Asias Broken Fowl
Kelly and I just got back from seven months in Asia. Our schedule was loose. We moved from one place to the next when we felt like it,
buying plane tickets and visas as we went. It didnt take us long to realize that an unstructured holiday doesnt eliminate the need for a watch
or an alarm clock. We had brought neither. For the first two weeks, while we trekked up to Annapurna Base Camp, we pulled out our new point-and-shoot camera
with the date-stamp feature whenever we wanted to know the time.
Back in Kathmandu it took just a minute of haggling with a street vendor to settle on the object of my desire, a digital alarm watch.
When the alarm went off, the watch crowed: COCK-a-doodle-DOO!
The watch kept perfect time, and the electronic cock never failed to wake us up. We soon discovered that the watch could also solve other
problems. Like, what happens after the student next to you on the train has exhausted all of the questions he can ask in English.
On my wrist, I found I had a miracle of nonverbal communication. One push of the alarm button, and half of the people in the car are
climbing all over each other to see the latest wonder of the electronic age. (The other half of the passengers are blase, having come to the logical conclusion
that there is a chicken on board.)
Invariably, some guy would recall the other English sentence he knew: How much you pay?
I give you ten dollars!
I should have bought 100 of them.
After a couple of months in India, we moved on to Southeast Asia. Each place we went, the fascination grew.
It must be said that, most of the time, we didnt need or even want an alarm. After all, we were on vacation, and a vacation should
provide a reprieve from the alarm clock. But in Asia sleeping in can be an unforeseen challenge.
Your average unsuspecting traveler from the States is likely to have several misconceptions about chickens in general and roosters in
particular. The four most common misconceptions are the following:
1) Chickens live on farms. 2) Roosters have sex with hens. 3) Roosters crow when the sun comes up. 4) Roosters say COCK-a-doodle-DOO!
First of all, in Asia, chickens dont live on farms. They live everywhere. Although the chicken-per-person ratio may be higher in
rural areas, there are just as many chickens per square foot in the city as there are in the country. Whats more, chickens are indoor-outdoor.
As for roosters going for hens and only hens, that isnt true either. In Bali, we watched in horror as the rooster who patrolled
the dining room at our hotel mounted the local duck. Oddly enough, when it was over, the duck seemed well pleased with the situation, quacking and flapping
and strutting. Its a good thing that roosters dont fly well, because theyll mount anything they can get on top of.
Next, theres the misconception that roosters crow when the sun comes up. They might, on occasion, crow right at dawn. But its
just a coincidence. Roosters crow whenever the hell they feel like it: morning, noon, and night, not to mention afternoon, evening, and the parts of the day
that dont have names. It can be pretty annoying, especially when youre trying to sleep in.
When you first arrive in Asia, you tend to be tolerant. The local rooster starts doing his thing at 4:30 or 5 in the morning, and you
think, Its ok, hes just doing what roosters are supposed to do. Its so bucolic. He keeps it up until 7, and you think, Its
ok, Im on vacation. Ill just sleep until 10. At 10, the roosters still going, and youve been awake for five hours. Actually,
youve fallen asleep countless times, but never for more than five minutes. (The most realistic feature on the cock watch is the snooze button. The manufacturers
added it as a sick joke.)
Sometimes, like dogs, two cocks will get into a kind of dialog. In northeast Thailand, the cock in our yard carried on long-winded conversations
with the cock down the alley (probably bragging about the ducks it had been with). In Saigon, our room was on the fifth floor, overlooking a busy, narrow
street. Across the street, about two floors down, somebody had a rooster right in their little apartment. Roosters can be eaten, just like hens. Why nobody
had put that one in a pot was beyond me.
The incessant crowing of the cock in Saigon was only half the problem. The other half was the sound it made. This brings us to the fourth
major misconception about roosters, the idea that they go COCK-a-doodle-DOO, just like my trusty watch. The fact is, they dont. Some of them abbreviate
the crow to COCK-a-DOO. Thats fine. Its close enough. Its over faster. Other cocks completely screw it up. The ones in Luang Prabang make
a blaring gurgle that cant be transliterated into a 26-character alphabet. In Bali, they say ARAK-ATTACK. This would be alright if it werent also
the name for palm wine (arak) mixed with lemon juice, a lethal concoction thats served in all the tourist restaurants. Its the last thing you
want to hear in the morning.
But that cock in Saigon was the worst. Its call was rock-a-doooo-ACK! It started quietly and ended like it was being stepped on.
It was exactly the same every time. Twenty minutes later: rock-a-doooo-ACK! After a day and a half, we found ourselves yelling Kill that thing!
After Saigon, we really gave up on roosters. We came to the conclusion that the cocks of Asia are just hopelessly screwed up, a broken
fowl. We ceased to cringe at the sounds of chickens being strangled. The sight of caged roosters, stacked on the back of a bicycle, on their way to a cock
fight . . . that seemed downright humanitarian. Cocks battling to the death isnt just a great gambling opportunity, its a benefit to mankind.
As we gradually lost our misconceptions about roosters, we also began to understand the hysterical enthusiasm that surrounded the cock
watch. What a dream, to think that you could own a rooster that makes a pleasant, crowing sound when you want to wake up.