I’m about to take a trip to the Yucatan, that peninsula chock full of Mayan ruins, colonial cities and white sand beaches. One way I do my tourism in Hispanic countries is to engage in a slightly tedious, focused task that will force me to hone my Spanish. And I decided that the task on this occasion would be to get my favorite hat repaired.
I’m kind of a fledgling hat collector, and the Borsalino is an antique felt fedora–brown and battered–that looks like the sort Indiana Jones might have set upon his noggin. It is a classic: the quintessential detective hat–the hat of manual typewriters and damsels in distress and bottles of whisky in a filing cabinet.
But the hat has seen better days: it shrank a bit from a week long stay in Mexico City where heavy torrents pummeled the mountain city every evening during the rainy season. The embossed leather sweat band, which was once in cherry condition, deteriorated upon contact with water. And the grosgrain ribbon, which is a silken oddity in a world that has gone full polyester, bears the powder white traces of the salt that comes from a decade of sweat. I also probably shouldn’t have packed it in my check-in luggage.
Embarking on a project like this does take some research. You don’t want to run around the city with your hat in your hand. You want to identify a reputable hat dealer who either offers those services or can send you in the right direction. And you want to dispatch of the task immediately so that the artisans have enough time to perform the job properly. You’ve got to do your due diligence.
So this leads me to the topic of this post, which is not so much about hats as it is about feet: you see, the other day I was googling for hat leads and I came across an advertisement on a Mexican website for a pair of knock-off Toms shoes. Toms shoes are those cruelty-free, vegan shoes that are supposed to make the NPR set feel less awful about themselves as global citizens living in the consuming-est corner of this planet: for every Toms purchase, a child in deepest darkest Africa gets a pair of shoes, too.
So, in purchasing these shoes, you are also involved in a humanitarian cause: helping a kid avoid all sorts of foot borne diseases, like parasitic worms. Perhaps you are enabling a budding young scholar to get to school on those undeveloped roads, or allowing a mother speedy access to the only source of clean water for miles around. One thing is certain: you are making sure that animals are not harmed in the process. What could be better?
The curious thing about this advertisement came in the fact that the shoes were available either in fabric OR in leather. And they were marketed not as a humanitarian item but as a symbol of Westernization—of wealth, of status. So the vegan element, so crucial in the merchandising of footwear to the NPR set, became irrelevant to the aspirational Mexican upper middle class consumer. And the promise to help the Third World–a promise that is always front and center–was nowhere to be seen. This shoe was now simply a status symbol—a way to get something that remains difficult to procure (because of distribution and tariff) from the ever-elusive West, which lies far across a nearby border that is, increasingly, impenetrable.
By no means is this an attempt to make fun of well-heeled Mexicans. Rather, this is to call attention to a phenomenon that I have encountered over and over again: Third World products that imitate Western goods often seem a bit wonky. And as I sat there in the dead of night, looking at a pair of shoes I would never want, I realized it had a lot to do with this simple fact: the act of translation often means subtle shifts in value and meaning.
This makes sense: Imitation is not simply faithful reflection but a kind of distortion. Put another way, nothing is the same once it crosses borders–not people, not ideas, not material objects. For instance, a hat is a noteworthy object in Los Angeles where it can be seen almost as if it were a dandy affectation–the stuff of rock stars and movie actors–but in Mexico, a hat is a common item…so much so that it is taken for granted. I suspect that people don’t even see hats anymore in that part of the world; they are so much embroidered into the quilt of the expected that all but the most outstanding ones are filtered out.
Johnny Depp is known for his hat game and he favors Borsalino…
Encountering the Fake Toms made me think of the time I spent in Northern India in the tourist-heavy state of Rajasthan, which is colorful and bright. The fancy hotels pay local young men to perform folk dances and music in traditional costumes–turbans and scarves and gowns that catch the light with their metallic threads. But as soon as the performance is over, those guys rip off the costumes and put on machine-woven sweaters. And on all these sweaters appear the words NIKE, drawn in magic marker: crude, sloppy, counterfeit.
It is in the imitation that we can learn a lot about the original–our prejudices, our hidden expectations: the things we take for granted. For these young men who must earn their upkeep somehow, the classic clothing of the Rajasthani musicians is simply a costume–a tourist-act. It is this cruel hoax of life that, in making their way from the provinces to a tourist center with mighty hotels–an actual city–that is the center of modernity, they must pose as the backward native people that they thought they left behind…in order to get by. And it is in the crude imitation of the Nike logo that we see the true selves of their best dreams spelled out.
The same phenomenon can be seen in so many tourist zones. In Brasil, the music that tourists come to listen to is Bossa Nova. It is played in the swank hotel lobbies for a mostly white audience. But the real music that the blacks of Brasil love is Rastafarian fare. That’s what is played in the backstreet cafes where only locals hang–those places where you set your hat down and smoke a joint with a sweating bottle of beer.
In Brasil, I once met a Rastafarian from Ghana. He was spending time in the Northern Brasil stronghold of Salvador—a place that was once the land of plantations and is now filled with freed descendants of former slaves. The Rasta had a British accent and excellent English, most likely because his country was at one point a British colony. He invited me to his apartment, not far from the tourism center. “You are a very trusting man. And I appreciate it. Not many tourists would go so far to this part of town with someone he just met.”
Most people think that Rastas are the sign of a deep African-ness and indeed there is definitely a “back to Africa” element in the Rasta culture. So it can seem a contradiction to see a true African attempting to return to African and free his mind by adopting the clothes and music of a people who had once been enslaved in Jamaica.
But my new friend had a good laugh and agreed with my assessment: For me, a Rasta is the sign of the West—the sign of a person who has had a profound encounter with colonialism that he will spend a lifetime erasing and, paradoxically, reinforcing. “When I come to a new place like Salvador, it is the Rasta who owns a cell phone,” I said. “It is the Rasta who understands the international exchange rate, and the way the internet operates.” It’s never the local people who quite often are oblivious to the way a global world works.
These were the thoughts that scuddered like rippling pebbles through the pond of my head as I trolled through the internet–pleasant memories of past travels–that interrupted my search. Looking at those shoes–an imitation of a Western product flickering back at me through the pixilated images–made me wonder about the desires that come from the hat I put on my head–a hat that originally came from Italy, a hat that I encountered in a small shop in Chicago, a hat I carried with me to Los Angeles, a hat that now I was ferrying across the border to get fixed.