Unlocking the Panama Canal

by Ophelia Drulis, Concession Agent

A close up of one of the Panama Canal locks
A close up of one of the Panama Canal locks

I always knew that my husband, an automobile mechanic, would be eager to visit the Panama Canal; a masterpiece of engineering and one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Before we had our three sons, Steven and I were in the habit of taking holiday-season cruises together, so in 1997, when the opportunity arose to book a Panama Canal cruise, with stops in Colombia, Costa Rica and parts of the Caribbean, we took it.

In a way, I thought of it as my gift to him, but it turned out to be one of my most memorable travel experiences. I was so fascinated by the intricate series of locks and gates that make up the Panama Canal and equally as touched by some children I met on one of the San Blas islands there. Truly, Panama was a revelation to me.

I had read in school about the long and arduous history of man’s quest to join the Pacific and Atlantic via the narrow, 40-mile-wide Isthmus of Panama. I must have imagined that the Panama Canal would be a trench-like passageway, a muddy river of sorts, connecting the two oceans.

I had seen a documentary recapping the punishing, dangerous and seemingly impossible work entailed in the construction of the site: cutting through a mountain range and even a portion of the Continental Divide, hacking through dense jungle, navigating the tides of the powerful Chagres River and battling mosquitoes that brought the devastation of yellow fever and malaria with them.

This was man versus  nature at its fiercest. It was a Herculean odyssey that defeated the initial team of investors from France and challenged the Americans who ultimately completed the canal.

As hard as it was to reconcile the efficient system in place today, with the chaos and hardship of a century ago, the knowledge about the building of the canal is what makes it such an enriching experience.

Our cruise vacation began as we boarded Crown Princess in Fort Lauderdale, and after a few days at sea, we arrived at the Panama Canal.  It was a little surreal, because Steven and I were hanging out by the side of the pool in complete vacation mode, as our cruise ship entered the first of the three Gatun Locks. Excitedly, we made our way to the railing to get a closer look at what was happening.

Crown Princess entered what looked like a giant pool that was then filled with water; you could see the gates open and the water pouring in. As we rose to reach the next level of the Canal, the gates opened and our ship eased into the next lock, where the process was repeated once again. It was like being in an elevator. I was amazed at the efficiency of the whole transaction and I could sense Steven was in complete awe of this mechanical masterpiece.

Large ships are not allowed to power through the locks themselves. Instead, they are towed by electric locomotives, or “mules.”

After the third lock, Crown Princess had been lifted 85 feet above sea level to reach Gatun Lake. At Gatun Lake, our ship reversed course and we went back through the same portion of the canal, back toward the Caribbean. Had we continued on to the Pacific, the whole process could have taken the better part of 10 hours, depending on ship traffic.

From there, we stopped by one of the islands in Panama’s San Blas Archipelago. The San Blas islands are run by the Kuna Indians and their economy, language, specific culture and customs thrive there. Besides the fact that the particular island we visited had a breathtaking beach, what captured my heart were the children who flocked to meet us after we docked.

I didn’t expect to be reminded of my own childhood on a tiny island in San Blas. This cruise vacation was turning out to be full of surprises. As the children of San Blas ran up to us selling beaded necklaces, shell jewelry and sweet little wooden boats that they had made, my mind flashed back to my own childhood in Trinidad and Tobago.

You could say finances were tight…we were poor.  In an attempt to have a little extra, my mother used to make candy and sell it at my school during recess. I was not embarrassed at all, in fact, I’d always join her in selling sweets to my friends. You do what you have to do.

But when you are a child, you feel you’re the only kid in the world who has to work this way. Here in a remote island of San Blas, I was reminded that there are needy children all over, in every part of the world, who do what they can to provide for their families. I was truly touched beyond belief.

I came home thinking of the endearing nature of the children of San Blas and the mechanical marvels of the Panama Canal.

This was a trip that satisfied both Steven and me, and one of our last together before we started our family. It’s been 14 years since we went to Panama and now we have three boys: James, Michael, , and Nicholas. Vacations are no longer romantic breaks for two…we travel as a pack.

I just know that we’ll be back to Panama before long, where our sons—one who shows signs of becoming an engineer—will be amazed to see this wonder of technology and perhaps meet a few children who are similar to their mom..