Today I arrived in Panama City. I had already been impressed and seen the immediate contrast between the type and quality of the infrastructure in buildings and highways versus what you see in the other Central American countries. This was even more evident when you roll into Panama City and cross the Bridge of the Americas and get my first view of the Canal. I so wanted to stop and take a picture, but I simply took in the amazing view.
After this you just weave in and out on an amazing motorway and then, as the Waze lady tells me to take my next exit, I roll toward the center of the city where I see at least three major roadway construction projects underway. I later learned that the current president has some 18 projects running simultaneously in order to complete them before the end of his tenure next year. That is in addition to completing the new phase of the Panama Canal, but I'll fill you in on this in a bit.
After I arrived and settled in, I was off to play tourist so I walked around the center of the city for a few minutes and spotted some cool restore/maintained old government buildings.
Then I hoped in a cab and headed the Panama Miraflores Lock.
The first thing that hit me was what an amazing feat of engineering this was. More incredible still, is that if it is 2013 and I'm in amazement, what would a person being in my same spot 100 years ago thought when it was first*inaugurated. Likely the single most impressive use of human ingenuity of its time. Aside from the simple scale of the thing, what you learn as you hear the guide explain how the locks function almost entirely without power. More than one million liters of water are moved between the locks in a matter of minutes and gravity is used to achieve this. Two motors of 25 horse power each is all it takes to move those massive gates open once the water levels match.
Watching those massive boats cross is nothing short of extraordinary, and next year once the new stage of the canals open up next year will allow container ships with upwards of 12,000 containers to go through the Canal. As the lady doing the explaining mentioned to me "Do you have any idea how many flat panel TVs that is?" That kind of puts things into perspective.
I was fortunate to hit the Canal on school day, so I had a bunch of munchkins all around me for about an hour.
Fortunately, I was able to escape the heat and the nonstop chatter into the cool airconditioned of the theater to view a short film on the history of the Canal.
Just a quick history for all those not wanting to go into Wikipedia. There were actually several attempts at building the canal as far back as when the Spaniards first arrived in Panama. Probably the best effort in accomplishing this was at the end of the 19th Century when the French worked on building the canal for twenty years, but finally gave up because of the difficulty of the task of the time, not least were the climate and the constant sickness that at that time, often led to death.
In what would be a masterful*maneuver*in global politics at the time, in 1903 the US blocked Colombian troops' arrival into Panama by sea with a blockade, just as rebels were rising up in Panama to claim independence from Colombia. The US immediately recognized the independence of Panama to be followed by the signing a couple of days later of the**Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty
*giving the US control over the Panama Canal region. This *would later be reinterpreted several times over the years. It then took the US 10 years to complete the project, but this time not building a sea level route, but rather a canal that uses a system of locks to raise and lower ships across the mountainous region of the isthmus.
After playing tourist for the afternoon, my friend Lila swung by to pick me up at the locks and took me on a quick driving tour of downtown Panama City.
This is where you really can tell that "you are not in Kansas anymore Toto." Panama is definitely a step above any of the other countries in the region. I was really reminded of Miami in some ways.
I met my brother-in-law for a beer as he was in the City for training. It was a good coincidence to meet up with him and catch up a bit.
One thing that I was surprised to hear Lila mention - she and her husband have been living in Panama the last four years - is that the quality of service in Panama tends to be poor. It is the country with one of the lowest rates of unemployment and continuously needs to bring skilled labor from abroad. Because it is so easy to find a job, people don't really care to give a high quality service (obvious gross generalization here) because they can go out and in a few days, they land their next job.
I got to see this first hand as that evening when I went out with Juan Manuel, Lila and their two daughters out to dinner, it took nearly 20 minutes to get the bill. The food was excellent however.
Overall impression of Panama City - It is a major metropolis of Latinamerica, heavily influenced by the US, but with a bit of latin flare.