Panama Trip

Friday morning the 20th we woke up all having slept well, and Samantha much improved as far as her cough and cold.

We got ready quickly, had a fast breakfast at the buffet, and were picked up in a minivan along with one other family at 9:45, ready for our half-passage through the canal. We were told the whole trip, including a 10-minute drive to the dock at this end, then the passage via ship through the two sets of locks, and then the half-hour drive back to the hotel on the other end, would take 5-6 hours total. In actuality, it took eleven hours, but it was a really wonderful day that I think Marcus will never forget.

The other family happened also to be from Massachusetts, suburban Boston actually, and had three kids, all teenagers, who were extremely nice and just great with our little ones. Samantha would go up to the twelve-year-old boy and say "You want a huggy?" and then throw her arms around him and give him a huge hug. He and his fourteen-year-old sister would play countless hands of War and Crazy Eights with Marcus on the ship at various points, and Robert and I talked with the parents (who also travel widely with their kids, way more than we have, in fact) a lot. At one point the father gestured at Samantha and asked if she ate food. I said yes, she eats everything. "But is she breastfeeding?" he asked. "Yes," I said, "that too, but she really does eat everything." "Oh, so she's bi," he said, "She can go both ways. Very cool."

Together with this family we drove to the dock and waited around for our boat to arrive, which it finally did around 10:30. The boat provided lunch--a nice meal of rice and beans and chicken, plantains, salad, and bread--and there were water and sodas included if you wanted, and popcorn and chips you could buy, and there were small but clean bathrooms, and the guide on the boat was excellent. He talked for at least eight hours, almost without stop, through the speakers, answering every question that anyone asked him and repeating absolutely everything in both English and in Spanish.

This coming year, 2014, is of course the one hundredth anniversary of the opening of the Canal, and the expanded canal was going to be ready for the anniversary but was running behind and will likely not be finished until at least 2015. We learned that the original canal was finished under budget and ahead of schedule, shockingly enough. Ships built to the biggest dimensions able to still fit in the current canal, called Panamacs, clear the locks with only 12-18" on each side, but there are more and more ships, called Post-Panamacs, built even bigger, and it's that market that the expansion of the canal hopes to capture. The boat that we were on was sized to go side-by-side with another passenger vessel in the locks, and in front of a big cargo ship, for efficiency's sake; our boat was charged $2000 in fees and tolls for the half-passage of the canal, whereas big cargo and cruise ships are charged $200,000-$400,000 for a whole passage. We paid $172 each for Robert and for me, with the kids free, including the boatride, the guide, the lunch, and the pickup and return by car, which was very fair, I think, given the high cost of traveling the canal at all.

We mostly talked to the other Massachusetts family, but the boat was full of a diverse group of people. There was a friendly but crazy (and drunk) Swede on our boat who kept chatting to us about Christmas and Thailand (Swedes love Thailand) and Swedish kids (he left his kids home to come to Panama with a buddy). He'd cluck whenever he saw Samantha stand on a chair and lunge forward, and his lunges panicked some other passengers. There was also a retired couple who had been told to be ready to board the boat at 6:45 in the morning--as actually we had been told, too, at first, until a flurry of phone calls changed that to 9:45--and were indeed waiting then, having gotten up at four-something in order to get ready. Toward the end of the trip they were sleeping on one of the booths downstairs and looked quite haggard.

The boat itself had air conditioning on the lower decks and a comfortable area to eat or sit inside, plus nice chairs up on deck, where we mostly spent our time. We made sure to take pictures posed in front of the continental divide.

As you might guess, there was a general laid-back imprecision about times on the boat. Robert couldn't figure it out, since as he pointed out, this could hardly be the first time this company had taken a boatload full of tourists through the canal, yet no one seemed either hurried, or at all perturbed by the total lack of schedule. There was a lot of waiting around: our boat arrived at the locks before they switched direction (they're either Atlantic-bound or Pacific-bound, with a switch at noon), so we waited for that, and then we had to wait for our assigned cargo ship partner to catch up with us. Then we had to wait for the chemical tanker which couldn't have any other vessels near it to pass by, and then we had to wait for our partner ship again, and then we had to wait for the canal zone pilots, etc. etc.

When we were actually going through the locks it was fascinating, and Marcus and the other kids were right up front on the decks watching as tugboats maneuvered the cargo ship into position and then the little locomotives took charge with their cables, pulling the ship in and keeping the distance perfect.

Marcus loved watching the boat sink, and the walls of the lock rise around us, and then both of our kids loved watching the gates open--"BIG gate open wide!" Samantha would narrate and squeal in glee; she'd napped through the first set of locks but was wide awake for the second.

We learned a lot about the safety precautions taken to avoid a catastrophic crash or other accident in the canal. The lock walls themselves are 55 feet thick of cement--the guide explained that when building the canal, people hadn't really known how thick cement needed to be to withstand the pressure, so they erred on the thicker side to avoid problems. There are double gates at the Pedro Miguel locks, so that if a big ship accidentally rams the first gate and it gives way, they don't lose the whole lake. The canal zone is supposedly the only place in the world where captains are required to relinquish control of their boats--only specially-trained pilots who work specifically for the canal zone can control boats in the canal. The pilots are rated from 1-9, with the higher ranks the more skilled, able to control the larger and trickier vessels. It happened that our pilot that day was rank 9, though, and would therefore be the most highly-paid employee in the canal zone, according to our guide.

At the Miraflores locks, a two-stage lock closest to Panama City, we waved at the tourists at the visitors' center and the restaurant overlooking the canal. When the gates open there, the fresh lake water is released into the salt water, and fish who'd been living in the fresh water and had been carried along the canal and through the lock are momentarily stunned by the change to salt water. Birds, knowing this, swoop down and pick off the fish for lunch. Samantha narrated this entire process, of course.

When we finally got off the boat in Panama City, after our assigned canal zone pilot had gone back and our own captain had taken back control of the ship, it was a few minutes before 7:00. The poor driver who was supposed to take us back to the hotel had been waiting there since 2:30, holding up a sign with some mangled version of our names on it. Coming off the ship, we'd paused, puzzled, in front of the sign, along with the other family. "This you?" the man asked. Um. Well, close enough. He seemed puzzled in turn when Robert snapped a quick picture of the sign. His vehicle was a perfectly nice eight-seater minivan, but there were nine of us, plus our driver. We just piled in, with Marcus sitting on the twelve-year-old's lap for part of the trip and Samantha on mine, and endured the trafficky drive back to the hotel.

The kids had eaten lunch, plus some popcorn, plus my small arsenal of Lara bars and Cheerios, but poor Marcus was starving by the time we got off the boat, much less back to the hotel. The other mom from our hotel gave him some trail mix and he devoured that as well as we were docking.

When we finally got back to the hotel, we grabbed a salami and cheese sandwich for Marcus, assembled hastily from the dinner buffet, and went out to ride the hotel truck for the 8:15 "night safari." We saw more capybaras, as well as a turtle laying eggs in the middle of the road ("It is a special moment," our guide announced, "so you will see I am not shining my flashlight on the turtle in this special moment." "That's very nice," said Robert, "but is anyone going to mention that the turtle is laying its eggs right in the middle of the road?"), and then, during a lull in the animals, Marcus laid his head down on my lap and fell asleep.

He remained asleep as we got off the truck, went back into the restaurant, laid him down on the bench, and proceeded to all eat dinner.

Samantha ate several bowls of soup, but Marcus was completely wiped out and stayed sleeping when we got back to our room and transferred him to bed too. On our last night, we finally cracked the code of the bizarre buffet prices. There was still no sign or menu or pricelist, but when Robert pressed the issue, he was told that it was something like $10 for cold food (salads and desserts) from the buffet, and $14 for hot food, or $24 for everything, the same at lunch and at dinner, and that drinks were never supposed to be included in the price (apparently our free fruit punch of the first day was an aberration). Later a couple at another table thanked us for sorting this out, as they hadn't been able to figure out what cost what and why they were being charged random amounts (based on what the waiters saw you eating at different times, it turned out) at different meals.

More. . .

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Created: 12/27/13. Last Modified: 12/27/13.