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The Panama Hat Trail Paperback – November 1, 2001
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I first traveled through Ecuador in the late 1970s, fresh out of Peace Corps Guatemala and returned with various donor groups over a twenty-year period. I found Miller’s journey revealing and informative, as well as relaxing. I also appreciated his dry wit as well as the obvious empathy for the people he encountered along the way.
Those of us who have backpacked through Latin America could only chuckle at Miller’s checklist prior to boarding one of the local buses:
1. Look at the tires….Visible threads on the tires means a blowout is imminent.”
2. Does the bus have at least one windshield wiper?
3. You can’t check the bus for brakes. Once I asked a driver in Guatemala about the brakes on his bus. “Look,” he said, “the bus is stopped isn’t it?”
One chapter provides insights into some of the historic nuances of the country. “When you mention Guayaquil, the people of Quito snicker. Monos, monkeys, live there. Uncouth sacrilegious, lazy, no modesty or commitment to family or God. They lack ambition, culture, and spirituality….Quito and Guayaquil have so little in common they appear as if on different planets…”
During his trek, the author makes some interesting side trips, including a trip into the jungle area in search of the impact of the growing oil industry, which is dominated by foreign corporations. He quotes the French sociologist, Claude Levi Strauss, who observed, “A continent barely touched by man lay exposed to men whose greed could no longer be satisfied by their own continent.” The Ecuadorian native Indians who live in the central highlands of the Andes make most of the hats, but according to the author, are at the bottom of the “social heap,” planting corn, harvesting potatoes.
A story within a story emerges when the author veered from his Panama hat trail to check out the border to the north with Colombia. He came across several towns in this relatively isolated part of the country that reflected a new level of prosperity due at least partially to an “overflow from some of the world’s most productive coca cultivation and processing operations nearby.” In one raid in 1984 northeast of Puerto Colon, almost fourteen tons of cocaine were discovered! According to Miller, “The sleepy stretch of the San Miguel between the two countries, so friendly and easy to travel, turned out to be one of South America’s major drug highways.”
Like many “Travel” authors, Miller provides some insights into the countries they pass through. He identified a “loss of national identify” not limited to tourist literature or straw hats and refers to the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, when ABC anchorman Peter Jennings briefly praised each country as its standard-bearer entered the Memorial Coliseum. When Ecuador’s flag came on, he summed up this lack of identity with, “The conquistadores stopped in Ecuador. They didn’t find enough riches, so they moved on.”
He also highlights Moritz Thomsen, author of the “best English-language books about Ecuadorans coping with life at the bottom,” entitled, “Living Poor.” He went on to say that Moritz would agree with Robert Byron in defending traveling writers whose books insult their hosts: “Somebody must trespass on the taboos of modern nationalism, in the interest of human reason. Business can’t. Diplomacy won’t. It has to be people like us.” Miller ended this pithy segment of his book with, “To me, Ecuador had been a country with its head in the clouds, its heart on its sleeve, and it’s growing to the ground.”
I’ve been fortunate enough to meet the author, and learned where our paths exploring the magical country of Ecuador had crossed over the years. I also became aware of, and recommend, his acclaimed adventure books including this one, as well as “On the Border” about his travels along the U.S.-Mexico border; “Trading with the Enemy,” which takes place in his favorite country, Cuba, and “Revenge of the Saguaro,” which takes place in the American Southwest.
Miller has appeared in The New Yorker, LIFE, The New York Times, Natural History, and many other publications. He wrote the introduction to Best Travel Writing – 2005, and has led educational tours through Cuba for the National Geographic Society and other organizations. I’d agree with the National Geographic Traveler that this book is “among the best travel books ever written.”
So far, as I am not finished reading it yet, it is an easy, comfortable read which I recommend with no reservations. & I'd like to end up with a collection of Panama hats, as Miller apparently has.
After reading this, I have even more appreciation for the hand craftsmanship and the people in Ecuador who make them. For the uninitiated, real Panama hats are made in Ecuador, not Panama - and this book explains why.