Panama: What may have been the world’s most important geological journey – the formation of the Panama isthmus joining the continents of North and South America for the first time – was to some extent undone in 1914 by perhaps the world’s most impressive geoengineering achievement: the division of the two continents by the Panama Canal.
Now, the Panama Canal Authority is midway through an ambitious widening and deepening project that will see around the same amount of earth dredged and dug as was removed for the original canal. But it’s more than worth the $5250 million expansion cost: every year, the authority earns over $200 million from boat passage fees that are charged per ship volume and per container; once larger – even double-sized – boats can fit through, the costs can be reaped back quickly.
Panama’s raison d’être has for five centuries been based on its shortness – the distance between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, from north to south, is just 77 kilometres. I can stand on a hill and see both oceans from the same point for the first time, I suppose, since we left Ushuaia. The Spanish conquistadors took advantage of this from the 1500s on, transporting their gold and silver booty from South America, via Pacific ships to Panama City and thence on mules along a tortuous route to the Atlantic and Spain. The mule route was called the Way of the Crosses for the number of grave markers along the path.
Then as now, the trade route produced a rich city. In those days, grand houses, churches and theatres displayed these riches. Now, skyscrapers, fast-food outlets, US-style malls, and the city’s aspirations of becoming a ‘knowledge economy’ are evidence of its comparative wealth. Panama City is fast growing up following the end of US colonial rule. The city is gridlocked with traffic, but a metro is planned. The education system is terrible but a new City of Knowledge has opened with Latin America’s UN offices based there and new, and by all accounts good, universities within. It reminds me of that other strategic city, Singapore, except in Singapore fantastic food is available at every street corner and restaurant; whereas in Panama City, if there’s tasty food, we’ve yet to find it.
If the mule route produced its corpses, the first canal attempt outdid it. Fresh from his Suez victory, French engineer Ferdinand Lesseps approached the Panama version with understandable arrogance – after all, what was a mere 77km compared to the 164km canal he achieved in the Middle East? The tropics with their treacherous conditions, landslides, yellow fever, malaria, outdid him and the 22,000 of his workforce who perished before the French government pulled the plug.
By the time the US got stuck in, vital discoveries had been made: the mosquito vector had been identified for both yellow fever and malaria. The US sprayed standing pools with insecticides, built all canal-worker housing with window screens, constructed hospitals and ensured stringent hygiene standards. The result was the canal’s completion in just 10 years – and it’s a lesson that many African and Asian countries have failed to learn.
The Panama Canal is one of the few places that you can see huge ocean-going vessels cruise by ordinary neighbourhoods – the juxtaposition of people and houses against what is usually scaled against huge port facilities or the open ocean is quite incredible. Frigate birds follow massive container ships through the canal, finding themselves finally in an utterly different ocean. Do they notice?
After a couple of nights spent in an insalubrious hostel in Panama City, we move to Gamboa, and stay in one of the old canal-workers’ apartments, which are now owned by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. STRI is now a century old and owes its existence to forward-thinking canal planners, who realised that joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans after 3 million years might cause some kind of ecosystem disruption. This issue, along with topographical difficulties, led the canal’s architects to devise a stepped system, whereby a massive river-fed artificial lake, the Gatun, was created at higher altitude in the middle. A system of locks raises ships from each ocean up to the lake and then back down the other side.
With the billion dollar system depending on the water in the lake, it was felt necessary in 1910, to protect the watershed and also to understand more about the newly recognised mosquito diseases threat. Smithsonian scientists were asked to advise on the biodiversity concerns of connecting the two oceans and to help with the mosquito battle. A former mountain peak that became an island in Gatún after the lake’s creation, became in 1923 Barro Colorado research station, one of the Americas’ first biological reserves and home to important tropical forest dynamics and animal behaviour studies.
Gamboa is a strange but charming place, forever stuck in the 1940s with few facilities and rows of near identical houses built along the original Canal Zone plan, for US canal workers. By all accounts, this was a stranger place in the time of US occupancy (before 1999), when US patriotism ran high, few spoke Spanish and small-town America morals and values were upheld. One resident tells me about the hilarious irony of the anti-communist, right-wing residents who lived here in a ‘zone’ where the US army owned their houses, schooled their kids, provided their dental and medical treatment, and so on.
The houses are well-built from termite-proof redwoods that were floated here from California. They incorporate precocious design features, such as buried electrics, phone and water pipes, they all have open-plan, climate appropriate design and those essential window-screens to keep disease at bay.
We’ve greatly enjoyed staying here and met some really interesting people, but now it’s time for us to move onwards.