Yesterday I flew one on the giant kites for the first time. Señor Bernabé Herrerra called me up in the afternoon to invite me to a test run of his kite using the cola de caña, an old fashioned tail made of sugarcane reeds. When he was a child he used to make small kites using this special kind of tail. Now of days, most kids use cloth or simple paper tails for their kites, and the Giant kites are no different. A tail made from sugar cane takes longer to put together because each of the individual tail pieces has to be tied into place. For a Giant kite it is even more time consuming because the tail must be more than fifty feet long. Bernabe is one of the first people to revive the cola de caña tradition and to use it on one of the giant kites.
I paid a tuc tuc to drive me up to the soccer field. Clouds were gathering and it looked as if it were going to rain again. When I got there they had just started to assemble the kite. First, all of the bamboo polls is laid out on top of each other and loosely tied together. Then a string is wrapped around the edges, connecting all of the bamboo and forming the shape of a heptagon. Using a string as a reference guide, each of the bamboo polls are measured to make sure that one side is not longer than the other. Then the center is lashed together tightly. The frame is then lifted up and placed on top of a blue tarp to ensure that the tissue paper design won’t be damaged.
Carefully, the tissue paper is gently unfolded, facedown, under the kite. There is a circle of duct tape to mark the center, and the frame is carefully moved into place. Once the frame is exactly right, a short flap is cut on each side. The flap is then folded and glued over the string. This is the only thing that attaches the frame to the paper. A string is then tied and crisscrossed between the pieces of bamboo like a spider web. The web lends support to the paper so that it doesn’t bust with the force of the wind.
Once the design is attached, multicolor strips of tissue paper are glued onto the edges. They don’t seem to have any purpose other than to attract attention. The cord is pulled through a hole in the center of the kite and a knot is then tied around the bamboo. Four more holes are punched into the corners, two on the top and two on bottom. The bottom holes are used to attach the tail. The kite is then turned over and the cord is connected to the center and the top of the frame. The cord itself was bigger than my head.
All this time there was a throng of little boys huddled around the kite, enthralled. They helped unfurling the tissue paper and gluing the sides down. Once the cord was attached they picked it up carefully (all ten of them) and moved it into place by the side of the cliff. The cord was unraveled and stretched out half way down the field. All the boys rushed out to grab a spot on the cord.
Every one started running, and with one big pull, instead of lifting upward, the kite rolled along its side like quarter. The kids rushed back to the scene of the kite, and rolled it back into place. “¡Se necesita un poste!” somebody shouted from above. Normally, the kites are held in place by giant posts. Forging this, we wedged the kite between two big bushes. The kids all ran back to the cord.
I grabbed my camera, but before I could even turn it on, the kite was already up in the air, soaring fifty, sixty, a hundred feet high. The boys cheered and huddled around Denis, trying to grab hold of the cord. Denis had the cord wrapped backward around his waist so that he could use his body to bear the kite’s pull. The kids jumped up to grab the cord and the kite lunged to the side. “¡No lo hales! ¡No lo hales!” Denis shouted, trying to keep the kite from spinning downward. With only a small tug the kite lifted higher into the air. With a big tug it can spiral out of control.
For a moment the kite floated serenely in the air and then swung to one side. The kite flew, but the cola de caña tail was too short. This causes the kite to sway dramatically from side to side. The kite they are making this year will be even larger, and the tail will have to be extended by at least three meters.
I stood watching in amazement. Then I ran far away to try to photograph both the kite and the boys, but the kids ended up looking like ants in the distance. Señor Bernabé shouted for me to take a turn holding the kite. I ran forward. Denis handed me the cord and I could feel the kite suddenly lurch downward. I grabbed a hold with both hands and tried to pull it back. The kite surged upward again—a little too much. The cord felt like it was going to rip out of my hands—and it hurt. I thought it was going to lift me away.
Denis told me to hold the cord around my waist, which helped significantly. For a few minutes I stood there holding the kite by myself. It felt wonderful. There was a sublime synergy between me and the kite. It was so powerful; I could hardly believe that I was holding on to such a massive creature.
The kite lurched forward again and I could barely keep hold of the cord. Denis stepped in and grabbed it. All the kids got a chance to fly the kite—or rather, have the kite fly them. They did their best to keep hold, but when the kite pulled forward they were lifted up, feet dragging along the ground, like a puppy pulled on a leash.
I had an interview later that afternoon, so I packed away my camera and thanked Bernabé for letting me come. As I was walking away from the soccer field I saw the kite do a nose dive. Like a supreme diva falling back to earth, the kite crashed hard into the ground. Suddenly a million kids appeared out of nowhere and swarmed around the crash site of like a gang of Umpa-lumpas around Violet Beauregard. I took one last picture and walked down towards the cemetery.