Following our adventure in East Java’s Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, the picturesque hill station of Tretes was our next stop. Flanked by the twin volcanoes of Arjuno and Welirang, Tretes offers stunning views, rolling hills and pleasantly cool temperatures. We fully expected to enjoy this charming spot and spend the time recovering from our strenuous Gunung Semeru climb, but Java had other surprises in store for us as well.
Arriving after dark, we were shuttled from hotel to hotel in search for a reasonably priced room, and eventually found a home-stay on a quiet street at the heart of a closely-knit village community, away from the 40-room establishments and bustling night market. The family was welcoming and plied us with nasi goreng, even providing us with hot water in a bucket, a godsend after the trek and an assortment of cold showers.
Dawn the next morning, however, we were jolted awake by a rancorous cacophony of roosters’ crows. While I have grown accustomed to the sights and sounds of rural Indonesia, there was definitely something different about this morning’s performance.
Peeking out of the room, we spotted twenty roosters pacing in their rattan cages. It turned out that our family-run homestay is a cock-fighting gym, and the family tends to various cocks on behalf of their owners, providing them with daily vitamins, feeding, cleaning and training. As we looked on, the roosters were getting their meticulous morning washes one by one, each getting the underside of their feathers preened and their cockscombs scrubbed.
In the cockfight, man and beast, good and evil, ego and id, the creative power of aroused masculinity and the destructive power of loosened animality fuse in a bloody drama of hatred, cruelty, violence and death. It is little wonder that when, as is the invariable rule, the owner of the winning cock takes the carcass of the loser – often torn limb to limb by its enraged owner – home to eat, he does so with a mixture of social embarrassment, moral satisfaction, aesthetic disgust and cannibal joy.
Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”.
Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to watch an actual cockfight, but I do believe that the Javanese version is not as bloody as the Balinese cockfights described by Geertz, partly because spurs are not used.
Nevertheless, we did manage to watch the roosters in action during their training sessions. A ring was set-up in the courtyard, and some of the roosters’ owners showed up to observe their investment’s progress.
As soon as both roosters found themselves in the ring, they stared straight into each other’s eyes, the feathers around their necks fluffing to make themselves appear larger than life. All of a sudden, they flew upwards and clawed rapidly at each other. The dominant rooster landed with his wing over the other’s head, reminiscent of the sleeper hold in wrestling. The match lasted fifteen minutes, and as both engaged in an elaborate dance, the stronger of the two regularly demonstrated its prowess by grabbing hold of the other’s cockscomb with its beak.
It was an exhilarating introduction to the age-old Indonesian past time of cockfighting, and I am getting my Geertzian hat ready for an actual cockfight in the future.