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Travel Image: Baja, Mexico
Photo: Ogen Perry
Travel Image: Baja, Mexico

Mexico: Letting 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 hundred spectators.

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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