THROUGH THE CANAL - AND THEN SOME

Most of my epic journeys begin and end at the same place. Since they are vacations, I guess they all do. Anyway, here we are at 37,000 feet over God-forsaken Texas on our way from Los Angeles to Los Angeles. Our trip, incidentally, takes us through the Panama Canal.

We departed charred LA around 8 am Sunday May 3rd, in the year 1998, and will arrive in Ft. Lauderdale after 5 pm, with a stop in Tampa. This seems to be a two meal day. I should worry with my current weight and heading into a calory-laden cruse? To top it all off, Delta had run out of non-egg breakfasts by the time the attendants reached our row so I ate the cantaloupe chunks and banana muffins from both my plate and Jodie's. Poor me. The stew offered to share her Cherrios with me. She is on a diet and brought them from home.

This marks my first attempt to use my new notebook computer. The Tax Lady feels that I should write, perhaps the Great American Novel. I guess we will, henceforth, call this machine Earnest, in honor of Hemingway. (I can tell right off that the spell checker will not be able to handle of my interesting spellings.)

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Today being the 7th of May, we are in the harbor of Montego Bay, Jamaica. This is our first stop after a day and a half of sailing. Jamaica is beautiful, however, as usual, I feel great guilt at the poverty. We leave the ship to go into town for souvenirs, get pressured by people to buy things ("Great smokes, man.") After our brief brush with the real people we come back to our isolated fantasy world. Back to air conditioning, continual feeding, pampered and protected.

We had a pleasant but brief visit with the Hamels in Margate, Fla. The visit included our first airboat ride. We took the Loxahache Airboat tour. It was about an hour during which we saw a bunch of 'gators, birds, and saw grass, named for the potentially painful teeth on the edge of the leaves. Some of the birds build nests in the bunches of saw grass to prevent the snakes from climbing up and eating the chicks. In the course of things, I managed to drop an exposed roll of film into the water. Since it was only about 8" deep, the driver was able to retrieve it. The next problem was to get it developed. The one hour labs won't take wet film.

A word about the ship. Actually more than one: this is the Sky Princess, formerly the Fair Sky. It is big and the public rooms are quite nice. Our cabin, on the other hand, has many worn out features. Most of the drawers have lost their rollers and don't open too well. There seems to be no control over cabin heat. I guess those are minor complaints.

I think that there are at least six bars on board. The booze servers are eager but not pushy. One nice feature is that there is no need for cash on board. Each passenger is issued a card that allows charges to be made to the cabin account. This must be settled at the end of the voyage. Arrangements may be made early in the trip to have the bill charged to your credit card.

The disadvantage is that you do not have a clear concept of how much you are spending. I am keeping a running tab of the trip in Quicken so as to not be surprised at the end. The drinks seem expensive to someone who never patronizes a bar. The bottles of wine are slightly more than they ought to be, however, there is a wide selection.

Today, May 8th, is an at-sea day. There are almost constant activities for those who don't want to spend their day in the casino. I enjoy the reasonably unstructured existence. I have broken off from the little computer to tour the bridge and attend a lecture on gem stones.

The ship is in fairly open ocean, heading toward Central America. We arrive at Cartegena, Columbia tomorrow morning. After a brief visit itís off to the canal. Since we are in the open, the ship is rolling a great deal. I think I may have to stop soon since my stomach is a bit upset.

 

I haven't been very faithful in recording the voyage. We have transitted the canal and I haven't discussed beautiful Cartegena yet.

Cartegena seems to be a rather prosperous city, due to "snow?" The ship docked at a pier at the end of a rather long causeway. We left the ship and saw waiting for us a crowd of cab drivers. I felt like a lamb being taken to slaughter. We joined another couple to hire a cab and selected one who promised $2 per person to go to the shopping area. Before we entered the cab I verified with him by pointing to the place and repeating $2 each to get here. He said yes. He did not drive but hopped in with the four of us.

Off we went to the promised place. It was a block surrounded by police who were surrounded by street peddlers. We fought through the peddlers and entered the stores. Inside the cordon were a few vendors. I don't know whom they paid or how they got there. The thing to buy there is emeralds. I don't know the price of emeralds in the US but they seemed expensive in Columbia, their home.

After buying nothing there, we were whisked off to the "factory" in the old city. Jodie found what she wanted there and with the other woman bought four pair of earrings. She even negotiated with the salesman.

The old city is surrounded with fortified walls. Very narrow streets separate several storied houses, many with wrought iron balconies. It must not be too popular with tourists since there weren't vendors everywhere. There was, however, a nonuniformed guard at the door of the store who kept the doors locked.

After our shopping we returned to the boat. Our guide demanded $10 each. We gave him a total of $10 and returned to the boat, our protective cocoon or womb.

I keep being reminded of the movie "Westworld." We are in an unreal environment. People (the crew) materialize through little doors from their world to service ours. Princess Cruises, with monetary incentives, attempts to extend this protection when we leave our protected world of the ship with their tours. Those of us who don't join the tours are still offered some protection.

In Montego Bay, for example, a bit of the downtown shopping area has been transported to the cruse ship terminal and surrounded by a fence. Only authorized natives are allowed in the area. The excluded cluster about the fence, attempting to sell to people leaving and returning.

There was no such protected area in Columbia.

Our unadvertised visit to Balboa, Panama also offered some protection. Vendors were allowed onto the wharf, but not a general throng. If we wished to leave the wharf, we needed a permit from Panamian immigration, which we had but did not use. No cruse activities were planned for the place but many of the crew went into town since they never call there.

The canal was worth looking foreword to, which I have done since grade school. I took 1-1/2 rolls of film during the passage. I don't think I can describe it at all. It is just a magnificent machine. The book provided by Princess cruises, THE PATH BETWEEN THE SEAS, spends most of its time on the French failure, some on the political events leading up to the US effort, and very little on the engineering involved in the actual construction. For example, who conceived the use of the electric "mules" used for movable moorings while passing through the locks? There must be books that have been written about the actual construction.

It is interesting to consider the ecological impact that the canal has had on the isthmus. Covering so much jungle with a vast lake must have destroyed many habitats, but created many others, for example, turning hilltops into isolated islands. Not much wildlife is visible, other than birds.

Gailliard Cut seemed a bit anticlimactic. The slides are still fairly obvious but seem all controlled now. Certainly no hint of the heroic effort that transpired here. A construction effort is underway to widen it from 500' to 800'. This might allow two ships to meet there.

I was disappointed that none of the equipment that created the canal seems to have been preserved. Perhaps the jungle and climate makes preservation difficult. It would be nice to see one of the massive steam shovels or even a French ladder dredge. Perhaps if one were to (God forbid) step into the jungle some of this stuff is hiding under the growth.

We are now in our second day "At Sea." Although every effort is made to pack our days by the entertainment staff, one of the beauties is that days a sea are great days to go off and read or do nothing.

Costa Rica was a pleasant change from our previous ports of call. The area around the wharf was devoid of peddlers. Our visit to the rain forest of Carera was a delight, partly because of the guide but mostly because of the place itself. It was oppressively hot and humid but a wonder. We saw kuati, some kind of rodent, white faced capuchin monkeys, scarlet macaws, leaf-cutter ants, and plants and trees......

On the way into the Carera Nature Preserve we saw some fresh water crocodiles in a river. We also saw living fence posts! These are used everywhere and are from the Umbo Limbo tree. This tree has chlorophyll in its bark. If a branch is cut off and stuffed into the ground it will take root. So to create a fence row all that is needed is to cut sufficient branches of sufficient length and diameter, put them in the ground at the appropriate separation, and hang fence on the posts. The sticks take root.

We have fallen into a routine for days when we aren't going to do any walking ashore. The alarm (yes, we are using an alarm on vacation) goes off at 7. We dress quickly (as quickly as we can given our mental state at that hour) and go to the penultimate upper deck where we walk for 45 minutes. Then we go down one deck and grab some orange juice from the buffet; then back to the room for showers. I have taken one shower a day since we arrived in Florida. I will never be able to adapt to the California water shortage again.

Breakfast is at 9 am, the second sitting. After breakfast with the DeHarts (Weezie & Tom, our table mates for the trip) we go off to various activities. Frequently there are port lectures about places to shop and ship tours to take. Today was a bit of a change. The ships' company had a bomb drill. It was an announced exercise that several bombs had been placed on the ship in Porto Caldara. Passengers were requested to return to their rooms and check that nothing strange was there. (One passenger found a simulated bomb in their room and was rewarded with a bottle of champagne.) After the lifeboat assembly stations had been searched, the passengers were directed to their particular station whilst the remainder of the ship was searched. The exercise started at 10:15 and was over by 11. All four simulated bombs were found.

Jodie and I repaired to the Piano Lounge, me to read, she to knit. The daily trivia quiz was there so we joined a team and managed to tie for first with two other teams. For our skill we each received a princess plastic sun visor. We are now awaiting our next opportunity to eat. (All in all, our triva quiz success was rather good. We played 5 games and were on the winning team in 3.)

I guess I should mention the night time entertainment. There is a Show Lounge that is the center of many day time activities, dance lessons for example. At night it is used as an ersatz night club. There are eight dancers, four of each type, a male and a female singer, a ventriloquist, a performer billed as a comedian, and a sextet billed as the Sky Princess Orchestra. (There is also a trio billed as a band.) Last night was the second big production night. These performances are supported by or controlled by a recorded tape of the music, singing, narration, and some sound effects, tap dancing sounds for example. The sextet plays along with the recorded music and the singers either sing or lip sync to the tape. Its really not too bad however last night's gala was devoted to the 40s.

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Well, we didn't see the cliff divers in Acapulco (thank God!) but we did see the shrine at which they pray (?) and the point from which they dive. Now we won't have to bother with that ever again. Shouldn't be a big problem since I hope to never be in Acapulco again.

Actually it wasn't a bad day. The DeHarts, another couple, and we left the ship at 8:30 and hired a guide who has a Chevie Suburban. Fernando seems to lavish great care on his truck; it is in beautiful shape. He spoke beautiful English. We haggled a bit and agreed to $100 for the day. That being accomplished we went off to the first shop, one of the ones approved by the ship. Expensive, elegant, crowded with shoppers from the Sky Princess and the Westendam which was also in port.

Next it was AFA, sort of a Costco of souvenir stores. No bargaining or bargains there. Most stores offer the shopper free beer and soft drinks. All of these are bottled to protect the tender tourists stomachs. The bottles are the smallest I have ever seen, specials for the shops I assume.

We then popped off to another store, not on the approved list and found many things to buy. It wasn't crowded and seemed ok. For lunch we went to Senior Frog's, the place to go and eat and buy tee shirts. It is situated on a hill side above the bay and offers a beautiful view. The walls are covered with many, many signs and things written by customers. It is open air, and with the sea breeze wasn't too hot. The service, however was quite slow. We had little time for much more shopping before our return to the ship.

The ship was due to sail at 6 pm, although a sign at the entry said 7 pm when we returned. The Westendam was moored immediately behind us with lines across our departure path. We got to wait for the fat Dutchman's waddling departure before we could leave. It was just after sunset when we left the dock. It is amazing to see these large ships move sideways away from the dock. After separating from the dock a suitable amount, we began a pirouette which gave us a panoramic, sweeping view of the lights of Acapulco. The city looks beautiful at night. I guess most cities look better at night.

We were sticky from our day in town however it was impossible to tear ourselves away from the rail to go shower before dinner. There was, of course, a full Moon to illuminate our departure.

Today has been a pleasant at-sea day. The weather has already begun improving (i.e., less humid, lower temperature.) The only organized activities have been attending a samba lesson and a brief walk through the galley. As a result of the jazz dancing lesson the other day and the samba lesson today I have come to the conclusion that I not only have no sense of rhythm any more but I have also developed two or three left feet.

We will close out this day with a strange occurrence. We went to the pizzeria for lunch at 1 pm after spending most of the morning after breakfast in the piano lounge. I found what I thought was a scab on the side of my right knee and absently mindedly picked it. It didn't loosen easily so I pulled it off. It was a wood tick. It couldn't have been on too long since had not engorged with blood at all. I turned it in to the young man at the purser's desk. I wonder if anything will come of it.

(We are off the ship now and at home in Hawthorne, and no, nothing came of the tick.)

Our last port of call was Cabo San Lucas, Baja California. This previously sleepy fishing village on the very tip of the peninsula is becoming the Riviera of North America. The many resort hotels are being expanded. New ones and condos are springing up all over. With all of this, the place is surprisingly pleasant. Many souvenir shops, restaurants, and bars, however no casinos.

We strolled into town with the DeHarts. We first climbed the hill to the Finistre Hotel and had a Bloody Mary in the Whale Watch bar. This roofed, open air place offers a superb view of the Pacific coast. We watched the Norwegian Cruse Line Spirit of America pass as we enjoyed our drink.

After that we went on into town and looked around. I had observed many buildings all over Mexico that were constructed of concrete that had rebar sticking up from the top, as if they weren't finished or as if additional stories were to be added at some future date. Tom encountered an expatriate yankee who is now a contractor in Cabo and who is also a co-owner of a restaurant. He explained that as long as the rebar is sticking out, the building is not completed and therefore not subject to reassessment.

I also wondered where the water came from since the place seems to be a desert just like Southern California. Heavy rains fall in nearby mountains, 20" last season, and these replenish the aquifer. Most of the water in town comes from wells or springs. We wound up having lunch in his restaurant and had an excellent meal. As of today we have suffered no untoward after effects from the water or food.

The remainder of the cruse was uneventful, other than that the ride was quite rough. The Pacific wasn't. We passed under the Golden Gate bridge at sunrise. I was able to finish my last roll of film there.

We had some immigration people on the ship from Cabo San Lucas. We got our passports stamped a day before our arrival. I filled out the custom's declaration indicating that we had about $600 worth of stuff, about $300 native handicrafts. Our baggage had been taken from our room the previous night. We were in the third group to debark. A customs inspector was at the gangway. He looked at our declaration, initialed it and we left. We found our bags more-or-less without problem, picked them up and headed toward the exit. A second inspector collected our declaration and we were in the USA, all in less than 15 minutes. Princess and the airlines arranged to have baggage check-in at the dock so we left our stuff with Delta and climbed on a bus. From there it was a fairly short ride to SFO, a three hour wait, and then a one hour flight home. The whole process went like clock-work.

The trip was very enjoyable. The Canal and the days at sea were the best parts. The poverty and feeling of some personal danger at most of the ports was disquieting. Cabo San Lucas was the most comfortable. Because of the heavy tourist presence it is more like Alto California than Baja California.

If I take a cruse again I would like to try a different line than Princess. The service is OK. The dining room is just adequate. Most of the activities seemed tailored for the first-sitting crowd. They probably don't like red cars, either.