I woke up early on a Saturday morning to get ready for my tour through the Panama Canal. The wonderful staff at La Estancia Bed & Breakfast had arranged for a driver to take me to the pier.
On the way there, the driver and I engaged in small talk. He complimented me on my Spanish and then seized the opportunity to practice his English. This happened more often than I would have liked when I was in Panama. I was there trying to improve my Spanish but I ended up spending quite a bit of time speaking in English.
We arrived at the pier and I boarded the tour boat. I was surrounded by strangers, the boat was rocky, and the sky was overcast. I had forgotten I often get motion sickness (a close relative of sea sickness), that I was in a foreign country by myself, and that I couldn’t swim. Again I started to doubt my decision-making.
Once the tour started, however, I was instantly in awe. Imagine the only place you can travel between the great Pacific and Atlantic oceans without having to go around the entire continent of South America. Pretty cool.
We entered the canal through one of the locks–the gateway that lowers and raises the water level for ships to pass through. As the water changes from fresh water to salt water, a bunch of fish die each time this happens, and a bunch of birds are patiently waiting to have a fresh meal.
The tour operator bashed the French for their shoddy attempt at the project before the US took it over. He also told us about the numerous workers who died from malaria and yellow fever.
While on the tour, marveling at the feat of engineering I was experiencing, I met some interesting people. Everyone had their own story of why they wanted to see the canal.
I met another fellow solo traveler from Germany. He had been all over Europe, and explained how much more commonplace international travel is there than in the United States. He was fluent in English and also knew some Spanish.
Then there was the mother and daughter from the US. I believe they were from the west coast. They had been fascinated with the Canal for a while and finally decided to make the trip. They told me the daughter had an uncanny resemblance to Paris Hilton. Personally, I don’t pay enough attention to Paris Hilton to notice, so you be the judge.
As we passed under the Centennial Bridge, I decided I should get some souvenirs. I selected a few t-shirts and headed to the cashier. I overheard her talking in Spanish to the lady in line in front of me. It seemed the credit card machine wasn’t working.
It was clear she didn’t speak much English because as it was my turn, she gave me that all to familiar “uh-oh hear comes a gringo” look. Luckily, I had just learned the word in Spanish for cash so I was able to tell her, “tengo efectivo,” and she understood me. Gold star Spanish moment for me :-).
Later I had another conversation in Spanish that actually lasted more than one sentence. One of the entertainers, who was dressed in what we were told was traditional Panamanian attire, was hanging out in the back of the ship during her break. I asked her about her family and her job. She told me that she also owned a small business doing graphic design work. We had something in common!
I was able to tell her that I did also, and understood about 80% of what she said to me. She seemed to understand me as well.
…at least for the moment. I hadn’t yet made it to my next destination, where I would get the real test of my Spanish skills.
The next day I headed to the beautiful mountain town of Boquete to stay with a Panamanian family and take a week of daily Spanish classes.
More on that tomorrow…