the Derby de Gallos Wash Over You
By David Becker
It's hard to say exactly when and
why attending a cockfight started to seem like a good
idea, but I'm sure about who gave us the idea.
That would be Luis, the genial guide
who translated, directed our panga pilot
and generally served as the go-to man on our whale-watching
tour of Magdalena Bay, the populous grey whale breeding
site on the ocean side of Mexico's Baja peninsula.
We were enjoying lunch with Luis
after an extravagantly productive morning of whale
observation, making small talk about local matters.
I asked about the numerous signs posted around Loreto,
the small Sea of Cortez city where we were staying,
promoting a derby de gallos that weekend.
Based on the fragments of high school
Spanish I had retained, I gathered it was some type
of event involving chickens. I naively hoped it might
be a race or poultry beauty contest, thinking that
even in rural but touristy Mexico, a cockfight wouldn't
be so prominently promoted.
Luis corrected me immediately. It
was indeed a cockfight. But not just any cockfight
--this was the premiere sporting and cultural event
in all of Baja California del Sur, Luis assured us.
Dozens of the area's finest sporting bird breeders
and trainers would converge on the city for a full
day of colorful competition and high-stakes wagering.
Hundred of area sporting enthusiasts would be there
to cheer on favored birds and place big bets.
And Luis was the organizer and promoter
of the event. The man who minutes before was cooing
over the sight of baby whales and reciting pet names
for his favorites was the Don King of regional cockfighting.
And he insisted that my wife and I were to be his
honored guests at the events.
The couple who had joined us on
the whale watching trip, semi-vegetarians whose food
pyramid topped out at fish tacos, were aghast at the
idea. We said we'd think about it.
Which we did. We kept thinking about
it until, a few days later, we had pretty much convinced
ourselves that our destiny lay with the roosters.
Arguing against the event
was the prospect of a gross, bloody spectacle and
the realization that if word ever got out of what
we had done, we might be forcibly ejected from San
Francisco. Or at least forbidden from voting Democrat.
On the plus side, travel is
supposed to be about experiencing other cultures.
This would be a taste of the real Mexico, far removed
from packaged mariachi shows and chartered fishing
trips. Could we experience it free of cultural bias?
After less than a week in Loreto,
we were also starting to feel like we were on the
verge of exhausting the recreation and entertainment
options available to anyone without a rental car or
the patience for a week of island-hopping via kayak.
(We stuck to pleasant day trips.)
And rationally, it was hard to justify
our queasiness, especially after a lifetime of gnawing
on chicken parts once or twice a week. Whatever happened
at the derby, it was unlikely to be any less beneficial
to the chicken than whatever process leads to the
creation of a tasty drumstick.
So there we were on a sunny Saturday
afternoon, perched atop a small set of metal bleachers
circling a dusty pit, waiting for the action to begin
as patrons slowly trickled in for the day's festivities.
The venue, which Luis had promoted
as the local equivalent of Candlestick Park, looked
more like a hastily converted back yard. The action
was to take place in a dirt pen with a few chalk boundary
lines, surrounded by chest-high stucco walls. Around
those was enough bleacher seating to handle a few
Beyond the seating, prospective
combatants waited in cages and cardboard carriers
labeled "Cock Fight--Best Quality." Trainers
and potential gamblers wandered the grounds, carefully
sizing up the competition and discussing the prospects
with colleagues. Concessions were limited to a big
bin of iced-down cans of beer--the same brand of brew
that apparently sponsored the event and had advertising
all around the arena (along with one incongruous sign
promoting the services of a local veterinarian.)
Luis was delighted to see us but
had little time for chat as he managed the schedule
for the day's competitions, supervised the collection
of bets and announced the action.
After a long wait for the
participants to get ready, the competition began with
a couple of teaser matches that consisted of little
more than a pair of scrawny birds being thrown into
the ring to half-heartedly peck at each other for
a few minutes, lightly bloodied but in fine shape
to fight or breed another day. The crowd scarcely
noticed, paying more attention to beer and appraisals
of the main combatants.
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