Monday, October 30, 2017

Three days in Panama (2004)

In 1994, the American Society of Civil Engineers compiled a list of Seven Wonders of the Modern World, paying tribute to the "greatest civil engineering achievements of the 20th century". The Panama Canal was number seven.

France began work on the canal in 1881 but stopped due to engineering problems and a high worker mortality rate. Yellow fever played a big part in this. The United States took over the project in 1904 and opened the canal on August 15, 1914. One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, the Panama Canal shortcut greatly reduced the time for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, enabling them to avoid the lengthy, hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America via the Drake Passage or Strait of Magellan.

Map of the Canal (notice anything strange about the relationship of the oceans?)
The canal had always been on my list of things that I wanted to see some day, so I was ready for what happened in October 2003. I was on a rail trip between Cordele and Savannah, GA (I wrote about that trip as a part of a post I made earlier this year.) There were lots of my fellow train riders aboard and at one point the conversation turned to a group of boat fans and a travel agency that had organized a trip to the Panama Canal. The trip involved a transcontinental rail trip (only 40 or so miles in Panama, on the Panama Canal Railway!) plus a trip through the canal. It appealed to many of the riders aboard the train besides me. Here is the information about the trip as it appeared on a flyer that one of the riders had:

Panama Canal Zone Tour
4 Night 3 Day Canal Tour
Wednesday, January 14 through Sunday, January 18, 2004

Schedule Subject to Change:
Wednesday: get to Panama City on your own. Transfer to Country Inn & Suites
Thursday: Roundtrip on the Panama Railway to Colon
Friday: Oneway by boat from Balboa Harbor to Colon. Return to hotel via
the boat line bus.
Saturday: land tour of all three locks and the canal dredging base. Lunch
at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort.
Sunday: leave Panama City for home.

$765 per person double occupancy. Single at extra cost. You must
have a passport.

(The actual trip was somewhat different as described below.)

After some discussion, I signed up for the trip and paid a single supplement of $170 (because I like my friends, but don't always want to hear their snoring.) The travel agency secured me a flight on American with a group 10% discount. The roundtrip fare was $454.62 and I quickly upgraded it to first class using miles.

I spent the months leading up to the trip reading David McCullough's terrific book, The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal so that I would have a greater appreciation of what I was seeing.

The trip started on Wednesday, January 14. It was very cold in Pittsburgh and it had snowed the night before. To make my 7am flight to Miami I had to leave the house at 5am or thereabouts. (That was overly conservative but I no longer knew how to estimate properly.) My itinerary was AA to Miami and then on to Panama (PTY). The flight time had gotten switched to leave 11 minutes later than when I booked my reservation and the connection ("oh it's a great connection") was reduced to about 50 minutes.

If you're ever in the neighborhood, Eat at Joe's
Of the 50 minute connection time, 10 to 20 minutes were used fixing (or not fixing but leaving anyway) a malfunctioning APU, and 10 additional minutes were used to de-ice the plane. The result is that I had about 20 minutes to get from gate D4 in Miami to gate E35. Unfortunately, this is a heart attack inducing plane change, even if you have a full hour to do it in. It involves leaving security, riding a train, etc. Nevertheless I was at E35 1 minute before departure time only to find (you knew this, right?) that they had closed the door 5 minutes early...even though they knew about my delay and that I was rushing to make the flight. I guess they never expected that someone could make that connection in the first place. When I am safely ensconced in my seat on the aircraft I am happy with a 5-10 minute early pushback. Not so much when I am trying to catch the flight. Regardless, the airline has a duty to connecting passengers, especially when accommodating them will not result in a significant flight delay. Right? Right?

So I missed my plane at 10:40am and the next flight wasn't due to depart until 5:30pm. What to do? I damn well wasn't going to wait around the airport for seven hours.

The Roney Plaza -- Long gone, but I learned to swim here in the 1950s
Miami was not foreign to me--my Mother split her time between Chicago and Miami Beach through high school and we would visit my Grandparents there virtually every winter. One of the highlights of those trips, to me, was our yearly sojourn to Joe's Stone Crab in the South Beach area. We would feast, family style, on stone crabs, steak, hash browns, salads of various forms, and their marvelous key lime pie.

Our train at Colon
With a stone crab lunch in mind, I ended up talking the nice lady behind the Hertz counter into renting me a car for about four hours fairly cheaply. $25 plus taxes came to right around $30 (a round trip taxi would have been much more). I then went to Joe's and had a great lunch consisting of stone crabs, a wedge salad with real roquefort dressing, maybe potatoes, and a piece of key lime pie.

On the first day in Panama we visited the historic town of Portobello
In the 1950s through the 1970s when I would visit, South Beach, and particularly the art decco portion of South Beach was full of run down small apartment hotels, mainly catering to the elderly Jewish community. For a good look at the beach during this period go watch the 1959 film A Hole in the Head with Frank Sinatra and Edward G. Robinson.

At the Gatun Locks
By the time of this visit South Beach had been transformed into a land of fancy botique hotels and restaurants and even fancier people. It was the place to be seen for a certain kind of person. Needless to say, after lunch I waddled back to my car and got the hell away from there. (Though it was fun to see how the area had been transformed.)

Someone's having a great time
As I said, I knew the area pretty well, so I drove around visiting old hunting grounds and then turned the car in, probably around 3pm, went through airport security and spent some time in the Admiral's lounge before going to the gate.

A motley crew
At the gate, I ran into Neil Lang (who I knew would be on the flight), Carol and Thom Sulanke (who I suspected would be), and Judy Decker. That flight left about 5 minutes late but we arrived in Panama on time. Customs was easy and before long we had hooked up with the person who was to take us to the hotel and about 30 minutes after that we were at the hotel (the Country Inn and Suites.)

The Country Inn was a decent enough hotel once I got moved from the floor which had a sewage odor. That notwithstanding it had two things going for it: an adjoining TGI Fridays (which was only important because the short nights and long days meant that we were too tired to go exploring) and it was right at the west entrance to the we could watch canal traffic.

A "mule" from the Islamorada
Thursday: Another short night as I had to be ready for a 6:30am departure from the hotel. I was surprised at the number of my railroad riding friends there. In addition to those already mentioned Al Butler, Tom Glover, Brad Phillips, Dwight Long, Steve Miller, Dave Arthur, Stan Hunter. If I missed anyone I apologize.

The bus took us to the Panama Canal Railway's train station. As it did so, I noticed something which continued to amaze me all trip. If you'll look on a map of Panama, you'll notice that the Atlantic Ocean is northwest of the Pacific and the net effect of this is that the sun rises over the Pacific and sets over the Atlantic. As a result of this I was geographically disoriented for most of the trip.

The gates, nearly 100 years old, open
We boarded our reserved dome car (ex-SP I am told) for the quick 1 hour trip to Colon on the Atlantic. A very nice ride in a comfortable car...for about 42 miles over heavy welded rail on concrete ties...much along the canal.

A Panamax ship
The original railroad had been torn up a number of years ago because it was not used. The Kansas City Southern rebuilt the line and it is now used predominately to transport containers from one coast to the other...useful for ships that are too big to transit the canal. With the opening of the new, larger locks in mid-2016 I am sure the traffic patterns for the railroad have changed, but given the cost of using those locks ranges up to $1,000,000 for a single transit I am sure that the railroad continues to do very well.

After we got off the train we boarded the tour bus (which was driven across after dropping us off...we had to wait about 20 minutes) and were taken on a tour of the historic town of Portobello. Then we had lunch, and made a visit to the Gatun locks. These are the three locks on the Atlantic side that raise or lower the ships a total of 81 feet up to Gatun Lake. There is an observation platform and a narrator there and most of use felt that this was a great way to spend an hour or two. Among other things we learned that, the locks at each end of the canal are oneway inbound in the morning and oneway outbound in the afternoon. If your ship misses its slot it may have to wait at anchor for a day or more to get through. We also learned that the Canal Authority demands a cash toll be paid before a ship is allowed to transit. Given the high tolls and the fact that some of the freight carriers are sail-by-night operations, there were a fair number of elderly looking freighters sitting at anchor outside the canal entrance waiting for the funds to arrive. (Aside: I have been told that it costs a near-Panamax size cruise ship nearly $500,000 to transit the canal -- on a reservation basis. I have no idea if this is true.)

The ships were amazing and appeared to fill the locks in all directions. These were the Panamax class ships. Newer, much bigger ships, designed to fill the new locks are called NeoPanamax. For the old locks the ships are guided through the locks and kept from hitting the sides by 50 (55?) ton electric locomotives made by Mitsibushi. As the locomotives go from lock to lock they have to climb nearly a 45 degree angle...cog drive. (Not sure what the equivalent is in the new locks.)
More pictures from the Islamorada
From Gatun we went back to the train and rode it back to the Panama City end of the line.  We arrived back at the hotel about 6:30pm and had dinner at the connected TGI Friday's...too tired for anything else.

Friday: this was it...the day we sailed through the canal. Departing the hotel at 6am the buses took us to Colon on the Atlantic side where we board the Islamorada, a 1912 day boat that was quite comfortable for our group of 50. Then another bus turned up and it appears that they double booked the ship by "mistake" so we were forced to cram in another 40 or so people. I imagine this happens all the time...but it sucked. It would have been nice to have room to really move around the boat.

The research ship that tied up alongside of us
The trip through the canal was breath taking. We started through the Gatun Locks and they were really a wonder to behold. Here we were in this tiny little boat crammed into a lock behind this tremendous grain ship (I think) with an even bigger PANAMAX container ship in the lock along side us. And the gates (original, from 1914) closed and the water rose and 10 minutes later we were 27 feet higher. The the other gates open and we repeated this two more times. Finally we emerged into Gatun Lake, created when they dammed the Chagres River. We sailed across this big lake (2nd biggest man made lake... Lake Mead is the first) and through the Gaillard cut (one of the true engineering marvels of the canal but not obviously so) and to the Pedro-Miguel lock -- this is a single lock. Apparently the rule is that the small boats go up behind larger ships, but they go down in front of we ended up in front of the grain ship...which gave us a whole different view of things. Once we were all tucked safely in we went down 27 feet and exited to Mira Flores lake...which is a small lake that took us to the Mira Flores locks (two in a row) which took us down to sea level. In these locks we had a sailing yacht tied up next to us...with a young crew who are doing research into something or another that escapes me at the moment. They were on a long trip that started in Newport, Rhode Island and was going to the Galapagos among other places. What I do remember is the young female line handlers bending over to grab our lines to tie up to us. Behind us in these last two locks was the cruise ship Minerva II. Again, it's a bit unnerving to see one of these ships bearing down on you!

After we got out of the last lock (by the way, if you've been through 2-3 of these, the rest seem somewhat superfluous) we took about 20 minutes to reach port and perhaps another 10 to reach the hotel...which we arrived at about 7:30 or so. Again dinner at TGIF...too tired to go anywhere else.

One of the murals in the Canal Administration Building
Saturday: ah, we slept in. We left on a bus tour at 8:30am and went to the Canal Administration building where we saw some incredible murals...very much like the old Cincinnati Union Terminal murals. This was really the high point of the day. We also visited the Mira Flores locks from the ground side, and had lunch at a restaurant in the rain forest near Gamboa (where the Chagres River ... that fills Gatun Lake ... meets the canal), and those who wanted spent 45 minutes at a handicraft mall. At some point the bus took us across the Bridge of the Americas. This marks the only time I've been in South America! Neil and I had dinner at a nice restaurant about a 20 minute walk from the hotel...and then back to the hotel.

A view in the rain forest
Sunday: I was scheduled out on the 2:40pm flight to Miami with a 1 hour and 45 minute connection. This probably would have been fine, but I had to clear customs in that time and mindful of the forced march on Wednesday, and the fact that a 105 minute connection is at best a 100 minute connection, I decided to try to get on the 8:20am flight instead. (I would have been scheduled on the 8:20am flight in the first place, but there was no published connecting flight on AA so it could not be booked.) Phone calls before had not succeeded, but I took a chance and went to the airport with the group...and was able to get on. We arrived on time, and cleared customs almost instantaneously (but it would have been a CF in the afternoon I am sure!) I went to a AA manager and got him to endorse the ticket over to USAir (try that today) in the event that I could get on that flight...but it went out full without me...I retreated to the Admiral's club.

My flight out of MIA left about 20 minutes late--full of people fresh off cruise ships. The flight kept showing later and later and the only person around kept saying "they have to clean the plane". It doesn't take that long unless you are short staffed, which American apparently was.

Anyway, we left late, got in on time, my taxi was there for me and I was home by about 10:45...after having gotten out of bed at 5am in Panama.

As it happens I've since been through parts of the canal twice since this trip. Once was enroute from Fort Lauderdale to San Francisco in April 2006 aboard the Celebrity Infinity, and the other was on the Carnival Miracle in April 2008. It just went in to Gatun Lake, cruised around for a while and then went back the way it came in. Vieweing the canal from a cruise ship is an entirely different experience. I think I enjoyed the day boat much better.

I was motivated to remember all of this because an organization that I belong to, the Lexington Group in Transportation History, had their annual meeting in Panama this past week and did some of the same activities. Had I not had other travel plans in a few weeks I would have joined them...if only to see the new locks. They did a half transit of the canal from Balboa to Gamboa through the Mira Flores and Pedro-Miguel locks and down the Gaillard far the most interesting part of the canal. With a bus return, their trip took about 6 hours.

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