Tuesday, May 22, 2012

We're really back in SoCal...the Cruise finished, but our commentary didn't....

Well here we are in SoCal again and it looks like our blog ended with us just leaving LA for Miami via the Panama Canal. Here's the next installment in that saga. Along with a few pics. Will try to keep this up a bit more diligently as the spring rolls into summer early here in Corona, CA. Hope you enjoy:>

We docked early this morning at Fuerte Amador, Panama.....well, "docked" is not really the word....we anchored in the bay, and lowered the tenders from the deck (small boats holding maybe twenty people between inside and up on the deck), and had to take about a fifteen minute tender ride to get into town. 

Tom took the tender in early in the morning, in search of a real Panama Hat, (which are actually all made in Ecuador, but became popular in Panama after vendors from Ecuador marketed them in the early 1900s to the workers building the Panama Canal, then when Teddy Roosevelt, visiting the Canal project,  appeared in one in the newspapers, they were "Panama Hats" forever, despite their true origin. 

I, though, had a leisurely morning, then took the tender into town about lunchtime, where I met Tom, sporting his new Panama Hat, and we connected with the minibus that was to take us up into the hills to a rainforest preserve.

We learned one thing.....a sea that looks "calm as glass" to a ship the size of the Coral Princess, or on the webcam, is a completely different animal on a small boat....we lurched and rolled in the tender, and the waves looked huge, but I didn't get seasick at all, so was quite proud of myself.  

We drove about half the distance of the Panama Canal, to the midpoint of the canal, passing the prison where Manuel Noriega is now "in residence", having been returned from France to face another 20 years prison term here in Panama, and other interesting sites, then near the Culebra Cut and the Pedro Miguel locks of the Canal, drove up in the mountains to the reserve. 

Beautiful, preserved rain forest area, lots of birds, monkeys, several large rabbit sized rodents that I've forgotten the name, and lots and lots of butterflies. We went to a luxurious resort, where we had a "shopping experience", bathroom stop, view of the grounds, etc., then on to the ecological part of the tour.....

Atop the 10 story tower and Tom with his new Panama!
Once in the rainforest, we climbed up a ten story tower (well, not exactly climbed.....it was a large square tower, ten stories high, open, like the Eiffel Tower, but with ramps going up on all four sides, no steps.  So to get from one level to the next, you walked around all four sides of the structure, with each side's ramp leading you up 1/4 of a story, so the ramp wasn't too steep.  I don't think I could have DONE 10 stories of steps, but managed the ramp, although I was mighty glad to get to the top.  Coming down was a LOT easier. 

But, when we got to the top, it was surely worth it, because we had a wonderful bird's eye view of the Canal from the midpoint, looking both toward the Pacific and toward the Atlantic. Such an amazing accomplishment, even by today's standards, with today's equipment, and knowing that it was built at the turn of the 20th Century, more than a hundred years ago, in a tropical jungle, which at that time was rife with yellow fever, malaria and other diseases, which cost the lives of about 25,000 Canal workers, sobering. 

View of Canal and Gatun Lake
When we had looked our fill, down, down, down we went, around and around we went, ten stories down, and went to an ecological center with aquariums, reptiles, beautiful orchid gardens, and a large butterfly enclosure, where there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of brightly colored butterflies.

Finally, the minibus ride back to the Coral Princess, arriving at the dock in time to catch the last tender back to the ship.  Weren't too upset, though, because they check you off when you leave the ship and check you on when you get back, and if you are on a Princess tour, which we were, if you are late coming back, they won't leave you.  Something that is NOT true if you go off on your own, because when all THEIR tours are back, off they go, on schedule.  There is always talk of someone on a previous cruise who didn't make it back in time and had to fly to the next port of call, but we were safe from that. 

So, tired but happy, having seen lots of plants, animals, scenic vistas, etc., we pulled out of the harbor about dark, as Tom and I sat upstairs in the buffet by a window, watching the lights of Fuerte Amador, Panama disappear into the night, heading for the BIG one, going through the Panama Canal tomorrow. 

Thursday 12-29-11, Transit through the Panama Canal

We spent the night anchored just outside the entrance of the Panama Canal, together with several other ships waiting their appointed time to go through.   

Preparing to enter the first lock on the Pacific
Wake-up time was supposed to be 6 a.m., to be ready to enter the canal at 6:30 and the first locks at Miraflores locks about 6:40, but the tender gangplank is several decks below us, but on our side and almost under us, and we had our balcony door open slightly, so when the boat from the Canal authority came, bringing the pilot aboard (all ships take on a pilot, actually TWO pilots, expert in the transit of the Canal, who actually guide the boat through, although our Captain when asked, said slightly testily, "they are in an advisory role", hahahahaha), at 5:00 a.m., so we got up in the pitch dark, dressed, and were out on our balcony first, and then on the open part of our deck, forward, to watch us enter the Canal area, pass under the big bridge and begin to line ourselves up for the first lock. 

As we approached the first lock (there are two separate lanes of Canal), there was a huge car carrier in the one lane, and as we steamed toward the other one, we just had to trust that this big ship actually COULD fit into that small space, as we could see that the car carrier had only about a foot, maybe two on each side, and a bit more front and back. 

They threw our crew lines, and attached four huge lines to us one on each side in front and one on each side in back, as we entered the lock, and then five locomotive tugs held the lines to hold us steady in the locks.  The ship actually enters the lock under its own power, and the purpose of the lines is to hold it precisely in the middle of the lock so the ship isn't damaged by hitting the sides. 

Once you are in the lock, they let in water and raise the level to the water level of the next lock, and once you're at that level, the big gates open and you steam into the next lock at a higher level.  There were two locks to go through at Miraflores, then a short trip across Miraflores lake, and into the lock at Pedro Miguel.  Once those three locks were accomplished, there we were, lifted up across the Continental Divide, and sailing along on Gatun Lake.  This whole process took some hours, until almost lunchtime. 

We're finally there!
By then, we were very tired from standing all morning, and getting up at 5 a.m., so we repaired to our balcony for some sit down time, and a lovely room service lunch (club sandwiches, flan, homemade chocolate chip cookies, tea and coffee.....yeah, I know, I'm hopelessly off my eating plan, despite my best efforts.....MUST do Weight Watchers boot camp as soon as we return to undo the damage.  I've been walking a LOT, but surely have gained, hope not too much). 

Room service here on the ship is very nice.....cloth napkins, heavy china, covers on all the stuff, little china pitchers of cream for your coffee........as we came across Gatun Lake to the final locks on the Atlantic side, we sat and munched our lunch on the balcony, then arrived at the Gatun Locks that would take us back down to sea level and spit us out into the Carribean.  We did the same process coming through the Gatun locks as the others, except in reverse, as we entered the locks on high water, then the water was drained out to bring us down to the level of the next lock, and when that was achieved, we sailed into the lower lock. 
The Culebra cuts at the Continental Divide...most difficult excavation of the entire canal project
Looking back at Gatun Lock heading into the Caribean

Finally, we sailed out into the Caribbean, had fun looking at all the ships anchored at the Atlantic end of the Canal, waiting to transit, but then collapsed and took a nap.

SO, the major purpose of the cruise has been achieved, but we still have plenty of fun and things to look forward to.  Tomorrow we make a stop in Cartegena, Colombia, and we'll be doing a tour of the old part of the city, then several hours on our own just to wander around and see stuff.  Then the next day, we make a stop in Aruba.

We know we had arrived on the Atlantic side though, both because the color of the water is different, AND, boy was it humid!!! 

At present, large container ships that are too big to fit in the locks  must unload on one end of the Canal, move their freight by the Panama Canal Railroad to the other side, then reload onto container ships waiting on the other side.  When the new locks are completed in 2014, they will be much larger (who knew in 1900 how big ships would be today?  at that time, they built the canal plenty big enough for the biggest ships they could contemplate), and after 2014, we'll be back to that situation again.  Who knows what will happen in another hundred years? 

The new locks will be alongside the old ones, which will continue in use, for the smaller ships, so the capacity of the Canal will be greatly increased as to the number of ships that can pass through and backups will be rare, they hope.