All Canal, All the Time

It’s a Friday night in late January. With 49 travelling companions I have just spent four days doing the Panama Canal and nothing but the Panama Canal. We may not have seen everything, but we’ve seen a bunch.

We’ve seen the bust of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the first guy who said, “Hey! Could we dig a canal to connect the Northern and the Southern Seas? I understand it’s not that far.” That was in 1534.

Bust of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor

We’ve seen the waterway near Colón where the French started their failed attempt in 1879.

River in jungle; site of French canal.

We’ve seen the memorial to the French workers who died on the project between 1879 and 1888, primarily from malaria and yellow fever.

Marker for memorial to French who died on Panama Canal.

We’ve seen the plaque to one of the guys in Cuba who helped figure out how to stop people from dying from yellow fever; and the street named after Gorgas, the Chief Medical Officer who took that learning to Panama in 1904.

Marble wall plaque to Carlos Finlay, Cuban doctor.

We’ve seen the monument honouring the three American Chief Engineers, with pride of place to Goethals, the Army Colonel who finally saw the canal through to completion in 1914 and served as the first Governor of the Canal Zone.

Marble pillar to Goethals in Panama City.

We’ve seen the Madden Dam that made another lake — part of a complex water management scheme that makes the Canal work — by damming the Chagres River in 1934.

View of 1930s dam in Panama.

We’ve seen the operational locks at either end of the Canal, in great detail, both as observers and as transiters.

Gates of Mriaflores Locks, half open.

Cargo ship moving through Gatun Locks.

View of Pedro Migeul Locks as transiting ship.

And we’ve seen the future: new locks that will be ready sometime later this year.

Construction site for new locks near Gatun Locks.

It’s been a bit overwhelming. There’s been a lot to take in, and as of this Friday evening I haven’t hoisted it all on board. Not yet.

But with the big assimilation process yet to come, I have still hoisted something on board. Saturday morning we leave — me and my 49 friends — and on Tuesday morning our tour guides start all over again with another 50 travellers.

In places as different as Guatemala and Scotland and the Galapagos, I have been the short-stay amateur being processed through a tourist and/or educational activity by the permanently resident professionals. I’ve often been struck by the inevitable if polite standoffishness in the professionals: the gap between us that I cannot close. And I’ve almost always wondered whether they ever weary of their work: the repetitive herding of cats.

This time, however, I am struck by something different. As our tour guides have passed along their knowledge of the Canal to us, they have also passed along their delight in it and in their country.

Next week, they’ll do it all over again. And the next. And the next.

As will oodles of professional and amateur guides all over the world, sharing their knowledge of, and delight in, their own place and in its matters both great and inconsequential. Except that nothing that brings delight is truly inconsequential.

I sure hope they don’t stop. Not ever.


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10 Responses to All Canal, All the Time

  1. Ralph Gibson says:

    Indeed it is !

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    I’m a little envious. Hell no, I’m a lot envious. Joan and I did a Panama Canal cruise in 1998, and the whole thing took about eight hours, and we napped through the best part of it. The cruise ship had a couple of lectures about the building of the canal, but otherwise we were prisoners of our artificial environment. As a result, I was more bored than excited. Obviously, we missed out on a lot.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – I was glad we saw it at close to water level, rather than cruise-ship-deck level. And the side trips, especially near Colon, were wonderful. We were supposed to do a full transit but had engine trouble and had to stop about halfway and get to Colon by bus.

      • Engine trouble…begs the question: what happens to ships that fail mid-stream, as it were?

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – I think our trouble had to do with leaking oil – the engine still worked, after a fashion. I’d guess that any ship that got stalled (as long as it wasn’t in a lock chamber) would pull over, weigh anchor, and wait for help. The narrowest point of the waterway itself is still 630 feet wide. Of course, there are always tugs . . .

          • Somehow I imagined much of it to be like the Rideau Canal. Silly ignorant me.

          • Isabel Gibson says:

            Barbara – I always thought of it as a big ditch. I think the photos of ships in the locks chambers made me think the whole length of it was like that. The fact that they had to dig through a small-ish mountain range and add dams (I never saw so much earthwork, never mind the formal dam) to make small lakes, and that ships are lifted to 26 metres above sea level, well, that was all news to me. Silly ignorant me, too!

  3. Alison says:

    It was a tour that my dad always wanted, but never did, do. As an Engineer, I think he was fascinated by the scope of the project. I do know that he read a LOT about it, and must have talked about it to me. One of my first memories of doing a presentation at school (Grade 2 or 3?) was on the building of the Panama Canal. I dressed up as a mosquito to do the presentation. I think I had more fun designing and creating the mosquito costume than researching the Canal – but then, I’m NOT an Engineer!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – Do you have pictures of you as a mosquito? That would be something to see! Before we went I read the whole 620-page book on the Canal (“The Path Between the Seas”) and could have done without its lengthy coverage of the politics – the project management aspects were more to my taste but were a bit skimped, says me. But it did give me an appreciation for the scale of the thing – I had always thought of it as a big ditch on more-or-less level ground. The business of cutting down through hundreds of feet of rock and soil (which then tended to slide whenever there was a big rain – like about half the year) was impressive.

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