Story of the
2012 Panama Canal
Trip, Part One
Written by Rick Archer
Marla and I were the guest dance instructors
aboard the Coral Princess on a two-week long
sailing to Panama in January 2012.
I had originally expected a rugged
14 day, 6,000 mile ocean
but the trip turned out to be a low-key, rather quiet journey.
The weather was perfect throughout the trip and there were
no unusual developments.
Our dance classes went very well.
Every cruise ship
needs to find ways to keep their passengers occupied during
the days at sea. Due to the unusually large number of
days at sea on this trip (10), there was a real need for
activities. Our dance classes stood out because they
actually challenged people. Everyone liked having a
chance to learn new patterns and our classes stayed popular
throughout the trip.
Our dance classes turned out to be a
real ace in the hole for the cruise director. He
scheduled us to teach a class every chance he got. Not
that I minded a bit. I love to teach people how to
social dance. Even better, the people I met were
wonderfully enthusiastic. I could not have asked for
a more dedicated group. In short, the dance classes
were a lot of fun.
That said, this was a really weird
trip for Marla and me. We were placed in a very odd predicament that
quite frankly we were not prepared for.
To our dismay, we were treated by the
staff as "crew" for
fourteen very long days. We were forced to live a strange double life as
part-time members of the well-heeled passengers and
full time members of the crew.
signed up for this trip for one very basic
reason - we wanted to see the Panama Canal.
If we had known we were going to be treated like
the crew, I dare say we would have passed on the
didn't sign up to be crew members. This was
forced upon us against our will. To
understand our predicament more fully, we were
not paid a dime to teach. Marla and I paid
trip just like everyone else. We
paid for our own air fare. We paid for our
own drinks, excursions, and photographs just like
everyone else. And yes, we paid for our
Now it is
true we were given a discount in return for our
service, but we still paid over $1,000 for our
room. Including air fare and excursions, our
trip cost close to $3,000. We sure as heck
didn't pay that kind of money for the privilege
of serving as crew and sleeping in bunk beds.
Diamond status on RCCL thanks to 22 previous
trips. We could well afford to pay for a
better room if that is what was necessary to
skip the insult of being treated like crew, but
we weren't given a choice.
Marla gets credit for
giving our cabin its nickname. Our cabin was located at the bottom of the ship. Yes, our cabin was on the crew
deck. And yes, we slept on bunk beds. Due to my height,
I slept on top. Were the beds comfortable? Uh, no.
The room was small, 15 by
passage between the bunk bed and the desk was so narrow that only
one person could stand in this area at a time. For example, I
am standing at the desk in the picture. There is only one foot of
clearance between me and the bed. Marla and
I were constantly getting in each other's way.
I guess the biggest insult
was not being able to sleep next to my wife. Yes, I
snore and yes, Marla tosses and turns, but we still want to be
together. We did not like being separated at all. Marla was so
disgusted at our room that she remained in a state of constant
frustration over our situation for two solid weeks.
our "window" on the left. It was closed and
bolted shut half the time for safety purposes.
years I have wondered what the crew's living area
and accommodations are like. Well, on this
trip I got my wish.
life is centered around two very long hallways. The crew
walk back and forth all day long. No surprise
- this area is where they live.
witness to a vast array of unseen elevators and
hidden passages in the center of the ship.
These extra elevators and secret passages allow the
crew to move about the ship without disturbing the
passengers any more than they have to.
I soon learned that they weren't happy about me
snapping pictures. After a few dirty looks I
got the message. I decided they had a
right to their privacy, so I kept my
pictures to a minimum from that point on.
our hallway. The crew is
responsible for taking its own luggage to the room.
That caused problems for me. I
brought a 45 pound amplifier all the way from
Houston to be sure my dance classes had adequate
was some sort of mixup at the check-in desk when we
arrived. For some reason, I was forced to go
to the checkin desk 3 times to get my
documentation right. You have no idea how
tired I got lugging that damn amplifier back and
forth. Finally I grabbed a wheel chair. I
didn't know whether to sit in it myself or put the
amplifier on it.
mix-up was likely caused by the fact that someone
switched rooms on us without going through
Thanks to some curious discoveries later in the trip, we
suspect we had actually been assigned a different
cabin. However another lecturer who had come on board
before us raised such a stink that we were switched
to the Hovel at the last minute.
was some confusion as to our presence the first few
days. We were always being stopped by someone
who assumed we were lost. No surprise there -
Marla and I were the only people on the entire ship
living down there who were not "crew". We stuck
out like a
Luggage is stored down here before it is
taken to the passenger's rooms. As for our own
luggage, we were told to carry it to our room on our
say this - they kept the crew area very clean.
The floors were always shiny and the halls well-lit.
We had limited room service. Somebody
brought us new towels every day and
changed our sheets once in two weeks. However
he never bothered to introduce himself.
where our room was located. We
recognized many of our students as they walked
past our window when in port.
The Invisible Dance Instructors
We were completely ignored for two weeks. During the entire two weeks, we
had a grand total of 18 minutes of direct contact
with administrative staff.
The man in charge
of the dance classes met with us once for
10 minutes on Day One. Then I ran into him by
the next-to-last day; we talked for 2 minutes as
he explained that two of my written requests for
dance class had just been canceled. In
the meantime he left one phone
message asking me to teach an extra class (which I
readily agreed to do). Returning his call took
3 minutes of contact was spent being taken
at Guest Relations that there were no other
rooms so take it or leave it. It was
the Hovel or jump in the ocean. The
final minute of contact came from being told
incorrectly how to get off the ship.
not given a thank you letter at the end of the trip
or any recognition whatsoever. It was like we
had never even been there.
told, neither Marla nor I even knew who was
responsible for sticking us down in the Hovel.
We operated pretty much in the dark the entire trip.
Given the minimal contact, you might ask how I knew
when and where to teach my classes. Each night
Marla and I checked the schedule of events like
everyone else. That was how they communicated
didn't really know what to make of us, especially
the waiters. They would serve us in the dining
room and then do a double-take when they saw us
walking in the crew hallway. One waiter from
the Ukraine actually stopped me to ask a question.
"Are you a crew person or a passenger?"
say the crew
on this ship were invariably nice to us even after
they discovered our odd status. There were
only three crew people who treated us poorly.
pretty weird going from Diamond status to Grovel in the Hovel status on the
Coral. However we made it a point not to
complain to anyone and certainly not to our fellow
passengers. We are professionals and acted
our diminished status, we were very impressed by the ship.
Marla and I agreed they did a splendid job keeping
their passengers happy. Marla was so impressed that
she hopes to book a trip for our SSQQ Travel Group
on a Princess ship someday.
for whatever reason, they completely ignored their
dance teachers. We weren't important enough to
and I have been guest instructors once before. We taught on a Royal Caribbean ship in December
2010. At that time, we were delighted with our
of comparison, I have included a picture of our
Royal Caribbean room from that trip.
Obviously this picture of the messy room doesn't do
the cabin much justice. It was taken just before
departing the cabin to leave the ship.
the picture at least it shows that our room and our
bed was comfortable.
and I are not prima donnas. We both realize
how fortunate we are compared to the vast
majority of the human race. Furthermore,
neither of us expect to be treated like we are
better than anyone else.
I do believe a deal is a deal.
When it came time to teach for the Coral
Princess, we were led to believe our Princess room
would be of the same quality
as the one we had previously.
had agreed to an Oceanview Stateroom for the
The email sent to us said
Oceanview stateroom is a
great value featuring a picture window and two twin
beds that make up into a queen-size bed."
We were led to believe our cabin would look like the
one pictured on the right when we accepted the
assignment. This picture shows a cabin that
seems to be the same quality as the room we had
Consequently we traveled 2,000 miles and committed
two weeks of our time based on a promise that was as
hollow as a diseased tree.
As we got our
first look at the Hovel, Marla
thought there must be some mistake.
She spoke to the people at the Front Desk. She was
that the ship was sold out. There were no
other rooms available.
Marla looked at
me and I looked at Marla. Assuming they were
telling us the truth, we did not expect them to rip someone
from their cabin and give it to us.
were at sea when given the bad news, that left us with two
options - Accept what we were given or jump off the ship.
was responsible for this deception was a nameless,
faceless person. Since the ship had no respect
for the document we showed them of our agreement, we
grimly accepted our
fate. What could we do?
On the right is
layout of our cabin sent to Marla ahead of time.
of comparison, I took elements from the picture of
the cabin we were promised and rearranged them to
the scale of the Hovel.
The bathroom sink was
literally the same width as our bunk beds. I
know this because my bed and the sink were back to
means the toilet and the shower combined were the
same width as our bed.
Meanwhile I fumed. Every day I did a riff on
whether I was being unreasonable or not. After
all, the crew lived in similar quarters or worse.
Compared to them, we did have a slightly better
room. If they could learn to live in their
quarters on a year-round basis, why couldn't we
accept the room that was given to us for two weeks?
In a world beset
by famine, disease and violence, my problems didn't amount
to much. I
decided I could adapt to life in the Hovel... if that's what I agreed to ahead of time.
However I didn't appreciate the Bait and Switch
tactic one bit. The utter lack of respect
shown us was an affront.
with no realistic choices, we taught our classes
and minded our own business for the entire trip.
Resigned to our fate, we chose to spend as little
time in our cabin as necessary. We spent a lot
of time in the Solarium, in the Lobby, and in the
This worked out pretty well.
However, after two weeks of living like sardines,
our patience wore pretty thin towards the end.
Our classes were
extremely popular. We frequently had groups in excess
of 60 people.
The first thing
that surprised us were the incredible number of
couples in our class. We typically had 25 couples and
perhaps four or five extra ladies. The ladies usually
As we got to
know these people, one thing that struck me as unusual was
that this was the greatest concentration of happily married
people I had ever met in my entire life. Every couple
we spoke to had been married for 20 years, 30 years, even 35
years. And they weren't going through the motions
either. These people really cared about their
I remember there
time before I met Marla when I used to wonder if there
really was such a thing as a happy marriage. Now
everywhere I looked I was surrounded by all these really
happy people. I smiled. Marriage is definitely
alive and well on this ship.
Another thing we
noticed is that we were right in the middle of our age
group. There was a sea of grey hair in every dance
class I taught... and I fit right in. Not wishing to
sound disrespectful, but I was surprised at the high number
Marla was the
one who figured it out. She pointed out that the only
people on earth who can get away from their jobs for two
entire weeks would probably be people who didn't work any
more. Ah, so that's the secret! A few discrete
inquiries confirmed Marla's theory. The vast majority
of our fellow passengers were indeed retired.
Dancing upon the High Seas
I have been interested in the "science" of teaching dance on a
cruise ship ever since our earliest trips dating back to 2001.
I suppose after 23
cruise trips, I am as uniquely able to discuss the subject as
anyone. I don't think there are more than a handful of people
in the world who have operated a dance studio for 32 years and
taught dance lessons on 20+ cruises as well.
One thing I have long
been aware of is the high number of people who are really interested
in taking dance lessons during their cruise trips. Every
person I meet on a trip says the same thing - they would love to use
a cruise trip to learn more about dancing.
I have long felt sorry
for people who don't know how to dance ahead of time when they go on a cruise.
It really irritates many non-dancers to board a ship and quickly discover all the fun the people have while dancing together.
Unfortunately there is no such thing as learn to dance on the spot
other than a few superficial patterns. Consequently they do a
lot of watching.
Nothing gets to the
heart of the frustration the non-dancers feel more than this funny
anecdote from 2004.
Marla and I had gotten
married aboard the ship on Sunday. We were accompanied by a group of
125 friends from our dance studio in Houston. Monday was
This event promised a large dance floor, a terrific
orchestra, and free champagne to boot. Our rabid group of
dancers were licking their chops in anticipation of the event. The only person in the
group who didn't look forward to the night was me. I had just gotten
married one day earlier and now I was
exhausted. Let everyone else dance. I decided to sit back
and enjoy the show.
It was Formal Night. The
ladies looked terrific in dresses and the men looked sharp in coat and tie. Our
group was in full force here in the dance lounge ready to dance to
anything the orchestra wanted to play. At any given moment we might
put as many as 20 couples on the floor.
The music started. Instantly a buffalo stampede of our dancers
hurried out to the floor. Someone noticed Marla wasn't
dancing, so he asked her to join him. That left me all alone.
To my surprise, I overheard a curious conversation from a couple
sitting nearby. They were a couple in their 40s dressed
attractively. He was in a tux; she was in a gown. From the conversation, I gathered
they were new to their relationship. The lady was giving him a
pretty hard time and he was cowering.
The lady said, "Frank, look at all those people out there.
Let's get out there and dance like everyone
The man said, "What are you talking about, Betty? I don't know
how to dance like that! There's no way I'm getting out there."
The lady replied, "Well, there has to be at least twenty men out
there dancing. Why are you the only man in this entire room who isn't
The man looked very uncomfortable. This strange anomaly was
bothering him as well. The man replied, "I wish I knew the
answer to that. This is my third cruise and I've never seen so many
like that before."
"Well, how did those guys learn? It can't be that hard if every
in the room knows how! Just get up and copy them!"
"There is no way I can figure out what they are doing. If
you want to dance, go ask one of them!"
"Thank you. I think I will do just that."
At that point she turned and looked at me. I was all that was
left so it was no surprise that I knew what was coming. Sure enough, mostly
to irritate Frank, she asked me to dance. Deeply amused at the
gentleman's consternation, on a whim I decided to make his life just
a little bit more miserable by accepting.
I began to lead this lady
through dance patterns she probably never even knew existed. Betty's
eyes bulged. She had gotten a lot more than she had bargained for.
I didn't embarrass her, but I did go out of my way to make her dizzy.
She deserved it.
Meanwhile I watched
Frank out of the corner of my eye. He was staring in shock.
He couldn't believe Betty
was doing all those moves. She was laughing and smiling and
basically rubbing it in that she could dance but Frank couldn't.
Poor Left-Behind Frank shook his head in consternation the entire
time. Why does the whole world know how to dance but him?
Watching the perplexed expression on his face, I had to laugh at his
plight. He couldn't believe that every man in the room could
dance like Fred Astaire but him! What was wrong with him?
Betty wasn't finished.
As I brought her back to her seat, she exclaimed, "See? Even
this guy knows how to dance. What about you?" Frank
had no answer. He was crestfallen.
To me, Betty's remarks
below the belt. When Betty left to use the restroom, I
explained to Frank what was going on. You could not imagine
the relief that crossed his face.
Once he regained his
composure, Frank confided in me
that he would like to learn to dance, but he was just too darn busy.
He had a demanding job, he had two kids from a previous marriage to
care for, and he had civic activities after work as well. Frank
said he had long hours at work. Evenings were spent watching his kids and resting up for the next day at work.
Dance lessons were a time luxury he couldn't afford right now.
Then he looked at me
thoughtfully and asked, "Do you teach lessons here on the cruise?
I have plenty of free time while I am on this cruise."
I smiled and invited him
to our next dance workshop. However to my disappointment he
and Betty didn't show up. Oh well.
However, it is unlikely that a single dance lesson would have
accomplished much. Learning to dance is definitely not an overnight
project. Although dance is a skill that offers great
satisfaction throughout one's life, I will be the first to admit you
have to pay your dues first. Dance lessons require a
systematic commitment of many months before they really begin to pay off.
comment has stayed with me for many years.
"Do you teach
lessons here on the cruise? I have plenty of free time while I
am on this cruise..."
I have long wondered just how much I could accomplish teaching a
dedicated group on a cruise trip. Just how far could a class
of 20 people get in a week's time? Or for that matter, two
Call it Dance Camp.
Seven straight days of dance classes. Would it be possible to
work with a group every morning for an hour, perhaps meet in the
evening to practice together, and then meet for a special dance
party at the end of the trip? Wouldn't it be fun to
see these couples get rewarded with a dance party held in their honor?
If there is one thing I
am convinced of, a cruise trip and dancing go hand in hand.
Dance, Romance, Formal Night, and the glamour of a beautiful cruise
ship sailing the seas are the perfect combination for a special
What could possibly be
more romantic than dancing a Waltz with your wife or husband to live
music out at sea? As a couple twirls around the floor, they look
out and see the moonlight flickering off the waves of the vast
ocean. The motion of the ship combines with the gliding motion
of the Waltz to make partners feel like they are floating.
I already know the power
of dancing under the moonlight out at sea. I fell in love with
my wife for the first time on a cruise ship dance floor. You
don't believe me? Then go read
The Stroke of Midnight, a cruise ship love story that proves
the "Love Boat" fantasy might not be a fairy tale after all.
Ever since that magic
moment back in 2001, every time I dance with Marla on a cruise trip,
it gives me the perfect chance to fall deeply in love with my wife
all over again.
With an Ocean Love Potion this
intoxicating, I imagine it is obvious why I want to share my
experience with anyone who is interested in learning to dance.
So as my Panama Trip
approached, armed with the knowledge that I had two entire weeks at
my disposal, I was indeed very curious to see just how much material
I could share with the people who took my classes. I called it
my "Panama Project".
Our first lesson covered Foxtrot. There were several
positives. First the students could not have been more
wonderful. They concentrated, they listened, and they were
The dance floor was
large enough for them to see me and to move around freely without
killing each other.
The room was very
attractive and quite relaxing.
Thanks to my amplifier
from home, the music quality was perfect.
In fact everything was
perfect... except for one thing... we were only given 45 minutes.
45 minutes is not much
time to accomplish much, especially with a group this size. I
talked about leads and patterns, but the time was too short and the
class too large to actually work with anyone individually.
They either got it or they didn't.
Still, thanks to the
great enthusiasm, I was encouraged.
I had to admire Marla.
She is an excellent teacher in her own right. However, Marla
sublimated her own role to let me do all the talking.
Recognizing that there wasn't enough time for two people to talk, she
contented herself with taking pictures and quietly working with
people who asked for some help. It had to be frustrating not
to participate more, but she never once complained.
Furthermore you won't see her in any dance pictures because I was
busy and forgot to photograph her.
Day Two was Waltz.
Fortunately the Waltz patterns were identical to yesterday's Foxtrot
patterns, so all the people had to do was adjust to the different
rhythm of the Waltz music. Even better, by going over the
same footwork two days in a row, the material had a chance to sink
in a bit more deeply.
Day Three was Rumba.
Rumba has a split personality. Rumba shares a great number of
patterns with Foxtrot. It also shares a lot of patterns with
Cha-Cha. By sticking to the "Foxtrot" patterns of Rumba, I was
able to teach the same patterns for the third day in a row.
This gave me enough time to add
the important Walkaround Turn used to exit many Rumba patterns.
My only regret was the
limited amount of time. 45 minutes was simply not enough.
Another headache was having the time of our dance class switched
every day. Some people were having trouble keeping track of
when the next class would be offered.
On the fourth day, I saw
a golden opportunity. There was a Big Band dance party on the
schedule for tonight. I looked at Marla and said I was going to drop the
Cha-Cha listed as my dance for the day and teach Swing Dancing
instead. My reasoning was simple - Swing Dancing is meant
for Big Band music.
So I explained to my
class what my thinking was. They were all for it. Let's
learn to Swing Dance! Unfortunately, 45 minutes came and went
much too fast.
So I made a decision. Anyone who wanted
to learn more could follow me to another venue. Music wasn't a
problem... all I had to do was roll my amplifier to another room.
So the Gypsy Dance Class was born. I took my nomadic dance
students to a vacant room and taught for another hour. Now we
were getting somewhere!
I made them all promise
to come and join Marla and me at the Big Band Dance that night. I could see I didn't
need to hype it as hard as I was trying. I felt a little
sheepish... I had them at "there's this dance tonight..."
They could not have been
The Big Band
I could not have asked for a more perfect
occasion. The evening was everything I hoped for and more. The
orchestra was great, their music was perfect for dancing, the
darkened lighting was super-romantic, and the floor offered the
dancers plenty of
room to move around.
Even better, lots of
people came to hear the music but ended up clapping for my dance
students who put on a great show. The dancers beamed with
satisfaction. What a great evening!!
Somebody in the band
clearly knew what they were doing. They played all kinds of
music. The next thing I knew I was Swing Dancing to "Tuxedo
Junction", doing the Foxtrot to "Moondance", dancing a Cha-Cha to
"Smooth", and Waltzing to "Moon River".
Their selection covered
every dance I had taught in the past four days! I could not
have been more pleased. This was instant feedback - everything
my students had learned in our classes could be directly transferred to this
Best of all, I
nearly 20 people from dance class. Watching them laugh was all
the proof I needed to justify my theory - dancing at sea is cosmic fun.
people need to participate is enough understanding of the basic patterns. Once they get
out on the floor, they discover form themselves the joy of dancing on a
Sure enough, this wonderful evening
left lots of people smiling. These pictures don't actually do
the night justice. For some songs, there were twice as many
people out on the floor. I should have taken more pictures,
but I was having too much fun dancing.
There was only one
downside - the Band only played for 45 minutes. We were all
left ravenous for more songs.
Fortunately, the Band
leader, a man named Chris, promised me that he would be back next
week to do it again. He added how much his band had playing to
such an enthusiastic audience.
That was exactly what I wanted to hear.
It was music to my ears! I could hardly contain
my excitement over the thought of another evening next week just like this one.
My students would have several more lessons under their belt and be
raring to go.
The following day, my
students were bouncing off the wall with enthusiasm. They
couldn't believe that these short but concise dance lessons had paid
off in such a big way. They were proud of their success from
last night's dance.
While it was true that
some of them only knew the Box Step, they were more than happy to
Box their way through one song after another. Now they were
ready for more moves.
One person after another
thanked us for helping make last night special for them. Marla and I
deeply appreciated all the compliments. One lady said this was
their fifth cruise, but this was the first time her husband had ever
gotten brave enough to dance with her on one of the trips.
I nodded with
satisfaction. This was exactly what I wanted to hear.
Nothing gives me more pleasure than to contribute.
For our fifth class we
covered Country-Western Twostep. I had one couple point out
that the Texas Twostep looked just like some Foxtrot patterns he had learned
back home. I grinned. Yes, the Texas Twostep and the
High Society Foxtrot are indeed similar dances. I pointed out
that they share many patterns and the same SSQQ rhythm.
I am pleased to report
one couple said the Twostep lesson was their favorite dance so far.
The dancing was fun and they liked the music. By the way, this
couple was from Europe. Dancing is universal. If it's
fun in Texas, it's fun anywhere.
This class was my
personal favorite of the bunch. We had a little smaller group,
but every couple in there were veterans of my previous classes.
They had all been at the dance the night before and were super
motivated at this point.
I was amazed at the
amount of material we covered. In 45 minutes, we covered the
same lesson plan that used to take 2 hours at SSQQ-Bissonnet.
In other words, they learned twice as fast because they were really
into it. I have never seen a group concentrate any harder than
While I taught the
class, I realized how much I missed teaching Western dancing.
I have enjoyed teaching Ballroom this past year, but I am
starting to realize that teaching Ballroom shouldn't prevent me from
teaching Western as well.
Marla was missing in
action for this class. We were on a Trivia Team that was
meeting at the same time as dance class. So Marla went to
represent the two of us for Trivia while I taught Twostep.
Although I missed Marla, this gave me the opportunity to misbehave a
little. Yes, it's true.
I tell all sorts of
risqué anecdotes when Marla isn't around. In this case I told
the infamous story about the lady whose massive breasts gave SSQQ
its name. You've never heard that story before? Go read
The Winchester Club.
Another thing that was
pretty neat was that I took the opportunity to learn names. I
was starting to recognize the regulars. We were starting to
get a core group very close to that 10 couples of the Dance Camp
I had envisioned.
Two of my favorite
couples are in the picture on the left. That's Roger and Susan
(in yellow) from England on the left of me. That is David and
Sandie (well, Sandie's arm anyway) from Canada by way of India (Dave)
and Scotland (Sandie's arm).
Dave was a real favorite
of mine. He was so outgoing that I took advantage of his good
nature. I made him dance with me whenever I needed to demonstrate
something. Dave was always a good sport. He even let me
slow dance with him to help me prove that a good lead can make
anyone look good.
Imagine how I felt at
the end of the trip when David said that back home he was a famous
doctor that had been Knighted for his cancer research. I
turned red with embarrassment. I had just used a Knight of the
British Empire as my dance dummy.
Leave it to me to pick 'em.
I am sure he knew I meant no disrespect. Dave didn't seem to mind at all. I bless
him for that and respect him even more for being so down to earth
despite his wonderful medical accomplishments.
In dance class we can all be silly. That's the point.
Dance class is a refuge from being important. Here we are all
on equal footing in more ways than one. We are just a bunch of
people from all walks of life coming together for a common purpose -
the chance to dance with our partners.
In the process,
conversations were started between the couples and a type of group
consciousness began to form.
What better way can there be to make friends than dance class?
We all laughed and smiled and watched our barriers melt away.
The daily dance classes
became a special treat for all of us. I was tickled that the
students looked forward to each class just as much as I did.
After five days at sea, we finally stopped to visit
Costa Rica. I had a chip on my shoulder towards
Costa Rica a mile wide. Marla had once taken an
exquisite vacation to Costa Rica with her previous
boyfriend not long before I came into the picture.
she raved about Costa Rica, I silently bristled at how
"wonderful" the trip had been. Therefore it was
with great satisfaction that I stepped onto Costa Rican
soil. Somehow I had finally evened the score.
Now I've been to Costa Rica with Marla too.
to forgive me. I think stupid thoughts all the
time. The difference between me and other writers
is that I am also stupid enough to put them on paper.
As Marla and
I got off the ship to prepare for a forest canopy tour,
the first thing I noticed was a sign featuring the
macaw. I quickly learned that the macaw is the
national symbol of Costa Rica. To my surprise and
delight, the macaw would play a special role in the
bus drove through Puntarenas, I also saw a sign that
reminded me of the absurd "Switzerland of the Americas"
slogan that characterizes Costa Rica. At first I
assumed this slogan was nothing more than an overzealous
marketing strategy along the lines of "Greenland".
However I was so impressed by some of the stories told
to us by Bernie, our tour guide, that I later researched
Costa Rica more extensively.
Costa Rica was once the ugly duckling of Central
America, but magically parlayed its lack of charm to
become one of the world's most successful countries by
deviating sharply from the norm.
was discovered by the Spanish about the same time as all
the other areas of Central America. However, once
the Spanish realized that Costa Rica was totally lacking
in the commodities they sought such as silver and gold,
they lost interest in the area quickly.
Costa Rica was described
as "the poorest and most miserable Spanish colony in all America" by
a Spanish governor in 1719. As a result, Costa Rica was
largely ignored. It remained a poor, isolated, and sparsely
inhabited region within the Spanish Empire.
Another important factor behind Costa Rica's poverty was the lack of
a significant indigenous population available for forced labor.
This meant that any Spanish nobleman who tried to settle in the
Costa Rican territories would have to work his own land.
Unwilling to develop
plantations without the help of slave labor, Costa Rica was never
taken over by Spanish landlords and their hacienda society.
For all these reasons,
Costa Rica was by and large unappreciated and overlooked by the
Spanish Crown. Mired in poverty and left to develop on its
own, this is how Costa Rica magically avoided the horror and cruelty
inflicted by Spain everywhere else in the Americas.
According to Wikipedia,
these odd circumstances led to many of the idiosyncrasies for which
Costa Rica has become known. This set the stage that allowed Costa
Rica to develop as a more egalitarian society than the rest of its
neighbors. Costa Rica became a "rural democracy" with no
oppressed mestizo or indigenous class.
Among the things I
learned was that Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world
that was allowed to become a country without being forced to win a
war. Costa Rica simply let Mexico do the heavy lifting.
On September 15, 1821, after the final Spanish defeat in the Mexican
War of Independence, the authorities in Guatemala declared the
independence of all of Central America.
For the next twenty
years, Costa Rica was periodically under the influence of Guatemala
and Nicaragua, but its geographic isolation and poverty kept these
other areas from paying much attention. When Costa Rica
announced its independence in 1838, the other countries just yawned.
The Ugly Duckling was
finally on its own.
In the years to follow,
Costa Rica continued to keep to itself.
Unlike the violent pasts
of the neighboring Central American countries, Costa Rica
experienced only two brief periods of violence. A dictator was
overthrown in 1919 after a three year stay. Angry at the role
the military had played in keeping the dictator in power, the citizens
got a measure of satisfaction by shrinking the military dramatically.
There was a brief 44-day
civil war in 1948 that left 2,000 people dead. The victorious
rebels led by "Don Pepe" Figueres formed a government junta that
abolished the military altogether. The junta also oversaw the
drafting of a new constitution by a democratically elected assembly.
Having enacted these reforms, the junta relinquished its power on
November 8, 1949, to the new democratic government.
After the coup
d'état, Figueres became a national hero, winning the
country's first democratic election under the new
constitution in 1953. Since then, Costa Rica has held 13
presidential elections, the latest in 2010. All of them have
been widely regarded by the international community as
peaceful and transparent.
declared neutrality after civil war in 1949. Today, the
security of the nation is overseen by a heavily armed
National Guard and civilian police force. Peace and harmony
are a large part of the national mindset, so issues are
usually resolved by consensus with a notable absence of political
passion. As it turns out, the absence of any army, the
inherent preference for peace in the Costa Rican people and
the country's stated refusal to interfere in the politics of
other countries is where the "Switzerland of Central
America" moniker came from. Like Switzerland,
Costa Rica prefers to stay neutral above the fray.
Now that I
understood more about the country's unusual past, this
phrase finally began to make more sense.
Costa Rica tied its early
fortunes to its only two resources - its farmable land and its thick
Coffee was Costa Rica's
first major export. Land had to be cleared to make way for
coffee plantations. Down came some of the forests.
Next came the cattle
industry. Land had to be cleared to make way for cattle
grazing. Down came more of the forests. Since the 1950s,
about 60% of Costa Rica has been cleared to make room for cattle
ranching. In fact, during the 1960s, the U.S. offered Costa Rican
cattle ranchers millions of dollars in loans to stimulate beef
As the forests came
down, a logging industry developed to take advantage of the constant
decisions to clear more land.
The coffee people saw an
opportunity to export bananas as well. More land had to be
cleared to make way for banana plantations. Down came even
the forests. Bananas quickly became more successful than
coffee, so now even more land was cleared for to increase the banana crops.
The resulting loss of
forest was devastating. In the blink of an eye, now only a quarter of Costa Rica's
Costa Rica's Ecotourism
Costa Rica experienced
its first wakeup call in the 1970s. To the dismay of the coffee
exporters, world coffee prices rapidly dropped due to oversupply.
Another turning point came
in the 1990s. An attack of black sigatoka, aka the Panama
Banana disease, wiped out much of Costa Rica's banana industry.
There are only two ways to combat the disease - make heavy use of
expensive (and harmful) pesticides and fungicides or burn the crops
and replant in a different place.
The unpredictability of commodity markets brought together an
unusual alliance of economic developers and environmental
conservationists. If wealth could not be sustained through exports,
then what about trying to import tourists? At this point, Costa
Rica embarked on a green revolution.
Costa Rica had so much
trouble controlling the problem that finally the decision was made
to stop cutting down more forests in a vain attempt to save the
banana industry. The move to Green was already in full swing
at this point; the horrible fungus problem simply accelerated the
decision to replenish the forests and begin a full-scale move
The ecotourism boom was
on: the rain forest was essentially paying for itself. In 1975 the
Monteverde reserve recorded only 500 tourists; by 1995 the number
surpassed 50,000. Tourism contributed $100 million to the economy in
1985, and more than $750 million a decade later. It passed coffee
and bananas as the main source of foreign currency earnings.
So far, the ecotourism
gamble seems to have paid off. In 1999 more than one million
tourists visited Costa Rica.
For the most part, tourism profits stay in the country and have
contributed to rising living standards.
As far as I can tell,
Costa Rica has benefitted greatly from Mexico's horrible drug wars.
The Panama Canal route we were on used to stop at Cabo and Acapulco
in Mexico. But our ship completely by-passed Mexico for safety
reasons. Where Mexico was once the Central American leader in
tourism, peaceful Costa Rica gratefully accepts increasing amounts
of the market share. The once Ugly Duckling has come a long
The Happy Crocodile Family
Marla and I were joined on
our Costa Rica excursion by Steve and Lyn from Michigan.
Steve announced, "Just
say 'savings and loan' and you can remember our names. You
know what? He was right. I held onto their names
effortlessly from that point on.
Marla smiled. "Hmm.
What would work for Marla and Rick? Mentally retarded?"
I shuddered with horror. And you think I'm weird? Guess
where it comes from.
I told Marla they would
indeed remember us better that way, but I couldn't see how it would
work to our advantage.
"Jeff, look out. There's
Marla and Rick, that weird mentally retarded couple..."
Just then Lyn, who had
been looking out the bus window, exclaimed, "Are those crocodiles
Everyone on the bus
moved to the window to catch a glimpse.
Fortunately the bus
driver stopped to let us all have a look. Sure enough, I
counted seven different crocodiles down on the beach below the bridge. They
were sunning themselves on the beach of the Rio Tarcoles, located 22
miles south of Puntarenas.
I could not believe
these crocodiles were so close to man. This must indeed be a
peaceful country for those crocodiles to hang out in plain sight.
Here in America, I
imagine any kid could get out of
a car, walk down there and shoot one. He would either end up
as a Happy Meal or he would get a new pair of alligator boots for
By the way, maybe they
were alligators, not crocodiles. Not that I would know the
difference. As a city boy, I think all I need to know is to stay
as far away as possible.
Marla seemed to feel the
same way. I asked her if she wanted to get out of the bus and
get a closer look.
"Are you out of your
Hotel Villa Lapas
Shortly after crossing
the Rio Tarcoles, our bus pulled off onto a side road and took us to
Hotel Villa Lapas.
It was a lovely little
hotel completely hidden inside the rain forest.
There was a
river, large hills, and thick jungle everywhere I looked.
This jungle paradise was
about as secluded as it could possibly be.
I didn't get much of a
picture, but our guide Bernie spotted a giant iguana sunning itself
on the roof of one of the cabins.
We immediately rushed
over to ooh and aah.
Bernie said that iguanas
are cold-blooded and sun themselves to warm up. Because they
are cold-blooded, they don't move too fast in the morning. He
added the morning is the best time to catch them because they are so
His words struck a
familiar chord. I suddenly blurted out, "The morning is the
best time for me to catch my wife too!"
Then I panicked. Those
words just slipped out of my mouth. Where did they come from?
My head turned every possible direction in case there was a blow
headed my way. Oh, thank you thank you. Marla was still
in the restroom. I was spared.
Another husband walked
by. "You live dangerously, don't you?"
I nodded silently in
agreement. That was a close call. My mouth has a death
We hopped on a bus and
drove to a nearby mountain. At the top of the trail, suddenly
an amazing vista appeared before our eyes.
From this vantage point
we could see the Pacific Ocean and a vast valley below us. In
addition we could see Rio Tarcoles, the crocodile river, winding its
way to the Pacific. This was quite a sight.
Costa Rica is very green
Our excursion was
labeled as a "Canopy Tour".
As part of its
ecotourism push, someone built elaborate suspension bridges in this
cross river gorges.
It was a big investment
of money to be sure, but those bridges definitely added value to our
Our first bridge was
impressive. It was 100 yards long, the size of a football
Our guide Bernie was
a gentle and unusually serious young man. I was shocked
when he took this occasion to make his first joke of the day.
As we all stared at the
bridge and wondered if it would hold us, he read our minds.
"Normally I let everyone
from my group cross at the same time. But you are from a
cruise, no? Maybe you should just cross four at a time."
I mentally reduced his
tip by half.
The highlight of my day
came when Marla stopped in the middle of the trail.
She pointed at the tall
tree on the top of the hill in the distance. She said she
something red over there.
I stared where she was
pointing, but I saw nothing. I zoomed in with my camera, but
it caught nothing either.
I assumed Marla had a
vivid imagination. For heaven's sakes, that tree was nearly a
mile away. No one can see that far.
Just then Bernie came by
and listened to Marla. He had been carrying a large
contraption with a tripod. I assumed it was a camera. I
figured he was going to take our picture and charge us for it.
Wrong. He was carrying a telescope. He sent it up and
aimed it at the tree.
Then he smiled and
beckoned to me. I looked in the lens and saw a red macaw.
Amazing. I could not
believe Marla had spotted that bird with her naked eyes.
No wonder I can't ever
get away with anything. The girl sees everything!
suspension bridge was even longer than the first.
As you can see, the bridge was supported by a gigantic
metal tower. Someone invested a lot of money in
this bridge. It could not have been cheap to build
this. Judging by the quality of the materials and
design, this was a very professional structure. I
felt totally safe walking across each of the bridges.
The people who designed
this trail did a good job of allowing visitors like us a chance to
see the different strata of the rain forest and remain in perfect
harmony all at the same time. What a pleasure it was to
walk through the forest at this high elevation. We often moved
parallel to the very top of the forest canopy. We were higher
than many of the trees growing down below.
I could see
all sorts of different plants and trees. Better yet, by
sticking to well-groomed trails, I could tell that our group was not
damaging a single thing by our presence. This was a good
example of "ecotourism" in action... low human impact, high human
Pura Vida Gardens
After we finished our
Canopy Tour, our bus drove us about a mile to a botanical garden
site known as Pura Vida Gardens.
The beauty of this place
was staggering. In addition to the gardens and the Bijagual waterfall,
there was an observation post that treated all of us to stunning
vistas and panoramas. Plus there were countless walkways and
hiking trails that led to magical adventures in the forest. Hey, guess what?
You can go see for yourself. Click "Pura
Vida Gardens" and watch the video. You will be amazed!
I could not
help but notice the "For Sale" sign. It seemed so
Why would anyone ever want to sell
a Shangri-la like this place?
2000 feet high.
Next door to a waterfall.
Direct view of the Pacific.
Surrounded by a forest.
Voted #1 Gardens in C.R.
Stunning views everywhere.
Heck, I was
ready to make an offer on the spot. This place was
and I enjoyed a wonderful lunch at their restaurant, the
owner came over to us to say hello. Turns out he's
He lives in
that estate up on the hill (see picture). Asking
price is $900,000.
didn't stay long to talk to me. Too bad I
didn't know who he was when he dropped by. He
looked just like one of the people from our cruise ship.
To be honest, I
got the impression he was looking over the crowd for
potential buyers. He went from table to table
talking to everyone.
If I had
known his identity, I would have asked him why he was
selling the place.
I could not imagine ever
parting with a Paradise like this willingly.
was exactly my idea of what the Garden of Eden must have
Let me add
that waterfall was something else!
Another wonderful treat of Pura Vida Gardens was the secret walkway.
I noticed a little path connecting to the main
walkway. It featured some very steep steps that discouraged the
majority of our group. But I wasn't discouraged in the least.
Way down at the bottom I
found a well-groomed path that followed a small stream. I
suppose that stream gets much bigger when it rains.
I looked around and
realized I was at the bottom of a deep ravine or gorge. The
walls around me were very steep and heavily forested.
I was in a world all to
myself. No one above could see or hear me. I had
found my very own secret garden. Trust me, I was in hog heaven
as I happily bounced along my stream trail.
The Canopy Tour and
visit to the Pura Vida Gardens were the absolute highlight of my
entire two-week trip.
Eventually I hit a
dead end and was forced to head back. Those stairs were a lot
more imposing going up than they had been going down. Oh well,
happiness of this magnitude always comes with a price.
My perfect day was
capped when I viewed two macaws flying side by side in the valley
just like the picture on the right suggests. I got a photo of them, but my
camera wasn't powerful enough to capture much.
Can you see the
two impressive dots in the sky? You might need to use your
imagination a little. Wow!!