Cycling the Americas IX: Cockfights and Sleepless Nights

Cycling the Americas IX: Cockfights and Sleepless Nights

The first thing I noticed was the air. After six weeks of Baja California’s dust and lip-cracking wind, the air in Mazatlán, a coastal city in the mainland Mexican state of Sinaloa, tasted sweet and thick. Cycle touring is all about watching landscapes change over days and weeks, watching forests become foothills which become mountains that turn into deserts and back again. But the overnight ferry from La Paz to Mazatlán had taken us back into the world of the backpacker, dazed and abandoned in the sunlight of a snarling city after a night in public transport’s airlock.

East of Mazatlan, the jungle floor turns vertical and the road climbs up a range of mountains known as El Espinazo del Diablo – The Devil’s Spine. We spent two days switch-backing skywards until the jungle turned to pine forest, and a third day riding along the Devil’s Spine itself, cliffs immediately above and below us and beyond a tempest of mountains to the horizon.

Despite all the warnings, camping in Mexico is always interesting and far easier than Australia or the United States. You just have to ask someone and if they don’t know where to go, they’ll know someone who does. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve slept in national parks, beside town pools, behind highway restaurants and next to giant haystacks, all to the happy bemusement of local people. In Chirimoyo’s central plaza, a classroom’s worth of kids turned out for nothing more than to watch us cook and eat dinner.
“Catch you in the morning for breakfast!” they chirped as they left and sure enough, there they were at seven o’clock to watch us cook porridge. When we woke up on Concordia’s baseball field young masters Jesús and Alejandro made themselves late for school as they admired our bikes and helped to dismantle our tents.

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We’ve learned to be picky about the villages we choose to sleep in so as to avoid the nightly communiques of dogs, donkeys and worst of all, roosters. For those of us who grew up in suburbia, the image of a cock crowing to welcome the sunrise and wake the cheerful old farmer each morning is something we know well from folklore and popular culture. This is a lie. The reality is that the cock has been bellowing all night (and all day, for that matter) to the 200 other cocks in the village, and they back at him, and the farmer has waited for the first light of day to go outside and save his prize bird from the wrath of any traumatised cycle tourists or light sleepers within a 20 kilometre radius.
“How do you sleep with all the roosters around?” we asked local kids the next morning. They just looked at us.

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By the time we made it to Durango, a highland city of cowboy hats and leather boots, we were back in the bloody desert once more. John Wayne used to come out here to film his westerns and in villages outside the city, you can still find the old movie sets. Chupaderos seems like a pretty standard Mexican village until you find a street with a gallows on the corner, a saloon, a workshop, an old-timey bank and a giant hotel that’s nothing but a painted wooden facade with trees growing behind. What’s more, there are now people living and running businesses in some of these structures. A woman sells snacks from a stall outside the Hotel and another is running a beer shop out of the Saloon.

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We rode our bikes out to Chupaderos and its film set on a Sunday, which also happens to be cockfighting day. In an abandoned lot a woman sold beer from an esky while men clustered around a ring of weatherboards about as high as your hip. Feathers gathered at the edges. Around the walls of the lot, men in leather boots, big hats and jeans ornamented with massive belt buckles stood about smallish metal cages chatting and sipping cans of Corona while their kids scampered and munch on snacks. Above all the chat, laughter and calls of bets being made, there was the incessant crowing of 40 or 50 roosters scattered about, some in the hands of their owners while others hid behind a jumper thrown over the cage to provide shade.

Two men entered the ring cradling their roosters, who each had a single hooked blade attached to a leg. The owners readied their fighters by holding their tail feathers and having them run on the spot while men shouted wagers at one another across the ring.

They place the roosters facing one another in the centre and when the word was given and the owners let go they charged one another, melding into a single flurry of feathers and talons, bouncing around the ring up to a metre from the ground in the frantic initial burst. The crowd went quiet for a while, and there was only the furious flapping of wings.

A white-crested rooster looked dominant at first, and before long the other collapsed, panting. A word from the referee sent the owners in to grab their animals. We could see the blood, now, running down the talons of both roosters, the flow heavier from brown-crest who appeared to be losing. His owner sucked blood from a wound in his back, spitting it into the ring. Both owners placed the entire head of their champions into their mouths to suck them clean of blood, and spat mouthfuls of water or beer in their faces to revive them once more. With another word they went again, slowly now, circling one another, conserving energy and watching for a moment of weakness or an opening invisible to the untrained eye.

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Brown-crest was panting and bleeding heavier than his opponent, and several times he found himself on his back, feet in the air, chest heaving as he watched white-crest and waited for the final blow. White-crest preferred to hang back and strut, letting the owners approach to clean them off once more. Placed on his feet again, brown-crest scurried away under a fresh attack, but found the crowd rallying behind him when he went after white-crest, slashing frantically. He knew the end was close.

When brown-crest found himself on his back again, white-crest couldn’t summon the energy to finish him so the two were placed facing one another one last time. The crowd rumbled. As brown-crest’s owner removed his hand from beneath his champion’s throat, the rooster’s heaving sides went still and his head slowly toppled forward, beak-first into the dust. Jeers rang out and money began changing hands while the owners carried their champions from the ring, one dripping blood from the head and swinging from a hand, the other cradled in his owner’s arms. This is how every cockfight ends.
“Hasta la muerte” – “until death” – is a phrase I heard all afternoon from drunks sipping plastic bottles and proud cowboys in high-heeled boots.

I suppose I found a little sympathy for roosters after all.

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Previously: Cycling the Americas VIII: “Don’t Tell my Mum About that One.”

Quinten Dol is riding his bicycle from Vancouver, Canada, to Ushuaia, Argentina, to raise money for the Australian Cancer Council’s Research Fund. Like any scummy hobo, he’s scraping a bit off the top to feed himself. Throw him a bone by making a donation here.

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