Sunday, July 1, 2007

Kurt in the Canal

I didn’t expect to see too much of the Panama Canal this time round. We were scheduled for a 6.45pm transit, and in spite of the floodlights that blaze over the operating bits of the locks, and the lighthouses that dot the hills above the canal, lighting the path from the Atlantic to the Pacific, much of the trip was clearly going to be little more than a voyage through the tropical darkness.

‘Clearly’ turned out to be the key word.

We sat in the bay off Cristobal through the afternoon, the uneventfulness of the day enlivened only by the comings and goings of the various official launches. One of these brought what looked like customs folk, a fellow with an ominous looking sprayer, and the latest addition to our passenger quota. Philip, a retired business writer turned writer-writer from Bournemouth, had made has way to Cristobal via the ‘Queen Mary’ and a variegated selection of buses down through the southern parts of the USA to Mexico, Guatemala and so forth to Panama. Not without a certain eventfulness. The night prior to joining us, he had been mugged in that delightful city named Colon, and today the launch bringing him to the boarding gangway simply refused to back up in the fashion required for him to transfer. Incompetence or engine/gear problems? They claimed the latter. Anyway, in the end the launch in question had to go right back to port, Philip was transferred to a larger and more competent vessel and he finally made it aboard!

Things got rather more competent from there on in. Our tugs turned up on time and at the time appointed we – number four in an unbelieveably small westward convoy of four – duly glid off towards the Gatun Locks, and the entrance to the canal.

As I’d suspected, night was falling fast when we all gathered topside for our buffet supper and a first experience, for all save myself and Graham, of the Panama Canal. In fact, the whole Gatun area looked rather magnificent by night, with its blazing floodlights making the place look like something excitingly colourful and romantic something out of a space or science fiction movie. The shabby bits, the scrub and the mess that I remember from my twentieth century visits were (if they are still there) gratefully hidden in the gloom outside the range of the lights.
We set up some ‘front stalls’ on Monkey Island, and duly made our way into and through the Gatun locks. When you get to your umpteenth lock, their fascination begins to somewhat diminish, and as we steamed out past the Gatun Dam and into the Gatun lake, the ‘front stalls’ began silently to empty. Michael and I were the last survivors, and at 10.10pm, as the ship headed on into the blank darkness, we tidied up the chairs, the lolly papers and the beer cans, and descended to our bunks. Maybe, with any luck, I would wake up around 1am (I so often do) and I could creep up and see us go under the Bridge of the Americas.

Shortly after I’d headed off to bed, that soupy, smelly tropical fog, which makes its mysterious looking appearance in ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘The Piano’ type movies, had come down over the Panama Canal and – literally unable to see the next light or corner -- we had been obliged to pull up. Instead of being at Balboa, we were moored half way through the Canal, at Gamboa.

I’ve passed Gamboa many a time. A scruffy little settlement, set in the greenest bit of the Canal Zone, at the mouth of the Chagres River, and sporting one big crane and a selection of rickety looking wharves. Why, I can remember thinking years ago, does this place exist? Well, now I know one reason. It’s a passing bay. And we are in it . And we will be in it until lunchtime, because this is a one-way Canal and it’s now the turn of the ships coming in the opposite direction to us to have their turn at the ‘highway’.

This hold-up is doubtless an irritating event for those involved in running the ship, but for us – the seven merry passengers – it’s a delight. For we are going to get the chance to see the Canal both by night (and that was definitely worthwhile) but also by day. When we thought that the Gaillard Cut, the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks and the Bridge of the Americas would all have passed us by under cover of darkness, now we shall be able to see them all.

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