06 February 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 7: In a Quiet Nightclub in the Panama Canal

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

Location: The Panama Canal
Today's Telling Detail: The lack of empty seats

Most days, the Glazer Lounge is all but empty in the mornings--but most days, we aren't going through the Panama Canal.

It's about 11:30am, and the Glazer Lounge is packed with more people than I've seen since karaoke night. This time, though, there is no off-key warbling of "Don't Stop Believin'" and there are no parents covering their kids' ears and eyes as college students do a grinding, grinning version of "The Thong Song." The room is library-quiet. Above the empty dance floor, a now-stationary disco ball provides the room's only slight twinkle of liveliness. Nearly every one of the red C-shaped cocktail-lounge chairs is occupied; the frosted-glass-topped tables are spread with books and maps and paper cups of coffee taken from the dining room early this morning and long-since drained. But to get up to throw it away would be to risk losing your front-row seat for ... 

... For what? We're anchored, waiting for our turn to proceed to the next lock. The landscape isn't changing and, anyway, a drenching rain limits the view, even if it does lend the nearby islands an ethereal quality--tiny, misty, jungly Lost Worlds in miniature.

Of course, that's not the point. We're in the Panama Canal. It wouldn't matter if visibility were all of two inches. We might not that be all that impressed if the Loch Ness Monster suddenly poked its head out of the water in front of us, followed by a flotilla of unicorns ridden by Elvis. Because, honestly, there's basically nothing that can top the very existence of the Panama Canal and our current presence inside it. 

The Panama Canal. The very thought of it is unreal. In size (the thing cuts across an entire continent), in water usage, in history, in sheer ambition ... it's unreal. Even the seemingly minor details defy belief, like the fact that when you transit from the Caribbean to the Pacific you are, in fact, moving east. That can't be right. And those other ships passing by, the Panamax behemoths built specifically for this transit, their dimensions immense but calibrated down to the inch, to take up the absolute maximum amount of space in the canal locks. They shouldn't fit in that space. And those colorful cargo containers stacked high on the decks, a Brobdingnagian Jenga game designed by Mondrian. That's some CGI stuff, not reality.

When you're in the Panama Canal, there's really not much to see, which is perhaps the neatest trick of all. It's all so low-key. You'd think there would be fireworks, a laser show in the mist, a deep-voiced announcer proclaiming each ship's entry into the locks, followed by the chorus of "We Are the Champions." At least a neon billboard on the shore. That's how they'd probably do it back in the States, if we were building it now. 

I like it better this way, the unreal, ambitious project manifest in a way that makes your forget how unreal and ambitious it really is. We see only water, mist, trees, some other ships--the same sort of things we've seen basically every other day on this voyage. None of that has brought so many people to the Glazer Lounge before. 

But we need to be here, just like we needed to be out on the deck, stomping through puddles, at 6am, as the ship approached the Gatun Locks, the canal's entry point. We need to be here not for the things we can see in a glance but for what this whole experience represents--in a large sense, we're here simply to know that we were here. In the Panama Canal. Verifying with our own eyes, that, well, yes. This thing. It's real. All those stories, all that ambition, all that history, all that turmoil ... all that stuff. It's crazy. And it really happened. And now, even in our own small way, reading a book in a hushed cocktail lounge, we're a part of it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

You know the drill: keep it civil and on-topic, don't spam, don't run with scissors, floss. For posts older than three weeks, comments will be moderated before publication.