Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Beset by woes and weather, canal expansion project is back on track

A Pacific bound container ship goes south through the Panama Canal, photographed from the balcony of our northbound ship. Pacific-Atlantic bound ships pass traffic going the opposite direction in wider parts
of the river and Gatun Lake. Passage fees must be paid in advance and are thousands of dollars.


Lock doors open while our ship prepares
to enter, towed in by  diesel powered "mules."


HOW MANYcountries does it take to complete a $5.3 billion expansion of the wondrous Panama Canal?
The answer might be, "more than four," because Spain, Italy, Belgium and Panama have not delivered so far.
The expansion contract was lost to the U.S., whose bid was too high.  But the countries sharing the various sub-contracts have found their endeavors beset with problems.  
A YEAR AGO, the project was shut down for a time when it ran out of money and floods further crippled the effort. It's back on track, with a revised budget of $7 million.  Korea is now involved, too.
Our recent visit found the world's largest earth movers noisily back on the project, and estimates are that it will be done by December of 2015 or early 2016 at the latest.
I wouldn't hold my breath.
Because of the shape of the land, the canal runs north-south, not east-west.
The intricate, massive addition will accommodate three times larger vessels and increase the daily numbers of ships and freighters in transit.
Mira Flores Lock was completed in 1906.
IN VISITING with experts, we learned that continuous dredging is part of the scenario, because of water movement, rains and erosion. After transiting the locks aboard the Legend of the Seas, we wanted a look from land.  A close-up tour, arranged on board through Royal Caribbean International, picked us up at the docks near Colon and took us to a viewing tower three stories up.

WE WATCHED, fascinated, as the lock system worked -- thanks to 50 million gallons of water a day running out of the mountains.
Four new locks, made in France, await installation in the new canal.
A reader of Saturday's part-one piece asked, "Do they alternate days of traffic going east and west?" First, the direction is north and south, even though it would seem that the oceans are on the east and west of the land bridge. And there are locks for two-way traffic.  In man-made Gatun Lake, we Atlantic-bound passengers saw ships coming towards us, going towards the Pacific we'd left earlier in the day.
LARGE SHIPS use the canal during the day, entering in the morning and exiting toward evening. Ships going Pacific-Atlantic go north; those traveling from the Atlantic to the Pacific go south.  Small vessels cluster and wait night when enough traffic accumulates to make passage..... you don't get space in line until you pay. Our Royal Caribbean Legend of the Seas paid nearly $400,000. Years ago, aboard the venerable Queen Elizabeth II, we made international news as the largest ship at the time to transit the canal, with only inches to spare.
WITH THE new addition, ships three times larger will be able to transit.  Many of the new larger mega-ships are too large for the present locks.
CASH ONLY is paid to Panama for passage and our vessel's tab was $400k! (That's why this cruise is so expensive.) The canal and locks are 48 miles long and parts are replaced as needed without stopping traffic, a remarkable feat in this 100-year old undertaking. Canal traffic has only been stopped once, when drought in 2010 failed to supply adequate rain water.  Now, Gatun Lake's level is being raised one foot to store more water.
Water pours into the lock as a "mule" reaches the top, helping the ship.
"MULES" HELP the ships through.  They still call the cars "mules" but nowadays they are diesel powered and hooked to the ship with cables.
The creation of the Panama Canal took 27,000 lives -- mostly from malaria, with some casualties from explosions.
The canal saves 8,000 miles and 71 days of sailing.  Last year nearly 15,000 ships, pleasure crafts and freighters made the remarkable journey.
A Guatemalan woman sells handmade shawls and scarves.
COMING SOON: Continuing our wanderings of the coast of the Americas, our adventures take us to Guatemala, which means "land of trees."  We sample barbecue and purchase gorgeous hand-woven shawls, made by descendants of the Mayan people.  We say “gracias, no” to the man with the drug coat, a dealer’s version of the New York watch seller’s. Our mountain trek takes us through miles of coffee and rubber trees before we embark upon an hour-long boat ride on Lake Atitlan, created from a volcanic crater, to the village of Panajachel, one of 23 ancient villages attracting Guatemalan yuppies and adventuresome Europeans. Remember to explore, learn, live, and check us out Wednesdays and weekends at:

Friday, April 25, 2014

Wondrous Panama Canal connects the oceans, delights our travelers

 The graceful Bridge of the Americas is the first impressive site, beginning the Panama Canal transit.from the Pacific  

 Engineering marvel thrills as it raises the ship 85 feet to move it across land, Pacific to Atlantic

It's a tight squeeze aboard the Legend of the Seas, at Mira Flores.


WHEN TEDDY Roosevelt traveled to Panama in 1914 to proudly christen the new canal, he likely did not envision 14,000 ships a year transiting this “eighth wonder of the world.”  He surely knew, though, savvy man that he was, that the idea was not new.
SINCE 1534, sailors, explorers, kings and merchants had dreamed of connecting the oceans.
It took Teddy and nearly 400 years, for the canal to happen.
OUR RECENT transit of this engineering wonder brought respect and delight for the feat often called the Crossroads of the World.

Our bully President Theodore Roosevelt oversaw the realization of a long-term United States goal, knowing  the world needed a trans-isthmian canal to shave off thousands of miles, months of time and the long and arduous "around the horn" trip .
THROUGH THE 1800s, American and British leaders and businessmen schemed for a way to ship goods quickly and cheaply between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The California Gold Rush and the 1855 railroad put the notion back in the news.
Abandoned by the French, after thousands of their workers died of malaria, the U.S. took a shot at the project in the early 1900s.  
A colorful array of some of  one  freighter's shipment. 
PULITZER Prize winning author David McCullough describes the intricate political maneuvering in his epic, "The Path Between the Seas."  The sweeping tome chronicles the complex creation of the Panama Canal. It's a first-rate drama of the bold and brilliant engineering feat and all its tragedy and triumph, told by a master historian.
Tugs and pilot boats are part of the water traffic during transit.
The French had built the earlier Suez Canal, but that was in the desert on sandy earth.  They didn't have the savvy or equipment to break through the rocky earth in Central America.
HERE ARE some fun canal facts.  Did you know?
*The Chagres River is the only river on the planet flowing into two oceans, dumping its waters into oceans on two continents – on opposite sides of the Continental Divide. 
*The Panama Canal is essentially a “water elevator” moving ships between the two oceans, Atlantic and Pacific.  It’s a gravity fed
The thrill of transiting oceans through the locks attracts tourists worldwide, here aboard Royal Caribbean's Legend of the Seas.  The transit is narrated, through all three sets of locks, and takes a full, fascinating day on ship.
elevator raising ships 85 feet up and over the Divide and across two earthquake faults.
* It represents a savings of 8,000 miles (rather than going around the tip of South America or “the
The Pedro Miguel station awaits ships in transit on both sides. 
horn”) avoiding some of the coldest, windy, dangerous and rough waters of the world.
*The opening of the new, enlarged canal project has been delayed, due partly to flooding, and  to awarding the contract to the low bidder who ran out of money.  When we booked this spring cruise for 2014 – nearly two years ago – the new lane was to be open.
*It is designed to increase the capacity for transporting goods and services from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and vice versa, enabling ships to carry three times larger capacity.
* That the new, enlarged canal carried a price tag of $5.3 billion with contracts awarded to four countries:  Spain, Italy, Belgium and Panama. How is that international endeavor unfolding? It's $7 billion now and 18 months late.

The expansion project is underway again, cutting a new trench.
COMING WEDNESDAY:  The Panama Canal expansion may be open by late 2015.  That, too, is unfolding like a suspense novel.  It was supposed to open this year, but it was sidetracked, went way over budget and construction was stopped for months.  What will this "major heart surgery" do to the canal, and how much do ships pay for passage?  All at:  www.whereiscookie.com
Please tell your friends and remember to explore, learn and live. We publish Wednesdays and weekends, rain or shine!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Central American trek features Panama Canal, monkeys, sky walking

Jacarandas in all their glory escort our travelers through seven tropical countries

The jacaranda accompanied, and perhaps blessed,
a recent sea journey from San Diego to Florida.

HUNDREDS of jacaranda trees were our talismans on a recent foray to Mexico, Central America and the tip of South America.
Our adventure was enhanced by the gorgeous purple blossoms at every stop in an itinerary highlighted by a transit of the Panama Canal.
We'll share the Panama Canal's wonders. 
Legend has it that if you walk beneath a jacaranda and one of its gorgeous trumpet blossoms falls on your head, good fortune will favor you. And so it has.  We are safely back.
Applause for Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
 WE'LL TAKE YOU to seven countries, a dozen villages and several major cities including Cartegena, birthplace of the magnificent writer and Colombian native son and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who passed away last week, days after we'd strolled past his home. A central figure in Latin America's "magical realism" movement, Marquez is revered in Colombia and especially in Cartegena, where we spent time near the home he kept while living in Mexico City, where he died.
A wedding unfolded as our travelers journeyed through
the Americas, enjoying the variety of cultures and sights. 
The beautiful blooms of the jacaranda floated to the ground throughout the city, as if in celebration of his life and colorful writing. The tree and the author have much in common.  Jacaranda is a Portuguese word meaning "having a hard core or hard branch."  Marquez sent his literary branches worldwide.
Our visit to the southern Americas begins today, here at www.whereiscookie.com
The iguana inspired the title for the Burton film made in Puerto Vallarta.
OUR TRIP had myriad highlights -- a surprise wedding, a close-up of the remarkable canal itself, an embroidery lesson, rare bird sightings, howler monkeys, delightful meals ranging from curry to beans and rice and lamb stew, with gorgeous vegetables and fruits.

Richard Burton
in a still from
the 1964 film.
We'll be writing about El Set, made famous by the Burtons
and actor John Huston during filming.
WE'LL BE SKY walking in Costa Rica and  hobnobbing in Puerto Vallarta at the popular bar, El Set, made famous by the late actor Richard Burton when he was there on location in the 1960s. Older locals still remember Burton's and Elizabeth Taylor's colorful stay there during filming of "The Night of the Iguana." We have the scoop!
And speaking of iguanas, we'll take a look at the fellow who enjoyed the papaya we offered but had little interest in the pineapple or watermelon.
We'll walk across a trio of wavering sky bridges, high above the Costa Rican rain forest, where we commune with toucans and crimson parrots.   We'll take a boat ride to a remote Guatemalan village on Lake Atitlan, in the heart of the Mayan world. And we'll report on the two days spent transiting the Panama Canal.  The technological marvel is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. 
Humidity and a swaying sky bridge added drama as Cookie and Keller climbed with the monkeys in Costa Rica.
The jacaranda flowers brought good luck to our travelers.

Always, the jacaranda tree was our good luck and inspiration.
Cruisers aboard the Legend of the Seas are bound from the Pacific
to the Atlantic.  Each day, ships transit the canal from both oceans. 
ITS VIVID lilac-blue clusters of trumpet shaped blossoms are found in tropical and subtropical regions of Central and South America, Hispaniola and the Bahamas, where the tree is native. It has been planted widely in Asia, especially in Nepal where it is beloved, and in Africa and Australia.
By now, it has been introduced to most tropical climates on the planet, so beautiful are its spring and early summer blossoms which fall to earth with a mass of color.  I've had the good fortune to enjoy them in Barcelona, Pretoria, and at the famous annual Grafton festival in Australia.  There is actually a town called Jacaranda City, 50 kilometers north of Johannesburg, with 70,000 plus flowering jacaranda trees. That place is on my bucket list!
The richly figured timber is rarely cut, as the ornamental value is high. The interesting leathery seed pods follow flowering.  I'm hoping to plant some seeds this year here in San Diego, where there are thousands of these favorite trees.

COMING SOON: We kick off the trip series at the Panama Canal, celebrating its 100th birthday. Then on to the surrounding countries which offer a variety of colorful and daring tourist activities, from scholarly cultural excursions to sheer play.  Remember to explore, learn and live and visit us Wednesdays and weekends at:  www.whereiscookie.com

Friday, April 18, 2014

Journey to Jerusalem: Historic city yields wonder, emotion, spectacle


Cookie takes a moment to meditate and give thanks for her return to a favorite city at the Western Wall, Jerusalem.
The Dome of the Rock , sacred Muslim
shrine, circa 685, offers gorgeous mosaics
 and  is an Islamic architectural  monument.

NO CITY on the planet makes such an emotional impact on so many people.
Jerusalem, the proud capital of Israel, sits handsomely atop
a plateau in the Judean Mountains between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea. It has survived centuries of upheaval, invasion, plunder and celebration.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre figures prominently
in the Easter week remembrances when thousands visit. 
It remains one of the most beautiful, cohesive and oldest cities in the world, considered holy to the three major Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
WE WERE struck by the beautiful light -- and the peaceful nature of the people.  Although it is a bustling, busy city, Jerusalem has an underlying feeling of reverence.  Within a mile, we visited the historic Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall, all iconic, historic sites crucial to understanding the major world religions which share this diverse city and revere its sacred past.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre,
  the site of Christ's tomb, is sacred to believers.
Israel's eight million people live in an area a bit smaller than New Jersey.  About 840,000 people call Jerusalem home, with Jews comprising about 61 per cent, Muslims about 35 per cent, Christians and other faiths the remaining four per cent.

The spectacular Dome
of the Rock against
the Jerusalem skyline.
Cookie lights a candle for departed loved ones in Jerusalem.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been preserved for centuries.
EASTER TIME in Jerusalem is a wondrous spectacle for all faiths. Many Christian rituals have roots in Jewish traditions. The celebration of the Jewish festival of Passover, for example, commemorates the exodus of Jews from captivity in Egypt.  Passover has been mixed with Easter for centuries.  The Hebrew word Pesach, originally meaning Passover, came to mean Easter as well. Holy Week and Easter in Jerusalem mingle as members of both faiths celebrate their rich cultures. The magnificent Dome of the Rock is also a visitor's must. This stunning 7th-century Jerusalem edifice enshrines the rock from which MuḼammad is said to have ascended to heaven.
A journey to Masada in the Judean desert is a great day trip from Jerusalem. The rugged
 natural fortress  is a symbol of Jewish bravery and tenacity.  It overlooks
 the Dead Sea.
AS LENT draws to a close, native sons and daughters might avoid Jerusalem. They may celebrate their heritage at Masada or Galilee, or even with a float in the Dead Sea. But many Christians consider an Easter visit to Jerusalem a priority on their bucket lists. THE SPECTACLE in Jerusalem is thrilling, as locals and pilgrims celebrate Holy Week in the Holy City. 
THE CULMINATION of course is Easter Sunday. Even for non-believers, celebrating the events of Jesus’ life at the sites where they occurred is moving. Easter Week   began last Sunday with the celebration of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, greeted by cheering throngs.  Palm Sunday mass was celebrated at the monumental Church of the Holy Sepulchre with the palm procession following. Thousands of Christians from around the world joyfully marched from Bethphage, singing in many languages, down the western slope of the Mount of Olives across the Kidron valley and into the Old City. The next days were for praying and meditation.
Yosh Wickman  and Bruce Keller at the Dead Sea, another Israel site.
THEN ON HOLY Thursday, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper was celebrated at the Holy Sepulchre followed by ceremony with the Franciscans on Mount Zion, and a meditative holy hour with the actor portraying Jesus, leading up to his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.  A memorable candlelight procession followed to the church of St. Peter in Gallicantu where Jesus is said to have spent the night after his arrest.  I always light candles for my departed loved ones.
The colorful fabrics of Arab people attract the eye.
The crucifixion marked Good Friday, followed by Easter Vigil and vespers, the climax of the week, in the Basilica of the Resurrection. 
ON EASTER Sunday, mass was again celebrated for throngs at 8 a.m. with a procession around Jesus’ tomb.
Many pilgrims follow the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa. They also celebrate Christ’s funeral at the Sepulchre, an event unique to the Church of Jerusalem, reenacting the deposition of Christ’s body into the tomb.
THERE IS so much to do and see in Israel!  I've been lucky to make five visits, and I hope for another.  The culture is rich and varied, the amalgam of people, history and architecture are thrilling.  The people are warm, witty, proud and welcoming.   The food is fabulous. The beauty of the villages and particularly glorious Jerusalem has an unforgettable staying power.

Cookie's favorite tree, the jacaranda, was
in bloom throughout a recent trip through
Central America, Colombia and west Mexico.
COMING UP:  Speaking of beauty, the glorious purple jacaranda tree bloomed a path for us for nearly a month as we departed San Diego to visit seven countries south of us. Our recent transit of the Panama Canal segued to Central America with its variety and wonders.  We also stopped in Puerto Vallarta, made famous in the early 1960s by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor during filming of "The Night of the Iguana." Sure, there are drugs.  But the delights trump the fear, with fabulous food, adventurous people, and the glories of the natural world of birds, monkeys, trees and waterways. Remember to explore, learn and live and join us Wednesdays and weekends: www.whereiscookie.com

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Oregon creamery follows ancient tradition, delivering creamy cheeses

Contented cows, here near Jacksonville, are a must for good cheese!

Blue cheese and red wine -- say ahhh!


Oregon's Rogue Creamery cheese has won many awards, dating to 1933.

THE CHEESE makers were hard at work, delivering some of the best blue cheese we've ever sampled to a small tasting table.
We were at the famous Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon.  This pastoral part of southern Oregon boasts blossoming fruit trees, great grazing land and contented cows who share their milk with cheese lovers worldwide.
Pretty cheddar wheels await packaging and enjoyment! 
The Creamery is known by everyone who's lived in Oregon for any amount of time. It has the feel of a family run place and Rogue Creamery proudly draws from the beauty and flavors of Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley, from which it takes its name.
THE CREAMERY is a smoothly run, successful business, creating gourmet, hand-crafted blue cheese, cheddar and TouVelle.  The company uses certified, sustainable whole milk to make prize-winning. internationally acclaimed blue cheese.
We took a drive from nearby Ashland, Oregon, where we were seeing plays.  Our visit to the creamery got us thinking about cheese and how it was "invented."

YOU'VE HEARD the story of the shepherd boy who left his milk in a cave as he hurried to escape a winter storm. When he returned the following spring, the milk in his sheep-skin flask had turned to   creamy, delicious cheese!
No one knows for sure just when or where cheese making originated. The practice is related to the history of the domestication of milk-producing animals (particularly sheep) which began a mere 10,000 years ago.  The stories of the origins of cheese are as varied and rich as an array of the softest bries.
Early Egyptians
enjoyed cheese.
Cheese making calls for sterile conditions.
ALTHOUGH SHROUDED in mystery, cheese dates to the time of the Roman Empire. Cheese making became widespread throughout Europe and the Middle East as those traveling Romans spread cheese techniques across their vast empire. Cheese is mentioned in ancient Greek mythology, and on our recent trip to Egypt, we saw Egyptian tomb murals featuring cheese makers, dating back 4,000 years.
IN CHINA, yellowish chunks of the world's oldest "cheese" were discovered on the bodies of mummies buried in the Taklamakan Desert. The 3,800-year old mummies were buried with jewelry and food, as was the custom. The funereal edibles included dairy treats to enjoy in the afterlife. Scientists have deduced that the Chinese cheese was easy to make, nutritious and easily digestible.
Cold Cheese Storage in Switzerland
A Chinese mummy was found with
cheese bits, above, and the Romans
brought cheese to their vast empire. 
SOME OF OUR favorite cheeses today, though, -- cheddar, parmesan and gouda -- are the new kids on the cheese block, appearing only in the last 500 years or so.
What makes good cheese? Early American cheese makers looked for fine grazing land for their cattle, places with mild climates and green grass year-round.  Thus, Oregon is a natural and several of its famous valleys feature delicious cheeses -- Tillamook has been a favorite of my Oregon family  for years, along with Rogue Creamery's offerings!
SINCE THE  early 1700s, New England Puritans have been farming and making cheese. Paintings show Puritan women as artisans of cheese making, as they had been in their homeland of East Anglia in England.
From the early 19th Century, cheese making in America was connected to farming. On farms along the East Coast, it was the role of farm wives to make cheese and carry on the tradition.

Mild winters and early springs mean good grazing for cows.

Rogue Creamery, a star in Oregon.

BEFORE THE industrialization of the cheese industry, milk on the farm had to be consumed quickly or processed in some way just to help preserve it. Early settlers used the cream which floats to the top, to make butter, leaving the rest of the milk. Credit goes to the women, who did much of that work -- hauling milk, churning butter and processing of the cheese -- pioneers enormously responsible for the evolution of cheese making in America.

Cheese makers keep a meticulous shop at Rogue Creamery in Central Point. Locals and tourists love visiting.

Curds and whey!

IF THE shepherd boy story is true -- that cheese was discovered accidentally from storing milk in containers made from the stomachs of animals -- the enzyme rennin comes into play. Rennin is found in stomach lining and causes milk to separate into little Miss Muffet's curds and whey. The curds at Rogue Creamery are delicious, and a popular seller!
Cookie pauses to meditate outside Jerusalem's
 Western Wall. Three major world religions inhabit the city.

COMING UP:  Easter is just around the corner, and we're taking readers with us to Jerusalem.  In this magnificent, historic and cohesive city, three major world religions exist mostly peacefully. Tell us where you'd like us to take you next! Remember to explore, learn and live.  Please share our blog with friends: