Monday, December 21, 2009

A Big Canal and a Little Village

Our arrival in Panama on December 9th seemed to designate the start of "Phase II" of this Great Adventure. We've regained our landlegs and, for the first time since leaving San Diego, stayed off boats for more than a week!

An adventure in itself was our passage through the Panama Canal on the 11th. It was a thrilling experience, and probably one of the most memorable of our entire trip -- not just in the sheer awesomeness of the processes, people, and moving parts of the Canal, but also in the opportunity to be part of a extraordinarily impressive system that has functioned continuously and flawlessly for nearly a century. In case you missed us on the live web cam, we made the eight hour transit under the adept direction of our assigned Transit Director, Robin, with Ben controlling the port bow line, Emily at the port stern line, and two hired linehandlers taking care of our starboard. The first stage of the transit, called "uplocking," involves a series of three chambers, each of which successively brings the boat to the height of the next chamber by rapidly filling with water; our job as linehandlers is to maintain tension on the lines connecting our boat to the massive concrete walls, thus keeping the boat in the center of the chamber and a safe distance from the 800 ft. cargo ship that is only about 20 ft. in front of us in each of the chambers.

After uplocking, we arrive at Gaturn Lake, 85 ft. above sea level, which takes about three hours to motor across. For the downlocking portion, which starts at the end of the lake, we were in front of a Japanese container ship -- its 40 ft.-tall bow towered over our little catamaran; its anchor dangled perilously over Emily's head. Downlocking, which also takes place in three successive chambers, is a bit less physically strenuous for us linehandlers than is uplocking, since it involves letting tension out on the four lines as the water level drops.

Back at sea level at the end of the day, the giant metal gates of the final chambers opened up before us, leading us straight onto the Caribbean Sea. From there, it was a few days cleaning Escapade at the Caribbean-side marina, a bus ride back to Panama City, and a few days exploring and eating our way through the metropolis of the capitol before escaping for the beauty of Barrigon.

This secluded mountain community is home to one of Emily´s closest friends, Kayla, who has been our hostess with the mostess for the last five days. Kayla is a Peace Corps volunteer who, during our time here, has been working with the community on edible garden plots, nutrition-related education, fuel conservation/efficient wood-burning stoves, and a variety of other endeavors too numerous to name. Kayla has integrated herself into the community in a truly admirable way, and the people of Barrigon have a mutual love and respect for her.

We have been indirect beneficiaries of this work and trust -- at just about every turn of the forested paths, we are greeted wtih a smile and "Buenos Dias." We have been readily welcomed into every family home we have visited and to every community event, including a raucous end-of-the-year school fiesta and a First Communion ceremony.

We´re having such a good time that we don´t want to leave! We´ll spend one more night in Kayla´s beautiful little house, and from there journey into the National Park that is a six hour trek up the road from Barrigon. We´ll spend Christmas in Panama City with Kayla and another dear friend, Micaela. From there... who knows?

Happy holidays! We wish everyone happiness and good health in the last days of 2009.


  1. Contrats on the canal passage. You guys really move out! We left Seattle in August of 2008 and just transited the canal ourselves on Thanksgiving! We just arrived in Cartagena this week; got your blog info from Jim Herman. Who knows, maybe we'll cross paths? We'll be here for another month at least before heading up towards Honduras.
    All the best,
    Trevor, Karisa and Kiera
    SV Lea Scotia

  2. Happy holidays guys and congrats on crossing the canal. Ben, did you get my email about the whole ´map on blog´ thing? If not let me know and i´ll re-send it. Cheers guys, Happy New Years.