A Man, A Plan, A Canal

February 5, 2008
Day 860

Picture of lock.

A boat approaches the Miraflores Locks.

Today was the big day where I got to see where the Americas were geographically divided, at the Panama Canal.

Before looking at the Miraflores Locks, I checked out the museum that talked about the history of the canal. The French were the first to attempt to build a canal across Panama, but failed when thousands of workers died of tropical diseases, the topography of the land proved too difficult to work with, and the money eventually ran out. Panama was still part of Colombia back then, and the country wasn't keen to let the Americans start up where the French left off. The US did what any democracy-loving country in that position would do and backed the Panamanian revolution and recognised the new country right away, thus securing the rights to build the canal.

As you'd expect from any project of its size, the canal attracted the superlative hunters who were quick to point out that it took ten years, $400 million, and a labor force of 75,000 to complete the project. I must have learned at least ten times that the lowest fee ever for crossing the canal was thirty-six cents by Richard Halliburton, who swam across it from August 14 to August 23, 1928. The highest fee ever paid changes often, but it is currently well over $300,000.

I finished looking at the museum just as a boat was approaching the locks. A guy walking around with colorful clothes and a Panama hat was giving the play-by-play to the crowd. The ship, which was transferring several private yachts, slowly made its way into the locks, guided by rail cars on either side. Once it was in place, the doors were shut and the process of draining the water began. Seven minutes later, the boat had dropped thirteen meters and was ready to take head into the Pacific Ocean. Very impressive.

A few minutes later, an even bigger ship entered the lock in the lane closer to us. This ship came from Venezuela and was carrying 4500 semi trailers to the US. Once again, the ship went through the locks in the same amount of time it takes to fill a bathtub.

A lot of people thought the Panamanians would surely screw things up when the US transferred the canal to them on December 31, 1999, but in fact, the canal now runs smoother than ever. In a few years, increase in global trade will cause it to reach capacity, so the Panamanians are building a new set of locks that will allow ships with twice as much cargo to cross it. The observation deck of the canal didn't come with a lot of bells and whistles, but for me it was an awesome experience to watch one of the greatest engineering feats in history in action.

The photo album for this entry is here.

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