In the year Vladimir Putin rose to power, 1999, I was ten years old, snot-nosed and defiant, selling holographic Pokémon cards by the handball courts for far too much money. My interest in the cards was purely economic.
That same year, a politically inexperienced Vladimir Putin was appointed Prime Minister by Boris Yeltsin. As a ten-year-old card pusher, this news never reached me – even if it had, doubtful it would have been very impactful.
I grew older, wiser, curious-er, and Putin became a person I knew. Not personally, but I knew the name and photos and reputation. I knew he was a former KGB agent, former director of the KGB, and current president of Russia.
In reality, until somewhat recently, I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about Vladimir Putin, namely his rise to power. This ignorance bred a certain kind of fear.
That being said, I was alive when Putin ascended to his current position as one-man Russian regime. And now, with the Senate Intelligence Committee testimonies heating up, I feel it is timely to look back on his ascension to power, and the controversy surrounding it.
To understand Putin’s ascension, we must first understand Boris Yeltsin, who served as the country’s President from 1991 to 1999. The first post-Soviet President.
As his Presidency was coming to an end, it is believed that Yeltsin, and the “family”, feared a great reckoning for their role in turning Russia into, what many would describe as, a criminal state, owing largely to disparities in wealth and growth in organized crime. It would seem widespread investigations into corruption amongst Yeltsin and the “family” prompted the President to begin his search for someone loyal and cooperative to take the reins, effectively relieving he and the “family” of any repercussions for the last eight years.
Three years earlier, the First Chechen War had ended. It had been a military victory for Chechnya, which, in 1999, was operating with more freedom and autonomy than ever before. This leaves little room for Chechen motive in an attack on Russia that could possibly lead them back into war.
The bombs, it was reported by the Russian government and FSB (the successor organization to the KGB), were made largely of a chemical called hexogen, a powerful military explosive.
David Satter, a journalist who has reported extensively on these bombings, wrote, “I had no illusions about Yeltsin and his cronies but it was hard to imagine that a man who came to power as a result of a peaceful anti-communist revolution with massive public support would be willing to murder his own people to hold onto power. Developing events, however, were to change my mind.”
Scott Anderson, a veteran war journalist who also reported extensively on these bombings, explained, “these were very crude and heavy bombs, and would have required a car to transport.” Anderson goes on to say that, in 1999, Russia was still a heavily policed state, with checkpoints and extensive security provisions in place. Following the government’s claim that the bombings were executed by Chechen rebels, it would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for anyone, let alone Chechens, to drive these bombs through Russian cities without detection.
At the time of the bombings Yeltsin’s health had begun to deteriorate at an alarming rate. As fear began to rumble through every city in Russia, the country looked to the newly appointed Prime Minister for guidance.
The first bomb was detonated on September 4, 1999, while the fourth bomb went off on September 16, 1999 in Moscow. Up to that point, the story that Chechen rebels had perpetrated the attack had been accepted by the Russian public.
On September 22, 1999, that changed, for there was a fifth bomb that did not detonate. Local residents of Ryazan, where the fifth bombed was planted, reported seeing a white sedan pull up to an apartment building. Two men exited the car with a large white bag of something, and proceeded to the basement.
Local authorities quickly discovered the planted bomb in the Ryazan apartment building basement, and were able to disarm the explosive before it could go off. This bomb, too, was made of hexogen, and immediately a massive search for the white sedan and two suspects was launched.
One day later, still Prime Minister Putin, officially declared war on Chechnya, launching the Second Chechen War. His popularity quickly skyrocketed.
Nikolai Patrushev, Putin’s longtime protégé and head of the FSB at the time, quickly went on national television and reported to the nation that the bomb scare in Ryazan had been a drill, a military exercise. The white powder, he explained to the nation, was not hexogen, at all, as initially reported. It was sugar, he alleged.
“At a minimum, they believe that the government is covering up something. At a maximum, they fear that the government might itself have played a role in the bombings,” she wrote in early 2000. Is it possible that a virtually unknown prime minister and an outgoing, unpopular President would bomb their own people to launch a false war, in turn galvanizing a disbanded population under the young prime minister on his way to the presidency? The idea alone, without context, seems farfetched.
Why had Putin been chosen by Yeltsin and not someone else? If you recall, there were two other candidates considered before Putin. What had Yeltsin seen in him?
One event lends insight, while also highlighting Putin’s capacity for subterfuge.
In 1997, reports surfaced that Russian organized crime controlled numerous businesses in Switzerland and that Behjet Pacolli, head of Swiss construction company, Mabetex, had been paying both Yeltsin and his daughters discretely to earn favor with the Kremlin. Mabetex had recently secured massive reconstruction contracts with the Kremlin. In late 1998 these reports were sent to then Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov.
These revelations prompted Skuratov to amplify investigations into Yeltsin and the “family”, namely Yeltsin’s daughter Dyachenko and Berezovsky. During this time, Yeltsin’s health had deteriorated even further, leaving many important decisions to Dyachenko and Berezovsky.
Shortly thereafter, Skuratov was forced to resign. Investigations into Yeltsin and the “family” were momentarily derailed, but the aging President and his cronies were still in need of a long-term solution to avoid repercussions for the past ten years of corruption.
Proving his capability and loyalty, Vladimir Putin was called on to fill the important role of Prime Minister, and, we know now, eventual successor. However, as mentioned before, with Yeltsin’s abysmal approval ratings and elections fast-approaching, at the time it seemed unlikely anyone associated with the aging President could win a free election.
How would they accomplish the desired transition of power to their new ally, Vladimir Putin? The question appeared to have no answer. Then, in early September of 1999, the first bomb went off.
On September 13, 1999, three days before the third bomb would discharge in Volgodonsk, speaker of the Duma (Russia’s legislative body) and close friend of Putin, Gennady Seleznev, prophesized the bombing. Addressing a crowd, Seleznev misspoke and referred to the wrong city, stating that a bomb had gone off in Volgodonsk. He had meant to say Moscow where the September 13th bomb had just hit. At the time, it had been written off as a harmless mistake.
Three days later on September 16th, when a bomb actually did go off in Vologodonsk, public outcry roared, demanding an explanation. It looked as if the Russian government had known where the bombs were being planted beforehand, although it has not been proven. Whose interests were being served?
Leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, was especially vocal, vehemently demanding explanation from Seleznev and Putin. On the day in which Seleznev misspoke, Zhirnovsky reported it to local journalists, but transcripts could not be located and no article was published.
No further explanation has ever been offered.
American David Satter, the forefront journalist and investigator of the 1999 bombings, has become as much a part of this story as the story itself. He has written extensively on the matter, publishing a book, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State, in 2003, arguing Putin’s involvement in the bombings.
In 2002, after the Duma denied several attempts to organize a commission to investigate the bombings, a public commission, outside of Russian government control, was formed.
Despite pushback from the Russian government, the commission was able to locate the transcripts and confirm Seleznev’s dark prediction of the bombing in Volgodonsk. David Satter worked intimately with the commission, and many other Russian human-rights defenders, attempting to expose Putin and his involvement in these acts of terror, as he describes them.
Those of whom Satter had worked with include Sergei Yushenkov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkobskaya, and Alexander Litvinenko. Between 2003 and 2006, all of them were murdered.
Satter wrote in 2016: “By 2007, when I testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the bombings, I was the only person publicly accusing the regime of responsibility who had not been killed.” Satter was especially close to Yuri Shchekochikhin, and shortly before Shchekochikhin’s death, he presented Satter with a copy of his book, Slaves of the KGB: 20th Century, the Religion of Betrayal. In it, Satter writes, Shchekochikhin inscribed: “We are still alive in 2003!”
In July of 2003, Yuri Shchekochikhin was poisoned. His family were denied medical reports of his death, and it has been reported the Russian government refused to perform an autopsy. Shchekochikhin’s family, however, were able to secretly send tissue samples to London, where an independent commission determined Thallium responsible for Shchekochikhin’s death. Thallium was the same substance used in the death of Putin’s former bodyguard, Roman Tsepov, in 2004, a year later. Circumstances surrounding Tsepov’s death remain unclear.
Three months earlier, on April 17, 2003, Satter received a phone call informing him that Sergei Yushenkov had been shot in the foyer of his apartment building. Yushenkov had been an active member of the public commission investigating the FSB and Putin’s involvement in the bombings.
“For the first time in the 27 years I had been writing about Russia, I felt afraid even to leave my apartment,” Satter wrote. Yushenkov held the same view as Satter, whose book Dawn of Darkness detailing his certainty of FSB involvement in the bombings, was set to release the next month.
Three years later on October 7, 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, also a member of the public commission and one of Russia’s leading investigative journalists, was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment building. A little more than a month later, Alexander Litvinenko, with whom Satter worked closely, also an active member of the public commission, was poisoned in London on November 23, 2006.
An independent British commission looking into Litvinenko’s death determined the cause to be radioactive polonium-210. An evil chemical. The independent British commission also determined that the assassination had been perpetrated by the FSB, concluding they had slipped the poison in his tea while he dined at a London sushi restaurant.
“By any standard, murdering hundreds of innocent and randomly chosen fellow citizens in order to hold on to power is an example of cynicism that cannot be comprehended in a normal human context. But it is fully consistent with the Communist inheritance of Russia and with the kind of country that Russia has become,” wrote Satter, who continues to this day, to work to expose the corruption of Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin. 293 Russians were killed by those four bombs in 1999.
In conclusion, there isn’t one.
To conclude with a single thought would be to ignore the complexities of the situation. The goal of examining these allegations and reports was, and remains to be, to seek to understand the dangers and rewards of a closer relationship with Russia, more specifically political alignment with the man at the helm of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
But who planted the bombs? I’m sure that’s what you’re still wondering.
The short answer, I don’t know. In the eyes of the Russian government it was the Chechens.
To the public commission it was the FSB and Putin.
To many others, it remains unclear.
To Times reporter Maura Reynolds, it doesn’t matter. “Whether the government or people around Putin played a role or whether they didn’t, the affect is the same,” she stated in an interview. Fear is the intended goal – and it is achieved.
Today, opinions on Russia and American response range widely. Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution believes, “Simply accepting Russian behavior that is truly egregious would prove problematic to US efforts to halting Russian meddling around the world. If the [United States] were to recognize Crimea as Russian, that would put us in the likes of a handful of countries like North Korea, Syria and Venezuela.”
Further, the issue at the forefront of U.S. – Russian relations deals with an individual’s rise to power, and an election. As Michael Flynn, former national security adviser to President Trump, and Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, have both been subpoenaed by the House Intelligence Committee, it is clear the fear surrounding Russian involvement in U.S. elections and politics is prevalent and growing.
David Satter writes, “This [is] a moral obligation, because ignoring the fact that a man in charge of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal came to power through an act of terror is highly dangerous in itself.”
Vladimir Putin has vehemently denied any involvement with the bombings of 1999.
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A firsthand account of Bali’s longstanding illegal cockfighting culture.
I said I wouldn’t get involved, but there I was, standing in the middle of a makeshift cockfighting ring, grasping a white gamecock. The bird shook as screams from the crowd grew louder, a four-inch blade strung to the its left foot. It kicked awkwardly trying to wiggle free, nearly slicing me open. With that same blade, moments later, the cock would decide its fate. Life or death: a straightforward endeavor.
Several bird handlers danced around me playing to their audience, revving them up in the initial odds-making of the upcoming fight. The crowd, comprised of toothless leathered creatures and slick bejeweled backyard gangsters, village idiots and town drunks, winced as they sucked on bottles of bootleg liquor called tuwak. Smoke rose wildly, painting with effortless strokes. This was a horrifying fusion of Pleasure Island and Neverland, where men, dimly aware of any world outside this small dirt ring turn birds against one another. I was certain it was only a matter of time before the birds turned on us.
Suddenly, when the opposing cock was brought into the ring, the white bird ceased its shaking, instantly becoming stoic, focused as if it knew of the carnage that would take place. At once, its pupils dilated, morphing gracefully into a stone cold killer, its glare void of fear. I could feel its heart beating, lungs collapsing and refilling. Calm, casual, prepared. The change was genetic, unknowingly carried within and only showing when activated.
I was terrified, doubtless more than the bird, but the crowd – oh the crowd! – they were roaring and cackling. Money was flying up and down like some grab-bag game show, as clouds of smoke rolled continuously in the sweaty night air. Bootleg liquor and Bintang had me forgetting who I was, or perhaps it was unlocking a more primal version, the bird and I changing together. I couldn’t say no, and so I grimaced, bit my cigarette, and shoved the bird higher into the air. Me in that ring, holding that bird – the locals thought that was the funniest goddamn thing they’d ever seen.
I said I wouldn’t get involved, but there I was, involved.
This was cock fighting in Bali, on the outside of a city called Ubud. Yes, the same Ubud that thousands of tourists flock to each year to practice yoga and meditate and appreciate art, striving for that ever elusive strain of enlightenment.
Spare me, for while bohemian expats are practicing yoga and unlocking chakras, just down the road birds are slaughtering each other in a ring surrounded by screaming men. These men show up each night, and some mornings, leaving their wives and families behind, ripping cigarettes, wagering fortunes on which bird will kill the other with the blade they’ve attached to one of its feet with yarn.
Feeling enlightened yet?
Let me start from the beginning.
I’d been spending most of my time on the southwest side of Bali, near Canggu, a hipster’s paradise, pumped fat with surfing industry hang-arounds and pseudo-models with annoyingly free spirits. A haven for meaningless tattoos. If you have a ponytail, you should go to Canggu. That’s where the others are.
I’d had enough, and was craving something wild, so I began to ask around about cockfights. As you could probably guess, I wasn’t always met with smiling faces and chipper advice.
More often, it was something like, “Oh my God, you like that stuff? I do not support that.”
Or, “Fuck you.”
Or, “You’re a monster.”
Or, “That is so wrong. Do you know that?”
Yes, I guess I do, but then again – I don’t, and that’s why I wanted to find out more. Luckily, I have thick skin.
Finally, after hours searching, I locked onto a hot tip from a local girl.
“Ubud,” she said. “That’s where you want to be.”
It’s about an hour scooter drive from Canggu, but it took me two because Indonesians drive as if they have nine lives and plan on using them all as quickly as possible. Zipping and zagging, beeping and honking as they narrowly avoid getting pinched between a truck they’ve just passed and the oncoming sedan speeding towards them. Squish. You pass people in Indonesia. And you pass them hard and fast and you never stop passing. I’ve been told the traffic flow in Indonesia is more intense than Cambodia and Thailand. I was in the thick of it – porridge thick. Also, I get lost, often.
Upon arrival I was worried I’d been misled. Downtown Ubud is hip and fun and quaint. I doubted a dark underbelly existed. I asked everyone about cockfighting, and everyone replied, “Yes, yes, yes,” but no one seemed to know where or when or how to point me in the right direction. Were the Ubudians hiding their underbelly from me? Hard to say, but that kind of deceit was welcome, because it meant there was something to hide.
Perusing the neighborhood for leads, I failed to see the telltale signs of cockfighting, which, most visibly, would have been large wicker baskets in which cocks were kept. For hours, I wandered the city, stopping into local warungs (small family-owned restaurants) for nourishment and knowledge, but finding only nasi goreng, a fried rice dish full of local chicken and vegetables and egg, and soto ayam, a chicken soup type dish with turmeric and local vegetables. Each dish cost me ten thousand rupiahs (less than a dollar each), but they would have gone better with some information about cockfighting. Come to think of it, the chicken in both dishes may have come directly from the cockfight I was in search of. A nice bite of hot irony.
I was about to give up and mope on over to the sacred monkey rainforest, sell my soul, and partake in an afternoon yoga class with a group of Chinese tourists, when I met a sleaze at my hotel. For those not privy, a sleaze is a person who noticeably enjoys the darker corners of the world. In these corners they take comfort.
His name was Sam and he emigrated to Bali from North Africa with nothing in his pockets, which he was sure to tell me often and emphatically. Now, he told me, he owns a hotel – which is not the same kind of hotel you’re thinking of, but an achievement and source of income, nonetheless. Sam was the owner of the hotel at which I was staying.
Sam is a little man with dark eyes, a block head, and peppery hair buzzed short. He never stops moving or changing positions. One second he’s lounging in a chair, watching soccer highlights, smoking a fag. The next, he’s lounging sexually on a red cushion, his head propped up by an arm, legs flamboyantly crossed as if he were stretching for an upcoming yoga class. Then, he’d disappear entirely, re-emerging when you least expected.
Initially, I refrained from asking about cockfighting at my hotel. I didn’t want to upset anyone. Cockfights are illegal in Indonesia, and I wasn’t exactly in possession of a playbook for seeking one out. It seemed like a bad idea to refine my search to where I slept, but I did it, anyway.
“Meet me right here at eleven tonight,” Sam said immediately, seriously. “Don’t be late. We leave right at eleven, yeah?”
I arrived at ten o’clock and sipped casually on large Bintangs, smoking the Indonesian cigarettes, waiting for Sam. The cigarettes are clove-ish, turning your lips sweet with each drag.
As if planned, just as Sam arrived, it began to rain. He held an envelope filled with money and nervously paced around the common area as we waited for our drivers.
“I don’t drive,” Sam said, frustrated, when asked why he didn’t just drive us.
Me, Sam, and two others saddled up on the back of two different bikes driven by locals – they couldn’t have been older than eighteen, nineteen. Three per bike, the fit was snug, the roads wet, and very little light guiding our way.
“Sometimes you have to go nuts to butts to get to a cock fight,” joked the enthusiastic man sitting behind me. He and I would be the only white guys at the fight.
Our drivers wound us through the wet streets, finally stopping at a van, whose driver stood outside smoking a cigarette. He waved us down as we neared, grinning wildly.
“My name is Norman,” he said eagerly as if he’d been planning the greeting for days. A large white bandage stuck to his forehead. I didn’t ask. He’d probably been in a knife fight the night before. Norman looked like a knife fighter.
He was bald and sported a long, stringy goatee to go with his excitable demeanor. We piled into the car and he taxied us to the arena – a tarp covered structure that looked as if it had been erected that very day. In fact, it most likely had, for I would learn that cockfighting rings move from location to location to avoid detection, trouble.
Light seeped from the tarped arena, yelling could be heard audibly. That’s when I got nervous. Men in the parking area stared at me as I passed, whispering things in Balinese, Indonesian and smirking. At the time, I thought the smirks evil, the words derogatory.
As I entered, a large group of men were gathered to the right, huddled around a mat painted with six animals: snake, tiger, frog, fish, zebra, and butterfly. One man sat huddled over a bucket, under which were three large dice, each side representing one of the animals. Bets were made by tossing rupiahs (the local currency) onto the desired square. Like roulette, lines can be straddled to increase chances – although winnings are cut.
I approached fluidly, I didn’t think hesitation would serve me well in this situation. They stopped when they saw me. Jokes or insults, which become one in the same in their foreign tongues, were immediately thrown and absorbed. Laughter. Good. Reaching into my pocket, I took out twenty-thousand rupiahs (less than $2 USD) and tossed it into the center.
“Snake!” I said, raising my eyebrows at the odds maker. Slightly shocked, more impressed, he gave me a thumbs up and replied, “ular,” rolling his tongue with the ‘r’. Ular is Balinese for snake. I repeated and the crowd mellowed, seemingly happy to have me join in the game.
I won. Then I won again. And again. Then I lost. That damn butterfly. Should have known.
I retreated from the game, which I learned is called krocokan, pronounced kro-cho-khan. It was only the lighthearted warmup. The opening act to what would be a bloody show.
Shortly, men began to migrate to the bamboo ring in the center of the tarped arena, several of them grabbing their roosters from one of the many bags that lined the perimeter. Cocks in waiting were kept in small bags, crowing and wiggling as if they’d been recently captured.
Fighting cocks are prized in Hindu culture and given royal treatment until their day of reckoning. It’s a celebrated warrior’s existence, but freedom never comes, only another fight. It’s been reported that some fighting cocks have had careers as long as ten years. I doubt it.
A short history on cockfighting in Bali:
I’ll keep it brief.
Bali, an island in Indonesia, is more than eighty percent Hindu. Cockfighting has long been a tradition in Hinduism, especially in Bali, dating back to the 10th century AD.
In Balinese Hinduism there is a practice called tabuh rah, or “pouring blood”, a ritual of animal sacrifice used to fend off evil spirits. For centuries cockfighting has been used for tabuh rah, and is still legally practiced on official Hindu holidays and ceremonies.
Over the years, cockfighting gradually morphed into its more secular, back alley version, prompting the Indonesian government to ban this more casual, profane form in 1981.
This ban has done little to curb money-waging cockfighting, and most people accept it with a smile and blind eye.
I believe that’s enough.
Gamecocks were distributed amongst four distinct handlers, the ones who would do the majority of the handling throughout the night. My favorite handler was a thickly built man with a red mullet. He wore a white shirt with thin horizontal stripes. French flare.
I also liked one other handler with a fleeting hairline and large, doughy eyes. He wore a satchel over his shoulder and locked his knees aggressively, feet pointed outward, as he strutted around the ring interacting with the crowd. Always, he held thick wads of money.
The four handlers squatted in the middle of the ring tossing birds back and forth, judging their weights and ruffling their feathers, slapping them on the heads, raking their necks, pulling from them every ounce of rage they possessed. This practice was the matchmaking portion of the fight. The handlers were testing each bird’s physicality and temperament, seeking to put together an equal, entertaining bout.
Gamecocks come from all over the world, each with a different skillset, size, allure. Many cocks there that night came from the United States, the east coast mainly, I was told. American cocks are known for their speed and lightning striking ability.
European birds are known for their size and strength, but are often slower. Some birds are crossbred – one bird there was Thai, Filipino, and Balinese. It’s an international bloodbath.
Once the matches were set, the handlers took their cocks to separate corners, where blades, four to five inches long, were strung to one of each bird’s foot with attractive red yarn. The handlers speedily, casually, secured the blades, their wrists circling centimeters above the blade’s tip. One false move and it would be their blood mixing with the dirt below their feet.
The first bout was between two massive birds. The handlers, only two this time, squatted in the middle, raking their bird’s neck and slapping its head. They then moved closer allowing each bird the opportunity to peck at the other – fostering a real hatred for its opponent.
There were two very different reactions to this treatment. Some birds became immediately enraged, skitzy, flaring their feathers and lunging for the other bird. This cock usually lost. The other bird, the one that stood still, striking a pose and remaining calm – this cock usually won. Its poise, possibly, a sign that it knew its fate and had accepted it. One of two: life or death.
Actually, there were three outcomes.
Then, the crowd was called into play, and they performed their role with veracity and range. The odds were made on the fly, each member of the crowd, including myself, raising their hands and shaking them as we yelled in unison “gasal, gasal, gasal” and pointed at the cock we so desired to win. Each handler would hold the bird above their head and beckon the crowd for more gasals. In Balinese gasal literally translates to “odds”.
Once the odds were very loosely understood (and never by me), the money was brought out. Several men roamed the edge of the ring taking bets and accepting wads of cash – or in my case, a single bill worth 50,000 rupiahs (less than $4 USD).
Now, with money collected and betting closed, we were ready to fight.
The two birds went at it hard, flailing their wings, leading with their feet with each attack. Sometimes, a bird would duck and slide under its opponent. Occasionally, they would land on top of each other and claw rapidly, before being shaken off. Like two heavyweight fighters, the birds sometimes would stagger close and tie each other up, biting down fiercely on the neck of the other – blood pouring. When this happened, the handlers would step in and separate them. Then, after one more slap and rake of the neck, they’d drop them back into play, attacking with venom once more.
When the birds retreated, or were not performing as the crowd required, the wicker baskets would come out (the ones I had been looking for on the street earlier), and the two cocks would be placed inside one small basket, forced to fight chest to chest. Quickly, the basket was thrown away, the fight continuing in its regularly outlined dimensions.
This first fight lingered on and on and on, each bird slowly taking hits, gathering more and more blood within its coat of feathers. They were rapid and elegant and angry. The same could be said of the crowd. Finally, after almost ten minutes of fighting, the cocks barely standing, the bout was ruled a draw. Money was returned.
Both fighting cocks were ushered away, not quickly. Oftentimes, the birds were left to linger in their pain outside the ring. Eventually, however, they were taken to the slaughtering tent paces away from the fighting ring, where their heads were promptly chopped and their bodies separated, readied to be disbursed to members of the crowd or cooked immediately and skewered and put up for sale. I ate several skewers, myself. I feel guilty for it.
When a clean victory was achieved, the body of the loser was awarded to the victor, as is customary. Several more bouts were completed, and slowly more and more people were approaching me with questions and greetings and smiles. I stood out like a sore thumb, and word had started to circulate that I was from California, a place Indonesians are infatuated with. Like a new schoolboy I made friends, shaking hands and slapping palms, and before long, I was summoned into the ring. The best I could gather was that they thought it would be good luck for me to hold the bird before the fight.
It was the white bird. This is where we were before.
And so, there I was, amongst the birds and back alley creatures of Ubud’s illegal cockfighting underbelly. I said I wouldn’t get involved, but there I was, involved. Infectious, maybe that’s the word. Maybe it’s not.
Handing it back to my man with the red mullet, odds were made. I wagered a bet of 100,000 rupiahs (less than $8 USD) on my white bird, and retired to my corner.
Within minutes, my bird was stained red and stumbling, its breast torn wide open. Although hurt badly, it still stood. The fight, however, was over. The handlers called. My bird had lost. Barely clinging to life, one of the handlers grabbed the it and shoved it in front of the lens of my camera. I snapped the last photo of it alive. It was then taken to the slaughtering tent. Chop went the cleaver, head bouncing away from body and into the dirt. Fed to the dogs.
Five more fights would take place and we’d leave at three-thirty in the morning.
Once away from the arena, I began to feel strange. Almost as if it had all happened too quickly and without my consent. I’d been the one who had searched it out, yet I felt like it had been forced upon me and now I was stuck with it forever. My stomach ached.
Ancient. That’s how’d I’d describe it. Ancient, yet never going away. So long as men and liquor and money exist, there’ll be a dark corner where fighting cocks are going at it.
In early September of 1999, a succession of four bombs were set off in two weeks. Each bomb targeted an apartment building in a different Russian city, including Moscow. The Russian government immediately blamed Chechen rebels for the bombings.
After a night of illegal cockfighting, very illegal, I bolted for the coast. My destination was a place called Keramas, about twenty minutes east of Sanur. There is a right-hand point breaking wave there, known for its power and hollowness.
Wasting no time, I shot straight to the beach where the wave is known to break. The town is not touristy, comprised mainly of locals, something that made it attractive. The wind was howling, blowing most of the swell away. I paddled out anyway after negotiating a deal for a board with a local guy called “C2”. It was nice to get wet after the night prior. All the blood had me shaken, and as I recalled the evening, it felt as if it were some sinister dream. Unfortunately, it had been very, very real.
Done with the surf, I found C2 and his gang of jolly teetotalers lazing away under the cabana, passing around cups of homemade liquor called tuak (too-wak). Red-cheeked, grinning idiots and friendly as all hell, they quickly extended a strong-armed invitation. I accepted.
They passed me cup after cup of the stuff, which is kept in water bottles and made from the sap of palms. It possesses a slightly brown, milky complexion, and really doesn’t have much taste, other than a slight tinge of palm – at least, what I imagined palm might taste like – and coconut.
Batches of tuak can be made quickly and cheaply, and most Indonesians will keep a good storage full bottles. Drinking tuak, in Indonesia, is a single cup affair. One person handles the water bottle, filling the glass cup and passing it around the circle. Clockwise, counter clockwise, and sometimes at random. The receiver downs the tuak and passes the, now empty glass, back to the controller. This goes on until the water bottle is empty, and a new one is brought out – with it, a new controller is made.
I got jolly quickly, and regaled the gang with stories from the night prior. I told them about the white bird and my many losses. One of men, a plump Asian man with large all-emcompassing black sunglasses, the kind a person wears after eye surgery, used to fight birds regularly. At one point, he claimed, he owned up to as many as ten birds, before retiring to the beach. A simpler, happier existence, he confirmed.
Forcefully removing myself, despite their pleas, I drove my scooter back to the homestay I had checked into.
The street on which it sat was inhabited by a trio of dogs, all of which barked their little brains out, on the verge of choking it seemed, whenever a newcomer came their way. I barked back, confusing them, and they promptly ceased. From then on, they showed me some respect – and if they forgot, I would charge and they would soon remember.
Aside from the dogs, the street was also filled another group of merry locals. This time, they were cousins and brothers and friends, gathered for a classical rehearsed Balinese barbecue.
It was almost dusk and they, at once, invited me to join their barbecue. "This is Bali!" they rejoiced, passing me a cup of tuak. I told you, most Indonesians keep a full arsenal of tuak at all times. They also brought bottles of arak and ginseng. Before long, several cups were twisting their way through the gathering.
Arak is tuak's stronger cousin. It's also much more time-consuming to make, which is why most simply settle for tuak. Like moonshine, it's believed a poorly-timed swig of arak can make a grown man go blind. I've never seen it*. Intended. Indonesia, although largely Hindu and Muslim, has a thriving history of liquor distillation, most notably it's long forgotten rum running.
In the 18th century, Indonesia rum was actually preferred to its Caribbean counterpart. Thick with sugarcane, Indonesia has been distilling liquor for the past 8,000 years. However, the rum market eventually shifted to the Caribbean and the industry welled up and dried out. At least, the commercial industry did. That has never stopped local Indonesians who continue to distill their own, passing around cup after cup of their bootleg assortments.
The barbecue got wild quickly, and soon it began to rain. Drunk, we didn't mind. I forgot entirely what we talked about, but I know not much of it was coherent or understood -- the arak and language barrier conjoining and exploding.
Vaguely aware of the the Indo moonshine was doing to my mind and system, I was present enough to snap photographic evidence of the affects.
Without further ado, I give you, The Bootleg Boys. I forget all their names, but their faces have forever been seared in my mind. I hope they stay in yours, too.
After a surf with Ketut at Echo Beach this morning, I decided to hope on my scooter and head into the mountains of Ubud in search of a cockfight – I’d heard that’s where the bouts go down.
It was an hour and a half ride through crowded villages and rice patties into the mountains, but I was happy to leave Canggu. I was starting to get comfortable there, and knew that I didn’t get out then, I may never leave.
The ride was intense – there are no rules of the road, and it’s customary to pass people on the right side, veering in the lane opposite filled with oncoming traffic. Do as the locals do, they say. We do. The cars behave like assholes, speeding up and pushing right when a scooter tries to pass. The logic is flawed for scooter traffic has little to do with their estimated time of arrivals.
After several near misses and wrong turns, we finally arrive to our location outside downtown Ubud. It’s down a dirt road, surrounded by rice patties, rundown temples and homes.
Just outside Ubud, there’s no tourism. Walking down the street from my hotel, I was the only non-native. I passed a school with kids banging bells, an old contemplative man smoking and grimacing, a group of kids racing bikes, women chatting outside little shops, lost cocks rummaging through the sewers, and gangs of stray dogs fighting and barking and sleeping. Each house looked like a temple and large bamboo lanterns hung over the streets for the recent Gelungen, I’m told by our small opportunistic guide it’s the equivalent to Christmas.
Our guide’s name is Eday, and she didn’t apply for the job, rather she just took it. She’s a journalist, allegedly, from Jakarta, and doesn’t ever stop talking. She’s also very afraid of dogs and the dark. She also shies away from photographs because, she alleged, she is a little famous in her country. Other than that, it was nice to have her knowledge and Indonesian as we made our way through the streets of this little town on the outskirts of Ubud.
We stopped at a local warung and ordered Nasi Goreng and Cap Cay for 10,000 rupiah each. That’s less than a dollar for each dish. The warung was small, the entire family sitting in there with us. They were sweet and smiled and nodded, encouraging us to eat and order more. I’m in search of a chicken fight, I told them. I would have said cock, but I didn’t. I asked Eday to translate. She did and they laughed. They said check in downtown Ubud.
They also told us there was an international cock fighting festival just up the road last month. Other than that, they said they didn’t know when the next fight would be – there wasn’t a set schedule, but they thought Saturday nearer Ubud was our best bet. I’ll have my cock fight, yet.
Despite its illegality, cock fighting is still alive and well in the more practicing Hindi parts of Bali and I intend on finding one. Tomorrow we’ll find out more. The plan is to see temples in the jungle and then head to Keramas for more surf the next day. If the cock fight is found and confirmed I’ll put Keramas on hold and stay for the fight. If not, I’ll head to Keramas and then Mount Agung, the tallest mountain in Bali. A hike to the top – some nine-thousand feet – in the middle of the night, just in time for sunrise.
The temples have been viewed. We also visited the monkey forest – excuse the “sacred” monkey forest. I know, I know. I didn’t want to go, but my companions insisted upon it and so I, being the benevolent compromiser that I am, quietly and respectfully obliged.
It was a nightmare, a bullshit nightmare. Confident, brazen monkeys swarming the herds of camera-clad tourists, I’m surprised more people don’t contract rabies and die. I don’t know the statistics, though – maybe they do. There was a concession stand and each visitor must purchase a ticket to enter the sacred forest.
Not me, however. I refused to pay that admission and so I strolled around the perimeter, walking in through exits and stepping over ankle high chains, until I finally just walked through the front door. The key is to avoid eye contact, while maintaining an air of belonging.
After the monkey forest, we returned to the hotel, waiting for a new motorbike. I forgot to mention mine had refused to start this morning and so I found myself, once again, on the back of a man’s scooter.
This was lucky, however, because the breakdown led me to where I am right now, sitting in a café, talking with a sleezy man who calls himself Sam. Surely, Sam is not his real name. Moments ago, I brought up my desire to see a cock fight while I’m here. His eyes lit up and he put a small hand on my shoulder, guiding me outside to somewhere more private.
“There’s a big fight tonight,” he said, smiling and patting me on the back as if I needed some sort of encouragement. “Meet here at 11pm and we’ll take you there. Beer and everything,” he declared happily. He then leaned in close and offered me any of his girls of the night. “Good price,” he said. I believe him, too, however, I declined respectfully and told him the bird fight would be just fine.
So, eleven tonight it will be. The birds will fight. I will crow. I might also win some money.
Camera-clad like those tourists at the sacred forest, except these pictures will be bloodier.