The Kitemen of Kerobokan

Along with fishing, climbing trees, playing on scooters, and turning leaves into whirligigs, kite-flying is a pastime of Balinese boys. (Not long after adding smoking and tattoos to their regimen). Some might say it is an island-wide obsession, deeply entrenched into the psyche from childhood, never to be outgrown.

When the winds pick up, all eyes are on the skies.

Starting from a tender age, toddlers will learn from siblings and elders, to fashion flimsy things out of plastic bits, then tie them to the ends of tree branches. In their youth, these laki-laki kecil (younger men) might piece a kite together from larger plastic trips or buy them ready-made; in the shape of owls, birds or barong faces.

A group of friends will hoist them high, carry them aloft to the perfect spot where the wind is just-so, and let ‘em rip high above rice fields. During the height of windy season, it is not uncommon to see a pair of teenaged boys scooting by, the driver at the controls while his buddy seated behind grasps the fluttering plastic beast above his head or rolled up and clutched tightly to his body.

But these Balinese boys – who soon enough become men – stray far from simple: They like nothing more than to outshine their friends, attract attention, earn bragging rights in the banjar. Which often boils down to this: On this island, they rarely do simple.  That includes kites, which are taken so seriously that groups of boys and men will spend weeks if not months building hardy and fanciful enough kites to enter them into competitions on the beach.

Mertasari beach in Sanur features a massive and open field skirting the edge of the coastline – where car shows, music festivals (think reggae and heavy metal) and Ogoh-ogoh displays pre-Nyepi –  take place. It is also a prime kite-launching site, where an upsurge in thermals sees hundreds of boys, men and assorted onlookers gather. As for kite-size, the bigger the better.

And when you have all the time in the world, you can do BIG.

I was down at Mertasari beach the other day, where I became entranced by a heart-stopping sight: An impossibly massive and lengthy stretch of fabric heaved, breathed and for a few precious minutes, took to the skies while dozens of men yanked and pulled and probably, also prayed for it to stay afloat for a while longer. But it wasn’t the kite alone that made my jaw drop. It was the story that unfolded as I began to speak with a man named Wayan – and glanced at the large group of men surrounding me.

“This kite,” said Wayan, decked out in red polo top (as were a large group of others), “was made by all these men.” He nodded in the direction of the coastline and the further, into waist-high water, where a string of men was holding onto the tail end of the interminably long kite-string.

“Who are they?” I asked.

“WBP,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“They are from Lapas Kerobokan.”

It took a few minutes for the meaning to sink in. Those who, like him, bedecked in red or yellow, were staff members; while the men in dark blue shirts, were not. (It soon became patently clear why those sporting bandanas tied tightly around their faces shielded their identity from all).

The men of Lapas Kerobokan are not called prisoners; they are known as WBP – Warga Binaan Pemasyarakatan – which roughly translates to resident patrons of a corrections facility; or, a group of individuals needing guidance. There are Indonesians and foreigners among them, incarcerated for everything from drug-trafficking to murder. Built for a capacity of 320, Kerobokan Prison (a.k.a. “Hotel K”), now houses over 1,400 individuals.

The WBP of Kerobokan do not have much in terms of space or freedom of mobility; but what they have in spades I lots of time. They are also given opportunities at ‘rehabilitation,’ which includes activities such as painting, crafting, silver-smithing (Mule Jewels), and, as I recently learned, kite-building. (They are a different species than the ‘kites’ of contraband paper with written tips that are known to ‘fly’ around, or circulate among incarcerated offenders).

“Wayan,” I asked, “how long is this kite?”

“Eighty meters,” was the consensus from those gathered around. Aduh! What an expanse of brawn and bravado, tightly sewn up into those seams.

“How long did it take them to make it?”

“Two weeks.”

For a fleeting moment, I thought about Papillon, and about prisoners who succeeded at daring escapes – such as the one any of these WBP might have attempted in these open waters; other islands were within reach. But here, not one of the men lost focus; all eyes and muscles were trained on the very big bird as it dwarfed the others.

It was an altogether unbelievable and sobering sight. Staff and WBP, scattered around the massive field that is also Mertasari beach; pulling, hoisting, untangling, shouting, laughing, watching. Alongside groups of Balinese youth, hoisting their own but in awe of the outsized striped creature.

It was an example of teamwork and camaraderie like any other one might find, on a typically hot and sunny day, where Indonesian boys and men launch their kites from an open field, at water’s edge, on the island of Bali.

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