Visiting the Panama Canal Locks

This is really a bit of a shaggy dog story but perfectly illustrates the challenges of navigating the confusing rules and contradictory information that often surrounds tourist sites, especially when one doesn’t speak the local language.

We figured we couldn’t visit Panama without seeing its most famous site, the canal, so I researched the options. Although the official websites are not very useful, offering only the most basic info, I found online reviews that provided better. The Miraflores Locks Visitors’ Center seemed like a good choice: it was reported that you could go in and eat in their restaurant overlooking the locks. With luck, a ship would come through the locks while you were there. One review mentioned that the visitor center posts the times that ships will pass through each day, so you can plan accordingly. Great.

We plan to visit the center on a Sunday and drop by in the late morning to find out when ships will be coming through. The center is large, modern, and seemingly well-organized. Air conditioning, escalators, lovely clean restrooms (always on the hunt for those when I’m travelling!) and lots of info about pricing for the exhibits and the giant Imax theatre.

There’s a pleasant young man fronting the entrance and I ask him about the restaurant: Do we need a reservation? Can we go inside to make the reservation in person for later today? (I’m cowardly about trying to communicate on the telephone in Spanish, so I figure a face-to-face with the restaurant maitre’d is a safer bet.)

Yes, we need a reservation. No, we can’t go in to make the reservation.

Hmmm.

Next, we check the “ships transiting” board. It hasn’t been updated for two days (a concern) and it indicates that there will be no ships going through between 9 am and 4 pm. Is that info accurate for today? We have no way of knowing.

Mark, the practical one in this duo, suggests we forget making a reservation and we simply return around 4 pm to dine. It’s unlikely to be full. We’ll have to take our chances on seeing a ship transit the locks.

Skip ahead a few hours and we return just after 4 pm. Mark approaches the ticket booth and asks if we need to pay the admission fee if we just want to go to the restaurant. She says no, just go upstairs to the fourth floor.

We start making our way up various stairways and ramps until we’re stopped by a couple of uniformed security guys who want to see our tickets. We don’t have any, we explain, we’re just going to the restaurant. No, apparently we do need tickets, and the guards send us to a kiosk. But as we’re walking away, one of them says, ticket is free. Sure enough, when we explain once again that we only want to go to the restaurant, the kiosk lady gives us free admission.

Now sporting our neon green wristbands, we are finally legit and we smugly ride the elevator to the fourth floor.

By this time, it’s 4:20. We enter the restaurant, a nice one, not a cafeteria or snack bar, but a sit-down place with linen tablecloths and actual servers. We tell the server who approaches us that we’d like dinner.

So sorry, restaurant is closing in 10 minutes.

What?! How can a restaurant that serves dinner close at 4:30? Besides, I remember some online reviews mentioning that they ate dinner at sunset while viewing the locks. Sunset in Panama is always around 6 pm (it doesn’t change much, unlike in our temperate zone).

It’s a mystery.

We’re very disappointed and the server can tell. He kindly suggests we could have a cold drink (always a welcome idea in the tropics) on the balcony. I jump on this, as it will at least give us a chance to see the locks, even though there is no ship at the moment.

He seats us on a small side balcony with a narrow view. Oh well, better than nothing. We linger over our drinks as long as possible, but eventually, we pay and start to leave. Then I see that there’s a much larger balcony that actually overlooks the locks. Ah, that’s where we really wanted to be. There are people wandering around out there.

Oh, I say to the maitre’d wistfully, could we possibly just pop out to the balcony for a moment?

“Of course,” she beams.

Out on the balcony, as we gaze at our much-expanded view up and down the canal, we can now spot a tanker just coming into the locks. That settles it: we’re out there for the long haul now.

Over the next hour, we get front-row views of the entire process as the locks fill/empty and the ship is towed through. The sun sets gloriously in the background. I keep throwing furtive glances at the restaurant inside as they shut it down, thinking any moment they will come and tell us to leave. But they don’t. There are lots of other people on the balcony and they obviously have no intention of leaving until the ship is through, so I guess the staff just don’t bother trying to clear the place.

And that’s how we got a perfect view of a ship transiting the locks without paying the admission fee or buying dinner. We had just the right combination of foreign cluelessness and naïve brashness. Sometimes—if you’re lucky—that works.

The Soul of a Traveller

Mom’s motorcycle driver’s license, 1951.

My mom was an adventurer.

Growing up, I never thought of her that way. She was just my steady, reliable mother, always taking caring of me and the rest of the family. Standing over the stove, hanging laundry on the clothesline, washing floors and walls (does anyone actually do that anymore???), ironing my father’s hankies (really), pinching pennies, making sure the household ran smoothly. I’m sure she saw that as her role in life and she took it very seriously. She almost never played with us kids, even when Dad sat down with us to play a board game once in a while, she invariably steered clear. I now suspect she was happy to have an hour or two of time when we were all otherwise engaged and she could do something else. On the other hand, we never went hungry, ran out of underwear, or missed a dentist appointment. She saw to that.

In her essay “The Household Zen,” (published in High Tide in Tucson—highly recommended, by the way), Barbara Kingsolver wrote:

“A generation of…women served their nation by being the Army of Moms, and they spent their creative force like the ancient Furies, whipping up cakes and handmade Christmas gifts and afterschool snacks, for a brief time in human history raising the art of homemaking high above the realm of dirt….(T)hey left a lot of us lucky baby boomers with strong teeth and bones and a warm taste of childhood in our mouths.”

As a stay-at-home mom, she was around the house pretty well all day, every day, and between chores, she listened religiously to CKNW’s radio quiz “Are You Listening?” Her favourite topic was geography. She wrote down the answers and kept lists of them taped to the inside of her cupboards for quick access. I’m reminded of Kingsolver’s insightful observation: “If you work in the kitchen and have the mind of a rocket scientist, you’re going to organize your cupboards like Mission Control.”

But aside from being a four-star general in the Army of Moms, my mother also had a daring and intrepid side that I’ve only come to recognize as I grow older.

As a teenager and new wife in the early 1950s, she earned her motorcycle license so that she could share the driving with Dad as they roared around Germany on a shared bike. When the two of them decided there was no future in post-war Europe, she held her two tiny children (my eldest brother and sister) by the hand and watched Dad sail off to the wilds of western Canada. For six months, she held the family together while he found work and then wrote for them to join him. She packed up what she could take, gave away what she couldn’t, and hugged her mother and everyone else she knew goodbye.

On the voyage across the Atlantic, high waves made almost everyone aboard the ship seasick. Mom looked after my brother and sister and a couple of other children whose mother was incapacitated.

She spent her birthday on the ship, and the official ship’s photographer snapped pictures of her and my siblings at the party. Later, he suggested he would give her free prints as a keepsake—if she would welcome him to her cabin when no one else was around. She told him to hand over the prints or she would tell the captain what he was up to. Long before #MeToo, Mom was fighting back against sexual predators.

One of the photos taken at my mother’s birthday party on board the ship to Canada. Mom, my brother, and my sister, sitting at the table.

The ship was blown off course by a storm and instead of docking in Halifax as planned, it put in at a U.S. port. Without U.S. transit papers, the passengers were treated like illegal aliens, kept under guard without food, and finally loaded aboard a train to Canada.

My parents were ultimately reunited in Vancouver, whereupon the family was whisked away to a series of remote camps in the wilderness of British Columbia. Dad worked a variety of jobs, including as a surveyor for the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, and the money was better in places far from city life. In Porteau, the only access was by small boat and Mom would order her groceries and other necessities with a list sent with the boatman. They lived in rough shacks with no conveniences and few other families. There were bears in the backyard and “Indians” around the corner, neither of which my mother had ever seen before coming to Canada. She spoke very little English when she arrived, but made it her lifelong goal to learn the new language and use it correctly. She never spoke German to us kids; we were Canadians and would speak English.

After a few years, and now with four children, my parents moved to a nice neighbourhood in Port Moody where my mother could finally fulfill her destiny as SuperMom. She was the perfect suburban housewife—yet her taste for adventurous experiences didn’t leave her.

Our summer holidays were always spent camping. Mom could have dug in her heels and just refused all the extra work that involved, but she loved the outdoors. She braved rain, bugs, pit toilets, snakes (she was terrified of snakes), and more bears as we wandered campsites across BC. We travelled to Barkerville, Terrace, and the Pacific Rim when this entailed long journeys on pot-holed gravel tracks. Perhaps this is just my childish misremembering, but it seemed that we were always driving along some narrow logging road that hung on the edge of a precipitous cliff dropping far below to a distant river valley.

One summer, we moved to Quebec for a couple of months for Dad’s job. Once again, Mom accepted the challenge of moving us all to a completely unfamiliar place with a foreign language.

When Mom was 41, my father was offered a job overseas in—of all places—Yemen. Yemen? No one had even heard of it and we had little idea what to expect there. His contract would be for a minimum of a year. Mom could stay home, or she could once again travel across the world. She chose to give up comfort and familiarity and expose two of her children (myself and my youngest brother) to The Unknown. She also left her two older children behind in Canada, which I believe was much harder for her, although they were both independent young adults by then.

Our trip to Yemen took us through Denmark, Germany, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas (aka French Somaliland or Djibouti), and Eritrea (then part of Ethiopia). As a child of 12, I was wide-eyed at the world that unfolded before me. Yemen itself provided a huge cultural shock. Donkeys and camels pulled watercarts through the desert, hideously deformed beggar children swarmed the streets, and women were swathed in black burkhas with only their eyes and fingers showing.

We moved into a whitewashed concrete block house in a small village four hours’ drive by Landrover through sand dunes from the closest town. My mother and I were the only “white” women in the village and the only women who went unveiled. (Although only 12, I was considered of marriageable age and should have been wearing a burkha.) There were cockroaches the size of Smart Cars on the floors, geckos of corresponding size on the walls (they eat the roaches), and no potable water. One room of our house was filled floor to ceiling with cases of Sohat bottled water.

In Yemen, 1972. Back row, from left: our driver and friend, Ali, Dad, Ron. Front row: me, Mom.

Suffice to say that my mother could easily have run screaming back home to Port Moody. But she didn’t give up, even after she suffered through a bout of kidney stones and contracted malaria at the same time. This was one tough, determined woman.

Through her life, she was fascinated with the sea and ships, and while others talked about luxury cruises, she always dreamed of hopping a cargo ship. At the age of 50, when her friends were spending vacations in all-inclusive resorts, she and my dad bought backpacks and headed off to Europe.

I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of travelling in my life, but I’m not sure I have the courage and spirit of adventure my mother had when she immigrated or when she packed us off to live in the Middle East. She always said all she ever wanted to be was a mother and she continually downplayed her intelligence, pointing out that she never went to high school and referring to herself as “pea brain,” yet, somehow, she managed to be the perfect captain of our family spaceship while still boldly going where few dared to go.

I think that takes a form of genius.

Happy birthday, Mom.