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Strangers #4 & #5 - Jenny and Pete, Kite Flying Festival


“A city is composed of different kinds of men. 

 Similar people can not bring a city into existence.” 


I was born in a city, one of the biggest, London (population 9 million), but I have lived in the country, regional Victoria (population 5,111) .  Now I am located in one of the smaller capital cities in the world, Canberra (population 400,000 and growing).  I know which I prefer.  There is a certain energy from cities that can not be replicated in country towns or areas. 

Humans settled in one place to become farmers about 12,000 years ago, says Marian Smith in Cities: The First 6,000 Years (2019). People lived together in small groups seeing the same people each day.  New people appeared at special occasions; weddings, festivals and itinerant travellers, often selling something.  Strangers to these constant lives were treated with wariness and distrust.  The festivals and weddings allowed people to hone skills in dealing with others, from outside their group.  Humans gathered together in cities about 6,000 years ago, drawn to be together.  Cities are places where  every day is filled with strangers.

Cities grew from a human need to be with others.  Living in small villages provided everything humans needed for a successful life.  These small villages could have covered the planet, but there was something some of our ancestors needed that was not provided by village life.  Monica Smith, an archaeologist from UCLA, describes how people had lived in small groups with strictly defined structures and rituals of interacting with strangers when we started moving to cities intentionally, a way of life that was defined by the presence of strangers.  Economic advantage was one of the draw-cards but there was something else; the desire to be with others we did not know.

For many this is still an anthama; living surrounded by people we do not know, having to interact with strangers on a daily basis, is some form of torture.  Sociologist Emile Durkheim argued in 1897, a time when industrialisation was forcing people into cities in large numbers for the first time in history, that so many strangers will scramble our brains leading to calamity.  He forwarded the idea that dealing with so many different people and having to adjust to each one differently, each individual would loose the understanding of who they were, which in turn, would lead to decay, disorder, despair and finally suicide.  This idea was picked up by George Simmel in 1908 who conceded cities do provide excitement but this constant modification for others leads to physical closeness and social remoteness; leaving urbanities emotionally numb, and only able to relate to others as part of a maths equation.  If they did relate to each individual stranger they met they would fall ‘into unthinkable mental conditions’.

For me living in a country area did have some advantages; easy to get around, a quiet that surrounded us, ability to see the night sky, and the sense of community that comes when every time you visit anywhere in the town; shops, library or even go for a walk you see someone you know.  A trip to the local supermarket could take hours as I would stop and chat to each person I knew.

Cities replicate this community building in their own way, not only through locality, but through interest.   And there are millions of ways it is done; buy-nothing groups on Facebook, social activities built around sport and schools, social groups both formal and informal like Probus, U3A, bookclubs, film groups and meet ups and festivals.  Big festivals like Summernats, Floriade or Moovin’ the Groove, celebrate a love of a particular thing and attract people who are interested. Small festivals give people a chance to come together over a shared interest or love to spend time doing the same thing.  At festivals both large and small no one can hope to meet everyone who attends but gathered in one place, having a common experience increases a sense of belonging, well-being and contentment.

The Kite Flying Festival on Patrick White Lawn on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin offers just this opportunity.  It caters for everyone who has even the remotest interest in kites; those starting their kite flying journey, those who have some skill and those who are professional and really know what they are doing.  To add to the atmosphere food trucks, inflatable and non-inflatable rides and music.  Jay Trievdi has made a festival out of the thing he loved to do as a child in India. Replicating a feeling of joy at a small item held together with bamboo, paper and string.  The first festival 6 years ago in Blacktown, Sydney attracted 6000 people, about 5,500 more people than expected.  When the festival moved to Canberra in 2020, again, more people than expected turned up.  Kite flying, it turns out, is attractive to many people.  Trievdi thinks it is a good way to spend time with family, doing something everyone can enjoy.

I get there early as it is going to be a warm 33 C, and settle down to watch.

The first kite in the air isa small jellyfish shaped one and only flies with the assistance of the child, about 5, running in large circles.  The jellyfish dances as it is pulled along; hitting the ground then bouncing up repeatedly until the young child runs out of puff.  There area few attempts at getting butterflies, dragonflies and birds in the sky but mainly it is not a great success.  There isa steady wind coming off the lake but the kites are not cooperative. One older man with a professional looking reel catches the wind and lets out enough string that his rainbow kite hovers above the trees.  He walks back the 100m or so, to his partner and lie son the ground tugging the kite every so often to keep it moving.  I approach to find out if he has any special means to get kites to fly.

Pete and Jenny live South of Tharwa on a property.  Jenny tells me they have two areas they use for kite flying.  The single string kites are fun but the double string kites give you a good workout.  “Think about it,” she says.  “Both your arms are moving all the time.  You are stepping backwards and forwards the whole time, pulling with your arms.”  I agree it does sound like hard work.  “Kites are great for everyone; the whole family.  Gets kids off devices, outdoors, breathing fresh air and active”.  

Pete gives his apologies for not chatting to me and flying the kite, he is still lyingon his back.  He is a little hard of hearing and the wind from the lake combined with the dull hum from the crowds is making it hard to hear.  I address my questions to Jenny.  She takes a larger kite from a cover and shows me how she made it.  The kite is made of fabric painted with cornflour and water, “Like old school glue”. it  has yellow surveyors tape from Bunnings for the tail.  She has sewn pockets into the design to catch the wind.  There is not enough wind to carry this one today, but she is happy to sit and take in the atmosphere.  

I have noticed there are some kite shapes that appear to be harder to get off the ground.  Dragonflies are top of that list.  I ask if there is a trick to getting these shapes airborne.  I am told they are notoriously hard but they are attractive.  The wind here is also not the best.  It is strong, coming up off the lake but it bounces against the buildings and swirls around.  The most successful flying is done above the tree line.

Pete starts to gather his string in.  As he is doing this he tells me about a time in the 1970s when they came to watch a plane fly over for Australia Day.  There were no trees planted around the lake then.  The sonic boom from the planes smashed their car windscreen.  He says this with a smile although I am not sure I would have been best pleased.  

Jenny enquires about my project, I explain about In Transit and how Have We Met? grew from that. Jenny tells me about her mother, in Sydney, who would travel on the buses along the whole route, both ways, for company and to get out.  Sitting up near the driver she would chat about the things they passed: gardens, schools, people.  She goes on to tell me that she organised a daily delivery of food for her mother from Woolworths so that there was someone who knocked on her door everyday.  When her mother had a fall it was the Woolies delivery driver who alerted Jenny that no one was answering the door.  

Pete has drawn his string in and is folding up his kite.  He also offers advice to a family who have their butterfly caught in tree.  Pete is not getting ready to leave as he wants to stay to see if “The Indians” turn up.  He tells me about the Indian kite flying festival that happens everywhere in India at the same time.  They fly special small kites that do tricks but also have battles with each other.  One string will be tangled around another, a barb on one string will cut the second kite string so the kites flies away, falls to the ground or is carried, piggyback style, by the first.  This sounds impressive.  I am told about other kite festivals around the country.  There is a professional kite flying festival at Bondi each year.  I am astonished that anyone could make a living through flying a kite.  The National Arboretum is the place to fly kites; the natural amphitheatre has a draught wind even on the stillest of days, there are always people there flying kites.  I find out, later, they also do kite making workshops during school holidays and hold a kite festival of their own.

As I leave to walk up from the lake toward the main action I see a large crowd of young Indians who are working kite strings in a very energetic way.  One of the men, in a brown t-shirt, is targeting other small kites with the aim of tangling strings.  I ask a young woman about the kite she is holding.  She tells me they are light weight and made of paper not plastic and made to fly fast.  As she is telling me about the Indian festival (January 14-15) a huge yell goes up from her crowd.  The young man in the brown t-shirt has successfully cut the string of an adversary and now the group are all whooping and cheering, as the other small kite falls to the ground. He continues to fly his kite and tangles his string in that of a dragon.  The string is successfully severed with the dragon piggy-backing on the black smaller kite.  The owner of the dragon is not pleased, he appeals to his mother.  She is trying to explain to him that this is part of the fun; this is what would happen if they were in India.

The kite festival in Indian, Makar Sankranti, is a two day holiday which marks the end of winter and the beginning of the harvest season, a period known as Uttarayan.  It is said that the kite symbolises the raising of the gods from their winter slumber.  The biggest of the festivals is held in Gujarat and attracts people from all over the world, including professional kite flyers from as far away as Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan and China.  The festival in Gujarat gets a mention in the Rigveda, a collection of Sanskrit hymns that dates back 5000 years.

A young man who has been listening to the conversation is now showing me his phone;  a video of him, at the Makar Sankranti. The sky filled with coloured squares.  He is so excited to be showing this off and tells me Narendra Modi comes from Gujarat.  His pride shines.

I reflect on my interactions as I walk towards the bus stop to take me home.  There was so much joy on the Patrick White Lawn; happy faces all looking up.  All ages, all abilities.  Who would have thought that a small piece of paper held together with string and bamboo could bring so much joy.


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