When I was younger, I lived in Panama for four years. My father was stationed there when there was still a base and way before the Noriega troubles. I don’t remember too much, just bits and pieces and pictures we have from that time. We visited the canal, but of course when you live there, you don’t go through it and you only see a piece.
My husband had never been south of the Unites States, so I was trying to break him into visiting South America by using the opportunity of going through the canal while it is the original canal since a new one is currently being built.
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I am embarrassed to say that I was unaware of the real history of the Panama Canal. I knew the basics. After the success of the Suez Canal through Eygpt, the French attempted to do the same thing in Panama. They ran into a lot of problems (disease, tropical weather, etc.) and sold the project to the U.S. I knew that Teddy Roosevelt was involved. And I knew that it was the marker that determined the U.S. sphere of influence which served to keep Europe out.
Bit I did not know the most basic thing about the canal. I somehow thought it was built through the country, when in reality the canal goes over a mountain! There are two locks that raises the ship up to the height of a man-made lake which the boats sails across and then the boat is lowered in a final lock back down to sea level. It takes eight hours to do and it is fascinating!
Before arriving at the lock a tug boat meets the ship to guide it into the opening of the lock. At that point 26 million gallons of water are used to raise the ship up. That is a lot of water! For some reason it doesn’t seem to be an issue with the surrounding oceans and the amount of rain that comes down every year (that I definitely remember from when I lived there).
It certainly does make for an interesting eco-system of birds and fish with water on the area being part salt and part fresh.
At each lock the boat is hooked up to these little engines, they look like toy train cabooses that keep the boat straight up and going in the right direction. They use four on each side of the boat and they are driven by humans rather than automated. And despite seeing 40+ ships a day, there was no lack of enthusiasm – with waves from the engine drivers and honks from tug boat drivers as well as hellos from people on shore or on the construction sites. It was great. We floated under beautiful bridges, past lovely little islands with bbq and picnic areas that reminded me on the same picnic areas that my family used to boat to for outings with family friends where we would spend the entire day.
One of the great things about doing it on the boat is that even when we had to break away to eat, we could watch on the TV! You can watch the cruise-cam 24-hours a day and it really came in handy when my husband and I decided to picnic in our room. We had brought champagne and foie gras, and bread in our suitcase. We added some apples and pears and “voila!” a gourmet lunch in front of the cruise-cam and didn’t miss a minute of our transit through the canal! No reason to suffer, right?
It was a lovely way to spend the day…floating over a mountain, who knew?