Basil was a British man, fascinated with flowers and Orientalism. He 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. Basil was my guide, and we were about to attend what he called “the most amazing and elaborate festival 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.” His hands swooped across the rice paddies, gesturing toward something that only existed in his mind. “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 women and a good parade every now and again.
We arrived an hour early. Even so, the streets were crowded, but only with men. In fact, I couldn’t see a single woman. Even the very young and old seemed to be preparing for the parade. The entire time we waited, Basil rambled in my ear. I wished I had a pint or at least someone to talk to other than my giddy-as-a-schoolboy guide.
As the hour came to a close, the men’s idle chatter boomed into rigorous hollering. Basil said that they were calling the women out, though the women would not come out until the felt the men were suitably loud. I felt out of place standing there quietly with Basil, but then I wasn’t even sure what the men around me were shouting. I wouldn’t want to shout the wrong thing about some guy’s wife.
The first to emerge into the town center were the youngest wives and women of marrying age. They wore red aprons over their white dresses. For some reason, even in their shy demeanor, their dress and actions seemed a little suggestive at times. Even though the dresses went no higher than the ankles, it always seemed like they kept having to hold them down or they’d fly away.
”Dendrobium Frosty Dawn,” Basil whispered. I scratched at my chin hairs and nodded sagely. The words meant nothing to me, really, but I let him go on.
Behind the first group of women was a chipper group of little yellow dresses. “Macradenia multiflora,” Basil whispered again. I felt as if we were at the cinema and he was spoiling the plot. I was thankful that he was trying to educate me, but I would have preferred to enjoy the parade without him interrupting.
The second entourage held all the young girls of the village, three-year-olds holding hands with fourteen-year-olds, six-year-olds orbiting around eight-year-olds. A lot of them looked like they’d sewn their dresses together themselves. The older girls stared firmly at the backs of the Frosty Dawn women or at the ground. The younger 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. Others were clearly about to pop and had to walk with their hands supporting their impressive bellies. Their maternity clothes were golden bronze at the sleeves, white shawls at the shoulders, and the bright yellow around their stomachs.
“Paphiopedilum villosum. Beautiful,” Basil whispered in excitement. I wanted to brush him off like a gnat.
“Oh!” he exclaimed, 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 subdued reverence. To me, they were just a flock of old birds. Someone made them nice dresses, though. Or, most likely they made them. They were royal purple, the silk hems rippled like water as they walked. Each fold of their clothing suggested a deeper shade of purple layered within the first. As the women strode forward, the deeper layers presented themselves more clearly. The men organized into a chant like a vocal version of the wave, and I couldn’t even hear Basil anymore.
Finally, a slow procession of elderly women began to march through the village center. These decrepit few wore light, white wool coats over their thick purple dresses. The dress was much simpler for these women but unlike the other women, they all sported large floppy 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 from the back. Some of the women walked in a shuffle and looked like they were going to keel over at the end of the march. Others were at a more sprightly age and they smiled, cried, or waved.
Blowing on reeds and banging drums, we escorted the old women until they reached the end of the line, where all the other ladies were waiting. The women all hugged each other and bowed to the men. The men, quiet for the first time, bowed back.
“And that is the parade,” Basil smiled and exhaled with some sense of finality. “Now, we drink and dance.”
Now that was what I liked to hear. In a finer mood than when we started, I joined in with the men as they picked up their chanting once again.