"" Writer's Wanderings

Friday, January 30, 2015

World Cruise - Panama Canal

Many guests aboard the Crystal Serenity were up and about by 6 AM on Saturday, January 24. The ship was awaiting its turn to enter the Gatun Locks and begin its journey through the Panama Canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Those in stateroom 7057 were not. Our alarm was not due to go off until 7:30. We’d been through the canal three times already and while it is always a treat, we weren’t going to get up early and worry about prime seating (or standing) for the best view.

Much to our chagrin, we could hear the canal commentator start up his talk just a little before seven even though it was only being piped to the outside decks and common areas. Our cabin is on the Promenade Deck so the speakers were right outside our window. We gave up and decided to start the day.

We could watch the progress on our room’s television as the ship neared the locks and the TV channel with the camera view also had the commentary running so it was almost like being outside only without the heat and humidity. The morning air wasn’t too bad yet so we ventured out on the back of the Lido Deck with our plates of food from the morning buffet. We had a prime view albeit from the back and not the front of the ship. Actually it is just as fascinating no matter what side you are on.

There are few places where gravity is truly appreciated. One of those is in the operation of the canal locks. We watched the locks close and saw the perspective of the landscape change as our ship was raised by the water that was gravity-fed into the lock where our ship was held in place by the “mules” on either side. The mules are mechanical train-like critters that hold the lines from the ship and move it from one lock to the other and finally out. There are several on each side of the ship and they follow a railroad track up and down the locks as the ship goes through each.

The Gatun Lake is 85 feet higher than the Caribbean or the Pacific so in order to cross the area ships need to be raised as they enter and then lowered as they exit. The area of Panama that is crossed while on the lake is a lush green jungle—a tribute to the challenges that were presented when the canal was originally built in the early 1900s. It is a fascinating story and well worth looking into if you are at all interested. Did you know that in the process they discovered how to get rid of malaria? And because of the way Panama is situated, to travel west to the Pacific you actually go southeast?
Once through the Gatun Locks, we went on about the business of enjoying the ship’s venues during the day including tea time in the Palm Court which was probably the best attended tea that there will be the rest of the voyage since the Palm Court was prime seating to view the passage through the canal.

Something we hadn't noticed on our other trips through the canal was that there is a one lane road attached to the outside of the lock somehow. We didn't see it coming in but wondered why all the buses and cars were lining up. When the doors had closed as we were into the second lock, we saw the traffic coming up from the opposite side as if they'd gone through a tunnel and then realized that somehow there was a road behind the lock doors. Ah, next time we'll be more observant.

One of the things we were most interested in was the progress being made on the new locks that will hold larger ships. We could see some new structures near the Gatun Locks and as we neared the Mariflores Locks at the Pacific end, we could see lots of construction vehicles moving back and forth in the distance. It was difficult to actually see what was there but the commentator said they expected the new locks to be done in 2016.

It is always amazing to pass the visitors’ center and see the hundreds of people on the outside balconies waving and cheering as you pass by. It never gets old. Once through the Mariflores Locks in late afternoon, we stayed in the Palm Court as others began ending their long day and returning to their staterooms to dress for the evening. Even though it was beginning to rain it was still spectacular to view the huge skyscrapers of Panama City in the distance and pass under the Bridge of the Americas. Once through, we too ended our Canal Day and returned to our stateroom to get ready for an evening of dining and entertainment. Ah, tough life but someone’s gotta do it. Right?

[Note: For you American Idol fans, our night’s entertainment was Lou Gazzara, one of the youngest contestants to make it to the TV finals. I think he said it was the second season. Wow! What a voice! Who beat him?]

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

World Cruise - Cartagena, Columbia

When we began to book our excursions, we had to make some choices based on saving money. Since we’d been to Cartagena several times before, we opted out of any excursions. We had hoped that there might be a shuttle to the entrance to the old town area but there was no such luck. The shuttle took passengers to the cruise terminal gate which was a short distance from the ship. The reason for the shuttle was merely a matter of safety as we were docked in a container shipping area and it would have been hazardous to walk any distance from the ship.

We were comfortable with staying on the ship for the day. Somehow our first week just seemed really too busy. Too many people to meet, too many welcome parties, too many activities to do. It reminded me a lot of the first time we cruised and tried to do everything on the schedule. We came home exhausted.

Statue of Virgin Mary in harbor.
Instead of touring, we enjoyed the paddle tennis, the pool, and the lounge chairs and relaxed. We met up for lunch (Oh, did you think we were together all day?) and returned to our activities for the afternoon, paddle tennis and reading.

Three in the afternoon was sail away time and we enjoyed standing out on the Promenade Deck and watching the ship move away from the dock to the strains of “It’s a Wonderful World.” I think by the end of three months, we’ll know all the words.

Our evening began early and we enjoyed a beverage in the Palm Court which is at the front and near top deck of the ship. The sun was getting lower in the sky and shimmering on the water. I turned to Bob and smiled. “This is what I signed on for.”

A little later, we were in the Pulse Lounge (the disco on board which we’ll probably never enter for dancing) to watch a magic show. The Magic Castle in Los Angeles has provided a magician for each segment of the cruise and the shows are only for 25 people at a time. It is close up slight of hand and is fascinating. In deference to our grandson who says there is no such thing as magic, we can only call this slight of hand. But very entertaining.

Monday, January 26, 2015

World Cruise - Santa Marta, Columbia

The Sierra Mountains are a beautiful backdrop to Santa Marta
Blow the horn! Step on the gas! 

Blow the horn! Step on the gas! 

So went our bus tour of Santa Marta, Columbia. This was a new port for Crystal Cruise Lines so we were pioneering in a sense. The town was much larger than I expected from the information I’d gained online but it was still Columbia and all that goes with a Latino culture.

The hotel area of Santa Marta
Many of my pictures of the town itself had to be taken through the window of the bus which wasn’t always a clear shot through a window that may have been clean earlier in the morning but now was a bit spattered with dust. Everything looked dusty in Santa Marta. It was their dry season. The only thing really green was the cactus growing plentifully on the hillsides.

We passed several large churches and a beautiful cathedral that would have been fun to look at from the inside if there had been time and if we had been brave enough to venture out on our own.  I had to chuckle as the guide explained that the bars on the windows were there so that they could open the windows and allow the homes to “refresh with clean air.” There was nothing mentioned about safety and the bars certainly wouldn’t have kept out birds or smaller animals.

Lots of stands selling all sorts of things from shoes to drinks dotted the streets. We drove past a nice boardwalk area that bordered the beach front and it looked like lots of people were enjoying themselves in the sun and surf.

Blow the horn! Step on the gas! Okay, the brakes worked too! ‘Nuf said.

About five miles up a small mountain to the other side, we found the hotel area where a whole new community had sprung up according to our guide. From a distance they looked very nice and once we were among them, we could see that they were busy with people who were obviously on holiday. Another nice beachfront area bordered the sea here and was full of all sorts of cabanas for those who could afford to pay $10 or so to keep out of the sun.

Originally our tour was to take us to a fishng village but for some reason our itinerary was changed. I’m guessing perhaps there were too many who were going to invade the little village and it would have been overwhelmed. So instead, we were taken to the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino. It is the place where Simon Bolivar, the great liberator, died on December 17, 1830.

Simon Bolivar was instrumental in winning freedom for Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia from the Spanish Empire and is credited with helping to lay a foundation for democracy in much of Latin America.

The Hacienda has been made into a beautiful park area and furnishings and memorabilia can be seen in the rooms. It is also home to some good looking iguanas that scurried up trees to get a better view of us. 

One of the interesting pieces we saw in a large room was a press that at first I thought was for grapes. Our guide informed us it was used to squeeze juice from sugar cane and then the juice would be made into rum.

Blow the horn! Step on the gas! By the time we got back to the ship I felt like my neck had gotten a good workout. We opted to stay on the ship for the afternoon. There really wasn’t much we wanted to go back to see and our comfort zone along with the heat of the afternoon said “no.” 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

World Cruise - Entertainment And Education

Michael Bacala
One of the best things about cruising is the nightly entertainment and it has been outstanding during our first week. It has included a violinist, Michael Bacala from Poland, who can make the most beautiful sounds come from his violin--notes I never knew a violin could make. Elio Pace, a pianist from Great Britain, woke things up with quite an energetic night of popular music. Marc Paul, a magician and mind reader from Great Britain, blew minds with the amazing act of mind reading he did. And believe it or not, I actually was able to sit through a whole evening of a comedian's performance and eagerly go back for a second night. John Joseph, from NYC, was a tremendous talent. He has the intelligence and quick wit to work an audience and be funny in his delivery without being crude. I'm sorry that he won't be on the whole cruise with us. Of course there was also a show of Billy Joel's music accompanied by the band and ship's singers and dancers. We saw the show a couple of years ago as they had just put it together and performed it for the first time during that cruise. I didn't like it back then but they have really updated it and made it much more entertaining than it first was.

Owen Ullman
The mornings and afternoons at sea are filled with the opportunity to listen to the guest lecturers on board. Jack McManus is giving several talks on social media, what it is and its role in our lives. Owen Ullman, a reporter with USA Today, is speaking on a variety of world affairs topics. Bill Miller, who we have heard speak before, is lecturing again on the history of cruise liners. Jay Wolfe is the destinations lecturer and after speaking about the history of the Caribbean, he has begun to talk about the history of the Panama Canal.

Add to all of this all the other activities associated with the spa (nutrition, skin care, exercise programs), the needlework/knitting classes, the bridge classes, the computer classes, the music classes. . .the list goes on. It can be overwhelming but we learned long ago that it's not a good idea to try to do it all. Pick and choose is the rule and leave time to relax and enjoy the views. As I write this, I'm in the Palm Court looking out at the harbor of Santa Marta in Columbia. It's peaceful and cool--outside is very hot and humid. I will have to put the computer away soon though. They're getting ready for tea time. Don't want to miss the scones.

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