Boy with a kite on our street in Brazil
The sun descends. The winds pick-up. Colored shapes rise above the rooftops.
Each shape has a name: The squares are raias. The pentagons are piões. The diamonds are pipas or papagaios, depending on their size. Tie a ribbon tail to any shape and it becomes a rabiola. In English, we just call them all kites.
“Kites look like they’re for kids, but they’re for adults.”
My neighbor, 30 years old, tells me this with great confidence as he tosses up his papagaio. A set of quick jerks on the line and the kite is 50 meters above us, coasting in the breeze.
“The kite follows its nose”, he explains, “pull the line, and it moves in that direction. Give it slack, and it will spin.”
He hands me the line and lets me give a few tugs. There’s an art to pulling the kite-string for lift, then quickly releasing to let line out for the kite to sail higher. Most kids do this with their bare hands. Those with money, or most adults, use geared wheels for spooling kite-string. The wheels have a crank to pull and release the line with leverage. My neighbor’s kite wheel has the Flamengo football-club banner etched into the side.
“Have you ever seen a more beautiful flag?” he asked when he first showed it to me.
Kite-flying is the opposite of fishing. Fishing looks down in the water. Kite-flying looks up in the air. Fishing pulls a swimming thing to land. Kite-flying sends an earth-bound thing to soar.
They do share the same mechanics: pull in when there’s slack, release when there’s tension.
A small crowd gathers around us. Everyone flies kites here, but it’s not everyday you catch a gringo doing it. I’m the only gringo in the neighborhood.
Down the street, another neighbor’s little red kite lifts into the air.
My neighbor takes back control of his own kite, working it across the sky. He pushes to make the kite spin, pulling hard as he catches the nose parallel with the horizon. His kite dances in bursts toward the little red one. Another push/pull and his kite rises up above the little red one. One more and it darts down, down. My neighbor shakes the line with the ferocity of a graffiti artist warming up a can of spray paint.
The little red kite thrashes. It tries to climb, realizes it cannot. Its line is pinned under my neighbor’s line. Tension builds. Then suddenly, there’s no tension at all. The little red kite spins free, severed from its line. It lilts in the wind a little more, drifting out of the neighborhood, descending beyond our view.
My neighbor has cut down the other neighbor’s kite. The little crowd around us cheers.
“Kites look like they’re for kids, but they’re for adults,” He reminds me.
In Brazil, kite fighting is part of kite flying. Kite flyers buy their paper kites in bulk, anticipating multiple losses on a given day. They master fine techniques in preparing and positioning kites for battle. Kids used to coat kite strings in glue and run the lines along broken glass to make better cutting instruments. The modern practice is to buy string coated in aluminum oxide. The wonders of industrialization.
“Feel this – the aluminum oxide is sharp. It can cut you”. My neighbor explained.
Aluminum-oxide coated string is expensive. My neighbor attaches 50 meters of it to his kite “where the action is” so he can slice the lines of other kites. The fortified line is then attached to 500 meters of regular kite string, spooled around his kite wheel. 550 meters: at that distance, a kite is just a dot. It’s impossible to tell its nose from its tail. I wonder about the range at which 550 meters of line can attack another flying kite. It’s a math problem with the area of a circle, and maybe cosine, but I can’t figure out the angles and inverted cones.
Aluminum-oxide coated string is dangerous. Luana worries about our kids getting too close and cutting themselves on it. Abandoned kite strings pose a community risk when they get tangled in fences or overhead lines. My neighbor’s motorcycle has a special antennae to deflect errant kite-strings from clotheslining him while riding through the neighborhood. WWII Jeeps were outfitted with similar apparatuses: “wire anti-decapitation devices”.
Aluminum-oxide coated string is also illegal. A point my neighbor emphasizes several times in the process of learning me up on Brazilian kites.
“If it’s illegal, where do you buy it?” I ask.
“Everywhere” the crowd responds.
“Like weed,” someone suggests in a tone that seems to be part statement-of-fact and part solicitation.
Kite flying and kite fighting are tethered in Brazilian culture. Craft and technique in building and operation. Style and flair in colors and shapes. Sidestepping inconvenient rules for advantages. Games of bravado and status as flyers risk their own kites to cut down those of others. Beauty, Joy, Daring, all tied in one hobby.
Kites look like they’re for kids, but they’re for adults.