Report from some so-called “shithole” countries

The Thinker by Rodin

Seeing Central America has been on my bucket list of a long time. Curiously Central America is largely not visited by cruise ships, but that’s changing. This Holland America 15-day cruise we’re on is mostly about getting up close and personal with Central America, or as close as you can get given that you will see it generally through shore excursions provided by Holland America.

I have been to so-called “shithole” countries before. Nothing I’ve seen so far quite compares with what I saw in the Philippines in 1987, when I was sent there on a business trip. It’s been thirty years and fortunately I’ve heard that tremendous progress has occurred there since then. I was quite appalled by the trip, even though I knew what to expect. A “shithole” country should almost by definition lack modern sewage systems. That was true of the Philippines back then, with some exceptions in Manila. Waste was generally dumped into the street and sewage for the most part into the rivers and tributaries, and most of the shacks that compromised housing lined these water sources. Cars had no emissions system so the atmosphere too was simply a toxic dumping ground, making areas in Manila in particular toxic to the lungs. The most appalling part was the lack of public education. It was a privilege available only to those who could afford it for their kids and most could not. So kids mostly grew up in the street, and were tempted into the abundant trade of services for the American seamen that I encountered. If you wanted to have sex with someone underage, it was not a problem. It was a grinding poverty where kids often smoked in the streets and worked hard to part us Americans from our money.

I was informed by some of the U.S. Navy people I worked with that as bad as the Philippines was, nearby Thailand was worse. Lots of people died there from completely preventable diseases. Things like netting to keep the mosquitoes off their bodies at night was unaffordable. People literally starved in the streets. Everyone was too inured to it all to care about it. I never saw any bloated bellies in the Philippines, except from many a pregnant teen, some of who I suspect were pregnant due to the presence of frequently visiting U.S. sailors.

On this cruise we have visited Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico. The closest country here to what I witnessed in the Philippines thirty years ago was Nicaragua. But Nicaragua was still an improvement. They have a public education system, not a stellar one, but it exists. They also have universal health care, again not great health care, but it’s there and can be used by anyone though with some delays and perhaps some issues with the quality of health care. In that sense Nicaragua is ahead of the United States. There are still people in our country that cannot get health insurance, and if Republicans get their way the uninsured rate is likely to soar again. In that sense some reverse migration may be in order.

Nicaragua is the largest and most populous country in Central America. You can see in the local markets sanitation standards that would be unacceptable in the States. You can see stray dogs in the street and sometimes malnourished horses along the sides of the road. For most, housing consists of a shack or shanty with a corrugated metal roof, often with cinder block walls but often less. But unlike other countries I’ve visited, there are plenty of reasonably maintained highways and there are lots of cars, buses and trucks running around. Unlike the Dominican Republic that we visited four years ago, most of the roads are paved. If the potholes aren’t fixed they aren’t too bad and you can drive around them.

Guatemala is not that much better than Nicaragua, at least if you look at their statistics. We saw security guards in most establishments. But the roads are quite good and well marked and it’s clear there is a significant middle class, who often drive to the coast on the weekend to enjoy the beaches there. They cause traffic jams too, and we were caught up in one on Sunday. There are plenty of first-world establishments along the sides of the roads too, and we stopped for lunch at one classy place (Pueblo Real) along the Pan American highway. Few can afford new cars, but plenty of people have after-market automobiles that were crashed in the United States and restored and look new. A car is something of a status symbol and plenty of families have them. Obviously it’s beyond the reach of many, so these depend on private bus systems instead. They are everywhere but unlike the jitneys I witnessed in the Philippines, these are essentially blinged school buses that are well maintained and presumably quite affordable. There was some air pollution, but it was mostly due to burning the sugar cane so it can be harvested. The automobiles all seemed to come with their emissions control systems intact.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Costa Rica is the jewel of Central America, such as it is. If Central Americans aspire to live somewhere in the area, Costa Rica is probably it. Costa Rica would still be seen as somewhat rough by most American standards. But the curious fact is that if anyone’s standards are slipping, it’s the United States’. Our educational standards are beginning to resemble Nicaragua’s more than Costa Rica’s. This is symptomatic of our refusal to invest adequately in our own human capital and infrastructure. And Donald Trump’s disdain for “shithole” countries has the effect of making us more like one of these countries every day.

As I have noted in many other posts, immigrants both legal and illegal have allowed Americans to maintain much of their standard of living. To the extent the Trump Administration succeeds in its war on immigrants, expect it to drag our economy down. Immigrants keep our productivity booming and inflation away. In any event, it’s unlikely Trump has visited some of these countries that I’ve visited on this cruise. He would probably refer to them as “shithole” countries, but I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t characterize the people there as lazy either. What they mostly lack is fertile educational soil to reach their potential, which is generally denied to them by the landed aristocracy that is essentially in charge in most of these countries. Some countries like Costa Rica have made huge strides, but most seem mired in slow progress at best. The real obscenity is that systematic forces by people like Donald Trump are keeping them from realizing their full worth.

As for Trump, his ignorance is appalling but not the least bit surprising. He and his fellow Republicans though are exacerbating their problems, not helping to solve them.

Transit of Panama

The Thinker by Rodin

Circuiting the Panama Canal is pretty awesome, but probably more awesome if you are an engineer, since it’s easier to appreciate the feat accomplishment. These days we tend to take engineering for granted. But having traversed the Panama Canal Wednesday for my first and likely last time, it was still impressive. Opened in 1914 it suddenly made getting between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans much faster and less hassle. The transit is hardly free. It cost our cruise ship about $120,000 to make the journey just one way. You can’t charge it to your business AmEx card. You can’t wire Panama the money either. It must be paid in cash in Panama using an agent.

Considering we went through the same locks the first ship used more than 100 years ago and with little in the way of obvious improvements, my immediate reason for being impressed is that it has been working reliably for more than a century. That in itself is stellar engineering. Even the Brooklyn Bridge has undergone major maintenance that shut it down from time to time. Our cruise ship, the MS Westerdam is more than 800 feet long and about 140 feet wide. It fit snugly but completely inside the locks. Turned over to Panama in 2000, the American presence is still obvious during your transit. The locks were built to accommodate 1000 foot ships and you can still see along the locks distances measured in feet along the side of the locks. There is some new stuff, though. Just two years ago, in 2016, a new set of locks was opened for even longer and wider ships.

We have a historian on board who gave us an abridged history of its history and construction. It was standing room only at the Main Stage of our cruise ship for the lecture, but it was still impressive to go through the locks in person. As you sail in through its Caribbean entrance at Colon, what you mostly notice is the vertical distance covered by each lock. It takes three locks to ascend the eighty or so feet to reach Gatun Lake, a lake created as part of engineering the canal. The original intent was simply to not use any locks. That turned out to not be viable because of Panama’s consistent rain and the continuous erosion issue that introduced. Speaking of rain, it rained when we went through, but only briefly. It rains pretty much every day in Panama, so it’s not usually a question of whether it will rain, but how much. How much is usually a lot.

They have the equivalent of a cog railroad along the side of the locks to tow vessels through the canal with no worry that the ships will hit the sides of the locks. It’s old tech but pretty impressive nonetheless to watch. It was hard from our ship to see the lock fill with water due to its girth. But you can still feel the effect as you move a significant vertical distance over about eight minutes. Eventually you end up on Gatun Lake and for a while transit becomes serene and predictable. There are two more sets of locks to transit before you hit the Pacific Ocean.

You would think that you would head east to west coming from the Caribbean Sea, but in fact you go north to south due to the shape of the isthmus. Panama, like Colombia that we visited briefly the day before, is very much a tropical rainforest.

So much of the magic of the Panama Canal has to do with how they solved the basic issue of its hydraulics: create artificial lakes and make huge, indestructible locks. One of the biggest engineering challenges was cutting through what remains of the continental divide when it goes through Panama: the Culebra Cut. It took a lot of dynamite, a lot of hauling away rocks with a portable railway of sorts, and a lot of lives lost. About 5000 people, mostly from the Caribbean, died constructing the American attempt to build the canal. Many more died in an earlier attempt by the French But its completion signaled a new age in history: the end of an age dominated by Europe and one dominated by the United States. With the completion of the canal, the U.S. proved it had the right stuff.

When you’ve completed passage perhaps the most impressive part is looking out at the vista of the Pacific Ocean: seemingly limitless and in our case sunny and under fair seas. Considering that twelve hours earlier you were in the Caribbean Sea, it’s an impressive transition. It’s not hard to understand why the Panama Canal is seen as one of the ten wonders of the modern world. So scratch that off my bucket list. In addition, this is my first excursion by ship on the Pacific Ocean.

We had a brief stop in Cartagena, Columbia, so brief that we elected not to take a tour and didn’t make it past the cruise terminal. It is a thoroughly modern city, just thoroughly tropical. For our ship to make its date with the Pamana Canal, we had to leave shortly after noon.

Our next stop is Puntarenas, Costa Rica and some exciting tours there. We won’t arrive in San Diego until January 20. You might think we could get there a lot sooner, but there are 5000 miles or so of coastline to traverse with plenty of port stops in between.