Thursday 23 May 2019

Almost Not Buying a Panama Hat in Ecuador.

As any fool knows, Panama hats do not come from Panama; they are made in Ecuador.  Travelling to Ecuador, I was bound to buy a Panama hat.  They are not called Panama hats either; the proper name is sombreros de paja torquilla.  They are plaited by hand from leaves of the toquilla or jipijapa palm.  The wonderful art of weaving the traditional Ecuadorian toquilla hat is a designated UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Armed with this knowledge I ducked into Señor Luis López Cifuentes's tiny shop on the Callé Morales in Quito.  Immediately my plan went wrong.  There in front of me at the top of a stand of hats was the finest Panama hat I had ever seen.  It was shaped somewhere between a fedora and a bowler - very stylish.  It was of the palest honey colour.  The weave was finer than any I had seen.  It looked and felt like the most exquisite linen.  This was the hat for me.  The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo would have worn a hat like this.  What a dash I would cut in such a hat

Senor Cifuentes looked on with a wry smile.  He had seen it all before.  I lifted the hat to try it on and the label fell into my hand.  I saw, as I knew I would that it was a genuine Montecristi Superfino. Then I saw the price: $2,000 (about £1,500).

'Made by hand.  It took six months,' explained Senor Cifuentes.

I looked down the rack, the hats were still beautiful but they became less fine as the price came down.  Senor Cifuentes explained that my hat, as I had already begun to think of it, was a 62 grade.  There is no standard grading system but 62 grade means that there are about 25-30 threads each way in a single inch.  Someone's dedicated and skilled fingers had woven each strand.

I could not imagine myself buying any lesser hat.

'That is not the finest hat there is, Sir,' said the ever-attentive Senor Cifuentes.

'For $2,500 you can buy a 66 grade!'

My knees buckled slightly.

I left the shop sadly, knowing that I would never own such a hat and could not bear the thought of a coarser one.

My wife tried to comfort me.

'You wouldn't be able to keep it clean and perfect,' she said.

I pointed out that if I were the sort of man who could afford such a hat, my valet would know how to look after it.

For the next week or so, I looked despondently at other sombreros.  It was not until we reached Guayaquil that I relented and bought a perfectly good Panama at a saving of $1,950.  I look quite good in it, even though I say so myself.

I had a further thought.  Just suppose I had bought the $2,000 hat.  I might have been sauntering along one day; one would not simply walk in a hat like that.  Suppose I had seen, coming towards me, the man who had bought the $2,500 hat.

First published in Wanderlust magazine

Wednesday 15 May 2019

Riding the Yangon Circular Train (2016)

I do not think I would advise a Burmese visitor to London to spend a morning riding the Circle Line but I am glad that, on a visit to Myanmar, I did spend three hours riding Yangon's Circular Train.

It is certainly slow.  It takes three hours to cover 46 kilometres as it passes through 39 stations.  But, in that time, all Yangon's life and vegetables will pass through the train.

I started my ride at Ahlone Road station.  It was in a leafy cutting below road level, a bit like some of the stations on the District Line.  I had to bend down to buy my ticket from the tiny office.  It cost me all of 200 kyats [pronounced, "Chats"]; about 25 pence.  I waited for the train due at 8:30.  There is a timetable but its precision was somewhat short of Swiss. 

My train, pulled by a boxy, brown diesel banged, hooted and rattled into the station.  I found a seat.  There I remained for three hours as the people of Yangon boarded the train for a few stations at a time.  There was a never-ending flow of guests through, what I now thought of as, my carriage.

The train itself was a marketplace.  The man selling nice looking pastries served with shredded cabbage that he cut from the whole vegetable with scissors intrigued me.  A plastic bottle of a red, hot-smelling sauce completed his menu.  Deftly, his tray balanced on his knees, he put two pastries into a small, plastic bag; shredded cabbage over it and ladled the sauce on top.  Finally, he placed two chopsticks in the bag and handed it over to his customer.  Everything this man needed to serve a complicated meal was on one, carefully laid-out circular tray.  When he had finished serving a particular carriage, he stood up, placed the tray on his head, picked up his small plastic stool, and moved on with practised ease.  It was ergonomics as poetry.

The doors slid open at another station and a huge bamboo tray of Durian fruit appeared through the door suspended from a yoke.  It was closely followed by a man in longhi and solar topee and then by another tray of Durian.  The gentle odour of Durian fruit permeated the carriage and I thought for one horrible moment that he would be cutting them open and selling the delicious, if aromatic, fruit.  In fact, he was just travelling a few stations and got off again.

It occurred to me to smoke one of the fine Burmese cheroots that I had in my pocket.  Then I observed the sign above the seats.  Pictograms showed severe prohibitions on smoking, on littering and — snogging.  Chance would have been a fine thing.

The tea man came with his pink and green antique Thermos flasks.  200 kyats (was everything going to be 200 kyats?) bought me a small plastic cup of hot, thick, sweet tea.  My purchase gave me a licence to take a photograph.  Once finished, the plastic cup went into my rucksack — no littering.

We approached Danyingone station.  Even before we stopped, I realised we were at a market.  Huge bags of vegetables came flying in through the windows followed shortly afterwards, through the doors, by their owners.  The Durian man got off.  I was full of admiration for the heavy and awkwardly shaped loads the people, particularly the women, had to carry.  This was a working train; one woman was sorting and pruning what seemed to be bay leaves sprig by sprig into a big plastic bag.  Opposite me, a businessman in smart white shirt and well-ironed longhi read the paper.

A group of lovely women, not in the first flush of youth, came into the carriage and sat near me.  Each wore a spray of sun bright yellow flowers in their hair.  They saw my camera and hid their faces.  But once I had said "Mingalaba" (hello in Burmese), smiled, and gestured my admiration for the flowers, I was allowed to take a photograph.  Seeing their image on the camera screen set off a storm of laughter.

As we reached the furthest point from Yangon, we were in the country.  A woman up to her neck in water and wearing a bamboo hat against the sun was weeding a floating garden of vegetables in a canal.  The train turned south back towards the centre of Yangon.  The air horn sounded at every crossing and steel wheels on ancient British laid narrow-gauge rails squeaked, rattled and banged.

We pulled into platform seven of busy Yangon Central Station.  I wish now I had sat down with the old lady, with her sacks of vegetables on the platform, who was smoking a cheroot.  We would have no common language but I am sure we could have had a companionable smoke together.  However, it was now hot and I was looking forward to cool air and coffee.

Three hours had flown by.  Several hundred of the train's 100,000 daily passengers had passed through my carriage.  Where else in the world can you get three hours of top grade people watching for 25p?

Note:  I am told in 2019 that the track is undergoing repairs and the whole circle route cannot be done for a while.