Bill Vernon planned the trips with a theory that to motivate each sales person, a hot destination trip would then be followed by a cold destination trip. Every other trip pleased Bob and me, just not on the same trip. He was happy when it was hot. I enjoyed it when it was cooler. Bob has given up his hot weather for the past few trips to let me enjoy the snow. We scheduled a trip to Panama Canal beginning the last day of February to make up for the Canadian Rocky Mountain trip in December. It is all about compromise.
We left Ft. Wayne in a snowstorm just before the promised ice storm Saturday, Feb. 27 to fly to Acapulco, Mexico. We spent the afternoon and the night there, and Sunday we took a bus to the harbor to board our “home” for the next ten days. If you have never taken a cruise, it is a wonderful experience. Your cabin may be small, and they all are, even the upgrades, but you can unpack and your suitcases become unnecessary even though you travel to different places. That is the up side. The down side is that only one person can walk around the bed at one time. The shower is so small that any movement pushes the curtain over the small lip on the floor, and then the floor needs to be mopped. I was told the only way to shower well was to soap the walls and spin. It is almost true.
I think cruises may be less expensive in the long run due to all the food and housing costs being included in the price. We had been told that the pricing can be very low if you wait till the last minute to book a cruise … we were also told that the Panama Canal was a premium destination, and lower costs would not apply. We did get a chance to save money just two days before our trip. We were called and offered about half of the price of the trip if we would cancel and go in October. We considered it, but I love Indiana in October, and Bob does not like winter weather, and we were already packed, so we did not take the offer. I think if they had asked us to wait a full year so we would be going in a winter month I would have been tempted … of course, they would hold our money.
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(A true shopper, Bob knelt down and asked a young native if he could take her photo. Her mother, close at hand, said yes. There were many native leather products for sale and the shopper purchased a leather belt.)
The weather cooperated with Bob. It was hot. We arrived in Huatulco, Mexico and the sun was shining, the shops were open, and Bob, the shopper, was ready to GO. He had forgotten to pack sandals, and he wanted to pit his haggling skills with the local vendors. He enjoys the haggling, I dislike it. The shopping trip became a compromise. I found a shady open air church (it was beautiful, shaped like a cross with seats facing the altar from three directions) while Bob walked around the shops in the sun, enjoying the heat. The ship stayed in this port, pronounced Watoolco, for five hours. I was later told that almost 1900 of the 1950 passengers got off the ship. One lady missed the ship and we heard versions of how the captain left her and she was running down the dock and crying” Wait!,” but the lines had already been cast off, and it was too late. This was the first port, and our British accented captain left a passenger behind? Later, we heard from our cabin steward that the lady left was a crew member. There are 900 crew members to cosset 1950 passengers. They are told to be back on the ship 1/2 hour before the passengers. The captain waited 1/2 hour past passenger deadline, and then cast off. She was an hour late, and apparently they have zero tolerance for that. She delayed the ship departure by half an hour, and her employment was terminated. We were told that she caught up with the ship two stops later, and was allowed to take her things and go home. I was thankful to hear that each person is counted as they leave and run their cards thru the machines. They know who is missing immediately.
(This very young girl was about three years old and was waiting quietly for her mother as the shoppers made their way through the many native gifts that were displayed. As one can see the young girl was a native Nicaraguan.)
A stop by a cruise ship can make or break a village in these countries. We stopped in Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala, and the tours involved long bus rides because there was nothing close. We stayed in port nine hours. Guatemalan vendors are inventive. There was a flea market on the dock, with tents, a band and mucho merchandise for the tourists to buy. There was no village visible, but there were shops! I was trying to guess just how much revenue this could generate. I don’t think Bob ever got off the ship without spending $40. If each of the passengers spent just half that much it would be around $40,000. The Princess line has two cruise ships per week stopping along this route through the winter months, so that would be a minimum of $80,000 per week. If each passenger takes a tour, and we took three tours each along this route, and the least expensive tour was $84 each, it becomes big business. Our Indiana economy would certainly be helped with a minimum of $80,000 added each week.
I found that I did not mind Bob shopping in the sun when I could watch his progress from my window seat on the 15th deck in air conditioned comfort with my glass of ice tea. I had melted in Huatulco, so I stayed on board in Guatamala.
The security each time we disembarked was like an airport. We all had a ship card, and it had to be pushed into a machine that matched the card with our face. Our picture had been taken in Acapulco, and we had to have either a passport or a photo id along with the ship card each time we left the ship. Our packages all went through a scanner, and we all took off our fannie packs and walked through a gate, just like the airport.
We sailed away to San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua, where there was no dock, just a tender from the ship to take us through rough waves to the beach. A tall statue of St. John (or San Juan) overlooked the harbor with its beautiful beach. I rode with Bob into town on the bobbing tender, and he bought me some locally made wooden earrings and I took another boat back to our ship and left him happily baking in the sun. I think I only went to shore to say I had stepped foot in Nicaragua, since I had not been ashore in Guatamala.
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(Gliding through the treetops in an aerial tram we were treated to the site of many birds, frogs and bugs from a safe distance.)
We left Nicaragua for Puntarenas, Costa Rica, where we disembarked for our first tour of the trip. We took a bus ride to our aerial tram through a tropical rain forest. We learned that one of the major exports of Costa Rica is technology. They do computer work for large companies, and also either manufacture chips or design them. Costa Rica is a beautiful country, but the more I heard, the more I appreciate our winters. Termites abound, and since their housing is all cement or stucco, they stay outside and make houses like our hornets do in trees. They only eat dead wood, so they don’t hurt the trees. Housing does not use wood due to the termites, so I was surprised to see a billboard advertising Pella Windows ….. did anyone do their homework?
(A two-toed sloth hangs upside down in this tree in Costa Rica.)
Also, alligators, crocodiles, poisonous frogs and snakes and spiders abound, and cold weather would remove many of these colorful and fatal species. Costa Rica has 22 known poisonous snakes and our guide told us that some of the non-poisonous ones are becoming poisonous due to evolution. She pointed out two frogs that were poisonous. If you touch them, you get severe, flu-like symptoms. One frog was in captivity, but the other was hopping around free. I enjoyed this tour, but it was my hottest day, and even with a sweat band that I kept wetting with cool water and my wicking shirt, I was getting enough heat. It was around 94 degrees and the humidity was 95 percent. Even our whip thin Costa Rican guides were perspiring and it was just another day in paradise to them.
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(The name belies the product. It is really cashews and licorice, but the sign really got one’s attention.)
We backtracked after we got back to the ship in order to take a picture of a sign for you. I wanted proof that venders were selling Fruity Monkey POOP. Bob took the picture, and when we talked about this to our table partners at the evening meal, Pat and Bill Follett from Iowa found a brochure in their room that Bill had got at the shop. I have a website for you to order this delicious tropical treat! www.theCostaRicaCashewCo.com.
We have sailed with other cruise lines, and it was a treat to have a captain we could understand. Our British Captain Roger Bilton was a pleasure. I also enjoyed the Princess way of not closing the pools while in port. The Royal Carribean put a net over the pools, more or less forcing you to leave the ship for recreation. I could ignore my guilt that I was not shopping with Bob and stay in the indoor, air conditioned pool.
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(Twenty-four inches is all the clearance there was on each side of our ship as it passed through the locks.)
Our main event, the reason we had to have this cruise, began Saturday, March 6 when we arrived at the Panama Canal. We slept through the first bridge, but were hanging over the rail by 7:00 a.m., fascinated by the locks and watching them open, close, and fill for the ship beside us. WOW! It is nice when anticipation is less than what happens. I expected Bob to be interested, I had no idea that it would be so wonderful for me. Except for one trip to the latte bar, I stood at a rail either on the port or starboard side from 7:30 till 3:00, WITHOUT FOOD ON A CRUISE SHIP WITH 24 hour food, because I was afraid I would miss something. We were going north for the whole day because the land curves and when we entered from the Pacific or west side, we went almost straight north in order to come out on the Atlantic or east side. The water was raised a total of 85 feet as we went through the three Miraflores locks on the south side.
(Two massive lock doors swing in and out each time a ship enters and leaves the locks.)
The first two locks raised us 27 feet each, and the third lock 21 feet. Each gate of the seven foot thick locks is 65 feet wide, making a passageway of 130 feet. Our ship, the Island Princess, is one of the largest ships that can go thru. It also paid one of the highest tolls charged. The charge is set by the value of the cargo, so I guess it makes sense that a cruise ship pays more than oil or container ships. Our toll began at $288,000 and each mule and tug added till the final cost was over $330,000. The “mules” are hooked to the ship with a cable, and the mules at the front and the rear of the ship are also hooked to each other by the same lines. The mules are on a track that runs beside the canal and look like a shoe box locomotive in shape and size. The tugs take over in the lake area, and even though the path is marked with buoys on each side, the ship is escorted the full distance.
(These small electric locomotives, called mules, moved the ship into and out of each set of locks. It took eighty of these mules to move our ship through the locks.)
Gatun Lake was long but not that wide and since it was manmade by flooding, it had many curves and inlets at the sides. I moved from port to starboard, depending on where I could see best, and I was able to watch the two gates open and close for the ship beside us. Did I say two canals go side by side? The locks open and fold back into the cement wall so they are flush with the sides. Panama is celebrating its centennial of the locks and it is a marvel that the cement and the iron still function and keep doing their job after 100 years. Again, WOW! I am still in awe, as I sit here, that anyone could think of this, and then design it so well it works now as it did then, raising a ship up 85 feet to sail through the country of Panama, then lowering it on the other side with the Gatun Locks. I saw it, I sailed through it, and I still do not really believe it!
The trees were beautiful around Gatun Lake. It looked like Indiana in autumn, but it was blossoms of yellow and red, not leaves. We were told that the trees blossom just before the rainy season, which begins in May. The sun rose at 6:30 a.m. and set at 6:30 p.m. all year-round, not like us, when we have longer days in the summer when it is hot. I found it hard to get used to it getting dark so early when it was that hot.
On a cruise you begin to make new friends from other states and countries, and you tend to remember their names and their states or countries. Valerie and Sue from Minnesota adopted me. Bob spent his free time on Deck 15 in full sun. I hung out on Deck 14, in the shade and air conditioning. Valerie and Sue, with their husbands Bruce and Bryan went back and forth, depending on how burnt Sue was. Sue did not think she was burnt, but she was too fair skinned to do any sun, in my opinion. One of the older passengers was 92 and had been through the canal three times before this trip. He went through in 1940 on a light cruiser, Helena. In ‘42 he sailed through on the aircraft carrier USS HORNET CV8. Then in 1943, in July, he went through on the USS LEXINGTON CV16. Bob interviewed Allen Josey, who now lives in Boston, and that will be another story.
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(New and larger locks are being constructed to accommodate the super tankers and under vessels that are needed to transfer through the canal.)
We met another couple at our dinner table who were on their 26th cruise. Their 20th with the Princess line. Faye said that she loved to cruise, and did not care where the cabin was. She was happy when she was on a ship. Her husband, Julian, was happy when Faye was happy.They had been married for over 45 years and were a pleasure to be near. We also learned to dodge the man who had six perfect grandchildren and could talk nonstop about everything each of these kids did to be perfect. When he entered a hot tub, it emptied.
We learned a new phrase. We signed up for anytime dining, which meant that we could go to one dining area and eat anytime between 5:30 and 8:30 and enjoy the same “order from the menu” meal that the 5:30 early seating and the 8:30 late seating dining room had. We usually stopped in around 7:30, and as we put our name in we would be asked “Happy to share?” If you were happy to share, you would join three other couples at a table for eight almost immediately. It was such a nice way of handling it, rather than asking if you were”willing” to share, they made it a lilting “Happy to share.” For the most part it was a happy experience sharing. People go on vacation to have fun, and that makes for a pleasant or “happy” dining experience.
We only stopped for just an hour in Cristobal, Panama but over 1000 people got off to shop in the huge building set up on the dock to sell souveniers from Panama. A band welcomed us here as it did in most ports. We sailed off into the sunset and on to Jamaica, where Bob and I did a trek through the jungle and another zip line. I was able to do this one, because it required only hanging on, not steering like the one in Alaska. It was wonderful. The only downside of this was the 20 minute walk through the jungle down steps that were damp and slippery and uneven, and the 20 minute walk along the stream at the bottom of the zip line to get to where the tour bus waited. The tour said that you needed to be in good physical condition for the zip line. It wasn’t the zip line that required it, it was the before and after. Also, no-one under 65 seems to realize that three hours without a bathroom can be a deprivation. Our security was strict in Jamaica and I was thankful. The gates leading to the dock were patrolled. A security guard checked our cards before we could get off the bus. We were checked again as we went on the ship. We were in Jamaica in 1988, and as we walked from the ship, a young boy offered cocaine and his 13 year-old sister to the men in our group as their wives walked with them up the dock. It was unnerving. We were told at the time that Kingston was worse than Ocho Rios. I do not want to go to Kingston.
We left Ocho Rios and cruised all night and the next day. I enjoyed this day at sea because we could see land almost all day. It was Cuba. I had no idea it was so large. I had been there when I was six and enjoyed the paving around a statue in Havana. It made the pavement look like the ocean. I don’t remember much else, but I remember that. I spent most of the day on our balcony or on deck 7, the promenade deck, where I stood near the front of the ship and watched for flying fish. They fascinate me. Someone told me that they (the fish) think the ship is a large fish, trying to eat them, so they fly out of range. Sometimes you can see a whole school, or flock of them take off, and other times it is one or two. The first time I saw them, I thought a bird had dived into the water and I kept waiting for him to re-surface. Then I realized that they were fish, coming from the water, and re-entering 50 to 100 feet from where they popped out.
We arrived in Ft. Lauderdale at 7:00 a.m., and instead of going to the airport to sit till our 4:15 flight to Ft. Wayne, we took a tour of the Flamingo Gardens and the Everglades just because the Island Princess arranged for our luggage to go with us. Very smart of them. That was another $84. each, thank you so much. It was still better than seven hours sitting in the airport. We saw huge gators, neat birds of prey and the friendliest flamingos ever. The flamingos make a neat noise when they solicit food.
Had a wonderful trip, paid for the CD of our actual ship going through the canal and watch out, we are prepared to bore our friends with all the details.