Sunday, July 29, 2007

Flying High at the Berkeley Kite Festival

A thick blanket of fog looms over the towering skyscrapers of San Francisco's peninsula, but across the bay in Berkeley it's a different story. The sun is out, the sky is blue, and the wind is strong against your back. Perfect conditions for flying a kite.

As you make your way through the paved parking lot's shady trees and out into the bright open field, a swarm of acrobatic kites and airborne octopuses surrounds you, making the sky much more interesting to watch than any other ordinary day, as evidenced by the gawkers on the freeway who predictably slow traffic to a crawl.

Walking around the park, the aroma of corn dogs, fried calamari and good old fashioned barbecue fills the air. There's children running around with mini-kites and frantic parents chasing after them, yet you feel an ever-present sense of calm provided by those giant, flying pieces of ripstop nylon with their long, sloped lines tethered to spikes in the ground. You laugh as you hear the emcee announce the items currently on display in the lost and found: a purse, a cell phone, even a kid "about two, maybe three years old". Just a few steps more and you have your spot. Finally, a place to sit back and watch the show.

The fanfare begins and the sound of trumpets fills the air. With all the elegance of a Broadway ballet, the first kite launches glamorously into the air. Moments later, as if on cue, the second kite launches into the air, following the flight pattern of the first. It is clear that these kites are synchronized to the overture. Then a third launches. And a fourth. Fifth--no... sixth! Folks, we are now airborne--the competition is on.

The competitors gave a dazzling display of what feats and tricks kites can do when set to music. It was a kite ballet of sorts, and very pleasing to both the eyes and the ears. Perhaps the most enjoyable one was a couple from San Diego, California, who flew their two quad-line kites with such precision and delicacy that they danced and trotted along the ground using their pointy corners, then leapt into the air away from each other, only to come screaming back across the sky and--ERRT!--stop within mere inches of each other, appearing to kiss for just a few seconds before being whisked away from each other once more.

However, you're struggling to watch the act because of these two stunt kites in the test flight area in front of you. Curious, you go check it out--and decide it's high time you signed up for flight school. The flight instructor gives you the basic instructions, a little lesson about wind, and before you know it you're off and flying--well, sort of. As the wind and thermodynamics get the best of you, you struggle to maintain altitude, over correcting your unavoidable first-time blunders. Hey, who hasn't nose-dived their kite a few--no, more like many--times before getting the hang of it?

Finally, some smooth sailing... but you're not flying very impressively, given that your kite is just floating in space above your head for now. As you feel the wind begin to shift, the reins tighten and you feel it start to pull it to the left. Then right. Then way right--oops, time to go left again, but oh no! A stall! But how to recover? Alas, your attempts to recover are futile and once again the kite nose dives and performs a painful face plant into the soft, forgiving grass. Thankful that wasn't a person you just dive bombed, you thank your flight instructor for the lesson and find a seat closer to the competition area so you can continue on with the rest of the show. It feels good to be on the ground again watching the pros show you how it's done.

Suddenly, your attention is diverted as noises from behind and afar fill your ears. Ah, what's this? A parade coming through--how lovely! It's a convoy of Japanese men and women toting their traditional Machijirushi kites, which are indigenous to Hamamatsu, Japan made from fine paper and bamboo. As they inch closer, an unexpected turn sends them into a near head-on collision with you and other festival-goers as you all scramble to pick up your belongings and get out of their way while they make their entrance on to the competition and demo field. The feeling is comparable to trying to stop a moving freight train; it's hard to stop a train. That was a close one.

After the competition and demos, the Rokkaku Kite Battle begins. 30-something kits take to the sky, transition on to the battlefield, and begin. The goal: use the kite, the line and the wind (or lack of it) to down the opponents' kites and be the last one flying. You seem to like the black, white and blue kite, so you choose that one as the favorite to win it. One by one, and sometimes one-by-three, the kites go down as they get beaten and sawed apart from their operator's lines. Finally, an intense battle between the last three kites emerges, and lo--your kite is one of the three! You root for your kite and "ooh" and "ah" as it creeps higher and lower. In a final furious thrashing, the black, white and blue kite is the victor! You celebrate with a smile and check your watch. It's 3PM; time to go.

With an audible sigh, you head back to the shade trees of the parking lot--past the "octopile", past the zooming acrobatic stunt kites, and finally through the sea of calm, one-line kites floating overhead in the breeze. Your journey in the Bay has come to an end, and now it's time to leave the ice cold winds of the Bay Area and head back home to warmer pastures--AKA the Sacramento Valley. As you sit in this parking lot of a street waiting for each car to take its turn to get on to the freeway, you're filled with a sense of childlike fun and wonder, rather than the irritations of everyday traffic hazards.

You simply can't wait to get a kite of your own so you can relive the fun and excitement that kity flying can bring.

And so, when life gets you down, or you're just bored to tears, perhaps this advice is all you need to perk up and have some fun: "go fly a kite."