Day 10 |
Sep 30, 2009

Panama Canal

By Claire Allum, Archaeologist, Anthropologist

Co-ordinates: 09°04’48”N, 79°40’48”W

Weather: Warm and humid with overcast sky with occasional outbursts of heavy tropical rain and bright sunshine

Today ten of my friends and family saw the Prince Albert II in a Miraflores Lock. My brother even emailed me a picture of us from the webcam maintained on the Internet by the Panama Canal Authorities! Travelling the Canal was a wonderful and interesting experience, and I have some great images and video footage of the lock mechanisms, Gatun Lake, the enormous Panamax freight ships, the Bridge of the Americas and finally the skyscrapers of Panama City.

The day didn’t start well. I slept roughly the night before. Around midnight bright lights, heavy thumps and grinds woke me. Tossing and turning, I finally returned to sleep with an industrial rhythmic pulsing filling my dreams. We were bunkering (taking on fuel) in preparation for our trip through the Panama Canal in the morning.

I rose early to see a bay filled with soft grey-pink light and The Prince Albert II surrounded by giant ocean freighters, their hulls red with rust and white cranes arching skyward. A second set of cranes stood at attention along a hazy distant port, pointing up like missile-launchers.

An early breakfast on deck was accompanied by Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor (probably composed by Remo Giazotto). By eight o’clock and our arrival at the Gatun Locks, the sun was hot and the air heavy with moisture. But it didn’t stop me, or the guests, from standing at the front of deck six to watch.

The lock took us up to Gatun Lake in three stages. For each rise, heavy metal doors clamped shut behind and in front of the ship and thousands of litres of water, rapidly filled the enclosure, lifting the Prince Albert II. Small silver trains, “mule trains,” attached to her prow, held her steady as she rose. When the next level was reached, the front doors opened and the mule trains pulled the Prince Albert II through to the next lock.

The day grew warmer as we meandered across Gatun Lake. I sheltered with the guests on the shady side of the ship where there was a slight breeze. Periodically one of us would move forward into the sun to take pictures and videos, retreating when our skin burned and the perspiration dripped down our necks.

We had three wonderful guides, Panama Pete, Ian and John, full of Panama knowledge, on the decks with us. A professional Panama Canal guide, Patricia, narrated from the Bridge. I learned all sorts of interesting things, including: there used to be a cobble-stone path across the isthmus, the bulls-eyes and high horizontal cross poles at the locks are for rope handling practice, and the Canal grosses $7.4 million US dollars a day. I also learned about the webcam on the website, which is how my brother was able to watch us go through the Miraflores Locks.

At midday there was a lightening flash and rumble of nearby thunder followed by a tropical downpour—rather like standing under a bucket of water. It was all over in an hour, and the afternoon was cooler as we made our way through the second half of the Canal and the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks. To me, the sight of Panama City’s skyscrapers at the end of our voyage emphasized the Canal’s economic importance, not just to Panama, but also to the World’s economy.

Panama Pete…how does one describe him? He is a handsome, charismatic man with a big smile and lots of stories. He was born on a plane while his mother was flying from Cuba to the US. He has been living and guiding in Panama for decades. He is to be our guide while we are in Panama. This afternoon he gave us a talk on politics, economics and graft in his country, followed by what we are to expect on our visit to an Emberá village tomorrow. It is rare to meet someone who speaks so easily to people and about almost any subject.

As a fitting end to the day, Richard Sidey, our onboard photographer, showed us his half-finished video of the voyage. It made me want to break my camera. I have pictures of the same scenes and activities, but his are so much better. Instrumental music pieces highlight his collage of video and images. The latter are, in many cases, almost abstract in their form and simplicity. I will have to make sure I don’t miss his next presentation on “How to Take Better Pictures.”