Searching for Futu Manu
Futu Manu is the Tetun term for cock fight, it’s a Timor-Leste pastime that outdates both the Indonesian and Portuguese rule of the country. Southeast Asians were the first people to domesticate chickens, and cock fights run in tandem to this timeline. In the bigger cities like Dili they are a daily occurrence at most markets in the evening, and a weekly occurrence in the smaller towns.
A violent sport, it consists of both gambling and the consumption of tua sabu (palm sugar brandy). It is only attended by men and is a microcosm of the martial masculinity that has always been commonplace within Timorese culture. Many Timorese woman seem to look unto this practice with a sense of comical disdain, due to the rampant drinking and gambling (and its inevitable aftermath in the family home).
My interest in the esoteric practice of Futu Manu was stirred long before my arrival in Timor-Leste, and I’d seen it often referred to as Timor’s national sport. I had been told roughly where I may be able to find Futu Manu by a translator I had recently worked with in Dili. He told me the cock fights are massively popular and occur most afternoons around the markets.
One of the bigger fights was near the popular Timor Plaza (Dili’s only “mega mall”). Apparently the cock fights are quite often shifted due to the correlating volume and drunkenness that frequent the fights, so I was advised that I should act fast if I wanted to catch this particular fight. I went home, filled my pockets with betting money, packed my camera and set out into the evening streets of the capital.
I walked down a busy road in the neighborhood of Bemori, through the damp tropical heat, looking towards the afternoon rain clouds beginning to congregate on the mountain range that flanks Dili. A microlet (local public transport) pulled up beside me and as I jumped in I made eye contact with another man who seized the opportunity to introduce himself.
We began talking to each other in the microlet.
“Where you go?” he asked.
“Cock fight” I responded.
The stranger on the bus shined an impressive smile and told me that he could help.
Eventually it became clear that this man could not help me and that something had become lost in translation after the friendly stranger led me to the hotel car park of the Timor Plaza and began propositioning me with casual sex.
What followed was an awkward, difficult and lengthy period of overcoming the language barrier to delicately convey to the man that I am in fact straight and currently travelling with my partner. Unfortunately once the latter became apparent to the stranger from the bus he became visibly upset; the conservative Catholicism of Timor-Leste makes life difficult for the openly homosexual. I reassured the stranger that I was still his friend regardless of his sexuality and bought him a can of Coke in a futile attempt to console him.
He began to ask me about the New Zealand homesexual community as I continued to console him with some platonic back rubbing. I told him what I know, telling him that there is a large community, clubs and annual parades. The stranger’s mood began to improve and his face lit up.
“Parades?!!” he exclaimed.
He became quite ecstatic at hearing this information and invited me and my girlfriend to dinner at his father’s to eat crabs and for (I assume) further discussion. I thanked him but had to unfortunately decline due to travel plans the following day, however I swapped details with the man and told him we would try and touch base before we left.
Feeling defeated and emotionally drained I left the friendly stranger as the afternoon rain began to pelt down and found a microlet to take me part of the way home. The rest of my journey, on foot, consisted of me being heckled by a group of children in the rain who had decided it was hilarious to call me “Jesus!” which, retrospectively, was pretty funny.
This was my first attempt at locating a cock fight and, as I had also spent the morning unintentionally asking strangers for meth in Bahasi Indonesian while dressed as a P.E teacher, it was an appropriate full stop to a day marred by foreign stupidity.
It wasn't until I was in the mountain town of Maubisse that Futu Manu presented itself once again. A local man informed me that the cock fights were happening all day in the local markets.
As I knew that the cock fights in Timor-Leste are predominantly frequented by males and that women are forbidden, I asked my local friend if it was okay for my girlfriend to be present - he seemed to think it would be fine.
The cock fight was a raucous affair and the losing chickens of the day’s matches were strung up by their ankles, bleeding on wooden structures that had been erected to tether the fighting cocks to. Attention was immediately drawn to our presence and whispers of malai (foreigners) went through the all male crowd.
I approached a taller man in a cap who seemed to be taking bets and organizing the sparring for the fatal matches. He introduced himself and pointed to some nondescript scribble on his paper mumbling something in half-English. I smiled and gave him a thumbs up and walked off. I felt like a child on his first day of school wearing a comically large school bag. Randomly men started to spar and match their cocks for the next fight.
All around us chaotic noises erupted as chicken fights broke out, drawing the crowd's attention to the nearest fracas. The cocks launched their full weight at each other, coiling and intertwining in a violent dance, moving too fast to see the details of their violent coil.
A drunk older man in a patched leather hat approached me and demanded I take a photo of him and his friend, who appeared to be just as blind drunk as him. I took the photo and showed him, to which he responded with unimpressed Tetun slurring. He seemed to be annoyed that he looked disheveled and hammered, and somehow believed this to be my fault. Again my response was to smile, give him a thumbs up and waddle off in my gigantic backpack.
I walked over to the main fighting pit, the perimeter was lined with bamboo fencing and the muddy earth was stained with blood from the day’s fighting. I acknowledged a man and his young son with a nod and walked towards a vendor selling cigarettes, betelnut and tua sabu to buy a drink.
The drunk older “gentleman” in the leather hat had now turned his attention to my girlfriend. He was repeating Tetun phrases and drunkenly lunge-hugging her as she politely humoured him. By now it had become abundantly apparent that our mere presence had completely derailed the Futu Manu, as a crowd of men had begun to congregate and watch the unfolding stupidity of the drunkard in his leather hat accosting my partner. It was clear I had to intervene when the drunk began to brazenly try to kiss her with a mouth which bore the narcotic putridness of a seasoned mama-door (betelnut chewer).
I stood in the middle of him and my partner as the older man tried to sneakily navigate himself under my arms. I could not get physical or aggressive knowing that older gentleman within Timorese culture are held in high regard and this likely included this drunk asshole. So I stood there awkwardly with my hands on his shoulders, fighting an instinctual prerogative to strangle him. To any passing bystander it would have looked as if I was massaging his shoulders as he tried to court my girlfriend.
Eventually my partner and I managed to navigate ourselves away from him and fetched our local friend who assisted us in leaving. Unfortunately we had to leave before the main fight. It was clear that the presence of my girlfriend at the male-centric cock fight wasn't the best move. I preferred being propositioned with sex by a friendly man. This was far better for one’s self esteem than an attempted cuckolding by sweaty drunk older gentleman in a cool leather hat.
I didn’t find the perceived barbarism of the cockfights off-putting; it was the social experience of the cock fights that I found less than kosher. The gender division in Timor-Leste society was most prevalent at this event and it felt like an unsanitised insight into male culture in Timor. Prior to this my girlfriend had not been heckled or received any unwanted male attention (it seemed to happen to me more) but as she had stepped into their world public attitudes had appeared to have changed. Both my partner and I had heard stories from women about the conditioned behavior of many men in Timor being aggressive and drunk but we had not seen it. This curtain appeared to have been briefly drawn for us by Futu Manu.