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Fuerte Amador, near Panama City

Tuesday, November 29, 2011 – Day 9 – Fuerte Amador, near Panama City, Panama

Rotterdam is anchored for the day in Panama Bay, however I have no shore excursions scheduled, so I can take it easy today aboard ship. This ends up being a wise decision since it pours rain most of the day. I go ashore for about a half hour to have a look around the local community of Fuerte Amador, however there is nothing of interest to me there…just tour and taxi stands, souvenir shops, and a few restaurants. There are also some very expensive-looking boats moored in the local marinas.

I spend a quiet afternoon working on my notebook computer annotating the 160 photos and videos I took of our Panama Canal transit from yesterday. I also enter place name location data for each photo to supplement the GPS position tagging. I find doing this as I travel rather than after I return home makes it much easier to cope with all the photos I take on my travels. I can turn out regular blog entries while I travel, and I can update my JoeTourist website much more quickly after the trip ends.

The Matinee Idols perform in the show lounge this evening, singing classic songs from the stage and screen from the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. I find it kind of funny that the songs three young men (Nicholas Rodriguez, Austin Miller and Connor O’Brien) are performing were hits when these guys weren’t even born! The tenor has the strongest voice, but the other two are good singers as well. I enjoy their show. Two of them had roles on soap operas (daytime drama TV shows), hence their group’s name. I saw them hanging out on the deck earlier today. They stood out since they are young and good-looking, as compared with most of the rest of the men on this ship, who are generally old and not-so-good looking!

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2011 Panama Canal Transit

Monday, November 28, 2011 – Day 8 – Panama Canal Transit

I skip breakfast this morning and get out on deck by 6:45AM in order to see our approach to the Panama Canal from the Caribbean side near the city of Colon. The Sun is up and it is raining as we approach the first set of locks at Gatun. My camera lenses are fogged up since I just brought them out from the cool, air-conditioned ship’s interior to the warm and humid outside air. It takes them about a half hour to warm up and become clear of the condensation. I stay outside most of the rest of the day in order to observe all the various fascinating phases of the Rotterdam’s transit.

The Gatun Locks consist of three locks, and are the most dramatic of all the Panama Canal locks, since they lift the ship 26 metres above sea level to Gatun Lake. The navigation channel across Gatun Lake forms the largest single segment of the transit. We encounter another tropical rainstorm as we cross the lake. As we move through the narrow Culebra Cut (or Gaillard Cut), freighters are moved out of our way so we can pass, since the dredging of the Cut has narrowed the navigation channel more than normal. Passenger ships such as Rotterdam have priority for daytime passage through the Canal, and actually become a bit of a spectacle for locals, who sometimes park to watch us pass by.

As we approach Pedro Miguel Lock (a single lock), the new 6km long Pacific Access Channel is easy to see to our right. It is a huge swath of construction that goes all the way from Pedro Miguel Locks, past Miraflores Locks, and out to the Pacific Ocean. The new locks will consist of three chambers, whereas now Pedro Miguel has one chamber and Miraflores has two chambers with the small Miraflores Lake between them. This $1.5 billion expansion project will deliver a third set of locks capable of moving larger ships through the canal system. The existing lock systems will continue to operate, so throughput will be significantly increased. I find the construction fascinating to see while it is in progress.

We experience a beautiful day for our Panama Canal transit. It is not too hot (about 26°C and not too rainy (only 3 rainstorms). I enjoy the day immensely, but manage to pick up a mild sunburn from staying outside most of the day, despite ducking under shade whenever possible. There is a commentator aboard the ship, who describes each phase of the transit and gives some background information about the canal over the PA system. She does not talk continuously the whole day long, thank goodness. I understand the transit charges for Rotterdam today amount to some $350,000, or $250/passenger!

JoeTourist: Panama City &emdash; Panama City at nightAfter completing the transit, Rotterdam anchors near a small community called Fuerte Amador on the Pacific side, which is in Panama Bay – about a 15 minute tender ride to shore, and about another 15 minute drive to Panama City. The skies clear this evening, so I go to Deck 6 Forward and take some photos of Panama City at night, which is a spectacular sight!

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San Blas Islands

Saturday, November 26, 2011 – Day 6 – San Blas Islands, Panama

JoeTourist: San Blas Islands &emdash; Cuna woman in traditional dress with Molas and young girlIt is 10:30AM and there is great excitement aboard. Everyone is milling about waiting for tenders to go ashore to what must be the tiniest island destination for a cruise ship: Carti Tupili Island, which is one of the San Blas Islands. There are Cuna Indians in canoes circling the ship as we anchor, waiting for all those US$ to flow into their eager hands…or in this case diving for coins being thrown down by the passengers. I stay on the ship this morning since I want to avoid the madness of jostling for the first few tenders. I use this time to catch up on my travel journal and blog, and take some photos of our approach to the islands. I partake of the delicious BBQ lunch served on the Lido pool deck, and then decide it is time to get a tender ticket and go ashore. I only have to wait a couple of minutes before my tender leaves.

There are hundreds of Cuna Indian women and children selling stuff. The women are mainly selling Molas, handmade delicately sewn artwork made by arranging brightly coloured fabric into layers and patterns. Others, especially children are offering themselves for photo ops at $1 a shot, with some just looking incredibly cute, while others offer puppies, kittens, rabbits, birds and even a monkey as additional props for the tourists to photograph. Some men are also selling wares: mainly carvings from coconut wood or husks, or artwork. I find this all rather sad to see, and since the whole scene mainly turns me off, I catch a tender back to the ship after about 15 minutes of walking around.

Of the 378 islands and cays in the archipelago, 49 are inhabited. As you can see by my photos, the inhabited islands are densely populated – every bit of each island’s land mass is used. There is no electricity from the grid available on these islands; only power from generators is used for a few hours each day as households determine their needs and what they can afford in fuel costs. Transportation to the islands is poor to non-existent unless you own your own seaworthy boat. There is no fresh water available on these islands. Water must be brought in by boat. These islands consist of sand, and are essentially at sea level – there is no elevation to speak of.