Panama Part 3
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Story of the 2012 Panama Canal Trip, Part Three (the conclusion)

Written by Rick Archer
February 2012

 

 


Marla and I got up at 4:30 AM in order to get a front row seat to see the Panama Canal.

This would be the day when I would be forced to confront my views on the propriety of "saving seats".  I wanted to save two spots for Shari and Polly. 

Actually, let me be more specific. In particular I wanted to save a spot for Polly.  I knew Shari would be able to fend for herself. 

I figured the easiest way to assure myself of getting a spot for Polly would be get there early and annex a corner of the front deck for myself.

Employing an age-old tactic known as "the early bird gets the corner seat", I was on deck shortly after 5 AM. 

This would turn out to be one of longest days of my life in several ways.

 

 

When I first arrived, there was not a single chair available on this deck.  Consequently I went to mid-ship and found plenty of available seating.  One at a time, I carried two lounge chairs and two deck chairs over to Rick's Corner on the front deck. 

After establishing my turf, I let Marla hold the spot while I went to fetch us some coffee and bran muffins for a simple breakfast.

Upon my return, Marla seemed grumpy about something.  When asked, she said that two different men had come over and tried to take the chairs that weren't being used.

At that, Marla left to go run a chore.  There I was all alone at 5:30 in the morning. After she left, I thought that was really strange.  Why would they want OUR chairs when there was an entire ship full of chairs? 

I would soon get my answer.  As it turned out, the presence of three empty chairs on a deck that had no other chairs at all was simply irresistible.  Why go to mid-ship to find a chair like I did when all they had to do was take one of our chairs?

Surely those chairs were there just for them!


Just as I was thinking about it, a man came over and asked to sit in one of the chairs.  I said I preferred he didn't.  I wanted to be alone. "Well, can I take one of these chairs for myself?"

Irritated, I said yes. I watched with frustration as he walked away with one of my chairs.  Then I went back to mid-ship and got a replacement.  My mistake was not getting two instead.

Shortly after I returned, another man showed up.  He was about 70.  I was incredulous when he walked right in front of the chair I was in.  My jaw dropped in consternation.  Here was an entire empty deck, but this guy came and stood in front of me.   

Then he turned around and looked to sit in one of the chairs.  I politely said those chairs were reserved for my family.  I added I would appreciate it if he would sit elsewhere.

He replied, "I think I will just go ahead and sit here till they show up."

I stared at him incredulously.  I immediately had a flashback to Shari's dolphin thief.  This was the exact same attitude.


"Sir, I brought these chairs over here for my own use. This spot is mine.  There is an entire ship and a thousand other chairs at your disposal.  You may have this extra chair if you insist, but please do not sit here."

"You can't tell me what to do. I'll sit here if I want to."

I stood up and blocked his path.

"Actually, I can tell you what to do.  I am telling you that you are not welcome to sit here."  I grabbed one of the chairs and handed it to him. "Take this chair. Now go sit somewhere else."

"You are something else, buddy.  You are a f----g A-hole!" 

"Maybe so, but you have no business talking to me that way.  Now get lost and find someplace else to sit."

He indeed left, but I saw him throw the chair away and leave the area.  I was really angry.  This had been a very ugly encounter... and a highly unnecessary one as well.  It was only 6 AM and this day had gotten off to a lousy start.

Marla returned and I explained what had happened.  She didn't say anything, but I don't think she approved of my role in this confrontation.  Her lack of support made questioning my behavior even more difficult.  As I went to fetch the missing chair back, I was now in a very bad mood.  It took me a long time to snap out of it.

There were no further incidents.  Other passengers began showing up. They found chairs of their own with no difficulty.

I suppose if I had to do it all over again, I would bring up six chairs and put out two for people who just wanted to sit for a moment.  That's a trick I would use later in the day to good effect.  Unfortunately, as always, my good ideas came to me well after they could have been of use.

As I sat there mulling the incident, I told myself I could never have anticipated the fatal attraction of my three unoccupied seats on a deserted deck in the dark of night at 6 am.

These three islands are Flamenco (nearest), Naos, and Perico. Ancon is that large hill further in the distance. 

Ancon served as headquarters during the American effort to build the canal.  I might add there are many graves on that hill.  An estimated 25,000-30,000 men (the French and American effort combined) died, mostly from yellow fever.

Using dirt and rock excavated from the Culebra Cut, the workers were able to build a causeway that links these four islands to the mainland.

The cruise ships dock next to Flamenco and tender their passengers to this small island.  Flamenco is where the taxis and buses wait to pick them up.

In the distance, you can see the first hint of the amazing skyline of Panama City.  That impressive skyline is a good indication of the kind of money that flows through Panama these days.

Below is a better look at the skyline.  That weird-looking building is a Trump luxury hotel and casino modeled on the famous Burj al Arab Hotel in Dubai.

At 7 am, we started rolling. 

Our first landmark was the Bridge of the Americas.

There are only three ways for a car to get across the canal.

This bridge is one and the Centennial Bridge up ahead is the second. 50 miles away I would later discover a weird drawbridge at the Gatun Locks that serves as the third crossing. 

As we approached the bridge, the deck was now crowded.  People began to surge forward for a look.

They quickly became very frustrated.

The problem was that the ship had thick Plexiglas windows that reached 8 feet high.  The people who wanted to take pictures were furious.  This left only two ways to get a decent picture.

One way was to stick a camera through that narrow slit seen in the picture.  The other was my preferred way.  I would stand on my chair and photograph over the top.

Naturally security didn't approve, so I had to look around and make sure security wasn't nearby to take many of my pictures.

One enterprising lady scooted in front of me.  Her name was Cindy.  If you study the glass and the lines of the metal, the glass slants back at a 60 angle.  No one could possibly stand up in the "blue area" unless they were three feet tall.

However Cindy was able to make it work by scrunching down.  She spent a lot of time down there taking pictures.  She was quite the acrobat.  You do what you have to do.

That's my foot in the picture.  Out of the picture to my right is the much-coveted seat I was saving for Polly. 

Fortunately I had learned my lesson and brought more chairs to share.  This made it easier for me to save my chair for Polly.

For example, the lady in white and the gentleman in green are both sitting in chairs I provided.

Polly and Shari showed up on my deck just as we reached the locks. They had been on their balcony the entire morning waiting to get their picture taken along with Shari's poster.

They were posing for the videographers on the pier who filmed them as the ship slowly passed by. 

Polly was thrilled to find I had saved a seat for her.  She now had a comfortable front row seat in a shaded area.  The tinted Plexiglas shielded her from the sun.

I breathed a sigh of relief.  Now that the empty seat was occupied, my seat saving ordeal was over.

Unfortunately I was so focused on the locks I forgot to take Polly's picture. This poster picture is the only one I remembered to take.

When Marla saw how happy Polly was to discover that available seat, she gave me a wry smile and a nod of her head.  I had spent the entire morning explaining to people that I was saving that chair for my mother.  Marla did not appreciate the disharmony caused by my defense of that free chair one bit.

However once she saw the smile on Polly's face, she did acknowledge that maybe I had my reasons to guard the chair so carefully after all.  It was the only way Polly would have ever been able to get a good view and sit in comfort as well. 

Meanwhile Shari succeeded getting photographed by the ship's video team.  The picture on the right is from the ship's DVD.

As it turned out, her hard work on the poster paid off.  Shari not only appeared on the ship's "memories" DVD, but the caption said "First Place Poster".  Shari later said that the Dolphin Thief had made her twice as determined to win the contest. 

Like Marla always says, the best revenge is living well.


The Panama Canal is about 50 miles long. For those of you who are unfamiliar with how the Panama Canal works, 45 miles of the trip is 85 feet above sea level. There are locks at both ends of the canal designed to raise ships to canal level and lower ships to sea level.

As we reached the first lock known as the Miraflores Lock, you can see two ships ahead of us that have already been raised. Miraflores Lake up ahead is about 40 feet higher than sea level.

In a minute, the gates in front of us will open and allow our ship to enter LOCK ONE.  The ship to our right will do the same.

Then water from Miraflores Lake will be allowed to flow into our LOCK ONE chamber.  Picture our ship as a little toy boat in a bathtub.  As the bathtub water rises, so does the toy boat.

Even though our ship weighed over 70 tons, the water in the lake weighed oh so much more.  To the water in the lake, our ship's massive size meant nothing.  Compared to the lake water, our ship was probably about as heavy as a plastic boat.

Due to the water pressure, all they have to do is let gravity push water from the lake above down into our sealed lock and our ship will rise. If you are interested in a more detailed explanation of how the locks work, please visit my story.

On the left, our ship is currently sitting in LOCK ONE.  They have just finished equalizing the level of the waters in LOCK ONE and LOCK TWO.  The gates are opening to allow our ship to enter LOCK TWO.
 

On the right, our ship is slowly entering LOCK TWO. As you see, the lake waters up ahead are a bit higher.

 

On the left, the waters have been equalized in LOCK TWO next to us and the gates are opening. 

On the right, the ship is preparing to enter Miraflores Lake while we watch.  

The water in LOCK TWO on our side has not been equalized yet.

Once the water in LOCK TWO on our side has been raised, our ship will be ready to move forward as well.

     

On the left, we have just sailed through the third and final lock known as the Pedro Miguel Locks.

We are now officially 85 feet above sea level.  We have about 45 miles of canal in front of us before we reach the Atlantic side.

Then we will be lowered back down to sea level.

On the right, you see construction taking place for the newest addition to the Panama Canal.

The Panama Canal was first opened for business in 1914.  In the 100 years since then, modern ships have become too large to use the canal locks.

Therefore Panama is building wider locks parallel to the old locks. They are separated by half a mile.

These new locks will feature water retention areas to recycle.  Currently the used water escapes to the ocean.

The yellow path on the map shows the detour route that will allow the larger ships to bypass the old locks.

That yellow route is what they are currently digging in these pictures.  Scheduled to open in 2015, it looks like they have a ways to go.

Fortunately it looks like technology has finally caught up to the task at hand.  Judging from what I saw, everything looks orderly and under control.

As we pass through the third and final lock, it is now nearly 11 AM. 

I had no idea the process took so long.  The canal saves a ship a week of travel, so it doesn't mind being patient.  However the cruise passengers thought it got a little tedious there.

As you can see, the crowds have thinned out.  Notice the raised Plexiglas that made viewing so difficult.

     
     

Creating the Panama Canal was a monumental task for two reasons.  First they had to cut a huge trench through a 500 hundred foot high hill.  500 hundred feet doesn't sound like much, but that hill was 10 miles long.  It was an incredible headache.  To read more about the struggles involved with digging the trench, click The Big Ditch.

The second problem was how to tame the massive river that intersected the Canal route known as the Chagres River (Rio Chagres in Spanish).  This mighty river was forty feet above sea level.  How were they going to merge a 40 foot high river with a sea level canal?  The initial plans were to dam the river and reroute it to a brand new riverbed that ran parallel to the canal route. 

Once you see the Chagres with your own eyes, it seems preposterous to think a river that large can be diverted.  That basically would have forced the engineers to dig not one, but two canals... one for the ships and a second one for the Chagres River.  Doesn't sound very practical, does it?

Believe it or not, that's exactly what the French tried to do.  It didn't work.  After failing on a colossal scale... 25,000 men died and practically no real progress was made in ten years of trying... the French gave up. When the Americans took up the challenge, they developed an ingenious solution to the Chagres problem. They created a lake.

Lake Gatun is a gigantic artificial lake created by damming the Chagres near its exit route to the Caribbean Sea.  Now all they had to do was build locks to raise ships to the level of Lake Gatun.  Truth be told, the entire project is an amazing engineering feat.

Our ship seemed to move slowly through the waters, but I didn't mind.  There was always something to see. 

We had a full-time narrator named Jean who kept up a running commentary for us to listen to outside over a loudspeaker system. 

I loved listening to her, but it drove me crazy not to be able to ask any questions!

Jean pointed out that keeping the channel deep enough is an on-going process. 

Due to constant landslides and an incredible amount of silt brought down during the rainy season, dredging the canal is a year-round process.  We saw many dredging ships.

I was very curious about that waterway being constructed on the right.  I wanted to ask Jean what its purpose is.

There was construction going on up on that hill.  You can barely see, but there are earth-movers up there clearing a large area.

The Centennial Bridge on the right is the second major crossing of the canal.  Right beyond it is the celebrated Culebra Cut.

This bridge connects North America to South America as a key cog in the important Pan-American Highway.

After the bridge, we entered the Canal stretch known as the Culebra Cut.

This was the area that caused so many headaches.  As they dug and dynamited, the destabilized remaining rock & dirt were vulnerable to the constant rains.

There was little to hold the dirt in place, so enormous landslides created set-backs that took not just days but many months to correct.

I was surprised to discover the landscape immediately following the Culebra Cut was pretty tame. 

I had expected large hills or jungle, but got rolling bluffs and plains instead.

Notice the shadows on the water.  Those overhead clouds served as my best friends all day long.  I still got sunburned, but it would have been so much worse without the cloud cover.

Just before we reached the Chagres River, we heard music coming from the structure on the right.

Jean the narrator said that was a prison.  I frowned.  There was a little barbed wire, but overall there wasn't much security.

This prison had just received a famous new prisoner a couple days earlier.  Some guy named 'Noriega' had just been transferred from Miami.

This is the junction of the mighty Chagres River with the Canal

Here you can see the junction of the Chagres River with the Canal from two different perspectives.

The day before we went through the Canal, Marla and I took an excursion to Gamboa. 

Here we were able to climb an observation deck ("X") that allowed me to take the panoramic picture above.

I snapped the picture of the bridge on the right from the ship as we passed by. 

Note the difference in the water color where the river converges with the muddy Canal water. 

The Chagres is the answer to an excellent trivia question:  What is the only river in the world that empties into the Pacific and the Atlantic?

No picture of mine can properly depict the size of the Chagres.  To see the Chagres in person makes the thought of taming this river seem like sheer folly.

As we passed the Chagres, I was shocked to spot our X observation tower from yesterday in the distance.  Look for it atop the hill.

The little town of Gamboa at the Canal-Chagres junction was the last sign of civilization along the Canal route until we reached the Gatun Locks 30 miles up ahead.

When we were in the Culebra Cut, there was only one-way traffic. 

We were now in a two-way part of the Canal. 

When the monster ships begin to sail, the Canal will need to get wider in many places. 

This new terrace was part of the project to widen the Canal for the coming of the larger ships. 

On the right you can see more dredging.  This Canal continues to be a work in progress.

Just as we were passing Gamboa, Jean came on the air to announce we would soon be meeting up with a special guest. 

There was a white ship in the distance that sent a bolt of electricity through the crowd.  It would be another ten minutes before we reached it.

On the right, it's coming closer. 

The mystery ship is about to pass the orange container ship that our Coral Princess had been following all day long. 

On the right, we see the container ship has passed the mystery ship.

There is nothing between us now.  The ship is coming into view. 

What ship can it be? 

It's getting closer.  And now the mystery is solved. 

This is the famous cruise ship MS Queen Elizabeth.

Jean the narrator said she had been doing this Panama cruise for years and had never passed a ship of this caliber before.  This was an amazing coincidence.

Jean added that our own Captain was so excited that he was going nuts taking pictures.  Jean joked that the Captain had just turned into a tourist like the rest of us. 


The Queen Elizabeth is the second largest ship in the Cunard Cruise Line.  According to Jean our narrator, the Queen Elizabeth was on a world cruise.  Curious, I looked up the itinerary.  It sounded like something out of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days

The ship left Southampton (England) and called at New York, Fort Lauderdale, Aruba and Limon (Costa Rica) before transiting the Panama Canal... which is what QE was doing at this very minute as our two ships nearly brushed each other in the channel.

After passing us, the Queen Elizabeth was due to sail to Acapulco and Cabo San Lucas (Mexico) and then on to Los Angeles.  After its stop in California, the ship would cross the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii for stops in Lahaina (Maui) and Honolulu (Oahu).  Then it was on to Apia (Samoa) and Pago Pago (Samoa).   Fiji was the final stop before moving on to New Zealand and Australia

Thanks to Captain Cook, New Zealand and Australia had been part of the British Empire for centuries.  The stops included Bay of Islands (New Zealand), Auckland (New Zealand), Wellington (New Zealand), Sydney (Australia), Melbourne (Australia), Fremantle (Australia).

After Australia, the next stop was Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia), and then on to Hong Kong near the spot where her predecessor RMS Queen Elizabeth had caught fire and capsized in 1972.

Stops in southeast Asia would include Nha Trang (Vietnam), Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), Ko Samui (Thailand), Langkawi (Malaysia), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) and Penang (Malaysia) and Singapore, one of Marla's favorite places.

The Queen Elizabeth would then cross the Indian Ocean westbound for Kochi (India) and Mumbai (India). This would be followed by a journey westbound again across the Arabian Sea to visit Muscat (Oman) before passing through the Strait of Hormuz to call at Dubai in the Persian Gulf.

After returning to Oman to call at Salalah, the ship would head to the Red Sea for a visit to Aqaba (Jordan).  From there, the ship would transit the Suez Canal. 

Along with the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal has been given much credit for making our world a much smaller place.

Interestingly, the Suez Canal played a prominent role in Around the World in 80 Days.  Can you guess what other 1860s development played a similar role in shortening the world?  It too was featured in Verne's book. 

Westbound Mediterranean calls would be at Athens and Rome, then passing through the Strait of Gibraltar to make a final call at Lisbon before returning to Southampton

The building of the US Transcontinental Railroad was the other development that shortened the trip around the world. By coincidence, Hell on Wheels is a current TV show based on the building of the railroad immediately following the Civil War.

So did Queen Elizabeth make its trip in 80 days?  Nope.  The world tour is expected to take 103 days.  I could not possibly be more envious.  I wonder who is teaching the dance lessons.


One person standing next to me, a Scotsman no doubt, asked aloud if the Coral Princess had cannon aboard. "One good blast at this range and we'll sink the bugger for sure."

However the prevailing attitude was excitement and friendship.  All of us got a kick out of our common bond of cruising at sea and at meeting in such an unlikely place.

I think the passengers aboard the Queen Elizabeth were just as excited to see us as we were them.  After all the time spent dining with the UK citizens, I knew just what to say.  I got a bunch of us to cry out "God Save the Queen" on the count of 3.  We were so close I know they could hear us.  I could hear laughter in response.

Just then, the Queen Elizabeth gave a very loud long honk of its horn in greeting.  The Coral Princess responded with two short honks.  The Elizabeth repeated with a long honk; the Princess returned to short honks. 

Marla turned to look at me and laughed. She said, "Look, Rick, the ships are dancing. They just tooted Slow Quick Quick two times in a row!" 

We passed the Queen Elizabeth shortly after 1 PM.

I think that highlight plus the fact that it was lunch time took the wind out of our sails.  The decks became largely deserted... except for me of course.

Sad to say, but Barro Colorado, the huge nature preserve island at the entrance to Lake Gatun, was a big let-down.  It was all jungle and looked like every other place we had passed. 

After Barro Colorado Island, we entered the vast Lake Gatun.  It was huge!!

Gatun was the artificial lake created in 1908 by damming the Chagres River about 7 miles before it emptied into the Caribbean Sea.

Now that the Chagres waters had no place to go, over a period of two years the dammed up waters of the Chagres slowly rose in this massive valley just like filling up a bath tub.

Farms, villages, forests, and even parts of the Old Panama Railroad became submerged.

These little islands were once the peaks of very large hills.  During the slow two year flooding process, the animals of the valley had plenty of time to find new homes on higher ground. 

Eventually the animals found themselves trapped on these little islets unless they were able to swim. 

The predators soon died off because these small islands didn't have enough animals to support their diet.

The fact that the valley was so big led people to wonder what had caused such a large depression in the first place.  After all, most lakes this big were caused by retreating glaciers.  No glaciers here.  Theories abounded.  My favorite theory was that a meteor crash created the valley.

The formation of this lake tamed the mighty Chagres once & for all. These days, the major purpose of the Chagres is to replenish the water that runs out to sea from the daily lock use.

Back in the old days, when the Chagres River flooded during the rainy season, people would run in panic for safety and high ground.

Today even the strongest rainfall only raises the water level in Lake Gatun an inch. If the waters rise too high, they simply spill over the edge of the dam & run out to the Caribbean Sea.

And that is how the engineers solved the dilemma of the Chagres.

Finally I spotted what I was looking for - the Gatun Dam.  This was the dam that turned the beast called Chagres into a little lamb.

Taking rock and dirt from the Culebra Cut, they used it to create a giant earthen dam.  In turn the dam created a lake 85 feet high.  Ironically, this lake covered up over half the work the French had done.  Much of their work had gone towards creating the bypass for the Chagres.  This lake made all that work unnecessary.

What was interesting to me about the dam was seeing that the water level of Lake Gatun and the dam were identical. 

The water level would always stay at 85 feet.  If the water rose, it would simply spill over the top of the dam.  The threat of the Chagres floods affecting the Canal was completely annihilated.

It was a truly ingenious solution to a problem the French had never been able to solve.

 

On the left, we entered Lock One.  On the right, they brought the waters in Lock Two up to our level. 

Once the water was level, we sailed forward into Lock Two.  Once we were settled in Lock Two, they let the water out and our ship sank 30 feet right on the spot. 

Sorry to say, but the Gatun Locks were anti-climactic. 

They let us sink 30 feet in three different locks till we had descended 85 feet. Now we were ready to go out to sea. It was so smooth it was easy to overlook the ingenuity involved.

Over in the distance I could see a long, narrow brown hill.  That hill obviously had something to do with the construction of the new locks depicted by the yellow stripe on the map. 

I assumed the dirt mound was created by excavation for the new locks.

The longer, wider ships of our modern era will be able to use these locks in 2015.


The Panama Canal expansion means a welcome potential boost for Houston

Rick's Note: I was unaware of the importance when we visited the Panama, but I later realized the expansion of the Panama Canal promises big business for Houston.  There is a lot of talk about a Hong Kong - Houston linkup not too far in the foreseeable future.
 

HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Sunday, June 26, 2011

Those visionaries who dug the Houston Ship Channel a century or so ago must be smiling down as they consider the bright prospects directly ahead for their ruggedly hewn handiwork.

Our region's major trade and commerce engine will one day add several cylinders of economic power to Houston thanks to the expansion of the Panama Canal scheduled to be completed in 2015.

The historic canal, which opened up trans-Pacific trade to the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic ports a century ago, is being broadened and deepened to accommodate container ships that are much larger than the current models.

How much larger? 

According to Chronicle Business reporter Jenalia Moreno, the ships that can fit through the canal today carry about 5,000 twenty-foot-equivalent units, or TEUs, the familiar containers that fit on rail cars or attach to 18-wheeler trucks.

Following the expansion, the new megaships will transit loads of about 12,000 TEUs and, in some cases, up to 18,000 TEUs. (The latter will only operate in Asian ports such as Hong Kong with cranes large enough to reach across the megaships' girth to handle the containers.)

Many of these supersized vessels will be headed towards Houston, necessitating expansion of the Barbours Cut terminal in LaPorte.

As Greater Houston Partnership CEO Jeff Moseley said, this is a "game changer" for the Port of Houston, which, as Moseley noted, sits at the geographic epicenter of the change.

A good many of those oversized vessels will be off-loading and on-loading cargo at the Port of Houston facilities.

Port of Houston officials and others are downplaying the expectation that the expansion of the Panama Canal will actually double the container traffic transiting the Port of Houston. If these estimates prove to be overly optimistic, there's no denying it will still result in a major uptick in activity.

Houston's geographic position as the first major US port for any ship departing the eastern side of the Canal gives it quite an unusual advantage.  With the protection of Galveston Bay assuring the safety of the container vessels and its vast network of railroads and highways, Houston is positioned to relay off-loaded goods quickly to the heartland of the US.

There are already signs of a Panama ripple effect. Indeed, the "ripple effect" is detectable across our region as major retailers such as Home Depot and Walmart have begun to build distribution centers across the area.

Informed observers say this trend figures to continue as smaller retailers follow in the footsteps of the giants.  That is good news for the port and the greater Houston region.

It reminds us once again of the port's huge impact on our economy. It also should remind those in charge of the port of the urgent necessity of full transparency and responsible stewardship of this invaluable resource.

We suspect the visionaries who built the Ship Channel are paying attention to that too.

We certainly are.

   Cindy is back. What is she photographing this time?

   Do you see those cars below?  They are waiting for
   something.
Jean our narrator just announced the
   existence of a hidden roadway beneath the final lock. 
   Cindy got curious and came back to take some pictures.

  There are 3 things to notice.  First, notice how high the
   water is in our LOCK.  Second, notice the water flurry.
   That flurry is caused by water leaving our LOCK. 
   Third, note the white vehicle using the hidden roadway.

In this final caption, you can better see the hidden roadway.  Apparently the hidden roadway is not a permanent structure.

It is a temporary bridge that acts like a drawbridge in that it only operates periodically. While our ship is busy sinking, the cars take advantage and cross. It is an arrangement similar to waiting for a ferry.

I believe the bridge operates like a tongue... there is a section on each side.  Both sections are hidden under the cement.  When it is time, the "tongues" extend outward. Once the tongues meet in the middle, then the cars roll across. 

In the absence of a permanent bridge, the cars would rather wait than make a 100 mile roundtrip to other other side of Panama to use the Centennial Bridge.

Note that the water level in the LOCK is now at sea level.  As soon as the last car is through, the tongues will retract, the gates will open, and our ship will be allowed to enter the Caribbean Sea.

We are nearing the end of the Panama Canal experience.

As the picture on the right shows, we are free at last.  It is now 5 PM.  If you remember, I got out here at 5 AM.  I have just put in twelve consecutive hours watching our ship transit the Canal.  Considering we didn't get started till 7 am, it took 10 hours in all for the ship to cross the Canal.

No one seemed to care about this final stage of the trip.  I was practically the only person left on the front deck of the ship. I didn't expect any medals, but I will say that if they handed one out for endurance, I would have won hands down.

My only real disappointment of the day was the molasses nature of the locks.  I never realized how slow the locks were.  Plus I suspect I was too tired to have patience here at the end.  Guess what?  Now I'm pooped.  It's time for a long nap.

Although the day didn't start very well, seeing the smile on Polly's face when she discovered her reserved seat plus seeing the Queen Elizabeth definitely made up for all the early dawn nonsense.  Plus I learned a lesson - if you want to save a chair, bring extra chairs for the others.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the Culebra Cut, the Chagres - Canal junction, Lake Gatun and the Gatun Dam.  It gave me a real appreciation for the magnitude of the accomplishment. 

To me, this accomplishment is just as magnificent as the Pyramids of Egypt.  Like the Pyramids, the Canal project was far larger than the technology that was available at the time. 

At the time of the French involvement, France was one of Europe's leaders in science and engineering.  For that matter, the French had done a magnificent job building the Suez Canal just prior to starting this project. 

Nonetheless, the French never even came close, a defeat underscored by a staggering amount of suffering on the part of the workers and the astounding 50% mortality rate.  The fact that a great nation like France couldn't pull it off makes the eventual American success even more remarkable. 

It took amazing perseverance and incredible ingenuity on the part of the Americans to solve the same obstacles facing the building of the Panama Canal that had defeated the French.

Why the Canal is not listed as one of the 7 New Wonders of the World is an omission that leaves me completely baffled. 

The one thing I am sure of is that the existence of the Panama Canal is a modern marvel that makes me proud of the Americans who saw this project through to its finish despite the incredible odds against it. 

I respect tremendously the American military courage shown in battles like Iwo Jima and Omaha Beach, but that's a different kind of accomplishment. 

To me, scientific breakthroughs like putting a man on the moon and building this amazing channel is what makes me really proud of America.  These achievements are the perfect synthesis of brain, brawn and willpower.

It shows me what America is capable of when it really puts its mind to it.

     
 

Dance Class

One morning on my way back to the Hovel, I crossed paths with JJ, the ship's cruise director.  

JJ is the person who schedules the activities. I had not met him previously, but after I introduced myself, he patiently listened to my requests.

I explained to JJ that our classes had been popular so far on the trip.

With that in mind, would he consider letting us have an extra dance class in Aruba? 

After all, we did not dock there till 1 pm.  Why not have a class in the morning?

JJ smiled and said that was a good idea.

Next I told him our students had approached me about a review class where we could go over all the material from 2 weeks of classes. Would it possible to dance for two hours on the final day? 

Again JJ nodded and said that would work. Anything else?

Well, actually, yes. Chris, the band leader, had spoken about having another Big Band Night. 

Would JJ be able to schedule that dance event as well?

JJ nodded and said I could consider it done.

I was greatly encouraged.  This would greatly support dance class for the final four days of the trip.

The Aruba dance class worked out just fine.  I had a neat lesson plan that showed how the same pattern could be used to Night Club, Rumba, and Salsa.  This was definitely our best dance class of the two-week period.

The only quirk was the red lighting supplied for our dance lesson.  Combined with some unusual nudes among the art displayed, I overheard several wry comments about dancing in a bordello. I wouldn't know.

As good as the Aruba class had been, I was extremely disappointed when my class fell apart the following day.

To begin with, I didn't feel well.  I was coming down with a cold.  So that cost me my sense of humor, always my best asset when things don't go right.

I had intended to teach a follow-up class to my previous class.  I would review the pattern, then show everyone an advanced option to extend it.

At this point I had ten excellent couples, all of whom appear in these red light pictures.  I geared my lesson plan for them. 

My downfall came when several couples attended who had not been with us the day before.  The moment I began to teach the advanced material, several people struggled.

I watched in dismay as several people walked out. I realized I had reached too far.  I believe my ten couples could have handled the material, but I wasted so much time trying to catch the newcomers up that the lesson turned out to be a waste of time.

Adding to my misery, immediately after class I learned that JJ had just left the ship in Aruba.  Whoever they put in charge refused to honor his agreements.

Not only was my final class reduced from two hours to 45 minutes, the Big Band Dance Party was canceled as well.  I felt just like Charlie Brown after Lucy has pulled the football away. 

I had counted on that Dance Party to reward my students for all their hard work.  But that fantasy was sent packing down the drain.

I gamely tried to help my students with the difficult pattern after class, but my lack of energy due to the illness was apparent.  My friends Sandie and Dave (pictured left) were practically the only ones who got it.  Down in the dumps, I went back to the Hovel to be alone with my cold and failed lesson plan.

I had learned a lesson the hard way.  It had been a mistake to teach a difficult move.  I wasn't given enough time, my class was far too large, and I had no way to prevent newcomers from joining the class. 

I should have taught a beginning pattern to a new dance and left it at that.

I decided that in the future the only way I could teach advanced patterns on a cruise ship would be to have a private class. 

On our final day, I decided I would work around our 45 minute limitations. I taught a well-received course in the basics of Slow Dancing. 

Afterward I offered to let people videotape Marla and I dancing in a different room.  My regulars were very pleased at this chance.

The Gypsy Dance Class followed us to another room where I spent half an hour going over the various patterns and answering questions.  They were so appreciative. The dance classes were definitely the true highlight of my trip.

The friendships we developed over the two-week period were very special.  I only wish there had been more built-in chances to practice what we learned as a group during the evening hours.

It was a real blow to see that final Big Band Dance Night canceled.

I think that would have been the perfect touch to finish off our two weeks of dance class. 

Parting Thoughts


Marla and I thoroughly enjoyed teaching our classes on the ship.  However, as I flew home, deep down I was troubled by the fact that most of what I did was a lot closer to entertainment than the actual teaching of social dance.

Don't get me wrong - I enjoyed teaching the large group Beginner classes.  But, speaking candidly, very little of that material ever "sticks".  The beginning moves are soon forgotten because the ships furnish so few opportunities to practice. I predict the same people will attend Beginner Dance classes on the next cruise and have no choice but cover the same Box Steps and Back Steps as this trip.

I am convinced there are passengers who would love to use a cruise trip to actually improve their skills at dance. What could be a finer use of free time? 

My dream was to take a group of students the first day at sea and train them for an hour every day of the trip in one specific type of dance music (Latin, Swing, Western, Waltz, Foxtrot, Rumba). I would let the students choose.

Then on the final night of the cruise, the ship could schedule a special dance party along the lines of the Big Band Night we had on this trip.  In particular, the Band would play an extra number of songs we could practice our dance specialty to.  The promise of this reward would be a great incentive to motivate the students. They would get a chance to see their hard work pay off during an evening of fun.

No one will admit it, but the biggest obstacle is the fact that dance classes are not a source of revenue.  It goes without saying the Bingo beats Ballroom every time.  So why not charge for it?  That would be a game changer.

Offer free classes and offer higher level classes at a different time for a fee.  I noticed in the gym that they had intensive exercise programs that people could sign up for.  These programs were reasonably priced and targeted only the most highly motivated passengers.  So why not offer dance classes for an extra fee?

I know the interest is there. 

My group of ten couples would have jumped at the opportunity and probably others would have as well.  Based on the comments of the people I talked to, they would have loved to take an ongoing dance class that would have challenged them. 

The only question is whether a ship or a cruise line would give my ambitious project a try.

Well, here's the way I look at it.  A recent change in the cruise industry is the addition of the specialty restaurants.  They hint that you will get a fine dining experience in the main dining room at no added expense, but you can also get a "finer" dining experience at the Italian restaurant or the steakhouse. 

Why not try the same concept with dance class? 

On the first day of the trip, I could teach beginning patterns in the morning at no charge. I would use that opportunity to let people know they were welcome to participate in an intermediate class at a different time later the same day at no charge.  If they liked the first class, then they could sign up for the package at that time.  For the rest of the trip, I would continue to teach daily beginner classes for free and conduct special dance classes at another time for a fee. 

If it works for exercise and restaurants, why wouldn't it work for dance?  People have free time and are looking for a challenge.

I imagine if I talked to the right person, they would listen.  The people who run the cruise lines understand a good idea.  The thought of offering additional free dance lessons would probably cause a yawn, but dance classes for a fee might get their attention.  They are always looking for a new source of revenue.  If anyone in the cruise industry would like to sit down and discuss it, send me an email.

A Dance Camp program would accomplish two very valuable things. 

First of all, only students who were serious about learning to dance would sign up.  This would keep the class small and allow me to personally supervise each student's progress. 

Second, once dance classes became a source of income, then more attention would be given to the dance classes.  Instead of getting dumped for extra bingo events, maybe the would schedule a terrific "Graduation Dance Party".

If anyone wants to actually improve their dance skills at sea, the pay-extra Dance Camp idea is probably the best bet.

Perhaps someday I will get my wish and be allowed to implement my "Learn to Dance at Sea" program.  Hopefully my program will also include evening activities such as the Big Band Dance Night in the picture.

Thanks for reading my story.  I hope you enjoyed it!

Rick Archer
February 2012
rick@ssqq.com

 
 

Letters to the Editor

LETTER ONE

Hi Rick

Thank you for your account of the trip.  A friend of mine found your story and forwarded me the link.

We took some of your dance classes and really enjoyed them. 

Unfortunately we were very frustrated by the ever changing times.  We were also signed up for another activity. Several times both your class and the other activity were put in the same slot. We were forced to choose and we didn't want to... we wanted to do both!

Plus the time for our other activity kept changing too. I put in comments to Princess about needing to know what would clash at the beginning of the cruise so people could make informed decisions.

We live out in the country and it is a long way to the nearest dance class after work.  We have tried taking lessons but in the winter things just get in the way.  And the classes don't run in the summer because no one attends - probably harvesting!

So we would be keen on some scheduled intensive dance classes on a cruise as I read about in your story.

Anyway, thanks for the classes and the 'story'.  S.
 

Rick's Note:  I agree.  No attempt was made to coordinate the dance classes; they were just shoved in a corner.

You also pointed out that visiting a dance studio is difficult due to where you live, but that a cruise would be the ideal time to take lessons.  If you had to pay a little extra, more than likely whatever you paid on a cruise would be less than what you would pay at dance studio, so why not put your time to good use?

 

LETTER TWO

Hi Rick and Marla,

Really enjoyed you Panama Canal Story and photos. You are a very good and entertaining writer. My husband loved all the maps and charts about the canal. Princess seemed to be especially "map challenged", even regarding the ports. When I suggested to the Tour Desk that they provide more/better maps (like other cruise lines) they told me that maps had to be approved by CORPORATE and that it was too difficult to make changes/improvements!!

We loved your dance classes, it got us inspired to start dancing again regularly. We met at a West Coast Swing Workshop 16 years ago and prior to that we both took lots of classes, workshops, dance cruises, weekend workshops, etc.

Then we got married and moved to an area with less classes/dances available and only danced on cruises for the next 8 years, then we got away from cruising for 7 years and stopped dancing altogether. We would definitely have been willing to pay additional to take Intermediate/Advanced Classes on the ship. We really liked your emphasis on style/technique and how you pointed out that the various patterns could be used in numerous dances. It's amazing that you made such progress considering the large classes, various levels, and short amount of time. The classes were also fun.

Hopefully we can go on one of your dance cruises in the future.   H
 

Rick's Note:  Thank you for the kind words.  Tell your husband I love maps too!!  Especially when writing about adventures, I find maps do a wonderful job of helping people less familiar with the location to keep track of things.

We would definitely have been willing to pay additional to take Intermediate/Advanced Classes on the ship.

You are the second person to write and agree the "pay for Intermediate dance lessons" is a good idea.  Maybe I can contact someone in the industry and make the suggestion.  People love to dance on cruises.  And, truth be told, I think the cruise lines understand that having lots of people dance is good for business.  Their problem is that the general population doesn't dance, so they have gotten tired of pushing random dance events where they have to pull teeth to get people to participate.

I don't it has ever occurred to them to simply train people to dance on the cruise trip as a way to promote an evening dance event. 
 

LETTER THREE

I was rolling in floor laughing so hard while reading your Panama cruise story about your accommodations. I know it wasn't funny at the time and hope you can now laugh about it.  Your upcoming trip on The Titanic Anniversary Voyage should help heal your pain nicely. 

I know what you mean about regular cruisers not dancing on cruises. Many times Bette and I are the only ones on the dance floor. Once a lady left her group and walked over and asked if I would dance with her. Since Bette had been dancing with the two dance hosts, she didn't have a problem with me dancing with the stranger. Turns out she was from San Antonio and here we were in the middle of the Mediterranean. Small world.

For us dancing is the best part of a cruise and we interact with the dance hosts a lot. Teaching dance on a cruise sounds like so much fun. Larry
 

Rick's Note:  Teaching dance on a cruise is indeed wonderful fun.  I will get back to you when we start laughing about sleeping on the bunk bed. 


LETTER FOUR

I read your story about Costa Rica.  I agree this is a lovely place. And the locals, "Ticos", are so friendly as well.

I was there in June, 2001. I remember our drive from the airport in San Juan to the other side of the coast - to Guanacasta. On the way, we stopped at a little dinner to grab a bite and a beer, and when we went in, there were some locals hanging out. The music was playing, and the next thing I knew, I was dancing with a Tico. What fun.

Seeing Mt. Arenal, the volcano, was and remains my most favorite memory of any trip (followed closely by the Hubbard Glacier). I watched it spit and dribble lava at night - from the road, from our table at the restaurant while dining, from a hot tub at my hotel, and then, from bed. I needed to only turn my head to one side to watch the lava trickle down the side. It was AMAZING. The next day, we were horseback riding when we heard it rumble. At that point, I was ready to get a bit further from the volcano. After all, two people had died there just a few years earlier.

After leaving there, we went to the hot springs at Tabacon, which are located near Arenal and heated thermally. An absolutely glorious place, and the water was like a pleasant bath. So delightful. Of course, the roads leading to and from the area were the worst that I have ever encountered in any of my travels ever!

At the end of this trip came one more surprise.  Tropical Storm Allison had just hit Houston. We were at our bed and breakfast back in San Juan and preparing to leave the next morning. Our host asked me if I was also from Dallas (as my friend was), and I told him I was from Houston. That is when he said, "Oh my! That has been declared a state of emergency." Of course, I had no idea what he was talking about. My friend and I were traveling with two sixteen-year old boys, so we never had custody of the TV, so I had no idea that Tropical Storm Allison was playing havoc with Houston. Of course, I couldn't fly back in. They offered to send me to Dallas and then to Houston, but I thought staying in Costa Rica might be more fun. Of course, I didn't realize that everything shuts down on Sunday, because the day is devoted to family event. No stores were open, nothing to do at all.

So I went to a park and tried to call home repeatedly, but couldn't reach anyone because the phone lines were out. I have to admit, I wished I had gone on to Dallas. At least there I could have gotten more information than the same 5 minute clips that were on CNN Headline news. The next day, I was able to get back to Houston. Although it was Sunday morning (about noon, actually) you could barely see evidence of water anywhere! Of course, a number of the townhomes in my subdivision had water in them up to about 18 inches or more. I was fortunate. My home was one of a very few that had no water in it at all. That did give it an ace up for a selling point, later - NEVER FLOODED. Not that many homes in my area could say that.

When I got home, my friends told about the floods, and people stranded and staying overnight at the studio.  No matter where you were, that was some week to remember.  Judy

 

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