The Fighting of the Cocks

I went to get Mentos and ended up at a cock-fight in the Philippine jungle


By Christian Ågård Bennike

The rain is pouring down on the lazy town of Palo in the central Philippines, when my partner and I cross the street to buy some Mentos at a small store.

Behind the counter are four brothers in their 40’s sharing a bottle of sweet local rum — the kind that can be acquired anywhere for 100 pesos a liter (two dollars). They are drunk as skunks, and we start chatting.

“Look, look,” they say, pouring rum for us and pointing to the terrace were a bunch of square bamboo cages are placed in a circle. They are full of fighter cocks. The brothers train them, and tell us, that they are leaving for a derby in ten minutes; if we want to come along?

So we quickly finish our drinks, postpone all to-dos for the rest of the day and jump into the car. Four cocks are shoved into a couple of home-made cardboard boxes lined with palm leaves; and so we head out, with black tail feathers and cock-a-doodle-doo in the back seat.

The younger brother Levi with his favorite fighter cock.

We rush south on dirt roads with what seems like 130 km/h (the speedometer is kaput), passing the rice fields and oxes of the plateau between the fog-wrapped blue mountains. Here the impact of super typhoon Yolanda, that devastated the area eight months earlier, is still very visible. Debris, amputated coconut palms and houses lacking roofs. Everywhere. A rooster crows from the backseat, and the others promptly follow.

The brothers are somehow disappointed when they learn, that we are not from the U.S. of A.; so they just tacitly decide to pretend, that we are anyway.

“So cock fighting is legal in America?”
“America? No, no. It’s illegal. I think.“
“Legal. Yes. Okay. Very good.”

We continue to have giving conversations like this for the entire drive.

After a few hours we turn down a narrow path with tall palm trees on both sides looking like an archetypical scene from any Vietnam War movie, where the American commando group have to make a sudden stop, because Charlie might be lurking in ambush ahead.

Two kilometers down the path is the cock-fighting stadium – and it is a genuine stadium constructed out of bamboo logs, tin sheets and clumsy cement. This was one of the first structures to be rebuilt after the typhoon, which the diligent use of white UN tarpaulins clearly indicates. The rain never stops for a second.

Let the betting begin

A small army of mopeds and tricycles (Filipino version of TukTuks) are parked out front, and we are the only “Americanos” in a crowd of about three hundred. All are wearing the same outfit: shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops; and a cigarette. The walls are covered with advertisements for various supplements and Viagra-like pills for roosters.

Cock-fighting is — after basketball — the favourite sport of the Filipinos, and it is clearly a masculine thing. The only women here are at the ones roasting chicken and opening beer.

The brothers, who now look surprisingly sober, unpack their gear, and deceitfully fondle the cocks; their claim to fame. A crowd of people flock around to watch them prepare one of the birds for battle, like a little boxer going into the ring. They strap a five inch razor sharp device that looks like a miniature pirate sabre onto the feet of the chicken and carry it into the ring.

The cocks must be excited before getting it on, so little stadium helpers run to get sparring roosters that peck and peck like hell into the skulls of the two competitors until they go insanely mad from the unfair treatment. They are ready.

Meanwhile, the spectators shout and wave hysterically to signal which of the two birds, they think is going to win. And then the main attraction begins: the gambling. Hand signals are flying all over. A clenched fist combined with a vertical index finger signals a bet of 10,000 pesos (228 dollars): 20 times the daily minimum wage of 260 pesos. When the sweet rum works it’s grimsom magic, lives are ruined, I think to myself. Meanwhile, what can the wives do but sit at home with the six kids and hope for the best?

Everything is set now. Finally, the cocks are released into the ring. They throw themselves at each other claws first. Skipping a full meter into the air. Flapping their wings, scattering feathers across the small dirt filled arena. Fighting for their lives.

On the operation table.

The brothers’ cock wins his first match and dies three minutes later from the wounds; suffering to death on the ground, beside the remaining three birds. The luckiest of the fighter cocks are patched up after the matches on an operating table that looks like a miniature version of a medieval torture device. First the birds are strapped down with rubber bands and the feathers around the deep puncture wounds from the opponent’s sword is ripped out and covered with a few puffs of a white chemical powder. Then any unattached organs are squashed back into the chicken and the wounds are stitched up, while the animal cramps and twitches in an incomprehensible hell of excruciating pain. After a few months of rest they are fit to fight again, says the surgeon; wiping the blood of his arms with a dirty towel.

Darkness falls, and after a few more matches the brothers have reached the derby final; the main event of the evening. This is important. Very important. Winner gets 10,000 pesos — about twenty times as much as the youngest brother Levi’s daily salary as a police officer. Loser gets zero.

The concentration is intense as Levi enters the ring with the rooster under his arm. The crowd screams and places their bets. The opponent looks weak; tripping over his little sabre that is oddly strapped on, everybody sees it. The outcome seems clear; a formality almost. But then. After a mere twenty seconds: a tremendous – Matrix-like — leap by the opponent, and one accurate hit right below the wing. The crowd turns silent as the brothers’ cock tumbles lifeless to the ground. It’s all over, before it even started. The chicken is dead, and the brothers will now leave the derby with three dead roosters and without their buy-in money of 2,000 pesos (46 dollars). Deep disappointment.

No glory for the runner up. The chicken is dead.

While the crowd start their mopeds and head home, the brothers gather their gear. Plastic chairs, cages, boxes and mats; and the dead chickens that are to be eaten tomorrow. The stadium is empty now, it’s late and everyone is exhausted. And in that moment – when the last flickering fluorescent light underneath the tarpaulins where the flies swarm is turned off — the car key break. We are stuck in the jungle.

An attempt to file a new key from a pen outline of the original car key with a piece of sandpaper found on the ground behind the station fails. As do two expeditions to find a mechanic in a nearby village.

In a bamboo cottage bar not far away, a karaoke party is well under way. “No deadly firearms allowed inside” says the large sign outside the entrance, where a small monkey is tethered to a stake. Underneath the red and blue lights, four handfuls of hammered guests are dancing cheek to cheek, while a man roars The Wind of Changes by Scorpions out of tune and two beats behind the Casio keyboard track.

“When you go home to America, write that we are ashamed of the government. They are corrupt. Corrupt,” a guy confides in me, when he learns that I’m a journalist. His request is hereby granted.

Darkness falls on the jungle and it’s cock-fighting arena.

We eat hard-boiled eggs and rice underneath a roof of dried palm leaves and chicken wire while one of the beer-women does the dishes. We smoke Philippine cigarettes that are sold individually for 2 pesos (a nickel) and taste like insulation materials. Toads the size of fists are bouncing around in the rain; the rain that never stops. Meanwhile the last living cock waits in the car.

After three hours, when we have given up all hope of getting back to the hotel and have started preparing for a damp night under the open sky, we hear the car engine start.

In the pouring rain at an incredibly low speed; along unlit pothole roads with misted windows, we glide towards the city.

Two hours later, we jump out into the rain a bit from the hotel. Immediately, the brothers invite us to come along again tomorrow when they plan to do everything all over again. We tell them maybe, thank you for today, and drag ourselves through the empty streets. Somewhere in the darkness, a rooster crows.

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