Day 10 & 11 – The Panama Canal


We spent a lazy day on the ship, as we are full speed ahead for the Panama Canal.  Whoa.  My Bucket List Runneth Over!  I have always been intrigued by this man-made phenomena, and know I am going to see it first hand.  No PBS documentary for me – it’s a full sail day across the Isthmus of Panama and I don’t want to miss a moment.

Yesterday I attended another Beyond the Podium lecture by our intrepid Arctic explorer.  The first two lectures were fascinating and extremely motivating.  I was ready to volunteer for the next expedition – who cares it will be 20 degrees below zero – on a good day!  But the last two lectures haven’t thrilled me as much.

This lecture was about a dogsled trip she took across Greenland.  It was not an exploration by any means – she hired a guide for she and her husband.  Not that doesn’t beat a trip to the outlet stores at Lincoln City, Oregon!  But she was reaching here to bill this as a mighty exploration adventure.  There was one humorous situation.  After their dog sled trip, they couldn’t leave due to bad weather.  Before they left, they were able to witness a 20 team dog sled race, which is a pretty prestigious race in this neck of the woods.

A foreign photographer had been flown in to capture the event.  Apparently, he had never covered a dog sled race.  In Greenland, dogs are not pets, and some teams are quite wild.  The owner has to be alpha dog or he loses control of his pack of 13 semi-wild teams.

This guy was waiting for the race to start.  The teams were all lined up to take off running.  Dogs and drivers at high pitch.  Like at all events, there are food booths and the photographer had bought a giant sausage on a stick, which he had stuck on his pack as he walked around, shooting pictures.  He stepped out in front of some teams to get a frontal shot.  The dogs smelled the sausage and a couple of the teams took off after the photographer.  Apparently it took ten minutes to get some of the teams stopped and turned around and the photographer was terrified he was going to die.  I’m sure he ditched the sausage – if any of it (or him) was left.

I ate a healthier diet today, and even managed to navigate a specialty dinner at the Tuscan Grill.  I had a delicious fresh tuna entrée set in a puttanesca sauce – Tuna Romana.  Nothing fried for an entire 24 hours – major victory!

George took Emma to the show and it starred the guy who was Simba (lead lion) in the Lion King on Broadway.  Emma’s school class had studied it and she recognized him, which was exciting.  Of course, she bought his CD and had her picture taken with him after the show.  Actually, she has had her picture taken with every show celebrity.  Each night, she barrels out of her seat and rushes up to the front door.  The celebs are there, hawking their CD’s and posing for photos.  She is amazing quite a collection.  Every single one of them has gone out of their way to chat with her.  She is clearly dazzled; but none compared to meeting Simba!  He truly has an amazing voice, and even for an old woman, quite a hunk!  More than any other star, he really chatted with our girl.  She told him about her class and he asked her all kinds of questions.  She could not wipe the smile off her face.


Now for the main event!

We arrived in Panama right at dawn this morning.  I threw on my clothes and went to the top of the ship.  I took a couple of lovely pictures of the sun rising as we glided into the canal.  Now this is the way to start a morning.  IMG_1072Warm tropical breezes, an amazing landscape and the realization that I am smack in the middle of one of my dreams.  Don’t ask me why, but I have always wanted to cross the canal.  It is one of the modern wonders of the world – and I am here.  Pinching myself, watching the ship sweep slowly across the isthmus at dawn and I’m already sweating like a pig.

The big question was where to go on the ship to see the sights.  The captain opened up the helicopter pad, which is right on the prow of the ship.  But there aren’t any chairs and it is a ten hour trip through the canal.  Good at the start, but standing in the tropical sun for a long time doesn’t sound good.  Sit inside and watch through a window or on a side deck?  Then you only see one side.  The back of the ship?  It has covered beds, which would shade the sun and there is a 180 degree view.  It is also directly above the buffet, and one short staircase to food and water.  Big deal for a food obsessed individual, such as myself!  Need sustenance – might starve at helicopter pad!

With food and drink being the deciding factor, I finally opted for the back of the ship, so I was there by 6 am so I could save one of the tented beds.  I have to say, trudging up to Deck 12 was rough this morning.  Not sure why, but I did not want to do it again until I was woke up and had some energy.  But I watched an amazing sunrise at Panama City, and I won’t forget it.  Darn, I wish you could capture the true beauty of a sunrise or sunset on camera.  George and Emma, who was drug out of bed by George, showed up by 7 am.  Emma was decidedly not friendly. 


Panama City is HUGE!  I had no idea.  There are more high rise skyscrapers than New York City.  The amount of money that must go through that city associated with the Panama Canal has to be staggering.  I envisioned a small city – not a financial capital.  We sailed past luxury resorts and private yacht clubs.  Huge private yachts were anchored in the bays.  My travel budget wouldn’t equal their liquor bill for a week.

By this time I realized I had forgot some supplies for the day.  I asked Emma to run back to our room and gave her a list.  She was not happy, but she was taking the elevator, and I didn’t feel like trekking all the way down and then back up 157 darned stairs again.  Plus, I had forgot my Apple watch and not going to get any FitPoint credits without it.  I know that shouldn’t stop my activity, but don’t you want credit when you exercise?  George would take forever, and not get the stuff on the list – so I elected Emma.

Off she went, not a happy camper.  We sailed towards the canal, which has a large span bridge for cars crossing the water before it.  Where was Emma?  Now, I am feeling guilty for sending her off and possibly missing our sailing under the bridge.  People were speculating whether we were too tall and they would have to raise the bridge.  It didn’t look like one our bridges that raise, but we are a very tall ship.  It got closer and still no Emma.  George looked reproachfully at me that she might miss it.  I felt just awful.  I should have waited and gone for the stuff later.

Here I am with Bed Head, getting frantic that I’ve sent Emma off on an errand and she is missing out.

We sailed under the bridge, clearing it by just a few feet.  And still no Emma.  She surfaced a short while later, so unhappy.  We both had tears in our eyes.  I apologized, and she was nice – but still disappointed.  We sailed into the waters of the canal and came to our first lock.  Thank goodness, far distant on the horizon, I saw another span bridge that we would be going under.  Not as exciting as entering the canal, but at least she could see us go under it.  And I’m happy to report that she had the opportunity to see this bridge.  But she elected not to do it!  

It’s funny – I was felt crushed that I had sent her to our room and she had missed the bridge.  She was tired and emotional and when I saw the tears in her eyes, I felt like the worst Grandma in the world.  A few hours later, she had napped and gone off adventuring – and decided it wasn’t worth going outside to see it.  Oh well, better save my World’s Worst Grandma event for something bigger, I guess.

In the Ballestos Islands we were able to witness some of Nature’s spectacular accomplishments.  The rock formations, the birds, sea lions, fish – what a wonder.  The giant geoglyph of a huge candelabra, that can be seen for 21 miles from shore,  etched into the side of the hill by ancient man looking over it all.  Even today, men watch the local birds to find the best fishing places, as they did 2,500 years ago.

We have been lucky enough to see the remains of the Roman Empire – their engineers building aquaducts that still stand today and bridges intact and still used today.  They supplied fresh water for a city of over a million people.  Now, here today at the Panama Canal, is a modern day accomplishment – truly a wonder of this world.  I am such a lucky person.

The canal came at a crushing expense.  Over 6,000 people died building the canal.  Most of them from disease.  Yellow fever, malaria, even the bubonic plague.  Fortunes were made and lost in trying to make it happen.  The French hero who built the Suez Canal for France announced at age 74 he could also create the Panama Canal.  He was a promoter and not an engineer.  Note:  An interesting bit of trivia:  Verdi composed the opera Aida to commemorate the completion of the Suez Canal – it was a huge event.  And made the French famous.

Our optimistic French man asked private investors from France to finance it, and off he went.  Sadly, Panama was a dense jungle as opposed to a desert – and not flat.   The land sits in  tropical rain forest that is covered in rain most of the time and there are small mountains to cross.  

Our Frenchman tried to dig a canal at sea level and it wasn’t possible.  He actually tried to cut through the mountain and maintain a sea level pass.  Landslides, diseases and the dense swamp that swallowed them up at every turn made success impossible.  Deadly snakes were everywhere.  Mortality was 3 out of 4 people sick with disease or injury.  Out of 24 nuns who founded a hospital, only two survived.  They didn’t know the mosquito carried yellow fever, and the nuns put hospital bed legs in bowls of water to keep the fiery ants from climbing up onto patients.  Instead, the mosquitos laid eggs in the water and killed the patients with yellow fever and malaria.

The French gave up and our French promoter retired in disgrace, along with his young wife and their 12 children.  Apparently for years if you said the word “Panama” in France, it meant failure and disgrace.  Many individuals invested in it, and lost all their money.

In walked Teddy Roosevelt, who became our US Prez when McKinley died.  If you don’t remember what he looked like, just see the photo of George and paste a mustache on it.  I didn’t lay out fresh clothes for him this morning, because I was headed off on my canal adventure.  So he is wearing yesterday’s outfit and still looks like Teddy.  With the heat and humidity, we stayed upwind of the man.


George wearing his Teddy Roosevelt outfit as we traversed the Panama Canal. There is nothing this man likes better than to wear his dress socks with his shorts. Gives him a sophisticated air…

Teddy basically stole Panama from Columbia in a bloodless war for 45 million dollars.  Teddy was a blustery sort of fellow, but he did listen to engineers and they convinced him that a sea level canal was impossible.  Congress decided they knew better and wanted a sea level canal, but Teddy didn’t go along and insisted we go with the lock design designed by actual engineers.  And voila – we had a canal built that was built under-budget and under the time planned.

IMG_1117IMG_1121After traversing the locks at the beginning of the canal, we traversed through a 165 square mile man-made lake, largest in the world when completed, with steeps jungle growth on either side.  There is a grass that grows tall along the edge of the water.  It is razor sharp and would slice men open as they tried to cut a path across the land.  There are many kinds of trees, making a dense canopy.  There are beautiful tall trees that are covered in purple flowers that crop up among the dark green.  They remind me of like a giant lilacs; I wish we could see one up close.


Emma hoped wild animals would wander out and put on a show, or at least a few monkeys.  They have either retreated further inland, or just didn’t want to go out to play.  She bought a llama fur rabbit in Peru to which our room attendant, Anthony, has taken a fancy.  Every night he has posed it somewhere in our room, and it has become a game.  Last night he created a towel sculpture of a dog (we mistakenly thought it was a rabbit – big ears for a dog) on her bed, and set it with the small llama I had bought as a souvenir in Manta.  She’s like a little girl looking to see how he has posed her animals each night.  It’s pretty darned cute.  She would have loved to see some live monkeys on this trip, but that didn’t happen.  Has to be content with iguanas and towel animals.



We floated passed by a prison, where Manual Noriega was held.  The prisoners ran up to the edge of the compound, yelling and waving madly at us.  We waved gaily at them as if they were on holiday, just as we are.  The air is hot, the wind is blowing and the humidity fierce.  We can walk back into our air-conditioned comforts.  Something tells me their cells are not so comfortable.

We traversed the canal in the original locks.  They have since built parallel locks on either side, to accommodate more traffic.  There were an amazing array of giant ships, we were certainly not the largest.  The old locks have little trains that hook onto the ships by wire cables and pull you through.  The new locks are bigger and a tug pulls the ship through.  I was happy to go through the old locks; I could dream about the different types of ships that have passed and see in my mind how they were transported.  How amazing it all is!

They showed a NOVA documentary on the ship about the building of the canal, and here we were – looking at the same buildings, the same locks.  Wow!

At the last set of locks, before we entered the Caribbean, another cruise ship came along side from Holland America.  People were all out on the decks for both ships, of course, and we waved and shouted at one another.  Emma wanted to know if the age of the passengers were any older than ours, and felt better when I assured her that they were really old on that ship.  Hah!  We didn’t see one kid, that’s for sure!

It turned out there wasn’t one spot that was perfect for viewing the passage.  I ended up climbing up and down all over the ship.  The different levels gave different views.  If I had stubbornly sat on my tented bed, I would have missed so much.  The bow of the ship had an amazing view of entering a lock; in the rear you could see it close behind us – like saying goodbye to this chapter of our trip.  On deck 4 we were close to shore level and could look up into the jungle outlets, imagining wild beasties. IMG_0646 The canal also gave everyone a reason to converse with each other, and I enjoyed meeting many different people.  A couple of times when we were in the locks and the water was either rising or lowering, I ran to our room and the sides of the lock were within a foot of our window.  As the ship rose, the light would appear until we were once again at sea level.  It was also a great opportunity to see in the engineered workings of the walls.

Close up of the canal wall as the water poured into the lock. I could have easily reached out and touched the wall.

As a kid, I remember looking at pictures of our world and now tiny the Isthmus of Panama looked.  Why, it looked like a short walk and you could see both oceans of our world.  It fascinated me.  I’m sure I had a wonderful teacher that excited me to see it in the flesh.  I wish I could remember who it was!  It obviously is not a short walking path, but to have been able to traverse from one ocean to another sends a thrill down my spine.  Isn’t it silly?  But, it does.

Was it what I expected?  It was way more.  I thought there would be more to the lock system – it is really an example of using the simple to accommodate the enormously complicated needs of our world.  Which was such an example to me.  Don’t we often make our lives more complicated than they need to be?  We get so caught up in manufactured complexities that we totally forget that it is the simple solutions that work best.  I sure know that happens to me with foods.  When I get so caught up in trying all of the foods offered in this world, if I come back to looking at what comprises a healthy plate of food – half fruits/veggies, 1/4 proteins and 1/4 complex carbs – the food rearranges itself in to a healthier meal.  And I still enjoy new, exciting foods.

That said, I’m feeling like my portion sizes have been enlarging – so I’m writing this to say that I will watch it today!

I was so caught up with the ten hour journey through the canal, that the end of the day caught me by surprise.  We were suddenly in the last lock, the Holland America ship right next to us, and then the lock gates opened and we floated out into the open waters of the Caribbean.  There is a large span bridge that is being built and we sailed under it and into the open sea.  

The last bridge, as we exited the Panama Canal. Ten hours of entertainment. I felt a little sad that it was over and my bucket list is a bit emptier. What a great day.

In a sense, I felt like the trip was over!  And immediately felt a sense of depression.  Soon followed by sea sickness – the waves were enormous!  We couldn’t walk without staggering.  The sun was shining, and no storm clouds, but oh my.  Dramamine was being consumed like artificial sweetener in Weight Watchers coffee cups.  

The long day had been hot and sticky, and none of us felt like dressing up for the dining room or specialty restaurants.  We showered, tossed on some clothes and ate a sparse, tummy friendly, meal at the buffet – which was deserted.  Only the hardy were there.  You had to laugh at the diners.  We all looked like a bunch of drunks, trying to keep the food on our plates as we wove, staggering back to our tables.  I have avoided white rice, but decided it would be a good food to have in my stomach – just in case I had to revisit dinner later on.

Emma ate two chunks of cantaloupe and piece of bread, then asked to be excused.  We all took two Dramamine before dinner and went to bed at 7 pm.  It really hit me after the long, hot day, and met eyes were crossing by the time we made back to our room.  I slept like a log until 6 am the next morning.    

The seas are a bit more calm now, but we are still rocking and rolling a bit.  Today we have a sea day and then hit the Grand Cayman Islands to see Emma swim with the dolphins and sting rays.

There is something about leaving the Pacific and now being in the Caribbean that has depressed me.  The end of the trip is now really in sight, and the end of our adventure is coming up.  Darn, I just want to keep going around the world.  We were talking about what we would do if we won the lottery.  I told Teddy (George) that I would be on a ship headed around the world the next day.  He looked totally alarmed, he is much more a believer that we are going to win the lottery.  I don’t think it is on his list!


I have had my coffee, written these lines and now I am off to get some walking in.  I do think I will avoid being close to the rails – this ship is still tilting!

Author: Traveling Grandma

As an aging mother of six and grandma to seven, travel was always a dream. Diapers, work and an eccentric high-maintenance husband just seemed to keep those trips a distant desire. Eventually, however, the kids potty trained, lived through the teenage angst years and left the nest to start their own families. Work still gets in the way for my husband, but it does help pay for the trips! Can't do much about the eccentric, high-maintenance husband; after 36 years I have reconciled that he will never pick up his underwear. He's my partner for life, travel companion and can always be counted on to do something totally odd. It makes for a good story, and besides - without his major financial contribution, we would sitting at home year after year, watching yet another rerun of NCIS. Due to a major health scare, I recently retired - and love retirement! I have always LOVED to cook. My love of food, and birthing those babies, led to an 85 pound weight gain. After joining a weight loss program, I shed the weight, went to work for them and found a new career. For me, it was a dream job. How many people can say they loved their job? I got to work together with people and help them live a healthy lifestyle, and lose weight. And it changed the way I cook! Instead of coating foods with fat and/or sugar, I've learned to bring out the real flavor in foods and keep them healthy. It's a joy to travel the world and explore new foods. I'm always on the lookout for different foods and willing to try almost anything. George, my husband, is always aghast at my choices. He's looking for a McDonald's while I'm trying to find the best local eatery. Checking out grocery stores and food forums in different countries is endless fun. Bringing back cooking ingredients keeps the memories alive every time they are used in a recipe back home. Paprika from Budapest, Sumac from Turkey, dried squid from Japan....what a lucky person I am to experience it all. Life is interesting everywhere, and there is always something humorous to be found, even in my own backyard of Mt Hood, Oregon. I love to journal and people have been telling me for years to become a writer. As Medicare is now a prominent part of my life, I figured this was as good a time as any. If I don't do it now, I'll be writing stories about my neighbors in the nursing home. A big trip will probably be whacking along in my walker to the day room to watch the Travel Channel. I take heart that Colonel Sanders started his finger lickin' fortune late in life because he wasn't afraid to try something new. So here I go!

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