Traveling Engineer: In Search of the Panama Canal

PA-1 Going on the road to bring you better blogs

“A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!”

A man – that’s me, check.  A plan –I worked out the itinerary for my weekend trip, check.  Panama – I landed at Tocumen International Airport as expected, check.

But a canal?  That one I wasn’t quite sure of.  For a while I was wondering if that was possibly a tourist hoax, like the the Jackalope or the Loch Ness Monster…

Two weeks ago I decided to make a weekend trip — to Panama, selected for several reasons.  First, I have a personal goal to visit 100 countries, and Panama would be #86.  Second, I would get an opportunity to try out the Spanish that I’ve been studying for seemingly forever.  Third, I thought that visiting the engineering Wonder of the World that is the Panama Canal would provide me some fresh material for my CloudCalc blog.  And finally it is really hard to get a dinner reservation in Houston on Valentine’s Day!

So on Friday afternoon, February 13 my wife and I found ourselves sitting in a taxi, stuck in the Panama City traffic.  It seems the traffic jam was due to the start of Carnaval, which closed streets for open air parties and simultaneously unleashed a mass exodus (on the streets that remained open) of city dwellers to the countryside for the 5-day holiday.  When scheduling our visit, I had been totally oblivious to the holiday schedule, but that’s because this was a working trip for me.  I was planning on doing my best to channel the spirit of George Washington Goethals, the engineering hero of the Panama Canal, in order to bring forth the best blog article ever written on this subject.

Eventually, after enduring the traffic, we arrived in Casco Viejo, the oldest and most charming part of Panama City (and the oldest permanent European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas).  A designated UNESCO Heritage Site, the area originally dates from the 1600’s, but most of the current structures are from the 19th century, reflecting the French architectural styles brought by the original constructors of the canal.  (Casco is especially interesting as a juxtaposition to the super-modern Dubai-like skyscrapers making up the opposite side of Panama City, directly across the bay.)  Wandering around the neighborhood made for a very pleasant Friday evening, even though most of the businesses were closed for Carnaval.

PA-2 Dubai on the Pacific: Panama City even has a copy of the Burj al Arab (far right)

Early Saturday morning, we were ready for the canal!  We had pre-purchased a boat trip up the canal, which would traverse two of the three sets of locks.  By 7:30 we were waiting for the bus to take us to the embarkation point – the bus which never arrived.  I called the many emergency numbers that the tour company had given me: invalid number, voice mail, voice mail, out-of-service, etc.…I emailed the emergency address that I had, but just got a bounce-back saying that the company was closed until Wednesday at noon.  Strike one!

But we still had 24 hours to find another option, so I checked with the hotel desk staff, which got us booked on an afternoon city tour that would include a visit to the canal’s Miraflores locks.  OK, so I would experience the canal as a landlubber rather than afloat, but at least I would get the story for the blog.  But 30 minutes before the afternoon’s departure time, we got a call that all city tours had been canceled due to the traffic clogging the streets, as most of the city tried to leave town.  The tour company wasn’t sure if they would be able to conduct any tours on Sunday, but promised they would rebook us if they could.  Strike two!

So this meant a few more hours of exploring Casco instead of exploring the canal.  And it also meant worrying about how I would handle the looming deadline of my blog article in the event that the canal visit never materialized.  But with every minute spent wandering around Casco, I realized that a very good “substitute” story was laid out all around me.

It had suddenly dawned on me why wandering Casco for hours had intrigued me, despite the fact that most businesses were closed for the holiday weekend – it was basically one big construction zone (I say that in a nice way), an engineer’s dream!  Of the 50 photos I had taken so far in Panama, virtually all of them were of buildings at various stages of the restoration spectrum – crumbling, derelict structures here; buildings still uninhabitable, but structurally reinforced against collapse there; rickety, but functional structures providing housing for squatters in between; and stunning showcases restored to their past glory sprinkled throughout.  The details of what held up so many of these structures – be it steel, masonry, wood – were laid bare for examination by any curious engineer who happened to be wandering around while waiting to get on a canal tour.

PA-3 A neighborhood in Transition

For most of the last century, Casco had been nearly abandoned, with the buildings falling into decay.  Seeking to recover the area, in 1997 Panama began offering incentives in exchange for restoration.  The main rule seems to be that the developer gets a free hand on the inside, but is strictly mandated to restore the façade to its original appearance.  The impact of this law:  1) With 30-40% of the buildings renovated, the value of the area’s real estate has skyrocketed over the recent years; 2) Casco has become the nation’s second biggest tourist attraction (after that elusive canal), and 3) an engineer can see a mix of structural progress from before to after, as well as every stage in between, side by side on every neighborhood block.  Now to me, this was an intriguing story, which I could tell in my blog.

PA-4 Before and after, side by side in Casco Viejo

But around 10:00 that night the canal trip was back on!  We got a call saying that the morning tour was a go, and we would be picked up at 7:45am.

But come Sunday morning, no tour company arrived.  At 8:15 we checked with the tour company, who said that there was no record of our reservation.  With no chance to schedule for Monday (when we were scheduled to go home), it looked like strike three.

PA-5 I found a Canal Museum, so there must be a Canal…

At this point I was ready to try to walk to the canal…or hike up Mt Ancon, and look for it from the peak…or even just try to view it on Google Earth.  There was no way I was going to tell people that I’d gone all the way to Panama and missed out on the canal.

But ¡Qué milagro!  Suddenly, only an hour late, a tour guide came into the hotel lobby and called out our name.  And 30 minutes after that, feeling like Balboa getting his first glimpse of the Pacific after an arduous journey marked by setback after setback, I finally espied the canal!

PA-6 Proof of the canal visit, or is it Photoshop?

And what engineering wisdom did I glean from my visit there?  Well it seems I’m out of space for this article, so that will have to be a story for another time.

PS – Don’t get the wrong idea from the few inconveniences I mention here, which I attribute to having picked the wrong time to go.  I had a great time in Panama and would definitely recommend a visit there to anyone!

Renovating a neighborhood structure, or just building an Engineering Wonder of the World?  Try CloudCalc, the scalable, collaborative, cloud-based engineering software. – Structural Analysis on the Cloud.

By Tom Van Laan

Copyright © CloudCalc, Inc. 2015

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