We go on a tour round some jungle cenotes and it’s ok, a good way to spend an afternoon, get out of the heat of the day. We’re a bit spoiled and world-weary now though and the murky pools here in the Dominican Republic feel rather provincial compared to the crystal clear channels to the underworld that we saw in Mexico. Our guide is charming and enthusiastic so the kids try to be polite and ask lots of questions, but I know they aren’t impressed.
Better than the cenotes though are the ruins of an ancient stone citadel that we come across out in the jungle. There are arches and walls, old lamp holdings, stone steps, a raised pyramidal dais choked by lianas. You can make out skulls and snakes carved into the stonework. It is a big site.
“Is it an ancient temple?” we ask our guide.
“Who even were the indigenous civilizations here?” Menna asks me in a whisper, but I have no answer.
“No hombre! This was once the biggest nightclub on the island. All outdoors.The bar area here, the DJ up there, none of these trees and vines were here back then. There was some rich American owner, only he ran out of money, or he didn’t pay off the government or he got shot or something.” He makes a double finger gunshot gesture at Arthur’s head, “So anyhow it all got shut down. Only the monkeys party here now.”
We trek on, see some caves and stalactites, swim in underground pools, try a rock jump or two.
A couple of hours later we are all finished, sticky and mosquito bitten. We tip the guide, tell him it was awesome, then head homewards feeling weary.
As we walk home along the dust road that runs through the slum end of town, we pass a play park – hard earth floor, some rusting goal posts, a muddy ditch along one side. There’s a crowd gathered there maybe thirty or forty strong, shouting and seething, mainly kids, though there are some young bucks strutting round bare chested, shouting orders, bossing it. There’s money exchanging hands, fast betting, lots of cheering. We edge into the crowd for a look.
Up on an raised platform that looks like some defunct climbing frame there are various glass jars, kids squatting and hanging on the wooden framework all round. The action is all going on around the largest of the jars where there are swirls of motion, red and orange fronds uncurling like silk banners in the water.
“Siamese fighting fish my friend,” one of the lads answers my question. “Ten pays you fifteen dollar against red. Him de champion.” The fish circle each other with flowing fins, nipping, darting and harrying one another, puffing up then closing tight. And in moments it is all over. Orange turns belly up, then motionless he flutters down to the bottom of the tank like an autumn leaf. Red is champion again.
“Brutal!” I mutter in horrified admiration, wondering if this is suitable for my kids.
But now there is a change of focus. The noise has moved and intensified. Kids swing down from the climbing frame bars, the congregation swarms away to reform in a different part of the playground. Some kind of chanting and clapping breaks out. We are pulled over, helpless to resist the magnetism of a crowd baying for blood.
A circle has formed around two lads who seem to be doing some kind of dance around each other. They’re going to fight, I think. It’s a bare knuckle boxing match! I grip Matilda’s hand tightly not sure whether to pull her away. But there’s something about how the boys are moving, their hands are down but I can’t see why. There is a wall of brown backs clustered tightly around them. Then the ring of bodies parts to give one of the fighters more space and I see that he has a feathery package nestled under his arm. Then I understand: this is a cockfight.
The lads hold their roosters tightly, a head in their hand, the body under the armpit. They dance around each other, drawing close and then pulling away, allowing each bird to see and smell it’s opponent. The crowd are chanting and screaming. Some guy keeps pulling at me and waving a fistful of dollar bills. He wants me to bet on the match, but I have no idea of the names and strengths of the birds, how the book works. I can’t understand what he is saying. I shake my head at him, shake his hand off my arm.
Then the birds are released onto the floor and it is like an explosion. Small leaps and whirls, wings flapping like fans, pecking dives, claws flashing crescent arcs, glittering strangely in the sunlight. The movements are frenetic but also mechanical in their persistence, it is like two furious wind-up toys have been released. In less than a minute one bird is on top of the other and has its claws locked into the soft shoulders below and now he is raining down vicious pecks onto the exploded neck and head. The cock beneath staggers and sinks down, trying to twist away but it is impossible. The crowd roars. The cockrel screams. We have a winner.
One lad picks up the victorious cockerel and holds him up high. He shouts something and there are cheers. The winning bets are payed out. The other cock is picked up by his owner, inspected, then he is tossed back into the dust. The winner is placed upon him and he attacks the lifeless body at his feet pecking savagely, releasing a spray of blood with a twist of his head. Matilda squeals by my side.
I come back to reality and look down with concern at my daughter.
“Are you ok sweetheart? I don’t think you should have seen that.” She looks up at me and grins, her little eyes sparkling with excitement and bloodlust. Red cockerel blood is splattered across her cheeks.
“Will they do another fight Daddy do you think? Can we stay? Please!”
I did not think I was that kind of person: another voice yelling for blood, another face craning to see the kill.Charles Nicholl. A Cock Fight. Granta