Saturday, 19 March 2011

Back to Miami and home

After leaving Bonaire, we had a 2 day journey to Port Everglades in Ft Lauderdale. We got off the boat at 8.30am and went on a trip around Miami as we weren't flying out until 6.00pm
Its an attractive city as cities go, surrounded by water, lots of flashy boats and apartment blocks. We spent some time on Ocean Drive in South Beach looking at the art deco buildings. We fondly remembered The Lighthouse Family album pictured on Ocean Drive. There are lots of beautiful buildings from the 20's but as an area it is similar to LA in that it is all about money and physical attraction -if you haven't got one or the other then you don't exist!
The names Bond.....Jennie Bond!
I will finish with some photos and loads of great memories.
With my watercolour tutor Joanne

My best attempt ...not bad for a learner
Ocean Drive, Miami
Who's that with Marie Webster?

The Dutch Antilles - Bonaire

Giving it plenty!
The Dutch Antilles - Bonaire

We approached at 7am, having lost yet another hours sleep. From the panarama of the gym, I could see the low-lying island, which rises to a mere 700' at its peak. Beautiful white coral beaches and a small settlement, with red-roofed houses and small hotels.

We walked up the shore in one direction for a reccy, past brightly-coloured, turquoise and yellow old sea-front shacks. Everything is so bright and cheerful here- the yellow, orange and turquoise, the bright blue sky and the blue sea, with the white sand patches of the nearby island of KleinBonaire in the distance. We saw some liitle green parrots, posing calmly in a tree, a local man gutting the large fish he'd just caught and cleaning them in the sea. The indigenous people speak Papiamentu, but most seem to flit between, Dutch and English or Dutch and Spanish.

 After a draught Heineken, we strolled around an art shop, and then the local market. The Dutch people who have settled here and the locals have established an artists cooperative, selling only locally made and hand-crafted gifts, from decorated gourds, famous little "black mama" dollies, jewellry and painted postcards. No-one was pushing you to buy, the minute you raised your eyes, so you could browse and admire the skilled craftsmanship, and stroll calmly around. I bought a gourd Xmas tree decoration, with the features of a turtle burnt into it, and a palm leaf, which the artist had cut from a plant in his garden, and painted to look like a flying fish.

Later we hired a sorkel for $8, paid $10 each to use the facilities of the DiviFlamingo resort- a small development with showers, a bar and lots of sunbeds. The snorkelling was some of the best we've done- hundreds of brightly coloured fish, large parrot fish, some with beautifully marked scales, blue and yellow tangs, 2' pipe-fish (some of the largest I've seen), wrass, a puffer-fish, hiding in a cave, an octopus, boucing curiously along the sea-floor. The best experience yet of being in the water. I loved this tranquil. laid-back place, quite different to the more in-your-face tourism of some of the previous stops. But then there's not the same poverty as in Guatemala, and the culture and attitude to tourism is different to Mexico, who seem to see you as dollars coming ashore!!

Queen Victoria in Bonaire
One last swim in warm sea-water, for god-knows-how-long (7 deg at home currently), and then back on board before the horn signals to leave at 5pm. A lot of the crew had been ashore today. You could tell who were the crew- they were the young, slim ones! Our friend Sergei, wine-waiter from the Ukraine, was having a few short hours R&R before serving us again that same evening! A young girl with very short dress (and cheese-string knickers) was walking off to the beach! All the Filipino lads were swimming in the sea, laughing and joking. It was great to be back amongst young people, all vibrant and happy. I hadn't realised how much I'd missed people under 30!!

Snorkelling about 200 metres from the ship
Back on board after a relaxing afternoon, a real highlight of the trip, and then off on the first of a two day, two night sail, 1200 miles throught the Caribbean, past Haiti to starboard, Cuba to Port, landing at our final destination of Port Everglades, Florida, early morning Thursday. Trade winds are a constant force4-5, with swell now moving from our bow to beam. Everyone stagering around after dinner, and hard to tell who's had too much wine. Our friends from Wisconsin with a lovely "Canadian" sounding drawl, reminding me of the sherriff in Fargo, was struggling to cope with the listing. Some of our less mobile cruisers, probably about a third, and that's not always down to age!, are going to have difficulties if this continues all the way back!

Panama Transit

Miraflores Lock
Panama Canal Transit Day- The Main Event

7am The first of three pilots for the transit came aboard. One of the rare occasions where a captain hands over the direction of his vessel to someone else. We glided past Panama City, with its towering skyscrapers to starboard, and the leper colony to port, where five inhabitants remain. One who had been transported there as young as 10 is now 75, and the colony has been her only home.

We would be raised up to the level of the Gatun Lake by two locks, called the MiraFlores, sail into the Gatun Lake, and the dropped back down to the level of the Atlantic Ocean by two more locks called the Pedro Miguel Locks. Each time the locks are drained to lower the vessel, water is lost, but then recycled for the use ib the city- 26million gallons per lock- so 52million gallons in total. No wonder one other priority in the present expansion of the canal, is the conservation of this water in secondary channels.

Incidentally, another striking fact- the Panama Canal is the only place in the world, where the sun rises on the Pacific side and sets on the Atlantic side, seemingly rising in the "East" and setting in the "West". All due to the little "kink" in the curvature of the land- quite disorientating!

Less than 2 feet either side!
 Having heard so much of the excessively humid, wet conditions, we were surprised to find the eight hour transit from ocean to ocean quite pleasant in the brisk wind, but then this is the dry season. The wind in fact was so brisk that there was a bumping and jostling as we entered the Pedro Miguel locks, and the insurance assessors were sent for to assess the damage! Now here's the most mind-blowing statistic- the Queen Victoria is 106.9' beam, and she has as little as 1' either side of her in the locks!!!! I must have taken endless photographs of this insignificant gap- barely a tyres width! With this in mind, the efforts of the "mules" or little trains are crucial. The mules run on tracks, either side of the vessel, and tighten or slacken steel cables, which run from them to the vessel, to hold it as centrally as possible in the lock. Factor in a fresh wind, and that job becomes extremely difficult. Signals of bells beween mule drivers and the pilots aboard tell all that there ready to move through the lock. Even I found the engineering compelling, and I can see why some people would want to come back again and again for this spectacle.

The transit fees have been increased four times in the past year, and perhaps Panama City might have to be careful they don't price themselves out of the market. After all, Nicaragua is not far away. The first engineers narrowly voted against a transit through Nicaragua, but maybe one day there might be a Nicaragua Canal. The present canal cost the equivalent of $19 billion dollars of today's money. Perhaps the only people able to come up with such sums today would be the Chinese!

Container ship descending Gatun Locks
One more fact before we enter the Atlantic- because of the instability of the land in this are (remember mud-slides in Guatemala), finding "the angle of repose" or where the land settles and stops creeping back, means that the Panamanians are constantly having to dredge the canal basins. The scale of this is impressive. In fact, more material has been removed from the canal since building, than during the building!

With our backs to the Pacific we entered a blustery Atlantic, the Caribbean Sea, and set a course for the island of Bonaire, our only stop here. One of the Dutch Antilles, the ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, are less that 40 miles off the north coast of Venezuala.

Crocodile just below Gatun Locks
During the night we sailed past Colombia and on towards the West Indies.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Fuerte Amador

Iguana in a tree
Typical morning at sea- up early 7am, room-service for breakfast and then an hour and a half or so in the gym. Normally I'm painting with Joanne, a delightful teacher, but today I had to miss this to listen to a talk by Larry Rudner of 53 Panama crossings, about the Panama Canal. Very informative. It would be great to get a book about the building of the Canal,( "Path between The Seas" by D. Mc Culloch), because it has a fascinating history. About how The US triumphed over disease and engineering dilemmas to build the canal and then hand it over to the Panamanians in 1999. The French, after the success of building the Suez Canal, had a disastrous time in Panama, with at least 22,000 labourers losing their lives to a variety of deadly diseases, particularly malaria, which was believed to be airborne and not the result of a bite from mosquitoes. It was amazing to find that the regular solution to the prevention of bed-bugs and ants was to immerse the feet of the bed-posts in dishes of water, which when nice and warm and fetid, was a perfect breeding ground for the deadly mosquitoes! Every mile of the Canal can be measured by at least 500 lives cost- and at 54 miles that's an awful loss!

We arrived at our anchorage inFuerte Amador at about luch-time, but it was some time until we were ready to be taken by tender ashore. This is the only thing that doesn't always run smoothly, and means a lot of hanging around.

Eventually we were taken by coach load to our various excursions- we'd opted for the "Canal and Monkey Watch", which took us by speedy boat from a nature reserve to the Gatun Lake and a couple of little islands in the swamp area bordering the Panama Canal. It was agreat way to experience the Canal from the water, where tomorrow we would see it from the comfort of our large cruise ship. All the time our guide kept saying "You are here on the Canal, not in your big cruise ship"!

Panama City
We were fortunate to see a large iguana, basking in the hot sunshine on a mangrove branch. Later we saw howler monkeys, and got very close to some white-faced capuchin monkeys. A coach ride back, and after evening meal, we sat and watched dolphins, spurting as they surfaced and then diving and feeding. We'd seen dozens of turtles off the coast of Mexico, flying fish and whales, but dolphins are always magical. Every now and again, a pleasure boat would come close to us, and very speedily a search-light from our ship was spotting them and lighting them up.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Puerta Quetzal

Turning coffee beans to dry out
March 10 Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala, Central America

Arrived in Guatemala 7am and were pushed into the berth by the tug boats, Amazonas and Hercules. We were on a berth, so no time spent queuing for tenders ashore, and we were off by 8am on a trip to the coffee estate of Finca Filadelphia. As we drove along very good highways past sugar cane plantations, with views across to some of the chain of twenty volcanoes, our guide explained that sugar is the number one export, then coffee, then bananas and Del Monte fruits (from the Atlantic East coast). Some sugar cane production is mechanised, but mostly it is harvested and grown by men. With an average earnings of $200 per month, labour is cheap.

Mainly Roman Catholic, the tendency is to have large families of maybe five children, and not send them to school, because they can help by working in the fields, so illiteracy stands at 25%, with children starting working as young as 8yrs. With a more liberal government, over the last few years, things are beginning to change. There is an encouragement of tourism, Antigua Guatemala has achieved UNESCO World Heritage status, and families are encouraged to give their children breakfast, and send them to school, by a payment of $40 per child per month. Before children would walk 2K to school with empty stomachs, if they went to school at all. The current governing party hav been encouraged by a friendship with Brasil and its successes.

Typical Bus in Guatemala
The average person is quite poor, average wage being approx $200 per month, and all the wealth is in the hands of 15 or so families, who own the coffee, amd sugar plantations.

As we drove along, it was explained to us that there were three active volcanoes, which belched smoke into the sky, and one had erupted a couple of years ago, covering towns in ash, and people could see red lava streams flowing down the volcano. Mudslides had claimed the lives of many people in recent years, and the city had had to move its position three times in recent years. In spite of this, the people are very friendly and welcoming ( on leaving, the tourist info rep said to me "I wait for your return"). At the dock, there were two tribal woman, weaving beautiful coloured cloth on a simple loom. It would take them about three months to weave a traditional blouse. The colours used signify which of the 20 or so tribes that woman belongs to, and so they wear their individual blouses with pride. The language is Spanish, but 60% use Mayan dialect. You got the feeling that this was still a developing country, embracing tourism and the change they hope that that would bring. But whilst so much wealth is in the hands of such a small minority, and there is such poverty and illiteracy, it's difficult to see how things can improve in general for the poor.

There was a discreet but high level of security around, with gun-carrying guards on commercial vehicles and around public buildings. (Ian saw such a guard on the back of a pepsi wagon). We'd previously seen guards at the little museum in Zihuantanejo, and it came as no surprise that the number one job for young men is to become a security guard!

Back to Antigua Guatemala, because of its UNESCO status and obligations, shops in the town are not allowed to adverise their wares, and without signage, the town takes on a much older and unspoilt appearance, with its strictly conforming colours of paint, most buildings are painted white, yellow, orange, or blue.

Church in Antigua Guatemela
The coffee plantation trip was fascinating, from an awareness of the plant upon which the jasmine-like flowers, and then the red berries of the coffee bean grow, to all the different processes of stripping off the various layers, to washing, drying and rosting the beans. I didn't like to ask if this was fair-trade coffee, but I suspect not. The women do the more manual work of harvesting the beans, and at the end of the process, packaging the coffee, but the men do the technical business of treating the coffee berry, raking and drying the bean etc

We lost another hour tonight, as we worked our way down the coast of Central America, 900 miles to Fuerte Amador, Panama. During the night we sailed past El Salvador, then the following day, past Honduras, and then past Costa Rica, later in the evening, and along the coast of Panama, making one day and two nights for the journey. Makes you realise how far it is! First windy and bumpy day at sea, but comfortable. In the meantime, Japan is hit by an earthquake of 8.9 and a tsunami kills at least 2000 people!!

Friday, 11 March 2011

Day at Sea

 Zihuatanejo to Puerto Quetzal- Guatemala

Awoke to another flat calm sea, with very humid, hot weather. There's been several people reporting ill with gastro-intestinal problems, and the response from the staff has been swift and intense, with all handrails and tables etc being wiped and disinfected throughout the day, a tightening up of hygiene standards in all restaurant areas. Some passengers, mainly American, have complined about having to form a line for service and having your hands sanitised every time you enter a dining area, but I think it's a small price to pay.

Its a hard life!
I went to my daily water-colour painting class and Ian his digital photography group.

After dinner, we sat and listened to a string quartet, four graduates from a London university, who were so pleased to have landed their first job together on the Queen Victoria, travelling around the Caribbean as well, before returning to UK in June.

We travel on through the night across the Gulf of Tehuantepec, where the coastline recedes further to the East. Sea depths here can exceed 6000m, and winds can gust down fron the Caribbean. Arrival in Puerto Quetzal Guatemala at 7am tomorrow, Thursday 10th March, only one week since we left LA, which makes me realise how far Panama is still!!


Mexico! Zihuatanejo- still

Amazing distances. Overall we've covered approx 2000miles along the coast of Mexico, and are now at our third stop, the almost unpronouncable Zihuatanejo, only 5km from the popular resort of Ixtapa. Zihuatanejo has a real, traditional feel, with bars and restaurants along the shore, but cafes and cantinas used by the locals in the streets behind. It is far more approachable and relaxing than PV,and is set in a pretty bay, with expensive looking villas layered up on the wooded hillsides, with a long stretch of attractive beaches. Jenny Bond, who was also on the disastrous trip yesterday, was also ashore and looking much happier today! She's on board doing some entertaining talks on the Royal Family.

We discovered that things are shockingly cheap here- entrance to a little archeological museum and booklet was $1 each! it seems that prior to the Spanish Conquest, the local tribes, of which there were about 20, lived peaceful lives, fishing and hunting, and producing clay figurines, shell jewellery, and obsidian tools and flints. There are some great little exhibits in the museum.

The street vendors, and women and very small children, who come to your table with little toys for sale, had a mexican indian appearance- distinctive, and very short. Almost as soon as they can walk, the children help their mothers selling clay pots, necklaces and toys to the tourists who disembark from the big cruise-ships.

It's much warmer and more humid down here, now that we're in the Tropics.

Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta- Mexico

Arrived 9am, having sped along at about 20knots, during the night. Much better known in UK as a resort city- purpose-built, characterless,sprawling. Much like Spanish costa resorts.

We were going on a trip today to Las Calletas "Hideaway"- swim in the turquoise sea in this hidden bay, owned by John Houston, the director, blah, blah...

To cut a long story short- a very poor trip which promised a lot and was poor value. Too cold to snorkel, so went kayaking and saw a dead kitten floating close to shore! All 90 odd of us sat cheek by jowl on a tiny beach, on decrepit deckchairs, set up at no more than 3feet apart!

Everyone stood in shock and then determined to put a brave face on it! We had to stay there for at least another four hours! Nothing for it but to hit the bar and the free margaritas! By my standards I'd lived the life of a nun so far- up early by 6.45 am, gym for an hour and a half, no alcohol at lunch-time and sensible in the evening, but extreme circumstances necessitated extreme remedies! Four margaritas later and on the way back from the "Hideaway" Idyll, and I was having a great time, laughing at all the staff doing their dancing and pre-tip hosting routine!

The queue at the excursions desk to give "feedback" was swelling like the Pacific, as we made our way out of PV at 6pm. Byebye PV!!

Las Calletas

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Cabo San Lucas

Cabo San Lucas
We dropped one of the 13 ton anchors in the bay of Cabo San Lucas, now about 900miles from LA. It was exciting to arrive there just as the sun was rising, and just as we were making our way to the gym. Normally I can’t shift out of bed at home until after 8, but here in US, everyone gets up quite early, and the gym is usually quite full by 7am.! So, an hour in the gym, pedalling and walking whilst gazing across at the imposing rocks and cliffs of the headland, with its famous archway and beautiful, pristine beaches. The town is still being developed so best to get there quick, before it becomes a sprawling mass of apartments. Our guide later told us that Bill Gates has a condo on the cliffs!

Cabo San Lucas is the southern tip of Baja California Sur, which confusingly is a state of Mexico. It is on the Tropic of Cancer, is very arid, average temp of 27 deg C. The hinterland appears very inhospitable and almost lunar. The tourist area is much like any other, and the town, which we did not visit has an array of designer shops. Why do such of the affluent people come here? Guaranteed winter sunshine, blue sky and sea, inexpensive lodgings, but most of all, the marine life. Apparently Jacques Cousteau named this area the “aquarium” of the world. There’s lots of sport fishing. You wake to sea lions calling near the cliffs. And best of all, pods of dolphins and whales can be easily seen particularly at this time of year. The whales travel here to give birth in the warm waters, and then once the calves have fattened up on the krill, and are strong enough, in a couple of weeks, they’ll travel up to Alaska. The biggest mammal migrates the longest distance- some 9000 miles- amazing.

Grey Whales
We learnt this and many other astonishing fact from our very informative guide, Tony, on a whale-watching trip, one of three that we’d pre-booked. Quite expensive, so we had to be careful about which we’d chose from the numerous ones on offer. It turned out to be well worth it- fantastically well-organised, very enlightening, and we got the most amazing views quite close up of several grey whales surfacing and flipping their tail fins in the air, just the way you’d hope they would. You can spot them early on, way off in the distance, with a jet of water spurting high into the air. As you get closer, you can hear them do this as well, and it’s awesome! You see the turquoise of the krill in the water, all around them ( the reason why they time their journey here is to coincide with the abundance of krill at this time of year). Another amazing fact- whales and dolphins are believed to have two hemispheres in the brain, and they shut one down, when they sleep, in order to rest it. However, because they have to breathe consciously, the other half reminds them to surface and breathe. So they constantly sink and surface to breathe, whilst resting their brains in sleep. Wonderful!
Cabo San Lucas

Anyway a very hot day today, with burning sun! I’ve been moaning about the weather being a bit poor, so I daren’t complain it’s too hot now. At 5pm. we raised the anchor and were back on our journey, southeastwards, down to Puerto Vallarta, another tourist hotspot, so we think.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Second Day at sea

Weather beginning to look up and finally become warmer, after the coldest winter SoCal has known for some time.

We're on our way down to Baja California, about 600miles along the west coast. We'll arrive at Cabo San Lucas on the southern tip of Baja Cal, in Mexico. Just been to a lecture about Hernan Cortes conquest of Mexico in 1500s and his alliance with Montezuma of the Aztecs. A couple of hours in the sun, and then painting class, with water colours, with Ian going to a lesson in Digital photography and Photoshop. Been up since 6.45am, clocks going forward one hour, and then into the gym again early morning.

After another early session in the gym, we're off on a whale-watching excursion tomorrow am, so fingers crossed that we manage to see one.

Life aboard is great, but you do have to stay a bit focussed in order to benefit from the numerous activities on offer.

Sad Farewell

Sad Farewell to New Family / All Aboard Queen Victoria

All too soon Andrew was back at work and normal life was resumed. Lizzy and Lily are getting stronger by the day. Lily's an adorable little "snuggler". She's sleeping a good 6 hours during the night, feeding at 4am ish and then back to sleep for another few hours until 8am. She's sooooo gorgeous. Three solid days of cuddling ahead, and then the added bonus of feeding Lily, whilst Ian took Lizzy on an errand into town. She's started quietly staring and studying your facial features, and then after some quiet contemplation, her little face breaks into a smile.

It's been wonderful spending time with all the family, Ian on the balcony talking to Andrew about running preparations for a 10k he's doing in a couple of weeks, and me sharing childhood memories of Andrew when he was a baby! As I cuddled Lily for the last time on this visit, I tried to imagine her with lots of teeth, pulling herself up with the furniture and starting to walk- when we return again in November. But then there's Skype, and The kids are great at keeping in touch, sending photos and videos.

After a brief call at CruiseAmerica depot in San Fernando, to check out campervans and prices, and then on to San Pedro fishing port, we took a taxi to the Port of Los Angeles. This port is huge with some 2000+ berths for commercial vessels. There she was - Queen Victoria- she seemed quite small really! The whole process of embarkation was as swift, efficient, and relaxing as we been led to expect. A marked contrast to the experience of flying. The cabin with balcony, mid-ships, was comfortable and well-kept by our housekeeper, Lynda, from Largs in Scotland, who would be on board until June. With newsheets each day listing daily events and dress-code for the evening, sometimes smart/casual, sometimes formal- a chance to wear all those fancy clothes I'd packed!

A gym, a library, buffet dining and formal dining, with lots of different areas to relax in, you don't feel overcrowded by the approx 900 other guests on board- 50% from USA and 50% from UK.

On our first night, ther was the ceremonial, and historic recognition of the Queen Mary, who is permanently berthed (like a floating hotel/conference centre) in the Port of LA. As we set out to sea, we passed close to her and exchanged horn sounds and the Queen Mary sent up several fireworks. It was quite moving, like an aging aunty exchanging a moment with her younger relative! After dinner, as the lights of San Diego dimmed into the distance, we were gently rocked to sleep with the Pacific swell, pushing us along, and we made our way along the West coast of California, at 15knots.