The Chrysanthemum

In The mid-70s, my old band, Stringband, got to do a tour of Mexico. It was my very first trip anywhere southern and exotic. We left Toronto on a bone-chilling February morning; debarking in Mexico City, we entered another world, a world of contrasts and intensity. It hit me the moment we stepped off the plane – the hot humid air, palm trees shimmering in the distance, the dark, hungry eyes of the ragged boys already trying to sell us straw hats and ponchos.

That night we feasted guiltily in a fancy restaurant, while outside, beggars crouched on the sidewalk. Later we went to a huge square where dozens of mariachi bands milled about, all hoping to be hired that evening. I was spellbound by the melodious cacaphony as trumpets, violins, and guitars competed with car horns and the sharp cries of street vendors. The music echoed on through my dreams that night and for many nights to come.

Ah, you’re probably thinking, the glamorous lives of entertainers. Not so fast. Our employer was the Canadian embassy in Mexico; the tour was a sort of goodwill promotion of Canada, and they wanted their money’s worth. Not only had they scheduled 19 concerts in 21 days, but the itinerary included several out-of-the way places. We spent far too many hours on treacherous mountain roads and learned Mexico’s first rule – everything moves slowly except the drivers. We almost passed out from sunstroke during noontime concerts in shadeless town squares. And we took turns battling Montezuma’s revenge.

But there was still plenty of wonder and magic. I remember standing on a mountain, gazing up at the ruins of monumental pyramids, while the air seemed to bristle with the ghosts of Aztec warriors. And I remember colours: crimson hibiscus and purple bougainvillea; the shawls for sale in the markets, woven rainbows of turquoise and orange and sun-bright yellow; and the pure emerald green of two tiny lizards like jewels on the white wall above my bed one morning.

But mostly I remember the people – their spontaneity, the child-like delight they took in us, their generosity. Small school girls clustered around me, all with eyes the colour of chocolate, staring at my eyes and arguing in amazement – look, she has green eyes! No, blue! No, green! And a young college student from the audience who kissed my hand, then plucked a silver bracelet from his wrist and shyly gave it to me.

But one memory stands out in particular. We had just finished a concert in a small town square. Suddenly an old farmer, a campasino, came up to me out of the crowd. Under his battered straw hat his solemn face was brown as earth and fissured like the hills beyond the town. Without a word he thrust something into my hands then slipped away. I looked down. I was holding a chrysanthemum – no stem, just this beautiful, silvery-mauve bloom the size of a melon. I had never seen anything like it.

Quickly I caught up to him and touched his sleeve. The old man’s face remained serious. Then I pressed into his hand a little plastic Canadian flag pin, one of dozens the embassy had given us to hand out. I was embarrassed by its cheapness, but it was all I had at that moment to give him.

 Bandera, I said. Flag. Muchas gracias.

Canadiense? he asked.

 Si, I replied. Bandera Canadiense.

Then he took the pin as though it were a diamond, and at last his face opened up, blossoming like the chrysanthemum into a radiant, wondrous smile.

Gracias, senorita, he said, Gracias. Then he turned again and disappeared into the crowd.

The flower of course eventually wilted and I had to throw it away. But that old man’s smile continues to bloom inside me, and I guess it always will.