Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Travelogue #5: Panama Canal

And thus we come to the whole point of this vacation. Which was to spend eleven days away from the kids. No, which was to observe the Panama Canal. (Truly, it was to celebrate fifteen years of life with the sweetest, kindest man I know. But the Canal was a bonus.)

So anyway. I had been preparing for this trip by listening to David McCullough's book, The Path Between the Seas, which is a really great telling of the history of the canal. Or would have been, if I had finished it before we left. As it was, I got a good grip on the pre-history of the canal, all of the intrigue and scandal associated with France's failed attempt at building it. But having only listened to it on the treadmill and once, disastrously, while "resting" (I fell asleep after only a minute or two and then had to rewind an hour of the thing maually because my mp3 player is cheap) I really had gotten through only about half of it. But it was good (still is) and I highly recommend it.

It is tradition for a specialist to board the boat as we approach the canal and then narrate, over the outdoor speakers and ship's TV system, each step of the crossing. And that would have been really cool if it had worked--but as it was, the outdoor speakers were only situated in places that had obstructed views. So we missed what was probably the most interesting aspect of the crossing because no one thought to put a speaker on, say, the front of the boat in the best viewing spot or on the lower sides.

I set my alarm early so that we wouldn't miss it, but, as usual, awoke an hour before my alarm and then had to check the time every five minutes after that. Finally, I just dressed and thought I'd go grab some juice before we got in. Good thing, because it turns out we were arriving sooner than had been announced. Here's the first thing I saw:

These are the lights of the locks as we headed towards them. And we very slowly drew closer and closer:

Although we didn't see it (because it had happened in the dark, on the other side of the ship), when we got near to the locks, some guys in a rowboat had rowed out to the ship and brought some cables to be attached to our ship. Here's a picture of the rowboat which helped leave later in the day.

These cables would not be used to propel/pull us at all--we go through the locks under our own power--but would be attached to some very powerful engines (called "mules") that would run along tracks on either side of us. Here's a close-up of one of the "mules." I exchanged a small conversation with the driver.

The mule tracks along our side:

So then we pulled into the lock:

Once inside, we waited for the water to fill from the lock in front of us. That one got its water from the one in front of it, which got its water from the lake, which is above sea level. The water is piped through tunnels from one lock to the next. As it pours in, our ship rises.

Here we are waiting for our lock to fill. The ship on the right was just ahead of us in the process.

Then, once we are on the same level as the lock in front of us, the gates open and we move out:

A close-up of the gates:

Here's what it looks like behind us after we've moved out. Notice that the bay is much lower in level than the level of the locks. You can see another ship, behind us and to the right (on the left side in this picture), beginning the process.

The whole process was incredibly fascinating to me.

We waved to the workers along the locks.

There is a road that is retractable for local traffic to cross the canal. The ships always have the right-of-way, though. (I'm told that our ship had to make a reservation for this crossing more than a year in advance, and that the cruise company had to pay a fee of more than $100,000 for it. I guess that's where our ticket-money went.) So when we were passing through, the traffic backed up and the people in the cars and busses got out and watched us go through. Here's the moveable road:

While we were in the locks, we were within about a foot of the walls of the lock. Roger could reach out and touch the side. But only when we first entered. Then, of course, the lock would fill and our boat would rise too high for us to touch the side.

The water used to fill the locks ends up out in the bay. Here you can see it pouring out of the tunnel and into the bay.

We didn't get off the boat during the crossing, but we could tell from the where we were that Panama must be an amazingly lush and beautiful country.

Our friends who went into Panama City said that it is extremely poor (where did athat $100,000 end up?). What a strange juxtaposition of technology and poverty. I will never, ever forget this experience.


Zina said...

Thanks for all the pictures and details; this is fascinating.

I watched part (or maybe all) of a documentary on PBS a while back about the guy who was in charge of the French canal efforts (now I don't remember his name and I'm too lazy to Google) -- it chronicled all the problems with disease and mud, etc., as well as the infamy he received (after having been a VERY, VERY popular figure in France) when so many people lost their fortunes on the venture. If I recall, he was a family man with a bunch of kids, too.

I'm amazed such a big ship goes through with so little clearance. I guess ships that want to be able to use the canal can now only be built longer or taller, but not wider.

Zina said...

Count Ferdinand De Lesseps

(Didn't even ring a bell.) I'll have to read the McCullough book, it sounds interesting.

Christopher Bigelow said...

Hold on, who took over this blog? I thought it was mostly about someone struggling with illness and questioning spending money on things like eating out, then it becomes this grinning, totally energetic world traveler who paraglides in exotic jungles, etc.

Seriously, this does all look and sound very fun and great. Did you feel OK the whole time? Ann and I are going to London and Paris for our 10th anniversary in April, and I'm looking forward to it. Lots of plays and museums and urban sightseeing, no jungles or beaches...

Barbara Bakes said...

I'm glad you had such a great time on your trip! Mark would love to do the zipline. Guess I'll have to plan a trip to Costa Rica.

Darlene said...

Yeah, Chris, it's amazing how good you can feel when there are no bills to pay, shopping to be done, food to cook, complaining to endure, laundry to be washed, errands to be run, phonecalls to return, etc. And when you can take a nap WHENEVER YOU WANT!!!

I actually felt quite good during the trip, and have been doing better, gradually, in general. But it was such a restful vacation (aside from the parasailing, etc.), too.

I've never been to Europe and am jealous. How long will you have in each city? Maybe for our 25th anniversary . . .

L@pterces said...

Your description and pictures of the Panama Canal were very captivating! I can't believe they don't scrape up those huge ships on the sides of the locks. I'm glad you're doing better and were well enough to go and enjoy a nice trip.

Christopher Bigelow said...

We're mostly staying in London because my wife's brother lives there in a nice big home with good strategic location. For our actual anniversary day, we're taking the train over to Paris just for one night (leave in the morning, come home the following eve).

It's my first time to Europe, something I've always wanted to do but somehow have missed out on so far. I hope I get to go back again someday to Germany, Italy, etc. etc.

I've never been on a cruise and hope to try that someday too! Maybe if I'd been smart enough to jump on Angela's book, I could afford it sooner...

fer_17 said...

The french guy was Ferdinand de Lesseps, and there is NO way in the world a ship would use its own power to go through the locks, thats why themules are there, to pull you through power has to be out on the locks