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Cruising the Canal

Antoinette Connell

Cruising the Canal

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As we sailed the Panama Canal, our euphoria gave way to a moment of sombreness.

We had reached the point on the waterway where hundreds, including Barbadians, lost their lives as they set about cutting a path through mountainous terrain to connect the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. The chiseled slopes of the mountainside masked the horror of the collapse during construction that ensured that some migrant workers never returned home.

The travelling group, Combermere Foreign Language Club, attracted 78 people, including students and adults, for the trip to participate in the centennial celebrations of the Panama Canal. The day before the actual anniversary of August 15, we took a ride on the Canal. On this cruise we were joined by another Barbadian group, the Barbados Museum and Historical Society and by chance the Fray family out of Jamaica were on board for a reunion.

Surprise, surprise, among the Fray family were descendants of Barbadians and the tension that usually exists between the two rival countries disappeared as a loud roar went up outside the gigantic Miraflores Locks with hydraulic majestic gates 47 to 82 feet high and about seven feet thick.

Our boat steadily rose 85 feet as 26 700 000 US gallons (101 000 m3) of water poured into the chamber bringing it level with the other side of the gate and in a complicated feat of physics that avoids catastrophe, the locks opened and we smoothly crossed that chamber. By now our excited, loud buzzing culminated in a boisterous rendition of the National Anthem and a frenzied waving of the Broken Trident.

We were completing an experience that 13 056 ships from 70 countries do annually at an average cost of $100 000, a fraction of what it would take on the longer route. The cruise ship Westerland of the Sea transited the Canal for a record $419 000 while in 1926 Richard Halliburton who swam the Canal was charged a record low 36 cents.

The expansion of the Canal is taking place in order to accommodate vessels much larger than the maximum size Panamax which now squeeze through it with the guided help of mechanical mules.

The trip on the canal was one of the highlights of our visit but we were filled with similar pride when Professor Velma Newton was saluted by the Society of Friends of the West Indian Museum of Panama, with a particular interest in the Afro-Caribbean social and cultural contribution to Panama.

The Barbadian scholar was among five people honoured in Panama and scores of Barbadians witnessed the country and the world acknowledge the commercial and cultural contribution of the waterway that links the vast oceans. At the dinner and gala organised by the society, Newton was singled out for her research that focused on West Indian migration to Panama and backed by authentic documentation in her 1984 book The Silver Men which has been translated into Spanish.

As part of the society’s activities we joined in an ecumenical thanksgiving service at the Gimnasio del Instituto Episcopal San Cristobal and an earlier PanaBajan reunion at the Torres del Alba hotel. Melva Lowe de Goodin, of Barbadian and Jamaican descent, spoke about discrimination of blacks and lamented the initial lack of information regarding West Indians involvement in the Canal. She recommended Newton’s text which she was motivated to have published in Spanish as part of the historical documentation of the Canal.

Guest speaker at the reunion, Enrique Williams, also of Bajan descent, said that the suffering and contribution of the Afro-West Indians had become invisible and the information contained in Lowe’s books allowed us to deal with the ignorance of the past.

Another highlight of the tour was the visit to the Gamboa Rainforest where we stopped at the Chargres River to witness the daily life of the indigenous Embera people who have adjusted their living to accommodate the intrusive flood of tourists. On our arrival we were greeted with music from instruments fashioned from the materials in the village in much the same way they created their own jewellery.

A 12-year-old boy is the presenter for the day since the older members of the tribe, not in favour of change, have retreated further inward leaving the younger generation to adapt to modern life. They are dressed in traditional wear modified since tourists took to the unpleasant habit of slapping the bare behinds of the young men in loin cloths and the men to gawking at the exposed breasts of the women who now wear beaded tops; they do not usually wear shoes, only when they make the trip into the mainland for school.

On this day they share pounded fried plantain and tilapia in a calabash with their guests and encouraged us to join in a dance ring under the thatched roof of a hut with a mud floor. From eight to 12, the young men go into the field, do sculpting or make clothes or jewellery. There’s no electricity and their habitat forms part of the national park so they must get permission from authorities for building.

We sailed the river where we got a close-up view of a crocodile lazing around on the bank and fell victim to a cheeky monkey who left the trees to board our vessel in search of treats.

Our stop at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort was a walk-through of nurseries and controlled environments for the breeding and nurturing of crocodiles, snakes, fish and on the softer side, butterflies and flowers. Our experience with the fascinating wildlife was further enhanced when we were given the chance to handle snakes and watch the crocodiles at home in an enclosed pen, a preserve of the really brave.

The souvenirs we purchased can in no way compare with the experience of visiting one of the wonders of the world.