Monday, December 08, 2014

Chickening Out in Leon, Nicaragua

Photo: Chloé Fedio

The ennui that sometimes accompanies weeks of travel had set in.

We sat listlessly around a table in our hostel, barely talking. Reflexively, I refreshed my Facebook newsfeed while Canice pawed through her guidebook. Chloé sat across from me, studying a laminated binder of bus schedules, planning the next leg of her trip.

It was only our first day in Nicaragua, but it was our third country in less than two weeks. Chloé was leaving for Costa Rica the next morning, I was flying back to Canada the day after and Canice was headed back to Honduras.

We were bored and biding our time. 

It was this—this unspoken admission—that hovered over us. 

Outside, it was blisteringly hot. And although the previous two weeks hadn’t lacked in authenticity—we’d been pickpocketed on a chicken bus, had tramped across graves during Day of the Dead celebrations and consumed countless pupusas—Leon felt decidedly Central American in a way that we hadn’t yet encountered.

Waiting out the rain in Leon.

We had tried. We had spent our morning packing in all sites that Leon had to offer—sipping cool drinks beside the largest cathedral in Central America; fingering the hard shrapnel embedded in the head of Marcel, our tour guide at the Revolutionary War Museum; getting caught in a rainstorm after wandering through the market.

Marcel at the Revolutionary War Museum (Photo: Canice Leung)

But by early afternoon, the rest of our time in Nicaragua seemed to stretch out, daunting and empty.

Back at the hostel, Chloé had reached the activities page in the laminated binder. “What day is today?” she asked, sliding her finger down the list.

As it turned out, on a Sunday afternoon in the scorching hot city of Leon, there was one activity that we could do.

We could attend a local cockfight.

After initially balking at the suggestion, it was clear that we only had two options. We could continue biding our time—the ultimate shame of travellers. Or we could go to the fights, which would be accompanied by an entirely different sort of shame.

So this is how we rationalized it: Ping-pong shows in Bangkok exist solely as a tourism-driven atrocity. The same thing could arguably be said of bullfights in Spain and less innocuous activities like swimming with dolphins in Mexico. But this—this was an authentic local pastime. It was going to happen whether or not we attended. It didn’t make it okay, but it made it more okay.

We would go to the rooster fights, but we wouldn’t bet. Our money would go to the food vendors and our tour guide, but not towards the fights themselves. And it would be a cultural excursion—a rare opportunity to see the “real” Nicaragua.

It was a flimsily rationalization, but it was enough.

We jumped into the back of a truck and held on tight as it rolled down hills, through puddles and further away from the centre of Leon.

Photo: Canice Leung

Arriving on the outskirts, it was immediately clear that, as advertised, the cockfights weren’t for the benefit of tourists. Local men filtered in with prized roosters held in their arms. Little attention was paid to our group.

While we waited for the fights to begin, our guide explained the sport. For Nicaraguan men, raising roosters for cockfighting is a point of pride and dedication. Training for the roosters starts each day at 5 a.m., with a run alongside their owners. During sparring sessions, the naturally aggressive birds wear miniature boxing gloves to protect their sparring partners. But when it comes time to fight, they’re equipped with tiny knives attached to their legs, which range in size from 1.5 mm to 2.5 mm.

After weigh-ins and betting, the fights begin. Each fight had three rounds—contingent, of course, upon the roosters surviving all three rounds. They could be won in one of three ways:

1. If one of the roosters runs away. (This is aptly referred to as “chickening out.” If that’s not enough, in between rounds, owners can be seen sucking blood away from their roosters with their mouths. I’ll let you figure out the colloquial term for that activity.)

2. If one of the roosters drops its beak into the dirt.

3. If one of the roosters dies.

“Don’t worry,” the guide told me, seeing the shocked look on my face. “They almost never die.”

Photo: Canice Leung

We saw more than one rooster die that night. But for the opportunity to watch a community engage in a sport that they love? I can't say that I regret it.

The "winner." (Photo: Chloé Fedio)

The next day, after Chloé left, Canice and I explored the “deep grey,” a portion of the city not included on tourist maps. We finished the day with a massage at a blind school before going for dinner.

Over our last liquiados together, we talked about the strange turn that the end of our trip had taken. Between watching grown men cradle dying roosters in their arms and stripping down to our skivvies in front a blind man, Nicaragua had been unexpectedly eventful.

“Yeah,” said Canice, laughing, “who knew that Leon is where things would get weird?”

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