There are roosters all over Dili. They wander the streets. They crow 24 hours a day. They are EVERYWHERE. So when someone told me that cock fighting was a major pastime in Timor, it suddenly all made sense. Everyday I'd pass certain stretches of road that were packed with bikes and cars. I'd see men carrying giant chickens under their arms toward these particular turnoffs. When I followed them one Friday afternoon, I found myself in a clearing with a giant crowd surrounding an elaborately constructed cock fighting arena.
I had arrived about 15 minutes prior to the start of the afternoon's matches. Men were milling about showing off their roosters. Small side fights broke out as they formed circles around the chickens. The few women I saw there were manning a small, blackened grill in the rear of the clearing firing corn on the cob. I was surprised not to see any drinking though. It was a hot Friday afternoon and men were watching sports. I thought there would be beer.
One jovial gentleman took an interest in me and cheerfully answered all of my questions: Betting can reach up to $5,000 on a match. There is often one particular trainer/chicken that dominates the matches. The fights are not always to the death. The favorite is not the largest or heaviest chicken, but the most skilled.
As I circled the crowd and arena taking photos, another man noticed my camera and beckoned me toward him. He took me by the arm and shepherded me toward the entrance to the arena and motioned inside. So as the fights began, I was inches away from the birds as they collided into clouds of feathers, blood, and dust. The trainers tie knives to the roosters' heels, so the fights do get rather bloody. I tried desperately not to get bled on.
As I went to leave, I noticed a tree along the path to the main road that had several chickens tied to it. I realized that these were the losers. Dead or alive, the losing chicken is tied by its feet to this tree and left to bleed out. One man gleefully plunged his fingers inside a white feathered cock's gaping, bloody wound to show me its still pulsating insides. I swallowed my grimace and smiled to thank him and took a few shots.
I left with mixed feelings. Still morally repulsed by the inherent cruelty of it all, but I probably wouldn't have minded if that rooster that crows outside my window at 3am got drafted. Nevertheless, it was still objectively a fascinating part of Timorese culture to see up close.