This 15th anniversary reissue of writer/humorist Tom Miller’s travel classic follows the making and marketing of a single Panama hat from the basement of the third world to the penthouse of the first. It’s a captivating story of cultures in collision, raw capitalism, “bus-plunge highways,” and Miller’s unending search for a drinkable cup of coffee. The Panama Hat Trail: A Journey from South America explains that Panama hats don’t come from Panama; they are made two countries away, in Ecuador. (The headwear became popular when gold-rush veterans returning from California to the eastern U.S. snapped up the Ecuadoran straw hats they found on sale in Panama.) Tom Miller knows that, because he traveled there to track down the hat’s origins. His account – a fascinating look at South American culture – relates an exotic and humorous journey that Miller also reported in a four-part series for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” The Panama hat trail leads from the Ecuadoran capital of Quito to the boisterous port of Guayaquil, where tropical indulgence is a way of life; from the village of Deleg in the Andes, (where half the adult males have gone to work in the United States) to Lago Agrio in the Amazon (where one-fifth of adult females are prostitutes). He learns of Catholic missionaries seeking converts in a country that is 98 percent Catholic; tries not to think about his chances of surviving bus rides over mountain roads; and profiles some of the last Jews living in Ecuador. Oh, and did we mention the hats? Miller investigates everything from the harvesting of straw in the jungles of Ecuador (where straw-cutters load up their donkeys with sacks of silky fiber) to the remote villages where skilled artisans painstakingly weave each Panama hat by hand (only to sell it for 70 cents) to the chic boutique in downtown San Diego where a well-heeled American purchases the finished product for 35 dollars. Much more than a mere adventure, this book is a study in both culture and the workings (and failings) of global commerce.

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