Brillant was late, which isn’t like him. Around 3:15, as I was walking to the restaurant, one of the other guys who works at the Palm Inn caught up with me and, holding out his phone said, “It’s your friend, Brillant.” It turned out that Brillant had been a little under the weather in the morning, but was on his way. A half-hour or so later, he showed up and we set out for the cockfight.
The Delmas 31 cockfight arena is only about a mile from the hotel. Apparently, each neighborhood in Port au Prince has one. Delmas 31’s sits below street level, covered by a tin roof, on the banks of a drainage canal where hogs forage through garbage. The gatekeeper let us in and Brillant paid our admission. Obviously, I was an immediate novelty.
Thirty or 40 men, varying in age from probably their 20’s to their 60’s, crowded around the packed dirt floor ring on three rows of narrow red concrete benches. The half-dozen or so with fighting cocks sat on the front row, or stood in the ring, a few with their birds hooded to keep them calm. Some of the men would occasionally cross the ring, carrying their birds, to talk to, or taunt, other competitors. But access to the ring isn’t limited to competitors, as spectators play an integral role in the proceedings, actually choosing the birds that will fight.
They do this by putting their money, which they wave about liberally, on the birds that look strongest to them. So the spectators are all over the ring checking out the birds, none of which looked particularly bulked up to me. I’m pretty sure no steroids are involved in their training. At any rate, through a process of elimination I’m unclear on the details of, but which can go on for thirty minutes or more, two competitors eventually emerge. The birds’ owners then prepare them for battle.
This primarily involves a ritual in which the owner repeatedly takes a mouthful of grain alcohol from a plastic jug and sprays it on the bird until the bird is soaking wet. Supposedly, according to Brillant, this energizes the bird by heating it up, but maybe it just turns it into an ugly drunk. Once the birds are thoroughly drenched, their owners thrust them at each other several times to make sure they get the idea, then turn them loose.
The fight itself, which usually only lasts between five and ten minutes, is accompanied by much shouting and more waving of money, as if the birds will be encouraged by the potential payout. The fight reaches its climax when one of the birds gains a clear advantage, recognizable by it repeatedly leaping on the weaker bird. This development is marked by a crescendo of shouts from the gallery that soon morph into a chant that sounds something like “Ha!” and is repeated with each leap. Generally, the fight is soon called by TKO once it becomes obvious that the weaker bird isn’t going to rally.
Haitian cockfights are, as cockfights go, not particularly brutal. As opposed to the practice in some countries, Haitians don’t attach metal spurs to their birds’ talons, so the birds don’t gut each other in the course of the fight. Consequently, the winner and the loser both live to fight another day, unless, of course, the loser ends up as dinner that night.