The New Hat

To put a lid on our Costa Rican vacation, we went to Santa Cruz to buy a hat. I had been noticing the handsome wide-brimmed headwear of the savannah men riding horseback along the roadsides. Some have high peaked crowns, others are low and flat. A third style has a saggy brim in front and back. They’re made of canvas and have loops for a fancy belt of colorful braided cords with tassels or just a strip of printed fabric or a leather belt.

The Santa Cruz statue honoring men of the savannah.

We arrived downtown a little before noon. The narrow sidewalks were crowded with shoppers and schoolkids in white shirts and blouses and black-and-gold plaid skirts and khaki pants lining up at a fast-food chicken place. A woman sold lottery tickets on one corner. A skinny ragged drunk slept right on the pavement and we had to step over him and I told Susan to watch out because he was going to wake up and grab her. We looked in a couple of clothing shops but saw no hats, so I asked a vendor seated on a three-wheeled cycle with a basket for his cooler of frozen pops where I might find a hat like his. He mumbled something about selling me this one for 1000 colones. Little had I expected my voice to carry to a point behind us, where two women piped up, both with different suggestions. The plump lady in a light-colored sleeveless dress who was selling the lottery tickets suggested the veterinary clinic and store 200 meters down the street. The other woman pointed back over her shoulder.

The veterinary shop was dark inside and pet birds for sale cheeped excitedly. A man emerged from the rear and pulled down some unexceptional hats in a plastic bag, and even though they were only 1300 colones I thanked him and said we were just looking. We crossed to the next block and turned down that street to parallel our original course and came across another veterinary clinic, this one with less merchandise and even less in the way of sabanero hats. Back at the main street we arrived at the store the second woman had indicated. Many hats were displayed in the windows, but the doors were closed for the noon hour.

We went into a bakery for a lunch of empanadas. Susan remarked the buttery crust, I remarked the lack of a public restroom. Afterward, with time to kill, we looked around the main square where each corner was the location for a bronze statue. One commemorated the cowboys (vaqueteros, said the inscription) who had worked with the livestock that the savannah supported for all these centuries of colonial and decades of national life. Another represented a woman who had donated land for the city to grow, and the third saluted the area’s native peoples. A spindly fellow standing between these two spoke to us in English, saying, “Welcome to my city.” The fourth statue recognized the mothers who had kept the homes. Here, some men were gathered in the shade by the curb, and one told me to go into the bank and turn left toward the back and I would find the servicios sanitarios. I did this and met another man already waiting: the doors to the men’s and women’s toilets were locked. We stood there a couple of minutes. The man joked that maybe someone had died in there, which made me laugh aloud. Finally I decided it wasn’t an emergency and left him to keep vigil.

I rejoined Susan and we went around the square to the public library, an unbelievable dump in a rotten old building and only a couple of shelves of books to offer. The librarian said I could use the toilet even though the city had shut off the water. She went into a dark closet where I imagined one would be attacked by rats. Jiggling some of the toilet’s mechanical apparatus, she invited me to go ahead because the tank was full, but I bowed out, thanking her. It still wasn’t an emergency.

My new vaquero's hat gets some trimmings.
My new vaquero's hat gets some trimmings.

Our feet carried us down another side street. In it a small tack shop presented a good selection of hats among all the other cowboy gear. I chose a black hat with a low flat crown. The tag inside boasted it was made in Costa Rica. The woman fitted this domestic product with a black-and-brown braided leather belt with a handsome stainless-steel buckle. While she threaded this through the loops she spoke of the city’s water shutoff, saying, “Who knows the reason this time? It happens regularly. Probably repairs.” I can’t remember what I paid for the hat, but Susan says it was the equivalent of around $13.

Making our way back to our Daihatsu bucket of bolts, we headed out of town and finally came to a roadside restaurant in the country. We stopped to rest. I disappeared for a minute, and then joined Susan at the bar to the right of two men from the stock truck parked nearby in the shade. The proprietor of the little place offered her a glass for her soft drink. I asked for one, too, for my beer. “It’s faster,” he said, handing me a wet one out of the sink. He paid no attention to my hat, merely saying it was that of a vaquero before resuming his conversation with the other men.

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