We're flying 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, a fisherman and tourist guide at that point in time. The simple life is far behind him, though. Now, he leads a huge cockfighting ring.
Cockfighting is one of Bali's favorite pastimes. Dilly owns, tends, and bets on roosters, and every day it's a fight to the death. He has twenty roosters at any given time and treats them 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, unpredictable job and I can see the pressure in his face as he blasts R&B tunes through the speakers.
We arrive and tread through jungle to a tin shed nestled in banana plants, where rickety bamboo bleachers surround a hard-packed arena full of men holding various roosters. This is his home turf, but only if the bets are high enough will Dilly let his cocks 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 well-worn cash in his hands, gamblers pensive thoughts etched in his ebony features, his tattooed eyeliner makes 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 and the yelling increases to a fevered pitch, but the chaos is a system understood by all.
The amounts rise until 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 while 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 ruffle them again, this time with backs to each other inside a basket. The first to strike is then declared winner. Cheering ends abruptly as money changes hands, the loser patted gently as it drips blood onto the dusty ground.
Dead roosters are either used as offerings at the temple or sold at a high premium for eating—the meat is considered a delicacy because of the cocks' easy life and vitamin-rich flesh. After all, they're not left to scratch around in the dirt like most chickens. Those that win a few lucrative fights are given a harem of hens and allowed to live their life as a "gigolo," never fighting again. Every cock must fantasize such horizons.
Dilly used to be the guy that cooked mahi mahi on the beach. Now, thanks to his money-making roosters, he is draped in gold jewelry and rides a bright red Yamaha ninja. In the bar later on, drinking Arak, he tells me he's "not poor anymore," that he's "made something" of himself.
The respect people have for him is obvious everywhere we visit. He lends money to everyone, sometimes keeping their iPhones as collateral, and it all goes around in a big circle—lend, borrow, bet, lend, borrow.
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 and men only. The entry is 10,000 rupiah, around $1. They want me to pay, but Dilly waves them away. "They respect me, so they don't charge you," he says. We enter a shed with over a thousand eager men pressed against each other, a sense of delirium and fervor rising just like the casinos of the west.
Dead roosters are either used as offerings at the temple or sold at a high premium for eating—the meat is considered a delicacy because of the cocks' easy life and vitamin-rich flesh.
Standing on concrete bleachers with intense eyes and frangipanis behind their ears, the men wave their cash in the air, screaming the color of the rooster they think will win, or yelling "sala sala sala sala" for a small bet. Officials wear sarongs and box-fresh white Quiksilver T-shirts in the ring, taking bets and passing the roosters around, feeling the muscles of each other's cocks (so to speak), and deciding who will fight who in a fair stoush. It's a haze of cigarette smoke, sweat, and feverish testosterone.
I am the only woman who happens to also be the only white person here.
That day I watched Dilly lose ten million in an hour on around 15 fights. I ask him if he's upset with the result. "Not sad," he says. "It's gambling. Try again tomorrow."
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, and his father passed when he was fourteen, which forced him onto the streets streets with no education. Being a self-starter is all he knows.
Aside from the economic benefits generated by tourists, cock fighting is an intrinsic part of the local economic model here and has been for a very long time. Moral judgements might ripple in an outsider like me, but faced with the facts, you can't really argue. People depend on this.
Much later on, I see plates of ayam goreng (fried chicken) being sold outside. This isn't just the regular fried chicken found in Indonesia, either. This is the fate of the losing roosters—a fierce fry, a quick eat. I can't imagine the taste of a rooster that died with 1000 people's eyes on it in the ring, and politely decline, suddenly not as hungry as I was before. But this is how it is here in Bali.
The western world might have its farm-to-plate ethos. Here, it's ring-to-table.