Amazing Cruise Sunsets

The sunsets we have seen on this cruise – from Aruba and Cartagena, through the Panama Canal, to Fuerte Amador and Costa Rica, and finally on to Los Angeles – have been incredible! I am a mixed-media artist and can’t wait to get back in the studio and figure out a way to use them.

I try not to spend more time on the computer “fixing” a photo than in the studio creating art. It can be hard to know when to stop. To keep editing to a minimum, I put each of these photos in Photoshop and just did three things. First, I adjusted the contrast. When shooting photos on the water, there is a haze that our eyes adjust for but the camera records. Adding a little contrast compensates for that haze. I also added a little bit of sharpening. Because of the ship’s vibration, photos without sharpening will look a bit too fuzzy. Finally I checked to make sure the horizon was level. I hope you enjoy!

Until next time –

Susan L Stewart

Bears Over the Pacific







Fuerte Amador, Panama

Fuerte Amador used to be a military fort in a suburb of Panama City. The US Armed forces pulled out of Panama by way of treaty on December 31, 1999. Fuerte Amador and three other forts are now abandoned.

The "Ghost Ship" at 5:30 a.m.

This was the port with the most rain on our cruise. I watched the dramatic and eerie Panama City skyline throughout our tour. It changed as the dark clouds moved over us. It reminded me of the stormy skyline scene at the end of Ghostbusters.

Our tour started out badly. When we signed up for it we were supposed to meet at 8:15 am to get on the bus. The afternoon before, we received a letter in our stateroom telling us that because the ship was able to get in to Fuerte Amador earlier than planned, we needed to meet at 6:45 am! I don’t get up that early when I’m home let alone on vacation.

We – along with many other cruisers – were certainly not

Old lamp post against modern city

happy about being up at 5:30 to get ready for a tour while on vacation. The thing is, the reason didn’t make any sense. We were in port around 10 – 11 pm the night before so getting in “early” shouldn’t have make a difference. The only thing I can think of is that the tour company changed the time for some reason. I really don’t think Princess would do something like that and piss off so many of their passengers.

It wasn’t raining hard; it was more like a wet mist. Still, most of the people on the tour were older and many of them didn’t want to get off the bus. We came to a square with an interesting building that looked like a church. It was the Plaza de la Independencia of Casco Viejo. We were supposed to get out there and walk around the square looking at historical “stuff.” No one moved to get off the bus.

Plaza de la Independencia

Finally I asked our guide if it would be OK to get off. He said that was fine. So, Tom and me, and one woman, got off. We walked over to some tents that people were in the process of taking down and took some photos.

I realized that: I don’t melt in the rain; the rain was warm, not cold, like it is at home; and if I didn’t take the initiative, I would be spending the day on the bus trying to take pictures through the raindrops on the bus’ windows.

We have seen a lot of poverty in our travels, especially in Mexico. The little bit of poverty we saw in Panama was as bad,

Downtown Panama City with the "Screw" building

or worse, than anything I’ve ever seen. A family with at least one young child was living in a building that was gutted, abandoned and clearly not intended for habitation. I saw a young child standing in an open door with a tipped over plastic trike nearby.

As we passed by, I took a quick glance inside and saw what looked like a trash dump. It was one room, maybe 20′ by 30′ deep. It was black inside – black walls and black ceiling – and at the other end of the room a small door

The Golden Alter

that let in the only light. I don’t understand why everything was black. Had someone painted the walls and ceiling that color? Had the building caught on fire at some point and people were living with the soot? The saddest part, though, was that despite the child looking as if he wasn’t getting enough to eat, someone had spent money on a large flat screen TV!

Our tour took us to the old city “La Viejo,” colonial city and the current,

modern, city with all of its traffic, rushing around and frenetic pace. I found very little beauty in any of them. Granted, this is their rainy season and no

city looks good in the rain, but there was very little color evident in buildings, and very few parks. We didn’t have time to go out into the countryside but, given the amount of rain they receive, I imagine that is very beautiful.

It seemed like many of the buildings in the old city and colonial city were

gutted. The colonial city has very old buildings that looked like they were functional, but several of the churches we drove past were empty shells. We stopped at the Church of San José in the San Felipe district to see the golden alter.

The church with the golden alter is so plain on the outside that it would be

A standing wall at the ruins

very easy to walk right past it. Back in the 1670s, Henry Morgan, an English pirate, attacked and burned down Old Panama. The Jesuit monks painted the alter black

to hide the gold and the pirates left it alone. When the siege was over, the Jesuits moved the alter to a new church where it resides today. The church is dimly lit with many candles so it is difficult to take photos of it.

Doing the Vulture Dance!

Our tour guide said that while most of the people were Catholics, they had a large number of Baptists, Jewish, Muslim and other religions as well. The Spanish first occupied the city; the French started the work in the Canal; and then the United States came in to finish it. All of this makes for a city – and country – of great diversity.

My favorite part of the tour came at the end when we

Part of the ruins

visited the beautiful ruins of the old city that Henry Morgan destroyed. On one end of the vast space is a four-story bell tower marking one side of the church.

One wall of the church is still standing although many of the stones have fallen over. Behind the wall are smaller pieces of the other sides. The stones have beautiful moss on them.

Orange Flowers on Stone Wall

We were looking around when a woman asked our guide, “What kind of birds are up there?” I looked to where she was pointing and saw vultures! There were two of them and they were dancing around each other. Our guide said it was mating season. Vultures mate for life so I don’t imagine the male had to work that hard – unless the female wasn’t in the mood in front of all these people watching them!

We really enjoy cruising, but one of the negatives to this kind of travel is the limited amount of time you have to explore a port of call. Occasionally you’ll find an itinerary with a two-day stay in a port. You can easily get a “taste” of many cities and countries on a cruise. Then we use that experience to decide where we would like to return and spend more time.

Until next time,

Susan L Stewart

Through the Panama Canal

A sense of how large Gatun Lake is

It took most of a day to make our way through the Panama Canal locks from the Caribbean Sea on the east side of Panama to Gatun Lake. We deliberately booked a stateroom with a balcony for this cruise so we could watch the process.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to convey the size of the Panama Canal and Gatun Lake. Simply put: They’re HUGE. After going

Gatun Lake vegetation

through the locks on the Atlantic side, the ship entered Gatun Lake which is so large you can’t see to the other side. In addition, there are hundreds of little islands scattered throughout. The water level in the lake varies but there are channel markers along the way to keep the ships safe.

A brief history of the Panama Canal

A working crane

A canal connecting the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean was first attempted by the French in 1881. France had the world’s best-trained corps of civil and military engineers. Even so, they were not able to improvise and adapt to the difficult and unfamiliar terrain of the Isthmus of Panama.

In addition, the French were unable to understand the cause of the yellow fever and malaria

that eventually killed 20,000 men. One of the theories was that malaria was caused by poisonous marsh gas released into the air by rotting vegetation. They thought yellow fever was air borne from animal and human waste, sewage and rotting animal carcasses. The French finally admitted defeat in 1893 and stopped construction efforts.

Threatening clouds over the islands

Americans had always been interested in a canal that would link the country’s east and west coasts. However, their interest was primarily in building a canal through Nicaragua. A large river could take a ship from the east coast of Nicaragua to Lake Nicaragua in the middle of the country. From there, a short canal would be needed to continue to the Pacific side.

The French wanted $109 million for the equipment and their work in the Panama Canal. A special commission was ordered by

A Gatun Lake island

President William McKinley to study the feasibility of a canal in Nicaragua. After the Walker Commission recommended Nicaragua for the canal, the French lowered their price to $40 million and the United States changed directions. The US resumed construction of the Panama Canal in 1904.

Through the locks

Under the direction of Army doctor William Gorgas, work began to eradicate yellow fever

A lock with the water level down

and other diseases even though people in power were skeptical that these diseases were caused by mosquito bite. John Stevens, the construction engineer in charge of building the Panama Canal, supported Gorgas’ efforts and with his help, progress was quickly made.

The canal was finished in 1914. It was managed by the US until 1999 when Panama took over control of the operation and maintenance of the canal under a treaty signed by Panama’s then President Torrijos and US President Jimmy Carter.

Another part of that treaty specified that Panama is not allowed to have a military force to protect itself or the Canal. Instead, it is the duty of the United States to protect and defend Panama. We have a similar treaty with Japan that was signed as part of Japan’s surrender ending the Pacific portion of World War II.

My view of the Canal

A tugboat "steering" a shipping vessel

Thinking back to 1903, the architects and Army Corps of Engineers did a seemingly impossible job of planning and executing the project with only basic instruments like a slide rule, compass and complicated equations that had to be solved by hand. There were no computers, no CAD, no way to visualize the finished canal. They didn’t even have calculators in 1903!

When it was finished in 1914, there was no way that anyone could imagine the size ships would become. Each lock is 1,000 feet long

and 110 feet wide. Princess Cruise Line has two ships that were specially built

Empty lock and cheering crowd

to navigate through the Panama Canal: the Coral Princess and the Island Princess. Each one is 964 feet long and 106 feet wide. With such tight clearances, two pilots come on board to assist the captain in navigating the ship.

This little tug boat can push a huge vessel like this around so it’s able to leave port, dock properly or to avoid any underlying problems. A tug like this helped our ship as well.

At one point while making our way through the locks, we went by a strange, very large, building with open “balconies.” All three levels were packed with what looked like hundreds of overly enthusiastic people – tourists, maybe? – waving, clapping and yelling out to us. I have no idea who these people were. Were they there specifically to watch our cruise ship go through one of the locks? Were they Panamanians or tourists? I should have asked someone but never thought to do so, so it will remain a mystery.

A train runs along the canal

A tour guide told us that Princess pays $300,000 – $350,000 US to go through the canal. I was not able to confirm that number. Because of the size of today’s ships, the canal is undergoing a major update. The Panamanian government is building a new set of

I like the softening of the hills

locks that are larger and deeper along side the existing ones. This expansion is scheduled to open in 2014, on the Canal’s 100th birthday.

Tom and I enjoy history and learning new things and I will say that this cruise has been full of these opportunities. Except for the weather – October is in the rainy season – this has been an exceptional cruise. The next time we plan one, though, we will make sure to check the rainy season/dry season before booking.

Until next time,

Susan L. Stewart