This is a blog featuring my personal stories of food, gardening, yachting, photography, travel and life.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Panama City and The Canal!

Day 10--December 23rd

A very early rise this morning. We had a shore excursion into Panama City, both the old "vieja" and the new. I'm not quite sure why this is called Fuerte Amador and not Panama City, but there you are.

The interior of the tender taking us ashore in Panama.
Old town Panama City.
Here we were required to take a tender ashore. These boats double as life boats and normally tuck nicely up above the Promenade Deck. They must hold a good 60-70 people. It took about a 10-15 minute cruise into the breakwater and then we disembarked onto Flemenco Island just adjacent to a rather ritzy marina with, conveniently, plenty of fancy shops and restaurants. This is the outer most of the islands that sit adjacent to the canal entrance and were utilized as bases for protecting the canal entrance until recently. They were catacombed with tunnels for everything from storage to a safe haven for officers and their families during the cold war. The Smithsonian uses most of one island as a research facility and museum. Each of these islands are connected by a causeway built of the debris excavated out of the canal.

 We were whisked around in a small, well air conditioned shuttle led by a very knowledgeable, english speaking guide. He took us through the old city which is mostly either ruins, run down or on its way towards being restored depending upon where you are and its historic significance. We went into an old church with a beautiful gold alter, then a souvenir shop, then a short walk through the historic French area, then passed more souvenirs, etc. We did purchase a lovely bird mask for the walls in our office.

It rained and rained. We were soaked to the skin but we walked anyway. Back on the bus, we headed through the high rise new town much of which has been built since the Panamanian take-over of the canal. It is truly amazing to see from the sea. It looks like a modern, cosmopolitan city and it is. A new subway system, new roads, a new sewer system and restoration projects of the historic sites, long ignored, are all going on at a fast pace.

By about 12:30 we were back at the dock where we'd been picked up. Leslie decided to walk around the area ashore. She managed to overheat herself as the heat and humidity do not agree with either of us. I hopped on the next tender back to the ship, had a bit of lunch and hauled my aching heel up for a rest.
View back towards the new Panama City.

Leslie arrived back onboard about 4, too close for comfort for me. I was beginning to get worried and imagined all the horrible things that could have happened to her. Safe and sound, she walked in with a smile and a bottle of champagne she'd purchased at the duty free store on shore.

A tender heading back to the Coral Princess.
We walked up to dinner about 5:30, tired and ready for the evening. The dinner tonight, I must admit after all my complaining in yesterday's blog entry, was a huge improvement over the previous night, though my appie didn't start things out well. I ordered a calamari  dish which arrived colorless (after all, calamari alone is pretty much white). Leslie got the Swiss dried beef , which in hindsight I knew I should have ordered what with a Swiss Executive Chef. It was fantastic. I also ordered a wagon wheel pasta with a deliciously rich ox-tail ragout.

Our mains arrived next. My roasted rack of pork was perfect. It was accompanied by artichoke hearts, asparagus, carrots and potatoes with a rich sauce.

Leslie ordered a coq au vin to die for. A generous pile of her favorite mashed potatoes was the accompaniment.

We ordered a French Pinot Noir to go with our dinner and as we had every other time, asked for it to be decanted and, as before, our wait person went off a bit confused. But she returned a short time later with the sommelier we had met on our first night. He came to suggest we not decant this wine as it is a French wine and meant to open a bit at a time. He explained it in terms only a sommelier could and we learned a lot from his discussing it with us. He was still willing to decant it if we'd like. We appreciated his suggestion and went with it.

The dessert, an apple strudel and cheesecake were disappointing. We had our coffee and called it a night.

By the time we got back to our room and got comfortable, it wasn't long before we had turned out the light. Morning was going to come early with our transit of the canal.

Day 11: December 24th--Christmas Eve 2012

The Bridge of the Americas, the Pacific coast entrance
 to the canal.
We heard the tooting of horns and Leslie popped out of bed and drew the drapes back. There outside our cabin loomed the famous Bridge of the Americas. It spans the canal near Panama City and the opening of the canal. This bridge is the access for the Pan American highway that runs all the way from Alaska to near here. There is no highway into Columbia and no plans for one. You'd have to put your car on a ship and transport it south before connecting with the highway again. I'd read that the problem really is one of the incredible terrain in the way.

We passed under the bridge and into the Mira Flores locks, a set of two locks before entering Mira Flores Lake at 85 feet above sea level. The process was amazing to watch and as we'd been directed into the west lock, we were able to see the entire operation from our balcony seats. Four locomotives, or mules, drug us into place and held us in position as we eased into the narrow chamber. Only two feet of water on either side of the ship kept us from scrapping the side of the ship against the concrete lined chamber. The little electric locomotives were connected to us by 1-inch cables that were tightened and slackened as necessary, holding just enough tension to keep our bulk in line.

One of the friendly drivers of the mules.
The ride up was almost imperceptible. I only sensed our rise because I looked out the door, across the balcony and to a distant object which I could see moving in relation to my position.

Following the two locks at Mira Flores, we headed slowly across small Mira Flores Lake to the Pedro Miguel Lock, a single lock, a kind of bottle neck on the canal, and a further rise of 31 feet putting us at the 85 foot level of the Culebra Cut that leads into the giant Gatun Lake for the journey to the opposite coast. This lock was really cool because from  our 8th deck balcony we were almost level with the top of the chamber. As we rose in the lock chamber, we could dramatically watch as our ship rose up.

Off to our port side in the distance, we could see the new locks under construction. This would also be evident as we neared the Atlantic side on the canal at the Gatun Locks.

About 9:00 our breakfast was delivered by room service. We'd ordered it the night before figuring we'd be too wrapped up with the transit to go sit down in the dining room. So we watched the canal go by as we sat out on the balcony and ate our breakfast of mueslis, coffee, croissant and mimosas. Not a bad way to spend a morning.

Into the Culebra Cut we sailed next. The shoreline was so close on our starboard. I would judge the distance from our hull to the buoys marking the edge of the channel at no more than 25-50 yards. The land stretched away in a terraced fashion in order to cut down on the land slides which are, nevertheless, fairly common here. Evidence of the most recent one could be seen on our starboard.
Lining up the lock and preparing to enter.

Another site of interest to me were the many range markers that lined the shore. Lining up two or more of these in your sight line helps keep you in the middle of the channel.

Gatun Lake, at the time of its creation, was the largest man-made lake in the world until the Hoover Dam was built to contain Lake Mead.

The weather for our transit was bright and sunny, hot and humid. But at least there was no rain or clouds to muddle the photo ops.

Gatun Lake, the 2nd largest man-made lake in the world.
Along the way, as we entered Gatun Lake, the channel widened and our distance to those buoys lengthened to a more comfortable distance in some places. As we passed through the lake, along our port side, was a Celebrity cruise ship and one of the Windjammer ships--all in very close proximity given our sizes.

We came upon several types of dredging operations. The first was the oldest dredge on the canal which was outfitted with a grinding head that could crunch up harder materials and send them down a pipe system that lead to shore and into an area in the jungle. The water would eventually end up back in the canal while the sludge stayed ashore.
The oldest dredge in the fleet and the pipeline that carries
debris off into the jungle. 

Another dredge just dredged material off the bottom that had either sloughed off the shore or that had been dynamited by another rig whose job it was to drill holes in the bottom and pack them with the dynamite. After detonation, the dredge would come in and scrape the newly loosened material off the bottom.

Around noon the clouds began piling up and humidity increased markedly. It became just intolerable for me to be outside on the balcony for more than short periods. I could see the water vapor in the air, I swear.

The arrow indicates the lock the next ship is to enter.
The ship had a guide who spoke over the loudspeaker system and the TV system to let us know what we were seeing and what to look for. As he pointed something out on the starboard side, I would runout on the balcony and shoot a few photos before ducking back inside the cool cabin.

A view of the excavation for the new locks being  built.
After an hour or so of sailing across Gatun Lake, we finally arrived at the Gatun Locks near the old city of Colon. Here we stepped down to the Atlantic in three steps of 26 feet each. Our little locomotive mules tied up to us, as they had at the previous locks, and began to gently guide us into each of the three chambers.

After an hour or so and would exit the canal and enter into the Caribbean where we would sail on to Cartegena, Columbia tonight. It is supposed to be even warmer there.

Nav aids indicating the channel location.
Speaking of warm, if you are coming down here to get away from the snow and frigid temperatures of your current location, do think twice. It can get damn hot down here. The temperature might not even be so bad if it weren't for the double whammy of the humidity. That one-two punch is enough to overwhelm a lot of people who don't take proper precautions. One word. Hydrate! Do NOT underestimate the importance of drinking plenty of water every day. While it may require more toilet stops than usual, it is far better than having to be picked up off the sidewalk and hauled off to the infirmary to be intravenously hydrated. In some extreme cases it can be deadly. So, if you don't have a bottle of water and it costs $3.50 for a half liter, as it does aboard our ship, shut up and pay it. THEN, don't toss the bottle. Keep it and refill it everyday. Put it in that little fridge they provide in every room that really has has no other use. In the morning before you head out on your next adventure, put the ice cold bottle in your daypack and take sips every few minutes through out the day. If you run out, take time to slow down and stop in a cafe along the way for a drink and to sit in some shade.
Water flooding into the lock.

At exactly 2:20 pm we exited the last lock and sailed out into Limon Bay, past the cities of Colon and Cristobal.  A short distance later we exited out through the breakwater and into the Caribbean Sea.

It was an exhilarating day, fun, hot, educational, a once in a lifetime experience and a great way to see this amazing wonder of the world.

Gatun locks. The mules have to descend 26
feet in each lock.
The icing on the cake was having dinner at Sabatini's on board. As I reflected earlier, we have been very disappointed in the dining aboard. The main dining rooms, which are white table cloth, with waiters and menus, etc. are so very inconsistent with the quality of service and the food. Not what we'd remembered years ago on our last Princess Cruise.

But there are two dining options available aboard that cost extra. We elected to try Sabatini's just to see what it was all about. Oh my goodness! So that was where the service and food I remembered before had gone. It turns out now that you have to pay $25 each plus tip for the privilege of a wait staff who are truly attentive, don't race around the room at high speed and encourage you to take you time. And the food! Oh, my! We tried several appies that were to die for and our mains were exquisite. I had a 10 ounce grass-fed steak that was cooked to perfection. Leslie had lobster cooked three ways including a risotto and two lobster tails. Even the desserts were wonderful. The tables weren't on top of each other, the service was wonderful and we just had a beautiful time there.
The site where the canal ends on the Atlantic side.

To wrap this day up, I must say I am concerned about the canal's future. New canals are being built for the bigger ships being built today and, though managed by the Republic of Panama, it is truly an international project. But, what of the old locks which they intend to continue using? The idea here isn't to replace the original locks, but to increase capacity. No construction holds up well and certainly not forever in this kind of environment. Everything is eaten away by termites, salt water, plants that root almost anywhere here and phenomena I'm probably not even thinking of. But as I look at the infrastructure I see signs of wear that should have long ago been repaired or replaced. Some buildings look pretty worn out while others look well maintained. I don't know, it just looks like it needs some serious work. My concern is whether Panama has the money or the political will to keep it maintained, or will things begin to break down and at some key international crisis, will the necessary ships and their cargo be unable to get through. Panama doesn't exactly have a great track record avoiding coup d'etat or dictators taking control of the government.  Or, will Panama skim income from the canal off to build other civic projects it wants built such as their new subway and monorail systems and many other projects mentioned to us while we were visiting. Will Panama allow the canal to fall apart until someone else has to step in to fix it and what nation will that be?

I wonder if the U.S. didn't find it easier to give the canal to Panama because they saw the writing on the wall and didn't want to be responsible for continuing to maintain this vast, amazingly expensive facility. Only time will tell.