Most people come to Bali to Eat, Pray, Love. That’s not what I came for.
I was in Ubud, a town of foreign divorcees. They meditate in temples, crowd organic spas, and queue up teary-eyed outside the toothless medicine man’s home. It’s a town of romantic desperation.
Ironically, it’s also gagging with cock. The art museum has a room of dongs, gift shops sell boner-shaped bottle openers, and our classy hotel — full of erectile gongs and circumcised bathroom locks — resembles a Jack Shamama film.
Even the monkeys around the swimming pool can’t handle it all.
And yet this wasn’t the cock I was here for.
“You want to see a cockfight,” Made asked, surprised.
He was our guide. His teeth were filed down straight, like any good Balinese, and his name — pronounced Maday — means Second Child. It’s one of the four names for Balinese kids, the others meaning First Child, Third Child and Fourth Child.
And I was on my fifth cup of Balinese coffee. Half-solid, it clumped from the urn like bad milk. It was dense and dangerous and so incredibly strong.
I was jittery as hell. And boy was I excited.
I’ve wanted to see a cockfight ever since Charles Willeford’s novel Cockfighter, a tome of criminal beauty and Southern white trash awesomeness. And even though I’m from Kentucky, I’ve never been able to see one.
(Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton in the Monte Hellman flick)
My 84-year-old farmer-proctologist uncle, a reputed bootlegger and pimp, was a cockfight regular. But he refused to take me.
“They’re dangerous people,” he said, sucking at an unfiltered cigarette. “They’d know you weren’t from around here.” He paused. “And they wouldn’t like it.”
So when Made offered the chance to see one, I squealed. I squealed like a little girl. And that’s probably why my uncle refused to take me.
An hour later we were standing on a country road.
“This, cockfight coliseum,” Made announced. “You know in Rome, you have coliseum? Here in Bali, we have coliseum too!”
There were rows of concrete benches, and a pitch marked out for roosters. I guess you’d call it a cock ring.
But it was overgrown with weeds. There were no flailing hens, no deviant coaches shoving chilies up chicken butts, no wild fans waving cash and screaming for blood. It looked like it hadn’t been used in years.
“This is it?” I asked, depressed.
“Yes, this is the cockfight place.”
“But… it’s full of weeds.”
“When there is cockfight, they clean. Cockfight is illegal in Bali, but sometimes when village has enough money they can bribe the police. Maybe thousands of people will come.”
Thousands of people? Cockfighting is huge in Bali. It’s like soccer to Italians, and a temple festival without a cockfight to placate the demons isn’t a festival at all.
With Ron Jeremy demons like these, I’m not surprised:
Made started laughing as he remembered a joke. “You know in Bali why the wife is jealous? Because the husband will not massage her. He only massage the rooster. Always massage his cock.”
He mimed stroking an invisible rooster, then laughed more.
“But there is no cockfight today.”
Back when the family farm still existed, my dad raised cocks. Not just chickens, but also Japanese hens, ducks and pigeons. They were his pets. He loved them.
His mom loved them too, so much that she’d sneak into the coop when he was at school. She’d grab a handful, roast them up, and drench them in a thick gravy sauce. It was a family recipe simply called “Birds.”
But even as an old cock-hand, my father had never taken me to a fight either.
Fortunately, any Balinese man seemed perfectly happy to whip out his cocks on request.
In a parking lot, Made’s friend Wayan (“First Child”) pulled out two for a quick tangle.
It was great. But I still wanted to see a real fight.
“No cockfight,” Wayan said. “It’s illegal in Bali.”
It is illegal. It’s also immoral, and unforgivable. And yet, consider the life of a chicken. A Balinese rooster is raised a king. He’s caressed, massaged, primped, exercised and loved his entire life, then meets a sudden and vicious end. This, meanwhile, is the life of an American broiler chicken. I know which I’d prefer.
In the local alleyways of Sanur, we met another Wayan. He kept his roosters in tall wicker baskets, moving them around for the perfect combination of sun and shade.
Like Balinese children, roosters have few names. If they’re red, they’re called Red (Beying). If they’re green, Green (ijo). Both of his were called Brunbrun, which means mixed-color.
“I’ll give them some exercise,” he suggested. He primped them, massaged them, stroked their necks, and set them to fray. It was glorious.
Wayan keeps a second-hand set of spurs in a wallet, and tied one on with a long red string.
“Many different spurs,” he said, cigarette still in his mouth, as he wrapped and wrapped. “Taji. Some go here,” he said pointing to one part of the foot, “some go here, some go here.” Each was about the length of a paring knife, but with a razor edge. He held up his hands, and let us examine all his scars. “Very sharp.”
But I still hadn’t seen a real cockfight. No-one wanted to show this side of Balinese life, even though it’s a daily occurrence. We asked waiters at the hotel, cab drivers, strangers on the beach, but everyone said it was illegal.
And then we met a man — again, a Wayan — who said he could ask around. It took days, but one afternoon he unexpectedly showed up in a car. “I can take you,” he said. “Now!”
He drove us through country lanes flanked by rice paddies to a small village called Busung. I expected yet another parking-lot bout, but instead this village was flooded with visitors. Cars stretched a mile outside of the town. As we approached, we heard roars and squawks and nothing else.
“This is a cockfight,” he said.
And it was everything I’d ever dreamed of. A thousand sweaty Balinese men waving money and chanting and cheering the chicken names. Roosters battling through the air, clenching and swiping and diving for blood. The sun beating down and not a woman in sight. It was a manly place, full of excitement and gore and cock.
“What happens to the loser,” I asked. Perhaps it was ripped apart, or dragged through the dirt, or thrown to the dogs.
“No,” said Wayan. “We take it home and cook it. Maybe we add a nice spicy sauce. You know, we make ayam. It is very tasty!”
Very tasty, indeed.
Don’t miss Clifford Geertz’s hilarious and fascinating anthro-article “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.”