Driving around Bali, the first thing I noticed was the big wicker baskets by the roadside. Inside each basket was a cockerel. I asked my friend Wayan why these birds were there. ‘They put them by the road to make them used to people,’ he told me. ‘Then they won’t be scared when it’s time for them to fight.’ ‘What do you mean, time to fight? A cockfight?’ He nodded. Cockfighting is a clandestine activity here. No one talks about it, but those baskets are everywhere.
Cockfighting is an ancient Balinese tradition. The Indonesian government frowns on it, and the heavy gambling that goes with it (men can lose farms on a single fight), but it remains a part of daily life. Cockfights are staged before religious ceremonies, as an offering to the gods. The government forbids cockfights for non-religious purposes, but the government is far away, on Java. Of the 13,000 islands in this archipelago, only Bali is Hindu, and in Bali, cockfighting is performed in every village temple. The people and the government have reached an unspoken compromise: cockfighting can continue, so long as everyone pretends it doesn’t exist.
Yet it does exist, and is thriving. The sheer number of wicker baskets tells you that. Once you’ve seen one, you see them everywhere. People weave them on their doorsteps. They carry stacks of them on motorbikes. It’s the unofficial national sport. Surely this is just as much a part of Bali as all the feel-good stuff?
Bali has learnt to market itself as a new-age nirvana, but this tranquil image isn’t much older than the middle-aged hippies who come here in search of love and peace. For most of its bloody history, it’s had a reputation for violence. The first Dutch colonists who first came here found the Balinese ‘fierce, savage, perfidious and bellicose’.