The Big Ditch

The Nicaraguans may be itching to build a trans-isthmus waterway (and Nicaragua may have been the site of the very first plans for an inter-oceanic canal); but it was Panama who got there first.  And a trip along the Panama Canal gives me a good look at the world’s most famous shortcut, plus a glimpse of the extremes of Panamanian urban life.

My first port of call is the Museo del Canal Interoceánico, housed in a beautiful old colonial building in Panama City’s historic Casco Viejo district.  Like many gentrified areas in cities around the world, Casco Viejo was once a run-down slum that’s now one of the fanciest parts of the city.  A place that was once home to working-class families living in crumbling buildings is now full of foreign tourists and rich locals, plus fancy restaurants, boutique hotels, and wifi-ed coffee shops (although the realities of Central American life are never far away, in the nearby suburbs of Santa Ana and El Chorrillo, which certainly won’t be getting UNESCO World Heritage status any time soon).

The restored building once served as the headquarters for the French company that tried (and failed) to build the first canal.  As early as the 16th century, the Spanish were conducting surveys of the Central American isthmus to determine the feasibility of constructing a canal.  But it wasn’t until 1881 that anyone actually tried to build across the skinniest part of the Americas – a French team, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, fresh from his success with the Suez Canal.  However, they underestimated the size and difficulty of the task (and the number of disease-carrying mosquitoes in the jungle); and after 20,000 workers died (mostly from malaria and yellow fever), the French threw in the towel in 1889 (US$300 million had also disappeared, due to corruption and financial mismanagement).  15 years and another US$300 million later, the Americans, having learned from the Frenchies’ mistakes (and always keen to have influence and power in Latin America) started their construction, finally finishing the job in 1914, after 10 years of work.  The museum is full of photos and exhibits detailing life for the enormous immigrant workforce who actually had to build the canal, and who lived and worked (and sometimes died) in dreadful conditions – the Afro-Caribbeans, Indians, and Chinese, whose ancestors make Panama the multicultural place it is today.

As good as the museum is, nothing can beat having a look at the canal in person.  And it’s a short trip out of the capital in one of Panama City’s famous diablos rojos (red devils, similar to Central American chicken buses – restored American school buses, garishly painted, full of religious imagery, belching smoke, honking horns, and driven by suicidal maniacs).  The canal has three sets of locks, two on the Pacific side and one on the Atlantic.  And at the first Pacific set, the Miraflores, there’s a visitors centre with a viewing area.  The museum in the visitors centre is more geared toward the casual visitor and families than the one in Casco Viejo – so everything’s in English and Spanish (rather than just Spanish), there’s a short film about the canal (which is in 3-D for some unnecessary reason), and some kid-friendly exhibits (such as a simulator where you can pilot a ship through the locks).  But no heavy going stuff about yellow fever deaths, or the riots that led to the US handing control of the canal to Panama in 1999.

The highlight is watching a transit – and there’s a both a small motor boat and a huge tanker in the lock while I’m there, travelling from the Caribbean to the Pacific.  The canal managers often put several vessels in the locks together, to maximise the available space; and the large ship dwarfs the small boat like an elephant next to a cat.  After the metre-thick lock gates open, the smaller boat moves into the lock under its own power, while the big ship is pulled along by small electric locomotives that are attached to the front of the ship by chains and run along tracks on either side of the lock.  Maneuvered with surprising delicacy, the ship slides into the lock with literally centimetres of room on either side (the tight fit being the reason that the canal is being expanded, with new, longer, wider locks, at a cost of US$5 billion).  The lock empties (at the rate of five Olympic swimming pools per minute), the gates at the other end open, and the vessels depart, the chains on the bigger ship detaching at the last minute as it leaves the lock and continues on the last 10 kilometres to the rather-fancifully-named Bridge of the Americas, Panama Bay, and the Pacific.  The whole process takes over an hour, and an entire transit of the whole canal takes a day.  Ships pay according to their weight, with cruise ships, tankers, and container ships paying up to US$300,000 (although it’s still cheaper than travelling 15,000 km round South America).  And with 14,000 vessels and 300 million tonnes of cargo passing through the canal each year, it’s no wonder it makes US$2 billion in revenue (and over US$1 billion in profit) every year.

But to see the whole canal (and in style), I catch the train the next day, riding from Panama City to Colón on the Panama Railroad.  Built in the 1850s, during the California Gold Rush, it was the most expensive railway in the world at the time, costing US$8 million, before falling out of use after the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad across the US in 1869.  And now, with two trains a day, it’s a quick-but-expensive commute for the handful of locals, and a quick-but-expensive trip for the rest of the tourist passengers.  Overshadowed by the canal, the railway is still an impressive feat of engineering, as it weaves though tunnels and over bridges alongside the canal.  Like the canal, hacking through the tropical jungle had its human costs, and several thousand workers died in the five-year construction (although, horrifyingly, records were only kept of the white people’s deaths, so nobody’s really sure how many died; but the high death toll also allowed a profitable side-line in selling bodies to hospitals).

Leaving the glass-domed carriage and going outside to the open-air car (mainly because the glass is filthy and cracked, and covered in condensation due to the fierce air conditioning), the first thing that’s obvious is how natural most of the canal is.  Outside the locks and the harbours at either end, it travels through lush jungle and green countryside, including several national parks.  The only time I notice the canal’s purpose, as I rattle along it (trying not to be decapitated as I lean out to get a photo), is when a humungous tanker or gigantic cruise ship slides into view.

At the Caribbean end of the canal are the Gatún Locks, where the largest amount of concrete in the world was poured in to create the biggest locks in the world with the largest doors in the world.  And just down the road is the Gatún Dam, the biggest dam in the world at the time, which created the largest artificial lake in the world at the time, Lago Gatún.  Norris McWhirter must’ve jizzed in his pants when he first heard about this record–breaking waterway.  Gatún Lake is where the canal’s vessels are at their highest level (although it’s only 26 metres), and it also provides the whopping 43 million gallons of water that’s necessary for each vessel to transit the canal.

And at the very end of the 77km canal, as it empties into the Caribbean, just a few hours away, and yet also a world away, from Panama City, is poor old Colón.  The canal may well make over US$1 billion in profit every year, but I doubt much of it ends up here.  Colón has a terrible reputation for crime, and all the guidebooks I read told me to avoid it like the plague (the Lonely Planet described it as having “spiralled into the depths of depravity”, and the Rough Guide said that if you walk around the city, even in daylight, you will probably get mugged!).  But I have to pass through to get from the train station to Gatún Lake and then back from the lake to the bus station.  So I take a taxi, and as we weave through the potholed streets I’m as mind-boggled by the place as I was by the size of the canal.  But not in a good way.  Colón is one of the worse places I’ve ever seen, it looks like there’s been a devastating war or some other kind of apocalyptic event (several Hollywood movies have used Colón as a stand-in for Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas).  Every street is potholed, every paving slab is broken, and every broken-windowed building is slowly crumbling into the ground.  What makes it worse is that in the canal museums are photos of Colón from the early 1900s, and it looked like one of the nicest places in the country, rivalling Panama City.  The influx of foreign companies and their money, for the construction of the railway and the canal, made Colón a city of paved streets and elegant buildings.  But in the last hundred years or so, it looks like nobody has done anything to the city, and it’s been left to slowly rot in the tropical heat.  There are some extremes of wealth and development in Central America (often within the same country or the same city), but I’ve not seen them quite like I do here – from the air-conditioned shopping malls, towering skyscrapers, and flashy new metro system of Panama City (easily the richest capital in the region), to this decaying, city-sized slum.  It’s no wonder the place has a reputation for crime and gang violence, if I had to live here I’d probably want to rob and kill someone.  A Panamanian politician maybe.  The only signs of prosperity in all this urban decay are a huge duty-free shopping centre, and a shiny cruise ship terminal – both of which contribute another US$1 billion per year into the country, none of which looks like it ends up here.

My taxi driver, a local Colónite, tells me depressing stories of collapsing buildings, homeless people, squatters, and raw sewage in the streets, as we drive under the spider-web of wires and tubes that hang between the faded buildings, that residents have jury-rigged to give them power and water.  And all of this in a country with highest economic growth in Latin America, an hour’s train ride from the condos of Panama City (which my driver tells me are all built with drug money and rented by fictitious occupants as a way to launder more drug money – he derisively calls them “crack stacks”).

I ask him why he doesn’t just leave and go to the capital, or some other city.  He points at his dark skin and tells me that many Latino Panamanians are racist, and think all black people from the Caribbean coast (especially those from Colón) are either lazy slackers or thieves.  Having spent time with Mestizos and Creoles all over Central America, I don’t argue with him.  At the end of the journey, I half-jokingly describe Colón as the city that Panama forgot.  He laughs cynically and retorts, “No, but it’s the city that they would like to forget.”


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