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The International Writers Magazine: Philippines

Cockfighting in Port Barton
James Roth
The man sitting in the cargo bay of the Jeepney had an arm resting on a cardboard box which had holes the size of bottle caps punched into its sides.
“Chickens?” I asked.
“For fighting,” he answered.  “Every Sunday.” 


Patting the top of the box affectionately, he added, “You go?”
Eager to do something that was not advertised in tourist brochures, I said, “I’ll be there.”

The fights were not held in an arena in Gladiatorial splendor, as I had expected, but on a sandy side street in front of two traditional one-room homes with walls of split bamboo and roofs of dried palm fronds.

I was in Port Barton, an isolated fishing village on the west coast of Palawan, the Philippines western most island, which is more than three hundred kilometers long and, in several places, less than fifty kilometers wide.  A spine of mountains runs down the length of the island, making travel between coasts arduous, particularly during the rainy season—June through October—which is the time I was there. A traveler usually starts out in the largest city and provincial capital, Puerto Princesa, which is on the east coast.  I had arrived there from Manila.  I was on my summer holiday from my job as a teacher at Shenzhen University in China near Hong Kong. 

It was close to eleven when I got to the fights.  About twenty or thirty men and a few boys were huddled together under the eaves of the two homes.  Passing showers had left  puddles in the sandy streets, and rain water was still dripping from the roofs.  

Only about four or five of the men had a bird.  They were coddling them, stroking their backs, as if they were a beloved pet.  Some of the birds had yellow hackles, others red or white.  All of their eyes were sharp and fierce, their legs strong and powerful.  Now and then an owner would hold a bird by its long tail feathers as it scratched in the dirt, its beak lunging aggressively forward.

I waited for a match to begin, but none did, and so I wandered around amongst the men and between the houses.  In a glassless window of one of the homes stood a boy and a girl.  The girl was playing with a cell phone, laughing now and then, as if she were texting a friend.  The boy was staring aimlessly at the men.  The door of the house was open, and I peeked inside.  A woman was standing at a stove.  A poster of Jesus was taped to a split bamboo wall, and on a cabinet there was a Crucifix.  I recalled that the Port Barton Catholic church was just down the street.  One day I'd asked a young man, “Do you go to church?” He was incredulous.  “To hear the priest tell stories?” he said.

From behind one of the homes I heard some men howl in excitement and went to see what had caused it.  Maybe a cockfight?  No.  Four men were playing poker, laying their cards out on a flat stone.  I got the feeling that cockfighting was merely a guise for these men to get away from their wives for the day, apparently a universal Sunday ritual.  A few men were smoking.  None were drinking, however.  Perhaps that would come later.  Philippine rum was cheap (about a dollar seventy-five a quart) and plentiful. 

A shower started, and I squeezed into a space under an eave.  Standing next to me was a small man in his mid-thirties who had a round face and the eyes of someone who doesn't much think past having another cigarette.  On his chin there were a few wiry whiskers.  He was wearing a T-shirt and flip-flops, what most of the other men were wearing.
“You rent chicken?” he asked.
“Rent your chicken?” I said, a little confused.
“Yes.  You rent my bird.  What you think?  Five hundred pesos?”

Five hundred pesos was one hundred more than the cost of one night in the cottage I was staying in, a little more than ten U.S. dollars.  Moreover, I had no idea what I had to gain by renting his bird.  Sensing my confusion, the man said, “You rent my bird for five hundred, bet five hundred, you win two hundred.”
Now I was even more confused.  If I bet five hundred I expected to receive, if I won, five hundred. 
He continued, “If my bird lose, you don't pay.”

I thought about this for a while.  If I rented a bird—I preferred to think sponsored—I could not lose, but I couldn't win much either.  A sponsorship, I slowly realized, was like a hedge against my bet.  With the sponsorship fee of five hundred, the owner of the bird made leveraged wagers.  If he lost and couldn't pay me, he could default, however.  It seemed to me that there were some parallels to this arrangement in the financial world with the trading of stocks and bonds. 

Before agreeing to any of this, I had him show me his bird, the prospectus as I thought of him.  The bird had red hackles and aggressive yellow eyes.  He had me hold him.  I couldn't recall every holding a live chicken.  I judged it to be about a kilo.  It's legs seemed disproportionately muscular.   
“Small and fast,” the man said.
I felt an obligation to negotiate. 
“Two hundred,” I said. 
He shrugged and grumbled to himself.  He drew on his cigarette contemplatively.  “Four hundred,” he counter offered.
We agreed on three hundred and shook hands.  “What's your name?” I asked.
“Hope,” he said.
“And the bird?”
“No name.”
“Let's name him Manny, after the Filipino boxer.”
“That's up to you,” he said.

Hope made an announcement in Tagalog, and suddenly the men who'd been content to stand or squat on their haunches under the eaves of the homes out of the rain came out onto the street and began to shout and shake their fists at each other.  Now and then one of them would come over to Manny, who was being prepared for the bout, and jab a finger at him, shouting, “chicken curry!” or “chicken adobo!” a Philippine dish served with a lot of garlic.  Hope would always glance up at me and remark scornfully, “No chicken curry or adobo.”
“How many fights for Manny?”
“This is his first.”
I hadn't even thought about asking about Manny's experience. 

A trainer and two assistants prepared Manny for the fight.  One assistant held Manny and the other a small green case which contained the necessary materials—ribbon, thread, electrical tape, and the spur, which was about three centimeters long and shaped like a little scythe, but sharp as a razor.  To attach the spur, the trainer first took some ribbon and a rubber tube from the case and wrapped the tube to Manny's left leg, just below the knee.  Only one spur was used.  The trainer then inserted a U-shaped bracket into the tube and wrapped all this up very tightly with thread.  Once the spur was securely in place, he slipped on a scabbard over the spur.  

The next step was for the two trainers to get the birds into a fighting spirit.  To accomplish this, they introduced each bird to its opponent by cradling it under an arm and taking a few steps forward.  As the birds neared, the hackles around their necks rose up in unmistakable hostility.  This caused the men, who had now formed a circle, to cheer.  Sometimes the birds would lunge at each other, locking beaks.  Or they would peck at the competitor's back, pulling out feathers.  This pre-fighting build-up went on for a few minutes, until the trainers were satisfied with their respective birds' competitiveness, and then they set their birds down but held them back by their tail feathers.  The birds were now facing each other, only a couple of feet apart.  They scratched in the sand, eager to attack the other. 

A referee had stepped into the ring by now, and when he said something the trainers released their birds and within seconds the birds were jumping into the air, clawing at each other.  When they fell back to the ground they would pace around, as if sizing their opponent up, before launching into the air again, trashing at each other.  In the blur of feathers and whirl of wings, I couldn't distinguish one bird from the other.  Which one was Manny?  I couldn't tell.  And then, before I could determine this, only about forty-five seconds or maybe a minute into the fight, one bird stumbled away.  Men cheered, pumping their fists in the air.  The fight was over.  I felt a little disappointed.  I'd been expecting a lethal blow, not for one bird to walk away. 
“We win!” Hope shouted.  “We win!”
Hope and I shook hands.  And then he walked around to collect his winnings. 
I went over to take a look at the losing bird, whose trainer now held it by its feet, its head pointing down. Blood was dripping from its beak, spotting the sand.  For a moment I felt I had participated in something barbaric and cruel, and then a boy came up and took the bird, carrying it off down the street to deliver it to someone who would pluck, quarter, and cook it.

© James Roth September 12th 2011
James Roth

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