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Priscilla Hopkins

Age: 53

Occupation:Program Analyst

Number of Cruises: 18

Cruise Line: Holland America

Ship: Amsterdam

Sailing Date: March 19th, 2001

Itinerary: Panama Canal

These were the "mules" that towed us through the locks.  The canal operates twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, and there were ships lined up to take their turn in the locks.  Ships are built to a standard called "Panamax," which means the maximum dimensions they can have and still fit through the canal.  I want to tell you, I didn't see much left over for a margin of error on the ships we saw going through.  They JUST fit, with parts of the upper decks overhanging the edges of the locks.  The whole operation of watching the ships change levels is fascinating.  The Atlantic and Pacific are roughly at the same level (Duh, that's where the phrase sea-level comes from) but they had to slice through a mountain to build the canal.  You can really see where the continental divide is in this narrow little isthmus.  They artificially created a lake using all the rivers which converged near the present canal.  There is also a railroad, but doesn't appear to be much in the way of roads in the jungle.  We are so transfixed by watching this whole process, we wonder if we will go inside at all during the eight hours or so it will take to make the transit.  Luckily, once we hit Gatun Lake the excitement level goes down enough for us to get something to eat.  The lake is still pretty interesting, as there is constant erosion going on where they cut through the mountains, and they have to dredge constantly to keep up with it.

You would think the next two sets of locks would just seem like more of the same, but we are in thrall to their power.  This is really the highlight of the trip.  We are almost as entertained by the sight of white pelicans flying in interesting formations the whole time.  I had never seen pelicans behaving in this fashion.  I cannot decide whether to keep me eyes glued to them or what is going on in the locks.

  It is illegal to actually swim the canal, but they sucked canal water up into the pool so we can sorta say we swam the canal.  That was a lot of fun to do!  As we start to approach the end of our transit, we pass the former US Southern Command, now being turned into a resort.  I wonder how some of the many veterans onboard felt about seeing that?

Next was another high point, the Bridge of the Americas.  This is part of the Panamerican Highway.  Since we have been on parts of it before (even its terminus in Chile), passing under it was a special thrill for me.  I had to stand out and deck until it faded well into the horizon.  I was surprised by how close Panama City was to the Canal.  I always pictured the Canal as being way off in a jungle away from civilization.  We had a celebratory hot tub and looked back on a perfectly lovely and exciting day.

We continue to win more stuff.  Good thing we brought along some clothes that are approaching the end of their life.  As we wear these, we set them aside for leaving in the least prosperous place we will visit.  We decide that is likely to be Nicaragua.  We will not be disappointed.  At the alumni Mariner's party one man is awarded his platinum medallion for having traveled 700 days on HAL.  We have a ways to go before we catch up with him.  We earn lots more stamps toward awards for working out.  We go to a type of scavenger hunt.  Hubby allows himself to be dressed as a woman by some women on our team.  He of course is the cutest "girl" and wins the prizes.  Since we are winning more champagne than we care to drink, he trades in his bottle for a HAL mug.  That works so well that we all decide that we have won more mouse pads than we care to mouse, and go to the Cruise Director's office to trade them in for mugs, also.  Phil has slipped and fallen because of his sandals twice now.  Each time the nurse magically appears.  Does she have a video cam that she monitors just hoping for the opportunity to help someone?

We pull into San Juan del Sur Nicaragua and switch positions several times looking for a safe anchorage.  We begin to wonder if the choppy seas are going to prevent us from tendering ashore.  We manage, finally, but with the long tour we have signed up for, it leaves no time to walk through the town or look for an Internet Cafe.  However, when we get to shore we realize that the kindliest adjective to use for Nicaragua is "unspoiled."

The scars of war and resultant poverty are still pretty fresh here.  There is plenty of natural beauty.  They could have quite a tourist industry if it weren't for the fact that they are just not ready to accept a lot of visitors. Our guide was conscripted into the Sandinistas and gives us an earful of his view of the whole situation.  We go on a tour to see a fascinating volcano.  Earth tremors in recent years make it unsafe to walk completely around the crater and have destroyed part of a walkway up to a cross on a hill overlooking the crater.  There are signs everywhere telling you to stay on the walkway, which is no longer there.  We walk up the sometimes-imaginary 180 steps to take in the view and are suitably impressed.  Phil chooses to stumble another time, but manages to avoid sacrificing himself to the volcano.  The bus takes us to a restaurant for a buffet lunch.  I consider giving my bag of discardable clothing to some children who are begging around the restaurant, but they are very aggressive.  We have fish, chicken, beef, many side dishes and some local beer.  Not bad at all.  And we didn't catch any nasty bugs by eating it.  We went to a market, but convinced ourselves we could do without the merchandise there, especially the stuffed iguanas, frogs, turtles, etc., posed in "amusing" positions.  Yuck.  This was and good opportunity to abandon our bag of clothing next to a trash can.  It attracted attention and was picked up almost immediately and taken into a back room.  We went on to tour the town of Granada and were impressed on how many of the old mansions were being used as art schools.  Due to the lateness in leaving the ship this morning, we arrived back at San Juan del Sur just in time to catch one of the last tenders back to ship.  We ran up to the gym to turn in the stamps we have won for working out for some tee shirts and a water bottle.  We run back to the cabin to shower and get ready for dinner.  We are dancing in the Ocean Bar when I get a craving for hot chocolate, which they do not serve in there.  Hubby goes down the passageway to the Explorer's Lounge, where we have been enjoying chocolate treats each night.  A waitress there carries my hot chocolate down to the Ocean Bar and serves it to me there.  No wonder this is my favorite cruise line!

We go back to the stateroom and pack after a full day.  With all the clothes we have abandoned, shouldn't these suitcases be less full?

After breakfast we all gather for disembarkation.  Since Joan and Phil and Ruth and Jerry are staying on for a few days in Costa Rica, we say our good-byes.  I celebrate getting through my very last tender embarkation and debarkation without breaking my ankle.  We take a 2-hour trip/tour to the San Jose airport.  They let us know there will be about a three-hour delay due to a plane malfunction.  After that time is well past, they ask us to move to another gate.  Then we know we are really in for it when they wheel in sandwiches and sodas for everyone.  Bad sign!  We of course eat everything that is offered, but we are in no danger of starvation after our last ten day eating marathon.  At about 2:30 there is an announcement that the flight will be delayed until 5:00 p.m.  A plane is enroute from Miami.  It will be turned around immediately and carry us back to Miami.  We will arrive about 9:00 in Miami.  Fat chance.  We just have to be patient and wait.  We will eventually get home, but don't know what day it will be.  At about 3:30 they have us change gates again.  Although it is not a big airport, a plane full of waiting people quickly gather their carry-ons and trod en masse to the other end and down some stairs.  At the promised time we ACTUALLY GET ON THE PLANE.  The pilot is ready to go, but there is other air traffic, which prevents us from pushing back from the gate for awhile.  We finally get moving and take off for Miami, which is supposedly only 2 hours and 12 minutes away.  Fat chance.  There are thunderstorms, which keep us circling for awhile.  Then the Captain announces that we are low on fuel and must divert to Nassau to get some more.  We land at Nassau but cannot get off because we haven't gone through immigration there.  Although no one got off, we have to watch the safety video again.  The pilot shows his sense of humor when he says we will be flying at 10 feet for 30 minutes to Miami.  We land at Miami after a very turbulent flight.  It is the middle of the night, and hardly anyone is there to check us through customs and immigration.  Then we wait in another very long line to get new flights, since the ones on which we were originally booked are long gone.  However, the computers are down for the night so we are told that we will have to get into another long line at 4:30 in the morning when the computers come back on to get seat assignments and all.  We stay awake until then and use the food vouchers in the only open snack bar.  After 45 more minutes in line when the computers come on, we are finally really booked on a 7:00 am flight to Washington DC.  Oh Joy!  Oh Rapture!  We arrive home about 12 hours after our original ETA.  Glad we hadn't asked anyone to pick us up at the airport!  Boy, does our own little house look good!

If you want to look at all sorts of pictures from this trip, go to:

http://community.webshots.com/user/priscillahopkins

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