Tuesday, March 23, 2010


It was a cold, snowy winter in Chicago, and we were longing for warmer weather. We left Chicago on March 4th, the warmest day of the year to that point (45F), and flew to Miami where people was complaining about the 60 degree cold. That day, the cruise line, Royal Caribbean sent us an email warning us about the hundreds of people on the cruise before ours who had fallen ill from a stomach virus. Our March 5th cruise would be delayed several hours to allow a cleaning crew to scrub down the entire ship.


The ship, the Jewel of the Seas, is huge, accommodating about 4,000 people including crew members. So we're not talking about bringing in a few cleaning ladies or a maid service. Once we got on the ship we found disinfectant spritzers all over the ship with signs directing us to clean our hands at every turn. The captain issued a notice that he would not shake hands with anyone. A fist bump will work just as well.

We embarked from Miami and had a wonderful 10 day cruise. We've learned from past experiences that we have to make our own fun. For example, we went to dinner on the first evening and were placed at a table for 8 with all our friends--actually nobody was assigned to sit with us. We get no respect. So we set out to assemble our own group.

Well, the night before the cruise, in our hotel, as we were sitting at the bar, an English couple from Manchester sat down near us. We started talking to them. We had some time on our hands and learned everything about them. Angela and Paul operate an entertainment business catering to parties and corporate events, providing things like chocolate fountains and giant inflatable castles and slides. On the ship, they were also seated by themselves and expressed a desire to sit with us for the rest of the cruise. Angela is a gorgeous blonde with a friendly, warm and outgoing personality. Paul is just a great guy--the type you'd want as your best friend.

The next morning, we sat in the hotel lobby next to an older couple, Dave and Carol from Phoenix. Dave is a rare breed, a nuclear physicist with a sense of humor. If World War III breaks out, I want Dave on my side. Dave has a gift for imitating voices and accents, and kept us amused for the entire cruise. For their first dinner on the ship, they were seated with a Norwegian couple and two Swedish couples who did not speak English. They begged for mercy and wound up at our reconstituted table.

Our new tablemates included Ernie and Fran from Long Island. Ernie, a retired union official, is the President of the local community college. Ernie and Dave discovered that are both Italian (they talk with their hands) and became fast friends, swapping stories and jokes. They signed up together for a boat ride through the entire Panama Canal. Also seated at our table were two witty and intelligent sisters, Christine, an insurance adjuster and Cathy, a retired teacher, both from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We had a terrific time with our table mates who became our family for the cruise.

The itinerary of the cruise was Labadee, Haiti; Cartagena, Colombia; Colon, Panama; Puerto Limon, Costa Rica; and Key West Florida, which substituted at the last moment for Grand Cayman.


Prior to the cruise, there was some concern about whether the ship would actually go to Haiti. The honchos at Royal Caribbean ultimately decided that the 2000 or so passengers landing there would be beneficial to the Haitian economy. We didn't get to view the devastation of Port au Prince. Labadee is 3 hours away on the North coast, about 30 miles from Cap Haitien, the second largest city in the country. We didn't go there, either.

The cruise line leases a private resort on a small peninsula which they've spent $55 million to develop boat docks, water slides, beaches and other facilities. This area is separated from the rest of Haiti by mountains. The cruise line served us a buffet lunch in tents onshore with barbecued chicken and pork ribs. The cruise line donates a portion of all tourist income to Haitian relief efforts.

Just outside is a native village with a straw market of numerous small stands selling native handicrafts as well as t-shirts, hats and beachware. The shop owners are very aggressive at promoting their merchandise. Shopping is an adventure there. This is not the American way of looking at the price tag and paying that price. I suppose some people do, but realistically, the shopkeepers will quote a price and you schlock them down from there. There's not a lot of give on manufactured items like t-shirts. They might start at $12 and go down to $8 but no more.

We took a boat ride along the coast. Haitian fishermen eked out a living in the small wooden boats with makeshift sails, as they fished for their next meal. These folks are virtually self-sufficient and can essentially live without money. Those who do make money can survive on perhaps a dollar a day.


Several years ago, we were scheduled to visit Cartagena, but it was deemed too dangerous. Colombia has settled down somewhat since then. We toured this modern port city of 1 million, the major port in the country. Colombia was settled in the 16th Century by the Spaniards who built plantations and imported 10,000 slaves each year from Africa to work them. Cartagena itself was founded in 1533 by Spanish nobleman Don Pedro de Heredia whose statue is on the main square. Heredia, who killed 3 men in Spain before coming to the New World, was notable for his extraordinary cruelty to slaves, Indians and non-believers. Under Heredia, Cartagena became the main slave trading center of the Americas. He continued to be controversial--he was arrested several times by Spanish authorities for various malfeasance and lining his own pockets. He eventually died in s shipwreck when he was being transported to prison in Spain.

In the following century, San Pedro Claver (1580-1654), a Jesuit priest emerged as the moral force of the country by his actions on behalf of the slaves. Claver declared himself, "a slave of the slaves". He would venture into the infested holds of the slave ships and give food and medicine to the miserable passengers. He visited the country plantations, declining the owners' hospitality, lodging instead in the slave quarters.

At that time, in Colombia, if a slave was unable to work by virtue of age or disability, he was usually killed by the Spaniards. Claver went to the authorities and offered to purchase and take care of those slaves. As a man of his time, he did not go so far as to advocate the abolition of slavery, and he in fact owned several whom he used as interpreters of the African languages. He treated them well. He was canonized because he baptized 300,000 African souls. We were privileged to visit Claver's beautiful house which contained many artifacts of the period.

The riches in gold and emeralds in the interior of the country flowed through Cartagena to be shipped to Spain. That fact made the city attractive to plunderers and pirates, and the city was besieged 5 times in the 16th Century. The most famous of those was the Englishman, Sir Francis Drake, who accepted a 10 million peso ransom to not burn the city. Spain fortified the city with several forts. The largest was the commanding presence of San Felipe de Barajas, built in 1657 on the
highest ground in the city. Although it was destroyed by the French in 1697, it was rebuilt as it stands today.

We also toured the museum of the Spanish Inquisition which was in force in the New World as well as the Old. This gruesome museum featured many unusual devices which were used to kill or torture heretics. And we're concerned about waterboarding!

Cartagena is famous for its green emeralds from the nearby mines. Our tour took us to the downtown area where several jewelry stores competed to sell emeralds, both loose and in settings. You can buy a large rough emerald for about $20, but you'd have to bring it home and have it cut. The advantage in buying rough stones is that you can bring them into the U.S. without paying a tariff. Street vendors operated stands in front of the jewelry stores, selling t-shirts, soccer shirts, and other souvenirs. For relief from the hot and muggy weather one can stop for a cool Aquila Beer, served all over town.


The next day we sailed to Colon, Panama, on the Western (Caribbean) side of the country. Panama is shaped in such a way that the sun rises over the Pacific Ocean and sets over the Atlantic. Thus, the Atlantic is in the West, and the Pacific is in the East, the opposite of what most Americans would expect.

Colon was founded relatively recently, in the 1800's when the railroad was built to accommodate the rush of people attempting to travel to California for the Gold Rush. The railroad is very busy today, shipping containers across the isthmus to ships on the opposite side. The Panama Canal is not wide enough for many huge container ships although a new, wider canal is now under construction nearby with a projected completion date in 2014.

Our cruise ship did not enter the Canal, but we're been through the canal on a previous cruise. The toll for a large ship like ours traversing the Canal can exceed $300,000. It was not clear whether they use something akin to an I-Pass or whether credit cards are accepted.

We visited the Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side and watched as two large ships passed each other. The ships are so large that they have literally two or three inches of clearance on each side. Going through the Canal is a tedious experience--like threading a needle. The ship must stop in the locks while the gates open or close and the water moves from one chamber to the other. On each side locomotives called "mules" pull the ship through, keeping it on the straight and narrow. It takes 8 hours for the ship to sail the 50 or so miles from one end of the Canal to the other. Essentially, the locks raise the Canal about 85 feet in the middle and lower it again at the other end. Being from Chicago, I've sailed through the Chicago River locks into Lake Michigan many times. The Panama Canal works the same way, but on a larger scale.

The U.S. built the Canal in 1914 and operated it until December 31, 1999 (get out before Y2K!), when they turned it over to the Panamanians, by the terms of the 1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaties. Carter's gift to the Panamanians came with a requirement that canal workers be paid wages similar to union scale in the U.S. (i.e. subject to minimum and prevailing wage provisions established by the U.S. Department of Labor). The effect is that in an impoverished country, the 10,000+ canal workers constitute an elite class of workers earning several times more than non-canal workers. My Chicago experience would indicate that to get such a job would entail considerable political clout. In any event, the Canal is operated under contract by Hutchison Whampoa, Ltd, based in Hong Kong, with close ties to the Chinese government, a fact that alarms many U.S. defense experts.

We drove through the former Canal Zone where many of the U.S. built buildings have been converted to apartments and condominiums. We stopped at the Melia Hotel, a luxury hotel where many dignitaries stay. It has a beautiful lobby and pool, and even s small casino. The ubiquitous Balboa Beer signs were in the bar and all over the country. Several of us had a brew in the hotel bar.

We went on a pontoon boat through Gatun Lake on the edge of the rainforest (formerly, the jungle), to watch the monkeys in their natural habitat. Gatun Lake is a manmade lake created by a dam when the Canal was built. Much of the lowlands were flooded, but the wildlife fled to the high country which became islands and the banks of the lake. Cruising along we were able to observe howler monkeys traveling from treetop to treetop munching on fresh leaves. Some locals were fishing for their dinners on the lake. It was a very peaceful scene. Panama gets a lot of rain, but fortunately for us, March is the dry season.


On arrival in Costa Rica, we signed on to zipline through the jungle. Costa Rica, a democratic country, does much to promote eco-tourism. Much is the country is rainforest (jungle). The authorities have constructed cables, aerial trams and train tours through the jungle. They drove us and two other couples in a van for an hour deep into the National Park. Playing over and over in my mind was the old song, Stranded in the Jungle, by the Cadets.

Before our trip, I had never heard of ziplining. Now I know. When ziplining, you're sitting in a flimsy harness, wearing a helmet, legs dangling, attached to two pulleys on a cable which stretches for as much as 300 feet through the treetops. You jump off a small wooden platform on a mahogany tree and careen through the trees to the next platform. If you chicken out, they won't send a rescue party to get you; you're 150 feet above the ground. Failure is not an option. George of the Jungle would have been proud. You're going about 40 miles per hour, so you probably want to steer clear of the trees--I brushed several small branches.

The only physical requirement was that you had to weigh less than 265 pounds, so we qualified. By the second jump, I gave my best Tarzan yell. Dianne told me to shut up; I was scaring away the animals. I got a picture of Dianne in action, but she wouldn't take mine because she was busy hugging the tree from the platform. On one 300 foot jump, I braked and didn't quite get to the next platform. The instructor couldn't reach me. So there I was, 150 feet above the jungle floor, upside down, about 15 feet short of the platform. The proper procedure I was required to do was turn around backwards and pull myself hand over hand, a foot at a time up to the platform. I have a bad left shoulder (rotator cuff), and that was very painful, but once again, in that situation, failure was not an option.

After 9 jumps, we got back to the main camp and relief. Fortunately we didn't see any poisonous snakes or jaguars, but the ants were huge--at least an inch long. We didn't want to disturb them. An hour later we were back in Puerto Limon, past the McDonalds and the Imperial Beer signs to the ship for our next adventure.


We encountered some rough seas in the Cayman Islands, and the ship was unable to dock at Grand Cayman. Instead the decision was made to sail on to Key West, Florida. Dianne and I were happy with that because Key West is one of our favorite cities. I couldn't wait for a coconut milk shake which is served at the several key lime factories in town. Key West is the Southernmost point in the continental United States, 90 miles from Cuba. Cuba might as well be on another planet however, because you can't go there.

Key West is known as a party town, exemplified by Jimmy Buffett music. We stopped at Margaritaville for a cheeseburger in paradise. I'm not really a Buffett fan (except for maybe financier Warren Buffett), but that cheeseburger was the best I've ever tasted.

Key West was the home of author Ernest Hemingway who was known to enjoy a drink or two at his favorite saloons like Hog's Breath or Sloppy Joes, both still popular attractions. It was also the vacation home of former president Harry Truman whom I've always admired because he was a regular guy who was thrust into the presidency and made common sense decisions which history proved to be right.


Onboard the ship, the Cruise Director runs a progressive trivia contest. We always like to enter those to liven up the day. We gathered a team of six people--Phyllis and Jerry from Carlisle, PA, and two ladies from Toronto, Marian and Orshi. Marian immigrated from India and Orshi immigrated from Hungary. The team worked well because we all had different areas of expertise.

In each session, they asked 20 questions and at the end of the session we could risk our entire score or some portion thereof on one final question in an effort to increase the score. The first day we were close to the lead and risked our entire score on a movie question. I'm not an expert on that but another team member was.
It was Academy Awards night and the question was "how many Oscars were the most won by any movie in any year?" We guessed 13, but the correct answer, as we learned two days later, was 11 (Titanic, Ben Hur, and Lord of the Rings).

So we started over the next time. The bonus question the next time was, "What was the most visited residence in the U.S. in 2009?" Some people thought it was the White House, others thought it was Neverland, Michael Jackson's house. We correctly answered Graceland, and found ourselves far ahead of everyone else by the last day.

One question asked was "Which city was the first to install a traffic light (around 1920)?" I said "Cleveland", and Dianne angrily said, "Stop trying to be funny!" Actually it was Cleveland suburb, Euclid, Ohio, but Cleveland was accepted as the correct answer.

Another question, "Who did the NY Yankees trade for Babe Ruth?" That was a trick question because the Yankees paid Red Sox owner Harry Frazee cash (but no players) allegedly so he could produce a Broadway play.

On the last day of the contest, the bonus question was, "What city has the oldest underground subway?" We correctly answered "London" and were declared the winners. The Cruise Director brought out a bottle of Korbel champagne with 6 glasses along with the expected caps and keychains.