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Panama City, Panama

Saturday the 8th was a day at sea. Had a nice breakfast with Mel on the fantail at the Veranda Café. I finished my grading (I am completing an online course for Foothill College next week). Mel and I had lunch and then attended a wine tasting at 3:00 in the restaurant that was really nice. We tasted 3 whites and 3 reds.

The whites were two Sauvignon Blancs from France, a 2001 Chateau Olivier and a 2001 Poully Fume de Ladourette. The third white was a 2005 Domaine Laroche from the Chablis appelation. Mel liked the Chablis the best and could not tolerate the Pouilly Fume which has a very strong nose often characterized as ‘dirty sweat socks.’ I liked the Chablis, but preferred the Pouilly Fume.

The reds were a 2002 Gavrey-Chambertin (from Burgundy thus a Pinot Noir), a 2003 Henzel Pinot Noir (Alexander Valley) and a 1998 Chateau Talbot St. Julien (a Bordeaux). So we tasted French and California Pinot Noir side by side and that was fun. The French one was superior, but still so tannic it needs years of aging. The Calofornia one more ready to drink with gobs of fruit on the palate. The climax red was the Bordeux that turned out to be not all that thrilling – dark and inky and nice, but not a 90+ point wine imho.

For dinner we took a wine we brought aboard: a 2005 Hendry Block 7 Zinfandel. Mel and I enjoy this Napa vintner’s wines very much.

Dinner was fun – the sommelier I think has decided that we have some credibility and we shared some of the Hendry with him, I think he enjoyed it.

To give you some idea of the cuisine on board I will outline what Mel and I had:

Mel started with the Chilled Sweet Pea soup with Maine crab meat and rosemary brioche croutons, followed by a salad of baby spinach leaves and crsis shallots with a balsamic dressing. For the entree she had a beautiful grilled Filet Mignon with parmesan potato gratin and a roasted shallot marmalade.

I had the cured and roasted lamb loin appetizer with mango coulis, thai chiles and spicy mint oil – a beautiful presentation! Then I had beef consomme and fingerling potato salad with horseradish, quail eggs and double smoked bacon. For the entree I ate pink roasted venison sirloin medallions with a foie gras sauce and caramelized pear. Yum!

Our Hendry went really well with the meal, and we enjoyed it very much.

We arrived Sunday morning the 9th in Panama City – the port of Puerto Amador at the end of a chain of three islands that had been connected by a causeway formed from deposits from the digging at the Gaillard cut through the continental divide. Being Sunday the locals were out it a big way. Lots of bicyclists, runners, people strolling with babies and dogs, and out on the water with us fishing and enjoying the day. Pretty hot and humid, but not oppressively so.

First thing in the morning we went on a shore excursion to the lake which forms the heart and headwaters of the canal – Gatun Lake. We boarded small boats and headed towards the Caribbean side to see ‘Monkey Island’ and boy did we! A troop of (very habituated) white faced monkeys was down along the waterline posing for photos and hoping for (and getting) pieces of banana. They are fun to watch, very intelligent and agile with prehensile tails they use to great advantage. On was hanging on with his for dear life as he leaned way out catching pieces of banana thrown to him by our guide. Here are some shots:

White-faced Monkey Monkey Island, Gatun Lake, Panama
White-faced Monkey, Monkey Island, Gatun Lake, Panama

White-faced Monkey Monkey Island, Gatun Lake, Panama
White-faced Monkey catching banana, Monkey Island, Gatun Lake, Panama

White-faced Monkey Monkey Island, Gatun Lake, Panama
White-faced Monkey looking for a treat, Monkey Island, Gatun Lake, Panama

The rainforest and the islands (formed by flooding the lake) are really beautiful. I took quite a few shots of the vegetation, the towering high-canopy trees and the water but they do not turn out that well. One must see them with the naked eye.

Rainforested Island, Gatun Lake, Panama
Island with lush rainforest, Gatun Lake, Panama

We returned to the resort’s marina and then had the requisite trip to the resort proper. This is built (as were many things we saw today) upon the foundation of what were American Canal Zone compounds. This one was an Army barracks, and the old buildings have been restored and turned into hotel suites – sort of for long-term rentals by families. The new building contains the lobby, bars and restaurants, and many new hotel-style rooms. The site overlooks the lake and jungle surrounding.

The tour guide sort of droned on and on about the canal. Panama = canal for sure. The take over of the canal by the nation in 1999 looms large in the Panamanian psyche and they are very proud.

The architecture of the canal zone buildings, while not exactly striking, is of historical interest and very consistent from compound to compound as we drove 25 miles up the canal. The buildings generally elevated, with two living floors and corrugated roofs and louvered windows with cantilevered roofs over each row of windows. The traditional building material is wood – lapping slat exterior, much of it painted a creamy yellow which seems institutional and may be the original canal zone colors, who knows? We now see air conditioning compressors attached to each building.

I was reminded today that the canal’s essential engine is rainfall. Without the huge inflow of water into the lake allowing flow through the locks to elevate the ships this canal is a useless ditch through the mountains. The government is interested in preserving the rainforest for reasons pertaining to the functioning of the canal. Our guide told us of being a student and seeing an Ocelot in the park.

Along route today was a one-lane highway bridge right alongside the single-track railway bridge across the Chagres river. On the return our bus awaited a green light behind two passenger vehicles. When the light turned green the two vehicle in front of us took off in spite of the fact that there was plainly visible a car coming the other direction on the bridge. When they met near the middle there was a stalemate. This then was followed by more inflow onto the bridge from either end as the signals went through their paces. What struck me was the immaturity of the drivers on the bridge in solving this problem. It was all about ego; no one was willing to back up, each believing they were in the right and insisting the other party back down.

While we awaited a solution to the stalemate, a train crossed the bridge. We were hoping the bridge could take the load!

Stalemate on the Bridge, Gatun Lake, Panama
Stalemate on the bridge across the Chagres river, Panama

Our guide almost immediately called the police on his cell phone and it took their presence to untangle the stalemate, although to our guide’s credit he had essentially negotiated a settlement prior to their arrival.

We had a nice dinner hosted by our cruise director Jan Spearman. Mel sat next to a man who is the inventor and patent holder of the aerosol can, among other things. A charming man who is hobbled by having had multiple hip replacements and a stroke. I am looking forward to talking with him some more.

We are approaching the entrance to the canal. The schedule is to pick up the pilot about now, then transit the Miraflores locks around 8:30. In fact I just now see the pilot boat coming alongside. We are then expecting to go through the Pedro Miguel locks around 11:00 am. After transiting the Galliard cut we cross the lake and descend through the Gatun locks around 5:00 pm. If you want to try and catch us there are webcams at http://www.pancanal.com/eng/photo/camera-java.html. The times I have listed are EST times.

The canal is very interesting and we look forward to its transit today!

Happy Travels!

-Steve

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