Friday, February 28, 2014

The Panama Canal in living, moving color

The Panama Canal, 100 years old … A $440 million marvel, a dream of men in the 1800s.  A completion by men (and probably many women, too) in 1914.  A project completed under budget at $337 million. 

Today was the day (Tuesday, February 25, 2014, Day 10), to complete the mission we’d set out to accomplish on this trip … to cruise the Panama Canal.  We’d spent the night anchored off Fuerte Amador after spending the day on shore.  We saw the beautiful city lights, and then the city at sunrise, which was also a beautiful sight.  But it was time to move along.

The canal was built here because there was a narrow isthmus, a huge river and an exceptional amount of rainfall, all of which is required for a lock system depending on water.  A dam was built and the navigable lake, Lake Gatun, was created above sea level.  At one time it was the largest man-made lake, and it stores all the water needed for the operation of the locks.
To get from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Ocean (or the Atlantic Ocean as they also say), there is a series of three locks.  The first two would get us to the Gatun Lake level 82-feet above sea level, and the third would drop us 82-feet using three tiers to get us back down to sea level.

Our ship, the Island Princess, headed under the Bridges of the Americas.
Our ship hoisted the anchor and set sail toward the opening that would become the canal.  Coming from the Pacific Ocean we first sailed through an approach channel that took us under the Bridges of the Americas and past construction on the new lock system.  We continued on, until we entered the two-tier Miraflores Lock.
New lock construction is currently ahead of schedule.
Tugs come to meet the ships to assist them into the locks.
All of the locks are virtually the same, each using about 26-30-million gallons of water, and moving it at the rate of about 3-million-gallons per minute.  It takes gravity roughly 8-10 minutes to either fill or empty the water from the lock.  While most ships cross through the canal and the locks in 8-10 hours, many are in canal waters an average of 24 hours … waiting to get the clearance to pass, then passing from one ocean to the other. 
The container ship ahead of us is being guided toward the left-side Miraflores Lock.
Two guys in a rowboat are not committing suicide, so we are told.  They actually grab a rope from the ship and pull it to the dock where it is attached to the electric towing locomotives.
You can see the container ship at the left at a lower level, the locks on the right with different levels of water and the ship on the right at the high level waiting to exit the lock. 
You can see what a tight fit it is for these ships in the lock.  The towing locomotives are on the dock waiting to be attached to the ship and helping it move along.  The red and green arrow in the foreground is what they used to use to direct ships into which lock, the arrow indicating either left or right.  Now it's all done by communications equipment.
Ships use their own propulsion and there are “towing locomotives” that are used for towing, braking and keeping the ship centered in the chamber and preventing it from coming into contact with the concrete walls.  There is less than two-feet of clearance on either side.  Considering the size of the ships, that isn’t much room.  We did see one ship that appeared to have perhaps made an error and had a bit of contact with something somewhere, maybe in a lock at some time? 

Towing locomotives on their little turnabout.
The gate is open and we're heading into the lock.  You can see how high the other ship is in the lock ahead of us.
Traffic moves right along.  There's a ship coming in behind us in the opposite lock, the one the container ship had used.
You can see the closed gate behind the container ship.  There's not much room either at either end of the ship while contained inside of the locks.
As our ship goes into the lock, you can tell it's a tight fit, about 2 feet on either side, I was told.
The maximum locomotive towing speed is three miles per hours, although we saw on our Captain’s Report at one point that we were going 0.9 knots.  The ships inch through, sometimes remaining in a set of locks for up to two hours (Gatun).

The gate ahead is opening, letting us pass through to the next tier.  The locomotive is on the left, just ahead.  There are usually two of them on either side of the ship.
We stayed on deck watching for hours as we entered the Miraflores Lock, exited into the Miraflores Lake and headed to the one-chamber Pedro Miguel Lock.  From there we entered Lake Gatun for a nice leisurely cruise via a winding course, meeting other ships or smaller ships towing barges.  All of it is marked as there are little islands, rocks and trees sticking up.  You can look through various channels at the beautiful, lush countryside and we wondered why there were no pleasure craft running around, or small cabins or luxury homes.  The entire area is off-limits, and no one is allowed to be there.  So that answered the question … a secure area.  But it was kind of funny that we passed a lighthouse with graffiti on it … where did that come from?

This little lighthouse has graffiti on it up near the top.  Around the side of it, there's also a cat painted, but you can't see it from this angle.
All kinds of ships run the canal and locks.
There are some pulling barges, too.  Interesting since you just don't know what you'll see.
There are lots of beautiful passages and islands along the canal and around the lake.
As we wandered the channels and lakes, we saw dredging operations pulling mud and rocks out of the channels to make sure they keep a consistent water level, we saw a barge that was working with dynamite to loosen rocks and dirt, we passed many ships and we saw the largest floating crane in the world.

Dredging operation.  We had a bird's eye view as we went by in the channel.

This is apparently the one they use to dynamite and loosen the rocks and dirt for the dredge.
The crane is called Herman the German.  Three of these cranes were taken as booty from Germany after the war.  One went to Russia but no one knows what happened to it.  Another went to the British but sunk in the English Channel.  The third ended up in California and was given to Panama to help maintain the canal.  The top of it had to be disassembled to get it to Panama.  On our railway tour there was a gentleman who had worked on it in California.  It can lift 350 tons.  It’s also painted a brilliant red-orange color so it stands out from a distance.

Herman the German.
As we finally approached the three-tier Gatun Locks, we knew our mission was coming to an end.  We watched as we went through, again being done the same as in the other two locks.  We’d watched the first locks from the front of the ship, the second from our cabin, and the third from the stern of the ship, so we had all three views.  Then we were through the locks and sailing out the channel at the other side.  It had been a long, hard day of shooting and, a certain cruise faux pas (sp) … missing some meals …
The Panama Canal Lighthouse.
Jaz and I were both burnt to a crisp from the sun and heat.  I barely made it back to the room and needed a nap.  The heat sure takes it out of you, and we’d been out most of the day because we didn’t want to miss anything. 
We also have another onshore day coming up the following day … Cartagena, Colombia.  This cruise life is very tiring trying to keep up, doing everything, making sure we get to meals or snacks.  We’re not sure how we’re going to survive once we’re turned loose on our own in Florida.  We may starve.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Panama ... before the canal passage

After a day and night at sea doing our usual, including bingo, watching part of an art auction, hitting the gym and more, the day had just broken as we arrived at Fuerte Amador, Panama, about 7 a.m., February 24.  Our Captain set down anchor and tenders were lowered into the water as this was how we would proceed to the port.

From the ship, Fuerte Amador.

This is one of the tenders used to ferry us back and forth to the docks near town.
Looking around us, there were boats, ships, yachts, fishing boats, catamarans … all kinds, everywhere.  It’s the garden variety of everything.  The tenders loaded up and off we went to shore, through a large boat marina with lots of fancy boats.  These are probably what are known as yachts.  Some of them were quite large, and even carried their own little boats.  It’s like having a spare Harley in the garage just in case, I guess.  There are also many ships anchored in the harbor waiting for their turn to pass through the canal.  The canal allows ships to move one way or another part of the day, and then in the afternoon there is two-way traffic.

We got on our bus that took us to the Panama Railroad, the first transcontinental railroad, and originally completed in 1855.  It’s been rebuilt multiple times, and the cars we were in were refurbished and looked to be from a former era when women traveled in long dresses and hats and men in suits and buckskins.  The cost to ride the train back then was $26 in gold.  But you could walk the tracks for only $10. 

It was an interesting ride along the canal as we headed 41.5 miles to Colon for a tour of the Gatun Locks.  From the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Ocean it’s about 60 miles total.  Our tour guide on this trip was not our best one.  Harry was hard to understand as he had a very pronounced accent.  He also tossed in a lot of useless information.  He said he’d been a comedian turned tour guide.  I really didn’t need the jokes, that were also hard to understand.  I wanted information.  This sounds not very nice, so I guess you had to be there. But I did find out the average wage is $500, and that taxes are 12 percent and is used at least partially for social security.  Women can collect at 55; men at 63 years of age.  It costs $30 per college semester and $60 for room and board.  Just a few little tidbits.
The train ride was fun and we did get a few facts so it was worth it.  Plus we saw the canal alongside the railroad and could see an occasional ship traveling along.
I love the color of their train.
In looking at the dense brush and trees and thinking of battling diseases such as malaria, you can only imagine how hard it was to clear this land to build a railroad and a canal.  It took a lot of people to make it happen.  Now there are about 10,000 employees for the canal operation. 
Then it was another bus ride to our destination, the Gatun Locks, with a little snack and a sandwich.  It was not up to our usual standard, but the little box the snacks came in was very cute. 
The snack box was provided by the Panama Canal Railway.
The Gatun Locks were very interesting as our Island Princess ship would be proceeding through them the next day. 
This year marks 100 years of service.
The Island Princess is the largest-size ship that can proceed through the locks although there is currently a project underway building a new set of locks that can accommodate larger ships.  The current locks are 110-feet wide and 1,000-feet long.  The new locks will be 180-feet wide and 1,480-feet long with a budget of $5.25 billion.  Right now they are ahead of schedule and under budget in the construction.
About 40 ships pass through the locks each day, and everything is measured and charged for.  The Island Princess passengers pay about $145 per person, which totals about $350,000 for our ship to pass.  It will take about 8 hours to make the trip and Princess Cruises makes reservations for passage time a year in advance.  However, it still may not happen exactly when you’ve scheduled it. 
This ship is in the lock before the water level has been lowered.  You can see the double gates that are in place to protect the water in the event a ship hits the first one.

The water level has been lowered and the engines are helping it through.  There are ropes attached to keep them from bumping from side-to-side and to help pull them through.

The ship has gone through the locks and is heading out into the Caribbean Sea. 
The Gatun Locks have double gates to protect the water in case a ship should lose an engine or have another problem and accidentally ram the first gate.  There has never been an incident.  The water to fill the locks or release the water transfers the water at 26-million gallons of water a minute, in a time frame of 8-10 minutes.  It’s a gravity system using 100 valves. 
After our tour there was a gift shop so I purchased a couple of small items and asked for my change in Panamanian money.  I got Balboas, which are the coins for their money.  Paper money is something different and I didn’t get any of that.  Then it was a bus ride back to the docks and back to our mother ship. 
As a side note to everyone, I’ve not hit a single Harley shop on this cruise … there may be some but I’ve not seen one.
And to finalize a wonderful day, Jaz and I have booked our next cruise … 31 days, on the Golden Princess.  We’re leaving Buenos Aires and going around Cape Horn.  Woo hoo.  Cruising rocks!!
Night set as we lay anchored in the harbor.  We'll pass through the canal tomorrow.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Costa Rica coming up

Another day ashore coming up …

Friday, Day 6.  Today is a sailing day as we wander down the coast toward Costa Rica.  It was another gym day as well.  And a laundry day.  We did find time to squeeze in some fun in the morning, first with me doing a little Zumba with the class, and then with bingo, which we did not win.  It’s kind of a lazy one with trying to work on blogs and prepare for our day ashore tomorrow.  It’s easy to fill up the time … the casino, of course (loser although I played on their money, too, for a while), a show with a singer/comedian/impressionist and balloon animal making.  What?  Fun, but I could have probably skipped that one as my dog looked pretty sad and my bunny?  Well, let’s just say no kid would want it and it will remain on board when I leave.

That's a pretty pathetic dog.
Disaster struck.  It had been a day with high winds, at times reaching 32 knots, and we had created a vacuum with the balcony door open and the door opening between the hallway and the room.  The bunny made a getaway.  It disappeared … Jaz had seen something fly by the window and the bunny came up missing so we assume it has become lost at sea or shark bait.  Oh well, except it was the better of my two balloon animals. 

Saturday, Day 7 … Costa Rica.  We made shore about 7 a.m. and had to be at our excursion meeting point by 7:40.  An early wake up was difficult.  No gym time today.

Neither of us had slept well but we were up and at ‘em and ready to go at the designated time.  We were greeted with another photo op with local ladies in fancy, colorful dress, peasant-style blouses and ruffled skirts in bright, rainbow colors.  Then we were off.

We were told Costa Rica is famous for its colorful oxcarts.  We only saw one on the lunch table.
Christopher Columbus named Costa Rica, which means rich coast.  There are 1,200 varieties of orchids, one of which is the national flower.  Costa Rica is also known for its colorful oxcarts (although we did not see any).   
The Norwegian Cruise Line ship is quite colorful.

Both ships together looked as though they were at the starting line of a race.
Our tour leader, Masiel, was a lovely young lady with a fountain of information.  There are five main exports.  They make Intel computer chips, microchips and other computer ware (1), tourism (2), pineapple (3), bananas (4) and coffee (5).  Coffee was once the Number 1 export due to the perfect growing climate, but now has dropped to Number 5.

There has been no army since 1944 and all of that money now goes toward funding education.  Children are required to go to school and the public education continues through college.  Wow.  You can kind of tell (at least where we were driven) that the education level is higher.  They teach conservation and recycling beginning at a young age and you don’t see the trash in the small towns or along the road that we saw in Guatemala.  Single mothers are paid by the government to collect trash.  (Wish we used our welfare system at home to have folks to do that for checks.  It would certainly clean up our state.) The average wage is $600 per month or more (compared to the $300-$350 per month in Guatemala), the crime rate is about 7 percent and taxes are 9 percent and are used to fund their social security system and healthcare.  After a day of staying here, if something were to happen, they would care for us at a medical facility.  But there was no need to find out.
The tram ride was fun although we didn't see many birds.
The excursion we had chosen had three parts to it, the first of which was an aerial tram through the rain forest.  The tram was built using a helicopter to transport the building materials, including towers and cables, so they did not damage the rain forest.  The rain forest, even in the dry season, is mostly lush, green and quite beautiful.  We flew above small creeks and near a waterfall.  You could hear the water flowing over the rocks and down to the pool below.  You could also hear the birds and occasionally spot one although they were quite elusive.  A small brightly-colored little bird and a toucan were spotted.  We saw the toucan’s big beak as he flew off through the foliage.  It was pleasant, especially since the tram was covered and it had become quite hot; with the humidity, by the time we dropped back down for lunch, I was getting quite warm.

The story goes that the owner cut down many trees to build this home and now there's a lot erosion eating away at the hill.

Beautiful plants were everywhere.  Green, green, green.

This was either a wasp's nest or a termite next.  I'm not sure.  To me it looks like an animal skull.

The next leg of our tour was to walk a nature trail with our next guide telling us of the plants, many of which had blossoms or the start of them and many of which are medicinal.  There was also an exhibit of snakes … yuk!!!

Not a lot of flowers were blooming, but these were beautiful.

A snake skeleton is really the only snake I enjoy seeing.

Spider webs like these catch hummingbirds.  Too bad.
We were taken back to a large covered patio type of area where we had lunch, local-style cuisine.  It was fajita-style meats, rice and beans, steamed vegetables and lots of fruit.  We’ve eaten a lot of fruit on this entire trip, mostly pineapple, because it’s been so wonderful, juicy and sweet, unlike anything we ever get at home.

After lunch we wandered through the gift shop.  I had another sample of coffee, and bought more.  I will have a wealth of coffee when I return home.  It’s the main souvenir I’ve been collecting.  When I paid for it I also received a few local coins in return.  I wish I’d thought to get some of them in Guatemala.  We also learned that $500 colones equal $1 American.  A useful fact.  I spent thousands of colones on coffee.  It will be worth every penny, too, when I enjoy this coffee at home.  (I’ll share with you, Hobbs.)

The last leg of the excursion was a river boat ride on the Tarcoles River.  We learned that the Amazon River ends in Costa Rica and that there are 109 species of bats living here, roughly 12 percent of the world’s population.  This was the best part of our day as we saw Cayman crocodiles and more than 30 species of birds out of the 58 that live here.  A photographer’s dream was right before our very eyes.  Too bad I’m not a photographer as many are blurred from the boat movement and the rocking action on the river.  But I did get a few and the eye is close to being in focus. 

My crocodile shots weren't the best, but you can sure get the idea you don't want to mess with them.

Another crocodile.

A snowy egret.
It was exciting to also see a Peregrine falcon in the wild since we have one at Bird TLC.  They are even more beautiful to see where they are flying free.  The other bird that was really exciting to see was a crested caracara.  Jaz and I had seen one in a rare sighting in California a year or so ago that a birder had spotted and pointed out to us.  This was way better as we were closer and could see more how they look. 
Another egret.

A little blue heron.  They're this beautiful dusky blue and are spectacular.

A yellow headed caracara.

A tropical kingbird.

We saw herons, egrets, a wood stork and so much more.  Everywhere we looked there were birds, including one rarely seen … a yellow warbler with its distinctive red marking.  It was a birder’s paradise, and Jaz and I aren’t even birders although we certainly like to chase after and photograph them.

Probably my best photo ... little blue heron.

A snowy egret.

A wood stork.

Another caracara.
Then it was time to get off our riverboat and get back to the fruit buffet they had set up for us, complete with marimba players.  Marimba music is quite cheerful and it makes you want to dance. 

Our marimba players.
We reboarded our bus and headed back to the ship.  We had been told there might be a delay as there was a festival going on along the beach where we would be joining our ship again.  But I didn’t notice any delay.

We noticed a little graffiti, but not so much.

Had to throw in a license plate.
The two ships ... a pretty cool shot, I think.
Before we get on board, there's always a cool face cloth to wipe our wearied and sweaty brows.
As we watched the sun going down and the last of our fellow ship mates board, we spotted what appeared to be a charter fishing boat coming alongside the Island Princess.  Would you believe some guy mooned us?  What?  The boat came around and passed by in the other direction.  This time we were treated to three guys and their little white butts hanging over the side.  It was quite disconcerting … one moon, three moons?  The brilliant white shine was almost enough to blind you.  And I thought my legs were bad enough.  Haha.

It was a great day.  Some of the road we had traveled was part of the Pan American Highway, a road that my now-deceased friend David Brown had wanted to travel.  It was his dream, and while it didn’t happen for him, I was hoping maybe he was looking down, watching as I was able to travel on it, and thinking of him for a few moments.  RIP, David, my friend.
A sailing ship in the distance as we said our good byes to Costa Rica.

Back on the ship we noticed that there was now more than the ordinary effort being put into cleanliness in the Horizon Court, the main area where we’ve been having our meals.  We were now being served rather than serving ourselves, and the servers were wearing the plastic saran-wrap-looking gloves.  There were also no salt or pepper shakers on the tables and you really had no opportunity to touch anything in the way of food.  Chairs and tables both are being wiped down and there are a lot more servers and oversight .  We wondered to ourselves if someone had gotten ill.

And then, just as we were leaving the dining area, our Captain came on the loud speaker.  He regretted to inform us that there had been an outbreak of the Norovirus, and that is why they were were using more precautions.  We were advised to wash our hands frequently and to call 911 immediately if certain symptoms made an appearance. 

What an adventure we are having.  That announcement has not dampened our enthusiasm for sailing and certainly not for Princess Cruises.  We’ve having fun, we’re experiencing all types of things we’d not be doing at home, visiting a variety of countries I never thought – nor really wanted to visit – and are having an excellent time.  It’s been a pretty constant high-70s-80 degree weather with calm or slight seas … and the warmth and soothing sound of the waves is relaxing beyond words.