AMED, Indonesia — Though Bali did not make me a fan of the ubiquitous rooster alarm clocks, witnessing a cockfight for the first time was a different experience altogether.
Strolling around the main strip of road through town, I noticed bamboo rooster cages nearly everywhere I looked. From storefronts to hotel entrances, from rice fields to beachside farms, there they were, always a cock-a-doodle-doo at the ready.
“You like?” asked one hotel employee, a local man in his early 30s.
Having been used to countless solicitations throughout Indonesia, I reflexively shook my head and smiled.
“You don’t like cockfights?”
“I’ve never seen one,” I said. “When do they have them?”
“Every day. You want to see?”
With that, we agreed to meet at 3 p.m. for what was apparently a daily cockfight.
While I’m personally opposed to the idea of such blood sport, I also realized that I am a stranger in this land and my getting to see what happens away from the tourist traps and four-star resorts was a something of a privilege.
For most of the morning, I motorbiked down the hilly, undulating coast, watching the Bali Sea glisten from the cliffside curves and passing diving outfits one after another. One bar along the way offered live music, a rarity in these parts. A few villages to the south, an old shipwreck provided an abundance of wildlife and coral for some fun snorkeling, and I soon found myself surrounded by French and American scuba divers. The hot sun made it easy to pull myself away and head back in time.
At the agreed-upon time, I waited for him. He showed up on a motorbike and promptly took one of the fighting cocks out of its cage and into a blue, plastic shopping bag, the kind you see around Chinatown in New York, and slung the whole thing over his shoulder. The rooster didn’t fuss.
I followed him on the motorbike along the narrow road north from Amed, past the point where Komang first chaufferred me to the shore. We continued for a good 20 minutes under an increasingly cloudy sky, up into the lush hills below the island’s most sacred volcano, Mount Agung.
A right turn, followed by a left. Through the dense Balinese foliage and into a tiny village.
There were no other Westerners in sight.
In a clearing, the cockfight matches were held in a covered bamboo arena surrounded by handmade wooden bleachers three rows up. They were packed with local men and teenage boys.
A flurry of activity surrounded the fluffing of roosters in the dirt. A guy with a microphone spoke rapidly in Balinese, none of which I understood. My host took his contestant into the male crowd in the arena and was either trash-talking or simply telling stories. Regardless, he was too busy with the event to narrate what was happening.
One spectator, an elderly man, turned to me and asked, “Are you Balinese?”
I didn’t know whether he asked because I “have the look” — as my Javanese guide, Yunus, asked me — or whether he just wondered where I came from. Our languages didn’t meet halfway. I responded by shaking my head.
My host asked me if I wanted to bet. The minimum was 100,000 rupiyah ($11), for a 90,000 rupiyah win with 10,000 going to the house.
“Not yet,” I said. “I’ll bet on yours.”
Although it made me slightly uncomfortable to wager on my host’s rooster, the implicit language notwithstanding, I felt it was the least I could do to show my appreciation for the invite. Gambling is not my forte. (Nor, for that matter, is cruelty.)
At the outset, owners presented their contenders. It appeared that they ruffle the roosters’ feathers and get them agitated so as to be selected for a match. Some cocks never emerged from their cages, containers and shopping bags. After two were finally picked, small blades like curved Xacto knives were lashed on to the fighters’ talons with red string.
The build-up was long, noisy and confusing. As the battle commenced, the arena cleared and only an emcee (hardly a referee) and the owners were left holding their, um, roosters. The men lunged their moneymakers toward each other; the birds squawked and crowed.
The weaponized chickens attacked each other by fluttering their wings to gain a little altitude, then land on their opponent. Feathered chaos broke out momentarily, and soon one rooster was down. The actual fight lasted maybe 20 seconds.
The second match was a scratch, despite two birds being chosen and armed.
Finally, my host’s rooster — white male, about a year old — was picked for the third and final match. The process repeated itself, and the white bird beat the red rooster within 15 seconds. There were no rounds, no count and, for the loser, no recovery.
Boys hovering around the scene took the lifeless chicken, plucked its feathers enough to cut it up for cooking. Both participants had the strings holding their blades unwound. Nearby, a woman vendor fried fish for the hungry locals on a small campfire.
The sight of a young, dead rooster that had only moments ago been full of aggression was pitiful. I told myself that since I ate chicken, I held no particularly high moral ground here. Are playing violent video games such as Halo and eating Big Macs really that much different? Maybe.
For the time being, I chose to focus on the fact that everyone who set out from Amed this afternoon would be returning.