By Fyllis Hockman
When I read about our upcoming visit to the Embera tribe of indigenous peoples as part of our Caravan tour to Panama and the fact that the women were naked from the waist up, I promised myself I wouldn't stare. I'm not sure whether I was disappointed or relieved to find them fully clothed - clearly dressing up for the tourists.
The small tribe of about 33 residents — the major reservation is about 10 hours away — is only accessible by boat. The founder of this village had helped train U.S. astronauts in survival techniques in the 1960s and stayed on with several of his relatives. The new mode of survival? Sharing their traditions and their handicrafts — lots of handicrafts — with tour groups. They have their own clothing, foods, culture, religion, dialect and thatched-hut housing, but having assimilated more than their relatives on the Colombian coast, mainly their traditions are now a business.
I mention this outing first because even though the canal is the indisputable highlight of the trip, the tour comprises so much more — two oceans, indigenous tribes, a rainforest, colonial history and historic enclaves, beach resorts and ultramodern architecture. So much diversity in such a small country. But more on that later.
First there's the fascinating, incredible canal, rated the No. 1 modern engineering wonder of the world by the Society of Civil Engineers. It is a technological marvel conceived and created 104 years ago that cannot be even remotely improved upon today. It is built upon a narrow stretch of land that early tribes used to traverse from South America to North America, and Spanish explorers later followed to transport gold to ships sailing to Spain. After a harrowing history of French failure and American success, the Panama Canal, covering 50 miles, finally opened in 1914 under the auspices of the United States.
The new interoceanic waterway changed the world: Continents were connected; cultures intermingled, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans became accessible, and international transportation and globalization blossomed. The eight to 10 hours it then took for a ship to pass through a series of locks that propel it from one ocean to the other replaced an 8,000-mile journey around the tip of South America that added two to three weeks to the delivery of goods. Panama took over complete control in 1999.
You need an engineering degree to understand the complexities of the canal operations. This is a triumph of technology that is hard to conceptualize. Suffice it to say that locks raise or lower the ships so they can connect from one ocean to the other. It's mesmerizing to watch from afar and even more so from the deck of an actual ship going through the process.
We started on the Atlantic side at 87 feet above sea level. After going through three locks that lowered us about 30 feet at each stop, we approached sea level and entered into the Pacific Ocean. The first time I saw the lock open ahead of me I felt like a part of history - important history. Watching the water levels recede and feeling the boat as it sinks down is especially compelling as you realize this same procedure has occurred in the exact same way for 104 years.
One of the main locks, Milaflores, contains an extensive, exceedingly well-done museum that explains in excruciating detail the whole history and intricacies of the canal over four very full, very fascinating floors. You could spend a day here and remain endlessly enthralled.
But there is more to Panama than just its canal. An archaeological site celebrates the remains of the first city built in Panama by the Spaniards in 1519. A different exploration took place on a small boat ride circling Gatun Lake and viewing the ships awaiting passage as well as the locks themselves from a different perspective from that we'd seen at the heights of Miraflores. This offered new insights on the ever-present architectural marvel. Oh yes, and there were also crocodiles, birds and monkeys to be seen.
"If a capuchin monkey should jump on the boat stay calm," the captain repeatedly told us. I can attest to the fact that not one person did. But no one would have traded the experience of watching these playful primates vying over a banana thrown on the deck. The cacophony of camera clicks formed a symphony of its own.
And then there's Panama's skyline - an unexpected visual wonder of skyscrapers of so many shapes, sizes and colors that they are more reminiscent of sculptures than buildings. Architectural artistry revealed through creativity, inventiveness, ingenuity and a variety of other adjectives - think dynamic and dramatic — not usually associated with business offices and condos. The strain in my neck from looking skyward block after block was mitigated by the series of impressive edifices.
Panama doesn't need anything besides the canal to entice visitors. The lovely surprise is that it offers so much more.
WHEN YOU GO
Caravan provides a quiet viewing platform for observing the canal and an attendant onboard the ship as it goes through the canal to look after passengers' needs: www.visit caravan.com.
Fyllis Hockman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
A lock at the Panama Canal readies for a ship's passage. Photo courtesy of Fyllis Hockman.