Blast From the Past: Sex and Cocks in Bali

Nota bene: This was originally written after a 6-week stint in Bali way back in 2013.

Everything that I know about cockfighting — and this body of knowledge is really very small — comes from two sources: Alex Haley’s Roots,which I read way back in elementary school, and a Truman Capote short story called “House of Flowers,” set in Haiti.

Both texts take places in the Americas, and decades or even centuries in the past. Although I’m sure the sport, if you’ll forgive the term, continues to happen in my hemisphere, including the United States, I hadn’t known it could be so normalized until I came here, to Bali.

From what I’ve observed in the two weeks I’ve been here, roosters, like hens and their chicks, are generally permitted to roam family courtyards (and streets and businesses and rice paddies) at will.

Unless, of course, they have been chosen to fight. From Denpasar to Singaraja, on what seems like every roadside, you will find lines of tall, thin baskets. Inside each one is a single rooster. The roosters must be isolated to keep them from killing each other outside the arena. The Balinese chicken is a lot smaller than the kind you’re probably used to seeing in the USA, even the “organic” type that isn’t pumped full of hormones, but what they lack in size, they make up for with agility. To dodge motorbikes and dogs, I’ve seen these bantam-weights do an avian version of parkour, their ridiculous flapping combs rendered a little less foolish by these truly impressive feats of dexterity. I can only imagine what they’re capable of armed and pissed off.

Like many of Bali’s illegal activities, such as not wearing a helmet on your motorbike, or permitting a 9-year-old to drive said motorbike, cockfighting seems to done pretty openly and without fear of reprisal. Part of this has to do with infrastructure, but it also has to do with the fact that Balinese cops, like cops the world over, are corrupt motherfuckers (although I get the impression they are easier to bribe here than in, say, the United States). The Balinese I’ve spoken to talk openly about this corruption, although they seem to mind it more in their politicians than in the polisi.

My primary means of travel around this island is by rental car or van, and since the drivers tend to have better English than most Balinese I know, I’ve gotten the most variety of information from them. Today’s driver, a mustachio’ed middle-aged man named Rama, was not as big a talker as other drivers I’ve met (which I appreciate: the guy that drives me from Ubud to Munduk never stops talking. While his incredibly gracious interest in testing my Indonesian vocabulary is deeply appreciated, he can go for hours, all the while chain-smoking clove cigarettes, before he’s willing to give up).

For the first hour of the drive, we struck a good balance, Rama and I, between comfortable silences and polite questions about one another’s family and culture.

Rama has been driving for 37 years, since before there were many cars in Bali. Back when he started driving cars were so rare, he told me, that you didn’t even have to know how to drive to operate a motor vehicle. Back then, “You just drive all over the road,” he told me, cheerfully pantomiming with his hands in the air above the steering wheel. I didn’t point out to Rama that this sounds an awful lot like how people in Bali drive now(driving in Bali, especially urban Bali, is complicated enough to be something of an art form, but no one would accuse Balinese drivers of staying in their own lane, if one should chance to exist).

While never becoming impolite, about an hour into our ride, Rama suddenly became very energetically curious about me, like he had taken two shots of espresso and decided, on a whim, to pretend I was interesting. I was wary. Among strangers here, those casual, getting-to-know-you kinds of questions tend to start with observable differences, and the length of my hair is something in which Balinese people are very interested. I deflected his inquiries about what in the United States is a Very Gay Haircut, by asking about Balinese hairstyles in general. Almost literally every Balinese woman has long hair, and I told him I was used to a little more variety. Rama explained to me that in Balinese culture, women with short hair are assumed to be lesbians. Being straight and unmarried is a “very bad thing,” as many Balinese men have already told me. Being gay is even worse.

As a white American who presumably had money to spend, I knew that most Balinese people would be mostly tolerant of my queerness, just as they would be if I wore revealing clothing or did illegal drugs. But having quickly learned that Balinese men could be as creepy as American men when confronted with someone they read as a lesbian, this was still the sort of conversation I preferred to avoid.

Rama’s ensuing tangent (un)luckily, never touched on me personally. He told me what was supposed to be a humorous anecdote about a Balinese man who marries a woman only to learn that she is “actually” a man. Rama laughed so hard he got spit on the dashboard.

I wanted to change the topic, so I did what I would have done in America if I was alone with a strange man who was telling transmisogynist jokes: rather than be confrontational, I demonstrated an active disinterest. I didn’t laugh along with him, and looked fixedly out my own window while he talked. But Rama, reading my response as a lack of understanding, told his anecdote again, taking his time to explain to me just why this comedy of errors (the wife actually had a penis!) was so hysterical. It didn’t look like the subject was going to die a natural death anytime soon, so I decided to go ahead and put it out of its misery. On the side of the road was yet another row of rooster baskets.

“So, have you been to a cockfight?” I interrupted him.

Fortunately, Rama seemed even more interested in cockfights than in getting me to laugh about trans people. It just so happens that my driver also moonlit as a rooster salesman. He had even built an arena at his family compound so that he could stage fights on sacred or lucky days, of which the Balinese have many.

“To celebrate?” I asked.

“Yes, after ceremony,” he confirmed.

Ceremonies are a big deal here, events during and after which everyone shares food and hangs out. They’re sort of like big block parties but in the jungle or a temple. I asked if people bet on the birds. Yes, Rama said, sometimes. And how many fights did the typical rooster have in him? I asked.

“Sometimes two, sometimes four. Maybe more. Depends on if he gets hurt.”

Rama nursed his roosters himself, giving them “injections” (he wouldn’t say of what) and stitching up wounds by hand. This makes sense, considering that the Georges St-Pierre of roosters costs something like one hundred million rupiah, or $10,000, Rama said.

I was actually shocked. “That’s a lot of money for a bird!” I exclaimed.

Ten grand is nothing to sneeze at in the States, but it’s even more here, where an American dollar bought me a full breakfast at a roadside stand this morning (and remember, the price was very inflated because I am bule, a white Westerner). Rama laughed and honked his horn at a dog dolefully considering crossing the street.

For the remainder of our drive, we were able to stay safely on the topic of cockfighting. Although I was curious about it, when Rama invited me to attend one with him, I declined. He was aware that in many places, like the United States, it wasn’t as acceptable, but he disagreed with me that it was a question of animal cruelty, especially because the losing birds are eaten.

“And we take care of them before they fight. Very good care,” Rama said.

Considering the quality of life that most other domesticated Balinese animals, dogs in particular, experienced, he had a point. Across the dirt road from where he dropped me off was another row of baskets, filmy with dust. At the approach of a mangy yellow dog, the baskets began to crow, the birds inside them rattling their woven bars with wrathful, if constrained, wings. Head down, the dog slunk back into the warung from whence it came, where an old woman in a sarong observed with impassive gravity.

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