Monday, November 11, 2018 — the first day of our official Panama Canal tour, and arrival day for everyone else. We spent the day relaxing and reading about our adventure ahead. We ate dinner at the hotel’s independent restaurant, TGIF’s. It is a bit of a surprise to see this restaurant here. The offerings on the menu are not significantly different than what I would expect to see at any TGIF’s in the US; definitely not local Panamanian fare.
Tuesday, November 12, 2018 — we meet after breakfast and spend a little time getting to know one another. Our group numbers around 43, so it will not be possible to get to know many of them in this short week. Many are retired (like us), and as might be expected there is more than one admitted engineer. interested in the design of the canal and the details of how it was built. We have three group leaders (Juan Carlos, Rey and Gabe), each offering his unique perspective on the canal, its history and context including the current political situation here and the flora and fauna of this country carved out of the rain forest. Juan Carlos is of an age with our son Kyle, and like him, he has a new-born keeping him and his wife awake at night. He is the leader of the leaders. Rey is the veteran of the crew, perhaps in his 60’s, he lives in the Colon side of the canal, and has done a number of things in his long life. He provides the perspective of one who has lived through the transition of Canal control from the US to the Panamanians in 1999. He was employed by the US prior to the transition, living and working on one of the US bases we will visit on that side of the Canal later on. Gabe is the youngster of the crew, and our expert in residence on the rainforest and its residents.
Next up is the tour of old town Panama, so we load up three small buses (the local streets are too small for the standard-sized tour bus we will use the rest of the journey), and off we go. On the way, we pass by this local monument to Dr. Arnulfo Arias Madrid. He was founder of the Panameñista Party and a three-time president of Panama during the 1940s. Each term ended prematurely by a military coup. The ensemble depicted on the monument represents the classes of citizens who followed the popular political leader.
Our first stop on the tour is the Headquarters of the Panama Canal Agency, an arm of the national government. Our tour leaders take us to the central rotunda of the main building, a place that has the feel of a small version of the US capitol building. Our group fills the rotunda completely. Above us are four paintings depicting scenes from the build process.
This picture depicts the bulk of the digging and rock removal. Digging the Culebra Cut, the place where the canal cuts through the Continental Divide, was one of the major engineering marvels of the whole construction. It remains the narrowest place along the canal route, and the reason that the canal is a one-way traffic only operation.
This next picture depicts a railroad structure. Temporary railroad tracks were laid to move heavy equipment to the Cut, and more importantly to transport the dirt and rocks blasted out on a daily basis to the designated landfill areas. Upon completion, the peak of the Continental Divide had been reduced from 210 feet above sea level to 39 feet across a 299-foot-wide base. This effort required the removal of approximately 120 million cubic yards of earth and rock. For comparison purposes, a so-called half-ton pick-up truck can carry approximately half a cubic yard of dry aggregate material. The bottom of the Cut at 39 feet-above-sea-level is covered by water to bring it up to the 83 feet-above-sea-level of the Gatun Lake water contained between the locks of the canal enabling the large vessels to travel safely through. The surface of the water at the Cut is approximately one-third of a mile (1760 feet) across.
Continuing around the dome, this picture is centered on the circular drainage culvert running between two side-by-side lock bays. This central culvert is 18 feet in diameter and is connected to smaller culverts that run below each of the bays. The picture also shows several of the different types of cranes used to move equipment, concrete, framing timbers among other things around the lock sites.
The last picture gives a closer view of the framing and structure of the miter gates (so called because they come together in a wide “V” shape) used to hold the water in or out of each lock bay. Each gate leaf is 64 feet wide by 7 feet thick, varying in height from 47 to 82 feet, depending on the bay’s height. Hinted at in these pictures is the science and engineering developments necessary to form, mix, shape and let harden appropriately the concrete used. Concrete is a precise mixture of sand, water and cement with rock of defined size. Construction use of concrete is something that was new in the late 1800s, and use in the quantities and structures of the Canal was unprecedented.
Beyond the rotunda our leaders took us to the terrace looking down on a small park with the Goethals monument at its center. Colonel George Washington Goethals was appointed Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal in February 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt. The president had decided after some wrangling with interested parties that it was best to have the Army Corps of Engineers run the canal construction instead of an independent contractor. Goethals managed the job to a successful conclusion two years ahead of schedule. He was widely acclaimed for his work on the Canal, garnering numerous awards and accolades. In 1914, shortly after completion, President Woodrow Wilson appointed now General Goethals the first civil governor of the Panama Canal Zone. He left this post in 1916 to become Quartermaster General of the US Army as the US was preparing to enter World War I.
Now it was back to the buses and on to the old town of Panama City. The first stop on this walking tour was the Panama Canal History Museum, where we received our first instruction in the more detailed history of the building of the canal. After we completed this, we walked to Plaza Mayor. Here we had an unscheduled stop as a group of protestors were walking around the plaza announcing their concerns with loudspeakers.. Juan Carlos explained to us that they were retirees who were complaining that the Panamanian version of Social Security was not sufficient for them to live on. He explained that the average monthly entitlement was around $250. This is far below the minimum wage of approximately $600 per month, so the protest was reasonable. He also said this was part of a yearly process, and in the past, such protests had led to improvements for the retirees.
When we were allowed, we continued our tour. Shortly thereafter, we came upon the ruin of Saint Dominic’s Church. The major feature of this ruin is the internal arch which supported the choir, designated the Flat Arch.
This arch (15 meters long and 10 meters high) was a popular tourist attraction in the 19th century, despite being part of a ruin. It was declared a national monument in 1941. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown the arch collapsed in 2003, but has been rebuilt with the same bricks. The photo was taken from the terrace where Gwen is relaxing.
We continued on to the Plaza de Francia, as Gwen and I had seen it the day before on our own walking tour. The picture below, taken from the walkway shows the obelisk and if you look closely, you can see the twin towers of the Cathedral at Old Panama.
Spinning about a quarter turn from this spot, off in the distance can be seen the distinctive roofline of the Biodiversity Museum. After a brief stop for lunch, our tour group broke into parts, and I chose to visit this museum.
Situated on an isthmus that parallels the Canal entrance channel, close to our hotel, the Biodiversity Museum provides a look at the biological history of Panama in the context of the the broader biological history of the Earth. The museum discussion starts with some broad statements about what biodiversity is, then we are drawn down a corridor leading to a diorama of life size animals all of whom have lived in Panama at one time or another.
Down below the diorama there are columns with pictures and stories concerning the change of biological life from prehistoric to modern times, with some further discussion concerning future problems and efforts to solve those problems. After that, it’s on to the biodiversity gardens outside the building.
The building’s architecture is even more colorful when seen closer up.
Fascinating information: did you know that plants reproducing via seeds, the predominant method used by the vast majority of flora in today’s world is only the latest mechanism? From 350 million years ago until 280 million years ago, plants reproducing through spore production dominated the damp rainforest-like landscape. As the earth continued developing, the continents separated and dryer land became common, the much more efficient seedling approach became dominant. This information, along with example gardens developed around the theme of sustainable food production with walkways around and through form much of the area behind the building.
There, as well, is another spectacular example of those large fig trees with roots extending from and supporting its branches. On the one side of this area is another spectacular view of the Panama City skyline,
and from the other side is a grand view of the Bridge of the Americas, the bridge we’ve seen from several angles before.
From here it is a simple walk back to the hotel. Well, maybe simple, but longer than anticipated. Along the way, there were some interesting sights. A great heron caught my eye.
There were also several large houses that upon closer examination appeared to be abandoned.
The tour group gathered again later in the afternoon and heard an excellent presentation given by a gentleman named Jaime, who has worked for the Canal Agency since before it was turned over to Panamanian control.