By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Some travel to escape, others to refresh themselves. Those are my goals, too. I am not hunting for inspiration.
But my recent trip to the Panama Canal was quite inspiring. My appreciation towards the United States peaks, not on Thanksgiving Day or July 4 — it’s when I travel overseas.
Did you know that the United States, under President Teddy Roosevelt, built and completed the canal in 1914 in 10 years, and the United States returned control of the canal to Panama in 1999? President Donald Trump would likely say, “Whoa, no way, we spent so much money on the canal, we should own it.” Or, he would say, “That’s a bad deal. Why would we pay for it in the first place?” The canal would never have happened if Trump were president at the time. Or he would want the money back, plus interest.
Known as one of the seven wonders of the modern world, the 48-mile Panama Canal cuts across the Isthmus of Panama, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. The mastery of the engineering of the canal is eye-opening and amazing. The sacrifices of workers, including the nearly 6,000 who died during construction, are indescribable. The cost of building the canal was over $375 million at the time. In today’s value, it would be over $9 billion. The amount included payment for France’s initial work on the canal.
The canal benefits not only America, but the world. Without it, ships would have to sail hundreds of miles to go around Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America, to transport from one ocean to the other. The French started construction in 1881, but abandoned the project. The United States took over, and brought it to completion.
My friend Yoshi Minegishi said, had it not been for the canal, the United States couldn’t have won World War II. It would have been costly and time-consuming for the United States to transfer supplies to Asia to fight against the Japanese. Guess how much America spent on constructing the canal? Billions.
Why doesn’t the United States own the canal? Roosevelt took on the project with the intent of returning ownership rights back to Panama. To prepare for a smooth transition, a team of Americans were stationed there for two decades, since 1977.
A second and bigger canal was built in 2016 for supertankers, and with 30 to 40 ships crossing every day, it provides over $1 billion in revenue to Panama’s economy. What a significant contribution the United States made to the world! Too bad President Trump is obsessed with building a wall between Mexico and the United States! Can’t he think of something more constructive, meaningful, and valuable globally like the Panama Canal?
Had it not been for the leadership and wisdom of President Roosevelt, the canal might have taken another generation to finish. It is a triumph for U.S. foreign policy objectives in strengthening our interest abroad and domestically. The strategy of soft power influence overseas, instead of hard military power, is effective.
After the Panama Canal, we continued out to journey on a cruise to Limon, Costa Rica. I thought that by carrying cash, it would eliminate a lot of problems on our trip. My assumptions were deeply flawed. The problems we encountered was nothing we could have anticipated. At Limon, we hired a taxi to go to the rainforest — about 10 miles from our destination. That’s not far, I thought. It should be easy to get to, within 10 minutes, on most freeways. How naive!
The so-called freeway in Limon is just a regular road with only two lanes for two-way traffic, like the road we drive around Lake Union — except it had more than 100 trucks moving around us.
I wondered why so many of them were tank trucks carrying gas. Soon, we passed by an oil refinery right on the roadside. In Seattle, that would violate the city code. Citizens have zero protection walking by. But numerous foreign countries don’t care about its people or the environment as long as the factory makes money.
Not a lot of traffic signs were seen on the road. When there was one, it looked like it was manually-run. Chaos reigned in the city. Dust kicked up in the air and it was not a pretty sight. During the last four miles, our driver turned to a narrow, unpaved one-lane road. It was so bumpy that it was like China in the late 1990s. We often joked about China then, you saw a beautiful house ahead of you, but you couldn’t get there as there weren’t any roads in between.
About two-thirds of the way, there was a loud noise and the back of the car drooped so low, that it almost touched the ground. The taxi broke down because the road was so rough. It would take years for Limon to build an infrastructure with an efficient transportation system and functionable roads. The taxi driver told us that China is investing in Limon to build roads. Perhaps it could speed up the process, but it will still take decades for Limon to have what we have in Washington state.
We waited for an hour under the hot sun before another taxi arrived. Still, we considered ourselves fortunate. A woman we met on the ship broke her knee during an excursion the day before. When our ship arrived at Limon, she thought she could go to a hospital for an X-ray.
“Impossible,” the ship doctor said. The hospital is three hours away from the terminal. What!? That’s incredible! The City of Limon, with a population of over 58,000, is part of Limon Province (population of over 380,000). Yet, there is only one and only hospital in the whole province. Seattle’s population is about 700,000, and we have many hospitals, such as Harborview, University, Group Health, Swedish, Virginia Mason, and Northwest Hospital. I can list just as many health institutions on the Eastside. We are so lucky!
Don’t even talk about safety. In Jamaica, the ship had warned us to be careful. Security is bad at Falmouth, Jamaica. Don’t talk to strangers. Act low-key. You shouldn’t take any taxis unless it is government-approved, according to the ship’s instructions. When the first taxi arrived, the driver argued with a government official.
He wanted to pick up other customers on the way to the waterfalls. That could endanger us. So the official told him to get out of the gated area.
In the United States, I have visited many places, and I always felt safe. Years ago, I was in New York, and I wanted to go to Harlem. Friends told me not to go. But I did. Nothing happened. I felt safe all the way.
Many friends have complained about traveling to Asia, for fear of using unsanitary toilets. Even though China is rich and advanced now, their toilets are unbearable for Westerners. China has done an amazing job in building a high-speed rail system, constructing beautiful roads, and building many magnificent facilities. Why can’t China invest just a little money to improve their toilets? While many tourists said they love China, many are reluctant to return after horrible experiences with their restrooms. I am always impressed that the United States is so generous. Not only are there clean public toilet facilities, especially in our parks, but toilet paper is provided as well. Not many countries do that. In Europe, you have to pay to use the restrooms. So many have said that they would rather pay for a clean toilet than using a free dirty toilet. I can bemoan about unpleasant situations while traveling in foreign countries. I can also go on and on about what we have in the United States, which is often missing in other countries. Then we realize how much we have taken for granted … We are so blessed. It’s wonderful to come home.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.