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.
We’ve seen the waterway near Colón where the French started their failed attempt in 1879.
We’ve seen the memorial to the French workers who died on the project between 1879 and 1888, primarily from malaria and yellow fever.
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.
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.
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.
We’ve seen the operational locks at either end of the Canal, in great detail, both as observers and as transiters.
And we’ve seen the future: new locks that will be ready sometime later this year.
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.