Last time, I mentioned my lack of inspiration to blog while here in Panama. So part of the reason is I’ve yet to find something uniquely Panamanian. Food, architecture, currency, and fashion all seem to have origins elsewhere, and they haven’t changed since they arrived. Our entire time visiting, two things have been touted as absolute musts in Panama—see the Canal and buy a Panama hat.
The Canal is a scientific wonder. How the locks work to raise and lower the water levels to allow the ships to move through is genius but not very interesting to watch. And it may be the cause of the lack of cultural identity for which I am searching. Maybe because so many other people were drawn here to help build the canal, no true identity coalesced.
The Panama hat may be a good example to better express what I mean.
Uber drivers, tour guides, and shop owners have all told me I need to get an authentic Panama hat while I’m here. You see them on display in shop after shop all over the city. One café sold different types of coffee, snacks, and you guessed it … hats! So, I thought let me research what an “authentic” hat is before I decide to buy one.
The first thing I found was the hat was never named for the country. It was named for the material used to make it the “Carludovica Palmate” straw plant. The material grows in South America, so the first hats were produced in Ecuador in the 1600s. I began to think maybe I don’t need to make this purchase (insert lip twist, eye roll here). There’s even a documentary about it (at the end of this post).
Then, I found out the hat became popular during the “Gold Rush” period in United States. International miners used the Isthmus (area now known as Central America) to transport gold, spices, and other goods back to their respective countries. The heat made people traveling through the Panama region purchase a hat for comfort. When people returned to their home country, and others asked about the hat, they would simply say they bought it in Panama. Which makes sense, right? People rarely tell you where an item they purchased was made. After a while, the name became associated with the country.
For me, understanding this history makes purchasing a “Panama” hat in Panama not so appealing. Maybe I’ll suggest a trip to Ecuador to K. Then, I’ll purchase an “authentically” hand woven hat. Until then, I’ll have to keep searching for the “veiled” soul of Panama.