Some of you noticed that I disappeared for a while (it was only a week!). I have been in Panama, visiting one of my dearest and oldest friends, Greg. He moved there four years ago with his partner (who is from Ecuador and Panama) and it was way past time to see his not-that-new-anymore home. Being a textile junkie I knew about the exquisitely embroidered molas made by the Kuna Indian women, but I confess that I didn’t know what else to expect from Panama except that it would likely be hot and there is a big canal there.
Well, it does have a big canal and plenty of molas, but it was not too hot at all (winter is beginning and Greg lives in the mountains where there is a lovely cool breeze). And it is gorgeous, with a huge variety of birds and butterflies and flowers—and beer (people in tropical climates know how to make beer, and you have to love one that includes the word “sober” in its name).
Panama City itself is very cosmopolitan, with a gazillion skyscrapers and more going up every second.
It also boasts a beautiful old section called Casco Viejo which dates back four centuries and is being carefully restored, although I tend to love the old and crumbling bits which have amazing texture and color.
It was settled after Morgan the Pirate destroyed the original old city (called Panama Viejo) in 1671, the ruins of which are being excavated.
The Panama Canal itself is—as has been said for almost a century now—a miracle of engineering. It still operates in exactly the same way as it did in 1913 when it opened. I will now bore you with the details (illustrated!).
Ships enter a set of locks at each end of the Canal (and go through another set in the middle) through which the water level is controlled. The only locks open to the public are the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific (Panama City) side. Traffic goes only one way at a time: from midnight until noon all ships enter from the Pacific and go through to the Caribbean Sea, and from noon until midnight it is the reverse. There is always a queue of ships waiting their turn—these are in line to start through at midnight.
This empty container ship was coming through from the Caribbean side to exit into the Pacific. Note how high the water level is as the ship enters through the first set of gates (they are open behind it here) from the Canal.
Once through the initial gates, the ship waits as the water level goes down to match the level beyond the second set of gates (which is rising at the same time). This happens pretty quickly—no more than ten minutes or so.
Notice how much lower the ship is now and how the first gates where it entered the locks have closed behind it. (Also look at the full container ship just entering the locks on the other side—it was massive.)
When the water level on either side of the second gates is equal, they open up and the ship passes through. There is very little room for error as you can see—some ships have no more than 60 centimeters of space on each side of the canal as they go through the locks. The little train-car thingies on each side help to keep the ship from drifting and crashing into one of the banks.
As ships pass through the Canal they are piloted by men who take over from their regular captains. Crew members apparently look forward to the eight hours it takes to get through because they get the day off.
There has never been an accident in the Panama Canal, ever!*
Bye bye, big boat! Once the water level between the second and third (and final) set of gates has been equalized with the water level in the Pacific, they open and the ship goes on through and out to sea for the rest of its journey home. See how much lower again it is below than it was when it came through the second set of gates above?
Fascinating. I am really glad to have seen it all in action. There is a lovely restaurant in the visitors’ center overlooking the locks at which you can spend a leisurely afternoon with cocktails and a sumptuous buffet lunch as you watch the activity from a table on the balcony.
I naturally found time to take pictures of my favorite subjects: (stray) dogs and children. The two not-stray dogs are Abbey, a sweetie-pie miniature schnauzer, and T-Bone, Greg’s spaniel-poodle mix. I hadn’t seen T-Bone in four years but he remembered me and greeted me ecstatically; and both of them gave me lots of love.
Greg’s home up in an area called Cerro Azul is beautiful and serene, especially in the fog (actually, clouds) and rain which welcomed me for the first few days.
And Friend Greg himself is a creative and hilarious man with a gift for accessorizing on the go.
He used to joke with me that the only time in my life that he would let me down as a friend would be when Gemma died. “I’m just going to leave town!” he would say. Since he had left town in any case, I am very glad that he went to this gentle and beautiful country of Panama so that I could see it too when I needed it (and him) the most.
*This turns out to not actually be true, but the Canal does have an incredible safety record nonetheless!