cockfights and muscle memory

by ayan
photo by Jake Rieman

On a trip back to the Philippines about 20 years ago, I found myself on a magical island known for its witchcraft and faith healers.  But alas this story is about neither of these.

It’s about a Sunday afternoon jaunt to the local cockfighting arena.  This one was much smaller than the ones I recalled as a boy in Manila.  Imagine a dirt floor where two men each hold their fighting cocks primed for attack.  The place is oppressively hot.  The noise deafening.  The smell of cigarettes, beer, and sweat (intoxicating).  Bets are taken.  The announcer in the middle of the ring seems to have everyone twitching with anticipation.  Some of you are probably saying that this is no place for a boy and I would have to agree.  I really don’t know how many times my uncle took me to such a place.  I do know that it made a powerful imprint.  These places were full of charge.  The energy in such a place rattled my senses and does so now as I write these words.
Back to that small island.  I found myself in a smaller version of the cockpits (“sabongan”) from boyhood memories.  After living more than half my life in the states,  I convinced myself that being back in a cockfighting arena was going to be a distasteful if not a repulsive scene.  “Grown men living vicariously through their fighting cocks was pretty damn undignified my highly evolved intellect had decided.  Prepare for self-righteous aversion.”
The cockfight had other plans. Despite the unfamiliar dialect spoken in this part of the country I soon felt strangely familiar. (Not quite like home but more like being around family I had not seen in years.)   The scene looked different but slipping back in felt easy.  The sight of feathered glistening warriors was strangely romantic.  Their handlers –  pimps looked less elegant.    It did not take long for me to figure out the drill.  Get the man’s attention.  Three fingers, palm sideways meant 300 pesos.  Three fingers palm up meant 3,000 pesos.    I place my bet on the fighting cocks that triggered my attention and only if he was not favored to win.  Never bet the favorite in a death match unless he looked irresistibly beautiful of course.  Four fingers palms facing me.  Four hundred pesos at 3 to 2 odds.  My heart raced.  Having cash on a jacked-up-rooster that was going to kill or die in a fight made my body tremble and buzz.
When it was all over the betting netted me 600 pesos.  I thought that my father and uncle would have been proud.  But betting on a rooster in a fight to the death with a razor sharp spur taped to his leg?  What the f#@* did I just do?  My self-righteous intellect was judgmental of course.  Such fools have a right to be.  I pull out an appropriate Bruce Lee quote: “Don’t think.  Feeeeel.”
My thoughts said one thing but the rest of me felt strangely… home.  I got out of my head and gave in to what was strangely real.  It felt good.

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