Over the past couple of days, in preparation for going through the Panama canal, we have learned more than will fit here. I was amazed at how uninformed I was, or how much I must have skimmed over in my history classes at school. Being here, brought it all home.
The attempt to build a crossing of the isthmus of Panama was a challenge that started with the early explorers and confounded shippers who had to go all the way down to the bottom of South America. One of the early attempts was to build a Trans-Panama railroad. This was met with dangerous wildlife and insects in the tropical forests, yellow fever and malaria. It took five years.
Early on, a French non-governmental agency, took on the design of the canal project, but soon ran out of money and the project was abandoned.
The United States Government took over the project and sent down its military to complete the task.
The Americans had a lease on the canal that ran out in 1999. People like John McCain, who was raised here, did not want the canal to go to the Panamanians, but the lease was not renewed, and ownership now belongs to the locals. There is still a small presence of Americans to help with the running of the canal.
Cutting through the tropical forest was a frustrating task. One day the land would be cleared only to have the underbrush take it back. Wild animals like jaguars, pumas, and tigers, and poisonous snakes posed a constant threat. Thousands of workers died in the making of the railroads and subsequent building of the canal. The loss of life was profound. Living conditions were simple, often rented rooms or tents. Eighty per cent of the early workers were hospitalized at one time or another for malaria. Although the American workers fared better with military-style barracks and better facilities, still about 50% returned home because the conditions were so harsh.
Workers included individuals from China and Jamaica. Today there remains a significant influence of these two cultures in Panama.
Chinese is still considered the official language, although most people speak only Spanish. We found that knowing Spanish was necessary for most of our tourist locations, restaurants, hotel and sight-seeing.
As the Americans came they built housing for their workers and added facilities that resembled the comforts of home in order to accommodate their needs. They even brought in ice cream and a YMCA. Baseball became popular. Today that impact is still apparent with many recognizable chain restaurants, fast food places, car dealerships and businesses that remain. Driving through Panama City
looks like a small American city.
I always thought the canal was one long set of locks, but that is not true. From East to West, one set of locks on the Eastern side lifts ships and boats up. The lake provides a stable level for crossing a distance to the Western side of Panama. On the Western side the locks carry ships down to the sea. Unlike other canals, this canal carries ships and boats over a mountain of hard rock that was blasted to make travel possible. A photo of the Culebra Cut shows just how much rock needed to be blasted away to create the avenue for travel. It took 6,000 workers using dynamite daily to cut through this particular portion of the rock. Formerly called the Gaillard Cut it is an artificial valley, man-made that cuts through the Continental Divide.
The total length of the crossing is 50 miles. There are 12 locks in all with Gatun Lake in the middle. The photos show that there are two channels in the locks to accommodate ships going both ways. There are a number of flights at each lock. The locks have names like Pedro Miguel and Mira Flores. There is one flight at Pedro Miguel and two flights at Mira Flores.
Our final destination is Fuerte Amador at Panama City. Ships are raised 85 feet and then lowered again on the other end of the canal.
By 2015 the Chinese had come to create wider locks so bigger ships could travel through. Right now, 1,500-ton ships can be accommodated. Shippers want to accommodate 2,000-ton ships. There is talk about further widening.
As we go through the locks, on the side are motorized mules operating on rails. No longer are actual mules or tugboats used to guide the ships.
The water in the canal and Gatun Lake is fresh water. It takes 27,000 gallons of water to raise a ship in about two minutes. A current drought could become problematic if it persists. Water feeds in from numerous rivers.
The cost of going through the canal is very expensive. Our ship with about 930 passengers and 450 crew members costs close to $250,000. We are charged $150 per stateroom including those used by the crew members, plus other fees. Our Captain told us that the most expensive ship to pass cost $1.2 million. All of this must be paid upfront through a special banking arrangement. No cheques, cash or credit cards are accepted.
We are amazed to see the line of ships waiting to get through the canal. Along the way there are other barges with cargo being loaded before they, too, will pass through the canal. It is a huge operation that takes us all of one day.