I began to get anxious. Did Mario forget me? I left him only a week before leaving with him only the day and time I would return. Would he be at the airport to retrieve me?
As I focused my gaze through the window of, what seemed to be a twin-engine and very small plane, I became entranced by the topography. I flew into Panama City from David and was awestruck as my eyes rested on the Bridge of the Americas. I took a snapshot through the thick glass and walla; I really captured it. Although I didn't know it until I arrived home. I was a relic still using a thirty-five mm so I had to wait and see. From the air I could see the Panama Canal and I contemplated. Should I go see it?
Would I have time? My plane back to the States would leave at 2:30 p. m. and it was nearly 10 a. m. I weighed all the facts. The Canal is one of the Modern Wonders of the World. I was so close, could I afford to miss it? At a cost twenty dollars and the escort hourly fee of twenty?
We landed. I didn't see Mario anywhere when I got off, so I found a phone and called. Whew, I was relieved. He was on his way. He had not forgotten. The roadway and traffic in the city was heavy. I was left with the impression it was a day like any other; a fast and furious, beat the traffic day in Panama City.
As I waited a local Kuna Indian in her native dress was waiting for a bus. Her garb, which was typical of all the Kunas in the crowd, included beaded arm sleeves and leggings. Extremely hot colored and patterned cotton material made up the dress that wrapped around similar to a sari. Each Kuna female I saw at Albrook that day wore a red patterned headscarf. The appendage pieces were of orange-colored beads making everything look hot. Hot colors and black backgrounds in such humidity! I wanted a photo of her, although myths abound about natives fearing their spirit/soul will be stolen if one is taken. No matter what native we might see, that is the standard belief about them. I asked the lady's name.
She told me, “It is Beatrice. "
And I repeated, “Beatrice, " to be certain I heard her correctly. That is when I asked what native she was and she told me Kuna Indian.
I then asked if she would mind if I took her photo. Beatrice was willing to be photographed for a price. She said, “One dollar. "
I paid her the dollar for a photo and five dollars for a piece of her handiwork; which is only the beginning of a kitchen mitt, but it is a colorful toucan on black cotton, and I couldn't leave it behind. I just couldn't pass up owning a true native piece of artwork. The Kuna are excellent seamstresses. The Embera tribe is known for their material crafting as well, at least the ones I met in Boquete. Beatrice was old and very thin, perhaps ninety pounds, if that. Her face was a bronze-brown and cheeks sunken in because her teeth were missing. She was very sure of herself and seemed not only crafty, but also wily.
When my driver fetched me my plan was to go directly to Tocumen Airport for my flight back to Denver. But on the way we got waylaid. Mario, had to make many detours. A demonstration was taking place on the only bridge to Tocumen. The presidential election had just taken place and Torrijos, the son of an ex-dictator was elected, while the female presidente Morocoso was out on her ear. A traffic jam ensued and we were stuck in mall parking lots often as we tried to find an escape route. I decided then I had time to spend at the Canal. Mario finally maneuvered our way out of the shopping mall and we detoured to the Canal. We beat the traffic and by-passed the bridge.
Mario toured me through the now empty military barracks. He explained the government would not allow the barracks to be used even for temporary housing for the city's poor. The city is like a beehive, but in contrast, the barracks like a graveyard, barren with no signs of life.
June is hot and humid in the City, but once inside the museum and tour area it is just right. I wasn't going to do it, but I had a breakdown. Never thought I'd be glad I had one of those. It is an awesome place soaked in history and beautiful sights, and if you stay outside long enough you get soaked, too. Drenched with the heavy humidity and perhaps even a tear or two in empathy for those you gave their lives to build this awesome structure.
The Panama Canal is something that should just not be missed. The museum at Miraflores Lock has an outstanding display of facts and photos of those that died building the canal, the number of dead being 20,000. You will learn where the builders originated from (most were from the West Indies), why they were there, how they lived, and how they built it. It further describes the types of machinery it took to build the canal, and the cost, along with brilliant models of ships, rail cars and a simulation machine making it appear as though you are on a ship rising on a water elevator. If you are an entomologist, go just for that display. I have never seen such large bugs in my entire life. The more I saw and heard, the more my mouth dropped to the floor.
The fee for passage through the Canal is astronomical. The ships I saw began on the Pacific side, at the Mira Flores Locks, traveling on to the Pedro Miguel Locks and ending at the Gatun Locks in Colon on the Atlantic side. The expanse of the Isthmus is a mere 80 KM from ocean to ocean and the canal itself is 51 miles.
The price paid for passage seemed high to me being from such humble beginnings and frugal spending habits. Since Hurricane Katrina, the price that ships pay now is much more, but it would be even greater if they chose to travel around Cape Horn and back to the West Coast of the U. S.
I felt like a part of history just being there. The two ships idling from lock to lock, the enormous size of the ships riding a water elevator is even unbelievable in concept, much less reality. I had even forgotten myself, not giving another thought to when my plane left for the states. The prices were stunning. According to the tour announcer the Israeli ship paid $105,000 and the Norwegian ship paid $190,000 for passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
The ship from Norway was a brilliant orange crossing through the Canal on June 23, 2004. The container-laden ship carried goods from Israel; approximately 4000 metal containers of goods stacked six to eight high. The containers are railroad cars and pretty frightening to see them all together and stacked like that.
The locks themselves are 305 meters long and 33 meters wide. Ships fit with two feet to spare on either side; fore and aft there is room to go forward under their own power and idle as the water in the next elevator rises. The water rises twenty-six meters in eight minutes.
The brochures claim the Canal averages nearly $600 million billion per year. “$450 million is spent each year for the overall operation of the Panama Canal, of which nearly $100 million is committed to maintaining and improving the waterway, " a quote from http://www.panamacanal.com/map.htm .
For history buffs this is the site to peruse. Even though the figures for maintenance are also astronomical, a question on my mind was, “What happens to the remaining $50 million? How much of it goes toward helping the city's poor?"
The water that lifts the elevators is fresh water and completely gravity driven from Gatun Lake sitting high in the mountains. Ships save a lot of time and fuel expense by traveling the canal. Don't miss this modern wonder.
For a trusting friend and guide I recommend this website; http://www.solarteinn.com/SI-Trans_ground.html
Contact information for Jose Saenz is found here. He is a Panamanian travel guide and will treat you well, insuring your safety. Jose and Mario speak English. To reach Jose’ call his direct number, 011 507 614-7811, or email him at email@example.com. It will feel as though Jose is an old friend, which will make your trip to Panama as easy as walking out your back door to an afternoon social.
Linda Vissat is a Colorado native with a passion for travel and writing. Born in Denver, brought up in Wyoming, and a single-parent with two daughters; one a model and the other an aesthetician.