Goodbye pork pie

In northern Peru, women wear wide, pleated, knee-length skirts, often several at a time. I counted five woolen skirts on a woman selling oranges at the Cajamarca market, though it was t-shirt weather. They are usually brightly-colored, often red or blue, and worn with a white blouse and several cardigans. A rectangle of woven fabric is always worn over it, usually to sling a baby at the back, but sometimes for cargo. I stopped to make googly eyes at a tightly-wrapped baby a few days ago, which turned out to be a case of mineral water on its way to market.

Feet are often bare and battered, with blackened or missing toe-nails and callouses from miles of country paths. Others wear sandals made from truck tires, which look oddly flimsy with their thick, bright woolen kneesocks.

Sometimes an alpaca poncho is worn over the layers. The real topper, though, is the hat. In Cajamarca, it’s a statement: a cross between a Texan ten-gallon and Lincoln’s stove pipe, woven tightly from pale straw. It throws shade down to the shoulders and is sensible if somewhat bizarre. In Ecuador, I saw bowlers, trilbies, fedoras, flat straw boaters, and pork pies, always worn by the women, sometimes by men and children too.

These hats (and by extension the costumes), more than skin color, mark out who is looked down on as an ignorant, dirt-poor ‘indio’, and who gets to be a ‘mestizo’ with better prospects. I’ve listened to men with burnished faces and features that could be carved on a temple wall start sentences with ‘The problem with the indigenous is…’

Here, where resources are so scarce that it counts for a lot, your racial identity can be doffed with a hat.