by Susan L. Stabler
Panama Canal Review - October 1, 1980
Picture of Gatun Spillway
Those of us who live on "the other side"- that is, around the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal-are reputed to suffer from something called the Atlantic side syndrome, brought on by the isolation of living there.
Now a syndrome is a pattern of symptoms, which suggests illness, and from the sound of the word one might expect an Atlantic sider to have a nervous twitch and an unhealthy pallor. But the truth is that except for an occasional bout of exasperation accompanied by deep sighing, Atlantic siders manifest a remarkable vitality. In fact, the Atlantic side is often referred to as the Gold Coast, and many of its residents prefer to live there rather than on the more populated Pacific side.
No, the Atlantic side syndrome isn't a health problem; but perhaps one could call it a problem of "perception." For its primary symptom is the perception among residents there that planning and provisioning are done by Pacific siders with the Pacific side in mind and with Atlantic side needs and concerns attended to only as an afterthought. Although they recognize that the Atlantic side communities taken together have a tiny population compared to the Pacific side, they interpret the by-the-book dollars and cents approach to the provision of health care, schools and commissary services as lacking the empathy extended to the Pacific side.
It is this perception shared by Atlantic siders that tends to distinguish them from their cousins on the Pacific side in relationship to how they view day-to-day occurrences in the community or on the job.
To deal with this problem, to keep the avenues of communication open, the Canal organization has traditionally assigned a top official to act as unofficial "mayor" of the Atlantic side community to try to add the needed personal touch. The Administrator's representatives push for greater recognition of Atlantic side concerns, but many of the drawbacks of Atlantic side life are not amenable to change.
The Canal administration can't do anything about the overabundant rainfall that makes getting around on the Atlantic side a matter of keeping one eye on the clouds, and it would take an Act of Congress to get a bridge built to span Gatun Locks so that we wouldn't have to sit in our cars and wait for the lock gate bridge to clear when we are on our way to Shimmy Beach or Fort San Lorenzo.
But this brings us to another aspect of the Atlantic side syndrome, the positive aspect that Pacific siders are prone to overlook. In having to accept, or at least tolerate, what cannot be changed, whether it's too much rain or too little attention from Pacific side planners, Atlantic siders are bound together in a close-knit, caring community, sharing each other's concerns and meeting each other's needs.
Oddly, when comparing the two sides of the Isthmus, the fundamental similarities are very striking. Housing on both sides is comparable. Both have their share of vintage housing interspersed with newer, more modern dwellings. Playgrounds abound in all areas and most communities have ready access to swimming pools. Streets are wide and well lit at night, whether you're in Gatun or Los Rios. So where do the differences lie?
On the Atlantic side, one is struck immediately by the wide open spaces, an abundance of and proximity to both fresh and salt water, miles between communities, small population and minimal traffic. Although comprised of several civilian town sites Gatun, Mindi, Margarita, France Field and Coco Solo and various military areas, the total population size on the Atlantic side is so limited that the entire area seems rather to be one amiable, sprawling small town. It is this small-town atmosphere, coupled with distance from officialdom, limited access to city life and an easy closeness to the outdoors, which makes the Atlantic side unique.
All Commission employees know that collectively they have an undisputed task that of putting ships through the Panama Canal. Atlantic siders are particularly focused on this responsibility because by occupation most have a direct association with locks, ships, tugs, launches and channels. The grass roots loyalty they feel to the mission of the Canal is echoed in their attitudes toward each other as well.
As a result, it is more myth than fact to say that Atlantic siders long for life on the more largely populated Pacific side. Bob Lessiack, retired assistant financial vice president of the erstwhile Panama Canal Company, tells a story of his then 7-year old granddaughter, who, with him, engaged in a conversation one day with former Governor H. R. Parfitt. The Governor asked Leslie, an Atlantic sider, whether she would like to live on the Pacific side where her grandparents lived.
Leslie displayed her amazement at the suggestion and replied, rather cryptically, that she and her mother did not want to move across the Isthmus. When asked why not, she said simply, "Our side is much more peaceful . . ."
Adult impressions of the Atlantic side do not vary greatly from the youthful observations of the 7-year old. Slow, easy, peaceful, friendly, and unhurried are apt descriptions of life on the other side. There is but one traffic light on the Atlantic side, located at the transisthmian entrance to all points. One expects and finds uncrowded commissaries, small schools, and people who almost all know each other's first names. Nearly always, a relaxed, small- town atmosphere prevails.
This atmosphere isn't generated; it plainly just exists, and distance from Panama Canal Commission hierarchy is, at least, a partial contribution,. It is the nature of life around the Panama Canal that a surface distance of only 50 miles, or an air distance of only 36 miles, can so isolate one end of the Canal from the other. Gatun boasts the most dramatic set of locks, and, at one time, the Atlantic side was intended to be the Canal headquarters, yet somehow along the way, the hierarchy established itself on the Pacific side. In fact, only one division, the Industrial Division, has its headquarters on the Atlantic side.
Headquarters for all other facets of Commission living are far removed from the everyday life of Atlantic siders; and although this aspect of Atlantic area living contributes to the syndrome, it also contributes to a surprising esprit de corps. The absence of administration breeds an atmosphere of unstrained independence and a deep dedication to the job.
The very distance from the central hubbub, however, also dictates a need for Atlantic siders to travel frequently between the two sides of the Isthmus. Consequently, it is a private joke among Atlantic siders that the reach from Cristobal to Balboa is shorter than that from Balboa to Cristobal. Residents of the Atlantic side must more frequently travel far from home to attend meetings on the Pacific side than is true in reverse. It is a way of life and, oddly, contributes still further to the unity that exists.
If the absence of main offices gives rise to a closeness among employees on the Atlantic side, the mere size of the population magnifies it. Numbering only about 1,356 employees as compared to an approximate 7,230 employees on the Pacific side, Atlantic siders as a group are closely knit. Any Atlantic area celebration can easily accommodate a maximum crowd in a setting about half the size of a football field. One is reminded in particular of the annual Holy Family Catholic Church Carnival, Here Atlantic siders join hands to put on and patronize a charity event. Always the same faces abound on either side of the counter, and always patrons and workers alike are eager that the charity be a success. It is ever thus, year after year, and no one expects it to ever be any different.
Something else Atlantic siders never expect to be different is their Christmas Eve celebration, replete with a truck-drawn sleigh carrying Santa, his elf, his helpers and piles of gifts. The Cristobal High School stage band and many truckloads of caroling youngsters follow the sleigh, while a police car leads the entourage from townsite to townsite delivering gifts to eager children.
Celebrations and tragedies, too, bring together more than just friends, A spirit hovers that is understood, appreciated and treasured by native Atlantic siders. They embrace and support one another in a way reminiscent of Canal construction days and earlier, nearly forgotten times in American life.
One of the most cherished aspects of Atlantic side living is its schools. Parents personally know teachers, and teachers personally know the students in their classes, Cristobal High School usually graduates a class of one hundred seniors or less. The students are fiercely royal to each other, and the teachers look on their graduates with pride. It is interesting to note that on the Atlantic side there is a combined Junior-Senior High School comprised of students in grades seven through twelve, with a total of approximately 630 pupils. On the Pacific side, on the other hand, one finds Curundu Junior High School (grades 7 through 9) with a student load of 1,350 and Balboa High School (grades 10 through 12) with students numbering 1,300. With such a striking difference in the total enrollment picture, it is easy to see why Atlantic side schools have a special aura.
Although there are more and larger schools on the Pacific side than on the Atlantic, their curriculums are essentially equal. Cristobal Junior-Senior High School, however, because of a diminishing number of students, is finding it increasingly difficult to offer as many course selections as are offered on the Pacific side. But quality education remains, and. perhaps because the teachers are concerned about equal education on both sides of the Isthmus, one finds a great deal of teacher sharing in ideas and methodology. Students are students everywhere, and Atlantic side kids behave like any other as they travel that bumpy path of school, athletics, romance and friendship that we call adolescence. In a small community, however, they are ever under the watchful eye of their teachers and their parents and their parents' friends. Little goes unnoticed.
Not only is there a significantly smaller Commission population on the Atlantic side, but also poignantly different are the Panamanian cities of Panama and Colon. On the Pacific side, Panama City has a tremendous offering of recreational activities. There are abundant theaters, innumerable restaurants, entertaining shows, ample hotels, and frequent cultural offerings. Colon on the Atlantic side, conversely, has been hampered for decades by an inability to spread out and develop. Consequently there is little in that city of an entertainment or dining nature. Restaurants can be numbered on one hand and there is but one inviting theater. The Hotel Washington is lovely, but has nothing of the allure of the night spots in Panama City.
All this means that Atlantic siders either have to do without the bright lights and city people or they have to travel further to enjoy them. Sometimes they travel, but as a rule they do without, and instead provide their own entertainment.
On the Atlantic side, everyone listens for word-of-mouth notice that there is going to be a fish fry at the Tarpon Club, a play, talent show or concert at the high school, steak night, sailboat races, or a St. Patrick's Day celebration at the Gatun Yacht Club, a dance at the Elks Club, or a kite-flying contest in Coco Solo. And not only do they listen for the notice, but the turnout is always good. Any gathering draws a substantial crowd, and conversations are picked up where they left off the last time.
Atlantic siders often feel that they have the best of both worlds. Whereas they zealously enjoy their life styles, they know always that the Pacific side is there for an evening out, a shopping spree or a change of space. Pacific siders seldom make a trip to the Atlantic side for like purposes. But ah ...what they are missing.
It's not by accident that the Atlantic side is fondly called the "Gold Coast." The fisherman, the sailor, the botanist, the biologist, the bird watcher, the diver, the beachcomber, the water skier, and the surfer exist on the Atlantic side in an abundance equaled but few places in the world. A mere half hour at most from any front door there are Gatun Lake, Limon Bay, the Chagres River, the Atlantic Ocean, miles and miles of natural and easily accessible beaches, untamed jungles, gorgeous reefs and unparalleled beauty.
No one lives on the Atlantic side for long without becoming something of an outdoor person. Where else in the world could one fish for bass early in the morning, go sailing before lunch, motor down the Chagres River in the afternoon and have a cookout at Pina Beach in the evening? Better still, because of their nearness to nature, Atlantic siders can do any of these things in the time they have after work in an afternoon.
Venture out to the Gatun Yacht Club on any afternoon and you will undoubtedly encounter some spirited wind surfers, riders of what is essentially a surfboard with a sail. Wind surfing, fast becoming one of the most popular sailing sports in the world, was introduced into Panama at the Gatun Yacht Club. The first rig was brought to the club by Gary Smith, senior control house operator at Gatun Locks. In less than a year a sort of wind surfing club has grown, and there are now about eleven boards and fifteen proficient wind surfers. It is a measure of Gold Coast uniqueness to look out across the lake and see solid and striped sails of yellow, orange, blue, green and purple frolicking around the ships at the entrance to Gatun Locks. Not too long ago, a visitor went so far as to windsurf from the Gatun Yacht Club to Pedro Miguel.
Dry season and heavy winds are especially appreciated on the Atlantic side. Laser sailboat races are held every other Sunday at the Gatun Yacht Club. There is a fleet of about fifteen boats, crewed by people of all ages, sizes and both sexes. They compete in rigorous but enjoyable races out across the channel to Navy Island and back . At the club a youngster can learn to sail under the tutelage of able adults, and club members act as lifeguards for each other and for their young people.
On some alternate Sundays, larger sailboats as well as some venturesome small ones race out from the Cristobal Yacht Club into Limon Bay, Limon Bay is an anchorage for ships waiting for bunkering services or expecting to begin a Canal transit. It is a calm, sheltered body of water excellent for its intended purpose, as well as delightful for the day sailor or motorboat enthusiast. It is protected by a breakwater which is a few feet less than two miles long and which was built at a cost of $5,500,000 with rock especially quarried at Porto Bello.
Walking the breakwater is a thrill. Not terribly dangerous on a calm day, it can erupt into a battle against the raging sea when winds grow high. Waves crash over its firmly placed rocks, and the breakwater then becomes a bitter reminder of its own necessity. None of the Cristobal harbor and port areas nor the shores of Colon, Coco Solo, or Fort Sherman could exist as they are without it. There is only a two-foot tide on the Atlantic side, but the ocean is seldom calm.
Down the coast from Limon Bay are the Atlantic beaches, Unless one encounters, a syndromatic wait at the Gatun Locks Vehicular Bridge, getting to the beaches requires very little time. Shimmy Beach, located at Fort Sherman, is a public beach replete with lifeguards, snack bars, soda machines and the like. It is protected by a shark net and is a favorite spot for family outings.
Further down the coast, however, are the raw beaches that Atlantic siders regard as their real bonanza.
Devil's Beach has something for everyone. Surfers hang ten on its dry season waves, beachcombers seldom go away disappointed, divers delight in its underwater beauty, and bathers bask in its warm water and bright sunshine. And there is a "secret" area of Devil's Beach which one can reach by walking through a small jungle path.
Beyond Devil's Beach are the more hidden beaches, which can be reached only by trek through thick jungle. At least one of them can be approached only by fording a couple of streams and negotiating a small waterfall. It is at these beaches where privacy is almost sacred. More often than not, patrons respect the claim made by the first automobile parked at the cleared space at the end of the road in.
Probably the best-known beach on the Atlantic side is Piņa Beach. It is also probably the most dangerous and therefore, the most respected. The undertow at Piņa Beach can unnerve and frighten even the hardiest swimmer. Americans and Panamanians alike have built beach cottages at Piņa Beach and have on its shores the same sort of hideaways that abound on the shores of the Pacific Ocean at San Carlos, Gorgona, Rio Mar and Santa Clara. Yet the charm of Piņa Beach is that its visitors are usually only half an hour away from home.
Enjoyment of the outdoors on the Atlantic side is certainly not limited to its beaches. Wildlife enthusiasts find the Atlantic side to be a virtual wonderland. So unspoiled are the nearby jungles that wildlife hobbyists and professionals rejoice in the beautiful and rich fauna. On the Atlantic side sloths, possums, and gato solos still abound and are seen regularly making their way across not too busy streets. Recently in Gatun a jaguarundi was spotted as it darted quickly from one side of the road to the other, a fleeting reminder of our untamed tropical surroundings.
The lush vegetation on the Atlantic side provides a perfect haven for hundreds of species of tropical and migrating birds. Bird watchers are guaranteed good luck any time they make an outing, for the Atlantic side holds a record for sightings in the Audubon Society's yearly Christmas bird count.
The same lush vegetation which harbors the birds and wildlife is a study in itself. Atlantic siders seem to be surrounded by jungle, and the botanical beauty of the jungle creeps readily into Atlantic siders' backyard. There are orchids and bromeliads in abundance and houseplants can be found readily by the sides of jungle roads. Over the years the jungles have remained virtually untouched.
Nowhere on the Atlantic side do the two great beauties of jungle and water come together more exquisitely than on the Chagres River. Motor boating down the river during the daylight or moonlight hours is a favorite pastime of many Atlantic siders. Moving slowly through the waters of the Chagres the dense jungle of the river banks on either side, one feels a oneness with nature that thrills the soul. And yet getting to the Chagres River is no more complicated or time-consuming than getting to a little league baseball game.
And that's how it is on the Atlantic side-in the absence of bright lights and city people, Atlantic siders provide their own entertainment; because of their virtual isolation from the powers-that-be, they rely greatly on their own ingenuity; due in large part to their small population size, Atlantic siders draw together in a spirit of loyalty and supportiveness; and, with their townsites nestled so deliciously close to the ocean, the lake, the river and the jungle, they embrace the tropical outdoors.
Last Update: October 3, 1998