January 11, 2016

World Cruise 2016 Day 6

Day 6 - Traversing the Panama Canal. We line up with many other ships to enter the first locks on the Atlantic side of the canal. The canal operates basically the same today as it did when it first opened in 1914. Since that time over 1 million vessels have used the canal. The process is slow but steady. All ship movements are scheduled with precision to maximize traffic flow.

The day is mostly sunny, with high humidity, and temperatures in the middle nineties. Rain stays away until about 30 minutes after we complete our transfer. Throughout the day the staff is serving water, juices, and fruit snacks in all the areas where passengers are likely to be watching the canal process.

One of the more obscure facts about ships using the canal is that total control and responsibility of the vessel is turned over to the canal pilots. This is in sharp contrast to harbor pilots required in most ports of the world where they serve in an advisory capacity with the captain still in control and still ultimately responsible for the ship.

Work is nearing completion on a third set of locks which will double the capacity of the canal and allow much larger ships to pass. Opening is expected in May of this year. Not surprisingly, many of the newest ships including Oasis class ships are too large for the new larger locks.

In addition to the new locks, a new highway bridge is being built on the Atlantic side, and after its completion, the existing bridge will be removed as there is not enough clearance.

As we enter the Pacific, there are about 15 to 20 ships waiting to enter the canal. We anchor overnight about five miles from Panama city, often called the Dubai of Central America. Tenders, actually ship lifeboats, will run for a few hours tonight and most of the day tomorrow to the closest harbor, Fuerte Amador.

The dining room is decorated with a Panamanian theme, the staff are all dressed in white jackets and wearing white Panama hats which are also provided to all the guests.

I learn at dinner, that at least one passenger was removed from the ship yesterday after suffering a heart attack, a second passenger suffered a broken leg, and a third a broken arm. I can't imagine the ship Doctor's charges for any of these. The retired oral surgeon that went to the medical facility for some aspirin for a head ache was charged $95 for a handful of aspirin and a quick check of his blood pressure.

Our entertainment tonight is Shirley Dominguez, a composer and harpist from Montevideo, Uruguay. She performs world wide and has had contracts with Holland America for 15 years. She just came from another HAL ship today, and will be leaving tomorrow. Not what many of would think of as typical cruise ship entertainment, but in my opinion definitely a step up from the ear deafening noise produced by many "musicians" today. Obviously many passengers agree as the theater was full.

World Cruise 2016 Day 5

Day 5 – Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. We arrive at port right on schedule at 7:00 AM. My excursion today combines a bus tour thru the countryside, a short but long ride on a narrow gauge train, (the reason I chose this tour), some time exploring the Tortuguero Canals and a stop at a banana plantation. The weather again is still perfect, sunny, humid, with temperatures in the high eighties, but no rain.

The first part of the bus ride takes us from the port thru some of the city. Buildings are primitive by US standards with little indication of automobile ownership. According to our guide, average local income is about $400 per month. For those workers fortunate enough to have jobs with the major banana producers, they earn about $700 per month plus free housing.

Almost everything is surrounded by fences with razor wire around the top, and steel bars across all windows. We pass a refinery where oil from Venezuela is refined for local consumption. Part of the same port handles all of the banana exports for the country.

A new mega-port is under construction, but our guide is not optimistic of its success because supporting infrastructure such as roads is non existence.

The railroad was built in the late 1800's to haul coffee to the coast. After 2 failures, first by Italian workers, then Chinese, Jamaican workers finally succeeded. After the government refused to pay the bill for building the railroad, the builder took ownership of a swath of land 5 miles on either side of the railway from the sea coast to the foot of the mountains where coffee is grown. The locals thought the land to be useless, however today it is the worlds third largest exporter of bananas, a crop that didn't exist when the railroad was built.

Our train speeds along at a top speed of about 5 MPH for about an hour with frequent stops to view wildlife. The open air cars are about 60 years old, and the diesel engine not much newer. The track is in terrible shape, and is now only used for this very limited tourist train. Without investment it will only be a few more years before the track is impassable.

The canal ride into the jungle on pontoon boats resulted in many sightings of sloths, monkeys, birds, and butterflies. We did not spot any of the 60 some species of poisonous snakes found in Costa Rica. Our tour guide with 29 years of experience was fantastic. Eyes like a hawk for spotting wildlife, and very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the wildlife and history of his country.

The banana process facility is most remarkable by its lack of mechanization. The bananas are washed with a garden hose, cut to smaller bunches by hand, washed in a chlorine solution and then packed by hand for transport to the container ships for export around the world. Packers are skilled at selecting the right combination to fill the 42 pound boxes, they don't use scales. There is one conveyor belt to lift the crates from the packing area to the trucks, and large water tanks with pumps to circulate the water move the bananas from the sorters to the packers. The building isn't much more than a tin roof in the jungle. The bananas are brought from the fields to the facility by hand. All workers ride bicycles to the facility.

On our way back to the ship, the driver stopped and bought bananas for everyone. If you ever taste a fresh picked ripe banana, you may never want to buy at the grocery again. The difference in taste is indescribable.

The bus goes back to the port. I wander the local souvenir shop, and find it impossible to buy anything. I did take lots of pictures, but I won't even attempt to post any until the internet is working better.

We are scheduled to leave at 4:00 when the Captain announces he will be waiting a short time for several missing passengers. We finally depart at about 4:30. It is speculated that a tour was late in returning, but I don't know for sure. Usually a ship will only wait for passengers that are on an excursion purchased from the ship. If a passenger does his own thing, and misses the boat, is is suggested that he take a nice picture as the ship leaves the port.

Many cruisers have heard of or know about Dolly, probably the undisputed queen of cruise ship passengers. She was at the next table in the piano lounge before dinner last night. Dolly is very spry at about 97, basically lives on the ship, and this is World Cruise number 25 for her. I have overheard other passengers describing her as very demanding, I have no opinion at this point. Yes, I know lack of opinion comes as a surprise to some of you.

Tonight we have our first "repeat" entertainment. The Finkels are doing the main show again tonight. I think this might be because another main stage performer got on the ship in Port Canaveral, but none of her luggage, including her musical instruments.

I elect to pass on the show tonight as I was up at 6:30 this morning, and we move our clocks ahead 1 hour tonight. A surprise I wasn't expecting. Most of tomorrow we will be traversing the panama canal. Not an event I want to sleep thru.