Cock-A-Doodle-Don't


The roosters swaggered around like Mick and Keith, with dangerously sharp spurs attached to their legs.
While the apocalyptic poultry sussed each other out with alpha-male malice, the excitement began to build. My two new Norwegian backpacker friends snapped photos with their digital Elfs, and placed a sizeable bet, to the tune of your average Filipino office worker’s annual salary (roughly five dollars a day), on the seemingly more aggressive bird.
Without placing a bet I rooted for “Mick” also.
The bare-chested Filipino “casador” (bookie), circling around the makeshift coliseum of wood and wire seemed astounded by the Norsemen’s wager. Somehow at the same time he managed to look both like Charles Bronson and Manny Pacquiaou at the same time.
The casador passed along the bet money to an associate boss whom I could almost swear was a sunburned Filipino-American Rob Snyder, formerly of SNL (Saturday Night Live) and now going native.
That’s what all the excitement was about, whether it was really him.
And then the “Sambong” (cockfight) commenced.
In the flurry of bird and blood, like KFC versus Popeye’s, the fighting cocks strutted around with autofocus eyes, while enterprising locals sold cashews and cold drinks:
“No Cock, no Cock, only Fanta Orange!”
An old man offered me his folding chair so I could more easily view the medieval-jester-type melée. Soon, the arena was littered with colorful feathers, as well as bits of cloaca and coxcomb.
Now that I had seen my very first cockfight, I vowed also to make this one my last.
Here we were all the way out on remote Bantayan Island in the Visayan Islands chain off the coast of Cebu watching a sport that might be illegal in America. Even though cockfighting is the world’s oldest blood sport, with Persian origins over 6,000 year ago, it is now the Philippines’ number-one national pastime. Thought by many to be introduced by Spanish colonization, instead “Sambong” (cockfighting) was already prevalent when Antonio Pigafetta, a supernumerary aboard Magellan’s voyage around the world (1521), chanced upon the practice. However the term “gamecock” first appeared in George Wilson’s The Commendation of Cocks and Cock Fighting (1602).
Cockfighting might also be responsible for the Tagalog term “running amok.”
So, why here?

Where everyone avoids using the middle finger, including the peace sign, for two beers; instead, flapping the hand up and down like a wave means “come here” and two raised eyebrows meaning “yes indeed.”
Where taxi drivers blasting American pop music, such as Celine Dion singing the theme to “Titanic” (very popular here) turn down their radios whenever they pass a church!
Where everyone claims to have zero crime, plus fifty-cent bottles of San Miguel beer, all on perfect beachfront props rivaling such places as Thailand and Indonesia.
As a supplier of millions of eggs, Bantayan Island, also jokingly known as “Egg Island,” offered byways punctuated by ubiquitous wooden coops and the best breakfasts in Southeast Asia: not just eggs and bacon, but the national dish of “adobo” (best with birds), which at first to my untutored eye resembled cannibalism on sticky rice.
There are over 5 million roosters and chickens on Bantayan—and the over 150,000 local inhabitants go through them quickly, not only in the cockpit but in the crockpot.
Although we at first assumed that chicken adobo was made with real hens, we realized later that here, for obvious reasons, adobo might be male. . . .
With over 7,000 islands, “Pilipinas” (The Philippines) offers some of the world’’s best island-hopping opportunities on near-perfect beaches. Which means, if you went to a different island each day it would take you over fifty years to visit all of them. Its unique cultural heritage comes from the fact that as a former colony of Spain and the United States, Filipinos spent 500 years in the convent and 50 years in Hollywood. Now, the local color prides itself on being the best musicians in all of Asia.
As is always the case, part of the fun of going to Bantayan (“Keep Watch” Island) is somehow getting there. So after a PAL (Philippines Airlines) flight to Cebu’s Mactan International Airport, where offshore Magellan was offed halfway through his circumnavigation of the globe by the fierce forces of Chief Lapu Lapu, think “deserted beaches.”
Paying fifty pesos for a ticket on The D’ Rough Riders bus company, named after the military troops run by Teddy Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War (1898), I felt the thrill of actually going someplace new. Four hours later we were dumped at Hagnaya to catch a clunky regular one-hour ferry or “Special Ride” scary outrigger boat. On the unseaworthy official ferry to Bantayan I marveled at the lack of any other passengers and the proliferation of empty egg cartons stacked like large Lego ™ pieces in the cargohold.
Arriving at the aptly named Christian depot of “Santa Fe” on Bantayan Island, we were treated to a prosaic port straight out of a Tintin comic. Even though one of the best restaurants for “chook” is right there (as well as grilled mystery meat resembling stunted animals on skewers—cats?), “The Majestic by the Sea,” I decided to head straight to the budget resorts and cheaper fare, only a simple Jeepney ride away.
In these iconic antique Jeep taxis, Jeepnies are usually covered in Jesus-influenced Christmas-kitsch psychedelia—including Deadhead stickers and ads for PHISH (I used to play in a high school band with Page McConnell, now the keyboardist for PHISH)—and so you feel that you have arrived in somewhere, well, different.
Or, better, take a misnomered “tricycle” (bicycle rickshaw) for about ten pesos to the Kota Beach Resort (right near the Budyong Beach Resort). All of the resorts are almost deserted in the off season (our summer), where for a Hamilton or a Jackson you can get traditional thatched-roof cabins called nipa huts scattered pell-mell right smack dab on the beach, with only a few expat Australians showing off their new mail-order Filipina brides.
When I first arrived I was the only guest, which made me wonder if some calamity, such as a tsunami, was imminent. With no electricity, I sat out on the porch of my bungalow right on the beach with a candle, stargazing.
Far away from any light pollution, you could outline almost every constellation in the sky, with more stars even than Imelda has shoes.
The very next day several more guests arrived: the already mentioned Norwegians, a Swiss couple working in the Philippines, and a German businessman for a cement company, who had spent many years in Colombia. He said Colombia was not as dangerous as people think, while admitting, “But of course you have to hire private bodyguards.“
Another other new guest was an American, a Harvard college student and Let’s Go editor named John, who was wary of international terrorism and upscale tourism, and whom complained that every night a prozzie tried to pick him up and make him pay, per almost any third-world demesne (big menu, low prices).
Most nights, we met at the expat center of Moby Dick’s restaurant, filled with Germans and Americans involved in “Import Export” (an international euphemism for “chronic unemployment”).
A long-haired guy resembling an AWOL hippy Vietnam vet, now living in the Bantayan barrios, then, sotto voce, told me about the upcoming “Stations of the Cross” festival, wherein a real Filipino volunteer suffers an enactment of a real crucifixion.
Seriously!
Which, I guess, er, adds new meaning to devout. . . .
Other than that there were only copper-colored “natives,” such as “Ramon” and “Boy” (both popular names in Pilipinas), who addressed me every day in Cebuano (a variant dialect of Tagalog), “Selamat, Mister John!” (As a frequent contributor to Mabuhay Magazine later, I dealt directly with Filipinas with flash names like Lynette Corporal and Anika Ventura.)
One local hotbod Filipina girl, with a pink orchid stuck behind her ear, asked me while I was suffering through a hangover on the beach, “Are you interested in buying a home here? I can get you a good house right on the beach for only twenty thousand dollars!” (I wondered idly if she came with it.)
Tempting, but nah!
And then the apparently available Filipina introduced me to an obvious “sea gypsy” with a rag tied around his head and a wooden cross knocking against his chest, scraping the old paint off his outrigger.
“He is a Bubble Man!” she enthused. Or, witchdoctor.
During my nearly month-long stay, it only seriously rained once, pounding on the corrugated metal roofs everywhere like John Bonham, or Keith Moon, or Neil Peart doing a drum solo on Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” (In 2013, Typhoon Yolanda decimated Bantayan, but with relief aid, it is now already on the mend.)
To at last leave the overenthusiastic hospitality of my Visayan Adventure, resembling cannibalistic attraction and intent, without causing anyone “hiya” (shame), I considered taking another “Special Ride” by outrigger for less than 2,000 pesos to nearby Malapascua Island (dubbed “Bad Christmas Island” by Magellan), another friendly island with perfect beach babes. . . .
Of course, on my last night I had my best meal at Santa Fe’s foodie heaven: “The Majestic by the Sea.” Here, as well as elsewhere at the “point-point” eateries, where you finger either a facsimile in a display case or a laminated photo menu, were to be found weird fishes (some without eyes): “lapu-lapu” and “samin-samin,” washed down with “Kalamansi juice” made from Ping Pong ball-sized limes.
Even so, judging from the plates of the other passengers ready to leave Bantayan, “adobo” ruled the night, even if it was not made with your average “Food of the Gods” avian assassin, but instead (maybe) rooster. . . .
“Cock-a-doodle-don’t!”



John M. Edwards, 2014

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