Panama Canal Cruise
Luigi and Manly, 1998

Luigi and I got up at 5:00 in the morning of Tuesday, January 6, 1998, to catch a 7:44 plane to Fort Lauderdale. We arrived a little before noon and were met by a Holland America Line representative who assured us that our checked luggage (on which we had tied appropriate tags) would be picked up at the airport and delivered to our cabin on the MS Maasdam; all we had to do was to meet another representative who would herd us and many of the other passengers from our flight and several others arriving about the same time to a bus that would take us to a boarding structure at Port Everglades. It worked out just as she said it would, though we had to wait a couple of hours in the boarding structure until the ship was ready for us.

Our cabin was on the Promenade Deck -- one of several on which cabins are located. We had a nice large cabin with a picture window looking out across a few yards of open deck space to the ship's rail, and various port facilities beyond that. The window was of silvered glass so that people on the deck could not see in nearly so well as we could see out, and not at all if the lights were out or the curtains drawn shut. There was plenty of closet and drawer space and a small sofa plus table and chair. On the forward bulkhead was a counter in front of a mirror. On the counter was a small tray bearing a recently filled ice bucket and two glasses. On the table was a basket of four apples (courtesy of Holland America) and a bottle of white zinfandel wine (courtesy of the young woman at American Express who booked the tour for us). We promptly ate two of the apples and then proceeded to the Lido Deck where a buffet lunch was available.

At 4:30 all passengers put on their life jackets and assembled on deck for a boat drill. They even lowered some of the lifeboats so that we could see what they looked like in case we ever needed them. The ship left the dock at 5:00 and steamed out to sea, heading east.

Dinner was at 6:00 in the balcony of the main dining room; we were assigned to a table for four. The other couple, Ann and Duncan Legg, were truck owner-drivers from Kitchener, Ontario. We enjoyed their company at dinner throughout the rest of the cruise.

The first stop was on Wednesday, at Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas. It is on Little San Salvador Island, a 2,400 acre island which Holland America bought and blessed with a few buildings and a landing place for boats. Passengers who wanted to go ashore were taken there by tenders. Luigi did go ashore where she had lunch at a temporary pavilion, but did not take advantage of the opportunity to go snorkeling or on a nature walk among nests of roseate terns and Bahamian shearwaters.

Thursday and Friday were at sea, and we had ample opportunity to enjoy such daily activities as bingo in the main auditorium, ocean spa with Jacuzzi, exercise room, casino with slot machines and blackjack etc, massage and beauty salon, two swimming pools, aerobics class, shuffleboard, ring toss, mile-long walk (four times around the ship on the Promenade deck), the card room, sing-along in the piano bar, karoake and cigars under the stars. All of those got along without us, but we did enjoy sitting in deck chairs, usually on the shady side of the ship and reading. When it got too hot on deck we went to the library and read there. I had given Luigi a copy of David McCulloch's "Path Between the Seas," a 600 page book about the Panama Canal. It described the magnificent failure of Ferdinand De Lesseps and the French attempt to build a sea-level canal, the shenanigans and vigor with which Teddy Roosevelt brought the U.S. into the picture, and the actual building of the canal. When Luigi was not reading it, I did.

One particularly pleasant aspect of our inactivity was the steward who brought lemonade around at 11:00 in the morning and iced tea at 3:00 in the afternoon to those who were sitting in deck chairs.

Under Holland America's rules, three of the dinners on a ten-day cruise are described as formal. This means that men are expected to wear business suits or dinner jackets. Other dinners are informal (jackets and ties but not necessarily suits) or casual (no jeans, shorts or T-shirts). The first of the formal dinners was this evening; there were a few Tuxedos at the 6:00 sitting, but not very many. I suspect that there were more at the 8:00 sitting.

The literature describing the ship boasted that it has over two million dollars worth of art work. Some of this is in the form of sculpture, some painting, some prints, and some displays of antiques such as Delft pottery and old navigation charts. In the three-deck atrium is a crystal tower 28 feet high composed of 1,980 pieces of etched glass made by Luciano Vistosi. On one of the decks, just below the ship's office, was a modern player piano that, completely unattended, played music all of the time we happened to be nearby.

There was no change machine in the Laundromat on our deck, but I could get 25-cent gambling tokens each from any of a number of machines in the casino, and they worked in the Laundromat as well as quarters. I could further use them to buy postage stamps from the office. They also worked in the casino's slot machines, but not very productively. You can make the three wheels on a slot machine rotate for about a second if you insert two or three quarters, but for eight quarters you can make a cylinder in the Laundromat spin for over half an hour, and wash your clothes in the bargain. The dryers cost only two quarters, so are even a better bargain if you choose to pay to make something spin.

We reached the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal about breakfast time on Saturday. After waiting with a dozen or so other ships for about half an hour, the Maasdam 's turn came and, under the direction of a pilot, she steamed into the lowest of the Gatun Locks. On the way we could see where the French canal had been started, heading off to the right into the jungle. Traversing the Canal, the pilot takes actual command of the ship, unlike most other places where he advises the captain who remains responsible for the ship. The Canal runs pretty much north and south, but the southern (Pacific) end is a little bit east of the northern (Atlantic) end, so a person's common-sense assumption that the Atlantic end should be called the east end is wrong. Each lock is 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long; after the 720-foot-long Maasdam entered each of three locks at the Atlantic end, a sailboat with a crew of four came in with us. At each end of the Canal are two sets of locks next to each other; in the other set, also going from the Atlantic to the Pacific, was a large Japanese cargo ship with containers stacked high on all available deck space. The Canal is now being enlarged by the addition of more locks and widening of the channel.

On rising through the locks we were in Lake Gatun, a huge man-made fresh water lake that extends most of the length of the Canal. We could see the tops of trees and of hills extending above the surface here and there. The Lake is fed by the Chagres River which, with its floods, would have made a sea-level canal nearly impossible. The fresh water in the lake has the added advantages of killing most of the barnacles on the hulls of the ships that pass through.

I had hoped to take a dip in the ship's swimming pool at this time, and to have Luigi take my picture while doing so to prove that I swam in the Panama Canal. But the weather was so hot and the sun so bright, that I didn't. At seven degrees north latitude, this is not unexpected, even in January.

The daily program that was slipped under the door of each cabin each evening showed, in the issue for this day, several bits of information about the Canal, including the fact that the Maasdam was paying a toll of $118,732.94. This amounts to nearly a hundred dollars per passenger. It also stated that each ship passing through the six locks on the Canal uses 52,000,000 gallons of fresh water, (about one day's use of the City of Boston) and that the average number of transits per year is 14,000, or about 38 per day.

In the afternoon we passed through the Gaillard Cut that extends from Lake Gatun to the Pedro Miguel Locks. There the ship was lowered to Miraflores Lake which led quickly to the Miraflores Locks; thence she proceeded to Balboa Harbor and under the Bridge of the Americas (part of the PanAmerican Highway), and on into the Pacific Ocean. In the Gaillard Cut most of the digging took place when the Canal was built. At one place in particular, (the Culebra Reach) the local mountain was made up of various different types of clay and sand, and there were several landslides during construction, one so bad that it buried several steam shovels and locomotives. There dirt still falls into the Canal, and barges keep dredging it out.

Sunday was spent cruising through the Golfo Dulce (so named because of the number of streams and rivers that feed fresh water into it), often within sight of the mountainous jungle of Costa Rica. Luigi took a tour of the ship's galley and enjoyed it. She also observed a vegetable carving and marzipan demonstration where she saw how the delightful carvings of vegetables into flower shapes were made. These potato white roses, carrot tulips and beet roses, with BAS-relief geometric designs carved into watermelons, graced the buffet in the Lido restaurant each day at breakfast and lunch.

The next day the ship anchored off Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica and those who wanted to go on various tours were taken ashore in tenders. These tours included a 10 hour bus trip to San Jose, and a 4-1/2 hour river cruise with guaranteed wildlife sightings, including crocodiles, or your money back. We did not take advantage of them.

Tuesday we spent at sea and Luigi enjoyed a demonstration of the art of Dutch cheese fondue making. It is much like Swiss fondue but different cheeses are used, and beer can be substituted for wine, with worse results in her judgment. On Wednesday the ship docked at Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala, where, again, various tours and excursions were available. Luigi took a bus tour up into the mountains to see the ancient capital of Antigua, which was abandoned in favor of Guatemala City in the 18th Century because earthquakes were too common. Much of the old colonial architecture remains, some buildings more badly damaged than others. She found a jewelry store there that specialized in jade, which is found in Guatemala. Luigi didn't buy any, but did increase her appreciation of the jade she had inherited.

I went ashore briefly and wandered among about 70 stalls that local natives had set up on the dock with the hope of selling junk to tourists. I found it impossible to stop and look at anything, because as soon as I tried someone would pester me with suggestions that I buy. None of the stuff was useful, save possibly hand woven blankets too small for our bed (and we already have blankets). On the theory that at some time in my life I may choose to walk with a cane, I looked for such an item, but found none. Carved wooden masks might at one time have frightened our children into recovering from childhood illnesses, but it's too late for that now.

Between two and four in the morning the Maasdam took part in a search and rescue operation in which three people who had been on a catamaran fishing boat that capsized were eventually found and put on a cargo ship; we did not learn about this until the captain announced it after breakfast. We anchored off Santa Cruz Huatulco (pronounced Watooco), a newly established resort area, and were given the opportunity to go on snorkeling excursions or a scenic drive or a mountain bike tour, all of which Luigi and I declined. After lunch I took a tender ashore where I found a very hot, squalid little community with a couple of restaurants that looked ok, and a narrow crowded beach. As I walked through the outdoors part of one restaurant the proprietress addressed me in English and I responded in my best Japanese with the only two phrases I know in this language -- "Greetings" and "Where is the bathroom?" The heat bothered me, so I took a tender back to the ship promptly.

The Maasdam docked in Acapulco on Friday morning, and provided a nice, orderly method for people to stay out of the way until it was time for them to go ashore; those who had early planes to catch were given priority. As Holland America had included air travel in our package, but could not find space on an airplane for us on Friday, we were given a one-day hotel package that included a bus tour from the ship through a few parts of the city, ending up at the Hyatt Regency Acapulco which is on the water with a good view of the harbor. On the tour we saw the famous cliff divers -- young men who dive off a cliff into a very narrow arm of the sea about a hundred feet below. The vultures soaring overhead lent some sense of speculation to the operation.

The hotel was quite satisfactory except that it is seriously under-elevatored for large groups that expect to meet at one time. Eventually we found out that we were to be ready at 5:30 the next morning for our transfer to the airport for the 7:15 flight to Mexico City, and that our baggage was to be in the hall by 5:00. By getting up at 4:15 we managed to meet this schedule; the transportation turned out to be one van and half a dozen cabs that were roaming the streets at 6:00, when the procedure finally got organized. It was a short, pleasant flight on Aero Mexico to Mexico City, where the air pollution was as bad as rumored; during the last half hour of our stop there I coughed almost continually. Luigi and I managed to get our baggage to the Continental Airlines desk in plenty of time to get a plane to Houston, where we went through U.S. customs and got another Continental plane back to Chicago in the middle of the afternoon.