by Richard Sterling
In which we simplify the origins of the Panama Hat.

This damned hat! Make no mistake, I love the thing. It’s the best I’ve ever owned. But the folks in Hat’s ’Hood have never understood the thing; what they have always insisted is my cowboy hat. Altiplano grasses of Ecuador and the history of Panama have no meaning for them. Some do know about a certain Panama Canal and have concluded that workers there wear cowboy hats. They just don’t have a folder on their mental desktop for this sort of data. They know that somehow Mr. Hat is frustrated at this state of affairs, but it has made no difference.

Until now! Halleluiah! Tidings of great joy! They have finally learned that it’s not a cowboy hat!

I was coming down the alley when I tipped my hat to a matronly lady I’d never seen before. “Hello, Mr. Hat,” she says. In this, as in any other, neighborhood nobody is unknown to the locals. Nothing goes unobserved. There are no secrets. All of Vietnam is one great big small village. It turns out the woman is from Hanoi and is in town for her annual three month visit with her grandchildren. She’s an educated woman who speaks fair English, though of the old Hanoi school. That means she learned the Queen’s English from East German teachers in communist Berlin back in East Block days. She learned how to harangue the masses in English, but learned little or nothing about English speaking peoples. Nevertheless, Madame Marxist (as I call her) is respected here for her learning and her many other fine accomplishments. She is a party member. People take her seriously.

As she and I chatted briefly she complimented me on my hat, a thing that happens almost daily. I thanked her, but said nothing more about it. I have learned not to point out that it isn’t a cowboy hat. I just let people think that I, and I suppose workers on the Panama Canal, are all cowboys.

“Where did you get it?” she asked me. It’s a question often asked. People want to get one for themselves. Knowing that any discussion of my headgear is going to create confusion, I just say that I got it in my home town, or in my country, something like that. And I add that they are not available here. So on this occasion I just said that I got it in California, and let it go at that.

Jungle drums, my friends! The grapevine! Urban telegraph! By the next evening the whole neighborhood knew of their mistake. All and sundry were disabused of the notion that I wear a cowboy hat. Madame M, with her mighty reputation as a scholar and speaker of English, has set them straight. They are now satisfied to know that Mr. Hat’s chapeau is a California hat! Fiat Lux! Eureka! No longer will Mr. Hat be frustrated with them! And why didn’t he tell them in the first place?

No doubt their relatives in San Jose and Riverside wear hats like Mr. Hat’s. They must now all send to them for their own California hats, now that they understand where they come from. According to Mr. Hat (at least in their own minds) they are only available in California, not in Vietnam. Workers on the Panama Canal must be from California. If all the people in California wear hats like Mr. Hat’s, and surely they must, do they all wear khaki trousers and Clark’s English desert boots, too? We have khaki trousers here. And we have counterfeit Clark’s English desert boots. They are as good as the counterfeit Rolex watches and lacoste shirts and Gucci bags our excellent counterfeiters make. Surely they can make a counterfeit California hat? That special grass he talks about must be from California. Well we have special grasses in Vietnam. The best special grasses! We should now all be able to have a California hat!

I sit at Madame’s Tea Terrace, reading the morning Communist Party rag (English version). The Prime Minister urges the agricultural sector to continue improving production. The National Assembly lauds the Laotian People’s Government’s efforts to strive to continue to perfect its practice in improving the organizing of cadres’ efforts at bringing under improved control many things that need improved control. In Hanoi they pin a medal on Daniel Ellsberg for undaunted courage. In Saigon the People’s Committee (City Hall) gives certificates to 25 middle school students recognizing them as examples of “Good Children.” An economic survey is set to stoke optimism.

My too-damned-swell Panama, no it’s a cowboy, no it’s a California hat sits on a corner of my table. It seems to mock me. “Thought you cut quite a swathe when you got here, didn’t you, Sport? Thought you’d impress them with my special Ecuadorian grass, crushability, fashion history and all that.” Or is it consoling me? “Don’t worry, pal. So what if they don’t savvy? You still look like a million bucks when you’re under me.” Madame Marxist stops by to assure me that she has rectified the Great Misunderstanding. She informs me that such efforts are necessary for harmony between peoples. And it helps to promote social progress and cohesion when all comrades are correctly informed. My papergirl wants to know if there are California hats made for ladies. There has been a suggestion in the alley that I should be renamed as Mr. California. Slim the waiter wants to try on my hat, so he can see what he’ll look like when he emigrates to San Jose, California. He puts it on backward, as they invariably do when I let them try it on. It slips down to his nose. He wonders if all Californians have heads as fat as mine. “No, Slim,” I sigh. “But maybe Panamanian cowboys do.”

And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where all the lady comrades are strong, all the counterfeiters are talented, and all the children are certified as “Good Children.”



Richard Sterling is the author of The Fire Never Dies, How to Eat Around the World, and several titles in Lonely Planet’s World Food series. His anthology, Food: A Taste of the Road, won a Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book, and he is also the editor of The Adventure of Food and coeditor of The Ultimate Journey.

About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.