As the April sunshine blazed and the days grew drier, the boisterous north east trade winds swept in from the restless Atlantic and our schools closed with a sigh in a tired haze of dust. With growing excitement we would soon dash down the hot roads dodging stony potholes, sweating and chatting, to crowd the nearest shop and stare in admiration at the neat stacks of thin, delicate paper, layered in vivid translucent tones and tints along the worn, wooden counters.
Caressing the silky smoothness, while we considered our choice of concentrated colours and satiny textures, we were always careful to first dry our hands on our clothes and not to crease any of the fragile pieces or we would be charged extra from our precious, limited budget by the eagle-eyed shopkeeper.
The crinkling of plain parchment characterised by its slight, sharp smell of oil, the rustling of the feather light tissue sheets that stained in a flash, the faint flutter of the finished finery fastened overhead, and the close consultations in the shimmering heat with its floating pinpoints of particles, conveyed that it was once more serious time for our annual kite-making rituals. Thick, sturdy and opaque, the more expensive Barbados blend with its shiny one-side finish was reserved for the highlights such as the angles of the star point “tips” outline design that we favoured.
Catching the light when held up, the clear cellophane came in an airy array of hues, casting a sudden shade with each swish that fleetingly transformed the ambiance in a flicker of the fingers and fired the imagination. We all knew the power of plenty pretty pieces painstakingly glued individually in a multi-coloured cluster that gleamed and glowed with the intricacy of an illuminated stained glass composition, attracting attention and dancing as a towering kaleidoscope in the blue sky.
Uncle Kamel, our voluntary, talented kite artist and my father’s easy-going best friend would come by faithfully, smiling broadly, every Easter weekend, rain or shine, to patiently create the four medium “singing engines” for me and my siblings. Long and lanky, with black sideburns, shiny waves of hair, and several children of his own, he cheerfully sauntered in with his immaculate shirt neatly tucked into his trousers, looking more like he had prepared for a long day at the office than the messy job that awaited over the weekend. We would eagerly greet him in a happy chorus, rush to pull up a chair and bring a cool drink, so that he would grin, joke with our bemused father, then laugh out loud at all the unaccustomed attention, while looking over the recycled frames and supporting materials laid out on the desk or kitchen table. Black and white photographs of his wedding day hung in a prominent place of honour on the walls of our home my entire childhood, whereas there were none of my parents, such was the high esteem with which Dad viewed their relationship that dated back to their childhood in the capital.
My brothers would collect dangling bunches of the fat mucilaginous berries of the cordia tentandra/obliqua trees known as “passey”/ “pacee” or the clammy cherry mispronounced locally as the “gamma cherry” that was a free, seasonal source of a potent, non-toxic glue. Like its common name suggests, the opened pale yellow ripe fruit is damp, slimy and sticky to the touch, with a mild sweetness. The viscid, edible extract relieves cough and lung infections, a decoction of its striking, round leaves is used for hypertension, and various parts of the tree is tapped in traditional medicines including by the Arawaks who call it “yuwanaro” and by Barbadians as a cooling tea. In more places ranging from Taiwan and Indonesia to India the berry is preserved as a pickle, added as a matrix for tablet formulations, and deployed as an anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial drug. Termed “bahuvaraka” in Sanskrit or “lasura” in Hindi, it is a popular in ayurvedic treatment for lung diseases.
For weeks we would have fiddled with our very basic “caddy old punch” the simple, everyday kite that could be cobbled in about a minute, by even the clumsiest enthusiast, from a single sheet of paper, usually, furtively torn from an exercise book, abundant newsprint or even a discarded brown shopping bag; a few “pointers” or stems secretly yanked from the resident coconut leaf broom, a haphazard rag cloth string tail and a “catta” (cotton thread) reel swiped from our mother’s sewing machine. The more ambitious and dexterous would try the slightly bigger finely finished version of this flamboyant “broom” kite complete with fancy crepe frills, a guiding “nose” and an essential “tongue” that produced the airborne buzzing.
But the real “singing engines” were the much-loved pieces crafted over the light white wood or even bamboo structures that bore the bad “bull” – a narrow strip of firm paper cut in a jagged pattern and pasted to the tense thread below the nose – which hummed and sung in the strong breezes, and was controlled by a taut “balla” (a ball of hard twine). We would crowd Uncle Kamel, anxious for him to start then complete our kite, rushing to hand him the heavy scissors, the greaseproof paper that formed the background face of the design, and our selection of coloured papers for frills, the geometric points and to top it off, the elaborately cut compulsory centre piece that our exacting craftsman would labour over for many minutes, since this was regarded as challenging artwork in itself taking hours to perfect. Frowning as he twisted and snipped repeatedly, Uncle Kamel would slowly unfold a beautiful, intricate design to our loud gasps of approval, before gingerly applying glue to the underside and affixing it in the middle at an angle.
Living in a time when most things were hand and homemade, and people got by with what little they had, buying only the mere essentials, we would thank our special kite maker who toiled late into the night, gaze in awe at him and each unique, completed masterpiece and then safely hang it up high on the wall. Unable to sleep for hours, we would fidget and fuss in the night swelter, worrying about croaking frogs and any long-established signs of coming rain, praying fervently for fine weather, before finally drifting off to dream fitfully. Easter Monday would find my mother up early, cooking for hours as we awoke hungrily to a house saturated with scrumptious scents, as she prepared a range of customary snacks and tasty foods such as fresh cassava and egg balls, dhall puri and curried chicken, fried rice or chowmein, cook-up rice, cake or pone etc.
We would rush to get ready, pack the trusty workhorse, the solid Morris Oxford, and be off talking and singing non-stop as our tolerant father drove along the National Park and the Georgetown sea wall to view the few early souls trying to beat the expected crowds of thousands, and to make our way to our special spot near Le Ressouvenir along the sprawling East Coast of Demerara. An immense animal pasture clear of electrical lines, scattered with the thorny acacia and the occasional dunks trees twisted like screaming sentinels by decades of brutal battering from the salty barrage, it bordered the ocean, with the curved concrete boundary wall rising high around dense thickets of green mangrove and soft birdsong. Surprised cows would glance thoughtfully at us, and the bleating goats and calm sheep merely drifted by, as we set up our rough tent, comprising a flapping sheet of cloth tossed on bare branches and mats scattered on the cracked ground.
The perfect place for flying, our father would hold each model aloft until at the right moment when the air currents rushed in, and with a sharp tug the kite went soaring free into the fresh morning air, gaily dancing from side to side and rising until the “balla” was down to the bare wooden stick. Sometimes, the tail was not enough, and it would pitch madly like a creature possessed, and if we were not quick and alert, it would smash angrily into the ground, and end up mortally damaged with a hole or a dislodged frame that he did his best to repair.
One memorable year, when we were still quite young, he tied the kites around our little waists until the powerful blasts dragged and threatened to lift us up, thereafter he resorted to restraining the “singing engines” from the tough, weathered tree trunks whose roots were wedged far and deep. In between, we would indulge in games of country cricket and cards, and incessant chatter, keeping an eye out for the predatory fighting kites with their tell-tale glinting razor blades or the dreaded but rare glistening glass coated string.
Another time, as early twilight approached and we were preparing to wrap up another delightful day, the line suddenly snapped in my sore hands with the force of the gust, and my kite accelerated into the dreaded death spiral in the far distance, as I looked on in horror and screamed for help. Our father took off in blistering pursuit, a determined kite runner, skipping over the treacherous holes, ducking from wicked thorns and baffled cattle, racing right to the end and I can hear him still, if I but listen keenly to the whispering winds, wherever I am, “For you, a thousand times over.”
ID is looking for a psychic nut tree to bleed on Good Friday, but she will pass on the egg yolk in the cup prediction and will avoid the beach like some prudent Belizeans, while indulging in Guyanese nostalgia, fighting the flu and hopefully trying her hand at a “kan kawa” or maybe taming a Trinidadian “mad bull.”