A Panamanian Vacation
A cargo ship carrying 5000 containers packed full of, well, just about anything and everything you could possibly imagine, eases into the first Miraflores lock. From our vantage point outside of the Canal Museum, sitting on bleachers with other tourists, local school groups, and Canal gawkers of all ages, it appears the vessel is much too large for the narrow channel. Can they really navigate the ship through here? I ask skeptically.
But guided by an experienced Canal pilot and four multi-ton diesel train engines on adjacent tracks, the ship has no problem lining up in the exact right spot, mere inches from the Canal walls built more than 100 years ago. The water level begins to lower and the massive vessel descends nearly seven meters without moving. I stand amazed at the 8th man made wonder of the world: the Panama Canal is captivating.
Before me is the greatest symbol of globalization, of global consumerism, of the free market, of the freedom to buy, sell, trade, import, export, and consume, consume, consume! More than two dozen cargo ships of this stature will pass through the Canal before the day is over. Another several dozen tomorrow. And the day after that. And for 365 days a year, day and night.
So much freight needs to be moved between continents, across the great Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, that the current locks can not meet the demand. Another set is under construction: bigger, better, and more efficient. 5,000 containers? That’s kiddie play. Modern “Post-Canal” ships carry 14,000 containers in one haul. The new section of the Panama Canal will let these mega-boats pass safely through, bringing that flat screen T.V., pound of shrimp, and ever-so-rare Snuggie blanket to your doorstep by Christmas.
I’m by no means immune to such materialism. Surely my recently refurnished living room boasts a coffee table or DVD or couch cushion that passed through the Canal. My observations are just that, observations. Millions of tons of cargo pass through these narrow waters because we apparently need millions of tons of stuff to survive. While the indigenous Panamanians, tribes of the Cueva and Cocle, survived on this planet with minimal amounts of belongings, we are not so fortunate.
Thankfully, over a century ago, an incredible diversity of people from all over the world joined the American expedition to build the Panama Canal. They fought malaria, floods, heat, and Manifest Destiny to ensure that their great-great-grandchildren could Tweet updates on their iphone about the newest song they downloaded onto their MP3 player while reading a book about climate change printed in Trinidad.
All hail the mighty pick-axe, the nautical dredger, and our righteous human ingenuity!