A Fantastic Journey: Part 2

Partial Canal Transit

Our EcoCircuitos driver, always on time, came by for us at 9:30 AM to take us to our Partial Canal Transit. All those going on the boat met at Flamenco Island to board buses that would take us to Gamboa. The boat had transited from the Pacific to Gatun Lake the day before, so now it was on its trip down to the Pacific. The old Gamboa one-way bridge is still there and it was quite a nostalgic experience to cross it. I had never given any thought to the fact that this bridge goes over the Chagres River. As our guide explained, on the way to Gamboa, the Chagres is on the right hand side of the bridge and Gatun Lake on the left. Wow! The town of Gamboa, of course, hardly exists now, although the dredging division is still headquartered there and some of the houses have been brought up to date and look rather nice.
We boarded the “Pacific Princess” along with some 400 other travelers looking for the most beneficial spot on the boat to see as much as we could. The boat was full, but it was a comfortable boat with an air-conditioned cabin and a gift shop, for those needing respite from the sun. And the sun was shining very brightly, so I took the precaution on placing a handkerchief under my cap, hanging down over the back of my neck and ears. It was not a very fashionable look, but it worked.
We had to wait a while before we got clearance to proceed to the Pedro Miguel locks. But as soon as this was secured, we reved-up the engine and, with the noise of boat horns, we slid away from our mooring and proceeded into Gatun Lake. In no time at all, we were in the Pedro Miguel Locks with a large schooner sharing the locks with us. We tied to the side of the locks and the schooner tied up next to us. As the water was let out of the locks, a process that took only 8 minutes, the lines holding us against the wall of the locks were released until we reached the level of the cuts and Miraflores Lake. I had expected to feel some downward movement, but felt none. As a matter of fact, the only way I could tell we were going down was by watching the sides of the locks. It was really surprising how fast we went down.
What an experience! I had never taken this trip and I was as excited as a young kid on Christmas. With cameras on hand I was taking photos at a speed that rivaled a movie camera. I, as well as Gene, could not help but to be in awe at the grandiose work done by American engineers without the help of computers . . . only their brains and a slide rule at best.
Entering the cut, we proceeded at a good clip towards the Miraflores Locks. We passed several large container ships in the process as well as a special short ship carrying automobiles. This sort ship required the assistance of a tug to facilitate making the turns. During this portion of the trip they started serving lunch, but I was not about to give up my front space on the boat. Looking at the sides of the cut, one can only wonder how hard these people worked, with the tools of the day, to dig and haul away all that rock and dirt. It just baffles the mind if one stops to think about it. The trouble is that most take everything for granted never realizing what others have done for us in the past. It was an incredible feat then and, in my book, it still is one of the great accomplishments of the world, including the present.

While going through the cut, we passed under the beautiful new bridge spanning the Canal. I have heard nothing but criticism about this bridge, but I found it to be beautiful. The access roads are not finished yet, but work is going on at a good pace. We saw evidence of this on the road to Gamboa as well as on the way to El Valle, on the other side of Chorrera. The roads to the bridge should be finished by the end of the year. It will help with the traffic coming from the Atlantic side going to the interior.
As we entered the top lock at Miraflores, I felt a strange sensation when looking at the next lock in front which was, of course, down to the level of the Pacific. It looked as a huge hole in front of us and I could not help but be amazed at the strength of these gates that have been serving without failure for some ninety-two years! I have a photo of my father standing on one of these gates back around 1915-20 when he was still a Christian Brother!
Not until we had entered Miraflores Lake and gone down the two Miraflores locks and I had again taken a bunch of pictures, not until then, did I give up my place in front of the boat and went down to the Air Conditioned cabin to get my buffet lunch. It was delicious, consisting of rice with guandu and coconut, sautéed chicken, salads and another dish which I by-passed doubling up on the rice. There was also dessert and beverages.
Having gone through the locks, we continued towards Flamenco Island at a good clip and passing under the Bridge of the Americas, circling the island until coming to our pier. This is the area which is now full of shops and excellent restaurants and on which a couple of expensive yachts were tied up. ECOcircuitos was right there to get us and return us to the hotel.
As you may know, not counting the tremendous efforts by the French, it took the United States 10 years, the labor of more than 75,000 workers, and almost $400 million to complete the job. Like the French, the builders faced landslides, the complexity of massive excavations, the unprecedented massive use of concrete on the locks and other hurdles never faced before. Their biggest advantage over their predecessors was the discovery of the causes of malaria and yellow fever and their eradication. I could feel all this history as I went through the locks and cuts. After 19 years of living right by the canal, I had finally transited it and it was a wonderful experience.
That evening, we walked over to the El Panama Hotel and had a very good dinner, relaxing by the pool in an open restaurant that allowed the cool dry season breeze to go through. By the time we walked back to our hotel, around 8 PM, the crowds had thinned out both on the streets and the sidewalks. I was a bit apprehensive at first because of all the tales that had been sent to me by family and friends, but we were perfectly safe and soon felt at ease walking on the streets around and near our hotel. We made several trips to Via Espana during our stay there without any problems. During the week, the traffic and the noise were atrocious, but on Sunday, there were very few cars on the streets and hardly any one walking. It was almost a ghost town.
The El Panama, which had been such an outstanding landmark during my school days, is now hardly visible among all the buildings that now surround it. The grassy hill with acacia trees in front has been replaced with tall buildings. The hotel is so tightly surrounded that I had trouble finding its tiny entry on the street leading to the parking area in front of the lobby. Such are the changes in Panama that I never knew for sure where I was.

Every Monday we publish part of Louis Celerier’s mesmerizing tale of how he rediscovered the country of his childhood. Subscribe to this blog or follow us on Facebook to make sure not to miss anything!

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