The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Rumble in the Jungle

Minang Kabau Bullfighting

Been very busy of late, lots of stories to work on and leads to follow, looking like an exciting time over the next few weeks. But as today is a grey, cold day, thought I would spend some time indoors catching up on work and having a bit of a plan to make it all fit into my limited free time.

As I have nothing new to report at this moment (all the balls are in the air at this time) I thought I would share some older adventures with you again.

My last travel writing post about Cambodia seems to have been reasonably well received, so here is a little story about a bull fight in Sumatra in 2000.

More images of Minang Kabau bullfights in Sumatra can been found at my archive here.

Enjoy.

Damon

Bullfight

Indonesia 2000

The opelet bounces hard sending a shock of metal through our bodies, a shock that seems hardly dampened by the thin foam covering on the seats and the aging, shiny vinyl that is gluing us in place, despite the shaking, with its history of sweat. There is something about travelling the roads of Asia that finds a thrill in un-comfortable exploration and as yet another blunting pot-hole throws us all together in the back, juggling our kidneys and shaving layers of enamel off our teeth, it would be true to say that I am having a really good time. Not that this is the perfect way to travel of course, in fact it is a terrible way to go anywhere: being cramped, crowded, painful, noisy, dangerous and polluting. It is, however, very friendly: public transport in Asia always surprises you with just how many paying customers can be squeezed into it and these tiny mini-buses are no exception.

Most of my fifteen or so fellow travellers this evening are local farmers for who this bruising commute has probably lost all its charm. If it ever had any in the first place. They do not complain though and seem hardly to notice the discomfort. They are all rough-faced old men with countryside grime worked permanently into the lines of their smiles and the creases of their necks. Their hands are similarly stained, large and very strong, with fingers like burnt sausages that grip their knees as they sit, with a straight-armed dignity, against the contours of the road. On their heads sit tall farmer’s hats, brushed clean for today, yet polished raw at the brim, and as old friends squeeze aboard at the next stop they nod them down, ever so slightly, in a quick greeting before shuffling up to make room. It is a tight fit and as we settle, inching out a degree of comfort and pulling jacket sides from under the legs of our neighbours, then the engine starts in a cloud of diesel and we are off again holding ourselves stiffly against each other until a final, noisy shudder signals our arrival at Kota Baru.

The rackety engine cuts off suddenly, like an amputation of hearing and fills the back of the opelet with the ticking sound of its cooling. The passengers stand suddenly, nod to each other again and shuffle towards the back door where an excited, seismic murmur is coming from the crowd outside; which the passengers, after paying their fare, jump down into. Pulling their hats hard over their eyes, to hide the school-boy excitement that has caught their faces, they disappear quickly into the throng that is queuing up to enter the field, adding their own voices to the shouted greetings, relieved stretches and noisy arguments that colour the air. I jump down after them, pay the driver his required Rupieh, and follow the farmers into the field.

 …

Tuesday night and Saturday night are bullfighting nights in the countryside around Bukittinggi on the island of Sumatra. These competitions are well known and popular in the local Minang Kabau culture, as indeed are versions of them all over Asia and I had come to the small village of Kota Baru this Tuesday evening to see what all the fuss was about.

The crowd opens up as it entered the field, some of the men quickly finding their places on the low bank that runs along one-side and acts as a sort of grandstand. Many others though seem to be making their way to one or another of the four corners of the field and I walk with them to where they are gathered in circles around the sleek, black bulk of the bulls.

“This one very strong.” says Nasir when he finds me admiring one of the bulls. “Good gamble. Good win, it is not famous.” Apparently the bull I have been looking at is the under-dog though it looks unlike any second choice I’ve ever seen; being so massive and so swollen with muscles that it looks like a boulder. Brawn isn’t everything though he explains. “Good head this bull. Just watch it. I think this one will be the winner. He has a good head.”

“A good head?”

“Smart. Very good head. Look at the eyes.”

I look but see nothing but bull.

“Good head.” he searches for the word. “Clever.”

He is quite convincing.

“Is this the one you’ll bet on then?” I ask.

“Ah!” he says and motions for me to follow him as we walk across the field to the opposite corner. Many people are on this path and the route is like a river flowing fast in both directions. Where money is involved (this whole event is about gambling though technically that particular vice is illegal here) it is always best to have the bigger picture. So with no time to lose as the evening is drawing in, we walk quickly over to where the rival bull is waiting. If it is possible to be even more impressed, I am. Sleek and solid, low headed and extravagantly horned it is, perhaps, the quintessential bull and has a large ring of farmers and admiring gamblers surrounding it. Nasir points out the owners standing by the fence nearby who look just a little smug as they fend off the occasional compliment. This bull is the obvious favourite and is without a doubt the Mike Tyson of the bovine world. Already covered in mud as if it had been fighting in the dressing room, it is a real bruiser and, I think, the one most sensible people here are putting their money on.

“Big, “says Nasir, “But dumb. Look at its head.” I look but don’t see anything but bull there either, and a big, strong, superpower of a bull at that. Nature compensates and even if it is an idiot bull, that doesn’t mean it won’t win. The school bully was never smart but I was still scared of him. “But strong. Very strong. ”He says.

“So who do you think will win?” I ask again.

“Maybe this one.” Nasir nods. Thinks.

“What about the other one, you liked him too?”

“Yes maybe him too, very clever, but this one very strong.”

“Which is your choice?”

“Ah!…” says Nasir and changes the subject.

 …

I have a lot to learn because bullfighting Indonesian style, it seems, is as different from the Spanish variety as it is possible to get. These animals are not the gloss, muscled monsters of afternoon corridas they are instead weighty buffalo, honed by hard work in the fields and highly valued as more than meat. These animals will not die in the fights tonight, they will merely rut, their battle as old as evolution itself.

Little escapes the expert eye of the gamblers and Nasir (who appears to be one) talks me through the finer points of buffalo anatomy in a way that would send Charles Darwin home to think again. He still hasn’t, however, implicitly told me which bull to back. He seems to favour the smaller, smarter bull, but it is hard to tell, his poker face shows nothing except a pleasure in the attention we draw. He introduces me to many friends in the crowd and I practice my Indonesian as I try to gain more tips as to which bull I should back but everyone here appears generously disposed to both bulls. Maybe they don’t know, but I have the feeling they do and are just not telling me. There is an Asian pleasure in misfortune that, as a westerner, it can be hard to fathom. It’s nothing personal of course, it’s just if I lose it will be hilarious and their day will be even better than if they win. This sense of humour was taking me some time to get used to and at times I had felt unpleasantly victimized on my travels. I was not the only source of amusement here though and as we walk around the field Nasir points out an extravagantly dressed woman sizing up one of the bulls. She stood out for a number of reasons, not least because she was a woman in this world of men. Most of the other women on the field were selling snacks and drinks. This woman was also dressed well, if a little loudly, and was haggling with the bookies as fiercely as the farmers. Nasir tells me she is well known here, a rich lady from Bukittinggi and an addicted gambler.

“…but a bad farmer, she cannot tell a good or bad bull.” He laughs. “Every week she loses a lot of money. Very good for this man.” He points to her bookie who is standing nearby grinning widely at his future.

Determined to be different from the rich lady, I want to win, I don’t want to be the butt of jokes, but I find it difficult to guess which of these two animals will triumph tonight. They both look as immovable as the three volcanoes that surround us, looming in the clouds above the field.

The fights start at sunset, which at the equator are rapid, often spectacular affairs. Tonight though the sky’s fall is rather muted and sickly; the washed out yellow of the cloudy sky hardly seeming suitable for the energy to come. You could expect blood red ribbons of cloud, drenching tones of orange and purple. The usual tropical fair. You could even demand them to signal the bout to follow; a kind of a natural `ding! `: a bell of fire for the fight’s arrival. Maybe sometimes they have that but tonight the start of the contest is sensed more in the actions of the bookies as they retreat quickly to the safer edges of the field and begin counting through the vast sums of money in the pockets of their grubby ski anoraks while a ring of minders keep the farmers away.

The bulls are also on the move and the children that have been darting through the legs of the crowd all afternoon, daring each other to get as close as possible to these animals, now find their slow approach mesmerizing and hang onto the skirts of passing women to stare. In motion the bulls are indeed majestic; their heads are thrown high and they walk with an arrogant, Sumo swagger as they are led to the centre of the field. Finally, face to face, the true measure of the competition is clear and last-minute champions are decided on, allegiances changed and the bookies sought out as new odds are argued over.

Nasir has gone to place his bet. I think I know which bull he has his money on, but though I trust his opinion there is something about the bigger bull that just shouts of victory. As the owners of the bulls come to take their leashes off and grease their horns in preparation for the fight I look hard at the man who takes my money so that I will recognize him again when it is time to collect my winnings.

The sky turns grey and there is a threat of rain in the breeze that is blowing out of the evening. Suddenly I just don’t feel lucky and wonder if I should have taken Nasir`s advice, whatever it actually was. But the time of the fight has at last arrived and whatever the outcome I am at least standing here among the farmers watching something different, unusual, and I feel far from home which is always a good thing. As the bulls are led closer, almost nose to nose the farmers are slowly inching backwards, making a growing circle around the coming fight. Getting out of the way but keeping a view, not wanting to miss anything.

Then with a shout the bulls are released. The less courageous spectators instantly run for the sides of the field. The last place you want to be at the end of one of these bouts is in the way of an escaping bull. The interested farmers and serious gamblers stay close though, stepping high footed in the mud behind their animals; urging them on to make that falling, connecting charge.

It should be a good battle. The bulls square-up and try to intimidate each other by snorting contempt, posturing and threatening to lunge forward at any moment. Both have large, incongruous-looking erections that seem pathetically pink and fragile stuck out under their craggy, black bulk. Almost like another animal hanging there, having nothing to do with the potential violence above. Or does it? No-one seems to notice though and the muddy-footed owners fiercely continue to push at the bulls` behinds or smack them sharply with bamboo canes as they scream at them to fight.

But they just stand, nose to nose, shaking with anger, jolting spasms down their necks that twitch their low heads lower; leaning further: expectant, dangerously teetering on that edge of momentum but neither making that fall across the inches that separate them; the skull cracking gravity of the rut missing tonight. Both animals it seems are unsure enough of victory to risk a charge and as they wait and wonder, we wait also.

Two minutes, three. Four and complaints and laughter begin to break out among the crowd. After about ten minutes even those closest to the bulls seem to relax and grow less wary, bored of this stale-mate. Already those that only think themselves brave are coming into the field, away from the safety of the fences and the `grandstand`, swaying their long arms confidently and making their way to the other two corners where the next bulls are waiting and the bookies are already gathering their ring of farmers.

My bull walks away in the end, giving up the fight before it even began. The smaller one watches him go, patiently enjoying the long minutes of its deluded victory before it begins to search the ground for food. The larger bull wanders over to his corner, still arrogantly swaggered, still huge and powerful looking. No longer worried by the other bull it is the owner alone that looks embarrassed as he leads him away.

Nasir finds me in the crowd, he is smiling of course and talking about the lack of fight. I daren` t tell him that I lost.

The second fight starts soon afterwards and almost as soon as the animals are facing each other. With a shout the leashes are removed and the ring of gamblers again escapes urgently to the edges of the field as the two massive heads collide with an audible ‘clunk! ‘as they send the mud splattering in a frenzy of bovine anger. This is the type of thing the farmers are used to and encouragements are shouted at the bulls from all around. Even if money is lost no one seems to mind because the energy expended in the mud in-front of them has made it all worth while.

Again you should always watch the under-dog. The bigger bull is strong that much is obvious in the ripple of muscles along its back and the push of its legs into the earth as it tries to ground the other bull into the muddy puddle that is their battleground. But the smaller one fights back with brains, turning the powerful weight of the larger bull into a pendulum of retreating balance. As the large bull crashes forward, the smaller one sinks, steadfastly into the mud, bending its legs and taking the weight of the attacking animal on it head. It then does a very clever thing; it turns its head, the horns locking, and the larger bull, whose balance is now all on slipping front legs and it own moveable head, is swung round until it finds itself falling sideways into the mud as the smaller animal shakes its horns free. This happens a number of times. The puddle deepening as a stumbling buffalo splashes its way into and out of the mud once again and turns for the fight. The smiling farmers that have stayed close are splattered with the fall-out, yet their teeth grin through it all as the larger bull crashes forward again and again.

Yet another scrambling recovery eventually tells the larger bull it has had enough and it turns to run, giving up the fight. But the smaller bull has one last indignity to offer. At the moment it turns the smaller one charges. It has waited for this moment and now, hooking its head under the back legs of the running bull, it pushes the larger animal around the field; tossing its head determined to topple it. The crowd laughs at the sight: the larger bull running on three legs with the smaller one hooked under it. It is a wary laugh though because of the possibly dangerous continuation of this struggle and the unpredictable nature of the scared bull. The owners meanwhile are running behind them trying to catch their animals and separate them by throwing blankets over the eyes of the victorious bull to disorientate it and stop any further pursuit. The fight has been won, and these expensive animals must not be allowed to injure themselves like this. It’s quite a funny sight though and the children in the crowd laugh as they too run after the bulls, imitating the flapping farmers chasing their tangled animals all over the field.

When the fights are over, the crowd gathers together in the middle of the field, for the winners to collect their bets from the bookies before they disappear into the visibly darkening night and the losers to talk over the fights and wish themselves better luck next time. Nasir finds me as I stand looking around the field, taking in the truncated volcanoes and the glimmer of lights that are beginning to pick out invisible villages in the horizons. He comes back smiling, as before, and though he doesn’t mention it I am sure he is laughing at my loss. He does tell me that the second fight was one of the best that he can remember though. In this, at least, I seem to have been very lucky.

We walk out to the village in a crowd of farmers and before I go to find an opelet to take me home Nasir shakes my hand to say goodbye.

“You have a good time?”

“Yes, very good thanks.”

He carries on shaking my hand and smiling.

“See you on Saturday then?” He asks.

You know, he just might.

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