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  • Day170

    Panama Canal, Panama

    April 5, 2017 in Panama ⋅ ⛅ 32 °C

    I couldn't resist. Just for all you who pretend like you don't like engineering when you really love it; I present seventh of the industrial world.

    Let's not get overly technical. After all, when ash turns to dust it is just a dirty great big hole in the ground full of water - right? Wrong. Because ash is still ash and that canal brings you more presents than santa ever has, more petrol than you could stuff down the guts of your V8 and of course a mountain of food - literally. Yes, the Panama Canal is unanimously the frieght pedestal and icon of the world. But it wasn't always so...

    Back in the day when Panama wasn't Panama and Colombus was gallivanting around disrupting all the native americans, a trail was being founded. A simple, very much unbeaten path was etched into the dense jungle in a tiny little corner of what was then known as the 'New World'. It didn't take long for the natives to lead the white man along this trail to a peak on the isthmus of the Americas - a point from which the proximity of two oceans could be truely comprehended. It didn't take long before this path was traversed by mules (and later - briefly - camels, who weren't genetically fit for the jungle) laden with goods as they established the very first trade route between the east and west coast of the New World.

    As trade on the route began to gently gather momentum, boats began shortening the walking distance by transporting goods up the rivers from what are now Panama City and Colón on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Panama respectively. It wasn't until the Californian gold rush in 1849 did the true significance of the route hit home. When transporting gold through Mexico became a little too notorious (sifty Mexicans) a railroad was proposed through Panama - the narrowest part of the isthmus. The meagre 80km length of track was constructed in only a few years in 1855 following the original trail essentially to a tee. This railway (and the sea passage either end) stood for some time as the fastest route across the Americas.

    Many scientists, presidents, politicians and explorers dreamed the idea that would change the world: a shipping passage through a continent. However, it was the French who dreamed with any reality. Their history with the Suez Canal deemed experience enough for what surely would be a shorter, easier to build canal. That all sounds fine and dandy but drinking red wine and twirling your moustache doesn't move mountains, as they soon found out. Starting in 1881, the French spent 13 years, 22,000 lives and 287 million dollars digging what could not be considered much more than a dirty great big hole in the ground. Rain, rock, malaria, yellow fever and of course, distrupted cash flow were to blame for the failure a project that employed people from every corner of the Caribbean and beyond. The French ultimately threw in the towel in 1894 and spent years afterwards pointing fingers in what in known as the Panama affair.

    Decades later in 1902 the United States saw value in creating the shipping route. They managed to pry the land and the reminants of the dirty, great, big hole in the ground off the French for a petty $40 million dollars. However, apparently the US and Colombia weren't getting on too well at this point and unfortunately for the US, Panama was still under the rule of Colombia. So when Colombia opted not to ratify a canal agreement it ironically left the US up shit creek without a canal. I think we all know the US wasn't going to just roll over - they did what they to best and funded a war: Panama's civil war. A war which appeared to be already brewing as Colombia struggled to control a territory isolated by hundreds of kilometres of inhospitable and rather quite deadly jungle. The war didn't last long - Panama got their independence - and while Panamanians were still singing from the rooftops the US already had turned first earth on the Panama Canal. Of course, the US funding had come with that teeny weeny little treaty declaring them every right possibly required to build and operate a monstrous canal. Panama and eventually Colombia both ended up getting a lousy financial compensation, 10 and 25 million respectively.

    Let's just take a moment to pity little old Nicaragua - the poorest country in Central America. They were supposed to have the canal. When you subtract the width of Lake Nicaragua, the width of Nicaragua is comparable to that of Panama. The US came within a whisker of purchasing the land there before being deterred by risks posed seismic activity. Sorry Nica!

    It didn't take long for the US to get the job done. They picked up the remnants of the French project in 1904, half sunk excavators and all, and even took their advice. The French had been trying to build a sea level canal, meaning ships could literally sail directly from ocean to ocean (or ocean to sea if we're being geographically pedantic). Their work had proven this an implausible solution and they had therefore proposed a lock system to lift ships 28m or so over the mountains. This reduced the required excavation significantly. Less convenient for the ships, but a mighty lot easier for the man on the shovel. The filling of the locks was impressively designed as gravity operated: no pumps are required to fill the locks with water. Water from the upstream lakes is carefully used to fill and drain the locks layer by layer - a process that recycles 60% of the water each time. If they didn't do this, in the dry season I imagine they'd run the lake level down so far as to potentially prevent ships from crossing!

    Ten years on in 1914, 401 years after Balboa first crossed the continent on foot, the first ship sailed the canal. It had taken two dams, one bridge, six locks and the creation of the worlds biggest man made lake (at the time): Lake Gatán. It had also in its wake, broken the dreams of two more engineers and conveniently sourced and mitigated the spread of mosquito borne disease. The damage was another 5800 lives, 375 million dollars and, oh yeah - that problem of how you get across it. The pivoting bridge originally constructed with the canal was rapidly overwhelmed by traffic, creating traffic jams not unlike that of the Kopu bridge on Boxing Day. It took almost 50 years for the now iconic Bridge of the Americas to be constructed as the first undisrupted passage over the canal. Woops!

    Boat traffic through the canal soared in size and number - a testament to the projects success - and US citizens flocked to region to operate and maintain the canal in a US sovereigned area that would later become the 'Canal Zone'. Although it was largely an expat community, this influx of culture is very much a part of Panama today. As the Canal Zone grew in size and wealth (although the US claimed they were operating the canal at cost), unrest grew in Panama. Numerous negotiations over countless Presidencies were had regarding the operation of the canal until a full blown riot in the Canal Zone forced the hand of America. On the eve of the millenium, Panama was handed complete control of operation and maintenance of the canal. Today a third set of locks have been constructed adjacent the original two, a project proudly completed by Panamanians themselves.

    Panama however, jumped at the opportunity to profit from the floating gold mine that passed their shores. Prices escalated to the whopping $300,000 average price for a standard container ship, and up to $800,000 for the biggest of supertankers! Don't worry, if you want to cross in your 50 foot yacht, a little over a grand should secure you that slither of water behind the superfrieghter carrying your new tv. At 35-40 ships a day, that's a lot of money. In fact, that's 4% of Panama's GDP, directly. Indirectly, the Panama Canal is estimated to make up 40% of Panama's GDP. Not Panama City. Panama. The country! So now when you dart back to that skyline photo of Panama City I posted in my last blog, you can picture those buildings as stacks of ships. Better yet, stacks of ship's canal fees. 'Cause that's what they are. Not coffee beans and sure as hell not banana dollars. And if I haven't got you a soft spot for Nicaragua yet, not only did they narrowly miss a gold mine, they're now paying Panama to ship their worthless bananas to you and your smoothie loving mates.

    Reducing the two week journey around Cape Horn to eight hours was undoubtedly the most significant advance in trade since the invention of the ship. Watching said ship pass effortlessly through said canal with inches to spare is priceless. Thank school for engineers. Thank Panama for your bananas.
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