Oh, was I wrong about the Panama Canal!
I knew that it was an engineering marvel, a massive triumph of man over mountain, of man over jungle, of man over mud slide and disease.
I expected grinding clanks from locks and trains, and shouts from ship to shore. I expected something between the thrill of riding a noisy freight elevator and the sensation of crossing an English fence stile between rolling estates: up three steps, straight ahead, then down once more. I expected that I might be lulled by the monotony of transiting a 50-mile trough between Atlantic and Pacific.
Oh, was I wrong!
I had stirred at 5:30 a.m. with our ship barely moving. I sensed an excitement I did not comprehend, a collective holding of breath from a crowd I could not see.
Stage Set for Drama
I pulled on an oversize T-shirt and stepped barefoot onto the balcony of my cabin near the Royal Princess' bow. Fat gray clouds slithered across the horizon like snails on parade. The sea was dark. Slits of lights began to rip at random through the tropical sky. By 6:30 there was a smear of sun.
The stage seemed set for drama, but I did not know the script. I rang for coffee, peeled an orange and settled on a chaise to watch.
Beyond the rocky spine of the Cristobal breakwater, beyond the placid waters of Limon Bay, were the first pair of locks, those 50-foot-high gates to the path between the seas. A hush engulfed the world as we approached.
The locks swung open in majestic silence. The electric locomotives, to which the ship was attached by cables, eased up and down their tracks like roller coaster cars without the squeal.
Then came the feeling of time warp, the sense of being transported gently back to the turn of the century. A white stucco building with a red tin roof says Gatun Locks, 1913. Little has changed.
As it was in the beginning, two men in a rowboat paddle out with lines to our ship. Field hands, wearing knotted pastel kerchiefs to protect their heads from the sun, hack at the jungle with machetes. And the jaws of dredges still chomp at rocks near that most treacherous stretch of excavation, the slide-prone Culebra Cut, now known as Gaillard.
But what looms above all is the serenity of Gatun Lake, a body of clear green water, 85 feet above sea level, that is tufted with emerald isles. Some are so small they hold only a bouquet of palms; others are broad enough for plantation houses with long verandas swagged in bougainvillea.
Gatun Lake Area
Gatun Lake, with its 1,100-mile shoreline, covers an area the size of Barbados. Its islands were mountaintops before the ridge was flooded as a reservoir for the canal. Along the banks are mangrove trees flocked in white, the shimmering white of egrets who rise like clouds to decorate other trees.
For much of its length the canal is neither straight nor narrow. It wends among islands and bends around sheer cuts of shale that jut like Gibraltar. Occasionally a familiar ship glides by in the opposite direction: the Royal Viking Sky at 11:02 and, not long after, the Fairwind. Passengers wave and salute, aware of the shared adventure.
We are close to the Equator; it is 82 degrees. Around a turn is a waterfall on the port side, a cascade that tumbles into a pool that could be a menehune hangout in Hawaii.
Two golden butterflies settle on my balcony railing; another flutters to the arm of my chair. A rainbow arches above purple peaks. I feel drenched by calm.
My mind is cleared of cobwebs. It is filled with butterflies.