It’s 8:30 am. Bleary-eyed and heavy-headed, I reluctantly drag myself out of the car. We have driven at least three hours, all of which I slept through, from Seminyak to Jembrana, the least populated and visited region in the west of Bali.
The driver picked me up in the wee hours of the morning. Not an early riser plus a night-out on the town, this is definitely not my kind of Sunday. However, I am intrigued, even a tad excited about the cultural event I am about to see. The traditional buffalo races, Mekepung in Indonesian, are held at the end of rice harvest during dry season from August to October.
Armed with my beloved Canon, I drift through what appears to be a small brook, now barren and dry, as the monsoon is long over, and climb onto the road, which is now transformed, into a racecourse. Spectators occupy both sides of the oval shaped racing track that stretches at least 3 to 4 kilometers. Where I am standing now is still a few hundred meters away from the starting point.
It appears that the race has already begun. It doesn't take long. I see the first pair of buffalos pulling a small two-wheeled cart galloping towards me. The jockey is seated in a squatting position on the cart whipping the backsides of the beasts mercilessly to gain speed. I watch in awe as it zooms past, fast and furious. Seconds later, another cart arrives in a manner of a speeding truck leaving behind a giantic cloud of dust. Then another and another. Although they are not racing like the chariots in “Ben-Hur” movie, the energy, pace and grit of each and every contestant send the spectators into frenzy. Many root and cheer for their friends calling out their names or showering them with piercing whistles.
Now fully awake by the unfolding spectacle, I march towards the tower where a sport announcer with a microphone is narrating the event in full disclosure. From here I could see the other side of the track, a few yards away and the finish line. Mostly locals attend the event with an exception of a few foreigners like me, who have come all the way to gain cultural knowledge and to discover the rural Bali, away from the sophistication of Seminyak and madness of Kuta. The vendors are selling various products, foods, drinks and knickknacks ranging from peanuts, watermelons, toys, whips to colored chicks. Yes, chicks are in fact dyed in several bright hues; hot pink, sunshine yellow, nuclear green and neon purple attracting the attention of young children.
In return, he asks me a favor; to take a photo of him and his friend, which I happily oblige of course. Seeing their photo on the LCD screen of my camera simply delights them. I wish I could print it out right away and give it to them. I say goodbye to them afterwards and continue walking till I reach the area where contestants are, in line, prepping their buffalos before the race. The proud jockeys are looking dapper in their brightly coloured fineries. Members of their entourage are feeding water to the animals to keep them from dehydration. Some are putting on ornaments such as colourful flowers, silk banners on the carts and big wooden bells around the necks of buffalos.
I learn later from my Balinese driver that competitors are judged not only based on speed, but on strength and style as well. The wining buffalos are used for stud and can be sold at handsome prices, sometimes even twice the market price. Animal lovers and activists would cringe at the treatment of the buffalos though. Not only do these animals receive cruel lashing with whips with nails in them, from the jockeys, which leaves them with bleeding backsides after the contest, the special chili paste is applied to each animal’s anus for the extra push as well. All of this is done to please the gods of harvest. And I hope they are pleased!
As the sun above me becomes unbearably hot and considering at least a few more hours on the road to return to Seminyak, I hurry down towards my van. The race continues although it seems it’s time for a wrap very soon. Suddenly, I hear loud gasps and yelps from the crowd. I turn around to see a pair of buffalos running at a maddening speed but without the jockey on the cart. Poor chap must have fallen out of it on the way.