Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Going Through the Panama Canal

Day 6 on the 15 Day Celebrity Millennium Cruise:

Panama Canal, Panama
 Transiting Through the Canal

Two ships ahead of in the Gatun Locks, so large they barely fit, these ships are known as Panamax vessels; ships that reach the maximum length and width to pass through the locks.

Known as mules, these small and incredibly costly trains attach to the panamax vessels via the cable you see hanging and help to keep the ship as centered as possible to avoid hitting or rubbing up against the lock's walls. However as I got to experience and hear on the Millennium going through the Mira Flores locks, it's an incredibly tricky game and requires constant adjustment.

My view from the Sun Deck while sipping a lovely iced drink from the bar.

The iconic Centennial Bridge.

Occasionally you'll see spots like along the locks, these are gates that are out to be serviced, as all the gates that you see being used in the locks are original to the canal's initial construction.

Going through the Panama Canal is akin to Christmas morning, you wake up early, excited and full of jitters hoping to find that perfect spot to see the transit take place, and then before you know it, it's all over and you're left with just the memories. It's truly a unique experience and not many people around the world can say that they've been through one of the greatest technical achievements in the world.

The building of the canal was no easy feat and took thousands of lives through disease, such as yellow fever and malaria, and through the countless construction accidents that took place with the building of both the first transcontinental railway in Panama (a crucial element in the making of the canal), as well as the construction of the canal itself. And as if that wasn't hard enough to deal with, life in the canal zone had a distinct class structure that was put in place so that the white collar workers were paid in gold and the blue color hard labor workers were paid in silver, which essentially created social and racial segregation (i.e: in the town, businesses and the like had separate entrances, one for gold class and the other for silver class).

Yet life in the canal zone wasn't always jaded and marked by death, eventually life got better and through the efforts of a new administration the major diseases that plagued the working men and their families had all but ceased. Safety, better management and organization became a new priority that ultimately ensured the completion of what would be one of the world's greatest marvels. You can read about the canal and all the tears, sweat and toil that went into its' creation from the very first days when the French headed the project, to Teddy Roosevelt's involvement in separating Panama from Columbia. The two countries were one and the same prior to the Americans investment in the canal; it was Columbia's refusal for a canal to be built by the United States that caused the American support for a Panamanian revolution for independence. You can even see pictures of the work in progress, but none of that will seem real once you are standing on the bow of the ship witnessing it for the first time.

It seems simple enough when you go through, but then you take a step back and remember that this was all created in the late 19th and early 20th century, with 20th century technology. Then you realize as you spot crocodiles from your balcony on Gatun Lake, that massive body of water is man made. Next, as you make your way from the nicely air conditioned cafe into the sweltering humidity made worse by the brunt of the sun bearing down on you, that those massive 7 foot thick gates that hold thousands of gallons of water back, the train tracks for the mules and all other construction materials were brought there and worked on ceaselessly until the job was done under that unyielding sun. Thousands of people lost their lives all in order to shave some time and money off of a transoceanic voyage for commercial and passenger ships alike. Then something so simple becomes massively grand before your eyes and you can truly realize what a feat the Panama Canal truly was and still is.

Now for some tidbits for those of you who haven't gone through the canal but plan on doing so, to which I can say, it's something that you totally must add to your bucket list. From what I understand most ships, like the Celebrity Millennium, will open their helipad up to the passengers so that you can get a front seat view to the locks. However, here's my complaint: they don't make it widely known that this option is available.  I only knew about it from reading it on other blogs and asking people at the guest relations desk about it. I was also told that the doors would open at 7am while other passengers were told a variety of different times but a crew member did not show up until 7:30am and those who patiently were there and waiting at about 6:45am got bum rushed to the back by people who showed up just in the nick of time. I'm hoping that the next this happens the staff are all uniformly told what time the doors would be opened to better inform the passengers and that they ensure that those waiting first in line would be the first to get up on the helipad and get that optimal viewing spot that they woke up early for and waited for. Also, if you were one of the fortunate people to get a spot along the railing like I initially was, all the courteous nature of your fellow passengers goes by the wayside as you approach the first gate at the Gatun Locks, as people will shove in front of you and slowly try to push you out of the way (that happened twice to me, then some very very tall man just stood in front of me - I'm a shorty). So about halfway going through the Gatun Locks I angrily gave up and decided to head to the back of the ship on the Sun Deck hoping it wouldn't be as crowded, and was I in for a pleasant shock- almost no one was there. This spot ,along with the veranda on deck 4, became my favorite spots for viewing the passage of the canal and I definitely recommend just heading for these spots sooner rather than dealing with the headache of overcrowding on the bow.

Also, it's a long day going through the canal (roughly 10 hours), but as I mentioned earlier, before you know it, it will be over. That being said, have everything ready the night before, you don't want to waste time fiddling around trying to find your camera or deal with a dead battery. Make sure you're drinking plenty of water (the canal is incredibly hot and humid) and have plenty of sunscreen on unless you plan on watching the transit from inside (you have to pop out at least once or twice though).

That being said, savor the moment because it's not everyday that you find yourself going through the Panama Canal, that is unless of course you plan on going back for the centennial celebration (the SS Ancon was the first ship to make the transit upon the canal's completion on August 15, 1914)  that will also hallmark the completion of the canal's expansion project, which will add newer, wider lanes to accommodate the growing size of ships.

Quick Tip: For an incredibly informative and interesting documentary about the canal, watch PBS's American Experience: Panama Canal.

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