Don’t Huli the Boat: My Response to a Friend’s Sadness.

Paddles Up!

Above, the 2005 Poi Pu Challenge winning team. My Wahine is #4

A good friend who once lived on the island of Kauai, as my wife and I did, recently sent an E-mail bemoaning the current state of the U.S. She’s sad and disheartened by America’s tensions and divisions, and our too common ad hominem attacks among our fellow Americans. Much of this conflict stems from the current social situation, and is further stoked from ashes into consuming fire by the current occupant of the White House. Here’s a link to the article my friend cited as the reason for her sadness. And here is my response to the article, and to her.

S, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts this way, it isn’t easy to navigate today’s terrain. These are trying times indeed, especially when attempting to interact with people, some of whom we’ve known all our lives, yet now have serious disagreements with. Those ‘times for divorce‘ you mention are very painful, but they’re necessary for our own equilibrium, and for maintaining a sense of who we are. It’s especially painful when those we must leave behind are people we thought we knew very well, people we’ve loved because of who we thought they were.

I doubt that America will split over the division and chaos we’re going through just now, but my doubt is based more on practical and logistical issues than otherwise. I simply don’t see how such a ‘split’ could come about. Sadly, my doubt isn’t based on an optimistic assumption that we’ll come together in love, or compassion, or shared understanding. We’ll just once again learn to live with each other, stifle our various differences, and go on. Our addiction to social media drives a lot of this division, so maybe we need to seek a twelve-step program, a kind of Facebook & Twitter addiction cleansing or its equivalent.

When I look at the ‘other side’—for me that is those who support the individual in the White House—the most prominent characteristic I see is their seething anger. Those folks with their silly red MAGA caps always exhibit a ravenous anger at the ‘other,’ described as anyone who disagrees with them, regardless of how minor the issue. They’re extremely fragile people, folks who gravitate to humanities worst impulses, and who aren’t afraid to outdo each other in showing off those retrograde behaviors. To me they elicit Shakespeare’s quote from Queen Gertrude in Hamlet, ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks.’ I suspect a lot of these MAGA people know how ridiculous and childish their behaviors are. That deep down they don’t truly hate as viciously as they seem to, but they get affirmation from others in their tribe, so they continue. It tells me they have very tedious, circumscribed lives, along with a zero-sum mentality that simply won’t allow the concept of a world of abundance. If someone else wins, they must lose, and vice versa. I can easily see why my friend is sad.

During our too short residence on Kauai, my wife and I saw a lot of the same issues, a tension between locals and the haoles, sharp disagreements over issues that involved—and too often offended—Hawaiian sensibilities and those imported from the mainland, and the forced, often brittle harmony that always exists between local people and visitors in a tourist economy.

But we also saw the resolution of those differences. It was clear to us when we arrived on the island that yes, we were haoles, and no, the locals didn’t really want us there, and yes, they had a fine reason for their disdain, and yes, they had to tolerate us. So they lived in harmony with us, and we with them, because we shared that little patch of paradise in the middle of all that water, and we simply had to cooperate to survive and get along. After all, that mossy little rock (Kauai) is just 90 miles around at the shoreline, 25 miles across, and 30 high, so not a lot of room, and it’s occupied by (last I checked), only 70,000 full time residents. Plus, the road doesn’t even connect, so we literally met each other coming and going.

When Mariah and I lived on Kauai we joined an outrigger canoe club on the south shore. As anyone who has lived in Hawaii may know, the local people in those clubs don’t take to the ocean for fun, or to exercise, or to socialize with each other. Ocean outrigger paddling is much more than sport for them; it’s a religion, a way to connect and commune with their ancestors and the sea, and to affirm their affinity for the water. If our number 6 saw us looking up, enjoying the glorious view, and neglecting our stroke, they’d yell at us. It was almost funny how seriously they took it. Of course we never joked about their rigid attitude, or ignored them. And we never dreamed of lashing out at them. Instead, we listened, cooperated, put our heads down, and kept on stroking. If we ever caught a wave the wrong way and hulied the boat, we’d just take to the water, flip it back over, bail it out, get back aboard, and keep going. We even had huli practice on occasion, just so we’d know instinctively what to do when the ama came up and the boat flipped over. In other words, we learned how to survive together.

So here’s a possible solution to our current social difficulties, and a pending American ‘split’. Everyone should be forced to live on Kauai for a short time, to join a paddle club, and to do their huli practice. Both kāne & wahine have to spend enough time there to soak up the island’s beauty and charm, to feel its ‘mana’, while being forced to get along with each other, learning to flip the boat back over—because it’s going to huli from time to time when they catch a wave the wrong way—while stifling whatever political, or social, or ideological differences they might have. Everyone must experience a touch of island fever, a feeling of being trapped in the middle of the vast and often angry ocean, with no way to escape, where cooperation and compliance are not niceties but necessities. A lot like life on the rest of planet earth, in other words.

S, I remain optimistic. Like you, I lived through the disruption and polarization of the 60s, the civil rights era, Vietnam, Watergate and another corrupt, lying, and tone-deaf president, and the various other chaotic times in America. We somehow stayed together then, and I’m guessing we will now. But it is difficult to watch, and even more difficult to see friends and family take sides in such a rigid fashion. It does bring tears to our eyes to see how far apart we are, especially when the sea is so angry, and when we’re threatened with a huli of such epic proportions.

Something else we learned while paddling on Kauai was this: We never approached a wave sideways, but always head on. That approach gave us the best chance to stay upright, to get through the turbulence, and to keep going. So as difficult as these times may be, I believe it would not be proper or useful for us to approach issues at a glance, but directly. As painful as it may be, this is a time for us to truly announce our values, to be who we have always claimed to be, and to disregard the potential outcomes of lost friendship and temporary discomfort.

So I say we get on to Kauai. Let’s get stroking, put our heads down, stay together, hit the waves straight on, and we’ll get back to the beach in good shape to launch another day. My friend, Aloha to you. I say chin up, paddles up! Brighter days lie ahead.

To my readers, Mahalo nui loa for reading my post. Comments welcome.

BTW, in Hawaiian, a ‘Haole’ (How Lee) is a non-native. To ‘Huli’ (Hoolie) means to capsize the boat. The ‘Ama’ is the canoe’s outrigger arm. ‘Kāne’ is a man, ‘Wahine’ a woman. ‘Mana’ is ‘spirit’. ‘Mahalo nui loa’ means thank you very much.

What We Learned as Expats

Ex-Cat?

The message above could be the main takeaway from our five year sojourn as American expats. There were a number of times my wife and I felt like this little feline, holding tight to a rope that sagged further all the time, while clinging to the certain understanding—evident in the kitten’s confident gaze—that, as David Copperfield‘s Mr. Micawber said, ‘something will turn up.’

Something always did, too. We learned that folks are alike all over the world. That’s close enough to cliché that there’s truth in it. But as expats, whenever we needed assistance, either directions, or a helping hand, someone who was bilingual, or something as simple as advice on which market sold what item, it seemed that someone always turned up to help.

I don’t much care for blanket statements & generalities, but it seemed to us that, at least in Latin America where we lived as expats, people are kinder, and more attuned to each others’ needs than in the U.S. Maybe it’s from a long history of shared necessity? Maybe out of some deep seated communal feeling? Or maybe they just sensed our helplessness as the hapless gringos in their midst, but folks in Latin countries didn’t hesitate to reach out to us.

When we left the U.S. to become expats, we had very little hard knowledge of what life might be like without the creature comforts we’d become accustomed to. Such things as a clothes dryer, a disposal, a dishwasher, a tank water heater—those peripheral comforts we could live without. We quickly learned that those were ‘first-world problems.’ It turned out it was the simpler, quality of life items we missed, things like mail service, and viable on-line bill payment, and a lack of consistent customer-oriented service that hung us out to dry.

That last item, a lack of customer service, sounds like a contradiction to what I mentioned above about Latin folks’ rush to help. It’s not. We learned that immediacy, and the (North)-American-style frantic push of clerks and sellers and agents and sales reps to finalize transactions, that urgency isn’t evident in Latin culture. Service there is more about pace than pressure. More a recognition of customers’ agency and autonomy. A good example is the custom prevalent in Latin American restaurants that a waiter will never bring a bill until asked. Presenting a bill right after a meal is considered rude, a signal to surrender the table and leave, por favor. It’s simply not done.

We left the U.S. for a number of reasons: Health and comfort were right up there, along with the dread of another northern winter; we wanted to fill our passports with stamps, instead of filling our apartment with stuff; we wanted a richer, more carefree life, and the cost of living in the U.S. did not (and does not) support that.

We found most of what we sought: Health care costs in Colombia where we lived are a fraction of those in the U.S., while the quality of care is equal and often better. Our comfort level was higher as well, especially considering the climate, the first world offerings, and the ability to thrive on about 30% of the cost of living in the U.S. The irony of that is that in Colombia, considering our upper echelon income, we could afford a lot more stuff! The picture below shows why we left Ohio. It was taken at our condo complex—in April! April!

The biggest lesson learned in five years outside the U.S. is that we could do what we set out to do. That two spoiled rotten U.S. expats could leave for parts unknown, and create a simpler life without the creature comforts and familiar surroundings we’d become accustomed to. Admittedly, I never warmed up, so to speak, to on-demand water heaters, and not having a mailbox took some getting used to, and hanging wet clothes on a line was strange for a while, but we survived it all. So the lesson was clear: We don’t need all that stuff. We’ve been told we do, and we bought into it, literally.

Ave Maria, Pues!*

Beyond that simple, prosaic discovery, we learned a lot about who we are. We learned that another language is beyond useful; it’s critical, not just as a navigational tool in a new country, but for a sense of belonging to the wider world, and for leaving provincialism behind. We saw first hand that American exceptionalism is not only arrogant, it’s harmful. We lived among people who understood the value of being bilingual, trilingual and on and on.

Speaking for myself, I discovered that I’m a pretty adaptable individual. I do tend to be much more impatient than I wish to be, and as much as I’d like to think I’m flexible when problems arise, I can go high and right before it’s necessary, so there’s that. But my wife and I default to trusting people, and to giving the benefit of the doubt, sometimes after it’s advisable to do so. As an expat in a new and exotic locale that comes with its own problems.

How much help?

One of those problems is what we call the helper’s dilemma. In the photo above, my wife is giving food and a few pesos to two Venezuelan refugee kids, while their father looks on. We were happy to help this beleaguered family; it felt good to know that they’d eat for another day. As long as we lived in Colombia we looked for these opportunities. But more than once we had to back away, because individuals to whom we’d given aid began searching for us, looking for ways to get more. They were desperate, hungry people, so we didn’t blame them for their persistence, but it became a problem, more for them than for us, but still.

In the Same Cable Car

We learned that expats must be on the same page, or in the same cable car as the case may be. To be successful expats, couples must agree on a lot. Everyday situations can become tedious, and even frightening pretty quickly, so unless both partners agree on the big parts of the adventure, the small parts, the unpredicted issues and crises and how to solve them can slowly pry you apart. So we learned that life in familiar surroundings, in our case back in the good old USA was much easier, and that promise of ease taunted us to return more than once.

Hey, fellas, I think I hear banjos!

I mentioned filling our passports, and wracking up experiences rather than buying stuff. Here are a few of those experiences, things we’d never have done unless we left the comfort zone of the U.S.

Pictured above, I’m rafting down a bumpy and challenging river on the Panamanian border with Costa Rica. (Mariah stayed home for this one.)

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

We’d never have gone through the Panama Canal, the world’s best shortcut.

Wake up, Flash!

We never would have met Flash, or had a bit of snug time with sloths.

Morning on San Andrés Island

Amigos, in Medellin

We never would have met these two delightful people, good friends Nora & Ramiro. We miss them…a lot!

Alumbrada: The holiday lights of Medellin.

We never would have seen the world famous holiday light show, Medellin’s annual Alumbrada.

Pullmantur Monarch docked at Curacâo

We would not have cruised the ABC Islands, Aruba, Bonaire, & Curacâo.

The Rock of Peñol, Guátape

We never would have climbed the rock in Guátape. This is one of the more famous must-do items when visiting nearby Medellin. The top is 740 steps up, and the view from the summit is worth every grueling one.

Here’s our favorite little feline again, the ex-cat? The biggest lesson we learned as expats was the message above. As difficult and challenging as climbing the rock of Peñol at Guátape was, it’s even tougher for us often control obsessed, easily disrupted, comfortably ensconced NorteAmericanos to let go and enjoy life as it comes at us. Living our comfy lives in predictable, safe, familiar neighborhoods, with all the amenities, all the facilities, all the accoutrements of modern life—including tank water heaters and clothes dryers—we’ve gotten pretty soft and rigid at the same time.

Without dipping into the raging current of today’s polarized politics, I’ll just say that we U.S. Americans’ image is suffering a bit at present. Maybe it’s time for more people to try the expat life, even for a short time, to learn some of the lessons we did. That the U.S. is not the greatest nation on earth, regardless of the stridency of certain jingoistic groups to the contrary. That we’d do well to demand a second language, and more emphasis on the scientific method from our schools. That our consumer culture and our fathomless need for more has a serious downside. Our three car garages can’t hold our cars for all the stuff in them. This is not the definition of happy. Time to realize that our hyper indebted culture is unsustainable, and is making us miserable. That the Standard American Diet, laced with its animal protein, too much dairy, eggs, fats, sugars, oils, and processing, that diet is making us sicker, while driving up health care costs and lowering life expectancy.

Maybe the current viral pandemic can be viewed as a kind of expat experience: Similarly, it’s removed us from our familiar and comfy lives, and tossed us into an unknown, unpredictable, and uncomfortable environment. It’s demanded a level of adaptability that we may never have known we had. It’s drawn us closer as couples, circling the wagons as it were, until the crisis subsides. It’s defined certain priorities that we may have long suspected were being overlooked, but only now understand the importance of. In some ways, sadly, it’s gathered us closer to our tribes, at a time when we need a much more expansive, accepting, communal feeling. But it also shows that those guardrails can be breeched if we recognize their existence, so maybe a good thing.

Maybe we can take advantage of the current disruptions and discomforts that we have no choice but to endure, learn a thing or two about who we really are, what we need and don’t need, stick together better, and develop a new, communal, sustainable, safer, gentler, and more satisfying world. We might find out we like it. And we wouldn’t have to leave home to do it. Thanks for reading. Comments welcome.

*Ave Maria, pues = An expression of amused exasperation in Medellin.

The American Dream

“Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed— / Let it be that great strong land of love / Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme / That any man be crushed by one above.”*
Langston Hughes

I needed a plan to fail.

The dream the dreamers dreamed. We need America to go in that direction, toward that dream, instead of away from it as we appear to be doing now. This return won’t take politics, or religion, or social activism. Those things, while very good choices, are too easy, and they tend to engender division, as we’ve seen. To recreate the America the dreamers dreamed, we need a new imagining, a new vision, and a new kind of courage. We need to become dreamers, too, or again, or perhaps for the first time.
Here’s a personal story, an anecdote from my own recent experience. It’s a small thing, really, just a quick, almost imagined moment, but it provided one of those visions that linger for their depth and heft, so I’ll share it with you.


Here in my new home I have African American neighbors. Wonderful people. They have two beautiful babies, a fine home, two costly cars in their garage, and, like me, many cardboard boxes from their own recent move into that house. Shortly after we moved in, this neighbor, I’ll call him James, was busy watering his newly laid sod, making sure the grass was carefully tended. Focused on brown spots, he aimed his sprinkler at every section of his lawn that the device would reach. When he noticed me relaxing on my deck, he looked up.


I greeted him. He waved back. We exchanged names, idle chatter, basic family, and life, and work history. Then James returned to his lawn, and I returned to whatever it was I’d been doing.
I watched my neighbor for a while. As I did, the above Langston Hughes poem shimmered in my mind, and I had the oddest thought. I almost interrupted James from his lawn chores to tell him what I was thinking. But I didn’t. He was intent on watering his thirsty sod, and I’d only just met the man, so I wasn’t sure if he’d appreciate the interruption, or my comment, or the source of it. Here’s what I thought: This is the America I want to live in, an America where a successful black man with his own home, and two kids, and two costly cars in his suburban garage can putter around in his yard, his biggest concern being that his grass needs watering. This is the America I’d always envisioned.


From that thought I expanded the dream to the many disenfranchised, marginalized, ignored, and dismissed Americans who may see someone simply watering his lawn, and wonder where her or his own dream evaporated like the sun-kissed mist?


Growing up a child of privilege, American societies quintessential white, male, heterosexual, (recovering) christian, entitled kid, I had to have an active, detailed plan to fail. Despite my tendency to be the classic underachiever, American society was not going to allow me to fall by the wayside, or come up short of whatever dream I might have cooked up. I was told I could be whatever I wanted to be, and I believed it—because, for me, and kids like me, it was true.


There was a cutesy phrase when I was a kid, ‘the world is his oyster.’ I have no earthly idea the provenance of that homely saying, but I sure as hell know why I was its subject. It was entitlement, pure and simple. I may have thought back then, living in my oblivious bubble, that America really was the land of equality, and freedom, and justice for all. But I was living proof that it wasn’t. I could have shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, and… Well, you get the idea. The big difference today is that these glaring differences are being called out. They’re not new, or reactionary. They’re just being recorded.


Acknowledging the entitled part of my personal story doesn’t change much, of course. Any of my black, or gay, or trans, or female, or Islamic, or Latinx friends will read of my feckless, carefree youth, and my facility at success and they’ll say, ‘ya think?’ I never once saw a neighbor lock their car door when I passed by. Never once had a security guard follow me around a store. Never once feared for my life when I was pulled over driving, flashers reflecting in my rearview. Instead, I was always greeted with courtesy, respect, and deference any time I got sideways with a cop, and it happened, believe me. Driving 55 in a 30 zone? Are you serious? Then given a warning? Really?


Did I despair at that moment? Police car flashers blinding me, did I expect my life to fall apart? Did I find myself under arrest, enmeshed in the harsh system, caught up in the gears of process, and procedure, and punishment policy? No. Quite the contrary, and here’s the point: I was always—always—given the benefit of the doubt. Always.


So how do we recognize this chasm in relations, the difference between entitlement and its opposite, an insistence on process at all costs, regardless of how little harm is done? How do we arrive at a point where all Americans are treated fairly, where no one—and everyone—is given a chance to succeed? Where no one is guilty of something the minute they’re born?
———
Here’s where we start, I believe. We start with a common understanding of what ‘America’ means. What exactly is the definition of ‘America?’


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Here’s mine: ‘America’ is not a country. Sure, there’s a bit of real estate involved, and most folks can locate ‘America’ on a map, though having lived in South ‘America,’ I better understand that we need more precision when using the term. Colombianos, Peruvians, Brazilians, Ecuadorians—they’re all Americans as well.


But America—The United States of—is not a country; it’s an idea. A grand idea. It’s the most radical, the most astonishing, the most heart and mind bending idea ever conceived. Truly. When the United States came into being, the concept of freedom, and liberty, and justice for all people was the single most radical and dangerous idea in world history. Yes, these ideas are attached to a plot of land. Yes, the founders conveniently overlooked a lot of folks, including half the populace on the distaff side, all those who owned no property, and all those with skin a shade or two darker than themselves. Yes, many of those otherwise enlightened men—they were all men—owned property that we refer to today as other human beings.


But they got much of the idea down pretty well. That people had a right to certain things, and that those things ought to be available without fear or favor to everyone. That there are laws. That these laws should apply equally to everyone. So, America is not a country; it’s an idea. If we can agree on that, we’ve made a great deal of progress already.


Next: patriotism. Boy howdy, do we get wrapped around the axle on this one! Here’s what patriotism means to me: It’s the ability—no, the responsibility—to root out flaws in American society, and to call attention to them in order to fix them. Protest is the highest form of patriotism. See inequality? Oppression? Injustice? Take a knee, call it out in whatever fashion you choose within legal constraints, and let’s get the problem fixed for pity sakes! Those who wish to sweep things under the rug, or draw attention to some irrelevant diversion, or hide behind the flag simply don’t get this part.


Next: Who ‘belongs’ here, and who doesn’t? The U.S. is the exceptional nation. For the first time in human history, people from across the globe arrived on a small speck of real estate, from every country, culture, religion, with every skin tone, and social perspective, all agreeing to put tribal, and ethnic, and religious, and cultural, and language differences aside to form one nation.


Think of it: People from across the planet have come to the U.S., changing their identity, regardless of how much effort that takes, and despite the real peril that those changes often entailed for them. The fact that most people assimilate to this grand American idea is astonishing. It should be cause for great optimism. When I see people shouting ‘go back where you came from,’ and similarly childish epithets, I think, ‘those people aren’t real Americans.’ With their jingoistic, angry discourtesies, they’re defiling the core concept of what America means, indeed assaulting the very idea of who and what we are.


Those angry, anti-immigrant people are also conveniently overlooking the fact that, at some point in their own past, unless they’re Native American Indians—a specious title indicating that old Chris Columbus was a lousy navigator—their own people arrived on these shores as immigrants, too.


So how do we gather all these ideas into one place, and assemble these concepts into a new vision and understanding of Making America what it should be? We simply return to basic concepts. We explore the documents, and the pronouncements, and the promises we made 244 years ago, and then we actuate those documents in the context of our own time.


The question is: Do we have the courage to make those ideas real, and true, and appropriate for this time, this era in our history? Can we find the courage to live the essence of what those declarations say, and what they truly mean? Does the statement ‘liberty and justice for all’ mean ALL? Or does it not? Do we focus on that simple word all, or do we make exceptions, alter our sacred documents, and live with the consequences? Affirming liberty and justice for all is not a radical idea; refusing to grant those things is the radical idea.


If we have the courage, and if we have the social, and the political, and the collective will to truly observe and practice those founding words, I believe we’ll have a better, more just, and more livable society. Growing up entitled, as I did, might have given me a warm, fuzzy feeling, but I now realize that there was a cost to it, a price to be paid, and I was not the one paying it.
Perhaps it’s time we all look long and hard at just how well we understand the American dream, the idea of America, the contract we live under, and make its simple promise available to ALL, not just white, male, straight, christian kids, so everyone can enjoy the dream that America offers.
If we do these things, we’ll live in the America I wore the uniform defending for 30 years, and we’ll give up the hypocrisy that fuels much of the discontent we sense these days.

My neighbor’s lawn is doing just fine. His concern about the brown spots and weeds is fading as his lawn greens up nicely. If we have the courage to demand that America be allowed to be the dream the dreamers dreamed, I believe we might find ourselves surrounded by people who can tend their own piece of sod, nourish their slice of the dream, make it greener, and pass it along to their kids in due time. This is the America I dream of.


*The Dream the Dreamers Dreamed. From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes.

Ex-Expat: On Returning to the U.S.

Recently, my wife and I returned to the United States after living abroad for four years. I’d call myself an ex-expat, except that word doesn’t apply. It’s been clear to me since I returned that I am still an expat, because the country I left 4 years ago no longer exists. Indeed, the United States of America that I grew up in, the country in which I pursued my own life, liberty, and happiness, that nation is no more.

Coming back, I’m not at all certain that the America I thought I knew and loved ever existed. The ‘land of the free and home of the brave’ vision I once held, the rah-rah, yankee-doodle image propagated at every opportunity, that image it turns out, was a vaseline-lens, aspirational, too-good-to-be-true America. Sad to say, it was mostly, it appears, a sham.

In third grade, as I faced the stars and stripes, hand over heart, chanting the pledge of allegiance by rote, I thought I was announcing my loyalty to a country that truly did offer ‘liberty and justice for all,’ that anyone wishing to vote with their feet to bring their wretched refuse of other lands’ teeming shores to this America, to my bold and glorious America, those people would be welcomed, cherished, and included.

Looking around on my return today I still see American flags posted in prominent spots. But in the tiki-torch demonstrations by ignorant white supremacists, the fiery oppositional marches by low-life bigots, the blatant hypocrisy by so called christian groups, the hatred, and the rejection of ‘others’, I now understand that the final word of that pledge, the simple word ‘all’ has a lot of wiggle room, a lot of exceptions. Instead of living up to its shining creed of inclusion, and acceptance, and love of diversity, I see America denouncing its glowing aspirations, and disdaining the vaulted meaning of that pledge. It makes me sad. It makes me angry, too, partly that I allowed myself to be deluded for so long, and partly because it doesn’t have to be this way, and should not be this way.

Looking at America from afar, in my case from Medellin Colombia, gave me a perspective and insight not many Americans ever see. My view from far away allowed me to view the U.S. for what it really is. That is, a country that’s admired, feared, hated, and loved, that is confusing, disgusting, disappointing, and astonishing, often all at the same time. But one way I never imagined looking at my home country was with sorrow. And I never expected people in other countries to look at the U.S. and feel pity, but that’s a common feeling today. That perspective, the reality that other nations pity the U.S. simply never occurred to me. That, too, makes me angry. It does not have to be this way. It should not be this way.

My recent return to the U.S. is similar in many ways to another repatriation many years ago, when I came home from Vietnam. Just as in 1971, I came back to the U.S. from a poor, tropical country with a recent experience of civil chaos. Likewise, Vietnam and Colombia are both countries that had been exploited by the U.S. under the guise of liberation. Then as now I entered an America polarized and torn by turmoil, with demonstrations in public streets, an erosion of trust in civil institutions, facing an uncertain future, and with feckless, tone-deaf leadership that ignores our basic, or at least our stated values.

There was a kind of virus in 1971 as well. The tension and strife back then was a poison in our lives, a pall on daily activity much like the virus that now seeps its venom into all of our lives—and for some people just as deadly. We had a daily body count then as well. At that time in America’s history the unrest was centered on the war in South Asia. The Vietnam War forced us to take sides, to identify as one or the other, either pro war, or against, and with similarly bracketed slogans: On one side, ‘America, love it or leave it!’; ‘Make love, not war,’ on the other. There were symbols then, either masks or hardhats, and both became weaponized.

Independence day will soon be here. The 4th of July will be celebrated as always in the U.S., albeit under strange and restrictive measures. There is talk of cancellations, and virtual fireworks displays, and reruns of previous years’ celebrations as substitutes for the here and now amid the coronavirus pandemic. There will be the usual rah-rah, bang the drum, stars & stripes jingoism that always accompanies the 4th. The forced expressions of loyalty, patriotism, and pride in country, despite numerous timely and important challenges to the national narrative. There will be all of the superficial and shallow expressions of solidarity, the Lee Greenwood version of pride in country that gets trotted out at the drop of a red, white, and blue boater in early July all across America.

But here’s the thing: Despite our inability to gather in large groups this 4th of July, this year’s Independence Day celebrations will carry another kind of virus, the germ of a long delayed but better vision, a truer purpose of our pursuit of national ideals we’ve expressed collectively for 244 years. This year, with a different kind of demonstration in the streets, with stronger and more persistent calls for a return to our basic, stated values seem to be ascendent. The demand for inclusion and regard from our Black Lives Matter brethren; demands for new leadership against our current void of it; angry voices calling for that proffered equality check to be cashed, this time with sufficient funds.

Those calls may actually be heeded this time, and maybe, just maybe, the America I thought I saluted all those years ago in third grade, maybe that America can truly rise to its stated purpose, its documented vision.

This my recent repatriation to the United States really could be different. It’s possible I could see the values we’ve always claimed to honor put into practice: Those values are not complicated; they’re not wrapped in obtuse, legalistic language; they’re not difficult to understand, hell a third grader spoke and understood them, and that youngster was so proud.

Liberty and justice for all. Maybe this time. Maybe this expat, this time, after only 244 years will finally see those words mean something. And maybe, this time, this America could be a place worth returning to.

Thanks for reading, and happy Independence Day.

Hasta Luego Boquete

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We have beautiful Boquete in the rearview. So why snake pictures? No particular reason, except it seemed odd that we were greeted by the fellow on top, a lovely coral snake on one of our first days in Boquete, and the fellow on the bottom, a fer de lance, on our very last evening there. The fer de lance is one of the most venomous & lethal pit vipers in the world, and this one was right outside our front door. Did we leave it alone? Oh boy, howdy.

This will be my last post from Panama as Mariah and I have decamped for Medellin Colombia.(visit soon at byallmeanstravel.com)  I feel compelled to reflect on our (very short) stay in Boquete, and to share a few thoughts. I don’t wish to disparage the quaint, quiet, lush, and lazy little town we called home for almost a year in total, but there are some things we’d like to share. Yes, comments are not only welcome, they’re encouraged.

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Miraflores Locks

Everyone should see the Panama Canal before they pass through to the other side. What’s this got to do with Boquete three hundred miles away? It seems, metaphorically speaking, that Panama is a transit point not only for the world’s commercial traffic from ocean to ocean, but for one’s passage to the next adventure as well. We don’t regret for a minute our time in western Panama: we made wonderful (hopefully life-long) friends; we enjoyed several relaxing and inspiring moments there; and we learned a whole lot about ourselves, which is the most valuable lesson anyone have have.

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January sunset in Chiriqui

We saw spectacular sunrises & sunsets. The ones we witnessed on Kauai were breathtaking, especially the green flash the locals told us about, but Panamanian sunrises & sunsets rival even those in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Gorgeous.

We saw amazing birds, migratory and otherwise. Indeed, the wildlife we were able to spot and enjoy were like no other we’d seen anywhere. Interesting, too, how the selection and variety changed all the time. When we first arrived, flocks of parakeets were a daily, predictable sight. Then they vanished, as if they’d never existed. Likewise Kingbirds, Palm Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, thrushes and Squirrel Cuckoos arrived, then departed. Especially once the windy season arrived in force, the birds seemed to take shelter elsewhere. All but the tenacious little hummers. They stuck it out no matter what.

We’ll not forget the amazing contrasts in Panama, especially in and around Boquete. As pictured above, outrageous affluence appears next door to grinding poverty; kids with proscribed & difficult lives sit idly by while their parents toil in coffee fields alongside wealthy, carefree gringos with all the time in the world for a leisurely stroll through those same fields.

Then there’s the weather contrast, of course, and the primary reason we chose Panama in the first place. Number one shot above, Bocas del Mar, ahhhhh!; number two picture, outside our Ohio condo not long afterward. Brrrrrr! as Mariah says: no mas nieve para mi!

We learned a lot about ourselves living in Boquete. We don’t like the Green Acres life, as much as we thought we might: Chickens are basically stupid creatures; bananas grow everywhere, and we do get tired of eating them; as much as someone wanted a pet sloth, it ain’t happenin.’ But thanks D&E for letting us stay at Finca Luz. Farm of Light certainly enlightened us, even if it cost you a chicken or two. Sorry about that. We’re city people through and through, as much as we tried to deny it. We love the symphony, museums, movie theaters, great libraries, public transport. Okay, Starbucks, I admit it. I love Starbucks. Sue me.

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Not a one-horse town!

Last thoughts on our stay in Boquete, pure speculation, but I’ll put it out there anyway. Boquete, possibly Panama itself, needs more revenue.Sure the Canal spits off a billion or so annually, and politicians skim off their fair share, and there’s no transparency, yadda, yadda, yadda. Sounds like the same complaints we hear from up north. I don’t want to piss anybody off, but I have a strong suspicion that folks are shirking their responsibility. As one who firmly believes that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society, I believe a lot more could be done by my fellow expats, revenue wise. Kudos to those who’ve pitched in to make the city a better place, I take nothing from you. Keep it up. It must feel like a losing battle at times. But without sufficient revenue, neglect becomes endemic.

Boquete is a fine example of this. The town could be a jewel of a place, lush, green, structured and tidy. It is not. Boquete could have neat and tidy streets. Verdant city parks. It could have sidewalks! Street signs! Sadly, Boquete is decrepit, with little attention to order and its infrastructure has decayed so badly what’s there hardly qualifies as adequate. It’s a shame. What’s the answer? Aside from falling back on the old bromide that it’s ‘a first-world problem,’ I’d suggest more $$$$, in the form of taxes.

I’ve not researched this thoroughly, so it’s likely useless opinion on my part, but a steady, predictable system of taxation & associated accounting of it might be just the ticket. One of the first things we encountered in Boquete was the proliferation of small businesses that operate solo efectivo. Not naming names, but it seems to me there’s only one purpose for a cash-only endeavor, and it ain’t environmental concern about using too much plastic. I believe it’s to disguise earnings, and maximize income. Okay, I’ll step off my horse. But one reason this rant appears now is that we’ve seen what can happen when revenue is sufficient for a modern, people-friendly city. It’s happening in Medellin. The absence of the challenges cited above are among the reasons we’ve moved away.

This is sounding like a whiny bitch fest, but there’s another aspect of it that comes to mind and then I’ll quit. This is just us, irritable, disenchanted gringos etc., but it’s another reason we won’t miss Boquete very much. It’s about a few of the very same gringos we encountered there, and the apparent reason they chose Panama for their retirement hidey-hole. When we decided to move to Boquete a few years ago our Norte Americano neighbors asked if we were afraid of the Panamanians, fearful of the local folks who’d surely molest us, pester us, rob us blind with gringo-bingo etc. Who knew we’d encounter these things from gringos? During our short but illustrious stay we met wonderful, caring, compassionate, fun people, folks we cherish and hope to keep up with. And we met some real stinkers. Not once but twice we received rather rude and unnecessarily avaricious treatment from landlords. Especially our last one at the Country Club. With all the cleaning fees, three different fumigations, an exciting afternoon marked by a gas explosion, defective appliances, constant power outages and the final insulting accusation that we stole bedsheets for pity sakes, we felt like unwanted vagrants, not something a renter needs while shelling out $1,200 bucks a month. BTW, anyone considering a rental at BCC, caveat emptor. Contact me and we’ll chat. Oh yes, a third landlord incident, this one involving only a potential arrangement, but still. After making inquiries to rent a certain place at The Springs, we were told in no uncertain terms that the unit was not available to the likes of us, because we were not dedicated Trumpsters. True story. The refusal stemmed from a Facebook post in which I was critical of ‘he who shall not be named.’ Evidently he can ‘say what’s on his mind,’ but the privilege does not extend to peons such as myself. Thanks, Dan, I hope your unit stays empty forever. I’m done now.

Anyway, we’re out of Boquete, now happily ensconced in Medellin. We’ve not been here long, just a week or less, but the difference is night and day. All the best to our friends in Boquete, we wish you well. Drop by the new site when you get a chance. byallmeanstravel.com will be up and running soon. Stay safe. Thanks for all you did for us. And beware of the gringos!

The World’s Best Shortcut Part 3

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‘The Titan’ Nazi Crane Near Pedro Miguel Locks  (aka Herman the German)

Fun fact: The Nazis contributed to the building & maintenance of the Panama Canal. True story. The crane pictured above was once used by Nazi Germany in the 40s, and during the Second World War, to move large, heavy objects such as ever-larger armament & munitions. It was used extensively in Germany to help build trains & railroads, and similarly weighty stuff. So what in the wide world is this massive crane doing ensconced near the Pedro Miguel Locks on the Panama Canal?

The Nazis lost the war, of course, and their loss was Panama’s gain, eventually. This crane, called ‘The Titan,’ aka ‘Herman the German’ and other assorted items of war booty were confiscated and shipped to various places across the world. The crane saw service in Long Beach California until 1996 when it was sold to the Panama Canal Authority for $1.00, with the proviso that it be used only there, and for the maintenance and fortification of the Canal. One of the crane’s functions is lifting the gates at each set of locks. Each gate on the old Canal weighs upward of 700 tons, and they must be lifted on a regular basis for cleaning, sealing, patching & replacement. Thanks to the Nazis, the task is somewhat easier. One would think such a massive device with all its functionality and hard metal would fetch more than a dollar, but that was the price, and that’s what it happened. Thanks Adolph Hitler, your service is noted.

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Most Famous Inmate? Senor Manuel Noriega

Speaking of notorious individuals, here’s the home of another rather infamous fellow, not quite equivalent in misdeeds to the Nazis, but reprehensible in his behavior nonetheless. The prison above is the current abode of a fellow named Manuel Noriega, one-time dictator of Panama and scourge of more than one U.S. president. (BTW, for a fascinating look at the Noriega years, and the violence and corruption extant in Panama then, read In The Time of the Tyrants.

Here are a few more facts about the world’s best shortcut: In 1977 the Carter-Torrijos treaty transferred ownership & operation of the Canal to Panama. According to the treaty, as of December 31st 1999 the U.S. ceased operating the Panama Canal, with the stipulation that in the event of a military emergency the U.S. would have full access.

Chief engineer for the American led Canal effort: George Washington Goethals.

Draft limit for ships: When Gatun Lake level is below 85 feet, draft is limited to 40 feet for all vessels.

Cost of the Canal: About $380,000,000, equivalent to nine billion dollars and change today.

Currently, Panama Ports Co. subsidiary of the Chinese company Hutchison-Whampoa Ltd. owns exclusive rights to operate both ends of the Panama Canal. Hutchison-Whampoa Ltd. is owned by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing.

Everyone loves pictures of ships, right? One reason to take a transit tour of the Canal, as we did recently, is to marvel at the ships and their tonnage passing through the channel alongside your own tiny tour boat. Here are a few of the mighty ships we saw, and information about them. These shots were taken January 14th 2017.

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MOL Bellweather: Hong Kong

The MOL Bellweather: Built in 2015, the container ship is listed at a dead weight of 120,000 tons. The Bellweather is registered in Hong Kong. At 1105 feet (337 meters) long, 157 feet (48.5 meters) wide it must use the new, wider locks. Today, as this is written, the Bellweather is located approximately 100 nautical miles east northeast of Ningbo, China.

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Maersk Bogor: Singapore

Maersk Bogor Singapore, built in 2009, is listed at 135,000 tons. At 730 feet (223 meters) long, and 109 (32 meters) wide, this ship, too must transit the new locks. Today, Maersk Bogor is in port in Algeciras Spain.

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CMA CGM Missouri

Built in 2016, CMA CGM Missouri is 103,000 tons. At 985 feet (300 meters) long and 109 feet (48 meters) wide the Missouri must use the new, wider locks. At this writing the Missouri was located 120 nautical miles east of Port Elizabeth South Africa, headed home to Singapore.

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Veendam: Rotterdam

Veendam, built in 1996 and refitted in 2012 weighs (just) 57,000 tons. At 719 feet (219 meters) long, 101 feet (31 meters) wide, Veendam is able to use the older locks. The ship carries a crew of 568, a passenger capacity of 1,350 and can cruise at 20 knots. At this writing, Veendam is located at Port of Spain Trinidad.

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Kaishuu

The Kaishuu ‘Hopper-Dredger’ is one of the smaller commercial ships transiting the Canal. Built in 2002, Kaishuu is 25,900 tons dead weight. The vessel is 518 feet (58 meters) long, and 92 feet (28 meters) wide, easily able to pass through the 110 foot wide older locks. Flagged in Luxembourg, the Kaishuu is currently located offshore at Buenaventura Colombia.

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Iowa Family with MS Island Princess behind. Gatun Locks 1/14/2017

 

Our transit of the Panama Canal just happened to occur on my wife’s birthday. No, I won’t tell which birthday, but suffice to say that we had a great time going through the locks, and we recommend the tour to anyone. We used Ancon Expeditions to secure a spot on a tour boat, and they took care of all details. The Ancon folks picked us up at our hotel, drove us to the boat at the end of the Amador Causeway and met us at day’s end there to return us to the hotel. Cost of full transit was $230/per person. One recommendation is to book a partial tour. The partial transit passes through both Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks, then passengers depart near Gamboa for a quick drive back to Panama City. Cost of this tour is currently $195/per person.

Refit in 2015, the Island Princess is 965 feet (295 meters) long and 106 feet (32 meters) wide. The vessel carries 2,200 guests and a crew of 900. Currently, Island Princess has transited back through the Canal and is underway to Puntarenas Chile. No details as to dimensions, speed or date of construction of the family etc., as this is proprietary information. Current positions: three back home in Iowa City, and two in Boquete, Panama.

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Administration Building, Gatun Locks

The Carribean side of the Panama Canal, and the Gatun Locks, center around the city of Colon, titled thus for a fellow named Cristoforo Colon, or as most Norte Americanos refer to him, Christopher Columbus. After a nine hour passage through the canal, we left the tour boat in Colon and were bused back to Panama City after a great day filled with Nazis, Panamanian tyrants, mega-tonnage container ships and much history of the world’s best shortcut.

More posts are pending on the great Panama adventure, and yet more as we prepare to depart Panama and move to Medellin, Colombia. Also, a name change is in the offing for this excellent addition to your travel reading pleasure. Soon we’ll be blogging at byallmeanstravel.com. Stay tuned.

Clean, Green Medellin

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Medellin Colombia by Night

One might think a city of 3 million souls would be grimy, noisy, confusing and generally dispiriting to inhabit. Medellin Colombia is proof that the opposite can be true. Disclaimer: we spent just five days in Medellin (pronounced Med-a-Jeen BTW) so we’re not experts by any means, but what we saw of Medellin enchanted us.

2 forms of public transport: World-Class Metro system; Free bikes (yes, free)

Please don’t tell anyone about Medellin, because we’re sure the Chamber of Commerce wouldn’t want the world to have this information and start a flood of immigrants, but this city does NOT match its reputation. And what is that rep? We’d heard the narrative: ‘dangerous,’ ‘drug-cartels,’ violent, anti-gringo, dirty, noisy, poverty-riddled etc. etc. Sure, there are parts of Medellin to avoid, especially at night, or drunk, or if your name is Donald Trump, or you’re soliciting for drugs and/or sex, or doing some other kind of criminal enterprise. Of course there are. So don’t do those things…duh! In fact, according to several websites, the homicide rate in Medellin has fallen more than 80% since the end of the cartel era. A fellow named Pablo Escobar and his minions were eliminated in the early 90s, and the turnaround in Medellin has been nothing short of remarkable.

Street performer in El Poblado; Parque de las Luces, ciudad central

City Parks have free WiFi…View from Envigado…Street Market Flowers

More street vendors & tiendas. Gotta love the ‘Super Todo Mickey Mouse’ market

The first thing we noticed about Medellin was how clean the city appears to be. Even in the poorer, more down at the heels estratos & barrios the utter lack of street litter and trash was remarkable. We were told that it’s partly a cultural thing, but mostly a point of civic pride. People tend to dress conservatively, (we saw no locals wearing shorts and/or sandals, for example) and there was no evidence of the slovenly apparel commonly seen in US cities. Also, many people told us the city is oriented around family & kids, with several initiatives, like the Parque Explora, and the wonderfully named Parque de los Pies Descalzos, (barefoot park). Proyecto Buen Comienza is a wonderful initiative that gives Medellin’s kids an early boost in education and self-discovery.

One reason the streets of Medellin are so tidy: street cleaners are on duty daily. Parking monitors help keep neighborhood areas free of abandoned and/or unattended vehicles.

Parque Explora, where kids can…be eaten by a T-Rex! Buen Comienza is there for ninos

So…what are the downsides to living in Medellin? Well, it is a big city, of 3 million people at last count. There’s traffic, including too many ‘motos’ to count, the motorcyclists that our taxi driver Carlos referred to as ‘hormigas’ or ‘ants,’ bikers that whip between cars, weaving like crazy people through stopped traffic and missing side mirrors by inches. Pedestrians often wander into roadways where Colombian drivers seem always to yield to them, and folks dodge other cars and trucks like an intricate ballet, often at top speed. Another challenge for expats is that Spanish is spoken in Medellin, and it is not an option. Very few Colombians we met and interacted with spoke English, so guess what? They expected us to speak espanol. It’s a novel prospect, I know, but an energizing one for us as we have every intention of learning the language. We consider it rude to expect them to speak English, and sad that we never acquired bilingual status in America! I’ll now step off my soap box, thank you.

The EPM Library in ciudad central…System map of the Metro…Mall SantaFe’

The EPM Library is a jewel of a resource in downtown Medellin on Parque de las Luces. The library is open to all, filled with books, magazines, newspapers from all over and, again, an entire section devoted to kids. From its reputation as ‘most dangerous city in the world’ in 1992, to 2014 winner of the Lee Kwan Yew award for city excellence, Medellin is a rising star in South America & elsewhere. With world-class infrastructure, a major symphony, Parque Botero, dedicated to the works of city resident and artist Fernando Botero, and the new Metrocable system built primarily to assist poorer workers of Medellin to return to their hillside homes, this city will enchant you, too. mde19

Metrocable system high above Medellin. This transport system was built to integrate all neighborhoods of the city, and to assist poorer folks returning uphill from work in the city. Most local people ride for free.

Medellin Colombia is a city that works for all. Just don’t tell anyone about it. Thanks.

World’s Best Shortcut Part 2

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USS Ancon August 14th 1914

The Panama Canal officially opened on August 15th 1914. The USS Ancon seen above was the first vessel to transit the canal, on August 14th, the day before, to test the locks’ operations. Since its opening to commercial traffic more than 100 years ago, the Panama Canal has seen the passage of nearly one million vessels, and today averages more than 14,000 ships per year, and 40 per day. Here are a few statistics:

Δ Finished by Americans in 1914 after a failed French effort begun in 1881

Δ More than 30,000 died building the canal, most from yellow fever & malaria

Δ 800,000 French investors were wiped out when their effort failed

Δ The Canal is 48 miles/80 Kilometers long & 600 feet wide at its narrowest point

Δ Alternative passage around Cape Horn: 8,000 miles/12,875 Kilometers

Δ Cost of the U.S. effort 8.6 Billion dollars

Δ Revenue to Panama one billion dollars per year*

Δ Excavated material: 15,950,900 square meters. (Most of this material went to building the Amador Causeway in Panama City)

Δ Amount of dynamite used: 60 million pounds

Δ 2016 Fee to transit: $72 per TEU. A TEU is a Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit

Δ Longest ship to transit: Marcona Prospector at 973 feet

Δ Highest fee paid: $840,000

Δ Time to transit: approximately 8 to 10 hours

Δ Ships wait on average 4 days to enter the Canal. Some request entry up to two years in advance.

*As of 2015 prior to the opening of the Super Panamax locks

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Map of The Panama Canal aboard Pacific Queen

Many people don’t realize that transiting the Canal from Pacific to Atlantic (Caribbean) side, a ship is traveling Northwest. When we moved to Panama we had a lot of getting used to the idea that it’s an East-West country, not unlike Tennessee. The chart above shows this orientation very well.

1-Locks at Miraflores; 2-A car vessel in the locks (this ship held more than 5,000 cars);3-The same vessel; 4-Miraflores Locks visitor center & museum.

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Alejandro our Captain

No vessel, regardless how small, may transit the Panama Canal without a canal captain. The fellow above was captain of the Pacific Queen. He had to board a canal captain to accompany him through the passage. The fellow (named Felix, and not shown) mostly watched Captain Alejandro during our transit. Alejo had more than 14 years at the helm, and ‘more transits than I remember,’ he said.

For an in depth understanding of the Panama Canal, its construction, political & economic impact, engineering & administrative staff and the various challenges and difficulties encountered, read David McCullough’s definitive work, The Path Between The Seas. In the book, McCullough refers to the biggest challenge facing the French, the obsession of its chief engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps to build a sea-level canal. Messieur de Lesseps was the hero of France for pushing through a sea-level canal at Suez. He saw no reason the same thing wouldn’t work in Panama, and he was not to be dissuaded. De Lesseps scorned those who insisted on a series of locks, blindly pursuing his sea-level vision. In the meantime, disease was ravaging construction crews. At one point in the late nineteenth century the French team was losing 40 men per day to yellow fever and malaria.

1-‘Mules’ guide heavier ships; 2-The Canal employs 5,000 full time; 3-In Miraflores

Ships transit the Panama Canal under their own power. The so called mules, special trains with guide cables as show above, do not tug or drag ships along. They assist the canal captain in keeping ships aligned in the canal.

More numbers:

Δ Each lockage uses 52 million gallons of fresh water, all of it from Gatun Lake

Δ Existing locks are 110 feet wide, thought to be double what might be needed when the canal was proposed. New locks on the Super Panamax side are 160 feet wide. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s existing commercial fleet can use the Super Panamax Locks.

Δ Material is still dredged daily from the canal. This material is being distributed throughout Panama City and Colon for additional earthen levies and pedestrian causeways

Part three of The World’s Best Shortcut will arrive soon. Look for yet more astonishing numbers, weird facts about the Panama Canal (including a Nazi crane, and a two hour passage by hydrofoil!) and the background of its existence and future use. Thanks for reading.

 

 

The World’s Best Shortcut Part 1

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Holland America Line’s Veendam transiting Miraflores Locks

The Veendam, one of 40 ships per day, on average, that transit the Panama Canal. Built between 1904 and 1914, the Canal was finished by the U.S. after a failed French effort. The Panama Canal has been called one of the wonders of the modern world. I call it the world’s best shortcut. This is part 1 of a series on this marvel of engineering, a vital link in the world economy, responsible for fully 5% of all goods shipped around the world, and 10% of all American shipping.

In the shot above, The Veendam is in the Miraflores Locks, the first set of gates on the Pacific side of the Canal. In Miraflores, ships are raised or lowered a total of 54 feet. From Miraflores, ships travel a short distance to the Pedro Miguel Locks which raises (or lowers) them an additional 31 feet for transit into Gatun Lake which is 85 feet above sea level. The numbers explain why the French effort failed; French engineers were determined to build a sea level canal, a simple excavation cut through the country, similar to the canal they built at Suez. The chief engineer in that effort, Ferdinand de Lesseps, dismissed the need for locks at Panama, and his determination essentially dictated the French failure in the latter days of the nineteenth century.

1- Ships awaiting transit, 2-Princess Cruises ‘Island Princess‘ 3-Under the bridge of the Americas, 4-Entering the Miraflores Locks

We followed the Island Princess for our tour of the Panama Canal. This ship is a good example of the canal’s utility and purpose. Launched in 2003, Island Princess is 965 feet long with a beam of 106 feet. Each lock chamber is 110 feet wide, so the Princess, like most ships, have been built with those dimensions in mind. As she passes through each lock, Island Princess has exactly 24 inches of clearance on either side. Until the new Super Panamax locks opened in 2016, with chambers of 161 feet wide and 1,201 feet long to accommodate so called Panamax ships, dimensions of the Panama Canal determined how wide and long a ship could be built if users wished to transit from ocean to ocean.

1-Flag of our tour boat, the Pacific Queen, from Ancon Tours in Panama City 2- Safety is paramount in Canal operation, 3-Car carrier at Miraflores, 4-Derricks offload containers for trans-isthmus shipping by rail.

As we entered Miraflores Locks, we saw a series of derricks to the east. Our operator explained that these are to offload cargo containers. If a shipper wishes to send only a few containers across the canal, they offload them here, then they’re shipped by rail to the other side by the Panama Canal Railway. It’s all about efficiency: if only a few containers must transit the canal, there’s no need to send the whole ship through. It’s about cost as well. The reason the canal exists at all is threefold. One, the cost of shipping. Modern container ships typically guzzle more than $100,000 dollars per day of fuel, not to mention crew, maintenance and insurance costs. By transiting the Panama Canal they knock off 16 days on average between oceans. Not only does this save $$$, it allows them to carry more goods instead of fuel. Number two is safety. Rounding Cape Horn is always a risky proposition, especially during the winter season when hazards include, ‘…strong winds, large waves, and icebergs drifting up from Antarctica,’ according to Globalsecurity.org. ‘Rounding the horn’ has caused the loss of many vessels and their crews, thus the Canal’s usefulness for lowered insurance costs for shipping. Number three, increased usage of vessels, since those ships can be used more often.

1-A ‘mule’ along the Miraflores Locks, 2-in the chamber, 3-the Island Princess in the east lock as we transit the west and 4-one of many tugs that assist larger ships.

Vital details of the Panama Canal: All raising and lowering is accomplished by filling and emptying the locks, in other words, by using water and the ships’ buoyancy. No electric or hydraulic power is used, except to open and close the gates. Each gate weighs 700 tons, and water pressure against them causes the lock to seal so no water is lost. No ship can transit without a pilot from the Canal Authority aboard. No exceptions are made as to size, crew, type of ship or cargo etc., every ship must carry a canal pilot. We came alongside one of the Canal boats, slowed to a crawl and allowed our pilot to board. The fellow’s name was Felix, and he accompanied our boat to the final lock at Gatun. Each lock uses 52 million gallons of water, all from Lake Gatun, and all of it fresh water for each fill. For this reason ships are carefully scheduled into the locks. For example, our tour boat shared the locks with five other vessels, to maximize the use of the lock, and to decrease time of transit for each boat. It’s not unusual for ships to wait for passage for up to ten days, though the average wait is three days. The Panama Canal Authority employs roughly 5,000 full time employees, and an additional 8,000 part timers, and it operates 24/7/365. The Canal delivers nearly 1.5 Billion dollars into the Panamanian economy yearly, partly for those employees salaries, partly to fund infrastructure and educational efforts in Panama. The cost of transit?

On the left, a car carrier. On the right, a container ship.

The car carrier above can transport as many as 5,000 vehicles. Typical cost to transit the canal for a vessel like this is upward of $500,000 dollars. The container ship on the right, seen exiting the new Super Panamax lock adjacent to Miraflores, will typically be charged more than half a million dollars as well. The fee is based on weight, length, type of cargo and equipment needed for the transit. Every Supermax ship, for example, requires a tug at both ends to navigate each lock at a cost of $3,000 per hour per tug, times the two new Supermax locks. Time from ocean to ocean is typically 12 hours. Because of the length of the vessel, Supermax ships require two canal pilots, one forward, one aft. All boats transit the canal under their own power, with tugs and mules simply keeping them centered. To date, the biggest check written to the Canal Authority which administers the Canal was $840,000 for the transit of a Super Panamax ship in 2015. The lowest charge ever for a transit was 36 cents paid by a fellow named Richard Halliburton who weighed in at 150 pounds, and swam the length of the canal in 1928.

1-A canal worker at Miraflores, 2-Each lock uses 52 million gallons per operation, 3-Tugs must be used fore and aft for the new Super Panamax ships.

More later in part 2 of our Panama Canal post. Read about the men and women who built it, operate it and rely on it every day and more amazing facts about the world’s best shortcut. Thanks for reading.