Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Day In Costa Rica

Costa Rica

Mmmmm, room service for breakfast!!

We arrived in the port near Puntarenas, Costa Rica, on the Pacific Coast. Costa Rica is bordered on its West by the Pacific and on its East by the Caribbean. In the center of the country is its capital, San Jose. 

The country has a population of 4.2 million.  They hope to be carbon neutral by 2021. They also hold the number one position on the Happy Planet Index as the happiest country. 

Costa Rica literally translates to Rich Coast. Their main exports are mangoes, watermelon, and cashew nuts. Bananas and coffee are also big exports. 

This land has been inhabited since about 10,000 BC. One of the cultural mysteries left behind are thousands of spherically shaped granite bolas, found along its Pacific Coast. The bolas range in size from a baseball to ones larger than a VW bug. 

They've been independent since 1821 and have had no military since 1948. 

I had put together a private tour for the day and had managed to get 19 of us together so the tour company, Gio Tours, had two 12-person vans waiting for us. Our ship arrived in low tide and so it made it quite difficult for passengers to disembark because we had to walk up a very steep ramp from the ship to the dock. And, there was only one door open, so imagine 900 passengers lined up all at once trying to get out. Add to that about 50 or more wheelchairs and electric scooters. It took more than an hour for some people to get off the ship so our tour ended up starting over an hour late. 

All was well, however. Our guides, Jesus and Ray, soon taught us the term Pura Vida, which means pure life and it is a term they use freely and often. Loosely translated it is "it's all good". I guess that's why they rank number one on the happy planet index. 

We started our tour with a short drive to a private home/farm where there were about 70 white-faced Capuchin monkeys. We were able to feed them banana pieces and they would come up to us and gently uncurl our fingers and take the bananas from our hands. Some would climb up us and sit on our shoulders eating their bananas. They were very gentle and sweet.

After visiting the monkeys we had a nice drive south past various plantations and beautiful scenery, finally reaching the Tarcoles River. 
There, we boarded a 30-seater small covered riverboat (think Disney's Jungle Boat) and set off on a nearly 2-hour River cruise to see crocodiles and birds. 

And did we see crocodiles! Mama mia yes we did! Lots of them, from baby ones sunning themselves on logs to crazy big ones hungry for a snack. Our boat driver would pull us up next to the bank, get out with a big piece of chicken and "encourage" the croc to come up out of the water and "jump" for that chicken. Yikes!!!  

It was a really nice river cruise. Our boat had a roof so we were shaded and the open sides allowed a nice breeze to keep us feeling cool. We saw lots of beautiful birds, plants, horses and even a young Brahma bull running alongside the river bank. The river route took us all the way out to where it meets the ocean.

After this we piled back into the vans and headed up the road a little bit to a restaurant for a nice lunch. We had meat, rice, black beans, potatoes and green beans and salad. Washing the food down were delicious mango smoothies and some local beers. 

After lunch we stopped off at a private resort called Nativa where we were able to drive out to a lovely vista. From there we could see across east towards the mountains and north and west along the ocean coast.

We were able to enjoy a sighting of a group of lapa rojas. They are huge red parrots of a sort and they were busy flying around the trees. You can usually find them in pairs (they mate once, for life) near the tropical almond tree, as that is what they enjoy eating from. 

It began to rain quite heavily while we were stopped at a store shopping for some coffee and other souvenirs. Our day was drawing to a close so we got back into the vans and turned towards the port.

One of our guides, Jesus, suddenly yelled excitedly to the driver to stop, and he hopped out of the van and ran across the road to a small tree  he pulled off a large lead and brought it with him back to the van. We then drove over to an open and covered area and got out. Jesus then had us all rub the lead with our hand, down and up. Then we felt our hands and they were butter soft! Next, though, he began testing up this bright green leaf into small pieces. He bunched the pieces into his fist and began squeezing really hard. Giancarlo the driver poured a few drops of water from time to time into Jesus's fist and suddenly, as Jesus squeezed the liquid into his other hand, the clear water turned blood red! It was a chemical reaction of the water and the plant leaves.  Really cool!

Soon back at the port, our lovely day and small taste of beautiful Costa Rica was ending. Oh well, Pura Vida!!!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Transiting the Panama Canal

Today was our Panama Canal transit. It started early. We entered the Canal about 5:00 AM and got up on to the firs set of Locks (Gatun) about 7:30. There is a steady amount of traffic flow so we had to wait our turn. 

Here's a brief history of the Panama Canal:

The whole purpose of the Canal was to significantly shorten the amount of time for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Instead of having to travel south around Cape Horn, which was pretty hazardous was much longer as well. 

The French made the first attempt at building a canal through this Isthmus of Panama. They began in 1881. However, they lost over 25,000 people working on it, primarily due to malaria and yellow fever. Before work could continue there needed to be a solution found to dragster dice the deaths from these diseases. And to do that they needed to find out what caused the diseases. 

Eventually it was discovered that the mosquito was the cause so efforts were undertaken to eliminate both the number of and the spread of mosquito bites which caused the disease. 

The French went bankrupt and no further significant efforts were made until the U.S. acquired the rights to build it. We can credit Teddy Roosevelt for making this happen. Much like President Kennedy did in the early 60's with the push for landing a man on the moon, so did Teddy regarding the Canal. He sent his Secretary of State John Hay to negotiate a treaty with Colombia (owner of Panama at the time) and in 1903 the treaty was done. 

It took about 10 years to build the canal. In contrast to how many men were lost to disease during the French attempt 20 years earlier the U.S. only lost about 5,000 workers. The successful mitigation of malaria made the difference. 

The Canal was completed and opened in 1914. It was finished six months early and came in under budget. And not a hint of scandal about the finances.  Now when was the last time that happened???!!!!

The U.S. Maintained control over the Canal until a new treaty was signed in 1977. There was a long transition period and full control was finally handed over to the Panamanians on 12/31/1999. The Canal remains today, one of the chief sources of income for Panama. 

That was the short version of the history of the Canal. I learned a lot more during the talks I attended but don't need to bore you all more than I already have on the subject. 

The Canal consists of artificial lakes. Gatun Lake in particular is an integral part of the success of the Canal. It was formed by building a dam and then the locks used to raise ships up 87 feet from the Atlantic Ocean to the lake are fed from the nearby Gatun River.  

There are a total of three sets of locks across the entire canal. The crossing is 88 kilometers, nearly 50 miles long.  It takes about 15 hours for a ship to transverse the Canal depending on traffic. 

In 2007 work began to expand the width of the locks so that the larger container ships and mega size cruise ships can get through. The current width limitation is about 110 feet wide. Our ship just barely squeaks by and we're a small ship. The new Canal locks will be 55 meters wide (180 feet). 
It is slated to open in 2016.

Some shots of our transiting, and then of Panama City on this night of a full moon.

Ft. Lauderdale to Panama Canal

Florida to Panama Canal

We were supposed to leave Ft. Lauderdale at 4:00 PM but during the day we had a hydro and then an electrical power failure onboard so we ended up leaving nearly 6 hours late. 

The captain did his best to make up the lost time but we ended up arriving into Cartegena 2 hours late. It was already a short day port visit. We got there at 9 and left at 1. We had a private tour booked and the tour operator, Dora, adjusted things and off we went. We toured the old walled
City and Dora gave us some interesting history of her city. 
Cartegena was settled by the Spanish in the early 1500's. Don Pedro Heredia was the explorer who named the city. The bay at the entrance to the city looked like the bay from his hometown of Cartegena Spain so he named it after that. 

Trade flourished over the next two centuries between Europe and South America and Cartegena was strategically located in a great spot so the city grew and flourished as well. 

In 1819 Colombia was liberated from Spain by Simon Bolivar, whom they still consider their national hero.

Here are some pics of our short tour/visit in Cartagena:

Our two days at sea were pretty uneventful. I developed a bit of a head cold a couple of days prior so I just tried to take things slow. I did learn how to play Bridge and Mahjong however. When I say "play" I mean that ever so mildly. In Bridge for instance, indoor yet know how to bid but I did learn the mechanics of the game. In Mahjong I learned a lot. It's a bit complicated because you've got to find a "plan" and then commit to it. To me it's a little like gin rummy but using tiles. There are a lot of rules though!

There's a history and political specialist onboard so every sea day he does a presentation. On both days he gave talks about the history of the development of the Panama Canal. I attended both of those. 

All in all its been a good cruise so far. 

Next up will be our transit through the Panama Canal. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Port Canaveral and Fort Lauderdale

Port Canaveral and Fort Lauderdale

Spent the day in Port Canaveral on a ship tour to the Kennedy Space Center. It was an 8 hour tour. 

It's a very impressive place and the tours well done. We got to see a number of Saturn rockets as well as the launch pads and the roads that the tractor thingies carry the missiles and shuttle to the launch pads. The roads are specially made as these spacecraft weigh millions of pounds. 

We also spent time in the Atlantis area where we saw the retired shuttle and got to use simulators to try to do things like land the shuttle (I crashed multiple times). 

Finally we saw a very cool 3D IMAX movie detailing the current Orion project which is all about sending manned spacecraft to Mars. The plan is for 2030. How exciting!

I managed to pick up a sore throat and runny nose overnight so today in Fort Lauderdale I was dragging a bit. 

This is a big port where a bunch of passengers got off (they had started in Quebec) and about 600 passengers got on. I had signed up for a land and water tour and spent an enjoyable half day driving through the city and learning some things about the history of this area. 

We also got to go on a riverboat cruise for about 90 minutes up the Intercoastal waterway where we saw some gorgeous waterfront homes along with matching mega yachts. I posted a number of photos on my Facebook page. When I get home I will post pics here but due to limited internet connectivity I can't do it now. 

We leave shortly, headed for Cartagena Colombia. We have two days at sea to get there. We will pass very close to Cuba on our way out tonight.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Boston to Port Canaveral


Boston to Port Canaveral 

My trip from Sacramento to Boston was fairly uneventful. I had a flight to Washington Dulles which then connected to Boston. 

I had been feeling a little under the weather so my hotel time overnight was not the most restful. I boarded the Veendam pretty early in the day and spent the afternoon unpacking and acquainting myself with the layout of the ship. I also did my best to rest. 

I had signed up for fixed dining at a table for six. The first night I ate alone until my dessert came at which point an older gentleman was seated at my table. He was very late and a bit of an annoyance. I made nice conversation with him through my dessert but then excused myself. I just didn't want to sit there while he ate three courses worth of dinner to catch up to me. 

The next night was a formal night and I sat there again all alone. Not my idea of a fun dinner. Jack, the man from the night before was a complete no-show. The dining room manager came by and we discussed my options. I decided to switch to open dining which will allow me to go to the dining room whenever I want, time-wise, and I can be seated with other people who are entering at the same time. There are some downsides to this eating arrangement but the upside for me will be that I will
Have companions to converse with at dinner. 

Before our stop at Port
Canaveral we had two days at sea. Day 1 I was feeling yucky and the seas were rough which just added to my overall malaise. I opted to lay low and try to rest. 

Day 2 was a whole new ballgame. I awoke feeling much better physically. Today was also the day I was to scatter my Dad's ashes at sea. I had arranged with the ship a few months ago to do this and when I checked in when I boarded the guest services were ready to make the time and day arrangements for me. I asked to do it early in the cruise when we were off the East Coast as my Dad had sailed these waters a lot during his years in the Navy. 

So, at 10:00 AM I met up with the assistant and he took me to a private aft deck area where I could scatter the ashes. I have to say it was sweet and sad and also a little funny because some of his ashes landed on the stern hull and stuck there! I decided that my Dad wanted to keep sailing along with me for a bit!

The ship presented me with a beautiful certificate detailing the Burial at Sea with my Dad's name , dates of birth and death and the exact coordinates of the scattering of his ashes. I was very moved by this. 

The rest of the day passed quietly. I listened to a lecture about early explorers and conquistadors to the Americas, read my book, walked the decks a bit and just generally tried to take it easy. 

I went to dinner tonight for open seating and had the good fortune to be seated at s table for 8. One of my table mates was the lecturer from earlier in the day. Another one is the Bridge (think card came) instructor. Everyone was friendly and we had a lost delightful dinner. 

After dinner I went to the show. It was a mentalist and he was excellent and very funny. He's actually the guy that they loosely based the TV show The Mentalist on so go figure.