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The Panama Canal

November 3, 2014


“Yes, but only if we can cross from one ocean into another,” I answered when Mrs. Chatterbox asked if I was interested in seeing the Panama Canal. Most cruises only take you to Lake Gatun at the halfway point, where you reverse direction and return to your port of origin. For me, crossing the entire Isthmus of Panama was the whole point of any Panama Canal adventure.


Mrs. C. found a cruise that departed from Miami, made a full passage through the Canal and ended in San Francisco. In spite of the Canal shortening the distance thousands of miles by removing the need to sail around South America, this would be the longest cruise we’d undertaken, nearly three weeks.


We boarded our ship and were introduced to our cabin steward, a friendly young Croatian named Julian. (Cruise ships are often manned by International crews.) We departed Miami and sailed for Aruba, where a local guide told us a story I couldn’t verify. He claimed natives from Aruba were the only true Caribbean people left because Spanish explorers thought the island and its people so ugly they had no interest in colonizing, and left the island alone. Understandably, this story wasn’t featured on the wall of the Aruban tourist center where we booked a submarine ride to view a sunken ship before continuing our cruise to Panama.


Our cabin had a balcony, where we watched as our ship approached the Atlantic side of the Canal. Boats and ships of all sizes were lined up for the crossing, with the price of passage determined by size. Our ship was charged nearly half a million dollars, with the least amount paid by a fellow who swam the length of the Canal for thirty-five bucks, according to the brochure left in our cabin. Swimming the Canal seemed like a dicey decision; when the locks opened I looked down and saw sizeable sharks thrashing around, feasting on freshwater fish escaping the locks.


Our ship was turned over to a Panamanian captain whose job it was to control our path through the forty-eight mile passage, which at reduced speed was an all day event. The Canal had been designed a century earlier and ships were much smaller then. Looking down from our balcony, I noticed our ship cleared the lock’s walls by a matter of inches. Once through, we would dock in Costa Rica where our crew would paint over the black scratch marks left from scraping the walls, stretching the length of both sides of our hull.



The space between our ship and the lock wall, looking down from our balcony.


Have I mentioned it was hot, and greenhouse humid? Of course the Canal only works because excessive rain fills Lake Gatun, providing the water necessary to raise and lower ships in the locks, but the temperature was consistently at a hundred degrees, even during frequent rain showers. Stepping outside our cabin was like being struck in the face by a steamy washcloth. I cranked the air-conditioning in our cabin as high as it would go, until the glass sliding door leading to our balcony was dripping with condensation. When I spotted something interesting gliding past the ship, I needed to wipe moisture from the lens of my camera before stepping onto the balcony for the shot.





Julian thought there was something wrong with our AC and lowered it every time he entered our cabin. Julian didn’t speak much English, but I tried to explain why we wanted the AC to remain on.


“We come from Portland, Oregon, I explained.


He looked at me with confusion.


I chose my words carefully and spoke slowly, as if that would help. “We come from a land that is very very cold,” I said, repeating, “V-E-R-Y C-O-L-D.” I was exaggerating, but it’s possible a few snowflakes had been falling when we headed to the airport for our Miami flight.


Julian nodded his head, and from then on left our AC alone.


Later that evening, the Pacific Ocean was only a few miles away when Mrs. C. and I, returning from the dining room, overheard Julian talking with another Croatian crew member in a passageway near our cabin. I couldn’t understand much, but my ears pricked up when Julian recited our cabin number. Julian must have been telling the other crewmate that we were from a very cold place because one word stood out, probably because it didn’t translate. I believe he was telling his shipmate that Mrs. Chatterbox and I were E-S-K-I-M-O-S.  



Passage through the rainforest on the Panama Canal.







eskimos from oregon. :) love it!
By: TexWisGirl on November 3, 2014
Interesting trip, for an Eskimo. Where haven't you visited?
By: Cranky on November 3, 2014
The rainforest view looks amazing. I think I might retire in Panama some day. I've read it is wonderful for Americans and my skin may like the humidity. Before I make a decision though, I'll check it out with an extended vacation.
By: Michael Offutt on November 3, 2014
Funny. And I agree that the whole point of visiting the canal would be to go from one ocean to another. Don't think I'll be going, though.
By: Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma on November 3, 2014
I was interested to learn that there is a yacht club in the middle of the canal. I have a friend who was taking his sailboat through the canal when the motor broke down and he was towed to the yacht club for repairs.
By: Catalyst/Taylor on November 3, 2014
Would that have made you Eskimoregonians?
By: fishducky on November 3, 2014
That was certainly a tight squeeze through the lock.. And although I'm not from the Antarctic, I also prefer my bedroom to be cold rather than too warm.
By: Bryan Jones on November 3, 2014
wow.....that is mightly close from your photo. Tee hee on the not being able to explain to your steward. Eskimo huh,,,,,,
By: Oma Linda on November 3, 2014
You are the man of a million adventures. And now I learn you are an Eskimo. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on November 3, 2014
Well, that was cool!
By: red on November 3, 2014
Heeheehee! Reminds me of the marine who tried to tell a foreigner "John Wayne" to give him an idea, and the foreigner took that to mean "cowboy!"
By: mimi on November 3, 2014
Well, at least he stopped messing with the a/c switch! I lived in Panama during the 60's when my dad was stationed there. We would picnic up on a huge hill that overlooked the canal and watch boats travel throuh.
By: Coloring Outside the Lines on November 3, 2014
Well, I can imagine you being called worse. (LOL?)
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on November 3, 2014
By: The Bug on November 3, 2014
Who knew you could u-turn in the canal. I agree that would have defeated the purpose You guys have really put some miles on your meter. Where haven't you been--oh yes, your birthplace--Alaska. That was funny about the Eskimos.
By: Akansas Patti on November 3, 2014
Great story, Steve. I personally will never go there because of the very heat and humidity you mentioned. In fact, I try to stay away from any place south of San Antonio. I'll travel vicariously through you to places that close to the Equator and sea level. :)
By: Scott Park on November 3, 2014
I'd love to see the canal someday. I'm with you, I'm not a fan of humidity. Your post got me thinking about how hotel, cruise ship, restaurant people and etc come to think of us. Must be some funny stories they share.
By: Tom Cochrun on November 3, 2014
Scratches down the length of the ship? Heavens - they need to wide that darn canal. Say "Hi" to the Eskimos for me, Stephen!
By: Lexa Cain on November 3, 2014
Good thing your mom wasn't there to tell Julian that you are really Portuguese.
By: Val on November 3, 2014
And here I was, always thinking that turning "up the air conditioning" meant nudging the lever it to a higher temperature, thus making it warmer. Clearly you Eskimos have it all mixed up!
By: Pixel Peeper on November 3, 2014
oh hahahah Eskimos from Oregon....Thats about right!!.
By: Kathe W. on November 3, 2014
Eskimos huh, I knew it :) funny how easy things can change across a language barrier.
By: Jimmy on November 3, 2014
Another great story!
By: John on November 4, 2014
Yoicks! I do want to take a cruise all the way through the Panama Canal.....fair warning about the humidity- I will have to book when the weather is the least humid- if there is such a thing! Julian is probably still bragging about "his Eskimos"!
By: Kathe W. on November 4, 2014
You take the most interesting trips and have such fun adventures together. Exaggerated or not, you tell a fine story.
By: Hilary on November 4, 2014
The rainforest area looks so beautiful! Hey, the crew on the ship would call me an Eskimo too---I always need the A/C on with all of these hot flashes!
By: Marcia @ Menopausal Mother on November 4, 2014
This reminds me of my Dad and mum who used to go cruising, they went through the Panama canal a few times. They were never mistaken for Inuit though.
By: Madeleine McLaughlin on November 5, 2014
I'm sure you have many stories to tell from your great adventure. That should be your next adventure... a trip north to visit the Inuit... imagine seeing the Northern Lights!
By: Daniel LaFrance on November 6, 2014
I could stand for hours watching the boats go through the [Ballard] locks in Seattle. Would love to witness the enormity of the operation in Panama. Sorry to pry, but do you and Mrs. C rub noses? I've always wondered if that was true about your people. (Speaking of "your people" ignorance, my first college roommate wanted to know if I had had my horns removed.)
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