Sadly, the Boquete lesson of Booking A Hotel In Advance was lost on us and by the time we got to the beach towns west of Panama City, it was late and we needed a hotel. And it was Saturday. Once again, we spent over an hour driving around from hotel to hotel, banging on gates and waking up night clerks to discover repeatedly that everything was full and no, they didn’t know where we might find a room. By the time we headed into San Carlos, we were all sufficiently tired and cranky that the shabby-looking hotel over a Chinese restaurant on the main road looked downright inviting.
After inquiring at the restaurant, we were sent down an alley/parking lot to the back of the building where there was a very dilapidated yet happening bar raging behind some scrappy partitions among other things, such as our hotel entry, and we banged on the large metal gate until a intensely bored-looking girl let us in. Yes she had rooms and they were every bit as unspectacular as we had expected with peeling paint of sickening colors on the walls and geriatric air conditioners that drained via once-transparent tubing back into the shower of each room where it had stained a brown cascade down the wall. However, after a cursory glance over for cockroaches, we shrugged and checked in.
The stress and irritation of trying to find a hotel at 11pm lifted from our shoulders, we were suddenly feeling like we needed a beer. From the hotel, we peeked through the crack between a cinder block wall and the corrugated tin roofing at the mayhem below; people were shouting and laughing and there was much shuffling and music down there. There was also an occasional rooster crow and this is because the place was actually a Gallera, a cock fighting bar. We asked the hotel lady what kind of scene it was—would it be tranquilo for three gringos and some Panama City boy to just waltz in, get a beer, and check out the chickens? She shrugged to let us know she really couldn’t care less where we got a beer and we headed down, figuring we could always just leave if we didn’t get bodily thrown out first.
A quick assessment of the interior of the gallera confirmed that there were in fact females present in the bar—if only one or two of them—and we strode (cough) confidently inside. If there was no cliché silence as people stopped what they were doing to stare at us, it was only because a fight was going on in the basement arena and the reggaeton was at top volume. We walked through a large room with tables, chairs, a pool table, chicken cages, and various cock-fighting accoutrements to a smaller stuffy room where the actual beer was kept. We casually lined up at the far end of the bar and ordered beers before tentatively looking around. We were being stared at in a huge way but from what we could tell without making eye contact (disastrous!), it was more of a curious what-the-hell stare rather than a you-are-SO-chicken-feed stare. Tito and Joshua wandered over to the patterned cinderblock wall so they could peek down to where the current cockfight was underway and immediately an insanely drunk guy sidled up to Rachel to propose marriage.
The drunk guy’s name was Flavio and he introduced himself to the four of us and then to Rachel and myself once more; with a drunken flick of his wrist and slight stagger, he ordered a round of beers for us all even though it was evident that we had barely dented the ones we just ordered ourselves and he was holding a full beer himself. The female waitress (there were in fact three of them and we weren’t feeling quite so awkward now) lined five open Balboas on the bar as Flavio continued to attempt communication with Rachel (“Beautiful,” he said, “Panamá!” “Um…” said Rachel); she shrugged and gave us a little sympathetic smile.
We carried all the beers out to one of the tables and sat down. Flavio seized this opportunity to introduce himself again to the four of us and we were shortly joined by another very drunk guy in a red shirt. He immediately ordered another round of beers and started telling Joshua some story, of which Joshua was able to follow very little even though he put on a good show of ‘si’s and ‘verdad’s. I made the mistake of making eye contact with the group of guys sitting at the table next to ours when I was surveying the room. Immediately they started to talk to me: “Hi, where are you from, what are you doing here, where are you staying, you are very beautiful, etc.”, all of which I initially started answering but when it looked like I might get yet another beer out of the deal, I told them I didn’t speak Spanish. Flavio was sitting between Joshua and Tito and nudging him, “Presenteme a sus mujeres!” (present me to the women!) and once again, Tito explained the connections: wife, cousin, and cousin’s wife. Flavio extended his hand, “Beautiful. Panamá!”
Tiring of all the attention and constant introductions, Rachel decided to make things more interesting and morphed into her drunken-situation alter-ego, “Susan from Canada” and introduced herself thusly to all subsequent drunks who began gathering around our table. The cockfight had just ended with a loud roar/cheer and a shocking number of men poured out of the basement arena. A guy named Manuel joined our table who was actually somewhat lucid; he sat down and ordered another round of drinks even though roughly two-thirds of the bottles still hadn’t been touched and within minutes there was a daunting array of Balboas vying for space on the table.
The scene was indeed strange but it was clear that although we were very much a spectacle rivaling the cockfight itself, we were not unwelcome in the least. The waitress rolled her eyes as each new guy who joined us ordered a new round. The red shirted guy had finally released Joshua from his slurred conversation and started in on Rachel/Susan and me. Except that every time I looked at him he’d stop whatever he was saying and make some gestures and comments about how our eyes were blue like the sky and some other stuff so I pretty much had to totally ignore him to keep him on track with whatever it was he was talking about. Not that it really made any difference because I couldn’t hear much of anything he said around all those beer bottles.
After the fight, money was changing hands and the cock handlers (or whatever) started getting their roosters out to prepare for the next fight. The roosters themselves seemed average enough, they were not especially large but they were plucked in an odd way: all the feathers were plucked from the legs and chest and possibly the around the long tail feathers so that the tails hung in a particularly prominent arc. The handlers held them fast around the middle and in this manner the roosters stayed very calm even while they were being passed around among different people, being weighed in the cock-scale, and fitted with fighting spikes. The spike fitter occupied the table next to ours. A fresh rooster was brought to him and from a jar of different sized curved spikes attached to the ends of little cones, he searched until he found a cone the right size to fit over the nub above and behind the rooster’s toes. Once he had a pair matched, he began winding surgical tape around the leg above and below the nub. Then he heated the cone at the back of the spike and dipped it in what looked like sealing wax to glue it over the nub; more tape was wrapped around the leg and when finished, the rooster had a pair of two-inch curved metal claws jutting out of the back of his legs.
[Fitting the cock spike.]
A new fight was about to begin and Manuel invited Joshua down to watch; entrance to the arena below for the evening was $2 (down from $5 which is what someone told us when we first arrived) and, overwhelmed with curiosity, Joshua headed downstairs with the majority of the bar. Aside from ourselves and the bar girls, there were only a couple of guys playing pool left; there was a uniformed cop supposedly guarding the rooster cages and he stood in the doorway to the basement so he could watch the action. Flavio excused himself as well but red-shirt stayed upstairs and continued regaling Rachel with exclamations of his appreciation of her exotic blue-eyed gringa beauty.
Another round of beers was ordered the moment the fight finished when Manuel, Flavio, and Joshua returned; Manuel had won his bet and was feeling flush with cash. The waitress looked highly skeptical as she tilted and peeked into one of the many undrunk and sweating beers already on the table; Rachel and I tried to pantomine that no, don’t bring us any more but a few minutes later, she returned with a tray of open Balboas for everyone. Flavio had forgotten who we were and required fresh introductions; Rachel glared at Tito as he introduced her as Rachel and not Susan but the discrepancy went unnoticed.
Again, roosters were paraded around by their owners who held and stroked them from head to tail and the new fighters were weighed and fitted with spikes. By the time the next fight rolled around and the place emptied, Tito wandered over to the doorway to peek in on the scene. Left alone with the dude in the red shirt, the scene quickly degenerated. Red shirt had already told us no less than a thousand times how beautiful our faces and blue eyes were and now he began making a very curious gesture in his lap. “Grande,” he said. Oh brother, we thought; we’re outta here. Then he started explaining to Rachel that he had a friend who spoke beautiful English and it was a shame that he was not here. But sadly, this friend was afflicted with a “hernia muy grande” (again the gesture, which was like hefting a football at the side of his lap). If this wasn’t bizarre enough, he went on to say that even more tragically, this hernia made his English-speaking friend piss himself. At this point, we couldn’t help ourselves and were nearly crying from laughter but Red Shirt assured us that this was a grave situation indeed. We tried to look serious and sympathetic as he repeated a few more times the football-hefting motion, the hernia grande, and the pissing himself part but it was hard to keep a straight face. Finally he cut to the chase and began asking us what our feelings were about Latin men. To make sure we understood, he described what Latin men meant (he, for example, was a Latin man) and we pretty much took that opportunity to split.
Rachel turned to me as we picked two fresh beers out from the pack and said, “You are going to put this on your website aren’t you? And then my family will read it and be scandalized that we took you to a gallera during your stay in Panamá!” “Um…” I said.
The fight had been going on some minutes already and the place was almost empty outside the fighting arena so we wandered over to the doorway to see if we could catch a glimpse—we didn’t want to pay $2 to participate in the serious spectating but after hanging out there for hours, we were curious as to what the hell went on below. The door guards saw us and enthusiastically made space for us so we could see into the arena.
The arena walls were about waist high and the inner circle guys crouched around, hanging over the edges of the walls. People stood behind them and on one side were I think there were some benches to stand up on. People were betting across the arena and the inner circle guys were shouting and gesturing. They made sucking/kissing noises or clapped loudly at the roosters during the fight. I could see Joshua off to one side taking photos (he asked if it was weird if he took photos but Manuel said it was fine—nobody cared). Next to Joshua swayed Flavio who apparently had continued to pester Joshua to be presented to the women. Joshua said that at one point near the beginning of the fight, he had called a bet of 50 pesos ($25) out to the crowd in general. When someone finally took him up on the bet, Flavio pulled out a damp wad of ones and change and when it was clear that he had maybe $10 at most, the guy walked off totally disgusted.
When we entered, there were two roosters in the ring fighting, one light and one dark, and they were flapping around making pecking stabs at one another. Joshua said that almost the moment the handlers let go of them in the ring, they start in at each other without stopping until one finally doesn’t get up. For the most part, the pecking didn’t seem a particularly efficient way of dispatching the other chicken but this was the strategy of choice (and why the fights often lasted so long—it takes a really long time to peck another chicken to death, or at least to the point of exhaustion). Every so often, one rooster would pin the other beneath it and peck some more. I didn’t see it but Joshua said that they do in fact use the spikes in an odd maneuver where they hop at the opponent with claws out, stabbing down with their heels where the spike is affixed. This maneuver is a real crowd pleaser. When not actively pecking, the roosters flare the feathers on the head and neck out and circle each other testily. The lighter rooster clearly had the upper hand and was doing all the pecking and pinning down of the other rooster, who was continually on the defensive and not making any aggressive moves at all. The shouting, clapping, and whistling was getting louder every time the darker chicken was pinned.
Suddenly something strange happened; it was like a light switch was turned: the lighter (offensive) rooster just relaxed his neck feathers and walked away from the darker chicken. The crown went absolutely berserk; the inner ring guys stood up and everyone was moving around and shouting. The two handlers climbed into the ring (there were a lot of people half-climbing into the ring at this point) and seized their roosters. They held them around the middle and pointed them menacingly at each other in the middle of the ring, and let go. Before the handlers even had a chance to climb out of the ring, the lighter rooster again took off in the opposite direction from the darker one and jumped out of the ring. Mayhem! Bets were flying and people were yelling and gesturing wildly. Once more the handlers faced their roosters off in the middle of the ring and once again the lighter rooster wanted none of it. That was the end of the fight. I seriously thought there was going to be a riot. The place exploded and everyone jumped into the ring, the handlers scooped up their roosters (the lighter one was surely destined for chicken soup); the darker rooster had just won by default. Rachel and I got the hell out of the way of the door as the mass of gesticulating drunk cockfight spectators came roaring out of the room below.
By now it was well after 2am and I had seen enough. Joshua and Tito stayed to hang out with Manuel and Flavio and the rest but Rachel and I bade farewell (“Beautiful, said Flavio “Panamá!”) and headed back up to the rooms to crash. The fight we had seen was the last fight for the night and it turned out that Manuel had won the pot for fastest fight of the evening (he had three birds himself). Joshua and Tito reported that Red Shirt had passed out only about five minutes after our departure and sat slumped in his chair the remainder of the evening. Flavio continued to contribute little to the conversation other than “Panamá!” and required a few more introductions. Sober friends of Manuel’s arrived and another tableful of beers were ordered to get them up to speed; Joshua and Tito had to fight to pay for any of them. Joshua didn’t get back until maybe 4:30 or so and the next morning Rachel said that around 3, Tito had come up to the room to use the bathroom but when she asked if he was in for the night, he said, “there are still beers on the table and Joshua is still down there; I have to go back.”
All of us were feeling sort of crappy if not still drunk the next morning but we bravely ate a low-key breakfast before pressing on back to the city. On the way out of town, we passed one of the gallera dudes passed out in the ditch at the side of the road.