Team after team is announced and despite the encouragement of the audience that holds its breath in hopeful anticipation, the kites all drop.
But not even the sky's inaccessibility can put a damper on this day. Thousands of friendly faces being filled with delicious dishes compose the crowd. Amongst the celebratory atmosphere, Loch and I drift about, sampling different street food, and clinking Gallo beer bottles to friends and acquaintances we bump into.
Giant Kites Fighting for Heaven
By mid-afternoon, without a festival kite having unlocked sky, Loch leaves to make it to Guatemala City in time to share the holiday meal of Fiambre with his family. I wander around snapping photos until I am gladly roped in by the "Reilly's crowd," a group of bartenders and bar-goers from Antigua's only Irish pub. We sit in the outskirts of the festival and take it all in. A trio of Mayan girls wearing woven dresses accost us with giggles and smiles. We teach them various handshakes after taking care of the usual formalities: What are your names? How old are you? Where are you from? What year are you in school? If you could be any animal in the world, what animal would you be? (A horse, a quetzal bird, and an elephant).
The girls add extra gusto to our enlivened group. They laugh and grab at the novelty of my friend Heather's blonde hair. We begin a musical economy of exchange and teach each other different songs. The girls teach us a song in their Kachequel Mayan language and I teach them the African melody, "Imani" I learned back in high school.
We are broken out of our musical revelry when the crowd erupts in anxious cries. We follow the crowds' pointing fingers and look to the sky. A kite made by a team of young Guatemalan farmers, Espiritus Espantosos (Scary Spirits) is working with the wind, fighting against gravity and pushing towards the higher reaches of the sky. A half dozen jovenes deftly grasp the rope and run against the kite, encouraging it to catch the wind. The announcer takes the tone of an sports broadcaster as everyone claps their hands while emitting contagious oos and ahhs.
People pull their hair when Scary Spirits begins to descend like the kites before it. It is going to fall and those below rush to clear a space. Growing with the disappointed groans, an empty circle forms where it seems it will fall. As if conscious that all our fates rest upon it, the kite does not give in yet. At the last possible moment, its colorful face catches a bit of a breeze and inches upwards. It playfully torments us, unsure if it belongs to Earth or sky.
It lingers, as if uncertain, but then seems to realize what it was made for and the single sail feels something in the wind and finds its wings. The rope, that a moment before was rationed, rushes out of the jovenes hands. A raucous roar of applause bursts from the now victorious crowd. The three little girls jump into the air and add their ovation to the cries of tourists, locals, farmers, businessmen from el capital, volunteers, Peace Corpers, children, adults, and everyone who decided to leave their lives behind today and come to the kite festival.
Looking up at Espiritus Espantosos, which is now safely placed in the sky, I think about the jovenes who were tasked with handling the kite's cord. Today they are heroes to everyone who knows them. While a few more of the mammoth kites will manage to find their wings today, it will always be the Scary Spirits' team who first broke open the sky.
Scary Spirit's Return to Earth
When the light wanes, the sunset provides a warm backlight to dozens of colorful kites standing at the edges of the festival. Everyone files into bleachers around the center stage. There a group of Mayan musicians plays traditional music to open for the Norwegian singer, Mari Boine, who hypnotizes with a Sigur Ros-esque sound. Mothers pass out blankets to their children and families and friends huddle together to stay warm as the night air washes over us. In the Reilly's group a communal liter of Gallo Beer passes from hand to hand.
When one of the last songs reaches its climax, as the bass player sways in a rhythmic trance and seems to leave this world to enter the song, Mari raises her hands to the now darkened sky. The kite Scary Spirits reappears leisurely from the darkness. Its edges slowly emerge as handlers carefully lead it back down from the heaven it fought so hard to join. Children point in a sort of awe and the stage lights catch its colorful paper while the drums race towards the final note of the song.
After setting off hitch-hiking post college from Chile to Alaska, Luke Maguire Armstrong made it as far as Guatemala. There he directs the educational development organization Nuestros Ahijados in a mission to "break the chains of poverty through education and formation. He is the author of iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About and co-editor of The Expeditioner's Guide to the World. His first novel, How One Guitar Will Save the World, is at large looking for a publisher. Follow him on Twitter: @lukespartacus.
All photos by the author except where indicated.
The Burning of the Devil in Guatemala by Luke Maguire Armstrong
Surviving Loco in Guatemala by Luke Armstrong
The Kite by Amy Carlson
Nomads' Land by Michael Buckley
Other Mexico and Central America travel stories from the archives
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