I am sitting in the airport in Panama City waiting for my flight to Costa Rica, which has been delayed by an hour. To not tempt myself with more super cheap cosmetics and perfumes available in duty free, I thought I would pass some time catching up on my blog.
I really have found it hard lately to keep writing my blog and I am not sure how to find the motivation to continue. My work is keeping me so busy these days, that when I am not working, the last thing I want to do is be in front of my computer, even if it is to write my blog which I really enjoy. I suppose I just have to be more disciplined in my writing, because I have some great stories to share, but just don’t seem to find the time to get them out there.
No better time than now I suppose…and it has been an interesting four days in Panama.
About a month ago my director asked me if I would be willing to travel to Central America to teach a module of the Diploma we offer on Management and Social Responsibility. Those of you who know me well, will know that my answer was an instant YES! With slight reservation afterwards considering the module would involve two days of teaching IN SPANISH!!! For me teaching or giving presentations has never been a problem, but apart from a few short presentations in Spanish over the last two years, this would be the first time I was really putting my language skills to the test in an academic environment. Everyone in Chile was really supportive when I told them about this great opportunity and nobody but me had doubts that I could do it.
Well I have just finished the first module in Panama City and I can happily say that it was a huge success. The class was an interesting mix of professionals from different industries, they were all really involved and participative and the two days flew by.
A comment from one of the students during lunch on the second day blew me away. She told me that I had a definite Chilean accent. I had mixed feelings about that because Chileans are notoriously known in Latin America for speaking really badly, using lots of local slang and not pronouncing the whole word, often leaving off the last syllable (especially the “s”). Thankfully this student told me that they knew I was “from” Chile based on the rhythm of my Spanish, and not so much the words I used. Thank goodness she clarified this, because even after three and a half years, I seldom use “chilenismos” and make sure to pronounce words as well as I can with my distinctly Anglo-Saxon accent.
Apart from the two days of teaching, I was lucky enough to have one day kind of free in Panama, in which I could explore a bit of the city. Obviously my first stop was the Panama Canal. Although I am sadly rather ignorant when it comes to Central American history, as a geographer, the Panama Canal is something I remember reading about in school and I never thought that I would get to see this manmade wonder of the world. It just always seemed so far away from SA.
The local organisers of the Diploma offered to arrange a personal tour for me, which turned out to be the best option because it just so happened that there was no availability for tours to actually go through the Canal on the day I had free. So instead I met up with my personal guide (a huge Panamanian man named Alrick) and we headed through the ex-military zone to the Miraflores Lock which has the main visitors centre for the Canal. Considering my ignorance of Panama, I had no idea that until midday on 31 December 1999, the USA had full control of the Panama Canal and for the first 60 years of the Canal´s operation (up to roughly the 1970’s), the Panamanian people were not even allowed near the Canal. Basically there was a zone on either side of the Canal that was considered to be US territory. Since the Canal was given over to the Panamanian government, the military zone has been transformed into what is called the “City of Knowledge” because it consists of some of the best known international school and various tertiary education facilities. The barricks and housing units have all been transformed into residential areas, but in my opinion the layout still has a distinct military orderliness to it.
When we arrived at the Canal there was a small tourist boat passing through the locks. It was interesting to see the process of changing the water levels in the two locks, the opening of the gates and the boat passing through. But since it was a small boat, it wasn’t that spectacular. Alrick told me that there was a huge cargo ship due to pass through in an hours time, so I went to explore the museum and watch a short video on the Canal before returning to the viewing deck to see the process with such a huge vessel.
A small tourist boat passing through the Lock
The cargo ship was heading to China and it was incredible to see it enter the lock with literally 60cm clearance on each side.
In the museum I learnt that this is the only place in the world where a ship’s captain gives over control to a local pilot who is responsible for guiding the ship through the locks. These pilots are specially trained for this job in the Canal.
At the entrance to the lock, the ship is attached to 7 really strong locomotives which pull it along to the middle of the lock. Unfortunately I can’t remember all the statistics given in the commentary for how many thousand tons each locomotive can pull. Once in the middle of the lock, the ship has to wait for the water level to drop and the water to rise in the other lock. In the Miraflores Lock the boats are lowered twice for a total drop of 16m.
Once the water level is equal, a siren sounds and the gate opens and the ship moves through to the second lock. It was truly incredible to see a giant cargo ship pass son close in front of the viewing building.
Another interesting fact which I have never considered before is the price that each ship pays to use the Canal. The smallest tourist boat pays 800 dollars per transit, and the biggest cargo ship depending on the number of containers pays up to 400 000 USD per transit.
After watching the cargo ship pass through the Canal we headed off to explore other parts of the city, starting with the Amador Causeway which is a manmade causeway built with the earth extracted for the building of the canal. This Causeway connects two islands in the bay to the mainland and along the causeway there are loads of restaurants and I could just imagine how busy it gets on the weekend.
Panama City’s skyline is ultra modern
The great thing about the Causeway is the amazing view from there across the bay to the city. The skyline is just one tall, modern skyscraper after another. Alrick and some of my students told me that 20 years ago, there were basically no skyscrapers. The economic and real estate boom in the last two decades is phenomenal. You can tell I am starting to think like a Chilean, because my first question when I say these ultra-modern skyscrapers was whether or not Panama has earthquakes. Apparently the strongest tremor is 4 on the Richter scale and so they don’t have to stress too much.
Photo in motion from the car, in Casco Viejo
The final stop of the tour was to the Casco Viejo, the old Spanish and French influenced area. The narrow streets, balconies with flower pots, different coloured buildings and little plazas make it a great place to explore for the day. Sadly though, since we spent so much time at the Canal, it was already late when we arrived at the Casco Viejo. So I had a quick drive around the area and managed to get a few quick photos. If I am lucky enough to return to Panama one day I would like to spend a lot more time in this part of the city…
On Flamenco Island looking across the bay to the city!