Andrew Hecht's Reviews > The Panama Hat Trail

The Panama Hat Trail by Tom  Miller
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's review
Mar 09, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: have-passport-will-travel, my-library, non-fiction
Recommended for: Anyone planning to travel to Ecuador
Read from March 08 to 11, 2010 — I own a copy

My brother, his wife, who is from Quito, and my mom are headed down to Ecaudor in the next few weeks. For my mom and my brother, it will be their first trip to South America. I'm very excited for them, and, well, a little jealous, because I've never been to Ecuador.

I can't make it on this trip, but I will make it some day. Instead I took a virtual trip courtesy of Tom Miller's, The Panama Hat Trail, one the hundreds of unread travel narratives on my bookshelves.

The premise of the book is that Miller is going to follow the supply chain of the famous Panama Hat (made in Ecuador much to his surprise) from the source, the weavers and even the straw (toquilla) all the way to haberdashers in the US. Miller deftly uses this narrative arc to explore the country through it's landscape, literature, culture, religion. history, migration patterns and cuisine.

It's a thoroughly enjoyable ride despite the clear exploitation and deplorable conditions of the indigenous weavers. As the hats pass through the supply chain from toquiila to the weavers to the buyers, finishers, exporters and finally the hat shops, they become increasingly more valuable. At the bottom end, the weavers are earning next to nothing for their herculean efforts. Some of the finest hats, the Monecristi Finos, sell for hundreds of dollars, with the weavers seeing very little of that largess.

Miller seems to me to be very even handed and fair to his hosts. However, he doesn't pull many punches and reveals many of the country's warts, including the relationship with the Indians, as I mentioned before, but also the deplorable state of the infrastructure, the poor quality of the health care system, the feud between the residents of Quito, the capital, and Quayaquil, the economic engine of the country, the manaña culture, the raping of natural resources by Texaco, it's defenseless in the face of it's more powerful neighbors, Peru and Columbia and so on.

The end result is that you start to feel a little sorry for poor downtrodden Ecuador. It doesn't make we want to go there any less. In fact, I'm all the more curious having read Miller's account.

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Reading Progress

03/09/2010 page 91

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