The Panama Canal
Copyright (C) 2008, 2010 by Michael T. Bailey Sr., Marietta, Georgia.
All rights reserved. Reproduction, adaptation, or translation
without prior written permission is prohibited, except as
allowed under copyright laws.
by Mike Bailey
|Approaching the Panama Canal's Gatun Lake Locks at dawn
|Every time Deanna and I return from a cruise, we both feel relaxed, energized, happy, ready to
do something every day, and to just go out there and do something -- anything -- to keep the
feelings of adventure and excitement alive.
This cruise was no different in that respect but it did differ from all the previous ones in that
we were able to see lifelong dreams for both of us fulfilled -- at the same time. Those dreams? --
To see and travel through the Panama Canal onboard a ship.
Deanna and I set sail on Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s “Brilliance of The Seas” on January 21,
2008 for an 11-night cruise to fulfill those dreams of the Panama Canal.
Check out all the pictures for "The Panama Canal Cruise" over on Mike's Picture Library.
|Menu of events to help you read about our voyage
|The Panama Canal Cruise -- It was long, relaxing, beautiful, rewarding, and eye opening.
How do you prepare for a trip that seems like you have dreamed about all your life? In a lot of
ways, you can not because no matter what we do or not do, all the events surrounding our lives
continue to tick by every second and if you blink you might miss something that only happens
once in your life time.
On the other hand, taking the chance to break away from life zooming by us, Deanna and I did
spend many months planning and getting ready for our trip to see what many consider to be the
Eight Wonder of the world and as a child, I readily believed it because of what I had read
about it and saw in newsreels in the local movie theaters.
I fell in love with the Panama Canal when I was 6 years old.
In my mind, I can still see the old Movietone Newsreels in the theaters in my home town in the
late 40s showing actual film of the work that was required to dig out the Gillard Cut all those
Monstrous cranes, gigantic hissing steam shovels, sooty black and bellowing steam engine driven
trains -- running around the clock to haul the excavated dirt out after the ground and rock were
broken up by gigantic and thunderous dynamite explosions –- all this made for an overwhelming
visual image in my mind to convince me that yes, this WAS the Eight Wonder of the world.
I started collecting stamps around 1948 when I was six years and I can still remember the total
excitement I felt when I first ran across a stamp about the Panama Canal. Growing up in my
Grandmother’s house with her, three uncles, an aunt, my mother, brother, and sister, I had access
to lots of old letters and post cards that everyone just seemed to keep back then.
One day, my Aunt Ethel handed me a huge box of old letters and postcards and said, “Here, look
at these -- some came from far away places.” Up until this time, I had only seen stamps from the
United States and had not seen any foreign stamps, let alone a stamp for a U.S. Possession like
the Canal Zone.
An hour later, I found it -- my first Panama Canal Zone stamp. Someone had mailed a letter to
her using a 1939 Panama Canal Zone 15-Cent air mail stamp –- depicting a Pan American Clipper
flying over the Pacific entrance to the canal. The stamp was in honor of the 10th year
anniversary of Canal Zone air mail service and the 25th year anniversary of the opening of
That stamp sealed it for me and I promised myself that one day, I would go there and I would
see it all for myself. The stamp also ignited my lifelong affection and interest in the beautiful
Pan Am Clipper ships -- flying boats. I have two huge old-time travel posters hanging in a room
at home that depicts a Pan Am Clipper flying to Cuba on one to the South Sea Isles on the
So, here I was 60 years later on January 21, 2008 all poised to see that childhood dream come
true -- I was really going to see the Panama Canal after all. As Deanna and I drove out to the
airport that freezing cold Monday morning, all I could think about was how truly fantastic it
was that both of us were getting ready to take a cruise of a lifetime and during that adventure,
have the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream.
I kept telling myself how lucky, how fortunate we were to have this chance. We parked our car
in one of the off-site Park and Fly lots and headed for the terminal on one of their shuttle buses.
Within no time, we had all our baggage checked and with tickets in hand, we anxiously awaited
our flight to Miami.
The 8 AM flight down was quick and uneventful and soon, we were in baggage claim in the Miami
Airport and after finding all of our bags (four pieces checked) we sought out the Royal
Caribbean representative to help us catch our transfer bus to the cruise terminal. After I
turned over the baggage to the bus driver, we never saw it again until about 11 PM that night
when it magically started showing up outside our stateroom door.
I say magically because first, do you realize how much baggage 2500 people can bring onboard
a cruise ship for a 12-day cruise? Secondly, because of the big surprise below, it was a miracle
that we got it at all.
The first big surprise/reward of our cruise occurred soon after we arrived at the cruise ship
passenger terminal there in the port of Miami.
Because Deanna was in a wheelchair, we got to go straight to the head of the passenger check-in
lines and then just when we thought our check-in was done, the lady doing all the processing got
up and walked away with all of our papers.
Thinking the worst, we got real nervous and just prayed that all was OK. About five minutes
later, she came back and handed over all of our papers and most importantly, our cruise cards
(SeaPass) which became our stateroom keys, badges to get on and off the ship, and also used as
credit cards onboard ship (no money exchanges hands except when you put money in the slot
machines in the Royal Casino).
I looked at our SeaPass cards and noticed right away that our stateroom assignments were NOT
on Deck 3 where our reservation was for. There was some other number there on the SeaPass
card and I turned back to the lady and asked her what the story was.
Our first surprise of the day was when she stated, “Oh, we upgraded your stateroom to a
Superior Ocean View Stateroom with a balcony up on Deck 9.” “Oh, yeah, oh yeah, we be
partying” were the thoughts singing out in our minds as we graciously accepted the upgrade
and thanked them for doing it.
However, as we walked away we realized that we might not ever see our baggage again because
all of our baggage tags were marked with our old stateroom number we had placed on the bags
the day before. Sure enough, it took some calling and hunting down but by 11 PM, all of our
wayward baggage had been re-routed to our stateroom.
Soon we were onboard -- almost the first ones to actually get on -- and went straight up to the
Pool Deck on Deck 11 and had our first adult beverage. We had left the house that morning with
snow and ice on the ground, 17 degrees outside, and here we were now at noon, standing on a
beautiful cruise ship in Miami having a “cool one” to celebrate our great trip so far. Life is good
We spent some time checking out our ship -- the “Brilliance of The Seas” -- and around 2 PM,
went down to check out our NEW stateroom. It was beautiful and the view from our balcony
was awesome. This room had an extra 30 square feet over a normal Ocean View Stateroom with a
balcony. The extra room gave us room for a couch that could also be made into another bed plus
there was a Pullman type pull down bed mounted in the ceiling.
The rest of the room was great -- nice dresser area with lighted mirror, shelves and drawers to
put things in, a huge double-wide tall closet with lots of hanging space and shelves to put clothes
and things on. We also had a neat flat screen TV and also, a stocked mini-frig mounted under the
end of the dresser unit. We also had the usual electronic-lock type safe mounted up in the
cabinets above where the TV was mounted.
Our balcony was accessed via a huge double-wide expanse of full view glass patio doors. With
the curtains pulled all the way back, we had a great view of the world outside of our room. Out
on the balcony were two chairs and a table. The railing was chest high and all below it was
tempered glass so as to not block the view when you were inside and looking out. Plus when you
sat down in one of the chairs on the balcony, it allowed you to see out in front of you.
I enjoyed more than one adult beverage while sitting out there and watching us cut through the
waves as we sped along towards our next destination. I always enjoy looking for the flying fish
and several times on this cruise, we spied them flying just above the water for great distances.
And last but not least was the all important bathroom -- complete with shower, toilet, and a sink
with lots of mirrors. Everyone, from the Cruise Director and entertainers to even the passengers)
always joke about how small these bathrooms are on a cruise ships -- and they are all correct.
Except for those bathrooms in the high-end suite rooms, all are small -- real small.
The shower stall is about a 30-inch circle with half of the walled enclosure being a flimsy plastic
shower curtain. This is basically OK except for someone like me (tall, broad shoulders) and I just
barely fit inside without making the curtain push out and allow water to flood the floor.
Deanna laid down for a short nap and I wandered around the ship taking pictures until it was time
to head to Deck 5 for the all hands mandatory boat drill conducted before every ship leaves port.
I picked up Deanna and our life jackets and we headed for our muster station. Soon, the deck was
jammed packed with over 2500 passengers -- all decked out in their bright orange life jackets.
Thankfully, they let Deanna sit to the side in a chair for the drill which lasted about 40 minutes.
We were supposed to have sailed at 5 PM Sunday (January 21) but the closer we got to that time,
it was obvious we were not leaving port. The Captain had addressed the ship over the loud
speakers about some sort of technical difficulties and late passenger arrivals holding us up.
However, several of the crew (bartenders) told us, not really so -- suggesting that it was more of
some sort of security issue.
I am not sure if they really knew anything for sure but the police cars with lights on parked next
to the gangway to our ship right up until the time we sailed might have been a confirmation of their
theory. Anyway, we never heard another thing about it and we left without any incidents -- which
we were aware of -- officially or unofficially.
We had first seating assignment for dinner, so 5:30 found us meeting our new dinning companions --
three couples from Manitoba, Canada -- and we fell in love with them right away.
This was their first cruise and it was a hoot for all of us. We enjoyed the nightly discussions we
had around the table about all our cruise adventures of the day plus other things like crazy stuff
back home, etc. All in all, we really enjoyed our new Canadian friends and hope to visit with them
later this year up in Manitoba.
After dinner, we made or way forwards to the Pacifica Theater on Deck 5 and secured a seat for
the entertainment show that tonight would be put on by the 11-member Royal Caribbean Singers
and Dancers. The show, "Welcome Aboard," featured the singers and dancers plus a comic named
Steve Bruner. All in all, the show was OK, but Deanna & I both felt like the RC Singers & Dancers
needed some tune ups here and there, especially in the weight department and maintaining a steady
pitch for two of the female lead singers.
The ship's production shows and celebrity headliners that show up on cruises have always been
one of the highlights that Deanna & I look forwards to on our cruises. Generally, they are a
welcomed reward to an already great day.
Most cruises tend to have knockout shows and invited celebrity entertainers. Then on other
cruises, they (RCCL) seemed to have miscued a bit and just got bad choices or the performers
were not up to their usual best -- either tired, older, jokes out of touch with population onboard
ship, voice changed, etc. And finally, some cruises had a mixture of both (knockout & off key) and
based on our 11 nights onboard, I would place our entertainment in this last category.
Monday, our first day, had been a LONG day and after only spending about 15 minutes in the
Royal Casino, we headed for our room and prayed that our baggage would be there, By 11, we had
acquired it all (I found one down on Deck 3 sitting outside our original assigned stateroom) and
we completed our unpacking and trying to figure out where to store everything. I have always
been in awe of Deanna in her packing, unpacking, and temporary storage skills and on cruises like
this one -- 12 days long -- she was in her prime.
With all the unpacking done and the four suitcases and one of the carry-on bags hidden under our
beds, it was lights out time. We were both looking forwards to the next day when we would be at
sea with no real schedules to follow.
Labadee would be our first port of call and we were anxiously awaiting the chance to visit it once
again after cruising all night Monday (we finally left about 1 AM) and all day Tuesday.
Tuesday night was the first of two formal nights we had onboard this cruise. This was the first
cruise I had ever been on where I had not brought a tux with me -- just a nice dinner jacket, cool
shirts and ties -- and I was a happy camper. I did bring my light cream-colored cowboys boots
and I must say that with my basically all black outfit on, I looked snazzy with my boots on.
Deanna wore one of her special formal night cruise outfits and looked very comfortable, sexy,
and very beautiful.
The after dinner production show Tuesday night in the Pacifica Theater was "Mastering the
Magic," starring Fallon Magic and his wife Mystia. They were good, but she could do it ALL
herself as she preformed beautiful and very difficult Cirque de Soliel type acrobatics -- just
unbelievable what she could do and do so effortlessly, it seemed.
We love cruising days -- you get to sit back, sip a few adult beverages and watch the world go
by. Since we had left over eight hours later than scheduled, we had been moving at top speed
after leaving Miami to make up for all the lost time.
It must have been fast enough because bright and early Wednesday morning, we arrived at
Labadee right on schedule.
This is a private peninsular of land on the northwest coast of Haiti that belongs to Royal
Caribbean Cruise Lines (RCCL) and as such, is 100 percent safe, clean, and beautiful. We were
just there last June on a cruise on the “Freedom of The Seas” and being back there so soon
seemed like old home week.
Anchored there in the lagoon about a half mile from shore, the view from high up on our ship
over to the surrounding heavily forested and green mountainous land was breath taking -- it is
so beautiful there. The lagoon is protected on two sides by land and therefore, the clear aqua
blue-green waters are normally mirror smooth. This was great for all the water sport activities
that RCCL provided.
There is a small Haitian village right on the water's edge (about a mile and a half from the
actual peninsular that RCCL owns). We could already see the small, brightly colored boats (water
taxies) filled with local workers headed for the RCCL property too work or sell their wares in a
straw market type village set up there. All of this -- the mountains, aqua-green waters, white
sandy beaches over by the tender docks, the real native fishing village, and the open sea behind
us where waves were breaking over a reef far from shore -- all made for a most mesmerizing and
beautiful picture for us to take in.
We took our time tendering over to the beach. This involves leaving our ship from down on Deck
2 and boarding special diesel powered water crafts that remain stationed there at the RCCL
property. These tenders are usually open air, double decked types that are about 70 feet long
and hold maybe 150-200 passengers. We had waited an hour or so to leave ship so as to let all
the first timers go in those first few waves of scrunched-in-tight tender operations.
We finally got over there and all we did at first was to lie around -- I should say -- lounge
peacefully in the shade under a palm tree and drink Coco Locos. This is one of their signature
drinks (adult beverage) that the cruise line created some years back when their only private
island/destination was a place called Coco Cay.
Coco Cay is still used by other RCCL ships that have the Bahamas as part of their cruise
itinerary. Anyway, I know all this (lounging around) sounds like hard stuff to do, but someone
had to do the difficult job of testing out selected lounge chairs to see if they would hold up
under three hours of “steadily being sat upon by lazy cruisers drinking Coco Locos.”
Later, after taking a tram ride (tractor type device pulling 4 or 5 open-air cars behind it) to
the tip of the peninsular, we walked out to the very end on a rocky path to a place called the
“Dragon’s Breath.” Because of the water rushing up onto and under all the rock (limestone)
formations there, the water movement forces or compresses the air and at times, you hear it
release up through the rocks and it sounds just like a dragon (or SOMETHING BIG) down
What can I say? It was awesome and worth the effort, especially for Deanna, to reach the end
of the rock-step trail as it involved going up and down a series of small changes in elevation out
amongst the limestone rock formations.
Next, we hopped back on the tram and rode it all the way back towards the native straw market
set up in the shade and near the tender docks. This area consists of a few buildings they use and
then a huge heavily shaded section outside where they have all their wares spread out on the
ground and then on the huge rocks/boulders behind them. This outside arrangement of wares
makes for a very large and colorful scene to look at and admire.
We stayed on the tram and rode it on to Columbus Beach because we had done the market place
before and really had no desire to shop there. This was especially true for going inside the
covered buildings where it is so crowed you can almost not breath and are constantly bothered
by so many vendors in such a small place trying to get your attention to buy THEIR products.
All four of the beaches here that are on RCCL property have their own names, set of lounge
chairs, refreshment bars, restrooms, etc. We had never been over in this section (Columbus)
which was behind all the water sports areas and equipment there on the lagoon side of the
Columbus Beach was beautiful -- shady, white sandy beach, lots of lounge chairs, and a neat
looking thatch covered adult beverage hangout. We made a mental note to ourselves that if we
come back to Labadee again, this would be where we will park ourselves and enjoy the views
from here -- like looking back out onto the calm lagoon and seeing our huge majestic and
beautiful cruise ship sitting out there quietly awaiting our return.
Three of the beach areas are on this calm water, lagoon side -– same side where we were
anchored about a half mile away from the piers at the beach where the tenders load and unload
passengers. The fourth beach, the largest, is on the windward/opposite side of the peninsular
and since it faces the Caribbean Sea directly, the waves on that side can get large at times.
One good thing about this side, other than the waves, is that you have a front row set to watch
the people on the 3,000 foot long zip lines (actually, there are 5 parallel lines) go screaming past
you as they go from a tower high up on the mountain to your right and land on a wooden platform
on your left out on the Dragon’s Breath walkway area.
As I sat there looking at the zip lines again, I immediately was drawn back to just six months
earlier when Ashley and I had gone screaming and zipping down these very same lines. We had
been told not to position ourselves in certain ways as that would cause you to move too fast --
way too fast! I can still hear Ashley laughing and screaming out at me as I passed her -- she had
left about 8 seconds before I did -- "Daddy, your cheating, you are NOT supposed to be lying
Memories -- like this very, very special one -- are what make us whole, for they give meaning and
purpose to our lives.
Finally the tram came back to where we wanted to hang out again -- same two lounge chairs we
had used earlier under some great shade trees and towering palms. Deanna started getting all
settled in while I took off to go get some food. I went over to one of the huge picnic shelters
near us where RCCL cooks up all sorts of good picnic goodies -– hamburgers, hot dogs, etc. -- and
fixed up two plates and brought them back to the lounge chairs.
There is something about hamburgers, French fries, cold slaw, hot dogs, ketchup, mustard, etc.,
when you get them served outdoors and the meat has been cooking over a smoking grill. It is
like some sort of magical signal to the body because as soon as you get near places like this, you
are dying to taste the food which for some reason is always the BEST that you ever tasted (so
After several hamburgers and a few Coco Locos, the shade and cool breezes lulled both of us
into a short nap. As I drifted off, I was saying to myself, ”If it gets any better than this will
somebody please tell me!”
An hour or so later, we gathered up all our stuff up (it was still early in the afternoon) and
started making our way back to the ship to try and get ahead of the mad rush at the end when
everyone (it seems) is trying to get back onboard ship at the same time. Back onboard, we sat up
around the pool area and relaxed until it was time to go on down below and get ready for dinner.
After dinner, we made a rare (for us) command decision. The production show, "Now and
Forever" featuring only the RCCL Singers and Dancers scheduled in the Pacifica Theater didn’t
capture our interest so we thought we would skip it and try to strike it rich on the slot machines
by us going straight to the Royal Casino.
We played for hours and it was nice for a long time because since we had skipped the show, a
lot of the regular players were not there and we did not have to stake out and wait for our
favorite slots to be come free.
We won, we lost, we won -- but in the end, we had a wonderful night of just watching the reels
spinning before our eyes and eagerly awaiting to see if they would stop and present to us a wining
combination or not. These five-reel video type slot machines are great entertainers in that
because they are in reality just a video game on steroids, the game can present extra things to
you that a regular slot machine can not.
These extras are normally called bonus rounds where you get to see some sort of animated scenes
where you have to select different things to do or cause actions to take place, whatever, and all
ending with the possible acquisition of a number of extra credits if all your Bonus Selection
actions were good choices.
Back at our stateroom, we were as with all nights, presented with another creature created out
of folded towels and wash cloths. We were continually amazed at the creativity that went into
these tiny works of art. They are simple (for them any way), cute, and always subject to
interpretation as to what the figure REALLY is. Deanna and I hardly ever agree on what the
Thursday morning found us on Day 4 steadily cruising on empty blue seas towards Curacao which
we would not reach until early Friday morning. As I mentioned before, we both love these types
of days where we really have nothing to do that we have to do -- understand?
We lounged around in the Solarium Area on Deck 11 and just soaked up the peace and relaxation
that it seemed to give us so easily. This area, completely enclosed with a retractable glass roof
overhead, was all decked out in an African-safari type theme -- complete with elephant heads
etc., on the walls. One end had a wooded arched bridge that went over the small pool area at the
base of two 20-foot tall waterfalls on either side of a huge relief of an elephant's head where
the water ran straight down the sides of an aqua-colored rock surface.
This area has wonderful lounge chairs, heavily padded, and with all the beautiful wooden fixtures
about and all the plantings -- almost tropical jungle like -- it was a beautiful place to just
kick back in. There is a small pool there in the middle of the Solarium but I was not too keen on
getting in cold water.
However I did try out the hot tub (on several occasions throughout the cruise) until I looked like
I was a wrinkled prune and after that, decided it was time for a Coco Loco to be followed by yet
another Bucket of Coronas analysis test.
I know, I know, all these test procedures sound like hard work back at the office but, someone
HAS to do it. What the heck, I wasn’t doing anything important anyway and because I had a few
spare moments on my hands, I stepped up to the challenge each day and volunteered my services.
There is a tiny café/grill set up there in the Solarium and Deanna and I ate several noon-time
lunches there on our cruise at sea days. They served great Italian panini sandwiches that we both
thoroughly enjoyed. They were hot straight off the grill and the warm bread, meat, and cheeses
were a perfect light-meal treat for relaxing travelers.
Today at sea was time for the RCCL World Championship Belly Flop Context event to take place.
It was a beautiful sunny and hot day and based on previous cruises, we knew this event would be
a high spectator event and so we headed up to Deck 12 above us to secure a good viewing location
that allowed us to look down on the pool below.
The railings on the upper deck were full of spectators like us almost an hour before show time.
I had secured a great place where Deanna could sit in her wheelchair and easily see all the
excitement below and it was in the shade as an extra treat for both of us.
At 1:30, all of the usual suspects had been rounded up and were poised to be instructed by the
Cruise Director on how and what they must do to obtain scoring points. I say usual suspects in
that it seems like the same type of people on every cruise show up for this most entertaining show.
First, there will always be some man from Europe, thin, 40 or older, and wearing a tiny Speedo-
type bathing suit that is at least two sizes too small for him. Next, there will be a 20 year old
Macho Man from Italy, Argentina, or the Bronx followed by several 50 or older folks from
somewhere all over the world. Then there will be at least one young man -- skinny and full of
Finally, to round out the event, there will usually be one or two whales -- or pool drainers as they
are sometimes referred to -- that show up. I’m talking about big men that are tall, 300 plus
pounds, with huge chests and bellies that look like they could tackle a dump truck.
Our group today was no exception and all types showed up. Even the whale that showed up was a
former multi-year Royal Caribbean Belly Flop Champion. With all the judges picked (six ladies
sitting together by the side of the pool), the Cruise Director whipped up the crowd into a
frenzied mass of happy, yelling, and clapping spectators as he masterfully led all the contestants
through their turn in belly flopping into the pool.
It was a hoot as always and just watching those guys hitting the water -- board straight on their
stomachs -- made me cringe all over. They must have stayed beet red for weeks. Anyway, the
former whale won this event in style –- creating huge, pool emptying waves when he hit the water.
We started to end another fantastic day at sea ,first with our dinner in the dinning room with our
Canadian friends followed by a visit to the Pacifica Theater.
Tonight like most nights, we watched the Ship’s Entertainment production after dinner in the very
nice, two-level fancy Pacifica Theater at the front of the ship. The featured celebrity performer
tonight was a violin virtuoso named Maria Neglia. I do not know how old she really is, but I know
that she was on an "All Star Review" TV show as a performed back in 1951 and on several Ed
Sullivan shows. No matter the age -- the lady could make that violin sing!
Words can not capture the excitement and spine-tingling effects she created with each of us and
she played everything from chop sticks to tango, to classical, to jazz -- you name it and the violin
sang like never before. She swore that the violin that she used was made by the violin maker that
taught Stradivarius how to make violins. No one in the audience would disagree with the statement
or her ability to make the very old violin she held in her hands sound like nothing they had ever
She received a resounding standing ovation and a call for an encore which she graciously gave.
Afterwards, we made a bee-line for our favorite after-dinner entertainment –- contributing to
RCCL’s 401K plan for its workers by eagerly feeding the nickel slot machines in the Royal Casino
with contributions. As usual, we enjoyed a couple hours of watching the reels spinning and our
fortunes rise and fall.
Soon it was bed time and another towel creature greeted us when we opened our stateroom door
and saw it hanging from a hook in the ceiling. I suppose it was a monkey (what Deanna said it was).
It looked like a rat hanging off a clothes line to me, but what do I know about towel folding art?
Friday morning on Day 5 of our journey found us excitedly looking forwards to visiting Curacao,
Netherlands Antilles -- our next port of call after cruising steadily since Wednesday night.
We had never visited Curacao before, or any of the other ports that would follow this one.
Everything from here on out would truly be new and different for us to explore, enjoy,
experience, and remember.
We had elected to not take any formal RCCL shore excursions here and had decided instead, that
we would we just walk around in the downtown area of Willemstad and eat lunch in an outdoor
café somewhere along the waterfront.
When we first docked at Willemstad, capitol of Curacao, the weather looked like it might not be
in our favor (overcast and drizzle), but it all cleared off quickly and by the time we scrambled
off the ship and made our way along the pier towards town, all was looking good for a leisurely
day in a new city.
We followed a nice stoned lined boardwalk type pathway from the pier area over to the edge of
the shopping area right at the mouth of the waterway/channel that splits Willemstad in half.
There were historical/information plaques posted along the way and we stopped and read a few
Soon we had slipped though a great looking shopping area complete with palm trees and outside
of it, there was a huge old mechanical organ playing songs . Some local person was standing out
there trying to convince people that to take a picture of it, you had to pay HIM 5 bucks.
Hucksters are everywhere in this world it seems.
We continued our journey and came up on a long row of local shops (in tents, etc.) alongside of
the channel (which we made a mental note to stop here on the way back to the ship) and then we
reached one of the most amazing bridges we had ever seen.
There before us was a huge (maybe 550 foot long, 35 foot wide) floating pontoon pedestrian
bridge called The Queen Emma Bridge crossing the St. Anna Bay channel/harbor entrance to
the city and large harbor beyond. The pontoon bridge was first put into place in 1888, and
underwent a major renovation in 1939.
The woodened-plank bridge connects the east section of Willemstad called Punda, with
Otrabanda, the western section of the city. We were on the Otrabanda side (which means “other
side”) at the time and just marveled at all that we saw. Punda, which refers to the Dutch word
‘Punt’, the tip of land on which it was built, was settled first (with a fort, of course) and today
is the main shopping district of historic Willemstad and the seat of government of the
As I noted earlier, St. Anna Bay cuts right through the heart of the city and with both sides
of the waterway lined with the traditional Dutch architectural fronts of buildings and all these
decked out in a rainbow of colors, it was a beautiful site to see and experience.
Every now and then someone on the bridge would ring a bell on the bridge and after hearing what
sounded like a 50 horsepower boat motor crank up, the whole floating bridge would start to pivot
away from one side and the far end would just move far enough to let small boats go by. If a
freighter came by, the bridge swings all the way open and locks against the side.
When this happens, there is a free water taxi/ferry service that runs people back and forth
across the harbor entrance. What is really neat is that there are no barriers on the end of the
bridge and people are not made to get off before the bridge moves.
Lord, here in the U.S., there would have been flashing lights, bells, and barriers installed and
everyone would have had to get off the bridge. I can just hear it now in some back room
government office, “Why, some unsuspecting tourist might fall off the end -- we HAVE to have
laws, barriers, rules, regulations, and safety procedures, plans of escape, backup plans,
contingency plans, and also, press 1 if you would like to hear this in English!”
It was nice to see that someone (government) gave the people who used something the credit for
taking care of themselves and not worrying about them walking off the end of a moving pontoon
We crossed over the bridge to the Punda side -- one of four historic districts that make up
Willemstad. Punda represents the 17th century in historical origin whereas Otrabanda where
we just left, represents an historic district of 18th century in origin.
Speaking of history, I couldn't help but realize just how far flung the Dutch empire was in the
mid 1600s and how successful the Dutch West India Company was. Not only was Willemstad
founded in 1634 way down in the Southern Caribbean Sea (just 30 miles offshore of Venezuela),
but just nine years earlier in 1625, the Dutch had founded another great city in the Western
Hemisphere -- New York City (Nieuw Amsterdam). The Dutch were not letting any grass grow
under her feet in those days.
After crossing over the bridge, we then wandered around the narrow streets near the waterfront
(the Punda district is only about 23 acres in size) and found several great stores to explore.
Deanna found one store, “La Casa Amarilla” (The Yellow House), founded in 1887, that sold
perfume and of course, we walked out of there with packages in hand and smelling like two
samples of everything they sold.
Soon we found a quite street with a shady open area type plaza down the middle of it with
umbrellas and other open-air type structures so we sat there a while and enjoyed a Corona and
just watched everyone go about their shopping and gawking like we were doing as tourist.
Then we left this area and found a neat art galley owned by a local artist name Nena Sanchez
where she sold her paintings and of course, we just had to buy one of the very colorful paintings
to hang in our kitchen. The painting that Deanna picked out is entitled “Poemies Orange Cottage”
–- a Giclee type painting on paper. We can not wait to see it all framed out and hanging in our
We next found ourselves walking along De Ruyterkade Street by the floating market on a side
channel to St. Anna Bay. Boats dock here from Venezuela and Colombia, as well as other West
Indian islands, to sell tropical fruits and vegetables -- a little bit of everything, in fact,
including handicrafts -- with each boat serving lots of customers anxious to buy items that they
The scene was simple but beautiful in a way. Here we were -– gawking tourist off of a huge
cruise ship -– watching a simple but life sustaining event going on as it does every day here in
port with or without the visitors from abroad.
We ended out self-guided tour back along the waterway where the Queen Emma Bridge is located.
After paying some lady 50 cents to let us use the public toilets there, we found a neat café that
had a bunch of tables and umbrellas set up right there along the waterway and not 30 feet away
from where the pontoon bridge connected to our side of the waterway.
No sooner had we sat down when Bob and Karen -- two of our shipboard dinning companion from
Canada -– showed up and joined us for hamburgers and a few rounds of Coronas.
About halfway through our meal, a local entertainer/entrepreneur showed up carrying three
iguanas -- the largest being about 2 and a half feet long from nose to tail. The deal was, for
FIVE dollars, you could have your picture taken with his iguanas. Needless to say, Deanna was
up in a flash and several moments later, she was standing there looking like Deanna of the Jungle
with all these iguanas all over her.
Note to Garrett, my grandson -- yes, G-man, those iguanas in the pictures of your Grandmother
are for real -- 100%, I promise you!
It had been a long day and I was so thankful that we had brought Deanna’s wheelchair. Because
we had it and the streets were clean and basically level wherever we went, we were able to
explore a lot of Willemstad on foot.
Just as we got ready to walk back over the Queen Emma bridge, the bells went off and we heard
the small engine start up on the end of the bridge and we knew it was getting ready to swing out
of the way for traffic in the channel. When we saw a medium sized freighter headed our way, we
knew the bridge would be opened for quite a while so we seized the opportunity to use the free
water taxi to get back to the other side and on to the ship docked nearby.
We had planned on going back over to this side on our way back to the ship and shopping in all of
the shops (the open air canopy tent types) there that were set up along the waterway, but no
sooner had we gotten off of the water taxi than we noticed that the vendors were scurrying
about to close up shop. We looked behind us and saw the darkening clouds and then realized that
the locals knew something we did not -- like it was getting ready to rain -- rain hard.
We headed for the ship as fast as we could but about halfway there, we realized that we were
not going to make it. We ducked under some sort of archway near a huge construction site there
near our ship and hunkered down. It rained hard and then poof -- it was gone.
Five minutes later we were inserting our SeaPass cards into the badge reader machines the
security people onboard our ship have set up and they (security people) were checking/matching
our faces against the pictures scanned into the machines the very first day we boarded the
“Brilliance of The Seas”.
No match, no entry -- that simple. We matched up and after pushing Deanna through metal
detector machine, we were on the elevators and headed up for Deck 9 and home. Home -- funny
how soon you get attached to places and things. Stateroom 9538 was home -- safe, secure, cozy,
warm, and had a private bathroom -- what more could you ask for?
Deanna hopped in her bed for her afternoon nap and I headed for the Pool Bar up on Deck 11. It
was starting to drizzle again, so I sat up at the bar (totally open to the deck area but has a cover
overhead) and talked with the bartenders. Since it was drizzling, the pool area (all the lounge
chairs circling the pool) was totally deserted -- except for one brave soul. A lady was sitting out
there in a sea of empty blue lounge chairs all huddled up under a small umbrella. It seemed so
funny -- I guess she thought this would be the only way for her to get her a lounge chair if the
sun came back out.
Just when I thought I had seen my strange image for today (there is at least one per day), I
happened to look up from the woman under the umbrella and spied another woman on the deck
above us standing next to the railing. This woman was also not only standing out in the drizzle
(was wearing a large brimmed hat), but was standing there in a two-fisted drinking poise. In her
left hand was a large Coco Loco cocktail glass and in her right hand, was a large cup of coffee in
a cup with the cardboard heat sleeve around it. I guess she figured she was covered -- no matter
what happened with the weather -- rain or sun shine.
Soon, it was get ready for dinner time again so I completed my daily Bucket of Coronas spot
check analysis and headed to our stateroom. Deanna was already up and getting dressed. We
enjoyed another great evening of dinner-time stories with our Canadian friends and then watched
a terrific show in the Pacifica Theater. The entertainment this night was a performer named
Jonathan Kane who was a musical impersonator of Sir Elton John.
If you didn't look too closely at him, you would have sworn on your last dollar bill that Sir Elton
WAS on that stage and belting out all his favorite songs as he made the piano ring true with all
his energetic and passionate playing.
We ended up rounding off the day with additional contributions to the staff's 401K plan --
dropping LOTS of quarters into the slots in the Royal Casino. As my first cousin "Bill Hump"
would say, "And a good time was had by all."
In 1997 the inner city and harbor of Willemstad were designated a World Heritage site. We
could certainly see why after our visit and we both want to go back there.
Willemstad was beautiful, colorful, friendly, clean, and had an air about it that made you want to
just hang around a bit and explore and enjoy what it had to offer. Deanna saw a beautiful hotel
named Otrobanda over looking the St. Anna Bay waterway across from where we had eaten
hamburgers for lunch and wants to come back and stay there. Oh yeah, did I mention that the
name on the hotel also said CASINO?
Curacao -- from an architectural view point, etc. -- appeared to us to be much more Dutch
flavored versus Aruba which we visited next.
Day 6 on our journey to see the Panama Canal greeted us bright and early Saturday morning. We
had decided after we got back from Willemstad Friday afternoon to check out the shore
excursion desk onboard ship to see if there might be something of interest to us for Aruba.
We settled upon a guided bus tour that would show us some of the countryside, especially over on
the north coast where the Southern Caribbean Sea relentlessly pounds into the coast. We opted
for an early morning tour so we hit our favorite breakfast place -- The Windjammer Café -- up
on Deck 11 and looked out over Aruba from our high vantage point.
Even from up here, we could see that Aruba was beautiful and we could not wait to check it out.
While we were enjoying breakfast a large cruise ship, Pullmantur Cruise's "Holiday Dream",
pulled in near us and docked. This cruise line, out of Spain, is also owned by Royal Caribbean
Cruise Line. It is neat to stand up high on our ship and watch other ships come into port and see
all the many faces on the passengers that are all lined up the other ship's railings excitedly
inspecting their next port of call.
Soon, we headed for the gangway, badged out, and headed for an area in the cruise terminal to
wait for tours being called. These gatherings of anxious tour ticket holder always fascinate me.
There were at least 500 or more us us trying to line up or sit behind tour guides who held up
signs announcing their tour.
The only problem is, as we have noticed on lots of previous port of call gatherings on lots of
cruises, is that seldom does the name on their placards they are holding up high ever match the
exact same name on your shore excursion ticket. I guess this is OK -- it tends to add more
excitement to the tour, you know, will we end up at the Natural Bridges Park or will we end up at
some resort's Tea Parlor for afternoon tea?
Our tour finally got called and as we went outside, we were hoping that out tour was not on one
of those brightly-colored old school buses. They look great, but we had no desire to sit on one
for four or five hours. Luck was with us and we found our bus -- De Palm Tours -- a huge real
bus with nice seats and air-conditioning.
Soon we were headed out of the city as we travelled along the southern coast beach area where
we saw beautiful beach after beach and of course, a lot of hotels, resorts, condos, etc., that were
packed with winter-time visitors.
Out first tour stop was at Butterfly Farm -- a 3000-square-foot lush, green, flowering mesh-
enclosed garden with thousands of beautiful butterflies flying all around you.
It was beautiful
-- especially when one of the large ones decided they liked the color you had on and landed on you
to check it out.
They had guides who talked incessantly about the butterflies and it sounded like we had signed
p for an hour-long lecture and would be graded at the end. Since our stop was only for 40
minutes, Deanna and I decided to break away after a while and wandered around all by
ourselves. We must have been the straw that broke the camel's back because others saw our
escape and followed suit.
Back onboard our bus, and after waiting for some man for 15 minutes, we headed for our next
tour stop -- an Aloe factory where they make skin products out of the Aloe plant that grows
abundantly there on the island.
The only problem was, our tour of the factory was a total dud -- it was Saturday and
EVERYONE was gone -- all we saw from a second floor glass enclosed walkway circling the
production areas below were white sterile looking rooms with no people in them and nothing
moving (all machines turned off) zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Of course the GIFT shop was open and
you could buy the Aloe products they made.
And yes, the same man as before was late getting back on the bus which was starting to tick
folks off. As he passed by Deanna, she said "the next time you are late, you have to buy drinks
for everyone on the bus" Everyone cheered but we figured out later (he was late on our next
stop also), that this one inconsiderate person cost all of us at least an hour in our total tour time.
Aruba is like a desert (on the north coast side especially) -- dry, barren areas, with tons of
cactuses (the tall Columnar cacti types) growing everywhere. In some areas, they were over 18
feet high. With little rainfall per year, Curacao and Aruba are more desert scrub land types
versus lush tropical island types that most people assume them to be.
When we finally got to the north side of the island we got off the tour bus at a place where
because of the tremendous pounding of the waves against the rocky land at waters edge, huge
natural bridges (arches) have formed with the water running up under them. Their most famous
and largest bridge collapsed last year. A huge one (now the largest) where we were standing was
absolutely beautiful. It is/was one of those things that you have to be there to fully appreciate
the magnificence and beauty of what you are witnessing.
All around the area, we noticed thousands of stacked-stone piles -- always three high --
everywhere you looked. We found out that these were wishing stones. You stack three of them up,
and then make your wish.
Some stacks were small -- like mine and Deanna’s that used rocks about the size of 2-inch or
smaller rocks -- to some we saw that looked like they must have used a crane (or a LOT of
people) to have stacked the stones that were in place.
Getting to see all this, and the wild donkeys that walk around the beautiful but almost barren
landscape made up for our dull factory tour. Watching the sea pound into the coast line and see
the water spraying upwards after it crashed head-on into the rocky edge was mesmerizing. Each
thundering crash created a continuous show of beauty, unharnessed power, and a will to continue
for thousands of more years to come.
After we left the rocky coastline, we made our way towards town and where the ship was docked
there in Oranjestad. The scenery was beautiful -- low rolling hills and brightly colored houses all
around us. Oh, there were some places we passed by that could have had a good "Field Day" to
clean it up, but that sort of thing can be found anywhere -- like the rundown shopping center just
one mile from our home.
We got off the bus and while Deanna sat out on the pier, I went back onboard the ship to get her
wheelchair. Once back off the ship, she hopped in her chair and we headed for the center of town
just a few blocks away.
We went by Carlos’n Charlie’s nightclub -- the place made famous by the disappearance of
Alabama teenager Natalee Holloway who was last seen alive leaving there late at night. Aruba is
still haunted by her disappearance in May, 2005 and the subsequent events surrounding the
investigation since then.
It was hot on this day and we both were looking for somewhere cool where we could have a few
cool ones and maybe eat a hamburger. No sooner had we reached Lloyd G. Smith Boulevard -- the
main thoroughfare that runs right along the waterfront -- when we saw all sorts of neat places to
We headed down the boulevard to a brightly colored (pink with a gold colored dome in center)
place called Royal Plaza Mall and finally settled on a busy looking place called “Iguana Joe’s
Caribbean Bar & Grill” up on the second floor balcony of the mall building. What made it more
appealing was that the shopping mall there had an elevator in plain sight to use. Within minutes,
we were upstairs, seated, and enjoying hamburgers and trying out their local beer called Balashi.
I could get use to those -- oh yeah!
From our vantage point on the balcony, the view was great. We could see our ship and others tied
up over at the docks, see the waterfront area where the marina was, and of course, the busy,
bustling boulevard below us filled with people, laughter, honking horns, weird buses, and guys on
motorcycles roaring up and down the strip. One guy in particular who loved to go roaring off
down the street on a Harley Davidson that had no mufflers, turned out to be a policeman (on
security guard duty) at a business across the street from our location. Who do you complain too,
All in all, it was festive and beautiful -- we had a great meal and just relaxed. Just as we were
about to leave, Burt & Nancy -- two more of our Canadian dinning companions -- came up to eat
also. We regretted that we did not get to share lunch and a few beers with them.
Soon, we were back onboard ship and Deanna made a bee line to her bed for her afternoon nap.
I made my way up to the pool area on Deck 11 to make sure that the quality of a bucket of Buds
or Coronas was still at the same high level of excellence as they had been on previous days. I am
happy to report that they were and continued to be each day that I performed this valuable but
I sat up at the Pool Bar this afternoon and chatted with the bartenders there while I conducted
my beer analysis. Normally, I sit in the Solarium Area (enclosed pool, hot tub area for adults
only) but today it was really hot and the breeze out by the Pool Bar felt wonderful.
During our long cruise, I had enjoyed many long discussions with two of the bartenders -- one
from India and one from Serbia -- that serviced this bar. One of the great things I enjoy about
the staff on Royal Caribbean ships is that they are from so many different nations. I remember
hearing our head waiter tell us that on this cruise, 67 different countries were represented.
It is refreshing to hear about life (from their viewpoint) from so many different people from
different countries. The gentleman from Serbia talked about family and friends back home,
concerns about the Euro, opportunities for jobs, and a desire to get back there. The young man
from India was concerned about jobs also because they, the good ones, are so hard to get. Oh
they are there, he said, but due to the population growth and educational training so many have,
there are at least a thousand people applying for every single job opening.
We spent another wonderful night on our floating home and once again enjoyed our dinner-time
conversations followed by visiting a few bars -- like the Schooner Bar and listing to the man
playing the piano and singing who was billed “The Man with a 1000 Songs.” He was amazing -- his
range of songs and his ability to not only play them but to sing them in different keys
entertained us royally. He was surrounded every night by many, many happy sing-a-long visitors
that kept this bar rocking and rolling into the wee hours of the night.
We parted company after his heart pounding rendition of “New York, New York” and headed for
the Royal Casino to once again contribute to the 401K plan for the ship’s employees. Soon it was
bed time, and our return to our stateroom this Saturday night presented us with another amazing
towel creature our stateroom attendant had created for us. Deanna said it was an elephant
tonight but it looked like an Aardvark to me.
The Panama Canal was next on our long journey and we would spend all day Sunday at sea cruising
to arrive in the area early Monday morning. As I have stated before, we both love at sea days
and really take advantage of them to totally relax and putt about in no hurry with no planned
actions -- just lazily taking what comes next and of course, sipping a few Coco Locos and enjoying
all that is going on around us.
This Sunday was no different and we made the most out of it. Deanna tried her hand at Bingo
while I tested buckets of Coronas. Later, we shopped in the ship’s stores below on Deck 5 (only
open when we are out of ports) and then looked for more photographs of us in the Photo Shop
where photos (thousands by cruise end) taken by the ship’s photography staff are posted daily on
dozens of special photo racks on the walls for you to search through.
I can still hear a Cruise Director on one of our cruises years ago talking about the "Top Ten
Questions" that passengers ask crew members and laughing loudly when he read Question
Number 5 on his list. "When we go to the Photo Shop, how will we know which pictures belong
Dinner with friends and a visit to the nickel slots in the Royal Casino once again completed a
great day on our voyage. We had skipped going to the Pacifica Theater the last two nights.
Saturday night's entertainment was the old cruise ship standby show, "Love and Marriage Game"
up on stage with four couples who usually end up making fools of themselves. We have seen them
before and after a while, they all sound like they are following the same script. The show Sunday
night was some sort of musical, jazz thing called "Big Time Swing" that just didn't catch our
attention enough to even bother going to check it out.
Seeing our turned down beds with mints on the pillows greeted us once again tonight when we
returned to our stateroom. There was some sort of towel animal crouched on the foot of my bed,
but I was just too tired to try and figure out what it or he or she was.
We were up early on Day 8 -- before sunrise -- had a quickie breakfast (cup of coffee and a
pastry) in the Windjammer Café on Deck 11, and then headed up onto the open air part of the
Deck 12 at the bow of the ship. It looked like everybody onboard was up and all were vying for
positions to see up close what we had all come to see.
I didn’t fully realize until that morning just how strongly Deanna had felt about seeing the
Panama Canal. Oh, we had talked about it a lot before coming on this cruise and even after coming
aboard, but as the magical hour approached when we would start seeing it, I suddenly realized
that she too had been pursuing a life-long dream to be here.
At sunrise, two dreamers stood high up on the deck of a large and beautiful cruise ship and
waited in silence as we approached the narrowing entrance way to the Panama Canal. It seemed
almost surreal -- the low light, small patches of fog flirting with the waterway, a huge monster of
a ship quietly moving towards the barrage of lights and activity ahead of us, and all this wrapped
with an almost dead silence of voices and sounds amongst the onlookers and the ship.
To our rear, we could look back out into the Caribbean Sea and see dozens of ships with their
lights on at anchor -- all awaiting their turn to pass thorough one of the greatest engineering
marvels of our time.
Special Note to my dear friend Margaret: Margaret, this morning was one of those spiritual,
mystical moments in life when I felt like I had been on some sort of predestined path through
life that would on this day, at this very moment, allow me to see, feel, and experience something
that had been haunting me my entire life. It was just like when we were at Stonehenge in England
last year -- that feeling, that sensation of you're supposed to be there and that feeling where
you could almost hear the stones whisper, "Yes, we have been waiting on you," understand?
As we approached close to the actual locks ahead, the sides of the waterway had finally narrowed
down next to us and soon several tug boats and a pilot boat came to us -- the tugs to help
if needed to steer us into the right hand side of the locks and pilot boat to transfer the pilot who
would come aboard and command our ship on it journey through the canal.
The three sets of the Gatun Lake Locks spread out in front of us. There are actually a double set
of locks, side by side, with each set raising us up 27 feet at a time. At first, we were going to
following a cargo ship through the locks using the left side set of locks. Just as we got all set to
go that way, a HUGE lighted neon arrow mounted on the end of the dividing wall between the two
sets of locks started flashing and switched to pointing to the right side set of locks.
For a small craft, this last minute change might be of no consequence, but at 962 feet long, it
took the “Brilliance of The Seas” a few minutes to accept her new destination. With hardly any
perceptible sound or movement, we gently nudged over and lined up for our turn in the locks.
We were getting closer and closer to the locks and could make out the details of the lock gates
nd other structures quite clearly. Some gates are up to 84 feet tall and are so perfectly
balanced on their hinges that it takes very little power (two 25 hp motors) to move them. All
gates are 65 feet wide and close together forming a V shape facing upstream. This allows the
force of the water in the lock to constantly push against them and thereby assuring a tight and
secure seal for the lock they support.
From our vantage point high up on the ship, we seemed to be watching some sort of drama acting
out below us. The earlier quite voices of all those of us watching all this began to rise in
excitement and anticipation of what would happen next.
Then our gates opened and we moved, under our own power, into the first set of locks. With us
being 962 feet long and the lock itself right at 1000 feet long, there was very little room left
to spare. There are locomotive tracks on both sides of the canal locks and soon, two huge, very
powerful locomotives came up alongside even with our bow and our ship handlers and canal
handlers attached huge steel cables from the ship, both sides, to the sides of the locomotives on
either side of us.
These locomotives do not pull ships through the locks (any more) but rather, guide them --
keeping them lined up dead center in the canal locks themselves. Because of our size, we had two
more locomotives at the stern of our ship performing the same duty.
Quietly we slipped into the first lock and the gates behind us closed. From our vantage point,
we were WIDER than the canal lock itself. The locks are right at 110 feet wide and we are at a
normal maximum width, 105.6 feet wide, with some superstructure features on the upper decks
making us even wider. However, down at water level and upwards pass 27 feet, we are still less
than that 110-foot width restriction.
I know all the math works out but let me tell you something -- our cruise ship FILLED that lock
almost to the brim and for the life of me, I do not see how we got through all the locks without at
least scraping the sides just once! To an outside observer like those we saw standing outside the
chain-link fence and even to us onboard standing up on the 12th deck or hanging over the sides
and trying to look down, the first words out of everybody's mouth when they see a ship like ours
is, "It won't fit -- no way, no how!"
Fortunately, we did fit and it took us almost three hours to complete our journey up through the
three sets of locks with each one raising us up 27 feet at a time until we reach the level of Gatun
Lake itself. We could not feel anything as we rose in the locks because the movement is so
gradual. If you focused real hard on one point of reference off the ship as compared to a fixed
point on the ship, you could see us rise.
There are no pumps involved with the operation of the canal -- it works 100% by using gravity to
let water from Gatun Lake flow downhill so to speak and fill each succeeding lock on its way to
Here now in the first lock, we waited for them to release the water (drains out the bottom and
sides and comes down hill to fill our lock up). It takes almost 27 million gallons of water to fill
our lock from lowered level up 27 feet to raised level. Soon we could see huge, continuous gushes
of water pouring into our lock from beneath the water level. As the next lock ahead of us drained
down, the water level in our lock rose until it was at the same level in the next lock.
We had risen 27 feet from where we had started. As soon as the water level stabilized in both
locks, the gigantic gates ahead of us started to fold back away from us. When they were fully
retracted and locked into recessed sides of the concrete walls of the next lock, we simply
cruised into the next lock with the same locomotives guiding us straight down the middle of
Keep in mind that the track level for the locomotives is over 27 feet higher with each lock and
therefore, the transition at the ends of the lock from one level to the next is HUGE for a
locomotive and the hill they have to climb up over is VERY steep and short in distance.
No regular train locomotive could do this without some sort of help. Running down the center of
the tracks at these steep climb areas is a cog type rail system that allows a cog driven gear on
the locomotive to engage with the special track to provide the needed extra power to climb the
Before we knew it, the gates behind us were closed once again and the whole process started all
It was so simple -- mechanically -- but so overwhelmingly awesome when we thought about it long
enough. We watched all this in awe and at the same time, looked around at all the stuff going on
alongside the locks.
We could see people outside the barbed-wire topped chain link fence that secured the canal
from outsiders (human and animal) going about their daily lives in the Canal Zone. We started
seeing the first of what would look like before this day was over, every single school bus in the
world that had been discarded or sold to Panama for transportation.
Armed guards were visible at all times walking alongside our ship as it slowly made it way
forwards. There was lots of construction activity at places and we even saw permanent picnic
shelters complete with barbecue grills set up for the workers.
Finally after what seemed like the journey of a lifetime, we quietly slipped out of the last set of
locks and sailed into Gatun Lake and stopped. As we left the last set of locks, I turned around
and walked all the way back to the stern of our ship and looked at what was behind us.
The scene was fantastic. Ships in all stages of lock movement were behind us -- all eagerly
awaiting their release into the lake. Once here they too could then head for the Pacific and the
two sets of locks on that side -- the one-stage Pedro Miguel Locks first and then followed closely
by the two-stage Miraflores Locks. Between these two, they would be able to go back down the
same elevation that they had gained with the three-stage Gatun Locks.
In some ways, I felt sad standing there looking at all this because the trip through the locks --
an event I had dreamed about since I was a child -- was over. But when I turned around and saw
Gatun Lake before us, I realized that our journey was not over but had just moved on to another
stage and once again, I was filled with a sense of adventure and excitement.
By the way, this very short trip up to the Gatun Locks, through them, turn around and then go
back out again through the locks cost our ship about $300,000 in toll fees. And you thought you
had high toll road fees where you live!
All those passengers that had shore excursions like us, left the ship and tendered (by our own
special life boat/tenders) over to the docks near the lock entrances. Here, we got on a very nice
tour bus -- air conditioned, thank you -- and spent the next three hours crossing Panama and
eventually reaching the Pacific Ocean.
As we crossed the Isthmus of Panama -- only about 50 miles wide along the canal -- we began to
see the enormity of the task undertaken first by the French who failed because of
underestimating the difficulty of the dig plus the untold thousands that died of fevers etc. When
the United States got involved with the digging, we too suffered but thankfully, the causes of the
fevers -- Yellow Fever and Malaria -- were found and basically eradicated enough to allow us to
continue the project.
The French had planned on just digging their way straight through the mountainous and solid rock
continental divide that runs down through Panama. When the Americas arrived around 1904, the
genius of the engineers John Stevens and then George Goethals, along with Army Corp of
Engineers Major Gillard becoming involved in 1906, helped saved the day.
In 1906, Stevens strongly suggested to Congress and to President Teddy Roosevelt (a 100% die-
hard advocate of the canal) to NOT try and just dig it all out (continue excavating deep enough
to create a sea level canal between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans) but to dam up Gatun Lake
and use it as a water supply to feed a series of locks on both ends of the canal that are in place
Stevens had submitted his proposal based in part on preliminary ideas about a lake and lock type
canal system put forth by the French engineer Lepinay in 1897. The French administration in
charge of canal construction at the time promptly dismissed his ideas and kept on with their
grandiose idea to just dig straight through the continental divide and be done with it.
The lake and lock method, Stevens proposed, along with the continued excavation of the 8-mile
long Culebra Cut (renamed later to Gillard) that was already underway, would provide for a
workable way to achieve their goal. It could do this by eliminating the need for an additional
24 miles of the canal’s pathway to be excavated even deeper than the level in the cut they were
already close to -- about 40 feet above sea level.
To reach this depth (40 feet above sea level) and be 300 feet wide at the bottom (canal bottom)
as desired, the cut at the top had already approached 1500 feet wide. To dig deeper, 40 more
feet to sea level and then another 45 feel below sea level (to allow ships to use the canal), would
have been an almost impossible task.
This is because of the slope of the cut that had to be in place to prevent landslides into the canal
already dug. Even today, because of the 8-month rainy season, the “Gillard Cut” is plagued by
mud slides at times. To have dug down another almost 100 feet, would have significantly
increased the size (width) of the cut and amount of additional rock and soil to be excavated.
There were still some at the time, however, that thought Goethals and Gillard were dead wrong
and that a sea level canal was the best solution. It took a lot of political maneuvering back in
Washington to finally approve the plans presented to Teddy Roosevelt (and Congress) for an
excavation and series of lake fed locks solution.
With Steven’s plan finally approved (with Teddy’s strong backing), full scale work, especially
on the Gillard Cut, began in 1906 when Goethals and Gillard showed up to oversee the
construction of the Canal which open in 1914 and ahead of schedule because of the efficiencies
of construction that both of these men had put into place.
It just goes to show that some times the hardest task to perform can be done with the simplest
of solutions (lake-locks versus sea-level cut).
Panama at a distance is beautiful -- mountains, hills, swamps, JUNGLES, lush green tropical
growth, banana trees, flowering trees and shrubs, and an ocean on two sides. BUT, it rains eight
months out of the year -- HEAVY rains at times -- and everything seems to be covered in mold,
mildew, and just rotting away.
As our bus made its way through the lush jungles and then up and over the mountains, we began
to see a nation that seemed poverty stricken in so many ways. Oh, there is money and beautiful
buildings in lots of places, but the lower/middle class people, in general, seemed to be suffering
miserably (very high unemployment rate in lots of regions). It has been reported that half the
population in Panama falls below the poverty level.
Trash and infrastructure deterioration was rampant everywhere we looked. The major means of
mass transportation are thousands of old school buses. Most have been painted -- with bright
colors and symbols and slogans. Some were still just like they were when they obtained them
(from the states) -- you could see the names of what looked like local U.S. schools still painted
on the sides.
There were dozens and dozens of bus stops along the road we used to drive across Panama. The
road itself was in good condition, in fact being widened and repaved in several places. However,
most of the bus stops looked horrible -- dirty, fallen down, roofs rotted off, and trash
everywhere. What was sad was passing by one of these dilapidated bus stops and seeing a dozen
or so unsmiling people all waiting there and watching us -- the rich tourist -- go zooming past
them. We saw countless houses and business areas that were in sad shape to say the least.
As the miles slipped by, Deanna and I became overwhelmed by the obvious plight of some of
these people we saw who most likely have to struggle every day to just make ends meet. Oh, I
am sure if we had been guided by some government or tourism official, we would have been only
shown the rich houses, clean streets, nice cars, and smiling, happy people everywhere -- and -- no
We stopped along our tour at the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side and got to see the lock
operations up close from special viewing stands. Being able to stand there, on a second story
viewing platform, we had ring-side seats to see the canal and locks system close up and
Our guide was a native of Panama and was very fluent in its history and culture. Our only
complaint about him was the way he described how the U.S. got involved with the Canal and then
it’s eventual release back to the people of Panama.
He made it sound like we were this great imperialist, colonizing country to the north of them
and came down and TOOK the land from them by invasion and force, built the canal, and made
the land into the “Panama Canal Zone” and kicked them out and kept them out with the U.S.
Army and barbed-wired toped chain-link fences.
Then he describe how in the late 60s, a group of valiant and unarmed Panamanian students rose
up and forcibly demonstrated against the gun-toting U.S. Army (occupation forces by his
characterization) in Panama City where some students got shot and died. He went on to tell how
this heroic act by the down-trodden people of Panama MADE Jimmy Carter GIVE them back the
Canal Zone we had so fragrantly SEIZED from them.
I told him that while it was true that a demonstration did occur and students did die, his
passionate embellishment of the events and the history of the acquisition of the canal property
probably sounded great for foreign tourist but not to U.S. tourist.
I pointed out to him that I found it ironic that he FAILED to mention the fact that we did NOT
just forcefully seize the land from Panama, but rather, showed up in 1903 with GOLD bullion
over 40 million dollars worth) in hand to discuss the acquisition of the land to complete the canal
under U.S. leadership.
We did this after supporting and recognizing Panama’s breakaway and declaration of
independence for Colombia. With gold in hand, we BOUGHT out all of the French interest in the
land where they had been digging and even more land now under control/ownership of the newly
formed country of Panama. I reminded him that they eagerly sold all of this to us (with the
signing of the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty) and laughed all the way to the bank.
I told him that if anyone in this whole deal had a claim to be ticked off, it would be Colombia in
that we (the U.S.) helped Panama break away from them (even used the U.S. Battleship Nashville
sent by Teddy to prevent Colombian troops from landing in Panama to try and stop the
"independence movement") and that today the Canal belong Panama instead of Colombia.
He was not amused at my version of his story.
Panama City is beautiful from a distance. Up close -- mildew, poverty, and iron bars and barbed
wire on the first two floors of just about every building you see -- greeted us in all the parts of
the city that we drove past. The only major exceptions to this were the structures we passed that
were formerly part of U.S. Army facilities located there.
Don’t get me wrong, Panama City is a modern city by all accords, especially there in Central
America. SUVs, cell phone towers, dozens of new high rises going up all over the place but, its
undercurrent of hard times, crime, poverty, and mildew is there -- maybe hidden at times -- but
there none the less.
After driving though the city, we drove out over a very long causeway, the Amador Causeway,
which links the Naos, Perico and Flamenco Islands to the mainland. The primary function of the
causeway was to prevent silting of the Panama Canal as it leaves the mainland here and goes out
into the Pacific Ocean. It didn’t take developers long to realize the gold mine out here and all of
the property is now being highly developed for tourist ventures and other high-end facilities,
including a beautiful marina located out at the last island where we stopped and got to
Anyway, after seeing the Pacific Ocean and of course touring the gift shop there at land’s end,
we drove back through the city and headed for the Panama Canal Railway Station there at
Panama City. The next leg of our day-long tour was to take a special train all the way back to
Colon on the Atlantic side to catch our ship.
We must have been early (to catch the train) in our tour because we drove right past the train
station and then just started driving around in the side streets -- some on former U.S. Army
property and then though one huge and beautiful cemetery named Corozal American Cemetery.
We were told that this cemetery was built exclusively for the Americans and that you have to
be a United States citizen, even today, to be buried there. The cemetery is administered and
maintained by the United States American Battle Monuments Commission.
Finally our tour bus pulled up to the railway station just as a herd of other buses were pulling
off loaded down with tourist like us. The tour train makes one roundtrip a day between Colon
and Panama City. Our tour was across Panama first by bus and then back by train, while another
tour crossed Panama first by train and a bus back to Colon.
This train was a great ride -- very smooth in old, totally refurbished railways cars. The rail line
runs almost parallel to the canal (except in the middle where Gatun Lake itself becomes part of
the canal system). After getting onboard our railway car (each tour bus had its own car assigned
to them) and getting underway, we were served a “Railway Box” lunch that consisted of a huge
sandwich, and then all sorts of goodies like crackers, candy bars, and a box of raisins.
We ordered up a couple of beers and settled back in our very comfortable seats and munched on
our goodies and watched the lush green landscape slip by us. We even got to hear the ladies that
had waited on us earlier get together and sing us a song as we continued looking out of our very
From our vantage point, rails near the canal all the way back to Colon, we got to see a lot more of
the canal and its operation -- like all the miles of the rivers and lake regions of the canal.
It seemed strange at times to look out the window and look at what seemed like a normal, but
beautiful, countryside whizzing past when all of a sudden, a GIGANTIC ocean-going freighter
comes into view. It takes a second or two for your mind to say, “OK, yes this is real -- that
THING can be here -- relax!”
In this lake area, we saw lots of crocodiles hanging out in the shallows near the edges of the
waterways we passed. Panama also has a similar problem as we do in the southern part of the
United States with the Kudzu vine growing wild and taking over everything it touches.
Instead of the infamous Kudzu vine being brought in to help stabilize and control the erosion
along the railways lines and canal banks themselves when they were under construction, they
brought in an innocent looking tall grass from Vietnam. Wrong!
Oh, it worked -- worked well in fact. The only problem was/is Panama has a year long growing
season, it rains a LOT, and that coupled with lots of stiff breezes spread the grass seeds all
over Panama. It is EVERYWHERE.
As we approached Colon, we passed by one of the problems that some of the huge expanses of
the tall grass (can reach heights of 10 feet) can cause -- fires -- huge smoke choking fires that
can burn for days on end. We were in Panama during its short dry season and grass fires were
Soon we could get glimpses of our final destination -- Colon -- another very large city in Panama.
On the outskirts of Colon, there is a huge maintenance yard for railroad equipment -- cars,
railroad ties (concrete), and very long sections of the iron rails themselves. Because the rails
heat up and retain the heat during the day and the night, they are a haven for the local iguanas --
they LOVE to lie out on the rails and soak up the heat. We saw many of them as we sped pass
them and made our way into the city.
Colon -- where our ship sailed back to after leaving out of Gatun Lake, and back through the
Gatun Lock -- was 10 times filthier than Panama City. What can I say?
When we arrived at the train station, we had another surprise waiting on us. We had five railway
cars full of tired tourist. Each car represented one tour bus. Somewhere in their daily math
problem solving quiz, the tour company had come up with the answer that we only needed three
buses to gather us all up.
For a minute or two, it was a little chaotic. Our local, onboard tour guides finally managed to
convince the Tour Office to at least send over a few vans. With that, they broke up all of us old
Bus 4 and 5 passengers into tiny groups and stuffed us where ever there was an empty seat or
standing room. We lucked out and actually got to sit down in one of the three buses that were
there. We were both so glad we had not toured across Panama on this bus because frankly, it was
a piece of crap -- smaller seats, filthy windows, dirty and cramped, etc.
As soon as we left the train station and headed for our cruise ship, we realized that Colon as
absolutely awful. I would NOT have stepped off of that tour bus on a bet. The streets were
filthy, the business area and buildings, along with the housing areas were absolutely filthy --
trash everywhere, clogged drains, mildew on everything, deterioration showing on every structure
-- the list was endless.
When we passed by some of the housing areas and I could see small children playing out amongst
the utter filth, it made me sick to my stomach. In the downtown area, there were no traffic
lights -- you’re 100% on your on to make it safely through the crowded (people and cars)
intersections. The longer we rode through all this the more upset I became.
I do not think I have ever wished for a tour to be over and done with as I was wishing for on
this one. Deanna and I were ready, I mean ready to get the heck off that tour bus and to get
back onboard the “Brilliance of The Seas” -- our home.
Soon our final bus tour was over (oh, yes, seeing Colon out of dirty windows was part of the
tour) and we pulled up in front of the cruise terminal with our huge, beautiful home -- the
“Brilliance of The Seas” -- floating there safe and secure behind it. Lord, home never looked
We had to walk through the cruise terminal to get back onboard ship. We tried a short cut to
avoid the obviously long walk ahead of us through all the gift shops, but were told we could not
take our shortcut. Anyway, we made it back onboard -- without even looking at all the vendors
lined up inside the huge facilities. Deanna was hurting and all I could think about was getting
her off her feet so she could rest.
Back onboard, we quickly fell into our routine -- Deanna napped while I carried out my duties
up on the Pool Deck to verify at least one bucket of Coronas was up to its consistently high level
of excellence. Once again, I am pleased to report that all was well!
Nighttime once again found us dressing for dinner. When the Minstrel Dining Room on Deck 4
opens at 5:30 sharp, the doors swing open and it is a mad rush of people to get to their assigned
tables. We were lucky in that our table was fairly close to the entrance.
The only problem with this was since we got to get to our table quickly, the masses of people
behind us had further to go and it seemed like my chair was some sort of guidepost, hold-on-to
post, whatever. My chair was at the end of the table and on this main aisle into the dinning room.
I realized the first night that I could not sit down when we arrived because for the next ten
minutes or so, I was beat to death by all those that came in behind me and held onto my chair to
get past me.
So, from the next night onwards, I would help Deanna out of her wheelchair and get her seated
there at the table, fold up the wheelchair, park it near by, and then stand behind her chair and
watch the parade go by. Over 90% of the good people who came in after we did used my chair to
help them walk through the dinning room. I guess that since the high backed chair was turned so
that the back faced them as they entered the room, it looked like something made to order for
them to hold onto.
After dinner we did our usual with bars, sing-along piano bars, shopping, and ending with again
feeding contributions to the Royal Casino staff’s 401K Retirement Plan. We skipped going to the
Pacifica Theater this night and the next -- nothing sounded good to us plus we were just having
too much fun in the casino while so many people were at the shows we did not want to watch.
Deanna and I have fallen in love with the nickel and penny slots -- wherever they are. For 20
bucks, you can some times play for hours. Onboard the “Brilliance of The Seas”, they had some
great penny and nickel slots.
My favorite this year was "Texas Tea" -- played it for hours on end. Deanna had her favorites
so as soon as we could, we’d stake out our favorite machines and once they were free -- they were
ours for the next couple of hours. We’d order up a round or two of Coco Locos, sit back, hit the
spin button, and watch the action.
We did fairly well on this trip -- usually cashing out at night with what we had put in and some
nights, we were just a bit ahead. You can not beat say putting 20 bucks into a slot machine,
playing it for two hours -- and enjoying all the sight and sound actions that go on with these
5-reel type slot machines -- and then cash out what you put it.
That’s almost like the Casino paying us to play! As my daughter Ashley would cheerfully sing,
“Oh, yeah, oh yeah, we be partying!”
Not too long after sunrise on a beautiful Tuesday morning, Day 9 of our journey, we approached
the outer harbor entrance areas to Cartagena off the coast of Colombia. We could see way off
in the distance, what appeared to be tall, mostly white structures like the high rise condos we had
seen in Panama City. They were the evidence of a growing Cartagena -- a city being fueled by
lots of money -- both from tourist dollars to I strongly suspect, money related to drugs in one
way or another.
The channel we started in looked very muddy but it was not too long after that, with the city
still miles away from us and behind a small mountain range right at the coast, the water started
to clear up and we could see signs of civilization all around us.
On our left was the remains of a huge Spanish fort built hundreds of years ago to protect this
approach to the city. Soon we could see two vessels approaching our ship -- one the pilot boat
with the pilot who would come onboard our ship and guide us safely to the cruise terminal and
the other, the National Police.
The police came out to greet us with a half-sized cigarette-type speed boat, painted military
sea grey, and equipped with blue lights and a police officer standing up on the outside of the
cabin. He was holding on to the boat with one arm while his other hand firmly clutched and held
a large automatic weapon tightly against his chest.
They went down past us, turned in behind us and checked up the starboard side (right side when
going forwards) and then came back around to the port side and stayed right with us off our
port beam (center of ship) as we sailed into the inner portion of the harbor area.
As we got closer to the city itself, we could see how spread out it was -- from the mountains
behind it and right down and out to the ocean on the newest area, Bocagrande, being developed
with fresh money -- lots of money -- to cater to the new generation of visitors and residents
that have money.
Cartagena is an old European colonial type city, from an architectural point of view, and from
where we were out in the harbor, it looked like the old and the new blended together
When we were about one mile from the dock area we were headed for -- we could see huge ship
container cranes, stacks of containers, other ships tied up, etc. -- we were approached by a wave
runner carrying two men at a very rate of speed. This was not good.
They came charging towards us on the port side and zoomed past the police boat and then made a
hard fast turn to come behind us and then to come back up alongside our starboard side. I had
gone down to Deck 5 earlier so that I could go out on the deck there -- the most forward (right
over the bow) of decks we were allowed to go out on -- to take some pictures of our arrival from
that point of view.
Needless to say, this fast approaching wave runner GOT the attention of the officers up on our
bridge. I turned around and looked back up at the bridge and I could see them scurrying about
and talking on hand-held devices while the police boat started speeding up to go up past our bow
and possibly come back on the starboard side and meet the wave runner head on.
Just as the police boat reached the bow of our ship, the wave runner had turned sharply to its
left and shot over the bulbous bow part of our ship that is just beneath the water and extends
outwards maybe 30 feet. The design is two fold -- contains specialized sonar gear and also, it
helps to break the water to reduce the normal huge bow wave a vessel this size would normally
Because this huge device is running just under the water, it sort of creates it own unique bow
wave and the men on the wave runner used it to make to make the wave runner jump through the
air like it had jumped over a ramp or across a huge boat wake. Think of the letter "C" with the
top of the C being the leading edge of the bow we were standing on and the lower part of the C
that curves back towards the right as the underwater bow structure that I described.
These were crazy people -- speeding within two feet of a 1000 foot long vessel that weights over
90,000 tons. When their bow jump was over, they sped off towards the docks furthest away
from us with the police boat now in high speed pursuit.
The police boat had gone full throttle to go after them -- blue lights flashing and creating a huge
power wake behind them as they roared off. They caught them about a mile a way and the person
standing next to me with binoculars said the police had the boat pulled over, both riders pulled
off the wave runner and replaced with one policeman that then headed the waver runner towards
the docks with the police boat (and wave riders onboard) right behind it.
We never saw or heard another thing about this. This scared me somewhat in the fact that it took
the police boat so long to even come close to them -- especially during the entire time the wave
runner was circling our ship. If the men on the wave runner were to have had bad intentions
towards us, they would have had more than enough time and opportunity to have crashed their
boat into ours. Properly outfitted with the right explosive devices, a boat the size of this wave
runner could have caused major damage to our ship.
Soon the drama was over and folks all out on the decks watching all this turned their attention to
where we were getting ready to tie up. Tied up on the other side of the long pier assigned to us
was an old friend of ours. I could not believe my eyes -- it was the Maasdam, the Holland
American Cruise Line ship that Deanna and I had taken two years early on the
“Southern Caribbean” cruise we dubbed, “The Cruise from Hell.” Maasdam broke down at
Barbados, and we limped home to Norfolk, VA on one propulsion system (screw) going 5 knots,
and missing two ports-of-calls.
Anyway, we were docked soon at Cartagena and the buses/cabs by the hundreds it seemed,
started swarming down from the cruise terminal area to our gangway to pick all those on our ship
who had signed up for shore excursions. We had already been told to NOT walk through the dock
area over to the terminal (or to any other place) -- it was not safe.
We had decided days ago that we were not going to even leave the ship in Cartagena -- we had
heard too much about the crime and poverty you would have to put up with. All those that we
talked to later on our ship that went on tours in the city all complained about how bad it was --
besieged by pushy, desperate peddlers whenever they got off tour buses, etc. It scared them and
made them feel very uncomfortable.
I talked to one couple (partners) the next day that said they had tried to walk into town to see
all the colonial architecture that they had read so much about. One of the guys said that no
sooner had they come out of the cruise terminal area and started down the road into town than
they knew they had made a mistake. The other guy said all these "not so nice or friendly looking
people" started following them with some even coming up and grabbing their sleeves while the
others tried to frantically sell them something or get them to look at some tourist/tour pamphlet.
After about a mile of this and fed up with the condition of the streets they were trying to walk
on, they finally saw a cab and got it to stop. They told the driver to please take them back to the
ship, right away. Then they said, they sat there and argued with the driver about this because he
was dead set on taking them on HIS tour of Cartagena. Just when they reached for the door
handles, he relented and drove them back to the ship.
When they got out of the cab and one of them reached for his wallet to pay for the fare is when
he realized that he had been robbed (pickpocket wise) when they had been so harassed and
jostled by the people on the streets. Let's just say his day was not good at this point, especially
when the next thing to do was to try and get back onboard our ship with NO SeaPass or any other
forms of identification with him. His partner went up to their room, got the other man's passport
and with that in hand, his partner's task of getting back on went smoothly.
It was hearing scary stuff like this that convinced us that we had made the right decision to stay
onboard. I am sure that others may have encountered situations like this while at the same time,
others never saw anything like this and thought that Cartagena was the most romantic, beautiful
place they have ever visited.
Again, we were SO glad we had decided forego all of the drama that we had anticipated and had
confirmed later and had decided instead, to just sit up on the Pool Deck, sip Coco Locos and watch
the giant cranes off load containers from the huge container ships tied up near us.
The activity level there in the port was non-stop -- ships in, ships out (Maasdam left at noon) and
replaced with an old 18/19 century type sailing ship. What was strange about this was how the
ship was helped into position to ease up to the docks and tie up. The ship was turning, bow away
from us, so that it could swing around and tie up along the dock wall that ran between the long
piers that extended outwards from it.
At first, we thought that the man at the helm of the sailing ship really knew his stuff and was
making this docking procedure look so easy and professionally done. Then we finally saw his
secret weapon. On the port side of the sailing ship and back at the stern, was a 18-foot pleasure
craft type boat nosed up at a 90-degree angle to the side of the sailing ship. It was secured to
the sailing ship by a man standing up on the bow of the small craft holding onto a rope someone on
the sailing ship had passed over to him out of a porthole above his head.
Ingenuity always fascinates me -- no matter where in the world I see it. Anyway, in addition to
this small side drama, the huge cargo/ship container cranes around us never stopped moving and
the port continued on with its own rhythm as if being directed by someone high up in one of those
very same tall cranes.
We watched one of the smaller container cranes (large crane device mounted on the front of a
vehicle that looked like a front-end loader on steroids) come over to a stack (never higher than
5) of the half-length (20 foot) containers stored near us. We watched him carefully take the top
container off (doing this almost blindly because the stack is so high) and gently setting it on the
ground next to him.
He then proceeded to take the next three containers off and stacked them back up the one he
had already moved. Then he grabbed the last one, lifted it up and a special truck came zooming in
under it and the crane lowered the container down onto the special trailer.
That's when the fun started.
Someone came running over to the crane operator and told him something that he did NOT want
to hear -- that he had the wrong container loaded on the truck. Even from where we were, it was
obvious he was ticked off. What made it even worst was the fact that the container he really
needed was the FIRST (top) one that he had so carefully moved aside.
Now he had to rebuild the original stack back up and when he got back to the first one he had
taken off, he picked it up and almost dropped it on the truck -- he was so mad. The truck shook
violently but the container stayed in place and the truck zoomed off.
As I watched all this, I couldn't help but smile and hear Robert Preston in the 1962 movie
musical "The Music Man" singing so expressively, "Ya Got Trouble", "Trouble in River City".
Yes, there was trouble here today -- and people tried to tell us that staying onboard ship would
be dull! Next to the wave runner incident just a few hours earlier, this was the best live action
drama I'd seen in months. Bring it ON!
Again, from a distance, the city is beautiful -- especially those areas that still have all the
1800s/early 1900s European colonial architectural buildings. But the crime and poverty level
there was just not what we wanted to see and/or experience. We had seen enough of that in
Colon and Panama City the day before.
I have no regrets for consuming significant amounts of adult beverages this day in port while I
surveyed all that which was going on all around us. From my vantage point up high on our ship, I
soon became familiar with the rounds of the police with their drug sniffing dogs near our gangway
area, to the police sitting in unmarked cars at several strategic places along the waterfront area,
which group of longshoremen took the most breaks, to how often cabs left the cruise terminal
(about a quarter a mile from our ship) to make roundtrips to our ship to drop off tired
do-it-yourself tour passengers.
I even began to recognize ship containers by name that we stacked by the thousands out in the
huge storage yards around the docks. I could do this not because I could read the letters/
markings at great distances, but because of having seen them up close by on ships tied up near us.
I realized that they could be identified by their unique colors, grouping of letters, logos, etc., so
that even at great distances, the pattern of these things was still discernable even though not in
Nightfall was settling down all around us as we left our last port of call. As with all previous
nights, we practiced our tried and true formula of dinner, great conversations with our Canadian
dinner companions, shows, and a visit to the Royal Casino before bed time.
I laid there in bed that night and saw the cruise up to that point playing over and over in my
mind. I knew we were very near the end of our journey, and in many ways, I was glad -- I was
ready to go home. I knew this feeling of gladness was not quite right -- I ought to be feeling
SAD because I was not ready to go home but instead, wanted to see more, do more, and just
experience every single moment of the time we had left on our cruise.
Then I figured out why I was happy with the thoughts of going home. I realized that most
likely, that I (even at age 65) was just plain homesick and wanted to go home -- no different
than I was as a child 60 years earlier when I went off to some relative's house for a week's
visit and was ready to come home the very next day.
Home -- as I have learned in life -- is one of the most powerful things, forces, or spiritual
feelings, longings, or mystical sensations that man comes in contact with during his lifetime. We
all seem to wander our entire life with the thoughts of "home" always in the back of our minds.
For some, it is real place and time, to others, it is nothing now but a memory, and to still others, a
return to God. No matter what -- it is still just home.
Our journey to see the Eight Wonder of The World was coming to a close. We sailed out of
Cartagena, Columbia on a warm and beautiful Tuesday night and set our course towards the
Windward Passage that goes between Cuba and Haiti and then swinging northwest towards Miami.
We would spend all of Tuesday night and the next two days and nights at sea before reaching
Miami early Friday morning. We were already looking forwards to no port calls and just
steaming away. These were great days to just totally kick back and enjoy things -- like for me,
a couple buckets of Coronas every day while I sorted out all the problems in the world in
We made the most of our next two days at sea. We spent lots of time on Deck 11, the Pool Deck,
either around the pool itself or inside the Solarium with our padded lounge chairs turned
around so we could just gaze out onto the beautiful Caribbean Sea. We talked, napped, sipped a
few cool ones, and just drifted along with the ship as it made its way back to Miami.
As we sailed through the Windward Passage on Wednesday afternoon, we saw lots of boat traffic
-- from cruise ships, to all sizes of cargo/container ships, and down to 20-foot long fishing boats.
One time, we passed a tiny, and I mean tiny island that had a very tall light house on it. It just
seemed so lonely out there all by itself -- there was no other land anywhere near it.
The people in the very small fishing boats must have really loved it to be so far from land and be
bobbing, rocking, and rolling in the rough waters that we passed through. Not me -- I'll take
Deck 11 and a Coco Loco in my sipping hand on my cruise ship any day of the week.
Nighttime on these last two nights provided the final opportunities for us to enjoy our time-
honored practice of enjoying dinner, a show, and fun in the casino. On Wednesday night, we were
treated to the comic genius of Yakov Smirnoff. We have seen him before on some of our cruises
and he is still just as funny now as he was then. He keeps his performances current, that is, he
talks about stuff going on in the world right now -- not just standing up there and telling jokes
that they had done 20 years ago.
Friday morning found us tied securely to the docks in Miami before sunrise. We had completed
our task the night before of packing all our baggage and placing it outside our stateroom door
by midnight. After a quick shower and getting dressed, we gathered up our few remaining
possessions, placed then in our carry-on luggage and headed for breakfast one more time up in
the Windjammer café on Deck 11.
We had thoroughly enjoyed the Windjammer café on this cruise. I would wheel Deanna in there,
locate us a good seat somewhere we could look out over the sea, and then go fix a breakfast plate
for her and get the coffee and juices we both wanted. Then I would go fix me a plate and
together, we would enjoy a long leisurely breakfast as we discussed our game plans for the day.
After our last breakfast onboard, we went down to the Pacifica Theater on Deck 5 to wait on
our call for departure.
Soon they called our group (by color codes that matched the color of our departing baggage
claim tickets) and we were off the “Brilliance of The Seas” for the last time in no time at all.
With mixed emotions, we inserted our SeaPass cards into the badge readers for the last time and
then headed down the huge, winding gangway towards dry land and U.S. Customs.
We zipped through customs and then through baggage claim where we turned over our baggage to
the airlines and then hopped on the bus headed for the Fort Lauderdale Airport. We had signed
up for a new airline service that allowed us once we had claimed our baggage in customs, they (the
airline) took over and it was nice not to have to fool with the baggage any more. Hopefully, if all
worked as planned, we would next see our baggage in the baggage claim area in Atlanta Airport.
There was just one small problem with getting off the ship so early and arriving at the airport
so early. Our flight was not until 2:55 (eventually delayed until 4 PM) so we had LOTS of time
So, from about 9:45 AM until 4 PM when we finally got onboard our delayed plane (complete
with gate changes) we tried to amuse ourselves to pass the time away. Nothing really worked so
we just sat there, watched the stupid TV monitors overhead and prayed that Air Tran was not
going to let us down and actually cancel our flight.
Fortunes were with us because we finally left and the flight home was totally uneventful. Our
final surprise (reward) of our trip came when we reached the baggage claim area and saw that
our bags were right there -- ready to be plucked off the moving conveyor belt. 30 minutes later
we had returned back to the car park, loaded up my Suburban, and was headed for the barn --
home, REAL Home Sweet Home.
Deanna had fallen in our driveway the night before we left on our fantastic cruise -- slipped on
a tiny ice patch getting out of her car -- and had severely injured her tail bone. To say that she
endured the pain on the trip is an understatement. God, I do not understand how she did it. She
is still hurting of course but she is a trooper and will NOT let anything get her down.
All in all (discounting some weird rash I brought home), it was a wonderful, beautiful, fantastic,
and rewarding 12-day cruise. After seeing and experiencing all that we did in some places like
Panama, we once again became acutely aware of just how fortunate we were and what a fantastic
country we have to not only be proud citizens of but also an overwhelmingly wonderful place to
A lifetime dream shared by both Deanna and I since childhood had been filled -- our journey