Monday, October 12, 2015

Stuck In the Canal

Map picture

Lisa and I have transited the Panama Canal many times, and in both directions. Speaking for myself, I had the impression that the distance between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across the Isthmus of Panama was quite long. That is, for the simple reason, to cross the isthmus in a ship, requires all day. So, for example, today, we are onboard the Silver Explorer currently “stuck in the canal.” Well not actually stuck, but sitting inside the first lock waiting for the huge doors to close us in so that we can begin the slow process of being lifted up to the next level. In fact, as I started to write, all I could see out our window was a concrete wall, the side of the lock which has us imprisoned. But now we have risen quickly to where I am well above the level of the walls.

Anyway, back to my story; in order for our ship to be in position and ready to make a daylight transit of the canal, we had to depart our pier in the city of Colon last evening and travel just 35 miles in order to anchor off the canal’s entrance. This morning the canal’s pilot came on board at 6:45am, and it will not be until 7pm tonight until we finally exit the Panama Canal area. In other words, the transit alone takes 12 hours, but then you have to add to it the time spent the night before just to get into position. You don’t just cruise up to Panama and intend to cross the Canal right then; it is a long and carefully orchestrated process. A little fact is that traffic at any one time is only in one direction through the locks. So you have to wait your turn to go in the direction you wish to travel.

Imagine my surprise when we landed at Panama City on our flight from Atlanta. You see Panama City is on the Pacific side of the canal, and yet our ship was to depart from the city of Colon on the Atlantic side. Yikes! Well, not to worry. Our car and driver arrived right on time at 11am, and in a mere 50 minutes, he drove us along a beautiful 4 lane highway from Panama City to Colon. For the first time, I got to see what was just on the other side of the canal, and it was beautiful! We crossed over the huge Chagres River which feeds the canal from a huge lake in the rainforest. We saw small islands and hamlets inhabited by the Kuna Indians, and Lisa even spotted a sloth lazily hanging from a tree by the roadside. So, I came to realize just how narrow the isthmus really is, but it was also obvious that the terrain was very rugged.

Now no blog would be complete without a little humor – after arriving at our hotel a crisis occurred – I mean a real crisis; Lisa’s bra broke!!!!!!! Whoa is me, what is to be done? I mean it is almost midnight, and tomorrow would be Sunday, where we have to leave the hotel by 11am – and nothing, and I mean nothing is open in Panama City on Sunday morning. Well, first thing in the morning, Lisa gets on the computer and starts searching. Lo and behold, she finds that our hotel is located between two large shopping malls, both of which open at 11am. Quickly, we decide to ask our limo driver to take Lisa to one of the malls and let her run in to find what she needs. In fact, she had scoped out a particular shop which advertised lingerie. Our driver turned out to be a really cool guy and we hit it off immediately. He agreed to our request, but when we got to the Mall the traffic had quickly become impossible. Lisa said to just let her off and she’d phone when we could come pick her up, but the driver would hear none of that. He said that most people in the Mall would not speak English and he did not feel it was safe for her to go in alone. So he pulls into a taxi waiting area, where he is not to park, and leaves me in the car while he sets off to help Lisa.

I was not concerned really, but when 20 minutes passed I found myself looking repeatedly at my watch. Then angry taxi drivers started give me stern glares, and I got even more worried. Twenty minutes stretched into 40 minutes, and I see a taxi driver go over to a police officer and point at my car. The officer walks over with a big frown and starts to walk all around the car. Meantime I try to shrink into my seat and become invisible. Just when I figured I’d be arrested or something Lisa and our driver return both laughing uproarishly. It seemed that the store Lisa found on the internet was the Panamanian equivalent of Victoria’s Secret, not exactly what she was looking for. Since almost no one spoke English, our driver was going around asking where he can buy a bra, which is kinda funny when you think about it. But that doesn’t end there. They find a store, but now he needs to explain to the clerk Lisa’s needs – that raises a few eyebrows. Lisa gathers up some samples and heads for the dressing rooms. When the sizes are not correct, our driver ends up trying to explain to the clerk what Lisa needs – a little larger here, and little looser there and all the while the poor guy is really getting the stares.

He could not have been nicer and we all had a very good time on our short drive across the Isthmus of Panama.

Believe it or not, I do not have any horror stories about our trip here, in fact everything went smoothly, which reminds me why I like Delta. We left Kansas City around 10am and arrived into Panama around 9:30pm. After customs and immigration, we were whisked to our hotel and finally settled in around midnight. Everyone in our hotel was extremely nice. In fact, I can’t remember being treated better. Our arrival at the ship was like a home coming because we know so many of the the people, and last evening, we had a wonderful steak dinner with a good friend and member of the expedition staff, Kara Weller, who is from Nome, AK.

They outlined our trip last night and it sounds wonderful, absolutely not quite what I expected. So hang on, and I’ll try to keep up as we move forward.


PS I spoke too soon. We now are STUCK IN THE CANAL! Our ship has just been ordered to drop anchor and await further instructions, which they estimate will be another two hours. Perhaps this is a scam and they actually want more money. There must easily be over 50 ships at anchor in this lake, some of which look as if they have been here a very long while. No wonder they can afford to build a new canal, which by the way opens next April.

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