Blood Sports

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


Caribbean Vibes

It took us a while to find our rhythm in the Dominican Republic. We were conditioned by the mountains and jungles of Ecuador, the space, those long hard drives, the reserve that the locals showed – a remoteness even. They just let us be.

As we travel we are always trying to get under the surface, live like locals as much as we can, pretend we’re not really tourists – even though with our European clothes and bleach blonde kids, it is hard to deny it. The DR has been open for business throughout the pandemic though and here the machinery is well oiled. There is no slipping around incognito here, fronting as an expat.
“Heya mister, you wanna go on a beach tour? Ride a donkey? Buy Cuban cigars?”
Yo amigo, Call dem kids over, you gonna take a real cute picture with my monkey…”
“I got all sorts of crazy pharmaceuticals man, cheapest price!”

Punta Cana is a vast collection of sun-baked white towers, street hustlers and overpriced seafood bars. It reminds me of Cancun and I am keen to get out quick. We have some tasks we need to do first though, so we stay a couple of nights in a low rise bed and breakfast hidden in the back streets, run by Marco, a charismatic Venezuelan émigré, and his formidable Polish wife.

When we struggle to find a cheap car to hire he makes some calls and an ancient Ford Explorer duly rolls up in the driveway half an hour later. Marco escorts me to the bank to provide security while I withdraw a thousand bucks cash to pay down the car in advance. He tells me all sorts of lurid stories on the way. Under his protection I am not held-up or mugged, I make no cash downpayment on a fictitious timeshare, the wads of dollar bills all make their way safely to the eager outstretched hand of Marco’s buddy (and I’m sure a commission made its way back to Marco too, for this is how the machinery is greased in these places). Next day we drive out of town in our new ride, with no contract, insurance or paperwork at all to weigh us down.

Cabarete was more of the kind of vibe we were used to. A messy collection of shacks and shops strung out along the highway under a tangled net of electric cable. Action and noise: Fruit sellers shouting; crowds spilling onto the road in front of Janets’ Super Market; catcalls from the girls hanging out in D’Angela’s Salon as they chew gum and eye up the bare-chested homeboys weaving motorbikes through the traffic. Plenty of dreadlocks, flashing teeth, abdominals, revving and beeping.

The beach is as colourful here as your clichéd Caribbean postcard stand. Sand, palms, sky and sea all a lurid blend of white-emerald-turquoise, with a hundred kitesurfers throwing fluorescent streaks into the mix. The forests around are wild with sudden sunny patches of grassland, full of cicadas and palmchats, wandering troupes of wild pigs.

We find our preferred surf break down at Playa Encuentro – and a sunken bowl too where we can skate in the afternoon when the wind turns onshore and the waves become mushy. There is a driftwood bar and surf shack under the palms where a lethargic Caribbean mood prevails. A collection of surfers, stoners and bare-chested sleepers drape themselves among the trees and call out to each other in lilting Carib Spanish creole. The mood in the water is more competitive here than we are used to, but neither the wave snatching, the snaking nor the occasional flare of localism can put us off.

We know that our year away is coming to an end so and our days become desperately full. Arthur and I go surfing every day at six am while the winds are still light, then we scarf a quick breakfast and cram in an hour or two of homeschool before it’s time to go to the beach, to go kitesurfing, to skate, to do a workout, to go for a walk, do a beach clean, explore some new village, watch the sunset, go for an evening run. We eat extravagant meals, Matilda bakes a cake almost every day, we read books, we listen to Afrobeat at full volume. The TV doesn’t work but we don’t care.

Our ancient hire car breaks down repeatedly (of course) and I spend afternoons traipsing around sunbaked junkyards, haggling with local mechanics, trying to source a new alternator.

Somehow by cramming as much life as we can into every day we feel that we might somehow slow the inexorable march of time, and silence the ticking clock that counts down of our last few weeks abroad. It’s raining back home they tell us, this latest lockdown is hell, you’ll have to isolate mucho longtime and they charge crazy dollar for the covid home testing kits.

“Jah Rastafarai protect I and I from de homecoming!”, I shout out as we walk home along the beach, for I now am truly feeling the Caribbean vibe. Menna tells me to quit with the stupid accent before I get myself beaten up.