Posted by: Sailing Camelot | November 7, 2012

November 8th – Crossing the Panama Canal, finally!

I meant to write extensively about or last few days in Panama City, but the preparations and last-minute things to do ate up all my time, so forget about that…

All I have time to say is, we’ll be at the Miraflores Locks (the first of three sets of locks) at 1030 local time on Thursday November 8th, and if you want you can watch the process thru the Miraflores Live Webcam here:

https://www.pancanal.com/common/multimedia/webcams/viewer-flash/cam-miraflores-hi.html

We’ll be waving at you!

We should then arrive at the last set of locks, the Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side, around 1500 local time, and here’s the link to the Gatun Live Webcam :

https://www.pancanal.com/common/multimedia/webcams/viewer-flash/cam-gatun-hi.html

To make it a little easier, Panama is on Eastern Time – like New York. Or GMT -5 hours.

I’m so excited I just know I won’t sleep a wink tonight and be an absolute wreck all day tomorrow.

But that’s when adrenaline kicks in, right?

Well, then, see you from the “other” side! That would be… The Caribbean Sea!

Wish us luck!

Pictures and a full report to follow…

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Posted by: Sailing Camelot | October 17, 2012

Sep 24th to October 5th – Archipelago de Las Perlas

We’ve been more or less twiddling our thumbs, stuck here at the Balboa mooring field waiting for parts coming from New Zealand to fix our rebellious windlass.

Just when the level of frustration was about to hit unbearable levels the parts arrived, the fix was completed and we found ourselves finally FREE to roam, albeit on a tight leash.

Our canal crossing is a few weeks away, but we have enough time to go visit part of the Archipiélago de Las Perlas, made up of 39 islands and more than 100 islets.

With a great sigh of relief we untie the mooring lines early in the morning, leaving behind Balboa and gleefully setting the course to Contadora Island.

Unfortunately we take with us the cloud cover, there’s no escaping that this time of the year.

Escorted by many humpback whales, we arrive at our destination a little over five hours later. We put the windlass to the test as we drop anchor on the west side of the island: it works flawlessly, I’m thrilled.

 

Warning Puff!

 

Baby on Board…

 

The greyness of the day and intermittent rains do not inspire us to do much, so we just settle down and get used to life at anchor again, get to know our new surroundings and watch Mama and Baby Whale spin slow, lazy circles around our boat.

 

“Let’s take a closer look at Camelot!”

 

“Ok, we’ve seen enough”

The islands forming the archipelago are mostly unnamed and uninhabited; Isla Contadora is the most developed and best-known.

Founded by the Spanish, the archipelago was named for the once lucrative pearl industry whose grandest find was the 31 carat, 400-year-old Peregrina pearl owned by Queen Mary Tudor of England,also known as “Bloody Mary“.

In 1969 Richard Burton bought the pear-shaped Peregrina for $37,000  as a Valentine’s gift for his wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor. The precious gem was sold again in 2011 for  eleven million US dollars.

 

Liz Taylor wearing the Peregrina set in a diamond and ruby necklace by Cartier

I think I’m going pearl- diving soon…

 

Sep 26th

Today we move to the opposite side of the Island, just for a change of scenery. Luckily, the weather has improved a little. Time to break out the kayaks and go snorkeling!

 

Pretty Beach, and even prettier homes…

 

Our “Bicycles of the Sea” on Playa Cachique, Contadora Island.

 

The water is amazingly clear, nice and warm, the fish plentiful and the beach inviting. We spend a few good hours enjoying our surroundings. This is indeed the best therapy one could ever wish for, and I’m soaking it in!

 

I guarantee it, you’ll never want to leave this place.

 

Taking a lazy stroll on the beach we admire a few secluded luxury homes. There is some serious wealth on display here! Contadora is a well-known sanctuary where the rich and famous come to relax.

 

Vantage point!

 

Way out of my league, but a gal can dream…

 

The Shah of Persia spent part of his exile here; fashion designer Oscar de La Renta owns a home on the island, among many other high-profile people.

This time of the year, however, we pretty much have the run of the whole place.

 

Tom, Lord of the Beach for one day.

 

Sep 28th

Tom is feeling a little restless, probably craving more company that I can provide or just some new views, so we move on to the next little island – barely an hour away.

Escorted by a humpback whale, we arrive in another magical-looking place and anchor in the channel separating the uninhabited islands of Chapera and Mogo-Mogo.   

Tom breaks in a wide grin, spotting four other boats close by. I see a friendly gathering on Camelot in my immediate future…

 

Isla Chapera to the right, Mogo-Mogo to the left.

 

I keep giggling as I update our ship log, for some reason the “Mogo-Mogo” name cracks me up. I picture a cartoon in my mind, an indigenous little man who suggestively wiggles his eyebrows at a pretty island girl while saying “Mogo-Mogo?”

I know, I’m silly… But I can’t stop giggling!

This area was the location for the CBS TV series “Survivor 7” in 2003, “Survivor All-Stars” in 2004 and ”Survivor 12” in 2006.  I never cared much for TV, so I haven’t seen the show, but I’m sure no TV depiction comes even close to the real thing.

It’s so pretty here, truly a vision of Paradise: sugar-white beaches, thick jungle-like vegetation  and an extensive coral reef all around, begging to be explored. I’m very grateful it’s the OFF season, so we can have the run of the place without hordes of screaming tourists…

 

This will be our backyard for a few days.

 

We enjoy a few good, relaxing days and get to know our neighbors over cocktail hour on Camelot, a group of very nice people: Blake from the catamaran “Slow Mocean”, Roy and Jen from “Nighthawk” and Rick and Karen from “Eyes of the World”.

Sadly, the group disbands tomorrow. “Nighthawk” and “Slow Mocean” will be returning to Panama for boat maintenance, leaving just us and “Eyes of the World” to watch over the islands. Or so we thought…

Sep 29th – The Chantou saga

Much later that night, the peace and quiet are disrupted by quite a sizeable sailboat entering the channel, blasting loud rap music, colorful lights twirling like a floating disco. Passing dangerously close to our friends’ sailboat, then between us and the reef hugging the shore, they holler “wake UUUP! It’s time to partyyyy!”.  My middle fingers twitch badly, but I manage to restrain myself…

Tom and I are speechless; that’s not a common sight, those are not common sounds in our lifestyle. Must be a charter boat, the loudest one out there! In my mind I dub them The Assholes of the Sea, but they’re just probably clueless young people having fun…

Luckily, by one in the morning they fall silent; the boat is anchored not far from us, and we fervently hope they’ll leave in the morning.

The next day, the saga of the Loud Sailboat takes an unexpected turn. They move from their anchoring spot to another one opposite us and closer to Mogo Mogo beach, in very shallow waters. Tom comments about the extreme tides in this place, wondering if they know that in a few hours the water will go down about 16 feet, leaving them on a bed of coral reef… Oh, c’mon, the MUST know, the water is crystal clear and the reef clearly visible!

 

This is clearly how NOT to do it…

 

We get on with our day, snorkeling one of the reefs, spending a lot of time in the water and forgetting all about the Loud Sailboat. But when we return a couple of hours later we clearly see the boat leaning at an unhealthy angle: the tide is going down and they must be touching bottom. But they seem to be okay, cleaning the exposed bottom of the hull -a common technique called careening-. Strange place to be doing that, you usually choose a sandy spot, not a rocky one…

Another couple of hours go by, we see the Aeronaval guys from the nearby base (local equivalent to our Coast Guard) come to get the guests off the boat and help tow the big beast into deeper water.

Now, we’re not exactly following their every move, but we’re close enough to notice things. Tom is also keeping an eye out in case they need help, although they seem to be unconcerned.

The next morning we look over their spot. The boat is now on her port side, firmly planted on the rocks! How did that happen???

 

Tom is more distressed than the guy who drove the boat on the rocks…

 

Chantou on the rocks… Not the name of a cocktail…

 

Tom and I hop in the dingy and go to see if they need help. We find two young and quite clueless guys just mildly annoyed at the inconvenience, but still totally unconcerned.

I’d be pulling my hair out in their place, but they are totally cool with it. I wonder if they’re stoned out of their mind…

The boat’s name is Chantou, hailing from Emeryville, California. She’s a true beauty and it breaks my heart to see her like this. I hope they can get her up and to safety before it’s too late.

Reminds me of a beached whale, equally sad…

 

This image will stay with me for a very long time. Just hoping it never happen to us!

 

Tom learns a strange tale full of conflicting details, quite a confusing story … But it really is none of our business.  We establish that the kids are okay, tell them to call us on the radio if they need a place to stay or any help. But they decline, saying that the owner should be back to get them soon and they’re camping out at the Aeronaval base for the night.

 

Oct 2nd

Anyway, we carry on with our life. Our outboard motor starts sputtering and misbehaving and after some testing and poking we determine that we have contaminated fuel. We’ll need to dispose of the dirty fuel and get some clean gasoline. No big deal, we can continue our island hopping, rely on our kayaks to explore and take care of this problem when we return to Panama City…

But the next morning Tom suddenly and unexpectedly decides we should go back to Contadora to solve our problem before exploring further islands and wouldn’t budge from his decision even after my protests! I’m not happy, but if that’s what it takes to move on, fine, let’s do it.

So at nine in the morning we leave Mogo Mogo and our friends, with promises of meeting up again at some point.

An hour later we throw anchor in Contadora, and a string of unlucky events starts.

A panga comes by with orders from the local authorities to move to another spot, as we’re smack in the middle of the little airport runway and our mast is in the way of the small aircrafts landing and taking off.

No problem, we just move a little to the left and everyone’s happy.

 

Oh, sorry! Is our mast in your way?

 

Definitely… We better move, and quick!

 

The weather quickly changes, dark clouds promising a good thunderstorm and lightning, the sea getting choppier by the minute. We won’t be paddling our dinghy ashore today!

So I get my sewing machine out to repair the dinghy cover that’s starting to come undone. After a few frustrating minutes it’s clear that there’s something wrong: I can’t sew three stitches in a row without breaking the thread! Ok, scratch the sewing project until I can get this sorted out…

Shortly after our generator’s fan belt breaks, but even after replacing it there’s clearly something else wrong with it, like unhealthy voltage spikes that could be fatal to the batteries.

Oh, and the shower sump pump quits working as well.

Tom is at his most frustrated, I’m incredulous and speechless.

 

The Big Ominous Cloud of Negativity.

 

We’re both puzzling about this sudden dark wave of bad luck, when a few minutes later we get a weak radio call from our friends on “Eyes of the World”: they have been hit by a direct bolt of lightning that wiped out all of their electronics and electrical systems.

Thankfully, no one is hurt. The only working things are their engine, the windlass and a portable VHF radio, so they are going to limp back to Panama City.

Wishing them the best of luck we monitor their trip as far as we can, then alert the sailing community by HAM radio to standby for assisting them upon their arrival.

Then it’s reflection time for us: six hours ago we were anchored not more than 200 feet behind them. Tom says “someone is watching over us!”  I smile, knowing that to be true and with a pretty good idea on whom it may be….

Suddenly, I don’t feel so unlucky anymore.

 

Just a few hours before the lightning strike: Camelot anchored behind “Eyes of the World”.

 

Change of plans: we don’t feel like staying out with all of our annoying problems needing attention, so after a couple of days we return to Panama City to take care of them. Besides, all this lightning activity is making us nervous…

I’m pretty sure we won’t get another chance to visit the Las Perlas; I am disappointed that we won’t get to see more of this paradise, yet very grateful for what we were able to see.

So, among humpback whales breaching around us and whale sharks swimming lazily beside us, we reluctantly make our way back to civilization a good week ahead of schedule.

So, back at the Balboa Yacht Club mooring field we are.

Sunset over the Bridge of the Americas, back at Balboa Mooring field.

Well, I guess we’ll just have a lot more time to prepare for the transit…

 

Posted by: Sailing Camelot | October 7, 2012

September 21st – The Panama Canal, demystified

In a few weeks we’ll be crossing the Panama Canal, leaving behind the Pacific Ocean to go explore the Atlantic side.

Though very excited about this next experience, I can’t help feeling somewhat apprehensive and intimidated – possibly due to my ignorance regarding the whole process.

We decided to get informed, not only reading about it, but also doing everything possible short of the crossing itself.

Here’s some of the information I found on the Canal:

Ships passing through the canal from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean actually move from the northwest to the southeast, due to the east-west orientation of the Isthmus of Panama.

The original construction project was started by the French in the late 1880’s, but was abandoned just a few years later for lack of funds and the loss of many workers’ lives to tropical diseases. In 1904 the U.S. bought the Canal Zone, paying $10 million to Panama and $40 million to the French, completing the Panama Canal in 1914 for a total cost of $375 million. The U.S. operated the Canal until 1999, when it was turned over to Panama.

The canal has three sets of locks. From the Pacific side, the first is the Miraflores Locks, followed by the Pedro Miguel locks and lastly by the Gatun Lake locks.

Each one of its chambers measures 33.53 meters (110 feet) wide and 304.80 meters long (1000 feet).

The three locks were built in pairs, so that two ships can move simultaneously in the same direction or in opposite directions.

The big cargo ships we see crossing every day are considered “mid-size” and are known as the “Panamax” class. These are currently the largest ships that can fit into the lock chambers.

Traffic continues to increase, but many oil supertankers, military battleships and aircraft carriers (known as “Post Panamax”) cannot currently fit through the canal.

Therefore, in September 2007 the Panama Canal expansion project began; completion is expected by 2014 for an estimated cost of US$ 5.2 billion.

It’s basically considered a “third lane” that will double the Canal’s capacity and accommodate the Post Panamax ships, which are 1,200 feet in length and carry three times the cargo of the 965-feet-long Panamax ships.

It’s far from a simple endeavor and many factors must be considered, just like during the original project.

First, the sea level of the Caribbean is eight inches lower than the Pacific. Second, the different tides between the two oceans must be accounted for. Third, the Isthmus at Panama itself rises 26 meters above sea level.

Before… Looking from Gatun Lake out to the Atlantic Ocean

… And After. This is what the new expansion will look like once completed.

View from opposite direction – entering Gatun Lake from the Atlantic Ocean

To solve these problems, ships go through a series of three locks, which lift them up to Gatun Lake, and then lower them through three more locks back down to sea level. It takes, on average, 13 hours to move through the Canal’s 51 mile length.

The Panama Canal is rightfully considered a marvel of modern engineering, and I couldn’t agree more after seeing just a part of it…

We took a Bus trip to Gamboa, then hopped on a boat and went thru the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks, thus completing a “three-quarter crossing”; it gave us a clear feel for what’s entailed.

Our ride for the Three Quarter Canal crossing

Miraflores Lock – waiting to lower the water

Doors always open for Tom! The Miraflores lock opening

Basically, the most exciting part of the crossing is being in the locks. We can expect the rest of the transit to be pretty much a quiet trip up a quiet canal… It helps that the flow of traffic is one-way: from midnight to midday ships transit exclusively from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and from midday to midnight from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This greatly minimizes the possibility for accidents… Hopefully, we’ll only have to worry about what’s coming behind or beside us while still maintaining a good lookout for the few stragglers in front of us…

Imagine finding this “straggler” in front of you…

The Panama Canal Guardian Angels

They’re here to nudge, push, pull or – in extreme cases – even tow!

On a separate trip we also visited the brand new canal expansion observation center overlooking the construction site at Gatun Lake on the Atlantic side and had a very clear view of the magnificence of this new engineering project.

Self explanatory…

Visitor Center overlooking Gatun Lake – Ships staged, waiting to cross the last set of locks

The Expansion Plan

Not only will the new locks be bigger, they will also wisely have cisterns to save and recycle the water needed to flood the chambers, instead of relying solely on the water reserve from Gatun Lake and Chagres River.

Section of the Expansion under construction, Atlantic Ocean in the distance

Close up of same construction site

It’s an incredibly detailed and complicated operation

At this point, after gathering all this “intelligence”, I no longer feel so intimidated. The sense of trepidation has been replaced by a sense of wonder and anticipation for the upcoming crossing.

As soon as we’re assigned our crossing date, I’ll post the link to the live-cam stationed at the Miraflores Locks. Just in case you want to see our “tiny” sailboat following huge behemoths into the Canal…

If this guy can DROP in the Canal, I shouldn’t have a problem merely crossing it…

Posted by: Sailing Camelot | October 7, 2012

September 7th – A tribute to Mom

It’s been a long time since my last posting. It’s not that there was nothing to talk about, on the contrary… But the personal and painful nature of the events made it hard just to think about, impossible to speak of, never mind sharing them…

My mother, my best friend in the whole world, died unexpectedly of heart failure on August 18th in her home in Italy. She would have been 78 on October 14th. She was in good health and excellent spirit, so her death blindsided us badly.

Tom and I had planned a six-week long vacation for the occasion, which would have seen the three of us roaming about Europe, enjoying each other’s company and celebrating her Birthday in style.

Mom was very excited about it and had already compiled a list of places she wanted to see. We were all very much looking forward to it, but it was never to be…

Mom and me a few years back, enjoying our hometown.

We spoke on the phone just the day before her death, happily chattering away like we always did. There was nothing left unsaid, we exchanged our “I love you”, and hung up the phone still giggling like two teenagers.

Later that evening she was chirping and flirting with Tom on Facebook, commenting on the many pictures I posted that day for her to see. I am grateful for that last exchange.

I am also grateful that on her last day on this Earth she took one more little ride on her Vespa –she loved her moped!-, spent some time with friends, and was serene and happy with her life.

 

Tom had a very special connection with Mom, too.

 

Thankfully she wasn’t alone in her home, as my aunt Rosalba was staying with her for a few weeks.

It gives me comfort to know she wasn’t all alone in the last moments of her life.

 And so it is that my already small family shrunk even more. Now there’s only two of us left, my brother Maurizio and me.

Maurizio had, as always, to bear the brunt of the situation, like he’s always done to allow me the freedom to live my life on my terms. He is a strong yet very sensitive family man. Still, I wonder where and how he found the strength to cope with the inevitable aftermath. But he did, and I’ll forever be grateful to him for taking care of everything in spite of his own grief.

 

My brother Maurizio goofing around with Mom

 

Tom and I flew to Italy for Mom’s funeral and to offer whatever little help we could in settling her affairs.

Though it was a far cry from our original, happier plans, we rejoiced in the company of our family, especially drawing healing love from my brother’s children and his wife Marina.

My nephews (Lorenzo, age 11 and Giovanni, 9) are very dear to us. There’s nothing as healing as their heartfelt hugs.

My sister in law Marina is compassion, strength and practicality personified. I love her for her quiet but unfaltering support. I give her credit for being my brother’s safe harbor, for keeping him and her family going while dealing with her own grieving process. I appreciate her more than words can say.

Tom tried hard to distract me -at least temporarily- by taking long, wandering walks in the beautiful medieval town I grew up in. It was somewhat bittersweet; I walked and reminisced.

So much of this town reminds me of Mom: the old bookstore that she favored (she was an avid reader), the small, picturesque café we’d stop at for an espresso, her favorite fabric store (she was a talented seamstress), the small jewelry store she joyfully dragged me to nine years ago to buy our wedding rings … Almost every corner spoke to me of her.

They are all happy, positive memories. I feel extremely blessed for that.

This blog, started at the beginning of our cruising life, was intended specifically to keep Mom informed of our every move, a way for her to visit faraway places, to somewhat travel with us.

Her death took the joy of living out of me for a while and I couldn’t see the purpose in continuing my postings, hence the long quiet period.

It was my brother and his wife Marina that persuaded me to persevere.

So here I am, again.

In loving memory of Giselda Rossetti

 October 14th, 1934 – August 18th, 2012.

Posted by: Sailing Camelot | August 10, 2012

July 26th – Tusipono, an Embera Indian Village

Today we take a group tour with three other couples.

Ladies and Gentleman, I present you “The Goofy Goons”

Halfway between Panama City and Colon (on the Pacific coast) sits the Chagres National Park, where six Embera Indians villages are located. Only three of them welcome visitors.

Now, this is an unusual sight…

Embera Indian dress code: the beaded skirt is called Ambura

After an hour’s drive in comfortable big SUVs we reach the shores of Rio Chagres; a few young Indians dressed in loincloths and some sort of a miniskirt (called Ambura) made of colorful beads are waiting to take us to their village up the river in their long and narrow dugout canoes (Piroguas). It seems surreal!

Dugout Canoes are called Piroguas

They are a rickety ride!

But there is one detail showing evidence of modernization: the canoes are equipped with 15hp outboards. Hey, you try rowing eight well-fed Gringos up the river with a paddle!

The guy in front is watching the depth of the river, as it gets shallow in places.

About twenty minutes later, after a slow ride up the river immersed in spectacular scenery, we get off the canoes and start trekking in the jungle.

…And so it starts…

Me and Tom, cooling our heels.

As usual, I’m forever dillydallying, nose in the air, looking for something beautiful to capture on camera. And there’s plenty of beauty to capture…

Wait! I must take another shot!

I KNEW it was worth walking with my nose up!

Following winding paths and crossing shallow rivulets we finally arrive to an idyllic spot with a waterfall cascading into a small basin.

Our destination!

Our guide was always many steps ahead of us…

It looks very inviting and I don’t need any encouragement to jump in the cool, clear water! Tom bomb-dives in as well, whooping like an excited child.

That would be Tom…

If I were a man, there would be a serious shrinkage issue… The water was pretty COLD!

We frolic in the water to our heart’s content, then still dripping wet we trek back to the canoes to be taken to the village.

Ma’am, your carriage awaits.

She should hold the “Miss River 2012” title… Such a pretty lady.

I felt really welcome, here! Tusipono village, Embera’ tribe.

 
At the village we’re welcomed with music, wide smiles and handshakes.
 
 

The gentleman to the left is 93 years old. I couldn’t believe it…

The Tusi Pono Marching Band!

This instrument is a turtle shell upside-down. Made me ask “how was the soup?”

We are directed to a huge palapa building where the men play music for the women dancing their welcome dance for us.

The Central Hut

The Dancers getting ready

There is a different dance for every occasion, we’re told. It’s a form of expression.

This is the “Hospitality Dance”

… They were quite agile, it’s an energetic dance!

We’re then taken to a different hut where Antonio the Chief gives us some background on the village customs and the tribe’s daily life. Actually he’s Second in Command, but today he’s officially the Chief because the boss is away from the village.

Antonio The Deputy Chief and Guillermina explaining materials used in their hand weaving

There are 20 families in this particular village, 68 people in total.

The land is community owned and community farmed. Everyone in the village pitches in to work at harvest time.

The village “Main Street” looking down toward the river…

.. and up toward the hill

If one hunter gets a larger animal such as a peccary or a tapir, everybody in the village shares the meat.

Health care is primarily provided by trained Shamans.

The houses of the village are set about 20– 50 feet apart, raised on posts about eight feet off the ground, with no walls and tall thatched roofs made from palm fronds.

It does look like a movie set…

… Or like a vacation village

Got to be in good shape to climb that ladder!

All the joinery is made of vines called “bejuco”.

Hanging from the supporting posts and beams are hammocks, baskets, pots, bows and arrows, mosquito nets, clothing and other items. The floor is made of split black palm trunks or white cane.

Privacy -or lack thereof- is not an issue here…

Must be Laundry Day!

The kitchen is built on a clay platform about three feet square; on top of this base they build a fire, supporting cooking pots over the fire with a tripod of sturdy sticks.

The Kitchen

The houses are accessed from the ground via a sloped log with deep notches forming a ladder. They turn the notches face down at night to prevent animals from climbing into the house while they sleep.

Elevated Dwellings

The men sport “bowl cut” hair styles, and when not in towns still wear nothing but a minimal loin cloth. The women wear brightly colored cloth wrapped around the waist as a skirt.

The common Bowl Cut

Looks perfect on him!

Except when in towns, the women do not cover their torsos (they were covered during our visit), and wear long, straight black hair. The children go naked until puberty, and no one wears shoes.

The next Chief? He has the charm…

Around each village the jungle is partly cleared and replaced by plantain and banana plantations – a commercial crop for the Embera, who sell them to get cash for their outboard motors, mosquito nets, fabrics and other necessities.

The whole presentation is given in Spanish, but in the village their own language is spoken, so we are quite shocked when two young boys address Tom in perfect English…

The Ladies preparing our meal

Great presentation!

We are then served a simple but very tasty meal of delicious fried fish and patties made of corn and plantains, all attractively wrapped in banana leaves with a decorative hibiscus flower, and lots of fruit: bananas, mangoes, pineapples, watermelon.

Looks fabulous!

And tasted even better! Fried fish, corn, banana and plantain patties. YUM!

After the meal we thank our host and return to the main hut, where the women are displaying and selling intricately woven baskets, exquisite carvings, beaded jewelry and lengths of fabric.

Hand Woven baskets and plates are their trademark

The fibers used for the weavings are all colored with natural dyes from plants

These two young men spoke perfect English!

Needless to say, we walk away with a couple of baskets and a carving…

We’re finally ready to leave, and are accompanied down to the river by a large contingent of the smiling and friendly villagers, all trying to communicate with us. It almost looks like a movie set!

Our festive escort upon our departure

The children are taken down to the river to play

The colors, the children, these small and colorful people, this life beyond anything I could possibly ever imagine… This is possibly the richest experience I’ve ever had and I know it’ll stay with me forever.

Goodbye, beautiful Embera People! Thanks for the wonderful hospitality.

I guess everyone in my group feels the same, judging by the silent ride back home, with everyone lost in their thoughts, still processing this incredible day.

Of course! Wherever he goes,Tom meets new friends.

Today we visited another world. I just can’t believe it’s only an hour away from a big, modern city…

Posted by: Sailing Camelot | August 10, 2012

Panama Canal: the Miraflores Locks

I woke up this morning all excited, despite the heat and 98% humidity: I’m anticipating our scheduled visit at the Miraflores Lock.

 

Welcome to the Miraflores Lock!

 

The Visitor Center is always pretty crowded

 

In a couple of months or so we’ll be crossing the Canal and I’m looking forward to a better understanding of the mysterious process which will allow us to move the boat from the Pacific to the Atlantic ocean thru the isthmus of Panama.

 

Entrance to the Canal on the Pacific side

 

The Lock

 

Once at the lock we position ourselves to watch a couple of huge cargo ships followed by a small sailboat in the process of entering the first of the three locks. Quite exciting!

 

Looks pretty narrow!

… But then it opens up

Keep going for the Atlantic side!

Next we visit the small museum that illustrates the history of the building of the Canal – a daunting task that took many lives and years to complete.

An initial attempt by the French to build a sea-level canal failed, but only after a great amount of excavation was carried out. This was of use to the United States, which completed the present Panama Canal in 1913 and officially opened it in 1914.

 

This is called “Mule”, it’s used to pull ships along the locks.

 

This is the Grandaddy of the Mule

People from all over the world came to Panama in droves to work on this enormous project and many stayed afterwards, accounting for the diverse population of the City. Chinese, Russians, Italians –just to name a few- still have a strong presence here.

Afterwards, our trusted taxi driver/tourist guide Miguel suggest a quick drive up to Cerro Ancon, a hill overlooking the city offering spectacular views.

 

Tom with our friend and driver Miguel, a true guardian angel and very knowledgeable guide..

 

What an amazing place: park-like settings, wildlife all around and breathtaking views of Panama City Skyline.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll shut up and just show you the sights…

This is what’s in front of me :

The Panamanian flag flying proud on top of Cerro Ancon. It’s visible from miles away.

 

Postcard view of Panama City

 

The Financial Heart of the City

 

It is quite expansive

 

Panama Vieja, the Old City that pirate Henry Morgan burned down to the ground.

 

And this is just behind me…

 

Beauty of another kind…

 

This guy was watching me take pictures, patiently awaiting his turn.

 

Satisfied after another truly amazing day in Panama City, we return to our “tiny” boat…

 

Quite a sight to come home to! I can barely see Camelot… Can you? Hint: orange kayak on the side…

 

Posted by: Sailing Camelot | August 10, 2012

July 12th – Contributing to the economy in Panama City

 In my opinion, a mooring ball is the next best thing to a marina dock. You’re tied up safe in the knowledge that your boat will stay put (in most cases), but you still get the gentle rocking that you enjoy at anchor.

The long dock connecting us to land

Part of the mooring field, with a view of Bridge of the Americas

We’re quite pleased with our setting. The Balboa Yacht Club is conveniently close to the buzzing city but far enough from the crowd. To get ashore we take advantage of the complimentary water-taxi service that runs 24 hours a day, and there are always cabs stationed outside to take you wherever you want for a reasonable fee.

It can get pretty crowded at times…

Today we venture out to visit Albrook Mall. Fellow cruisers describe it as a must-see modern marvel, so see it we will!

As soon as we enter the air-conditioned, three-story mall our jaws drop: I have never seen such an expansive shopping area and certainly wasn’t expecting such a modern, luxury American-style facility in Central America!

Albrook Mall

 

It takes us about five hours to cover maybe a third of it and we get lost pretty often. Quite different from the secluded bays we’re used to… It’s complete sensory overload!

We soon find out that prices are overall quite reasonable and very convenient when it comes to electronics.

 

One of three Food Courts in the Mall

We splurge on two cell phones (smart-phones that are smarter than me for sure), a small waterproof camera that is 20% cheaper here than in the USA, and a new computer for me, since the hand-me-down I had has finally given up the ghost.

Then I see a lens for my semi-professional camera that I have been lusting after for a while. “Go ahead, get it” says Tom, tired of seeing me drool on the store counter.

And so it is that I blow my yearly allowance and then some, celebrating Birthdays, Christmases, Valentine’s Days and whatever else for a few years to come… This mall is hazardous to your wallet!

 

Every wing of the Mall is named after a dedicated animal.

We’re tired, wiped-out in more ways than one, so we make our way back to the boat. Before hopping on the water taxi we stop at the adjacent Balboa Bar for a refreshing drink and some interaction with friends new and old.

I didn’t expect to spend my first day in the city going crazy-shopping, but it has been a welcome diversion from the more modest lifestyle we usually enjoy.

In all truth, I don’t need to do it again for a very long time… Nor could I afford to, anyway!

 

The Balboa, not just a Panamanian currency…

Posted by: Sailing Camelot | August 7, 2012

July 9th to 11th– Panama City, here we come!

 We leave Bahia Honda as smoothly as we entered it just a few days ago. It’s not yet exactly clear where along the way we’ll be stopping, the only undisputed point is that we’re heading to Panama City.

There are many opportunities to stop along the way if we need to, many safe places to hide in should the weather become unbearable or for whatever reason.

We have been pretty lucky with the weather so far even if the seas are a little choppy and it’s slow going on Camelot…

But as the day progresses the sky changes into an alarming color, I call it “Bruise”. We know it won’t be long before a heavy-duty downpour…

Luckily, just a short distance away there’s a small protected bay – Bahia Cebaco, where we can stop for the night. The anchor is barely in the water when the deluge starts.

 Boy, am I happy we are safely ensconced here! We spend a restful and uneventful night at anchor, trying hard to ignore the feisty lightning storm blasting away outside. I succeed by hiding my head under two pillows…

The morning finds us well rested and ready to resume our trip. We decide: damn the torpedoes, let’s get all the way to Panama City no matter what the weather. That’ll be about 40 hours…

We’re half expecting to be rained on heavily but lo and behold, not a drop falls on us the whole time!

We’re totally expecting a wild ride around Punta Mala, where winds, currents and heavy traffic come together to make everyone’s trip a short living hell. But again, we escape unscathed.

Fender Bender on the Ocean? No, not really… just exchanging pleasantries.

Too close for comfort, but nothing we can do about it!

Tuna Fishing Boat, complete with small Helicopter for spotting fish.

Yes, we see a lot more traffic and humongous freighters surrounding us on all sides, but the crossing so far has been one of the easiest and most peaceful to date. Only the last three hours before entering Panama City are somewhat uncomfortable, with choppy seas and a disagreeable current that slows us down considerably. It’s a small price to pay, compared to the horror stories I heard from other cruisers covering the same stretch of sea…

The Yellow Buoy! We’re getting close…

Our first view of the Panama City skyline

Anyway, we’re finally here!

It’s July 11th and we’re moored at the Balboa Yacht Club – just in front of the Bridge of the Americas and at the entrance of the Panama Canal on the Pacific Side.

Sunset over the Bridge of The Americas

My new neighbors behind us. The moorings are old tires anchored with train wheels…

Another stroke of luck for us to find a mooring this time of the year…

What can I say: the planets must have been aligned flawlessly, with luck on our side the whole way and for that I’m enormously grateful.

Panama City will be our home base until the first week of November, when we’ll transit the Canal and move on to the Caribbean Sea.

For now, a good, long rest and then on to explore the Urban Jungle…

Being in close proximity to the Canal entrance means… commute traffic!

Posted by: Sailing Camelot | July 30, 2012

July 4th to 8th – Bahia Honda – Panama

 Our 4th of July celebration (or lack thereof) involved a short hop from Isla Coiba –which we decided not to visit after all- to Bahia Honda.

Just entering the large bay put me in a festive mood, thanks to placid, clear waters,  picturesque surroundings and a lot of birds flying around.

 

Winged Welcome to Bahia Honda!

 

A member of our Welcome Committee

Yes, we agree, this is a good place to stay for a few days.

Down goes the anchor and up come the Diet Cokes, a quick toast in celebration of our own Independence.

It’s a very quiet bay, but soon we receive the first of a steady stream of visitors.

Aboard a small dugout canoe powered by a tiny outboard motor, an older gentleman and two little girls come by to say hello and welcome us to their neighborhood.

And so we meet Senior Domingo, owner of a sizeable chunk of land and of the cute little house we happened to “park” in front of, and two of his many granddaughters.

 

Senior Domingo’s House

 

He singlehandedly and meticulously cultivates his property, and he’s very proud of it, his love for his land clear in his expression and his words.

The fruits of his labor include cilantro, corn, oranges, bananas, coconuts, grapefruits, limes, spinach, beans and much more.

 

Locally produced Spinach, Cilantro, Corn and Limes made their way to Camelot

 

In his late seventies, this man has a lot of spunk and a quick wit, is deeply in love with life, curious about the world but content in his own, and enjoys working hard.

Shortly after he leaves we meet his son Kennedy, also arriving by dugout canoe –the most common mean of transportation around here.

 

Kennedy and Tom hanging out on the boat

 

From Kennedy we learn that spacious Bahia Honda is home to about a thousand people, that there are no roads and therefore no cars, and any kind of business is conducted by boat.

Sent by the government, a small medical team comes every two months to check on the population, but if you have an emergency it’s a 90 minutes trip to the nearest hospital.

They do have their own cemetery, though, a small island in the bay…

 

Cemetery Island

 

The biggest island in Bahia Honda is called Isla Talon, referred to the locals as “The Pueblo”  -The Village-, and it’s the residents’ focal point: there are two churches (one Catholic and one Evangelical), a primary and a secondary school with living accommodations (paid by the State) for children who come from afar, the one and only telephone booth and a few dwellings.

 

El Pueblo, the Village on Isla Talon

 

The only “store” is a hole-in-the-wall that doesn’t really offer much more than a selection of beer…

Curiously, this tiny village hosts five bars and at times the easy access to alcohol causes a few problems. Senior Domingo particularly views alcohol as the root of all evil and he’s probably right.

 

Camelot, the floating alternative shopping center…

 

Camelot quickly becomes the “satellite supermarket”: we have a lot of stuff they don’t and once word gets out the pilgrimage starts. It also gets to the point where it’s more convenient to come directly to us rather than risking a 10 minute trip and a waste of gasoline to go to the store and be disappointed anyway…

Onions, garlic, gasoline, laundry soap, coffee, batteries, flashlights, hats, candy, medicine, school supplies, and more … Our own supplies get quickly depleted, but I know we’ll be able to provision in a week or two, so I give freely of what we have.

On the other hand, I now have bananas, oranges, grapefruits, avocadoes, limes and coconuts for at least a month…

 

Fruit, the main currency in Bahia Honda Fair Trade

 

One other young man from across the bay approaches our boat while fishing, curious about us.

Ismael Calles is a farmer but also a local artist. He carves wood and brought us a selection of his creations hoping to sell us something.

 

Ismael Calles, local artist who carves exotic woods from trees growing on his property

 

A few of Ismael’s creations. Yes, we did tell him to correct that little mistake…

 

Of course I’m a sucker and end up buying one of his cedar carvings for 20 dollars and a pound of coffee…

 

A Pelican guarding (or stalking?) the fish in the bucket on Ismael’s canoe

 

There isn’t much else for us to see and do here, and quite frankly relaxing is out of the question, so we let Domingo know we’ll be leaving soon. 

The day before our departure he invites us over to his home and takes us on a brief tour of his property, so we can see his pride and joy: the hill where he cultivates all he needs to provide for his family.

 

Part of Domingo’s property, extending as far as the eye can see.

 

 

Domingo and Tom in the orchard. Notice the steep incline where his corn grows…

 

He’s particularly proud of his corn, which he vigorously defends daily from a few very dedicated bobcats.

I’m just amazed at all the hard work he does with his bare hands, without the aid of any modern tool and on such steep grounds…

 

If I were a Bobcat, I’d be more interested in these two than a field of corn.. Just saying…

 

As a parting celebration he makes us a mug of cream of corn which tastes delicious, while he shows us a stack of “boat cards” he collected over the years. (Note: a boat card is a business card showing the boat and crew’s name and details).

There must be at least 400 cards in his stack, which means as many boats have visited his neighborhood over the years.

We add our own to the pile, without holding much hope to be somehow remembered. But I could be wrong, because Domingo comments on each and every card he handles, at times mentioning the people and sharing a memory of their visit – even as far as 20 years ago!

 

The men shooting the breeze on Domingo’s porch. Wait, there was no breeze…

 

We had a good time meeting all these very interesting people: they’re modest but not poor, and are good, honest and hardworking people…

We enjoyed their company and I know Domingo has enjoyed ours, but as he asks us to spread the word among the cruising community to visit and stop at his place I can’t help wondering…

Are we all just a convenient supply-boat in their eyes or a welcome distraction from their hard lives, or both? I’m mildly ashamed at my cynical thinking, but I can’t help it.

After all these people don’t have many options as far as distractions go, and they showed us nothing but kindness.

Regardless, we piled even more unforgettable moments in our memory bank.

 

Leaving Bahia Honda behind, open seas and more adventures awaiting us outside that narrow strait…

Posted by: Sailing Camelot | July 22, 2012

July 3th – Isla Coiba – Panama

 There’s a handful of little islands scattered all over the stretch of water we have to cover to get to Panama City, and in my heart I’m hoping to visit every single one of them.

We depart Isla Parida and its friendly indigenous inhabitants early in the morning.

It’s a glorious day: clear sky, flat seas and no wind. Well, can’t have it all, but this will do just fine.

Along the way we pick up some winged passengers who keep us company for the majority of the trip.

First arrival…

… Then there were two…

And as much as I love Pelicans, I draw the line at three!

Our destination so far remains a question mark; all we know is that we’re slowly going to get closer to Panama City. It’s good that we don’t really have any time constraints, we’re free to take our time and explore at leisure.

A little over an hour into the trip I’m engrossed in my Panama Cruising Guide, window-shopping for the best island to visit first: not far from where we are lay the Las Secas Islands. As a matter of fact, I just start seeing them in the distance. I point them out to Tom, who’s laboriously fidgeting with the navigation computer, asking him how long before we get there.

“I don’t know, babe” he says as he keeps pushing buttons, causing beeping sounds “I don’t have a good feeling about those islands… I’ve half a mind to bypass them and go straight down to Isla Coiba”.

Whipping my head up from my map I sputter “But, but, but… I already picked out our next anchorage!” There are three beautiful Islands, five beautiful and safe spots to anchor, and he want to just keep going??? He wants to deprive me of the Las Secas Islands???

Tom just looks at me, his decision already made, our course already plotted. We’re going to Isla Coiba. Fine then, whatever. I pout like only a teenager should for a few good minutes, until I realize how stupid I must look… Heh, so what, I still get to visit an island, right? Besides, Tom’s hunches and gut feelings are spot on most of the time, so I renounce my righteous indignation and start reading about Isla Coiba.

This looks promising, doesn’t it…

Aerial view of Isla Coiba

Formerly a penal colony with a really bad reputation (think Panamanian version of Alcatraz), the island is now a National Park (World Heritage Site). It’s also the largest island in Central America and although teeming with wildlife it remains critically endangered.

Paradise for some, Hell for some others…

The Park system charges $60 (US) per night to anchor and $20 (US) per person to walk onto the Island… That’s steep! I strongly believe they’re trying to discourage visitors to allow the island to recover… I don’t mean to be a cheapskate, but this gouging irks me quite a bit.

Still, the beautiful images of the island capture my attention, and I choose to ignore the little paragraph about a sailboat that was boarded by three fugitives, the crew beaten up and the skipper killer, his wife forced to take them to land… That was around 2003, but still… We’ll see how we feel once we get there.

We arrive late in the afternoon and as soon as we drop the anchor we get the wettest welcome in history. For four hours the rain comes down with violence, the sea choppy in protest. I can’t really see anything past my nose.  Oh, this is going to be a long, rolly night…

Coiba, the Island I never got to explore…

The images of Isla Coiba are not my own, as I never got to set foot on the island.

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