We fly along mountain roads under coconut trees, through tiny villages with people on the streets making offerings. Driving is Dilly, a man I met four years ago on the black sand beaches of Amed, then a fisherman & tourist guide. Now he has ditched the simple life, and leads a big cockfighting ring, one of Bali’s favorite pastimes. He owns, tends and bets on roosters; every day it’s a fight to the death.
Dilly has twenty roosters at any one time, treated as royalty. They live in woven baskets, too aggressive to roam the village. He rises at dawn to administer vitamins, feeds them beef, which he can’t eat himself because he’s Hindu, and dopes them with injections to make them angry. It’s a full time job, but it’s unpredictable and I can see the pressure in his face as we listen to RnB tunes blasted till distortion.
We arrive and walk through jungle to a tin shed nestled in banana plants, rickety bamboo bleachers around a hard packed arena full of men holding various roosters. This is his home turf, but only if the bets are high enough will he decide to let them fight. Men fluff the necks of the cocks to make them angry, bounce them on their feet, taunt them, let them peck each others’ heads. Dilly plays it cool inside the edge of the ring but hangs back, watching. Rolling the worn cash in his hands, gamblers pensive thoughts etched in his ebony features, tattooed eyeliner making him seem even more intense.
The chosen roosters’ left leg is bound repeatedly with red thread that holds a large metal spike, so that one foot can rest on the ground and the other gouge into it’s opponent. Bets are taken, the yelling increases to a fevered pitch, the chaos a system understood by all.
The amounts rise till the referee calls and the handlers retreat, letting both roosters run at each other in a flurry of squawks and feathers, often drawing huge globules of blood from the first volatile connect. The crowd yells and groans with each dripping blow. Some fights are over in seconds, others stretch for long minutes, the birds staggering towards each other across the blood soaked dirt. If the action stops, they pull the roosters apart, to ruff them again and re set, this time with backs to each other inside a basket, where the first one to strike is declared winner. Cheering ends abruptly as money changes hands, the loser patted gently as it drips onto the dusty ground.
Dead roosters are either used as offerings at the temple or sold at a high premium for eating, the meat considered a delicacy because of their easy life and flesh full of vitamins, not left to scratch around in the dirt like most chickens. Those that win a few well paying fights are given a harem of hens to live their life as “gigolos”, never fighting again.
He used to cook mahi mahi on the beach, now Dilly rides a bright red Yamaha ninja, draped in gold jewelry. One night in a bar drinking Arak, he tells me he has made something of himself now, he’s ‘not poor anymore.’
Everywhere we visit, its obvious Dilly has respect. He lends money to everyone, sometimes keeping their iPhones as collateral, and it goes around in a big circle. Lend, borrow, bet, lend, borrow, bet.
The next day we head to a cockfight to bet large, where people come from many local villages. I say people, but it’s men. Men and men only.
The entry is 10,000 rupiah, around $1. They want me to pay but Dilly waves them away, he is adamant. “The respect me, they don’t charge you’ he says, dismissing it.
We enter a shed with over a thousand eager men pressed against each other, a sense of delirium and fervor just like the casinos of the west. Standing on concrete bleachers with intense eyes and frangipanis behind their ears, waving cash in the air yelling “sala sala sala sala” for a small bet or screaming the colour of the rooster they think will win. In the ring, officials wearing sarongs and new white Quicksilver T shirts take bets & pass the roosters around, feeling the muscles of each other’s cocks, deciding who will fight who in a fair stoush. It’s a haze of cigarette smoke, sweat and feverish testosterone; I am the only white person and the only woman here.
That day I watched him lose ten million in an hour, on around 15 fights. The average wage here is six to ten million in a month, about $500-800 USD.
The money Dilly makes gambling feeds and clothes his extended family of eight, including his two year-old son. His mother died when he was ten, his father when he was fourteen, then he was on the streets with no education.
Afterwards, I ask him if he is upset “Not sad – it’s gambling. Try again tomorrow.” he offers dejectedly.
Aside from the economic benefits generated by tourists, this is an intrinsic part of the local economic model and has been for a very long time.
It’s hard to make a moral judgment when faced with those facts.
Outside later, I see plates of ayam goreng being sold, and I know that isn’t just the regular fried chicken found in Indonesia. I can’t imagine the taste of a rooster that died with 1000 people focused on it in the ring, but I politely decline, suddenly not as hungry as I was before. This is cockfighting in Bali, from ring to table in a matter of minutes, and the cycle begins again.
Published on VICE magazines’ website in June 2014