Sunday, December 09, 2018

costa rica takes a cost

My girlfriend in law school loved chiding me with a Latin phrase she had picked up in high school -- omnis similitudo claudicat.

Literally, "every analogy limps." Or, as medieval legal scholars had it: "all comparisons are invalid in some way."

It is one of those adages that has the additional virtue of being true. But, having warned you, I am warming up one in the bull pen.

If our three stops in Central America were a baseball game, I would have grounded out -- followed by two home runs.

The news coverage of the recent caravans to the United States from Central America has perpetuated the confusion that the people of the six nations of Central American are "Mexican." For once, ignorance contains a grain of historical truth.

With the exception of Panama (which was part of Colombia until the United States assisted rebels in gaining their independence in 1903), the rest of Central America was part of Mexico during the Spanish empire. More accurately, they were part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. An administrative unit that even included The Philippines.

When Mexico and Central America broke away from Spain, Mexico retained its role as sovereign over the area that is now Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua. and Costa Rica. That arrangement lasted for just one year.

The Central American republics decided they did not need Mexico treating them the way Spain did. So, they formed the Federal Republic of Central America -- taking a portion of Mexico with them. That arrangement lasted for only twenty years, leaving Central America in its current balkanized state.

We visited three of those countries on this cruise.

It had been eighteen years since I last visited Costa Rica. I had fond memories of spending a day on a river nature cruise filling my camera with shots of monkeys, snakes, a woman flailing in the river after the guide told her not to stand up in the boat, crocodiles, and more birds than Audubon himself could have shot.

That may be the reason I signed up for a nature hike and boat cruise. The hike sounded interesting because it is a bit difficult completing my walks on port days. We tend to stand in line a lot.

I chose badly. The boat portion of the trip was not bad. But I could have seen the same birds and crocodiles in my neighborhood. And often do. To be fair, the rest of the people on the trip were enthralled at the sight of each black vulture.

"The rest of the people on the trip" is what made the hike portion less than pleasant. And it was not their fault.

The nature walk (Skyway Tour Villa Lapas Rain Forest) was badly-conceived and poorly-executed. The "rain forest" was a small hillside that could have been in someone's backyard. Or, at least, at a friend's farm in Barra de Navidad.

Because there were several small ravines on the trail, the owners built three"skyways." The name was dressing mutton as lamb. The "suspension bridges" were about as thrilling as an elevated gangway in a Wisconsin cheese factory.

But none of that would have mattered if the stroll had not been such a disaster for half of the group. There were 39 of us strung single file along the trail. I was near the rear. Every few feet we would stop and stand as if we were waiting in line at the ship's cafeteria.

None of the people around me could hear a thing. We could not see the guide. When we started moving, people would look randomly in the direction the person before them did. Just like one of those freeway accidents where nothing is there.

I did get to see this amazing bit of nature for my $150. A millipede. I know that only from my own experience. I certainly did not hear it from the guide.

And that was a pity. He knew his stuff -- a fact the Left Behinds discovered when we finally could hear him on the boat tour. The hike would have been a success with about 5 or 6 people. Instead, the tour company (Asuaire) decided to cram too many people on the trail. I assume to maximize their revenue stream. After all, they were not going to see us again.

When those of us in back told the guide we had missed his entire commentary, a rather officious woman told us to stop ruining the tour for the others -- the people who could hear apparently found the tour to fill an empty place in their souls. Effectively, the tour company had created a social experiment between Haves and Have Nots.     

I did enjoy seeing Costa Rica again. It is a beautiful country. And I might even use the services of Asuaire Tours if I return on my own. I do know I will never take one of its tours again if my next visit is on a cruise ship.

So, there is my first limping analogy. The ground out.

Tomorrow, we are in Acapulco. I will continue my Central America tales on the coming sea days.

Spoiler alert. Nicaragua and Guatemala hit the ball into the bleachers. But those of you who can count already know that.

For now, I will return to the dugout.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

taking a break

I love "at sea" days.

They give me an opportunity to exercise, read, and communicate with you about my day. I can actually fit in everything I need to do . Just like at home.

Port days are another story. Getting on and off the ship and then spending a few concentrated hours in a new place eats up the full day. They are the opposite of efficient sea days.

We have three port days in a row. Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Corinto, Nicaragua. And Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala.

Today was Costa Rica and a nature walk that spun off the rails. I will tell you more about it after my other two shore excursions in Central America (volcano hikes in Nicaragua and Guatemala). I am hoping that a combined essay may be a bit more positive than how I feel this evening.

But all of that can wait for another two or three days.

Until then, I will try to find the wheat amongst the chaff. Or, failing that, give you a good tale.

See you on the other side.  

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

a boy's affair with a ditch

Some life experiences define who we are.

That photograph is one of mine.

I first saw it in Mrs. Dix's sixth grade class. What twelve-year-old boy could avoid the allure? A steam shovel. Teddy Roosevelt. And the Panama Canal.

The Panama Canal was not new to me -- even then. I had been introduced to it in the mid-1950s through the Flags of the Word trading cards I collected. But our sixth-grade history textbook pulled together all of the historical threads for the first time. That passage through the 40 miles of the Panama isthmus took on a new allure for me.

The notion of building a canal through Panama was not a new one. In the 1500s, when Spain ruled that part of the new world, Charles V looked at a map and saw an easy way to transport silver from Peru to Madrid. Just build a canal through the isthmus.

Nothing came of the idea. But the Spanish did establish a rudimentary road system for pack mule to convoy goods across Panama to the Caribbean and on to Cartagena and Spain.

Several canal plans were floated in the 1800s, but nothing came of them until gold was discovered in California in 1848. Transporting gold from California to the east coast was treacherous -- especially when shipped around the horn of South America.

The United States obtained a concession from Colombia to build a railroad across Panama (Panama then being a province of Colombia) in 1855. Essentially, it was the same idea as Charles V's mule train road, but this time with trains.

And that inspired a lot of plans for a ship canal. Finally, in 1881, the Frenchman who had built the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, began construction on a sea-level canal. He believed that what worked in Egypt would work in Panama.

It didn't. He ran out of money -- and Yellow Fever killed thousands of his workers. When he shut down the operation in 1889, only a few miles of canal had been dug. Some of it can still be seen.

Then, Teddy Roosevelt, who had recently inherited the presidency, stepped in. When the Colombian Senate failed to ratify a treaty giving rights to the United States to build and operate a canal, Roosevelt agreed to support Panamanian rebels who had periodically fought for independence from Colombia.

With American help, the Panamanians had their independence on 3 November 1903. Three days later, Roosevelt had his treaty with Panama -- and construction was under way. Linguist and US Senator S.I. Hayakawa said it best: "We stole it fair and square."

The treaty would be a thorn in American-Panamanian relations until the United States agreed to return sovereignty of the canal zone to Panama in 1979. The two countries jointly ran the canal for 20 years. It is now Panama's sovereign territory.

After 10 years of construction and the deaths of almost 6000 workers from disease and accidents, the canal was opened in 1914 under the control of the United States. The late Senator John McCain was born in the Canal Zone while his father was stationed there.

The canal was an immediate commercial success. It was far cheaper to put cargo on a ship once and go through the canal than to use the connecting railroad system. And it was certainly cheaper than being forced to go around South America. Our ship paid a toll of a half million dollars and considered it a bargain.

The canal also had a military purpose. Because the canal opened in 1914 (during the onset of World War One), the United States, who only recently had become a two-ocean military power) could now move its fleet easily between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Teddy loved that. His Great White Fleet had mobility. 

This was my second cruise through the canal. The first was in 2000 with my cousin Dennis.

What struck me most on both trips is how little the operation has changed in the hundred years the canal has been in operation. De Lesseps wanted to use the Chagres River as the foundation for his sea-level canal. He discovered how unworkable that was when the river flooded.

The American engineers took a different tack. They decided to dam the Chagres and form one of the world's largest man-made lakes -- right in the middle of Panama. Locks would elevate ships into the lake and then lower them on the other side. All of that is still in operation.

The weakest link in the operation is Lake Gatun -- the reservoir for the water that runs the entire system. A dearth or excess of rain could jeopardize the canal. A natural or terrorist disaster that released the lake's water could also destroy a large portion of Panama City on the Pacific side of the canal -- and put the canal out of operation for years.

The only big change has been the expansion of parallel locks to allow larger ships to transit the canal. Those locks have been in operation since 2016.

But the whole operation looked quite similar to what Dennis and I witnessed in 2000. I suspect if Teddy himself were to return to Panama today, he would recognize the same canal operation he could see through a mirror darkly sitting in the seat of that steam shovel.

Monday, December 03, 2018

dashing through cartagena

Some cruise ship stops are baffling.

Take Cartagena. The star attraction of this cruise is the Panama Canal. Even though Cartagena is about on the same latitude as the entrance to the canal, it is hundreds of miles to its east. On my last cruise, we left San Juan in Puerto Rico and headed straight to the Atlantic entrance.

There is probably some technical answer. Fuel bargains or supply in Cartagena. Getting the equivalent of a Baskin-Robbins number to slip through the canal. Or just offering up a slight taste of Colombia.

I like to think it is the last option. But it was a very small taste, indeed. But worth it.

You may recall I was last in Colombia in June of 2017 with my cousins Patty (who is Colombian) and Dan (who is not). But that was in the south and the west where mountains predominate.

Cartagena is in the east on the Caribbean (or the Atlantic as some Colombians would have it -- after all, the Caribbean is merely an extension of the Atlantic). It has a completely different feel. Like Mexico's Yucatan, Cartagena  has looked to the Caribbean for a lot of its cultural influences.

The city is old by colonial standards -- founded in 1533. Right from the start, it was an important port. Not only because it has a utilitarian, protected harbor, but because it was the port where Inca silver and Colombian gold were shipped to Spain.

And galleons of gold were loot magnets to pirates. Cartagena succumbed to several pirate raids, including one by the English brigand, Francis Drake.

The name holds its own interest. It was named Cartagena de Indias to distinguish it from its namesake in Murcia, Spain. Cartagena, Spain in turn was named in honor of its imperial founders. A tiny town in modern Tunisia known as Carthage.

I knew most of Cartagena's history, but I was rather oblivious to its current importance.

It is not a small town. Almost one million people live there. Probably far more now that Colombia has offered humanitarian aid to their neighbor Venezuelans who have sought refuge in the hundreds of thousands.

Colombia's liberal refugee policy is reciprocal for Venezuela's offer of refuge to Colombians when leftist guerrillas terrorized the Colombians. It is one of history's ironies that Venezuela is now providing the left-wing terrorism.

The port is still one of the largest on the Caribbean. But it is also an industrial center for chemicals, cement, and refining Colombia's petroleum. Cartagena is extremely proud of one of its celebrity businesses -- the home of Miss Colombia. Miss Colombia has won two of the last six Miss Universe titles.

But we did not come to see industry, though I would not have minded running across a few beauty queens. We effectively had only three hours on shore. The best we could do was a brief walk through the old town region.

And like most preserved colonial era architecture, Cartagena old town feels a bit like an amusement park. There were plenty of Colombians going about their daily business. But the few blocks that have been preserved have the distinct feel that they would have long ago been bulldozed if they were not so valuable as tourist catchers.

Fortress walls. Cathedral. Plazas. Churches. A Botero statue. They were all there. Interesting, but not that much different than the legacy Spain left Colombia in its other cities before Bolivar kicked them out in 1821.

Oh, yes, there is a statute of the Great Liberator -- as there is in every Colombian city (it all started with bolivar). This one is particularly heroic.

Because it is a tourist town, Cartagena has more than its fair share of street vendors selling little bits of plastic that no one was buying. That is too bad because most of the vendors are Venezuelan refugees trying to eke out a meager existence while they wait for the Maduro dictatorship to collapse back home. Even though I had some interesting conversations with them (perhaps the high point of my visit), I did not buy anything, either.

Cruise ship stops are the tourist equivalent of a Whitman sampler. Sometimes you get the chocolate-covered caramel; other times you get the disgusting nougat. When you find a winner, it goes on the "come back" list.

And that is what Cartagena deserves. The visit was far too short. But I would like to return. And to include a trip to a free Venezuela.

Unfortunately, my re-visit list is getting so long, I better have another 70 travel years left in me.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

maybe another bite will be better

Michael Warshauer would have loved this cruise.

The author of My Mexican Kitchen knew his food. And he loved writing reviews. At times, I thought he found no greater joy than finding a restaurant that cooked some of his favorite foods badly. After all, most food reviewers shine when they are carving up chefs as easily as a slice of French pork loin.

A lot of people come on cruises to wallow in good food. That was once true. In a more elegant (and far more costly) era, the food on cruise ships could be some of the best food most people had tasted. When the ship we are on (the Norwegian Star) was new, it ran almost exclusively in Hawaii. The local newspaper's food critic concluded that when the Star was docked in Honolulu, it was the best steak house in town.

But cruises, just like airlines, have morphed from quality into quantity. To get more people on board, cruise costs have plummeted. And so has the quality of service. Especially, food.

When I began cruising, there were two choices for food: the formal dining room and the cafeteria. The dining room served up meals as good as any large banquet could. The cafeteria served buffet food. Filling, but unremarkable.

It is now difficult to distinguish the dining room food from the buffet. I often think they come out of the same pots.

What saved the food on most cruises in the interim was the advent of specialty restaurants. They started with one on each ship. They now include a wide range of cuisines.

For instance, the Norwegian Star has 6 specialty restaurants: a French bistro, a Brazilian steakhouse, a traditional steakhouse (think Morton's), an Italian trattoria, and two Asian eateries.

Last year, we were on a newer ship, the Norwegian Getaway, crossing from Denmark to Miami. We learned early on to avoid the dining room and most of the specialty restaurants. But the buffet turned out to have a wide variety of edible food -- including some amazing Indian food.

The only specialty restaurant that earned its laurels (and the additional money it costs to eat there) was a sushi place. Very few people ate there. But the food was almost as good as the plates we sampled in the Tokyo Fish Market.

On this cruise, we have only begun sampling the fare. Our one dining room experiment for lunch was a disaster. Slow service. Worse food. Probably the worst I have had on a cruise ship.

The buffet has turned out to be just as disappointing. With my new diet (low carbohydrates, high fat), I have found plenty of selections. But none of them has been prepared with any form of creativity. The Indian food has tured out to be limited and bland.

Tonight, the four of us dined at Le Bistro, Norwegian's stab at French cuisine. I am fond of Le Bistro. It was the sole specialty restaurant on the Norwegian Dawn in the early 2000s. Because I cruised on that ship frequently, the Bistro staff reserved a table for me for the entire cruise, and had my meal ready, specially-cooked for me, when I arrived each night.

This restaurant lacked that personal service. And the food was, at best mediocre.

I started with a French onion soup that was completely devoid of flavor and onions. I sent it back. 

Our waiter tried to get the meal back on track with a mushroom soup centered around sauteed baby portobello mushrooms. And he succeeded. That soup had the funky layering of fungus that makes or breaks the dish.

My main course was not as successful. Roasted duck over a bed of simple vegetables. The carrots and string beans were prepared perfectly. Unfortunately, the duck was tough and overcooked.

My dining companions had rack of lamb and pork tenderloin. All were overcooked and the pork lacked the taste that we who live in Mexico have come to expect.

Desert was an unremarkable plate of randomly chosen bits of cheese, Carr's water crackers, dried fruit, and walnuts. None of the tastes really hung together.

If this had been a restaurant on land, I would say, give it a try, you might like it. I would not go back.

And neither will we on this cruise.

But tomorrow is Cartagena -- and good food beckons. Unfortunately, we need to be back on the ship by 2 PM. I doubt we will have time to sample the local cuisine. And that is too bad because Colombia has an amazingly adventurous cuisine -- as many of you will recall on my visit there.

But we can see some sights.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

a play in four acts

I love analogies.

If this trip were a play, it would have four acts.

Act 1 was was the delightful ten days I spent with my family over Thanksgiving in Bend, Oregon. Act 2 was the five days I just completed in Fort Lauderdale. Act 4 will be two days in Los Angeles.

But, the core of this play is Act 3 -- the 15 days on board Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Star transiting the Panama Canal. I made a similar trip in 2000 with my cousin, Dennis. The stops are a bit different this time, but it will center on the engineering marvel that has fascinated me since I first heard it of it from Miss Dix in the sixth grade.

We (my friends Sophie, Nancy, and Roy) boarded the ship in Miami yesterday. This is our first sea day, and I am just getting into the routine of being confined to a large ship with thousands of strangers while wending our way toward South and Central America.

I just realized I have not told you exactly where we are going. That is easily fixed. Here is our itinerary.

Day 1 -- Miami, Florida

Day 2-- at sea (we are currently off the northeast coast of Cuba) 
Day 3 -- at sea
Day 4 -- Cartagena, Colombia

Day 5 -- Transit Panama Canal
Day 6 -- at sea
Day 7 -- Puntarenas, Costa Rica
Day 8 -- Corinto, Nicaragua
Day 9 -- Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala
Day 10 -- at sea
Day 11 -- Acapulco, Mexico
Day 12 -- at sea
Day 13 -- Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Day 14 -- at sea
Day 15 -- Los Angeles, California

Even though I have visited most of the ports on the list, Nicaragua and Cartagena will be new to me. And, at the end of the cruise, I will be happy to return home. That is why it is a bit ironic that neither Cabo San Lucas nor Acapulco hold any interest for me. Probably because they are not the Mexico I call home.

Even though time is at a premium, I will do my best to keep you posted of this sea adventure.

Or we may just have to wait until the curtain comes down on this play to get the juicy stories.

Friday, November 30, 2018

are you waterloo or peterloo?

The question would probably make more sense to a Brit -- since that was the target of Bagehot's column in The Economist two weeks ago.

The current Brexit debate has opened a gap in British society based on the perception of the country's history. The Economist has been one of the leaders in claiming the old left-right divide is starting to make little sense. The new paradigm of "inward-looking" and "outward looking" is in vogue. Or, as some would have it: "somewheres" and "anywheres."

Some see Waterloo as the height of British glory. Britain fighting off European tyranny almost single-handedly to bring a century of peace to the continent. Everyone pulling together for the greater honor of the nation.

The Peterloo Massacre happened just a few years after Waterloo in Manchester when a cavalry charge killed 15 people during a demonstration in favor of parliamentary reform.

The right wing in Britain idolizes the Big Nation notion of Waterloo. The left wing has idealized the "class struggle" that changed British history. And how they each see history affects their view of Britain today.

I thought of that article on my walk along Fort Lauderdale's beaches. Fort Lauderdale is a monument to good-time vacuity. Sun. Sand. Sea. Sybaritic pleasure.

Positioned right next to a giant snowman sculpture enjoying a day in the sun is the sign pictured above. The contrast is jarring.

Florida is a southern state. And it carries the moral burden of not only being a slave-holding state, but an active participant in the Jim Crow laws that scarred post-Civil War American history.

Like most public facilities, Florida's beaches were segregated. And, just like education, the separation did not result in equal opportunities. The "colored beaches" (as they were known in law) were difficult to access and lacked anything that would make them attractive for recreation.

A woman in Fort Lauderdale took it upon herself to do something. Eula Johnson, a businesswoman and president of the local NAACP chapter, was tired of waiting for the federal government to put an end to segregation.

On a busy national holiday (the Fourth of July in 1961), she led a small contingent of black beachgoers to one of Fort Lauderdale's white-only beaches and conducted what is now known as a "wade-in."

Turmoil followed. The city was shamed, and tried to entice the black waders away by improving the segregated beach. White citizens sued Ms. Johnson; she won. And, eventually, without any of the horrors of Selma, the beaches were desegreated.

I had not heard of this interesting tale of local honor. It immediately reminded me of the Waterloo analogy. A proud moment in American history of dignity conquering oppression.

And the moment I thought that, I knew if I wrote about this topic, some readers would immediately retort that the wade-ins were fine, but they did not ultimately change the struggle that the country faces with race.

The Waterloo-Peterloo distinction is a false one historically. Britain did not act alone in defeating Napoleon. Without the help of the Prussians, Waterloo station could be a train stop in Paris instead of London.

And the class struggle at Peterloo was not the sole cause for social change in 19th century Britain, despite what Jeremy Corbyn claims . The repeal of the Corn Laws did far more to improve the lives of the British working man.

The same is true with the attempts to finish the work Lincoln began with the reforms that rose out of the Civil War. Just as his work was incomplete, so is the work that ended the Jim Crow laws.

But that does not mean we should not celebrate the victories that were won by brave individuals like Eula Johnson and her waders. It truly was a Waterloo moment. And I was extremely happy to discover the sign.

For those who say her work made no difference, let me relate this tale. As I was reading the sign, a middle-aged woman and man and their son passed by me after spending an afternoon on the beach. The same beach that was once posted "whites only." They were African-American.

We have made great strides in pulling down the formal laws that offended the very essence of the Declaration of Independence. And I suspect, if we could just turn loose of certain political positions on both the left and right, we could do a lot better at living together as individuals.

At least, we should all be able to celebrate the steps our fellow citizens have taken to help Dr. King's dream become a reality.

"When we allow freedom to ring -- when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join 
hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, Free at last, Great God almighty, We are free at last.'"

To which I can only add -- amen.