Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Where dimensions mean little

In Tom Miller's non-fiction travelogue, 'The Panama Hat Trail,' the narrator documents his quest through Ecuador in search of the story of the famed Panama hat. Miller begins in Quito, conducting interviews with Panama hat distributors, then buses it across the country, up and down the coast, tracking down the straw beginnings of the hat.

Miller's descriptions of Ecuador are incredible. With travelogues written thirty years ago by privileged white men, I think that, at least for this writer, there will always come a distance, a revealed perspective that doesn't seem quite fair, a use of certain words that doesn't feel quite right. Still, Miller had his finger on the pulse. He's not afraid to tell it like it is, and to tell it beautifully. His writing is never hard, you know? He can blend grief with humor and make a poor place beautiful. Occasionally I wonder whether he's oversimplifying, but I read nearly each page with pleasure, savoring the prose, savoring the way I am transported.

The following passage was taken from Chapter Six of 'The Panama Hat Trail,' wherein the author has been walking all day with a few straw-cutters through tiny towns north of La Libertad. The sun is hot, and they're headed for the fields. The author is eager to see the Panama hat's very first beginnings, in the form of the unharvested straw. As they walk, Domingo, one of the cutters, tells the narrator that they'll reach the plantations soon. Miller writes:

Soon? What does soon mean to someone who walks barefoot three hours to work in the morning and back again at night? For all I knew he went home for lunch too. Soon? Distance and time are two of life's limitations that take on surreal questions in Latin America. Dimensions mean little. Soon? It could mean today, tonight, tomorrow, by next week, or I'm not sure. Soon could be fifteen minutes or fifteen miles. The difference between soon and forever might be negligible. A few minutes later Domingo added: "We're getting closer."

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