Bloodsport for All – The Philippines

Mario sat on his stool, the rooster laid out on its back across his knees, its blood running in a thin stream down his rubber apron. The three inch gash running from the rooster’s throat down to the middle of its chest hung open, revealing the rooster’s lungs, neck, and beating heart. The bird was weak, and I judged it would be a miracle if it survived regardless of the amateur vet’s skills with a needle and thread, but it probably didn’t help that the ash from his cigarette was falling into the open chest cavity of the struggling animal to mix with the blood pooling there.

Mario looked up at the old man, waiting impatiently for a decision from him to continue stitching or not. The old man’s face showed his sadness, but, on the edge of tears he shook his head, gently cradled the bird in his arms and slowly walked three meters to a small man sitting on a stool covered in feathers and blood who took the bird, violently broke it’s neck, and expertly plucked it in less than a minute.

The rooster had fought valiantly and killed its rival competitor, but had suffered a fatal wound in the process. The old man already had the prize money in his hand and the plucked rival rooster in a plastic bag, and most likely had a large hungry family who would make quick work of two roosters this Sunday night. The old man took the second rooster in a plastic bag and made his way out of the stadium and Mario started his examination of the next casualty.

The old man had probably owned his Sunday dinner for 1.5 years, his prize possession, having raised it from a chick, and spent many hours at night after work expertly training it to fight, but at least it had been victorious. The owner of the losing bird had not been so lucky, having seen his prize bird slaughtered in the pit and then taken by the old man as part of his winnings. The owner of the loser had lost his entrance fee, his prize possession, and would not be feeding his family chicken for dinner.

Two more men walked into the glass sided pit with proud looking roosters held by tails and the touts began their shouting for business. The roosters were not particularly large, but were beautiful specimens, with long shimmering tail and neck feathers. Each had a three inch crescent blade attached to one leg by colored electrical insulation tape and thread. One rooster had green tape and the other had red tape and the men walked to the respective colored sides of the pit. Two more roosters were carried into the pit by junior officials, taken to the closely held competitor birds, and allowed to peck at them, tearing smaller feathers out of the competitor birds necks and legs. The purpose of this was to instill anger in the competitors so that when released they would attack each other.

The shouting in the crowd escalated as the last deals were negotiated, and a voice shouted through an overhead loudspeaker, the dealing stopped, the protective sheaths were pulled off the razors, and the birds released as the owner stepped back out of the pit. The birds stood still for 20 seconds, looking slightly confused, and just as it seemed they would ignore each other there was a sudden flurry of wings, and the birds met in the air a meter above the ground. It was impossible to see what was happening in the blur, and there was no way to guess the winner until the roosters crashed to the dirt floor of the pit and it was obvious that the bird with green tape could no longer stand.

The victor still clung to the body of the fading, blood soaked loser. Ruffled and obviously injured, the rooster viciously pecked out the loser’s eyes. An official quickly stepped up to the two birds, grabbed both by the feathers on the back of the neck, held them up, smashed the loser to the ground three times to officially indicate it had lost, and held up the winner before passing it back to it’s owner. The owner of the loser picked up the dead bird and exited the ring with the officials before passing the dead body to the owner of the winner. All through the crowd money changed hands and men talked excitedly amongst themselves waiting for the next round.

Basketball is the official national sport here, but I am sure more people participate in cock fighting than basketball. Sunday is the big day for the sport and everywhere in the provinces you see men carrying their valued cocks on and off the local jeepneys on the way to matches in the nearby villages. The cocks go everywhere with their owners, and out of Manila on Sunday public transport will be full of the sound of crowing birds. It’s strange watching TV here and seeing advertisements for “cock steroids”.

After watching about seven fights, all following the same pattern, with each loser ending up plucked and each winner ending up on Mario’s knee with various injuries being expertly stitched, I decided it was time to head home and left the stadium. Being the only white guy in a stadium of thousands of people I was an obvious target for the taxi drivers waiting outside. After negotiating the price down from 150 pesos to 80 pesos for the trip home I was pretty pleased with myself though a local would only have to pay 40 pesos.

I was sick of being ripped off by the taxi drivers, but they are still cheap relative to other countries, with a one hour taxi ride costing about US$2. They also double as the main source of information here, being generally happy to speak broken English and answer any questions. Conversations here always start with a set list of questions.

“Where are you from?”

“How long have you been here?”

“How long will you stay?”

“Where do you live?”

“Where do you work?”

“Do you have a girlfriend yet?”

“Why not, don’t you like Filipina? You should experience the love of a Filipina.”

My taxi driver told me he was a policeman and I asked him if he only drove the taxi on weekends. He replied no, that he drove the taxi every day. Each morning he turned up for work at the police station, reported to the boss, who was his friend, gave him some wine or mangoes or other fruit, then left to drive the taxi for the day. In this way he was able to get paid for two jobs at the one time which was the only way he could possibly feed his six children. He proudly lifted up his grimy shirt to reveal his police issue pistol and told me that in his years as a taxi driver he had arrested one robber and two drug dealers that had made the mistake of getting into his taxi only to face the wrong end of the gun.

I was planning to have a bet on one of the cock fights just for fun, but when I was in the stadium I didn’t quite understand what was going on, so chickened out (bad pun). The people who were yelling seemed to be bookmakers, but I could not understand what they were yelling in Tagalog (native language based largely on Spanish) and could not understand the hand signals they were waving in my face. My taxi driver explained the details to me on the way home, and the people yelling are trying to match bets on the different birds. If I want to bet 100 pesos on the red bird then I tell one of these people and they yell out my bet trying to find someone who wants to bet 100 pesos on the green bird. Apparently they are yelling out the color of the bird in Tagalog and indicating the amount of the bet with special hand signals. If you lose then you pay the agent and he pays the other gambler. If you win then the agent collects money from the loser, pays you and you then give him back a token fee – e.g. 2 pesos for the transaction – winner pays.

I take taxies everywhere here, not wanting to breath pure diesel fumes in the back of a jeepney and not being brave enough to drive in this traffic where the only rule is don’t hit anyone, and red lights and line markings are just road decorations. I had thought of getting a motorcycle, but on my 2.5 hour drive back from diving in Anillao our car went through 5 roadblocks by local villagers trying to extort money from passing vehicles. In a car we were OK, just speeding up so that the villagers holding the rope or wire cable across the road had to let go for fear of being injured, but a foreigner on a motorcycle would have to stop for the cable and would be surrounded by villagers and forced to pay.

Corruption here is endemic, and helps explain why the economy is such a basket case. From the lowest policeman to the president it is the way of life here, and big business is untouchable as long as the payoffs continue. Alcohol and cigarettes are the cheapest here I have ever seen, purely because the manufacturers pay enough to the politicians to stop the introduction of taxes on their products. The politicians get richer while the country gets poorer. One expat here who had to arrange his own visa refused to pay a bribe to the immigration officers when asked and his visa took 1.5 years to process when he could have had it in a week with a small payment.

I haven’t seen much evidence of violent crime in Manila but many people carry guns. All the bars have signs at the door saying things like, “You are welcome but your gun is not” or “Leave your guns here”. Even McDonald’s has security guards at the door with pump action shotguns so poor people ordering their “McRice” don’t get other ideas. I have been told that last year there was a big TV campaign leading up to New Year’s Eve requesting that security guards did not get too drunk and shoot off into the air.

To enter my apartment building means passing a minimum of two guards armed with pistols, but the security manager has told me that at any time there are 10 guards roaming the building. Everything I do in the building is written down, every entry and exit recorded in neat logs and every visitor I have is identified and listed for reference. I don’t really have a problem with this, as I guess it is for my safety, but some of the foreigners here find it a real invasion of privacy, but then maybe they are doing things late at night that they would rather not be listed in books. I asked the security manager why they all carried guns, and was it because of bad crime and he replied that no, guns were just part of the uniform. It kind of worries me that so many people carry guns for which they have probably had absolutely no training, and maybe this is the reason that pump action shotguns are so popular as the user really does not need to aim, but just pull the trigger.

There really is not that much to do in Manila on the weekend except go to the girly bars. There are two main areas where foreigners go out – Malate and Makati. Malate is more of an arty restaurant area and is popular amongst the rich locals and more conservative expats and has some decent nightclubs. Makati during the day is a main business district, but after hours has one street of girly bars that are popular among the single expats. Most people I know try to get out of Manila almost every weekend, and in a country with over 7000 islands there are no shortage of resorts to head to. Most islands have pretty poor beaches, but decent coral reefs so diving is the main weekend activity among the adventurous people, with the less adventurous heading to the few resorts with beach frontage – mostly in Puerto Galera, Cebu or Boracay.

The dive resorts on the smaller islands have local style accommodation, with dirt or concrete floored huts, wood frame, woven bamboo strip walls, and coconut palm leaf roof. The buildings are built light of local materials and no one really cares if they blow away in the cyclones, as it is easy to rebuild. Timber is used sparingly, as it is near impossible to get outside Manila, and is mostly from local illegal logging operations. If you pay extra in the resorts you get air conditioning and insect screens but I prefer the heat and there are so many geckos living in the roof and walls that insects don’t stand much of a chance.

We have a small species of gecko living at home in Brisbane, Australia that hang around outside lights and eats the insects drawn in. Here, however, they grow much bigger – up to about 8 inches long and at night you can hear their loud calls of clicks and squeaks in the woven bamboo walls. The last resort I was in on Coron I saw a few small geckos on the outside walls, but got a shock when I went into the bathroom, swung the door shut and the back of the door was almost solid with lizards trying to be somewhere else in a hurry.

To get to Coron I took a 12 hour ferry ride leaving the North Harbor at 7pm on Friday night and arriving at 7am on Saturday morning. I was late booking the ferry ride and got the last bunk in the noisiest part of the lowest class section. There was no air conditioning and on the plastic coated mattress I sweated all night. I was on the top bunk, and the mattress was only about two thirds of my body length, made even less comfortable by the fact that I had to sleep on top of my dive gear so it didn’t get stolen. Swarms of little children had fun jumping from bunk to bunk across the ship, and passers by continually woke me by bumping my feet hanging over the end of the bunk but the final straw was the constant crowing of roosters. I guess I should be thankful the ferry didn’t sink – in the last three weeks two ferries have sunk and two planes have crashed. However, it did arrive two hours late due to engine problems.

The weekends I have spent in Manila I tend to hang out with guys from work who like the girly bars, but as I get to know more locals I am getting more opportunities to go to dinners and parties and avoid the sleaze. Manila is not exactly the top destination to work in Asia, and because the main activities are diving and girly bars tends to attract many more expat men than women. I do enjoy the girly bars as a chance to talk to locals, but have a bit of a moral dilemma while there as I know none of the girls would have anything to do with me if I wasn’t a source of income. Though I do think they are beautiful, I can’t bring myself to touch them or take them home.

Many of the poorer people in Manila come from the provinces with nothing more than the clothes they wear and a ferry ticket. They work 12 or 14 hours a day, earning barely enough for the nightly rice and a bed in a dormitory, and wake in the morning to begin again. Marriage to a sleazy retiree in a foreign country, is for many girls a welcome respite. One girl told me that when working 12 hours a day 7 days a week in a shoe store she was earning about US$2.50 per day. As a bar girl she could earn up to US$100 on a good night even if she chose not to have sex with any men.

Another girl I spoke to was a Muslim and it surprised me that she was working in a girly bar. While she was on holiday in Manila, Muslim rebels broke into her house on Mindanao and killed both of her parents because her father worked for the government. For four years she had been too scared to return to Mindanao and had worked locally in Manila as a textile worker, getting paid around US$2.50 per day making clothing for Nike and other western companies. A month ago the staff in her factory had gone on strike and the factory had been closed, putting her out of work. She had pawned her few jewellery items to feed herself, had run out of money within a week, and had been forced to take off her vail to work in a girly bar, being groped by numerous overly sexed foreign men nightly for a third of the price of the “ladies drinks” they are able to weasel out of the men.

It could have been worse. All over Manila are hundreds of anonymous looking houses, known to the taxi drivers where women are kept as sex slaves for whatever man is sick enough to walk through the door and pay the hourly fee and risk AIDS. Mindanao was relatively safe for the last few years, but in the last month the war with the Muslim rebels has once again escalated and the military is sending in tanks and fighter-bombers. The Muslims have begun kidnapping foreigners in the south again and have threatened to do the same in Manila.

I came to the Philippines for what was supposed to be the best diving in the world, but have been rather disappointed so far. It’s great to be diving again, and there is an incredible range of diving here, from coral to cave to wreck diving, but the water clarity is not up to the standards on the Barrier Reef in Australia or the West coast of Malaysia. The coral is beautiful but dynamite, cyanide and indiscriminate net fishing, dive boat anchors, and blue-green algae from the untreated resort sewerage have destroyed many reefs. The small fish life is beautiful, but there is a noticeable lack of large fish life as on any reef close to a town, anything bigger than 5cm has been caught and eaten.

Another moral dilemma I have is to see the destruction on the reefs while diving then return to the dive resort at night and be served a meal of bite sized damsel fish. I would much rather a vegetarian meal and see those fish alive while diving than have to pick a tiny bit of flesh off their bones.

It is also frustrating seeing the local disregard for the environment, even with the dive masters. In Australia it is illegal to anchor on coral reefs but here when the dive boat takes you to the least damaged reef to dive the first thing you see when you get down is the coral smashed by your boat anchor. By trying to see the beauty I am causing it’s destruction. You can tell a local dive master here by the fact that they carry metal rods for poking things underwater. On my first dive with a local dive master I pointed out a number of well hidden interesting animals and the first thing he did was poke them with the sharp end of the rod to make the animal move. Any interesting hole or cave received the sharp end of the rod to flush out any life and after that I kept my finds to myself, being happy to just observe rather than be a source of misery for the poor animal.

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