Sunday, October 11, 2009

In Appreciation of Panama Hats

Panama hats have always attracted me. Maybe it’s because I was born in Panama and they’re simply in my blood. Who knows. But no other hat has quite the élan of a fine Panama and I clearly remember the day I got mine. It was in the mid-80’s, my friend Nancy and I traveled to the Yucatan on a week-long holiday. We began the trip in the capital city of Merida and ended the week in Cancun. I very much wanted to visit some Mayan ruins and both Uxmal and Chichen Itza are an easy drive from Merida, so we decided to make that our host city as, at the time, there were few accommodations near the ruins themselves. We checked into our pre-booked motel just before sunset. The motel was neo-deco, right out of 1950s Miami Beach, complete with a somewhat dog-eared swim-up bar in the middle of the pool. Nancy and I were anxious to see the city and inquired at the desk how to catch a bus or cab into town. We were directed towards a bus stop about two blocks away and set off in that direction. As the neighborhood looked pretty run-down and it was getting dark, we began to question the wisdom of our adventure, but the bus stop was just up on the next corner so we decided to at least take a look. When we got near, we could see that the corner was inhabited by a group of really scruffy looking men hanging out, smoking and laughing. I swear one of them was Pancho Villa. We decided that discretion was the better part of valor and returned to the motel where we spent a nice evening at the pool bar, visiting with the cabana boy, sipping margaritas, and listening to mariachi. The next morning, I was awakened by the sound of traffic. I looked at my watch, 4:30AM. It was still dark. I thought maybe my watch was broken or that we were in a different time zone or something so I went to the window to see what was going on at this hour of the morning. What I found was, morning traffic. Let me tell you, no one can ever accuse these people of being lazy. After a hearty breakfast of good black coffee and huevos ranchos, we again set off on our journey downtown, via the bus stop. When we reached the stop, I did a double-take because, the same guys were still there! Bolstered by daylight and a sense of adventure, we nodded our courtesies and took our place among them, waiting for the bus. After about 15 minutes or so of waiting, Pancho Villa approached me. We were prepared to make a run for it when he asked me as politely as if he were intruding, where it was we wanted to go. I explained in my broken Spanish that we wanted to catch a bus to Plaza Central. A huge grin came over his face and he flagged down the next bus, one of many broken-down Bluebird school buses that had been passing regularly. He spoke to the driver who, with a big smile, welcomed us aboard. I tried to tip Pancho for his help, but he refused saying, “Bienvenido a Merida.” The people on the bus were genuinely pleased that a couple of Gringos had joined them and, as much as they could given our language barrier, they told us of several places we should visit. I asked where I might find a Panama hat and in unison, they all cried out, “Mercado central”, the central market. This set the theme for the entire trip. I have traveled quite a bit around the world but I have never met more warm or friendly people than in Mexico. We got off at the central plaza in the heart of the city. It’s a beautiful, tree shaded plaza swarming with street vendors and visitors. Consulting our map, I determined a route to the market, which was only a few blocks away. The market is huge, covering several city blocks. We were somewhat bewildered by it all and trying to figure out where to begin when a young boy approached us and in halting English, asked if we needed a guide. Fearing he was a shill for some kind of rip-off, I politely refused. He persisted. A better judge of character than me, Nancy suggested that he might be of real help and asked him if he knew where we could get a good Panama hat. His eyes lit up, “Sì, sì.” he cried. “Panama màs finest.” He motioned for us to follow and we dived into the melee. The market was fantastic. It was as you might imagine, chock full of every type of produce, fruit, clothing, small appliances, hammocks, you name it. We passed by several shops that sold Panamas and I must admit I was getting a little nervous as the youngster led us deeper and deeper into the maze of stalls and vendors. Finally, we came to a small, dirty looking stall and he introduced us to the shop owner, a withered old snaggle-toothed Indian who spoke not a lick of English and, apparently, not much Spanish either. There was no sign of Panama hats to be seen. Rather, the stall appeared to be some kind of taco stand as the walls were lined with large, flat, round tortillas. The old man produced a much used book with pictures of hats and asked me, through the boy, which style I liked. I’ve always wanted a planter’s broad brim with a flat crown, the kind Clark Gable wore in Gone With The Wind, and pointed one out. The old man took a tortilla off of the wall for my approval. I didn’t get a chance to even look at it before the boy immediately refused it, scolding the old man, “Màs finest, màs finest.” A second, and a third tortilla were refused before the old man climbed up on a stool and took one down from the top shelf. The boy grinned and the old man handed it to me. I didn’t know much about Panamas at the time, but I did know that they should be very malleable. You should be able to roll it, place it in your pocket, and remove it without damaging it. The flat I was holding had the texture of a finely woven mat and you could have easily rolled it and put it in your pocket. (Twenty odd years later, you can still roll my hat up and put it in your pocket.) I also knew that you should examine the weave from the crown out for evenness and tightness of weave. The weave spiraled perfectly from crown to edge. I also knew that original Panamas come from Ecuador, not Mexico, and asked the origin of this particular flat. The old man explained that it came from Oaxaca (pronounced wa-ha-ca). He further explained that it was woven by blind women who first chew the toquilla straw leaves until they are soft and can be stripped into the thinnest strips for weaving. He said that they worked in deep caves because the humidity was high and stable and the fiber remained very soft and pliable in the cool darkness. I don’t know if any of this is true, but it’s a damned good story so I bought it hook, line, and sinker. In the center of his shop he had a large vat of milky looking liquid steaming over a charcoal fire. He tossed the flat into the liquid. While it soaked, he measured my head and determined how wide I wanted the brim. With a pair of tongs, he removed the flat from the hot liquid and began forming the hat over a mold. He would work it a while, dip it back into the water, work it some more. When he was working a particular area, say the crown, he would dip only that part of the hat into the liquid. After about fifteen minutes, he held a perfectly formed hat in his hands. At an ancient sewing machine, he trimmed and stitched the brim. Then, he hand-sewed the leather sweat band in place, followed by the hat band. Finished, he placed the still damp hat onto my head. It fit perfectly. I asked how much I owed him and he said $40. The boy exploded into a torrent of elder abuse and quickly weaseled him down to $25. I paid the old man $25, and to the boy’s chagrin, gave him a $5 tip. Having concluded my purchase, the boy led us back to the market entrance. I asked him how much I owed him for his service and he replied, “One dollar American, por favor.” I paid him $1, and tipped him $5. He was very happy, and so was I. What tickled my memory and prompted me to write this story was stumbling across a “màs finest” Panama hat similar to mine for sale on a hat store web site. The cost, $575. (Mr. C shows off his Panama.)


  1. Love it! I've encountered types like Pancho many times and have fond memories of unexpected help and comradeship.

    I also have always been attracted to Panamas. I think it was because I was born in Panama under a hat...

  2. I once read a book called 'On Mexico Time' which I was enjoying, right up until it stopped being a travelogue of Mexico and degenerated into a rather pretentious example of self-congratulatory privilege.

    This, on the other hand, is a marvellously fleshed out story. Loved it.

  3. Mo and Matthew... Mexico is a marvelous place. I've only been to the Yucatan and across the border at Nogales but each time I came back with memories of being totally welcomed and treated with kindness and respect. I will say that I make it a habit to avoid most of the tourist areas and seek out the "real" people. "Real people" are the same everywhere.


    I had to go and peruse Henry the Hatters website and from what I see you got the better deal and the natives were a bit friendlier to boot.

  5. That's what I call win-win WM. Remember, this was back in the early 80s when a dollar tip in Mexico was high rolling.

  6. Great story. You got some buy there! And looking goood in the hat, Mr. C!

  7. that's a fine hat there Mr. Charleston, you're looking spiffy!

  8. Love this story C, since I've probably visited Yucatan...the real Yucatan, not Cancun, 8 or 9 times. I love the place. I have never had an unpleasant experience in any part of Yucatan (Central Mexico, however, the opposite is true).

    I first visited Merida in 1970, back when the airport was in and of itself an adventure. Not the modern uglyness they replaced it with.

    My hotel of choice was, the Casa del Balam(, a couple of blocks from the Zocalo. A gorgeous multi-story atrium is part of it's charm.

    Misplaced my indestructible Panama long ago. I too had it made in the market, possibly by the same old guy. Not too sure about the cave story, because I think the fluid the old guy used is the real key to a "crushable" Panama...could be wrong.

    This post reminds me of several stories from those visits...but especially the young child guide. Maybe I'll post that. Not to be copy catting, but this jogged my gray memory.

    Good story bro.


Sorry about the comment thingy folks. Too much spam.