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Riding through the Panama Canal

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"And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count, it's the life in your years." This quote, attributed to Abe Lincoln, spurred My True Love and me to jump ship last week and spend four days in Panama City, Panama. It was quite a trip.

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It was an adventure right from the start, when, as we attempted to make our first connecting flight out of Duluth, fog, ice, and rain forced us to drive in that mess of weather to Minneapolis. And we made our flight. The first whew. Excitement right from the start.

After due research setting this trip up, we had connected with Panama Luxury Vacations, betting that they would follow through on their promises to us regarding connections, transportation, hotel, etc.

And did they ever. They made our stay, and activities in a country in which we did not speak the language, effortless, and are in large part the reason we had such a great trip. They deserve this acknowledgement.

A little bit about Panama: The U.S. dollar is the currency, which smooths out that potential problem, namely, counting in some other mode. Our reason for going there? I've always wanted to see the Panama Canal. I've read everything I can find about it, and I suppose I somewhat regard it as one of the U.S.A.'s last real world success stories.

What did we find? We found a small country busting out at the seams with multiple success stories. Of course, the biggest is the engineering feat of widening and enlarging the Canal itself, so that more and bigger ships can use it. As if there are not enough ships using it now, generating enough income now. For example, a container ship--and they were lined up in the harbor waiting their turn -- pays $74 per full container ($65 empty) -- and these ships, designed to "Panamax" specifications for the last 50 years because if they were any longer or wider, they wouldn't fit the canal locks, carry a maximum of 5,000 containers. Do the math. (New ships will carry 14,000 containers.) And they were lined up eager for their turn.

Banking is their really big darned deal, and from the Hotel DeVille, where we stayed downtown near the banking district, I could realistically throw a stone and hit at least six 40-story-plus bank buildings, and those were just a fraction of how many there are. Tax laws and ship registry in Panama have been, shall we say, "relaxed," which encourages such business.

There is a railroad which parallels the canal, and big business is hauling containers by rail, when there are not enough of them to justify paying the minimum canal fee.

We were met at the airport by a driver, and for the next three days, we were picked up, dropped off, met, brought either back to the hotel or on to the next adventure, promptly, courteously, and most efficiently. Words cannot describe how reliable they all turned out to be.

The first day: We were picked up and delivered to the railroad depot, to ride the railroad that parallels the canal. From the glass-domed car, we saw the huge earth-moving equipment and efforts of the new canal enlargement, and the 100-year-old efforts of the original U.S. builders. We were fed on the way, and met on the other end by our driver, who drove like crazy to get there before we did. From there, we toured Cologne and an old Spanish Fort and saw lots of narrow streets and old structures. And we saw the seamier side of Panama -- poverty and trash everywhere. This end of the canal isn't as fortunate as the other, whatever the reason.

Not that there aren't some of the same signs on the Pacific (Panama City) end. There are. Just not as much.

The next morning, we were picked up and delivered to the tour boat, on which we transited the entire 50-mile Panama Canal, all three locks. In as few words as possible, the engineers who built the canal succeeded because they damned the main river, creating what was then the largest man-made lake in the world. That water level was nearly one hundred feet higher than sea level, and it is that supply of water and pressure which raises boats high enough to clear land obstacles. Each lock -- there are three -- uses 50 million gallons of water for each raise and drop.

Riding on through, we saw the new canal diggings, and the old terraced slopes of the original French efforts, each terrace level laboriously dug by hand and shoveled into mule-drawn rail cars. Unbelievable, the manual labor all this took.

We were picked up promptly on the other end, brought back to our hotel. We had breakfast in the hotel the next morning, "Continental," they said. Uh uh. It was a room full of everything edible, absolutely delicious, complementary. The food everywhere was reasonable and delicious.

The third day, we were brought to the river, got into native dug-out canoes that were huge, and brought to an Indian village. After a brief stop there, we were taken up to the huge waterfall that dropped into the river. We swam in that water, under and around that waterfall. Only a few of us went in. Did I mention the small crocodile that we saw on the way up the river? Swimming was deliciously dangerous, and pretty crazy to do. The Indians swam with us. (Maybe "having us for dinner" has other meanings?)

There are many other sights, but just as we ran out of time there, we're out here. I highly recommend this trip. Whew!

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