Even at 6 a.m., standing on Holland America Line's cruise ship ms/Zuiderdam and sipping a mimosa (or, if you prefer, a cup of hot chocolate), I opened my eyes wide, wiped away the cobwebs and stared out in the dim light of dawn to see one of the wonders of the world.
At this moment, six days after leaving Fort Lauderdale and stopping at Caribbean islands on the way, our cruise liner began to maneuver itself into its ship lane and prepared to penetrate the Panama Canal.
Approximately 50 miles long, the canal links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans at one of the narrowest points of both the Isthmus of Panama and the American Continent. A century ago, if ships wanted to pass through the Americas, they would have to go all the way around the southern-most tip of South America; a journey from New York to San Francisco would cover 13,000 miles instead of 5,200 today.
Despite early-morning mist, I could spot "back up lights" of the ship ahead already entering the "aquatic bridge" that connects the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean.
It was winter up north, but here, the hot breezes warmed your body; the temperature would reach 83 degrees that day.
As we moved into the first of three locks in the canal, I recalled the words of Richard Detrich, travel guide, author and destination lecturer aboard the ship.
"Amazing," he asserted, "the Panama Canal is something almost 100 years old, still working the same way, and still working well."
We passengers stood watching, mesmerized at the engineering marvel: Our massive cruise ship was raised by water dozens of feet into the air.
You see, the Panama Canal is a lock-type canal and maintains three sets of locks, each having two lanes.
The locks function as water lifts; they raise ships 85 feet above sea level to the height of Gatun Lake, then back on the opposite side of the Isthmus. During these "lockages," which use water obtained from the lake, the miter gates seal the lock chambers, and gravity drains the lower levels.
Approximately 51 millions of gallons of fresh water are used for each lockage and, ultimately, flush into the sea.
Electric locomotives (known as "electric mules") help move a ship through a lock. The locomotives use cables to align and tow the vessels, and keep them in position within the lock chambers.
The canal officially opened its doors to international trade on Aug. 15, 1914. Since then, more than 900,000 vessels have utilized the waterway. Most of the shipping is containerized cargo of grain, in addition to petroleum products.
In the past, cruise ships sailed all the way through the canal, but lately, on 10- and 11-night Caribbean itineraries, partial transits have become increasingly popular. These loop cruises enter the canal from the Caribbean Sea and sail into Gatun Lake, where they remain for a few hours as passengers go ashore for excursions.
Our ship then passed back through the locks, returning to the Caribbean and stopping at Cristobal Pier to pick us up after our excursions.
Earlier, our travel guide Richard cajoled us to "get off the ship, and see something of Panama."
And so we did: We rode on a dome car of the Panama Canal Railway Company to admire the length and breadth of this magnificent waterway, and small but important nation of 3 million, including an active Jewish community in Panama City.
Geographically, Panama is the only country in the world where north is west and south is east, because the country is shaped like a sideways "S" running from west to east; the North Atlantic and Caribbean Sea is north and the Pacific Ocean lies to the south. Colombia is to the east and Costa Rica to the west.
About 14,000 vessels use the canal each year.
However, new oversized container ships cannot be hauled through the waterway.
So, a third lane — part of a $6 billion expansion that will include a third set of locks — is being built, ideally to be completed by 2014, the 100th anniversary of the canal.
Actually, for most of its history, the canal was under the aegis of the United States.
In 1977, after a decade of negotiations, a new treaty between Panama and America granted the former higher rents and tolls, and legal jurisdiction over the passage by 1980.
Total sovereignty and operational control over the entire waterway was handed to Panama at midnight on Dec. 31, 1999.
For information on cruises to the Panama Canal, contact Holland America — which can arrange for kosher food for individuals or groups — at: www. hollandamerica.com.