Chapter 14

GALLETECAS DE BANOS

1990-12-01, Quito


!Voy Roja! "Go Red!" !Pelea Blanco! "Fight White!" !Vamos A Fuerza! "Keep fighting, don't stop!"

The crowd is roaring. Two contestants circle each other with nervous frantic movements. Dipping, bobbing, striking.

I've returned to Banos, on a brief stop-over on my way to Puyo. I want a few days to relax and walk around the friendly streets here, sip capuccino in the afternoon at the Swiss Bakery and drink Cerveza later on at the Hard Rock Cafe.

I decide to check out the Sunday night sporting scene. After a satisfying meal at the French restaurant playing European Jazz, I head down the old stone paths to the local arena.

It's in a dark funky section of town, aways back from the fence; you cross through a gaping hole that serves as an entrance. There is a window bordered by peeling red paint through a brick wall by the side of the fence. Above the window is a sign: Boletos, tickets. Fifty yards back is the building, a square, two story tall structure with a tin corrugated roof.

Groups of men are milling about outside the entrance to the arena. Many of these are handlers. They are constantly with their fighters: preparing, massaging, coaxing, petting, kissing. The other guys are busy drinking cerveza, joking with their friends, looking about, inspecting, fondling and sizing up the combatants.

I step inside through the narrow doorway. Directly ahead is the circular arena: three rows of stacked tiers surround and look out onto the pit. The highest tier still provides a good view of the action. The first two tiers are for the enthusiasts, the frequent clientele.

Paying my five pesos and taking a seat in the top row, I'm ready for action.

Above the pit, in the center, is a large clock. On either side, spotlights beam down into the ring full of people milling about.

Two distinct groups fill the center circle: trainers preparing their charges, and gamblers fondling their rolls of pesos. A lot of pre-fight hype is in the air, bantering back and forth, and screams of support for one contestant or another. The betting action is heavy as dinero changes hands rapidly.

Loud crackling squawking fills the air as Fighting Cocks prepare for combat. Lean. trim, feathers shaved around their legs, revealing muscle and claws.

A 'taper' is at each side with the handler. Carefully he applies the razor sharp steel talon to the back claws on each leg of the birds. One for each foot, bound with black or white tape around the claw up to the ankles.

The ring is clearing now, as the gamblers head for the stands. Initial betting is over. There are few women here, the ones that are in attendance are all accompanied by men.

Cocks are on the floor, prancing around erratically with a frenzied energy fed by anticipation leaking from hungry spectators. Their handlers guiding them in circles, pumping the bird up for action, making them hard.

A third cock is brought into the ring, held up with beak toward the ground. This cock is foisted aggressively toward one contestant, then the other, as a target. The birds peck away at each other, warming up, getting their moves. Eventually the sparring victim is removed. The crowd is yelling for the fight to begin.

A ring announcer, a referee, steps into the center, announcing the birds and their owners. He, the birds and their handlers are the only ones left in the center. Everyone else is seated ringside. The referee sets the clock for twenty minutes.

The handlers pick up their cocks, face off, birds ready to peck. The bell sounds. A flourish of feathers, screams and claws explode as they are thrown in the air savagely toward one another.

Landing, the fighters begin to bob and weave. Swift necks strike out, like a boxer's jab. Beaks aimed at the exposed heads of their opponents. Circle and jab, occasionally lifting a leg to claw one another. The crowd screams as one bird connects, a swift cut with spiked claw slashing down across a neck.

Time draws on, blood begins to flow on the faces, heads, necks, dying white feathers a crimson hue as the deadly beaks score.

There is more betting now, yells across the ring as one group believes their bird is gaining advantage, and another group counters. This continues back and forth as the gladiators duel viciously, giving then taking.

The handlers are a study in themselves. One sits calmly on his heels, carefully and discriminately watching the action. Whispering encouragement to his bird.

The man is an old pro, doesn't get riled or nervous as the action heats up. There is an air of inevitable acceptance about him, whatever the outcome. He has won and lost before. A thousand times. He knows his fighter won't always win.

The other handler is skittish, nervous. Pacing the ring in awkward circles, he never sits. As his bird strikes, you can see the handler's head bob forward, his shoulders dart out in mimicry. He's identified with his fighter. Shuffling about, he circles. When his bird is hit, he cringes.

This cockfight is a social event. Neighbors and friends are hugging and slapping one another, swapping tales and beer. It's a tradition. The scene provides an arena for expression as everyone reacts in some way to the action in the center.

In some ways, it's like the fights in Las Vegas. People come out to watch and to be seen. The betting is everywhere and provides a solid income for the house and the bird owners. Each fight generates $250-$400 in winnings. That's good in an economy where 50 cents buys a meal.

Yet there is an even more basic aspect to this. A primal sensation of raw instinctuality that may originate from the birds yet can be felt like a hot flash among the spectators. The fighters are beginning to tire. Their moves are slowing. White staggers against the fence, surrounding the ring. Red, an opportunist, rushes in, takes advantage to strike again and again.

White against the fence can barely raise its feathers. It stumbles to the center, collapses, then slowly staggers up.

The referee stops them long enough to inspect the ailing fighter. During the break, White's handler picks it up, nurses, cradles his fighter. Kissing and stroking its back feathers he blows softly into the bird's bloody mouth.

The referee motions for the fight to continue. The handler must release his cock. They are at it once again.

A short time passes, yet White never fully recovers. As Red continues a barrage of pecking and clawing it's clear that White is in trouble. His head dips in exhaustion. Dips again.

Blood is splattered all over the fighters and dripping onto the floor. It's just a matter of time.

Suddenly, White's head drops like a stone. He's down for the count, refuses to rise. Still alive, barely. He may be stew tomorrow. The referee steps in, stops the fight.

Red, screaming a savage victory cry, is declared winner amidst yells and roars from the crowd.

Red's handler has raised the victor high in the air. He's petted, kissed. The crowd's gone wild. The ring manager sits, quietly smiling. Another profitable night.


Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman


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