Tracking a Ghost from Coast to Coast
- Submitted by: C. W. Lee
- Submission Date: 10th Feb 2005
I use the term tracking here with two meanings. First, I refer to the practice of hunters everywhere seeking their quarry through the countryside, and in some cases through urban areas, by following its scat and spoor, noting subtle indications of passage and pause, until either the pursued is found, or given up for lost. The second usage is peculiar to my specific quarry, a railroad; railroads consist, most basically, of tracks (rails attached to ties.) During the month of May, 1999, I went in search of a ghost - a ghost of a railroad. My search started with wetting my boots in the Pacific Ocean, and then pursuing my quarry until I was able to walk a few steps into the Atlantic Ocean. Although I generally travel alone, on this tracking expedition I was accompanied by a friend (Ted) for most of the time. We are members of the same social club, enjoy hiking and railroads, and have traveled together before. Most of what I report here was done by both of us, but for ease of communication I usually write in the first person singular.
May 10, 1869 is the date that the first 'Rail Road from the Atlantic to the Pacific' was completed, according to most American historians, although they are incorrect. That date marked the celebration, at Promontory Point, Utah, of the joining of the rails of the Union Pacific, building from the east, and the Central Pacific, building from the west. I think every American has seen the photograph or representation of the two locomotives nose to nose, with the dignitaries in the middle driving the golden spike. Historians also refer to that line as the first trans-continental railroad, and I can agree with that phrasing, for reasons that will be clear shortly.
On January 27, 1855, the last rail was laid, and the actual first railroad from the Atlantic to the Pacific was completed across the isthmus of Panama, after five years of construction. Although some writers have also called it a trans-continental railroad, I believe it is stretching the meaning of the term continent to apply it to that narrowest bit of land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The railroad was built to the unusual track gauge of five feet, which is 3.5' wider than the standard gauge used in the U.S. today. At the time of construction there were many different gauges in common use, and it would be many years before there was standardization at the 4' 8.5' gauge. The motivation behind construction of this railroad was to provide a shorter route to the California gold fields than was available by ship around the southern end of South America, and an easier route than overland across the prairies and mountains of the U.S.
In 1868 Mark Twain said this about his trip on the railroad1:
We took the train at Panama, clattered for two or three hours through a tangled wilderness of tropical vegetation, and discharged ourselves in Aspinwall. It is only forty-five miles. Going and coming, that little road has carried about 100,000 passengers for the California steamers during the past twelve months -- and charged every soul of them twenty-five dollars fare. About 70,000 of them paid twenty-five dollars apiece in gold; the thirty thousand paid twenty-five apiece, also, but whether it was in gold or greenbacks, I cannot say. One could travel by rail from New York to Chicago -- about 1,100 miles, I think it is -- for less money, when I went over the route last. ... It was a hard road to build. The tropical fevers slaughtered the laborers by wholesale. It is a popular saying, that every railroad tie from Panama to Aspinwall rests upon a corpse. It ought to be a substantial road, being so well provided with sleepers -- eternal ones and otherwise. It is claimed that this small railroad enterprise cost the lives of 10,000 men. It is possible.
The railroad was immediately profitable, although 60 years later the opening of the canal started the slow financial decline of the railroad. The irony of that decline is that the canal was made possible by, among other things, the presence of the railroad and its ability to haul literally hundreds of trains a day loaded with excavated dirt away from the canal excavation site and to dump that dirt in other places where fill was needed for dams and other construction. The large lake that the canal created required that the railroad relocate most of its mainline, and that new alignment remained in use until about 20 years ago, when railroad ownership passed to the government of Panama, and the line has not been operational for its full length since then. This dead railroad is the ghost I set out to track, from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
I experienced a strange and uplifting thrill upon arrival in the evening at the Panama airport. I cleared customs and immigration, pushed my way through the army of taxi drivers trying to capture me as their fare, and walked out into the dark tropical night. The parking lot was deserted, the air was hot and heavy with moisture, and strange whistles and cries came from the trees as I left the area and walked toward the distant bus stop. I was in a strange country where, for all immediate purposes, I knew no one and didn't speak the local language very well. I knew vaguely of a bus line that ran near the airport into the town 20 miles away. I felt strong and excited by the prospect of a new adventure, new scents, new sounds, new risks, and new opportunities to explore. Although I was not hitch-hiking, I was quickly offered a ride into town by a native before I reached the bus stop.
Panama is shaped like a letter S laid on its side, with the long east/west axis (about 400 miles long) running the length of the S, and the north/south axis (50-100 miles wide) crossing the narrow side. The canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but because of the shape of the country and the location of the ends of the canal, traffic runs basically north and south. Actually, traveling from the Pacific, one goes northwest, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. The country has no significant natural resources, and only a modest amount of agriculture. The economy is largely dependent on the canal, and its associated services. The two major population centers are Balboa (including Panama City and several other adjacent urban areas) on the Pacific and Colon (including Christobal and suburbs) on the Atlantic. There is a large international banking community in Balboa that serves many Latin-American countries whose citizens want a stable currency and location for their wealth and investments. Colon is a shipping and trading center for goods headed to South America from other parts of the world. Although Panama's monetary unit is the Balboa, there is no paper currency, only coins. American dollars are used everywhere, and the Panamanian coins are the same size and denomination as American coins, and the coins are interchangeable. The only international airport is 20 miles from Balboa, and there is no significant passenger traffic by ship to or from Panama. In Balboa Internet access was readily available near my hotel, so I was able to remain in regular contact with my family and close friends. Both within the two major cities, and especially in the rural areas there is much poverty and uncompleted construction.
Although the railroad is not operating any longer (the rails have even been removed from the one tunnel on the line), there is a small amount of activity along the right of way. For most of the length of the railroad the national power grid transmission lines use the same route, with poles on both sides of the tracks every few hundred feet. These 12 lines carry electricity from one side of the country to the other side, and supply power to operate the canal locks. Since the power line maintenance crews must have access to the lines for repair purposes, the grass is regularly trimmed so that it is between one and three feet above the rails, thus allowing four-wheel-drive vehicles access as required. On the more remote parts of the line, the crews that cut this grass travel by railroad speeder (a small motorized vehicle used to haul a few workers along the tracks), and I observed one such crew (which was very surprised to see me 10 miles from the nearest road or building) on my tracking expedition.
I tracked this ghost of a railroad by hiking along the right-of-way from the Pacific Ocean (Balboa) to the Atlantic (Colon.) I did this over five days, including pauses to photograph discarded or out of service locomotives, rolling stock, and various buildings and facilities. The first 5 miles or so are urban in nature, and the next 15 miles are through light jungle, with a paved road within a mile or less of the track. These first 20 miles were covered in two days with only a light daypack, returning to my hotel by bus or car in the evening. During those two days I also reviewed some government documents about the railroad, spent a few hours visiting one of the three sets of locks on the canal, inspecting one of the two roundhouses, photographing some old railroad equipment on display next to one of the former railroad stations which is now a McDonald's outlet, and, perhaps most surprising, cooling my heels in a Panamanian prison for a couple of hours. The railroad line emerged from five miles of jungle immediately adjacent to the prison, and I was taken into custody at gunpoint as an intruder into a security area. I was questioned and searched for an hour or so. The prison guards and officials spoke only Spanish to me; I made a tactical decision not to understand them, and to speak only English. The result was that a bilingual prisoner, a trusty, was used as an interpreter. He was an American citizen, from Michigan, with only a few weeks left to serve on a three-year sentence. After the search and questioning I was then detained another hour until a decision was made to transport me by police car to the main police station in the city of Balboa for further processing. During this time I enjoyed talking to the trusty, and learned a good bit about his personal life, including his family back in the USA. It did not seem tactful to inquire about his crime, so that remains a mystery. After I was taken to the National Police Headquarters in Balboa for further questioning and processing, I was released. I then returned by hired car back fairly close to the prison, and continued my hike along the tracks the rest of the day.
(Additional commentary about the prison experience, added after many requests for amplification: When I first emerged from the jungle and saw the building complex and the exercise yard I thought I was seeing a school and playground. Then I saw the barbed wire on the top of the double fences, and realized it was not a school. The track ran parallel to the canal, about 100 feet to the left, and to one side of the prison, about 40 feet to the right. As soon as I realized I was the target of attention from the guards, and heard the shouting, I shifted my attention to the canal, and continued walking. By the time I was at the half way point there were whistles and more shouts, and then I noticed a guard in a tower ahead of me. Although I continued to stare at the canal, out of the side of my eye I saw that he was waving to me. So, I glanced forward, made a big scene of seeing him and waving grandly back to him, and then turned my gaze back to the canal and continued walking. The guard disappeared from the tower.
He emerged a minute or so later with his gun stuck out in front, pointed at me. He held his carbine with one hand, and put up his palm on his other hand, signaling me to stop. I did stop, I pointed farther down the tracks, in the direction I was going, and said, in English, that I just wanted to continue down the track, and started to walk again. He took a step toward me, and raised his gun, so I stopped again. He then signaled for me to walk toward the fence. As I looked that way I saw another guard coming behind me, with a carbine also, and then another one with a pistol.
Until this point I had thought I was going to be able to bluff my way on, past the prison, perhaps after a pause or two. When the guard raised his gun I knew I'd have to spend some more time there. I was sure it would only take about 15 minutes to get a scolding for coming too close to the prison. I still viewed this as a brief pause in the afternoon portion of my hike along the tracks. No anxiety, but some curiosity about what they were going to do.
After going through two or three locked gates I was taken into a room about 20 feet by 15 feet, apparently a holding area. Two or three uniformed men tried to question me in Spanish, without success. I do speak a bit of Spanish, and understand it as well, but I chose not to reveal that fact. It was fun to see their consternation as I continued to repeat 'I don't understand you' every time I was spoken to. (I suspect that they did speak and understand some English, but I don't know for sure.) One of them finally said 'papers' and I produced my Panamanian visa, as well as my passport. Then the prisoner/translator was sent for, and I had to wait a few minutes. We just stood there as I admired the lack of furniture in the room, the absent paintings on the walls, and the military aura of the place. When the prisoner/translator arrived he made a great effort to reassure me that I had nothing to worry about ... I think he may have been more worried than I was, since I wasn't worried at all, and he seemed somewhat upset by this matter. By then it had become a new adventure. I was left to myself for a while during which the prisoner and the guards talked in Spanish. Then the prisoner told me I had to wait around for a while so that they could decide what had to be done. I was told I could stay in that room, or go out on the porch/balcony that overlooked the grounds. I went out on the enclosed porch, took out my camera, and then turned and asked the departing prisoner [it was only much later that I learned he was a trusty; I had assumed he was an official there] if it was OK to take pictures. That created a near panic there, and I was told that under no circumstances could I take pictures. So, I put my camera away.
After 20-30 minutes I was called in again and told to empty my daypack on the floor so they could inspect what I was carrying. As I started to unpack my daypack I was asked if I was armed. I said I had a small knife. Everyone jumped back, and one guard put his hand on his pistol holster. I was asked to give them the knife. I removed it from my leg pocket, and handed it to them. [It was later returned to me, with my passport and visa, when the central police office in Balboa released me.]
The only questionable item was a thermal blanket I had in my emergency supplies kit. It is shinny, and sealed in clear plastic, and it was suggested to me later that sometimes illegal drugs are packaged in a similar way, as are some explosives. The guards were afraid to touch it at first, but I picked it up, shoved it to them, and finally they held it, squeezed it, and gave it back. The vocabulary of the prisoner/translator did not include suitable Spanish words for thermal blanket, and he had a hard time explaining to them what it was.
My perspective had become one of 'let's live this to the fullest' so I began to ask questions of the translator, to walk over and look through windows, to smile at people walking through, etc. It was sort of like being invited to sit in the cockpit of an airplane, or ride on a fire engine, or visit a brewery -- something that was new and interesting, not threatening or scary, but certainly new and strange.
Eventually, one of the guards offered me a cup of coffee. I thanked him and declined; then I removed a soda from my daypack and drank it. I wasn't sure if he was just being friendly, or if there was more to it, but I chose not to accept the coffee, although I was as gracious as I could be as I declined it.
The only anxiety I had was that my hiking buddy Ted, who had taken the road instead of the track, was ahead of me in town, expecting me to enter the town and join up with him. He and I had spent half a day in Nova Scotia having missed each other, and there he had started down the tracks looking for me. I was afraid that he would walk down the tracks from the opposite direction and be taken into custody also.
I asked to speak to the 'captain' as the senior guy on duty was called, and then through the translator explained my concerns. The captain clearly didn't care whether he had two gringo prisoners or just one. Later, however, after a couple more efforts to secure his cooperation, he agreed that the police car that would take me to Balboa would first drive through town with me, and if we saw Ted right away we could pick him up. Fortunately, I spotted Ted immediately when we got into this tiny town, and he got to ride back with me. When the policeman went to get him he first asked Ted if he had a knife, and Ted surrendered his knife to him. I had shouted to Ted through the open window that I had found us a ride back to Balboa. Since this was an unmarked police car, he didn't quite know what was going on. When he got in I told him I'd been in prison for a couple of hours, and I'd explain the rest later. I found out later he thought I was joking, until the police car pulled into the central police compound in Balboa.
The guards were very professional in style. I was never touched or shouted at. They were professionally sloppy in that although they checked everything in my daypack, and made sure it was empty, they failed to search my pockets or even pat me down for weapons.)
The next two days were spent covering the next 25 miles, and was very difficult. The grass was higher than in the previous jungle areas, and much harder to penetrate. I had a full backpack weighing perhaps 25 pounds, there was no shade, and the temperatures were in the 90s and humidity approached 100% when it wasn't actually raining. I had a water filtration kit with me, and had expected to use it on running water along the way; unfortunately, I found only stagnant water, and choose to rely on the fluids I was carrying. That meant I had to ration myself carefully, and monitor closely how my body was handling the heat and physical stress.
I had conditioned myself for several months before this trip, walking up to 10 miles a day, and for the weeks immediately before I left also carrying a 25-pound backpack. In general my body held up very well, considering the heat and humidity. Pushing myself through the tall grass along the railroad right of way was very tiring from time to time, and there was no shade. The vegetation on each side of the tracks was dense, and impossible to enter without first cutting a path. In some places it was swampy, with reeds and other water plants covering the water. I acquired a few bruises from falls, a lot of blisters on my feet, and many insect bites. It took several days to rid myself the ticks that attached themselves to me in the jungle. Unlike Papua New Guinea (PNG), I never woke up with leeches attached to my body. I had a small supply of emergency medical supplies with me, but did not have occasion to use it. Dehydration was my greatest risk, and I should have been better prepared for it.
There was a great abundance of colorful butterflies, and many birds I did not recognize. I believe I heard monkeys screaming in the distance but I never saw one. I did see what I first thought was an anteater, but I now think it was what in Panama is called a 'gato solo', a mammal not of the cat family but more like a badger or weasel. I was standing perhaps 6 feet away from the track, silently watching the trees while I rested with my head turned away from the sun, when I saw this creature loping down the track, much as a coyote runs. As it drew abreast of me I made some slight clicking sounds to see if it would stop and look at me, and at the same time was fumbling with my camera, but although it did stop and sniff the air a couple of times, I did not get a good picture of it. At another place along the track I was startled by a snake jumping up out of the grass and twisting in the air near me. It was about 6 feet long, 3-4 inches in diameter at the fullest, and was black with egg-sized white ovals along its body. I have not been able to identify it, but locals there assured me that my description did not fit any of the poisonous snakes found in Panama, but that it may have been a boa constrictor. At night one can hear strange sounds in the Panamanian jungle, and wonder whether they are birds, frogs, insects, or something else; the night is not still and quiet in the remote parts of the jungle where I was. At one point during the night a bird or bat or something hit the side of my tent, fluttered around briefly, and was gone.
I had a very unusual experience one evening. Exhausted, I set up my tent before 6 p.m. when it gets dark, and crawled inside to rest a bit before eating. I quickly fell asleep, and then, after a few minutes, heard the very distinctive notes of my travel alarm -- a repeated 'da-da-da-DEE, da-da-da-DEE.' Slowly I reacted, wondering as I awoke where I was since I don't use that alarm at home. My mind said I was traveling somewhere, since it was my travel alarm I was hearing, and then another part of my mind became awake and reported that I was hiking in the Panamanian jungle and had left the alarm clock in my hotel. A third part of my brain spoke up then and said I must have been dreaming that I heard the alarm. Then, again, I heard the 'da-da-da-DEE, da-da-da-DEE' repeating. The part of my mind in control at that point suggested that I was hallucinating, because the sound was very loud and near, yet the alarm clock was 30 miles away in a hotel. Then, as I became fully awake, I realized that there was a bird nearby whose call was the same as my alarm clock's chime. As I continued to listen to that bird I was very glad I didn't have to get up, since I was still very tired, and then I drifted back to sleep.
Looking out my tent screen later that evening I had a deja vu experience from my days in the jungles of PNG. There, one night resting in a cave, I saw what appeared to be an airplane light far off on the horizon, and then another light far away which appeared to be on a collision course with the first airplane. I observed this again through the open flap of my tent that night, and both in Panama and PNG it was at least 30 seconds before I realized I was seeing fire flies about 15 feet away, not airplanes 15 miles away. Still later that evening I shined my flashlight out the flap briefly, and was immediately rewarded with another swarm of fire flies, coming to greet me.
I slept in my tent at night, along side the track. To avoid mosquitoes and other insects, I ate inside my tent, and remained there from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and then resumed my hike. At the end of the second day I emerged, very tired and somewhat dehydrated, a few miles from the end of the line at Colon. I left the track and started walking on a road, and was able to hitch-hike into town. I immediately went to a store and purchased two pints of Gatorade and drank them, then had dinner with two bottles of beer, checked into a hotel, and rested.
The next day I covered the final 5 miles or so, visited another set of canal locks, viewed the second roundhouse, and took a bus back to my hotel in Balboa. At the start of this 50-miles-in-five-days hike, I had walked down to the edge of the Pacific Ocean at Balboa and wetted my boots; in Colon I wetted them again, this time in the Atlantic; thus, coast to coast, I had tracked this railroad ghost.
There is a reasonable chance that this railroad will come back to life, although this time using the American standard gauge of 4' 8.5'. An American railroad (Kansas City Southern) and other investors have obtained the rights to operate the railroad again, and if the money can be raised and other obstacles overcome, the line may again be busy with trains. This has been discussed for several years, and while there is enthusiasm for the project, the money to fund it has not yet made an appearance. As proposed, ships would unload containers at Balboa and Colon, where they would be put aboard train cars for a 2-hour trip to the other port for loading on board another ship. Currently it takes 12 hours or so for a ship to go through the canal, and sometimes there is a several-day wait before the trip can start because of heavy traffic. Whether this proposal to transfer cargo from ship to train to ship is economical, and whether the money can be found to rebuild the railroad, are very uncertain matters.
Security is a concern in most third world countries, and Panama is no exception. Grocery stores, drug stores, hotels, restaurants, and most businesses have armed private security guards present. Many larger intersections have heavily armed military teams on duty. The Panamanian version of the light bulb joke is that it takes three Panamanians to change a light bulb: one to read the manual, one to turn the bulb, and one to provide security. I generally felt reasonably safe walking around during the day near my hotel, but there are areas of the city everyone warned me about. The security situation became very personal one day when Ted and I were walking back to our hotel, which was about a mile away. It was during the afternoon rush hour, and a gang of four teenagers targeted us. They came single file down the sidewalk toward us, and as they passed I turned with my arms out and ready to resist if necessary. Then I made the mistake of continuing to walk a few feet until I heard Ted call out, and turned to see him and the largest of the youths on the ground. I let out a shout, reached for my knife, and ran toward them, which scared the three youngest away. The one who had hold of Ted jumped up and threatened me with a board he had been carrying, but when he realized his companions had fled, he backed off. Ted got up and we ran into the stopped rush hour traffic and started seeking a car to enter. At that point the youths had regrouped and were chasing us. Then the driver of an open car fired a couple of shots, and that sent the gang in the direction away from us. It wasn't clear whether he had fired at them, or into the air, since his gun was aimed up when I saw him. I gave him a thumbs up just as another motorist took us into his car and then drove us to our hotel. I was not hurt, but Ted had a couple of scratches from the scuffling and rolling on the street. Thereafter I usually carried my knife in my hand instead of my pocket when we were walking in risky areas.
(Additional commentary about the street fight, added after many requests for amplification: On overseas trips I carry a small pocket knife, with a locking blade, in a slender pocket on my right upper leg. As I ran toward the guy I was reaching for it, but before I got it out he had let go of Ted and was threatening me with a board until he looked around and saw that the other three had left him behind. I don't know if he even saw the knife, although it should have been clear to him that I was extracting something. Then he turned and ran, and I helped Ted get up and we ran in the opposite direction, and started trying car doors. The first one I tried was locked. The next car door was unlocked, but jammed with people. The third car rear door was locked, but the front window was down and I reached in and unlocked the rear door and started to shove Ted in. Then I heard the shots, and that distracted me, since I had been watching the thugs as they were now running toward us. The shots caused them to change direction. The guy with the gun motioned for us to get in his car, and the guy behind the car were I was standing with the door open called and urged us to get in his car. Since the guy whose car I had started to invade did not look happy, and since the threat had decreased, I decided to go to the car behind where we were being welcomed. I was not anxious to get in the car with the guy with the gun, since, although I was thankful for his actions, I was not sure what the final outcome of that might be.)
On another occasion, hiking along the track in light jungle, I surprised a small dog which ran away yelping loudly. That noise alerted a pack of dogs up a nearby hill, and I was afraid they were loose and would attack me, so I kept moving quickly down the track. This was the scariest event of the trip for me. On other occasions I have made unauthorized intrusions into areas where I was attacked by trained guard dogs; other times I have surprised packs of wild dogs, and been attacked by them. Watching over my shoulder as I hurried along the track, and listening closely, it was soon apparent that the dogs were not free to chase me. I did, however, observe a man with a gun running in my direction. I continued quickly on my way, and a few days later decided the man's intentions were probably not hostile toward me. I now believe he was only trying to protect his dog from a puma. These leopard sized wild cats are a real threat to domestic animals in remote areas.
The Panama Canal Railroad was part of the package the U.S. acquired when it took over (from the French) the project to build a canal between the oceans in the early 1900s. As mentioned above, the railroad played an essential role in making the canal possible, and then declined in economic importance as ships were used to move people and cargo across the isthmus. In 1979, when the U.S. agreed to give the canal to the government of Panama twenty years later, in 1999, it did not wait to unload the unprofitable railroad, and since that time the railroad has been a Panamanian government operation. It was not maintained very well, and as mentioned before, has not operated for many years.
Since the railroad and the canal were under one ownership when the canal was built, the railroad equipment associated with the canal locks was also built to the five-foot gauge, and there were interchange tracks so that canal locomotives could move along the railroad between the three sets of locks if necessary. The canal locomotives, popularly called 'mules,' were used earlier to pull ships into the locks, and to control their movement while in the locks. Today most ships enter the locks under their own power, but the mules (generally 4-6 for large ships) are still attached, and used to guide and brake the ships' forward movement if necessary. Sometimes the mules tow smaller vessels into or out of the locks.
I was allowed to visit the locomotive repair facilities at the canal, and to ride in one of the mules. I was able to climb on and under a mule and inspect its several unusual features. They move slowly, having a top speed of less than five miles per hour. On the side next to the water they have two very-heavy-duty winches which contain cables which are attached to the ships, and can be reeled in or played out to allow the ship being escorted to move sideways in the lock. The mules have a pair of horizontal wheels and a vertical geared drive wheel mounted on the underside of the chassis. The geared drive wheel (which engages a rack between the running rails) allows the mules to climb up and go down 45 degree slopes to accommodate the different water levels as the locks fill and empty. The pair of horizontal wheels keeps the mule stable and vertical thus preventing ships from moving sideways and pulling the mule over. The mules are powered electrically, and the power is collected by brushes that fit into a slot running along side the track, on the side opposite the adjacent lock. With the normal running rails, the slot in the ground from which electricity is drawn, and the rack in the center which engages the geared drive, the locks railroad tracks are unique in my experience. In addition to about 80 such locomotives, there are a dozen or more self-propelled cranes having the same drive mechanism as the mules, and which are used for various lifting and construction projects on the locks. There is also a small turntable at each lock which allows the mules to be turned so they can be used on both sides of a lock.
After tracking the ghost of a railroad along the tracks across the isthmus, and exploring the railroad aspects of the canal operation, I was able to locate more railroads to visit. When I first started researching my Panama trip I heard rumors that there might still be some rail activity on the banana plantations along the border with Costa Rica. After receiving some positive reports about this, I took an hour's flight to make a first-hand inspection. I was well rewarded, finding an operating narrow (36' between the rails) gauge railroad, with 16 diesel locomotives, frequent freight service, and even a scheduled passenger train. The primary purpose of this railroad is to move box cars loaded with bananas from the packing sheds in the fields to a dock where ocean-going ships pick up the bananas twice a week for delivery all over the world. Like a branching tree, there is a network of short lines with many sidings going to the various banana plantations, all clustered in an area about 15 miles by 30 miles, extending a bit into Costa Rica. A fleet of eight light diesel switch engines scurries about, dropping off empty cars at the packing sheds, and returning loaded ones to the marshaling area. From there one or more of six medium sized diesel engines hauls trains of 20 or more cars to the docks about 18 miles from the locomotive shops and yard facilities. Although bananas are consumed in a seasonal pattern, they are grown year around, so the railroad is constantly in operation. The passenger train hauls students from the center of the banana growing area to a school at the port, bringing them to school in the morning, taking them home for a long lunch break midday, and then returning them to the school until later in the afternoon when school is out. This service is free to the students, and other passengers may ride for a small fee.
A stroke of luck (accidentally meeting a key person) gave me the choice of touring the line by locomotive or speeder, either of which was put at my disposal. I selected the speeder, and thoroughly enjoyed viewing the mainline from such a vantage point. I was also given free access to the locomotive maintenance facility, and allowed to take pictures everywhere. Under the guise of being a German bridge engineer, there to inspect a railroad bridge that needed repairs, I was 'smuggled' out of Panama and into Costa Rica - and then back out of Costa Rica and back to Panama, so that I could see the tracks in Costa Rica. By the time I had completed my visit I was well known to the railroad employees. This familiarity enabled me, when I was ready to leave town, to 'hail a locomotive' that was traveling down the track next to the road I was walking along, much as one might hail a taxi in a city, to the airport. The locomotive crew stopped, picked me up, wanted to know where I wanted to go, and then took me there, dropping me off within a few hundred feet of the airport terminal.
While I was exploring this narrow gauge railroad I discovered another railroad - in fact, several very unusual railroads. Each of the banana plantations has its own railroad, using diesel locomotives to haul freight cars of bananas from the fields to the packing sheds. What is so unusual about these railroads is that they are overhead monorails. The locomotives (about 8 feet long) are diesel-hydraulic with an engine about the size of a lawn mower engine. The engineer rides on a separate car right behind the locomotive, and controls it by reaching forward to the knobs and cranks on the engine. The train is assembled, literally, in the field as 'hands' of bananas are carried on the shoulders of workers to the track. The first car is assembled from a set of trucks and a stick about 3' in diameter and 6' long, just tied together. The hand of bananas is suspended from the middle of this stick. Then, another stick is attached, another set of trucks added, and the next hand of bananas is attached. When 30 or 40 such cars of bananas are ready the engineer drives the train back to the packing shed. There are many switches and branch lines, so that the engineer must sometimes stop the train to align the overhead monorail for the desired route. Arriving at the packing shed, the train enters the yard, where there are several parallel tracks of cars awaiting unloading. When it is time, the engineer moves his train into the packing shed where the cars are disassembled, the bananas go into a big tub of water for cleaning, and the sticks and trucks that were the cars are stored on a special car that rides behind the engineer. Thus, as he returns to the field it is a short train - locomotive, engineer's car, and the storage car. Upon arrival back at the harvesting location the cycle begins again. These monorails service plantations of several square miles, and even cross highways. At highway crossing the monorail is hinged horizontally out of the way of traffic normally, but when the banana train comes the engineer stops automobile traffic, swings the rail into place, runs the train across, then returns to move the track out of the way so that the highway traffic can resume. I was told that there are also such highway crossings wherein the rail swings up, like a drawbridge, instead of sideways, but I did not see any of those.
I carried food in my backpack for the remote jungle part of the trip, and ate in modest restaurants and roadside cafes the rest of the time. Although seafood is popular and highly regarded in Panama, my own tastes were served most of the time by beef, potatoes, eggs, and fresh fruit. I enjoyed having a bowl of fresh cantaloupe and pineapple twice a day. American fast food is available in Balboa, but I ate it only once, at the McDonalds that now occupies one of the former railroad stations on the Panama Railroad.
I had made hotel arrangements by email before arriving, and the arrangement was generally satisfactory. The hotel had its own emergency generator, as do many businesses, and it came on automatically on about half the evenings, suggesting that power outages are very common. Hot water was scarce; one hotel room's system provided about 3 gallons of hot water, so one could have a hot but very brief shower - another room in the same hotel had a different system, which provided an unlimited supply of lukewarm water at very low pressure, so one could dampen one's skin comfortably on a hot day, but had trouble washing off the soap. At another hotel - the very best one in a small and remote town - I had only cold water, and the shower had no nozzle, just an open pipe coming out of the wall.
The most typically tourist activity I did in Panama was to take a day-long trip on a small ship from one end of the canal to the other. Having previously hiked along much of the canal, and having visited the three sets of locks on foot, it provided an interesting contrast to view the canal from the water. Starting at the Pacific end, the ship was first raised nearly 100 feet through two sets of locks, and was later, at the Atlantic end, lowered back to sea level via the third set of locks. This transit of the canal also provided me with an opportunity to cast some flowers on the water every few minutes all day in memory of a friend who died at almost the same hour that I had left Los Angeles on this trip, and for whom a memorial service was being held the next day after my trip through the canal.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that smoking is not as common and widespread in Panama as I have found it to be many other places, such as Arizona, New Zealand, Australia, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland. To be sure, there was always at least one person smoking in every restaurant all the time, but at least 75% of the tables normally did not have anyone smoking. Some restaurants have small non-smoking sections, but generally poorly positioned so that every non-smoking table is adjacent to a smoking table. In a similar manner, fewer people walking on the street, waiting at bus stops, or sitting in lobbies were smoking.
I have found warm, generous, and welcoming people everywhere I have traveled, and this was reinforced in Panama. Before my arrival I had made email contact with two businessmen, one at each end of the canal, who were extremely helpful in providing maps, information, and other contacts. Both of them provided land transportation and local knowledge that was invaluable. Of course there are touts and hustlers in all large cities, and I think Balboa has more than the average. Off the beaten path I met many people who were very helpful and generous with their time and knowledge, without any expectation of anything in return. A young businessman I questioned on the street walked several blocks out of his way to ensure that I found an obscure hotel that had been recommended to me; an off-duty policeman made an extra effort to show me where the bus would stop in a small village; when a bank clerk heard me asking about a railroad, he left the bank and took me to the office of a retired railroad employee he knew who was able to answer my question. On only one occasion was a waitress somewhat rude, and I later decided that the cause was my asking for my 'regular' waitress but seating myself outside her usual group of tables. Minor warning to travelers to Panama: a common expression used by locals, 'Welcome to Panama,' is not a term of intended hospitality, but an expression of frustration with something that is taking too long or is not going the way the speaker wants. I heard it several times in different parts of the country, always by frustrated natives, in widely varying sets of circumstances, such as someone being unable to get a phone to work, attract a taxi, or obtain credit at a bar.
One of the other ghosts I was aware of on this trip was that of my father. A few years back, on a pleasure cruise around South America, his ship approached Panama. As it was announced on the public address system that land was now in sight, my dad and his traveling buddy rushed to the other side of the ship to catch their first glimpse of Panama. I don't know if my dad saw it or not, since he had a heart attack and died on the deck just as he reached the other side of the ship. It may have been the last thing he saw. So, a small part of me was seeing Panama for my dad, just in case he missed it as he fell.
The approximate costs involved were as follows: 620 for international airfare
100 for domestic airfare
200 for surface transportation
350 for lodging
340 for food
60 for guest meals
130 for miscellaneous
C. W. Lee, July 1, 1999
Revised August 7, 1999
Other travel reports
Available by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) for free upon request:
#1 Tramping New Zealand, 1994.
#2 Bushwalking Papua New Guinea, 1995.
#3 Waltzing Tassie And Other Tales, 1996.
#4 Foaming Nova Scotia, 1997.
#5 Neqemgelisa On Vancouver Island, Plus ... , 1998.
#6 Fadging Around The Rock, 1998.
#7 Hogging Logs On Vancouver Island, 1998.
#8 Speeding Along Some Short Lines, 1999.
1. As reported in the August 23, 1868 issue of The Chicago Republican.
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