I am standing in the colorful textile market in Otavalo, Ecuador feeling a strong desire to buy the perfect souvenir. But what to buy? How do buy something that will capture a memory? What do I focus on to satisfy my needs?
How do I solve the perfect souvenir conundrum?
I don’t want meaningless tchotchkes that simply weigh down my luggage and collect dust once I get back home. Even worse, I don’t want cheap mass produced trinkets that can be had anywhere and have no real connection to my travels. I want to find the perfect souvenir – something real and authentic and at the same time, support local artists. Does this sound familiar?
A true materialist
Michael Benedikt, an architecture professor of mine once described architects as the true materialists. I agree with him. Architects love materials. We take great pleasure in the feel, the texture, the color and the weight of materials. We spend a great deal of time choosing materials for projects. It is this love of materials that I try to use to inform me of the perfect souvenirs to bring home.
Desire vs. Happiness
Have you ever lusted after something – some material good that you really wanted? Did you get it? If so, did it make you happy? Think about it. It’s okay if it did. There is no sin in wanting and acquiring things as long as you appreciate the item and not the simply the desire for it.
When I’m standing in the exotic market, I try to think about why I want something. If it gives me pleasure and is useful and affordable, I get it. But I don’t want to get trapped in desire just for desire’s sake. Always wanting more while not appreciating the things I have does not lead to happiness. It only leads to accumulation and often debt.
My first Panama wasn't a souvenir
The best example of a perfect souvenir for me is my Panama hat.
I’ve always loved Panama hats even though I have never been much of a hat wearer. Although I did own a totally styling Panama in my twenties. I’m not sure what led me to buy it, probably something about my image of myself at the time. Whatever it was, the hat filled the need. I have been trying to get back to that ideal for years.
I still remember finding the hat in a men’s store on the drag in Austin, Texas. It was a splurge even at the twenty bucks or so it must have cost. It took me awhile to decide as the proprietor gave me his best Willy Loman sales pitch. After much deliberation, I finally made the decision to buy and informed the gentleman that I needed to go to the bank down the street to get the money. He was not pleased.
He suspected it was an excuse to get out of buying the hat he had spent so much energy selling and he told me so. The look of sheer joy and redemption on his face when I came back twenty minutes later with the money was worth every penny.
I really enjoyed that hat. It wasn’t the idea of the hat or the desire of it, it was the actual hat itself. Panama hats are cool. With this in mind, it was only natural that when we traveled to South America my perfect souvenir was going to be a Panama.
A little history
Many people don’t know that Panama hats are actually from Ecuador. Yea, I know, go figure. The hats have been made there since the 17th century and they are still a significant part of the economy. Straw from the toquilla palm is used to hand weave the hats. The quality comes from the size of the fibers (thinner being better) and the number of weaves per inch (more being better). If you want to know more about the history and how they are made, “Hat Weaving in Ecuador” is an excellent place to start.
Best guess about the reason they are call Panama hats is that miners heading for the California gold rush in the 1830’s came through Panama where they bought the hats as protection from the tropical sun. Later, Teddy Roosevelt cemented Americans’ love of the hats when he was pictured wearing one while visiting the Panama canal during construction. Whatever the reason, Americans embraced them and never looked back.
Panama hats are cool
While I wasn’t around to see Teddy in the newspapers, I have always thought the toppers cool. Whether it was seeing Gregory Peck sporting a gorgeous Panama on the silver screen or imagining Dr. Juvenal Urbino from Gabriel García Márquez’s book Love in the Time of Cholera strolling the streets of colonial Cartagena, the hats exude style.
But not an uptight style. One of the great things about the Panama is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Sure a pristine example looks great paired with a perfect linen suit on a Sunday afternoon stroll on the Malecón, but it is just as stylish when taken out of your gear bag and worn down at your favorite fishing hole. It’s just that cool.
So when Jo Ann and I decided to spend a year in South America, I had to go to the source get a hat in country. After a year teaching English in Chile we traveled to Ecuador. What an amazing country. Not only do they speak excellent, beautiful Spanish, but they use American dollars, which makes transactions a breeze.
Our first destination was Cuenca, in the Azuya region, the home of the Panama Hat. Much of the discussion regarding Panama hats centers on Montecristi where the finest and most expensive hats are produced. But Cuenca is the original and a beautiful city to boot. Some of the larger hatters have gone to machine weaving but there are still old school makers in Cuenca.
Once we got settled in, the search was on. You know how it can be when you are looking for that perfect thing. It’s hard to make a decision. I was excited and a little anxious because, well, I wanted it to be perfect. I had to trust my gut; it had to feel right.
And of course I wanted to be cool about the whole thing as well. Because, hey, Gregory Peck would have know exactly where to go and what to buy. He was cool.
The holy grail
So after searching the local market and looking at hundreds of hats, I finally arrived at La Paja Toquilla, run by Aurelio Ortega Valdez, a fifth generation hat maker. I was home. Aurelio patiently explained the process, the styles and the panache of the Panama. I tried many styles and finally found a fino fedora that was just right. A truly excellent experience and the perfect souvenir.
Perfect souvenir success!
Have I recaptured the dashing figure of my youth and my first Panama?
Hard to say. There have been many miles and much water under the bridge since then.
I do know that it is a fine hat and I enjoy wearing it. And, it does a damn fine job of keeping the sun out of my eyes.
What's been your experience?
Are you a hat person? Can you channel Teddy in Panama? Send me proof. Please join SilverTrekkers by clicking below.
You’re old enough to know better!