Archive | November, 2009
November 19, 2009

THE PANAMA CANAL — UNLEASHING NEW POTENTIAL

Dundee and I were up at 4:30AM to make sure we caught it all.  It’s part of the adventure, seeing every moment of it, and we wanted to be sure we didn’t miss a thing.  We were the first on-deck, stars still twinkling overhead, to watch the pilot boat offload the 22 pilots to navigate our ship safely through the Panama Canal.

We’d done our homework, and knew the best seat in the house was at the bow, front & center, so we took our post and settled in, searching for planets & constellations to pass the time.  In the darkness, the channel path came into view, green and red buoys marking the runway-like path through the water.  We slowly set course, taking our place in line among cargo ships from points all around the globe.  Gliding beneath the Bridge of the Americas just as the sun’s glow warmed the morning sky, Dundee excitedly narrated each moment, recalling everything he’d read and studied in preparation for this day.   He got it; the connections were firing at full force, and as teacher/mom, I was simply ecstatic.

We were soon joined at the bow by another gentleman, also a bit giddy for the day.  Turns out he’d been through the canal before . . . some 57 years ago as a young naval officer.  He could recall every moment, and relived it with us – play by play – as we made our journey.  History, technology, ingenuity, and American culture all rolled into one early morning:  it couldn’t have been more perfect.

Entering Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

Entering Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

Everything about the experience fascinated and amazed us.  Lining up for the first locks, a tiny 2-man row boat meeting us to grab our line and deliver it to the locomotive guide into the lock, watching the gates close, the waters fill, then feel the lift as we moved into position for the next step…then doing it again.  Sacagawea watched the first locks from our cabin, and eagerly joined us on deck to report how she’d watch the lock walls overtake our windows, then watched as we lifted above it and were delivered back to open waters.

A canal passage is an all-day affair:  three sets of locks connected by river-like waterways amidst the jungles of Panama.  We made sure to see it all — the lock operations from the bow, then quickly running to the stern to catch the locks closing behind us and the next ships moving into position; the locomotive operations along side the ship, guiding us along the narrow passage and keeping us in position; the natural beauty of the waterway jungles, islands and habitat.

A message home

A message home

In the educational world, they call it a “teachable moment.”  For us, it’s way more than that.  These are experiences shaping a lifetime – moments that will forever loom in their collective memories – shaping their understanding of the world around them, kindling the notions of what’s possible, and igniting a passion of potential.   As we recalled the best moments of the day over dinner, Dundee started talking about where our next adventures might take us…maybe Africa, or deeper into South America he suggested.  When Sacagawea suggested he slow down, and simply enjoy this adventure, he quickly countered.  “I’m seeing places I never thought I’d get to see.  That means I can do even more, go even further, do things I never knew I’d get to do.”

Yep.  It’s working.

November 17, 2009

JUNGLES OF PANAMA

Embera Village on the Chagres River

Embera Village on the Chagres River

The air is thick and steamy, sometimes making it hard to know whether it’s actually raining, or just feels like it should be.  There’s an air of adventure – steamy jungles, renegades and buccaneers, a melting pot of cultures and history – all crammed into this tiny sliver of Central America.

Tilapia & plantains in a leaf cone for lunch

Tilapia & plantains in a leaf cone for lunch

For us, it’s a day of tribal tradition.  Leaving the chaos of Panama City, we headed into the jungle to the Chagres River and the Embera Indians.  Gravel roads turn to mud tracks as we weaved and bobbed among the potholes, wild dogs and local children.  Crossing a riverbed in the pouring rain, I warily noted that our “bridge” seemed lost to the flowing waters.  Recalling the fine line between adventure and stupid, I fleetingly wondered if  we’d just crossed it.IMG_0799

Two tribesmen and their dugout canoe were waiting for us along the banks of the river.  The Emberas are an indigenous tribe still living in the jungles along the river, opting to continue their traditional lifestyle  (with a few modern conveniences, as evidenced by the outboard motor on the canoe).    Reminded that the rainy season is a serious deal in the jungle, we crawled into the canoe as the drizzle turned to a downpour and thunder rolled in the distance.

Welcoming us to their village with traditional drums and chants,  they share their culture, their foods, their art,  their ceremonial music and dance.  Under the thatched roofs, we’re treated to lunch,  warm and dry, while the rain pours and water cascades down the path through the village.   It’s pure magic, and we’re captivated by it.  Indeed, the world is an amazing place.

November 17, 2009

PURA VIDA…COSTA RICA

PURA VIDA!

PURA VIDA!

Captivated by Costa Rica over ten years ago, before cruise ships and tourism, I worried that the gentle authenticity of the country might now be lost.

Not a chance!
We wandered a bit off the beaten cruise path, up into the rainforest outside Puntarenas (the same quirky, seedy port town I remember).  Today’s adventure:  horseback riding into the forest then ziplining over waterfalls and back out again.

It didn’t take long to realize this wasn’t your average ziplining adventure.  Perhaps it was the repeated warning that once you do the first line, you’re in for the duration:  no turning back.  Or maybe it was the realization that the horses weren’t just for fun…how else could you navigate the steep, rugged trails to get to the first platform?

Dundee making the trek

Dundee making the trek

With a few of our new best friends, we saddled up and headed off.  Sacagawea, horseback riding for the first time ever, immediately took the lead, with our Costa Rican guides carefully watching over her.  She trotted ahead, fearless, forging the stream and navigating the path like she’s been doing this for years.   Costa Rican work horses, these guys weren’t your typical nose to tail trail horses…they forged their own path (at their own speed), and we did what we could to pretend we were in charge!

A much-needed break

A much-needed break

We rode for an hour through breathtaking scenery – rainforest, panoramic vistas in all directions, streams crossing our path – before arriving at our first platform.

It’s hard to put it all into words.  Platforms nestled into the rainforest – 25 of them, to be exact – each offering a different vista and experience.  Rappelling backwards off of sheer cliffs; dropping into the canopy and screaming across the forest; zipping over breathtaking waterfalls again and again, lifting our feet and butts to keep from skimming the tops; chilling on the boulders around the middle pools of a triple waterfall; stepping off the platform again and again, each time more exhilarating and breathtaking than the last.

Nellie...hangin' in there.

Nellie...hangin' in there.

We trekked through the rainforest for well over three hours — exhilarating, exhausting, and utterly amazing – and we loved every minute of it.  Even the howler monkeys turned out to celebrate our excitement!

Back at the lodge, exuberant and ravenous, we devoured our traditional meal, comparing and contrasting each line while Toucans rested overhead.  Pura vida – the good life – is very much alive and well, and we loved it!

POSTSCRIPT:  Two days later, our sore muscles are just starting to recover.  Who knew that many muscles could hurt like that?  And yes, we’d do it all again in an instant!

November 13, 2009

NOTE TO SELF: DON’T BE SO QUICK TO JUDGE (or take too much credit)

The travel reputation of “cruisers” – folks who see the world by cruise ship – is legendary.  The demographic is typically a bit older (sometimes much older), and they’ve been known to forego the ports for the next round of trivia or shuffleboard.  And yes, they can conjure up the Michener quote….if you reject the food and the culture, you might as well stay home . . . but once again, I’m reminded that stereotypes are a dangerous thing.

Dundee and Sacagawea are mini celebrities on our ship.  While we’ve been told there are some six other children onboard (thus a total of eight out of a whopping 2000 passengers), the others must be safely locked in their cabins as no one’s had a sighting since leaving LA.  This means, of course, that their mere presence is enough to start a conversation, and more than occasionally, create a connection.

Take the elderly man we met at the buffet the other day.  Easily in his late 70’s (and more likely a bit older), he stopped Dundee with the predictable “…aren’t you lucky, young man, to be on this trip!  And by the way, why aren’t you in school?”  Once shy in their answers, both kids are now quick to point out that they are in school, homeschool that is.  The gentleman’s ears perked up, and he immediately struck up a conversation, asking where they’d been, what subjects they enjoy most, and so on.  After several minutes of lively discussion, he volunteered that his wife had homeschooled their children, when they lived in the jungle near the Amazon River, and again, while they lived in Africa. 

Think about that!  Here’s a guy easily in his late 70’s, gingerly navigating the ship’s buffet…who’d guess he’d once called the Amazon jungles and the plains of Africa home, and that his wife had also homeschooled their kids, long before the world of the internet made it so easy.  Any sense of smugness I’d once quietly enjoyed, instantly erased.  These guys were the pioneers,  the Greatest Generation, as Brokaw points out; we’re simply blessed to be following in their footsteps.

November 13, 2009

OFF THE BEATEN PATH IN HUATULCO

Port of Huatulco

Port of Huatulco

Perched along the southern coast of Mexcio, the port village of Huatulco is a sleepy, quaint enclave, where the cruise ship is the largest building in town.   Stepping onto the docks, we immediately felt a different vibe – a slower pace, gentle people,  a safe haven to the chaos and bustle of Acapulco and Cabo.

With only a few hours in port,  Marcos, our guide for the day, promised to show us the local culture, off the tourist track of Huatulco’s planned community, and up into the mountains where the locals call home. He didn’t disappoint.

Along the bluffs overlooking the port, the views are breathtaking.  Huatulco’s rugged coastline

Marcos gets us a pass from the local authority

Marcos gets us a pass from the local authority

harbors nine sheltered coves, each more idyllic than the next, and most still largely undeveloped and untouched.   Our first stop, a bluff overlooking the harbor, we encounter a local officer patrolling the area who doesn’t seem to think we belong there.  Words were exchanged, and soon we’re snapping photos under his watchful eye.

Leaving the neatly paved streets behind, we hit the dirt road, past goats, cows and horses and into the local village nestled in the foothills of the San Madres Mountains.  The local drivers have cultivated a niche for off-the-beaten-path tourism in the village, and a few local families open their homes and farms to visitors.  When our planned kitchen stop had more vans than cows surrounding the home, Marcos regrouped, deciding instead to take us a bit further up the mountain to a spot he knows well . . . the home of his wife’s family.  Narrower roads, deeper potholes, and local authenticity confirm this will be worth the trip.

The traditional adobe homestead – several buildings and huts connected by thatched walkways smothered in bougainvillea – was unlike anything Dundee and Sacagawea had ever seen.  A bit uneasy at first, the warm hospitality and welcome put them quickly at ease.  Gloria, Marcos’ mother-in-law, showed us how she makes the adobe disk on which tortillas are cooked, one of several products she sells at the local market.  His father-in-law , a corn farmer, showed us where the corn is stored, then picked some cactus and tangerines for us to try. Inviting us into her kitchen, Gloria stoked the fire and showed us how to grind the corn for meal, then knead it, flatten it, and toss the perfectly round tortilla on the fire. Soon, she’s got an entire meal cooking – the cactus is grilling, several tamales appear and are cooking, and fresh eggs are added to make breakfast burritos. Hot peppers, salt, and a bit of salsa round out the spread. It’s magic, and the kids and I dive in with Marcos gently leading the way.

Breakfast!

Mindful of the time yet captivated by the magic, we reluctantly bid farewell and head into the local village, stopping in the market, church and city hall for a sense of lifestyle and culture.   We’re hooked, and as we head back towards the port – eventually noticing that we’ve re-entered the tourist zone – we’re already planning our next visit to Huatulco, and quizzing Marcos on what other adventures he can pull out of his sleeve.

November 12, 2009

Acapulco, Mexico

Cliff divers of AcapulcoYes, it means aging hippies, spring break brawls, recent drug trafficking and violence, and polluted waters in the 90’s.  But today, it simply meant fun.

We’d heard about the cab drivers who end up at their cousin’s jewelry store, and whose rates can vary by the moment.  But that wasn’t our experience.  Just off the ship, we walked for a bit and happened upon Jorge, a local driver with AC (yes, it matters when it’s this hot!), perfect English, and amazing customer service.  With him, we saw Acapulco through his lens.  The cliff divers, of course, who are simply breathtaking.  It’s a generational thing, passed down from father to son (and now daughter).  The first girl just joined the gang…she’s twelve, and looking to be a star!  We watched in awe as they climbed down the cliffs into the water, then back up the other side.  Studying the waves and the water, they time it perfectly, leaving the cliff in perfect form and slicing into the water just as the wave crests in the cove.  Simply amazing. Rippin' it every time.

From the cliffs through the streets and local markets, we headed on to Fuerte San Diego, where we saw how Acapulco protected itself from the Spanish pirates.  Cannons, galleons, gangplanks, and treasure….what’s not to love!

Then off to the local beaches.  It looks and feels like Waikiki, a row of hotels, “beach boys” and activities.  But Dundee had a specific adventure in mind.  With Jorge as his guide, we made our way through the loading docks of a local hotel and onto the beach.  A brief discussion, a harness, and he’s off….Dundee parasailing over

Dundee, Airborne!

Dundee, Airborne!

Acapulco!  His feet kept running as the boat pulled him from shore, and before he knew it, he was gliding over the Acapulco coastline.  Check out the smiles….a perfect day!

Soaring with the birds (and the chopper, just out of site)!

Soaring with the birds (and the chopper, just out of site)!

High five2