A 5th Grade Dream Fulfilled

The Panama Canal has been a fascination of mine since I first watched that old black and white movie about it when I was in elementary school. My brain places me in Mrs. Papapietro’s fifth grade classroom overlooking the basketball courts at Washington Elementary, but it could have been a year before or a year after that. All I know is that I could have watched that scratchy movie over and over. The grainy fast-forward-y footage of men running around, rail lines chugging through the long hole, and rock spewing up in huge explosions was fascinating. The fact that these people were cutting a path from one ocean to another was unbelievable to me, but also not-so-far-fetched, as I was born into a world where men had walked on the moon. Incredible, and yet still totally credible to my young mind. (Also, there was a bit of heart-warming patriotism knowing that the French couldn’t finish the job and the United States swooped in to save the day. At least that’s the way the story went. Granted, that’s an extremely simplistic view of the entire undertaking, but for a 5th grader, it was all “rah-rah America!” All I needed was a flag and a slice of apple pie and I could have rivaled Uncle Sam for patriotic supremacy, at least in the world of Caldwell elementary schools.)

Without giving away exactly how many years it has been since I was that scrawny fifth grader dreaming of world travel, let’s just say that three-ish decades later I finally stood above that famed canal and watched ships make their way from the Pacific to the Atlantic. (Now that I think about it, it was totally 5th grade because that was also the year we had to memorize the oceans and the continents and take the test on them and I was terrified I wasn’t going to pass, which meant having to go in at lunch to retake until you did pass, a situation that caused my gold-star-obsessed self some major anxiety).

Amazing.

Who knew that container ships could provide hours of entertainment?

Miraflores Locks is where the visitor center is and where most tourists go to see the transit happen. For your entrance fee, you get a fifteen-minute video of mostly canal propaganda, which we don’t need because at that point, we’ve already paid our money at the window! I doubt there are canal-refunds.  The movie felt more like an advertisement for the visitor’s center than information about the canal. Good thing I took 5th grade history! You also get access to the four-floor museum. Unfortunately, when we were there, the first floor of the museum was closed for renovations and even more UNFORTUNATE was that the place was filled to the brim with screaming school children.

Now, don’t get me wrong. My background is in education and I am all for kids getting out of the classroom for learning experiences (heck, I was desperate for that exact fieldtrip when I was in the 5th grade!), but OMG. This was utter chaos. I am pretty sure the adult-to-child ratio was 1-9074 and the one adult in each group pretty much just hung out with their own child. On top of that, not a single uniform-clad student seemed to have any type of learning task to complete. As far as I could tell, the objective for the day was to run screaming through the museum, jamming the elevator (seriously, the firefighters had to come rescue a group of them), and ignoring anything that looked slightly instructional. Mission accomplished.

Oddly, there were no ships in the morning. (Apparently, we were supposed to check the schedule before coming to visit. We did not.) But, our tickets were good for the whole day, so we went out to see more of Panama City (possible blog post coming) and then came back in the late afternoon to watch the evening transits. (Who knew the Panama Canal was a one-way street?) When we came back, the school kids were gone for the day, hopefully out terrorizing their neighborhoods instead. We were able to stake out places at the 3rd floor restaurant and enjoy an icy cold beverage as the ships made their way from one massive ocean to another.

It was fascinating to hear how much the ships pay to go through (up to one million dollars, all of which much hit the Panamanian bank account before they are scheduled a time to transit) and to watch the enormous cargo containers stacked one upon another. Honestly, the only thing I could think of as those rolled through was how many of them contained State Department HHE shipments. (Not ours this time, since it went Miami to Caracas, but maybe past ones floated though. Such a cool thought!)

So the big question of the outing is, “Was the Panama Canal everything my 5th grade self hoped for?” I think it is a resounding “YES,” but with a caveat or two. First, I need fewer screaming youngsters next time. Second, I’d love more history/better video. I suppose I should just go to YouTube and find a documentary or two to watch, and I will definitely do that before our next trip to the canal. (I see one, if not more, adventures to Panama, as it would make a great place to meet up with friends/family who don’t want to do the Caracas-thing.)

A man, a plan, a canal- Panama. The palindrome drew me in as a kid as continues to beckon to me as an adult. I’m not done with you just yet, Panama!

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