Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Panama Canal

This was my favorite shot from the Canal shoots because it's history.  This metal was taken from inside the locks which have to be drained and cleaned every year. 
Sometimes we go to a country with expectations from others.  Duties.  Obligations. No one in my family really cares about what I did here except that I came back alive.  It's not to say that they don't care, but it's all mumbo jumbo....and so are the pics.  However, the question that always comes up, "Did you see the Panama Canal?"  I mean how could I go to Panama and NOT see the CANAL??  It's like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower!!!  Can you imagine???
Well it wasn't as painful as I thought it would be.  It was still hot and muggy outside, but there was icy a/c inside the museum.  At least we were out of Panama City at this point and I knew we would be going to amazing places the following day. So I did what was expected of me. I did my civil duty as an American. It's around 8 bucks to enter. You'll get to see some amazing exhibitions and a rather blah video, but you get to sit for a few minutes. There's a better video out there from PBS titled "The Panama Canal." It's longer but really informative about the whole history which focuses on the people.  I highly recommend watching this before you go to Panama because it will enhance your experience.  The museum covers 4 floors full of fascinating information from how the locks operate to the rain forest that's located along the route.  You can also watch ships passing through the canal.  Having to leave the museum to watch the ships cross, I uncomfortably stood in the nasty humidity. Again, the stifling hot air of Panama really took its toll on me during the first part of this trip. I don't mind humidity when there is a breeze, but the air just hung.  I missed my hot and DRY desert weather from Tucson. This blog was good for me because it made me focus on the job.
Every ship that passes through the canal pays a chunk of change to use it. It's quite a hefty amount to shortcut through this man made wonder at several thousand dollars a ship. The ship that passed through on this day had to pay 6 thousand dollars. Of course the price is determined by the size of the vessel, etc. Large cargo ships pass before your eyes from one side to the other. The place draws in lots of general tourists who stay in Panama for a couple of days in the nicer hotels. You can always tell them apart from the backpackers because they are wearing lipstick with their hair done up:) I'm not one for crowds, and there were plenty of people here from all over the world.
Thousands of men and women died creating this canal. A high estimate places the total at 27.500 and the lower estimate was around 23.000. Yet other sources report 25.000. Records vary, and some people believe that the death toll was higher than 30.000 people. Either way, A LOT of people lost their lives creating this canal. Yellow fever and malaria caused much of it, but there were a lot of mechanical accidents as well.  The Culebra cut for the canal was an area that took a high amount of casualties due to the forces of Mother Nature.  Mudslides would cover workers as they blasted their way through this tricky part of the canal.  A memorial is there to remember the thousands of workers who lost their lives. When the French failed to create the canal(and almost crushed their government financially!), the US took over once President Theodore Roosevelt stepped into office. In fact, it was one of his first orders.  The canal would later aide in both World Wars. Panama was originally part of Colombia, but Roosevelt helped support a revolt by bringing in US Navy ships into the surrounding waters of what was then Colombia.  And thus Panama was created with the help of the US government.   Later President Roosevelt would admit by telling the American people, "I took the isthmus!"  This would cost the US government and taxpayers 10 million dollars in reparation to Colombia.  Imagine someone trying to do that same thing today.  Part of my anger comes from the environmental damage done to the area by a president who bullied his way into a country that wasn't his to control. Roosevelt went on to do a lot of great things, but in my opinion, this project had consequences to both Colombia, the enviroment, and the thousands of workers who lost their lives. To prevent any more deaths from malaria, a US Colonel by the name of William Crawford Gorgas was assigned in 1904 for the sanitation project.  He was able to get the disease under control and move the project forward to completion.  Many of these workers were cutting through primary forest to connect the Pacific to the Caribbean and while doing so, they were exposing themselves to the raw power of Mother Nature.  Rain also hampered much of their work creating mudslides. Mass graves were made during several digs near what is now the railroad. In fact, the railroad was built first before the project could begin. This was the deadliest and most labor intensive part of the project.  An entire area had to be blasted open to fill a large gap with water....thus creating the massive artificial Gatun lake for sea vessels to pass through and connecting the Caribbean and Pacific together.
It looks easy crossing from one end to the other, but there are a lot of mechanics that go into entering the canal.  The ships entering the locks must hand over their control to the Panamanian crew to navigate the vessels with tugboats through the various channels and locks.  There are areas on the river or lake that are not deep enough for vessels to pass, but the Panama Canal Authority have it all under control and know the route.   There are 3 main locks that ships have to cross.....the Gatun locks near Colon, the San Miguel locks near the Culebra Cut, and the Miraflores locks outside of Panama City. Today, more locks are being created for larger and wider vessels. This project should be completed by 2014.
Once the vessels reach the locks, two tractors(or what they call "mulas") attach on both sides to pull the vessel through to the other side of the lock. The US signed over the Panama Canal at noon on December 31st, 1999 to Panama. A mass exodus of US officials left behind a project that began with the French and ended with the US.  Considered one of the 7 modern wonders of the world, the canal today is successfully run by the Panama Canal Authority(ACP).
The part that moved me on this journey was really the history behind the canal. I wondered if anyone really remembered those times.  There were a few people who were still around from the canal days, but most of them were the children or grandchildren of the workers who are now in their late 80's to mid 90's.  I chose the reflective music in my video for their personal stories that now can only be found on paper and old cassette recordings. Imagine the late 1800's and early 1900's.  What had the country looked like back then?  What was it like to have a community focused on a singular task?  What dangers beyond disease did they face? What kind of music did they listen to?  One man introduced himself to me in Casco Viejo as the "Legend".  He was one of the kids who grew up in the canal communities.  His father worked during the later years on the canal project.  As you can imagine, he was older in his mid 80's but in great shape telling me stories about the canal and the community. 
The above pic shows tractors(mulas) aligning themselves along side the vessel preparing to pull the ship through the lock.  Once that is completed, the water level will rise lifting the ship up so that it can be moved into the next area.  Back in the museum, there was a computer where you could type in your family names and see if potential relatives worked on the canal.  I typed in "Rohrer" and found two workers with my last name.  Were they long lost relatives of mine?  
Water levels play an important role and help transfer the ship from the river to the ocean or vice versa. Here's a random question for you.  Even though the Panama canal is owned by Panama, which country operates most of the ports around the world including the US? The answer is China. A Hong Kong company run by Li-Ka Shing.  Yeah...this guy is rich:)
I'm thankful for my friends who made me take these pictures.  I was uncomfortable, sweaty and overwhelmed by the number of tourists in this area.  They told me, "You need proof that you were here!! You can't just take pics of the canal without your face in them.  Now smile like you really mean it!"  They were demanding, but they were also right.  So I forced a smile and pointed to the sign.  When I say humid everyone.....I mean HUMID!  If you look close enough, you'll see a sheen of sweat glistening off my face.:) Well maybe don't look too close.  However, it's why I wore my white shirt that day so you couldn't see my perspiration:) Remember to drink plenty of water.
I thought this shot was cool because it showed two ships coming and going.

Here's the last shot of me at the Panama Canal. For more information, click on the link below. The Panama Canal is a human triumph over nature or a good example of how nature and humankind can coexist together today. A project like this could never happen anymore and thank goodness! Fortuneatly, the locks couldn't operate properly without sections of rain forest being preserved.  Without the vegetation, there wouldn't be anything to hold the water in which would prevent vessels from crossing the river or lake.  It's really quite something to behold in person....imagine a large sailing vessel pass by while you're in the jungle.

Here's what moved me about this place.  This museum triggered a memory from the time when milkmen still delivered milk in the morning. Does anyone remember this? Maybe it was just a dream.:)  Anyhow, it wasn't just about the canal for me.  It was going back to the early 1900's when my Grandfather was a kid.  He would later,as a young man, work on Lake Michigan as a chef for cargo ships.  A lot of the Panama Canal history reminded me of the pics and stories about how the Two Rivers/Manitowoc area(my hometown) began. I have our trip to the canal to thank for stirring up those stories my Grandfather used to tell me about his own youth and how he sailed the great Lake Michigan. He's gone now like most of the people who helped create important structures for the ocean, river, or lakes.  The first pic on this post reminds me of home and takes me back to the days when I was 5 or 6 years old.  Get ready for a random flashback:) I'm with my Grandma who is hanging her sheets on the clothesline while hitting them with some sort of stick. The breeze is nice and cool that day. The smell of freshly washed linens hangs in the air. I'm playing with trucks on the lawn.  However, Grandma has to take me in their green car (which smelled of cigars) to pick Grandpa up from work. This was during the time when only one car was the norm for families.  We drove to the lakeshore and waited for Grandpa to finish up his shift at Burger shipyards (which created submarines for World War 2, tugs, ferrys or tankers). I remember the seagulls floating above us making a mess on everything below! Another carwash!  Bob(aka Grandpa) came out with his fellow coworkers in their grey uniforms with his lunch box in hand and we'd proceed back home.  That's a special memory that was triggered from this museum. I'm glad we saw the canal because it made me think of all those people who dedicated their lives, whether it be for work or desire, to create something special for future generations.  The faces of these places have changed (as have their environments), but the old bones still remain ......the only reminders of a generation now gone.


  1. Great, now if I'm in the area, I can skip the canal! just kidding. It was actually pretty interesting to see how it works. Sounds like it was worth the visit!

  2. I had a good time this day at the canal, Chris. Thanks for giving us so much info. I can feel the humidity right now! I have an uncle (who just turned 87) who served with US forces during WWII in Panama protecting the canal. At that time most of his family and friends had never even heard of Panama (he was a country bumpkin from the piney woods of East Texas) and were fascinated by his stories and a few pictures of the wilds and jungles of Panama.


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