22 Panama Canal 2012
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Story of the 2012 Panama Canal Trip, Part One

Written by Rick Archer
February 2012



Rick's Note: 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 adventure, 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. 


We 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 opportunity. 

We 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 for our 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 cabin too.

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. 

We are 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.

The Hovel

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 10.  The 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.

Here is our "window" on the left.  It was closed and bolted shut half the time for safety purposes. 

Nice view, huh?

For years I have wondered what the crew's living area and accommodations are like.  Well, on this trip I got my wish. 

Their 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. 

I was 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. 

However, 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. 

Here is 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 sound.

There 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.

The mix-up was likely caused by the fact that someone switched rooms on us without going through channels.  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. 

There 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 sore thumb.

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 own.

I will 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.  

Here is 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 accident on 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 2 minutes.

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.

We were 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.

Truth be 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 with us. 

The crew 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?" 

I will 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. 

It was 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 accordingly.

Despite 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.

However, for whatever reason, they completely ignored their dance teachers.  We weren't important enough to bother with.

A Curious Deception

Marla 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 cabin. 

For sake 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.

However, the picture at least it shows that our room and our bed was comfortable.

Marla 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.

However, 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. 

Marla had agreed to an Oceanview Stateroom for the Panama trip.

The email sent to us said "Our 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 received previously.

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 curtly told 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.

Considering we were at sea when given the bad news, that left us with two options - Accept what we were given or jump off the ship.

Whoever 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 the layout of our cabin sent to Marla ahead of time. 

For sake 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 back.  This 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.

Faced 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 Library. 

This worked out pretty well.  However, after two weeks of living like sardines, our patience wore pretty thin towards the end.  

Dance Class

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 paired up.

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 partners. 

I remember there was a 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 of retirees. 

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 the Captain's Reception. 

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 else!"

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 dancing?"

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 people dance like that before."

"Well, how did those guys learn? It can't be that hard if every man 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 were hitting 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.

Nevertheless, Frank's 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 weeks?

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?

Some Enchanted Evening

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 evening.

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".

The Panama Project Begins

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 excited.

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 more excited.

The Big Band Dance Party

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 experience.

Best of all, I recognized 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. 

All 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 cruise trip.

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 Texas Twostep

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 they did.

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.


Puntarenas, Costa Rica

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. 

Every time 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.

You'll have 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 day's activities.

While our 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.

Apparently 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. 

Costa Rica 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.

Costa Rica 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.

Banana Republic

Costa Rica tied its early fortunes to its only two resources - its farmable land and its thick rainforest.

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 production.

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 more of 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 forest remained.

Dawn of 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.

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.

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. 

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 towards ecotourism. 

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 way.  

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 down there?"

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 his efforts. 

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 mind?"

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 sluggish. 

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 wish sometimes.

The Nature Trail Hike

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 indeed. 

Our excursion was labeled as a "Canopy Tour". 

As part of its ecotourism push, someone built elaborate suspension bridges in this area that cross river gorges.

It was a big investment of money to be sure, but those bridges definitely added value to our trip.

Our first bridge was impressive.  It was 100 yards long, the size of a football field. 

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!

Our next 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 enjoyment.

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 incongruous.

Why would anyone ever want to sell a Shangri-la like this place? 

50 acres, 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 something else.

While Marla and I enjoyed a wonderful lunch at their restaurant, the owner came over to us to say hello.  Turns out he's from Dallas. 

He lives in that estate up on the hill (see picture).  Asking price is $900,000.

The owner 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.

This place was exactly my idea of what the Garden of Eden must have looked like.

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!!


This the end of Part One.  If you would like to continue, we invite you to read the Story of the Panama Trip 2

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