snapping up the notes while gesticulating with their hands and fingers.
Every man in Bali chews fibrous patches of betel nut to numb their mouths. When 50 get together there are continuous streams of red saliva spit everywhere, as if a blood splattering mass murder recently occurred. Was this how Bali really got its red soil?
We were glad to be under the roof out of the broiling sun. Josee encouraged us to buy some hot tea from a vendor.
“Tea will make you sweat and feel cool.”
Since we were thirsty, and there was no iced ‘pink drink’ guy around, we agreed. A vendor, squatting with his pals under a tree, got up and took his spot behind his little cart where a small barbecue was also warming up to grill some chicken satays. Maybe it’s where yesterday’s losers ended up.
“Got to like these Balinese,” said Ian. “They take an ancient ritual and turn it into a sporting event.”
At the far end of the pavilion, two men held down a colorful rooster and laced a cock-spur to its leghorn–a razor sharp blade 2.5 to 3 inches long. A sharp blade is the hallmark of any barbarian bird worth its salt. Suddenly, clawing and pecking seemed so…primitive.
These roosters weren’t your run-of-the-mill cockle-doodle-doers, they were large birds, well-groomed with bright plumage of red, golden yellow, blue, orange, and black. Impressive specimens. And they were trained killers–far too dangerous for the farmyard.
The tea was hot, forcing sweat from our brows. In a few moments, we felt cooler. Josee grinned and put his index finger to his temple. “I go to university,” he said with a laugh.
We laughed with him and made our way closer to the action. The crowd hushed as the two men in the arena backed away. A judge wearing a white sarong and white shirt gave the start signal, flipping his hand.
The birds were released, charging toward each other. The crowd roared. A vicious attack began as the roosters crashed into each other. Feathers flew. Blood dripped to the ground.
“Temple grounds now blessed. Spirits happy,” said Josee.
Ian concurred. “Right as rain.”
The birds flapped and jumped attempting to get on top of each other to slash or stab their cock-spur. As their blood ran they slowed until after about a minute or so, one finally flopped over. The judge signaled the fight was over and the crowd erupted, settling bets and spitting anew.
We watched a few more fights and were ready to head for the temple when the crowd hushed. In the arena stood a man hoisting a large beautiful bird, rotating it around for all to see. The punters looked on with their fists of cash lowered. Some shook their heads while others attempted to wave away the obviously unwanted rooster.
“Well, what do we have here?” I said.
“Looks like a champ,” said Ian. Ian played the ponies at Melbourne’s horse racing tracks and especially loved dog racing. “I’d love to see this bird on a tear.”
The rooster being touted was quite a large bird and appeared very calm as he stood displayed on his master’s hand.
Josee turned to us. “Is Lombok bird. Very good. Bali men no want to fight,” he said, referring to the neighboring island of Lombok.
Ian asked him how much it would take to get a fight. Josee asked a man next to him who in turn asked another who asked another, until the request made it to the Lombok man. He lowered his prized bird and consulted with his corner man and a bookie. The crowd whispered as the drama played out. All eyes went to us; foreigners disrupting the flow. The corner man yelled something.
Josee turned to us. “He say two-thousand rupees.”
“About four dollars,” I said.
“Gotta see a champ in action, mate,” said Ian.
“Yeah, maybe it’ll be a world-champion. We can tell our grand kids.”
We produced a fistful of notes that were quickly snapped up by a bookie. I wondered if this was some type of elaborate tourist trap. The champ’s master smiled at us and stroked his bird.
Josee grinned and shook his head, laughing. “You crazy. He is Lombok champ. Like Mohammed Ali. They think you stupid.”
We frowned at him as the crowd began a furious round of betting, everyone taking the champ. “If we win, we’ll be set for life,” joked Ian, imagining the staggering odds against us.
Our decision to bet against the Lombok bird caused some consternation and a few arguments. No local wanted to offer his bird in a futile death match. Finally, the judge picked out a man who reluctantly brought in his bird and began to tie on a spur. He gave us the evil eye. Maybe it was his only bird.
Josee told us the loser must offer the dead bird’s feet to the winner.
“No chicken feet stew tonight, mate,” said Ian, laughing.
The two opponents stepped into the arena and squatted with their birds. They held the birds apart and pushed them toward each other to get the pecking going, putting them in the proper mood. The Lombok bird was clearly the larger bird. He even looked like a champ with a large, black head blending into a shiny dark blue cape, a rust-colored body, and golden wings. All it needed was a cape and crown.
“Probably puts on shades and gets into a limo after the fight,” I said.
The local bird, somewhat smaller, was basically mottled red and orange. A chump. Cannon fodder. The champ didn’t seem to eager to fight as he tolerated the pecks of his opponent. His master had to slap his head a few times until suddenly he lunged forward with a power peck that just missed an eye.
“He’s a dirty fighter, too,” I said.
The men backed away. The judge flipped his hand. The fight was on. The crowd came to life. The birds rushed toward each other. The local bird flapped first, trying to get above the champ. But the big Lombok rooster stopped, hung back for a moment as his opponent began to come down. Then, he flapped and rose above the local bird. Feathers flew. The champ lifted his leg as he came down, plunging in the spur. Blood spilled.
The local bird did the chicken and shuddered. The judge signaled the fight over.
“Wow! That was like fifteen seconds,” I commented. “Definitely a champ.”
“I said he is very good bird,” said Josee.
Ian and I shook our heads and had a laugh along with some of the men there. But that wasn’t all. The champ, being a champ, stood atop the corpse and lifted his black head and crowed triumphantly. Our jaws dropped.
The punters looked at us and roared with good-natured laughter; they’d seen this rooster act before.
The loser’s feet were being cut off as the champ strutted back to his grinning master.