My guide was a British man, fascinated with flowers and Orientalism. Basil had the amazing talent of rambling over a pint about the effects of Chinese philosophy and trade on the Western world. “I see,” I would tell him, smiling and nodding as he continued his rants.
“We’re going to one of the most amazing festivals in this part of Asia: the parade of a thousand orchids. It’s a flower festival celebrating the beauty and prosperity of the village and its women. Seamstresses work almost the entire year to make these dresses. Of course, these are all made of passion rather than the daily affairs of sewing and hemming!” He laughed. I laughed, too, not wanting to seem impolite. I wasn’t particularly interested in flowers or seamstresses, but I did enjoy a good parade and women.
We arrived an hour early and it was still crowded in the streets with men. In fact, I couldn’t see a single woman or even a little girl in their midst. Basil rambled in my ear the entire hour and I wished I had a pint. As the time came closer, the men got progressively louder. Basil said that they are calling the women out, though the women are not allowed to start until at least 16 minutes after the shouting begins.
The first to emerge into the town center are the youngest wives and women of marrying age. They have red aprons over their white dresses. For some reason, even in their shy demeanor, their dress and actions seemed a little suggestive. “Dendrobium Frosty Dawn,” Basil whispered. I scratched my head.
Behind them, chipper as can be, was a group of little yellow dresses. “Macradenia multiflora,” Basil whispered again, as if he were at a theatrical performance. They were all the girls of the village, three-year-olds holding hands with fourteen-year-olds. Some of them looked like they’d sewn them together themselves. The older girls stared firmly at the backs of the Frosty Dawn women or at the ground. The little girls looked up at their older counterparts or proudly out at the men, who applauded violently in their presence.
The next group was much smaller: it was the pregnant women. Some of them looked like they could have belonged with the Frosty Dawn girls, with whom I was comparing everyone else. Others were clearly about to pop. Their maternity clothes were a golden bronze at the sleeves, white shawls at the shoulders, and the brightest yellow at their stomachs. “Paphiopedilum villosum. Beautiful,” Basil whispered in excitement. I wanted to brush him off like a gnat. I was thankful that he was trying to educate me, but I would have preferred to enjoy the parade by myself.
“Oh!” he cried, then covered his mouth, even though the men around him were shouting loud as firecrackers. “These are the matrons of the village. Cattleya violacea.” Basil spoke the name with such reverence. To me, they were just middle-aged broads. Still, the dresses seemed to ripple like water as they walked. They were all purple, dressed in the finest of silk. Each fold of their clothing suggested a deeper shade of purple layered within. As the women strode forward, the deeper layers presented themselves more clearly.
Finally, a slow procession of elderly women began to march through the village center. They wore light wool coats which were white, their thick dresses were purple and they sported large yellow hats to protect them from the sun. “Haraella retrocalla,” Basil told me, then tugged on my shirt. “Get ready to join in.” Sure enough, the men began gathering to the sides and behind the group of old women, offering them their arms and cheering them on in the back. Some of the women truly looked exhausted. Others were at a more spritely age and they smiled or cried or waved. The men celebrated these women until they reached the end of the line, where all the others were waiting. The women all hugged each other and bowed to the men. The men bowed back.
“And that is the parade,” Basil smiled and exhaled with some sense of finality. “Now, we drink and dance.”
I liked the sound of that.