Panama Canal pilot
Panama Canal lock

The Main Event was a partial transit of the Panama Canal the following morning. We found ourselves in a dull, muggy, grey dawn, squashed four-deep amid murmuring passengers sleepily sipping coffee in the bow of the ship. Pre Covid-19 (this was in December 2019) our worry was having our toes crushed, or with most of the action on the starboard side, a crowd rush and a weight imbalance which would cause a list (just joking). The Caribbean Princess is a ‘super’ cruise ship, too big to go through the old locks, finished by the US military under President Roosevelt in 1914, though we could see small container ships off to starboard sedately making their way through them. In font of us a large container ship was in the first lock of the new locks, as canal commuter cars streamed over the closed gates from shore to shore behind it. We watched the ship rise in the lock, her name in white on the stern appearing slowly. Dramatically, thunder and lighting outlined the canal buildings and water holding pools and rain-soaked crews on shore. We were going to learn that day that Panama is nearly always, bet-your-life-on-it, tropically, wet.

We’d equipped ourselves with all sorts of technical, historical and political information about the canal, which I won’t bore you with here, but it’s fascinating. An engineering, malaria-ridden, risky nightmare it was, and a spectacular achievement. We learned even more in the four hours it took us to transit the three locks into the Gatun Lake. An English commentator, a Canal expert, talked us through what was going on from the ship’s bridge. Things take time in the Panama Canal. Her dulcet tones reminded me of English cricket match commentary on BBC radio, where the commentators have to fill enormous amounts of airtime. They usually do this with irrelevant detail, languid chatter, and appreciative descriptions of the most delicious Victoria Sponge cake sent to them by Mrs. Jameson-Smithers from Orpington, Kent. When I’m in England in the summer and suffering from jet lag, I turn it on to lull me to sleep.

Once the coffee kicked in, the crowd chatter got louder as the cell phones came out and people started live streaming the pilot arriving on board, the shore crew throwing lines to secure the ship, and the ponderous lock gates slowly rolling back and closing to allow us to reach the level of Lake Gatun. If we were doing a full passage, we’d do the reverse through three more locks on the other side of the lake to transit into the Pacific Ocean, but we were going back out to the Caribbean that evening. The only way we could get off the Caribbean Princess for the day was to take a ship-organized shore excursion, and we’d had enormous discussion about what to do on this precious single day in Panama. I’m glad we didn’t choose an encounter with indigenous river communities, a close up look at the old canal, or a lake wildlife expedition; because all of these involved being in a small open boat, and it poured with rain most of the day.

Instead we transferred to a coach and set off for Panama City, one and a half hours away. In contrast to the bright sunshine of Cartagena in Colombia, Panama’s suburbs and modern high rises were set against a consistently grey and misty sky, and they seemed dreary from the traffic-chocked highway. Cars and gas are cheap apparently, the Panama Canal was handed over to Panamanians in 1979. The standard of living here is better than in most of Latin America. Still, we passed slum-like shacks housing local fishing families, squashed between modern tenement buildings. They looked poor, but each one had a satellite dish on its roof. We visited the ruined site of the original Spanish colonial city, raised to the ground by the English in 1671. (Captain Morgan of rum fame is not very popular here). The gracious national trees of the country – for which it is named – grew tall amongst the ruins of monasteries, watch towers and administrative buildings. ‘Panama’ means ‘place of many butterflies and fish’, in the Guarani language. In the old colonial quarter built after the battle of 1671, the numerous churches we went into gave the eye some relief from monotone colours and heavy rain.  Between churches, one of the cobbled streets was flooded in about five minutes, garbage floating down it busily like paper boats launched in a stream. 

Panama City

“Watch, the children will come out to play in the water” our guide said, and they did. They looked very happy. I welcomed seeing colour at our next stop. Indigenous women were selling Molas, stitched fabric quilts, in many different glorious hues. They were dressed colourfully too, and wore beaded shin and forearm bracelets, which the guide said protected from mosquito bites.

Indigenous craftswoman

Full of history and information, we reversed our bus trip in the humid early evening, and I wondered how the laundry hung out on nearly every apartment balcony ever dries. Perhaps it never does, I thought, as I tried to ignore the very loud man sitting behind me whose voice rose as he asked the guide the same question in different ways. Was it my imagination or was he actually speaking louder and louder because he thought the guide would understand him better with more volume?— Surely not – but yes, yes, he was. As I feared for my eardrums, the guide said:

“I really can hear you, Sir, and I understand you very well.”

MLH and I exchanged a look. Oh yes, stereotypes are based on observation:

Observation #8

Being a cruise tour guide is a very stressful job. On two of our tours, passengers went missing and the guides immediately a) tensed up, they have got to get the tour back to the ship on time b) looked for the Asians, because they’ve learned it’s usually the Asians who wander off c) check the bars if the missing people are Russians d} get on their mobiles to get colleagues’ help to corral the strays

The first missing people were Asians. The second time no one was missing; the guide’s colleague couldn’t count.  All this herding and ordering and panic does not suit me well. I always have an urge to wander off and explore by myself. I resisted it here because I didn’t want to add to the stress, but we did not go on any more guided tours.