Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Inside the Panama Canal

Like most travelers, we came to Panama to see the canal.  We left seeing so much more.  An understanding of history, global trade, economics, ecology, diversity.  Panama is even more of a melting pot than the United States.   "Who are Panamanians?" one of the tour guides asked our group.  We couldn't answer.  Already we had seen every skin color known to man.  "We are a people from every corner of the world.  It is the canal that brought us together.  It is the canal that continues to support us."

I look at the people on the boat that will carry us to Gatun Lake.  I hear Italian, Spanish, German and Japanese.  The canal has brought us together.  For the next six hours we would be on an adventure of a lifetime.   We would find ourselves huddled together under the awnings during a rain pour, standing together in line at the lunch buffet, posing for each other's cameras.  We would take the same memories home with us, wherever that might be.   North, south, east and west.  But today we are one people in one place.   And that place is the Panama Canal.

   We begin our journey at sea level on the Pacific side.   We can see the skyline of Panama City and the colorful Biodiversity Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, which resembles a giant abstract macaw.  When it opens next year,  I bet  it will be featured in every travel magazine I subscribe to.

I look over the railings and see a pilot climbing aboard from a tugboat.  The captain of every vessel, both big and small, gives up his command to a trained canal pilot for the entire transit.  Behind us, I count twenty freighters at anchor.  They are lined up like airplanes on a runway.  These ships have been out here for two or three days, waiting for the go ahead to enter.  Forty-five ships a day pass through the canal.  When the expansion is finished, this number will rise to 120.


We sail under the Bridge of the Americas.  This bridge, which spans the canal, was completed in 1962.  Before then a ferry had been the only way to cross to the other side.  A pedestrian sidewalk on the western side of the bridge, offers a fantastic view of the Pacific opening to the canal.

We continue our journey, passing massive loading docks.  Ships of every size and nationality are heavy with cargo.  Today, however, they all carry the Panamanian flag and they all share one goal:  To get to the other side.

And then we see them.  The first of the Miraflores Locks.  Only yesterday I had been standing at the observation deck looking down.  Today, I would be inside, looking up.
The first gate closes behind us and we rise up and up and up, incredibly fast.  We are being carried up and over the Isthmus of Panama to the Atlantic Ocean.  Each lock will bring us up 29 feet until we hit Gatun Lake, which is 85 feet above sea level.  As each gate closes behind us, water pours in from the lake by gravity alone.  The water gushes in through culverts that run below the center and side walls of the concrete chamber.  The walls surrounding us and the giant gates were all built 100 years ago and are still operational.  It's truly a miraculous feat of engineering.

We pass through two chambers and then sail across the small Miraflores Lake before entering the last lock, repeating the process for the third and final time.  The gorgeous Centennial Bridge can be seen in the distance and all hands are on deck, cameras ready.

The canal now narrows as we pass through the infamous Gaillard Cut.  The water turns muddy and I am reminded how many lives were lost blasting out this section of the waterway.  No sooner was a hole dug, then it was filled up again by mud and water.  Almost 700 million square feet of dirt was removed to make this ditch.  Our tour guide said that even today it would collapse if it weren't for constant dredging.  The jungle, however, on either side of us is lush and green and gorgeous.  The technical part of our journey is over.  I go downstairs and buy a Balboa beer, sit back and enjoy the rest of the trip.  Gatun Lake is just beyond and my journey will end.  The other ships will continue on to the three sets of descending locks until they are down at sea level once again.

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