Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Panama Hat Trail

Good travel books on Ecuador are hard to find. One that I can heartily recommend is The Panama Hat Trailwritten by American writer Tom Miller during the mid 1980’s. The author sets out to understand Ecuador through one of its principle icons and biggest exports, the so-called “Panama hat.” Miller begins by explaining that these popular straw hats are correctly called sombreros de paja toquilla. They came to be known as Panama hats because 19th-century American prospectors used to buy them in Panama while en route to the gold fields of California.

Miller tracks the production of these symbolic hats from the weaving town of Montecristi, which is famous for its fine quality hats, on Ecuador’s steamy west coast to the high Andes. His revealing tales about the exploitation of indigenous hat-makers and his speculations about the role the Panama hat trade has played in shaping Ecuador's history make for an instructive and entertaining read. Above all, Miller shows a genuine love of this beautiful South American country and its welcoming inhabitants. Here is one of my favourite lines from the book:

“To me, Ecuador has been a country with its head in the clouds, its heart on its sleeve, and its groin to the ground.” –Tom Miller

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