Contributed by: Don WinnerBy Jeremy Schwartz for the Statesman.com - Uncovering Mexico is journeying south to Panama for a couple of stories and our wanderings have of course led us to the Panama Canal, currently undergoing a $5.2 billion expansion. The project, approved by voters in 2006, is serving nicely as perhaps the world’s best stimulus package: a massive construction project that is worth nearly a fourth of the country’s yearly budget and which will create about 40,000 jobs. FDR would be proud. The expansion, which will build a new set of speedier, water-saving locks at either end of the country, is expected to be finished by 2014 (it will be quite a bit shorter, and one would hope safer, than the original project, in which some 27,000 workers perished). Seeing the Canal firsthand, I finally understood just what these mysterious locks are. Engineers needed to find a way to move ships up from sea level to the level of Panama’s inland lakes, which actually make up the majority of the Canal. The locks are a series of sealed chambers in which boats are raised with incoming water or lowered (as they leave the country) as water is released from the locks. The ships then float up or down in several stages. I never realized just how long the process takes. Passing through the three chambers at the Miraflores Locks took about a half-hour to 45 minutes per ship. And ships go through two at a time in the two parallel lanes (switching direction at midnight), meaning there is often quite a line of mega-freighters waiting to get through. Out in the Pacific we saw boats lined up for miles waiting to squeeze through the Canal and learned that traffic jams of up to a week aren’t unheard of. The expansion will not only build a set of wider locks, allowing the biggest of today’s super-freighters to pass through, it will also speed up the process. And the new locks will save the water from Panama’s inland lakes, currently used to power the lock sytem, meaning it can be used by local communities, some of which lack drinking water.