Visiting the Panama Canal

Wow! The massive and large entrance of the Centro de Visitantes de Miraflores (Miraflores Visitors Center) blows me away (see picture 1).

Seen from far away, this grotesque building marks the importance of the Panama Canal for Panama. I have been in Panama for two days now and I have seen ships passing through the country as if they are big trucks driving slowly on a jungle road. Just like any other tourist in Panama, I visit the museum that is built around the Panama Canal locks and located close to the city: Miraflores Locks.

Picture 1: Source - Karen Smits

Picture 1: Source - Karen Smits

Long, steep stairs, or an escalator, lead towards the entrance of the building where the ticket officer charges me eight Balboa (or US dollar, these currencies are equal) for a full entrance ticket for foreigners. Upon entrance of the building a cold air gives me goose bumps while the security guard guides me through a detector and checks my purse. A guide is waiting for me, or so it seems, to explain the route in the museum. With a thick American accent she urges me to go to the observation deck immediately, because a ship is passing through the locks right now. I can see the rest of the museum, four exhibitions and a documentary, later.

Following her advice, and many other tourists, I take an elevator up to the fourth floor. When I step outside, a blanket of moist air embraces me. The temperature and humidity are high. The sun is burning on my face. The observation deck is filled with people, all leaning over the banisters to see as much as possible of the canal and the ship passing through. The view is incredible. The Panama Canal is right in front of me. I can see the Pacific entrance to the canal on my left hand side and on my right hand side, far away, I recognize the Pedro Miguel Locks. In front of me, and in between two water lanes, and odd looking, seemingly small, white building reveals that these locks were built in 1913. Constructed such a long time ago; it still appears to be in perfect state!

Through speakers I hear the voice of a guide named ‘Kennedy’, giving information about the ship that is passing through the lock gates at the moment. I notice he speaks in American English first and then pronounces the same information in Spanish. The vessel entering the locks at the moment is called Petrel Arrow Naussau and carries the flag of the Bahamas (see picture 2). The cargo ship came from the Atlantic Ocean and is passing through the canal to reach the Pacific Ocean.

Picture 2: Source - Sangrin

Picture 2: Source - Sangrin

While the boat enters the second lock gate, Kennedy explains that, with an average of 35 to 40 vessels a day, it is mostly container vessels that pass through the Panama Canal. “Apart from the administrative process beforehand, a transit through the Panama Canal takes about 8 to 10 hours,” he states. Kennedy needs to interrupt his story to announce that a documentary video will be shown in English in a few minutes, if you have a full entrance pass, you can go to the theater on the ground floor. Like most tourists on the observation deck, I decide to stay.

Quickly, Kennedy continues by informing that, with each vessel passage approximately 52 gallons (that’s about 197 liters) of fresh water goes in the ocean. This water comes from three different lakes that store Panama’s rainwater. None of the water is recycled, because during the nine months of the rainy season sufficient water remains in the lakes to operate the Canal year-round.

The vessel is connected to what Kennedy calls ‘mules’, little locomotives. “These are not here to pull the ship, just to make sure it is centered,” assures Kennedy. He also explains that each locomotive weighs about fifty tons, costs about 2 million US dollars, runs on electricity and is designed by the Mitsubishi company. Kennedy gives further detailed information, but my attention is drawn to the operation of the locks. The lock releases its water and the vessel slowly moves further down in the lock. It is a funny sight: it seems like the vessel disappears in the ground. When the boat is at the lowest level, a bell rings to signal that the lock gates will be opened. Gradually, both doors open. They look very heavy and strong, which they must be if they can hold 52 gallons of water and carry the weight of a full cargo ship. Using its own power, the vessel moves to the next lock gate, where, applying the same routine, the ship is lowered to ocean level and released to continue his journey in the Pacific Ocean.

While Petrel Arrow Nassau leaves this highly traveled waterway behind, I’m still standing on the observation deck. Amazed by all there is to see: the waters of the Panama Canal, the hundred year old locks that still function perfectly and the immense size of the vessel, I can only imagine how many people are directly connected with the operations of the Panama Canal on a daily basis. Also, it strikes me that English and Spanish are strongly interwoven in the Panama Canal. The guide spoke in English before translating his text to Spanish, Panama’s mother tongue, all signs were both in English and in Spanish and the American currency and measurement units were used to indicate an amount or size. Of course, this is a tourist location in Panama, but American heritage is highly visible. Now the water lanes are empty, I notice that construction is going on at the other side of the canal: the Panama Canal is going to be expanded! (Fieldnotes, July 2009)

This fragment, derived from my research journal, marks the beginning of the fieldwork period for my Ph.D study on cross-cultural collaboration in mega projects. A visit to the Miraflores Locks is a must-see when in Panama, and for me it was the first introduction to what was going to be my daily workplace for the year to come. Today, I use this fragment to introduce another undertaking: a series of blog about how cross-cultural collaboration came about in the Panama Canal Expansion Program. In the blog I will, similar to the passage portrayed about, use fragments from observations and quotes from interviews to portray the everyday work life of project participants.

For an entire year, from July 2009 to July 2010, I was present in the daily operations of the Panama Canal Expansion Program. This period marks the first year of collaboration in the Third Set of Locks Project, the specific part of the Expansion Program under study. I had the opportunity to gather the data for this study by observing numerous work activities, interviewing many employees and participating in a wide variety of events. The aim of the research was to understand how actors make sense of collaboration when operating in a culturally complex project organization.

In this blog I will shed light on the practices of collaboration that occur when actors with a multiplicity of cultural backgrounds, interests and experiences come together and interact. Besides that this is entertaining, I hope it inspires you to focus on intercultural collaboration at work.

Author: Karen Smits / Publisher: SCMO

Nicolas de Loisy

Advisory specialized in logistics, transportation, and supply chain management.