A NATIONAL SPORT?
Last minute bets are being placed; four bookies - fists full of forlorn US dollars, yell odds while the crowd responds in the universal cacophony of unfettered gambling. We’re at a banana palm-fringed arena in Comoro - Timor-Leste’s cockfighting hub. The fights here end surprisingly quickly: blades on the feet ensure these are swift fights to the death. A series of fights run in rapid succession, keeping crowds boisterous, and offering gamblers little time to reflect on their losses before throwing dollars at the next bout.
Among bloodstains and flapping limbs, losers remove their precious blades and walk home solemn in defeat: chicken for dinner a meagre consolation for trainers who may loose up to $100 USD on a single fight.
Signs and reminders of the practise are littered throughout the country. Men carry their surprisingly subdued cocks across Timor-Leste like handbags; everywhere fighting birds are raised and traded and weekly district markets almost certainly dedicate a late-afternoon slot for the bloody activity.
So it was on a Sunday afternoon at the small-town market in Manatuto. Less elaborate than the Comoro ring, the fights ran noticeably longer. These birds hardly compared to Dili's elite. But stripped of the spectacle of Comoro, the violence here was stark.
In Timor-Leste, it would be wrong to say that the ubiquitous activity is universally loved: many quietly disapprove of this hardly-justifiable form of entertainment. It does, however, attract an eclectic mix of fans and practitioners; from young guns to old fools, politicians to professional cock trainers. I was even casually introduced to a man who later appeared before me once again on the evening news: the Ministry of Defence's most senior official.
The rights of animals are not high on this country's seemingly insurmountable list of to-do's, and under the guise of 'culture', expect it to remain as Timor-Leste’s most ubiquitous national pastime.