PANAMA CANAL CRUISE
January 27 - February 7, 1999
On Wednesday morning, six days after leaving our home in the mountains, the time for departure for our Panama Canal Cruise had come. We'd spent a week visiting family and friends in Florida before settling our Airstream in the Ransone Courtesy Parking spot in Riverview.
At 11:00am a limousine picked us and our luggage up for the run to Tampa International Airport. Checking in early at the American Airlines counter, we were told that an earlier flight to Miami was boarding right then. So, our tickets were quickly changed and we climbed aboard a little propjet American Eagle shuttle to Miami. From Miami we flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico where a shuttle bus was waiting for the drive to dockside where we boarded the Norwegian Dynasty.
The Dynasty is the smallest ship in the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet. We spent a couple of hours after dinner exploring the vessel - the shops, the gym, the library, the casino, the lounges, the dining rooms, and the several open decks. We were among 800 passengers and 320 crew members. The Dynasty was a new vessel, built in 1993 in Valencia, Spain. It is 537 feet long and 75 feet wide with a cruising speed of about 20 knots. There were eight decks fitted out with fancy gold trim. Among other features, one of the more remarkable was that the ship produces all its own water - 400 tons per day - in a desalinization process. Our stateroom was on the sixth deck, about amidship, and about a dozen steps to the dining room.
The ship eased out of its slip at 10:00pm - and the voyage began. The first activity was an emergency drill where we met with life vests at assigned life boat stations for instructions on what to do if something bad happened. After an orientation in the Rhapsody Lounge where crew members were introduced, we finally got to retire to our stateroom for the night.
By 9:00am we were 140 nautical miles out to sea - the Caribbean - with no land in sight. The water was choppy, but there was only a gentle rock with the ship. Breakfast was buffet style with every breakfast food imaginable to eat - except grits. About noon the captain announced on the P.A. system that we were about halfway to our first port-of-call - Oranjestad, Aruba.
Upon awakening on Friday morning we found the ship docked on the leeward side of the island of Aruba, about 10 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Aruba is the northernmost tip of South America. The sun came up over the eastern horizon as we ate breakfast on the stern of the vessel.
Aruba is a Dutch island, about 20 miles long and six miles wide, with lots of cactus growing on the very arid looking landscape. The only agricultural product is aloe vera, the cactus-like medicinal plant that is used in skin lotions. There is an oil refinery on the island that, along with tourism, keeps the island economy going. There is no unemployment among the 85,000 permanent residents. On a tour of the island, we visited an aloe vera processing plant and drove over a very rough road along the rocky coast on the windward side. Breakers were hitting the rocks with tremendous force, shooting water fifty feet into the air. With no natural fresh water source on the island, a desalinization plant produces 12 ½ million gallons of water a day.
Pulling away from the Aruba dock promptly at 2:00pm, we thought we were on the way to our next stop at Cartegena, Columbia. Within ten minutes, however, a voice on the P.A. system called out, "Code alpha code alpha code alpha! To the pool deck to the pool deck!" An elderly Baltimore man had slipped on the deck and broken his hip. The decision was made to take him ashore to the hospital in Aruba. So, after hastily packing their bags, this man and his wife were taken ashore in the ship's tender while the ship circled around in the harbor awaiting the tender's return. Two hours later we were underway again.
By Saturday morning we were well along toward Cartegena. It was amazing how smoothly the ship rode through the heavy fifteen foot seas. We learned later that the ship was equipped with something like aelerons which created a hydrofoil effect and stabilized things. I took seasick pills the first day, but didn't like the drowsiness that went along with them and took no more. The only time I felt sickly was on the last day at sea going into Acapulco when the water was rough and we were crowded into a small room for disembarcation instructions. Even then, it quickly passed.
By mid-day on Saturday we could see the tall buildings of Cartagena - a much larger city than I expected. The approach to the harbor was guarded by a large, but apparently deserted fort. Atop a lonely mountain west of town was a monastery called La Popa. Buses met the ship at the pier to take those who wished on a tour of the city. While Cartagena appeared to be a large modern city, those who went on the tour were appalled at the conditions in the residential sections. They reported armed patrols and deplorable conditions everywhere. They were besieged by people begging for money at each stop. We were glad we chose to stay aboard ship. Instead of touring Cartagena, we took an opportunity to tour the bridge of the Dynasty. The captain explained that a new hull design was another reason why the ship handled rough seas so well.
The next stop was at the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. There were no port facilities, so the ship dropped anchor about a mile offshore. Immediately, the natives paddled out in dugout canoes with a singsong chant - "Money, money, money .!" Young boys dived for coins thrown in to them. Apparently, the water was so clear they could catch the coins before they sank too far. To exploit sympathy, many of the canoes had mothers holding small babies. Some were in brightly colored native costume, but most wore only bathing suits and swim masks. The ship put down two life boats to run a shuttle to one of the islands.
The Kuna Indians on the islands were crowded into bamboo huts with thatched roofs. The huts were almost wall-to-wall along dirt streets that were no more than six feet wide - just room for two way walking. The streets were lined with colorful things for sale - blankets, shirts, paintings, carved statues, iguanas, parrots, parakeets. The people were only about four feet tall, very courteous and polite - not exactly begging - but they were clearly looking for dollars. It cost a dollar to take their picture. For a dollar they would show the inside of their living quarters. The children were well behaved. Some of the men were squeezing sugar cane; some women were grinding grain - with very crude devices. All were dressed in colorful costumes with beads decorating their arms and legs and necks. It seemed a poor, but harmonious existence, in a beautiful seaside atmosphere, but it wouldn't take much of a wave to wash completely over the little flat islands. Apparently, that doesn't happen though. We spent an hour looking and walking, then re-boarded the shuttle back to the ship. The armada of canoes stayed with the ship until we sailed again at sunset.
As we pulled away from the San Blas Islands, it was announced over the P.A. system that an arrangement had been made to tap into the ESPN feed of the Super Bowl back in Miami. So, we watched the football game - without commercials - on the TV in our cabin.
At 6:30am on Monday morning, the captain announced that we were approaching the first set of locks in the Panama Canal. We hustled to get dressed and up to the bow of the ship, only to find that every inch of space along the rails had already been taken. Some of these folks must have been waiting there for hours. I found a spot behind a spotlight where I could stand on a little rail and lift the camera above the light to take pictures. We entered the first of the three Gatun locks at 7:30am. Eight hours later we cleared the last of the locks at Mira Flores. What a day! What an experience!
The Panama Canal is 50 miles long, running from the city of Colon on the Caribbean side to Panama City on the Pacfic. An average of 38 ships per day transit the canal, saving some 8,000 miles and 20 days time from the old route around South America. The magnitude of the effort to build the canal is almost beyond comprehension. Started by the French in 1870, over 300 million cubic yards of material had to be dug out and loaded onto railroad cars for removal. If that much material were loaded on a single train, the train would be long enough to circle the earth four times at the equator.
The French worked for 25 years before giving up in frustration. They were beaten by disease and financial corruption. After much study and debate, the United States took over the project in 1902 when Teddy Roosevelt threw his political influence behind it. In addition to the huge job of digging through the Continental Divide, medical history was made with the success won against yellow fever and malaria. Even so, 25,000 lives were lost before the canal was officially opened on August 15, 1914.
It seems incredible that it was not until 1906 that a decision was made to create a lock system. Prior to that the goal was to build a sea level canal. However, a sea level canal would have required the removal of at least twice as much material and would have taken at least ten more years to complete.
Each lock is 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. At Gatun, there are three such chambers to raise vessels 85 feet to the level of Gatun Lake - a huge fresh water lake, made by the damming of the Chagres River. To accommodate two-way traffic, each lock has a twin at its side. Two vessels can be lifted to the lake at one time, or one can be raised while another is being lowered. We went through on the left set of locks while a cargo ship was being lifted on the right side. There were seven ships waiting in the lake to descend to the Caribbean when we came out of the third lock.
Gatun Lake is a beautiful, clear water lake with former mountain tops appearing as islands - much like our own Lake Chatuge back home. It was a 25 mile run on the lake to Gamboa and the beginning of the Cullebra (or Gailliard) Cut where all the digging took place. A continuing battle is being waged there to keep the canal clear from landslides. Dredges were at work as we passed, cleaning up the latest of the slides. In the cut the water changed from clear to a caramel color. The Cullebra Cut is nine miles long.
Before long we arrived at a single lock at Pedro Miguel that lowered the ship 31 feet to Mira Flores Lake. Another mile and we were at the Mira Flores locks where in two steps we were lowered to the level of the Pacific Ocean. It was at Mira Flores 35 years ago that I toured the control room and got my first look at the Panama Canal. I was fascinated then by the simplicity of the control room. Instead of a confusing bank of meters and switches, there is a scale model of the locks on a flat table top. To open a valve or a gate, the operator simply goes to the table and flips a switch by the appropriate gate or valve. The scale model table is so constructed that it is impossible to perform a function out of sequence. A single operator can easily handle the entire operation.
To keep vessels centered in the lock chamber, four "mules," or engines, attached by cables to the "four corners" of the vessel, operate on a cogway rail system on either side of the lock, and follow the vessel through the locks. Ships, however, use their own power to propel themselves through.
Made of vanadium steel, the lock gates are the largest in the world - weighing between 400 and almost 800 tons each. They were manufactured in West Virginia and shipped to Panama for assembly. They are hollow - designed to "float" in the water, and therefore require only a 40 hp motor to swing them in and out. Remarkably, there were no leaks where the gates met in the center as the water was being lowered, despite the pressure of 30 feet of water on the other side. The precision of these huge mechanisms is amazing. The fact that they are still functioning perfectly after 85 years is even more so.
Statistics are all in the superlative for the canal. Here's a few: 61 million pounds of dynamite were exploded during construction; 4.4 million cubic yards of concrete were poured into the lock structures; 52 million gallons of water are released from the lake to the oceans for each transit through the canal.
Our ship paid $75,000 to go through - and we were small. "Panamax" ships pay as much as $100,000. A "Panamax" ship is one designed to the optimum size for the Panama Canal (approx. 100 feet wide x 900 feet long). With an average of 38 ships a day, It doesn't take much calculation to conclude that there's a huge amount of money changing hands every day. A lot of questions are being asked about whether it can be handled without corruption once it is turned over to Panama at the end of 1999.
We exited Mira Flores about 2:00pm with still nine miles to go before reaching open water. At the end of that nine miles we sailed under the "Bridge of the Americas" which links the two parts of Panama. To the south the impressive skyline of Panama City was dominant. Thirty-five years ago there were a few tall buildings, but nothing like what is there now. The skyscrapers stretched for miles.
David McCullough's book, Path Between the Seas, is an excellent reference work about the canal. I read it a few years ago, but had forgotten many details. So, before embarking on this trip I bought another copy. Rereading it during the cruise has brought the story to life. I noticed several others doing the same on deck.
We sailed on into the night with some vivid memories of the fascinating canal experience. Another name has become a place in our minds.
The Pacific Ocean, at least at the start, lived up to its name - calm and peaceful. It continued so throughout the next day which was spent at sea as we approached our next stop at Puntarenas, Costa Rica. We walked a mile on that Tuesday - 5 laps around the ship - but it was mostly a lazy day, spent with much reading. I entered a ping pong tournament and was lucky enough to win - the Norwegian Dynasty championship.
Of the six Costa Rican tours that were offered, we chose the San Jose City Tour. San Jose is the capitol city. Costa Rica is a small mountainous country about the size of West Virginia, lying between Panama and Nicaragua. San Jose is about 65 miles inland, located at 3,000 feet elevation in what they call the Central Valley region. The two hour ride to get there was aboard an air-conditioned motor coach, travelling along a narrow, winding, heavily traveled, pot holey road - the Pan-American Highway. The Central Valley has ideal conditions for growing coffee. It is a volcanic soil, irrigated naturally by 200 inches of rainfall a year. The temperature is a constant 70 degrees, year around. It was startling to see mountains covered with palm trees and other tropical greenery. At about 2,000 feet we started seeing coffee plantations and many banana trees. In places the mountainsides were covered with neat rows of coffee bushes. There were also fields of sugar cane.
Our first stop was at small town of Palmares. This was merely a leg stretching stop, but the street vendors knew we were coming and had their wares ready. There were no beggars though. We made three stops in San Jose: The National Theater, the National Museum, and a plush hotel. At the theater, one of the tour guides told a dramatic story about the theater's history, to the accompaniment of a pianist. At the museum there were many artifacts of the Aztec and Mayan cultures found in the area. These were ornate granite carvings that included a number of large, perfect spheres. No one has been able to explain the purpose of these large spheres, but they were remarkable. Some were four feet in diameter. One sphere was found that was too large to move and still sits where it was found - only pictured in the museum. The museum would have been better appreciated had there not been so many people crowded in there. At the hotel we were served an elegant lunch, serenaded by local musicians on their guitars.
The Costa Rican government is the most stable of the Central American countries. Their last revolution was in 1948. They are very proud of their culture. While there was much evidence of poverty, there were no armed guards around - and no beggars. No mention was made of crime, but along the streets of San Jose, every business and every home was heavily barred - the windows and doors, at the outer edge of the porches, and around the yards.
On the way back to the ship we stopped at the little tourist town of Charsii, a unique place - the home of ox-cart art. The ox-cart is the national icon of Costa Rica. At Charsii, artists were building and painting ox-carts of all sizes - from small ones with magnets to attach to refrigerators, to full size, ready for hitching to a team. They are all ornately painted with bright colors and designs, and of course are all for sale.
We were an hour late arriving back at the ship, delaying departure by that long. As soon as everyone was back aboard, the ship again set sail. We sailed all night and another day to reach this port city of Puerta Quetzel, Guatemala. These full days at sea were a bit boring, but afforded a chance to relax and read. We both read five books. The Pacific Ocean remained calm.
The captain announced early on Thursday morning that a medical emergency had arisen, forcing a change of routing. Instead of following the coastline, we took a direct route across open water and arrived at the port on Thursday evening instead of Friday morning. An evacuation team was ready, and the sick man was flown back to his home.
Guatemala is the poorest of all the Central American countries. Those who took tours reported deplorable conditions in town. Some took tours to the Mayan ruins; others went in to Guatemala City. We walked ashore and visited a vendors' camp where all sorts of native craft were being sold. They had jade necklaces, bright colored blankets, tee shirts, leather goods, hats, and some Indian masks. They really latched on and were ready to bargain if you showed any interest in something. The prices seemed reasonable to start with, but they would bargain down to half at times. We bought a couple of trinkets. Seventy percent of the Guatemalan population are descended from the Mayan or Aztec cultures that existed here 2,000 years ago. The "politically correct" thing is to call them "indigenous people" instead of Indians.
We set sail at sunset for another night and day at sea before reaching Acapulco. It was on that last morning at sea - Saturday - that the Pacific roughed up. A 10:00am meeting in the lounge to discuss debarkation procedures brought in a crowd. The lounge was located near the bow of the ship. The rough seas, and the crowded, hot room with poor air circulation finally got to me, but it didn't last long. The seas calmed about noon, and remained that way all afternoon and all night, so all was well again.
We were already docked in Acapulco when we awoke at 5:00am on Sunday morning. Immigration officials were aboard and checking documents at 6:15am. The sun was not yet up, but the lights of the city showed we were in an unusual place. As it grew light the beautiful harbor came alive. We were inside an enclosed bay fully surrounded by mountains.
Acapulco is a flourishing city of some 2 million residents. Hotels on the beaches abound - and huge new ones are being built constantly. The mountainsides are covered with residential housing - from small homes to giant sized mansions - the playground of the rich and famous.
A dozen immigration officials were at a long table in the ship's large showroom. They were well organized - handling the 800 passengers in less than an hour. We had filled out forms the day before, so it was merely a matter of checking passports or birth certificates and stamping the forms. We had also filled out a customs form, but that was never asked for. Our luggage, which was placed outside our room the night before, was waiting for us at the airport.
We signed on for a 3-hour tour of Acapulco arranged by the cruise line during the morning. Our tour guide was a young man who did an excellent job of acquainting us with his city. He told of istory and growth while describing the scenery as we passed by. Our first stop was for a special showing of the famous cliff divers. We climbed down several flights of steps to a viewing area at a cove off the open ocean as seven or eight lean young men scrambled over the rocks on a cliffside 120 feet above the water. Before each dive, the diver knelt at an altar on the mountain to pray. He then found a spot and waited for a wave of his liking before taking the plunge. In one instance two divers went in together. On a beautiful clear day, the performance was stunning.
The tour bus took us through the old part of the city, then along the beach and up into the mountains for a fantastic view of the city. We stopped for picture taking a couple of times. The last stop was at a new hotel called the Mayan Palace which is open but not yet complete. When finished it will have over 3,000 rooms and a mile long swimming pool that parallels the beach. Five minutes later we were at the airport which is also near th
e beach. Our guide said that rumor had it that the hotel interests were dickering to have the airport moved back away from the coastline to open up more room for hotels. We found our luggage and checked into Delta for the long ride home. We cleared customs and changed planes in Atlanta, then arrived in Tampa about 10:30pm. An hour later we were in our own beds at the Ransone's Courtesy Campground in Riverview. It had been a long day - a long trip - but a tremendous experience. The Norwegian Cruise Line is a first class operation. They fed us well, gave us first class entertainment, and planned good tours. The ship was clean, and the crew was always anxious to please. We would recommend NCL to anyone.
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