All posts by Peter Woolley

COLON, PANAMA

Today, we arrived in Colon, Panama, our final port stop before entering the Panama Canal.

And what a difference a day makes. After a very long, recuperating sleep, I woke up in fine fettle, bounding around like a young gazelle and more than ready for the day ahead.

We weren’t due to arrive in Colon until midday, which meant a leisurely breakfast and a chance to sit in on Paul’s Panama Canal lecture.

After lunch, we headed ashore. It had been raining, so the air wasn’t quite as stiflingly hot and humid as yesterday. Unlike Cartagena, access to the town was easy, and not a great stretch. We still had our shopping list to try and complete, and a quick search on Maps.me highlighted several hardware stores between us and the main street, where we were hoping to purchase several rolls of masking tape.

Between us and the main street, however, it was all looking pretty rough, which I’ll come to in a moment; let’s start with the masking tape…

The first hardware store we came to, no-one inside appeared to speak English. Naturally, if we’d been thinking clearly, we would have put a roll of masking tape in our pack so that we could simply whip it out and point to it… but we hadn’t been thinking clearly, and all we had to communicate our requirments were some elaborate miming techniques and mind control…

Happily, despite the language barrier, and a process of eliminating every other kind of tape available until only masking tape remained, we left the shop with their entire stock of three rolls. It was a little wider than we wanted, but at least it was masking tape.

At the next hardware store, several buildings down, on the same road, we were able to whip out one of the rolls we’d just bought, and the lady knew exactly what it was we were after. In fact, it was a much bigger store, and we secretly wished we’d gone there first, but that was okay. Not only were they able to furnish us with a further seven rolls of tape, but they were the narrower, one-inch variety that we were actually after.

There are other things on the list, but these require a shop selling art materials. The closest we came to that was a school supplies shop, but the language barrier in there was even greater than the first hardware store, and the only paper the boy behind the counter seemed able to come up with was not watercolour paper. The good news is that, providing the numbers attending the classes don’t suddenly increase, there’s a good chance we’ll manage with the paper and paint we already have. Masking tape was another thing entirely, though, so I was satisfied that little shortfall has been addressed.

As far as Colon is concerned, I think it is fair to say that, in some respects, it is well named. We had to watch out where we were walking, for fear of stepping in something we shouldn’t, and the views down many of the side streets as we walked, were verging on post-apocalytic.

Yet I also found myself strangely fascinated by the place. It was dirty (Tracey called it ‘Putrid’ and ‘Festering’) and unloved; many buildings looked like remants of a massive fire, blackened, mouldy and abandoned, until you realised that people are actually living in them. And I have to tell myself that this is simply the way they live, and that I should just accept the culture clash for what it is.

Other than a couple of mildly uncomfortable moments, most of the residents we met were very friendly; clearly, they are used to cruise ships stopping off and their passengers wandering through their streets, but there were places were it rather felt like we were intruding on their personal space, since much of their lifestyle appeared to include spilling out onto the street.

We walked down the main street, which was colourful, and visibly changing in prosperity the further we went… and some of the buses were awesome…

We veered off down another side street towards were our digital map told us was a cathedral. At one point, we were stood under a small concrete canopy, upon which water was falling. When we looked up to see where it was coming from – because it was’t raining – we were horrified to see that it was coming from a pipe protruding from high up on the side of the block of apartments towering above us. I’m guessing someone had just flushed the loo… or maybe I’m just being a tad paranoid… either way, we weren’t sticking around to find out; the cathedral was just across the way, which made for a decent photograph.

It wasn’t open, so we weren’t able to see inside it, so we found a bench to sit down on alongside an adjacent park area, and I made a quick sketch of one of the buildings that caught my eye. Actually, it wasn’t so much the building that caught my eye as the mass of cabling that curled around the cluster of telegraph poles located directly outside it, and stretched away, off in all directions.

The sketching didn’t last long because it started to rain. We made our way back towards the main street and completed the walk up to the end of the road, were they have their own small version of the Christ Redeemer statue.

At which point, the rain showed no signs of easing, so we gradually navigated our way around the outer fringes of the town back to the cruise terminal and the Columbus.

Tomorrow is Panama Canal day. With the first lock being scheduled for 6:30am, this means an early night for many folks who will be wanting to see everything that there is to see. Which is why the Captain’s announcement, telling us that we would be staying in Colon port until 5am to avoid any disturbances, at almost 10pm, seemed like a mis-step. I say that because the announcement was piped directly into cabins, so some people might have been rudely awoken by it. To make matters worse, the announcement was then followed by their Dutch and German translations.

Sweet Dreams….

CARTAGENA, COLUMBIA

I had a bad night last night. Having bounced back from feeling a little unwell a few days ago, I’m back to not feeling full fettle. All of which is a bit of a shame because today, we arrived in Cartagena, in Columbia, a port we’ve been looking forward to ever since visiting it for the first time last year.

Despite not really feeling up to it, we walked it from the busy cruise terminal to the old town, a distance of almost 2 miles. It was hot and humid, and with a few stops along the way and reflections upon whether or not it would be more sensible to turn back than press on, we finally made it to the Old Town.

It was as we remembered it, only much hotter, and much busier. We fought our way through narrow streets absolutely thronged with bustling tourists. Here, there are balconies bursting with colourful, overhanging bouganvillea, horse-drawn carriages clop their way along the streets, and vendors eagerly approach from every direction in the hope of selling us something.

After taking a brief respite in a large church, where electric fans cooled each row of pews, we gradually navigated our way to the wall that surrounds the old town, from where we were able to get some good views in all directions.

I would have enjoyed it all far more if I’d felt that I was truly up to it. Unfortunately, all I fell like doing was going back to bed and curling up into a small ball. As we meandered back into the town square, the vast swathes of tourists was slightly overwhelming; eventually, I conceded the fight and we hailed a cab to take us back to the port.

Our cab driver drove like a total nutter. The vehicular traffic in the city was as busy as the pedestrian traffic in the old town, and we weaved our way through impossible gaps, to the sound of blaring horns and gangster rap coming from the car radio. Come to think of it, our driver looked like he might be a rapper in his spare time…

There really was no hurry, but we were back at the port before we knew it.

With two other massive floating blocks of flats in port (P&O Ventura and a Tui Ship), the cruise terminal was also exceedingly busy. One thing that makes Cartagna port stand out from others is its aviaries, free to walk around, and featuring lots of colourful tropical birds, such as toucans.

We agreed that I should simply head back to the cabin and go to bed, leaving Tracey to spend some time wandering around the aviary.

Needless to say, I spent the rest of the afternoon sleeping, in the hope of getting myself better for tomorrow, when we will be stopping off at our final port-of-call before passing through the Panama Canal, on Friday.

EMERGENCY DRILL DAY

With the class scheduled to start at 9am, I set the alarm for 7:30am, which should give us enough time to get breakfasted and in the craft room by about 8:30am.

Imagine our surprise and confusion, then, when we arrived in the Bistro, only to find that they hadn’t started serving breakfast yet. We hung about a bit, waiting for things to kick off, but 8am came and went, and there was still no omelette and fried egg station, or sizzling pans of bacon and sausages. Curious to find out what was happening, we asked when breakfast would be served, only to be told that it was only just gone 7am.

Ah… It turns out that the ships clocks went back on hour again last night, only our cabin steward didn’t leave us one of the all-important ‘Clocks Go Back One Hour’ reminder tickets with our daily blurb.

Harrumph… we could have had an extra hour in bed….

It didn’t really matter, of course. It just meant that we had extra time to drink orange juice and cups of tea, and relax a bit before the day began proper.

My class on ‘Urban Sketching Techniques’ started on the dot at 9am, and finished around about 10:15, just in time for the Passenger Drill. At which point, everyone had to grab their life jackets and attend their allocated muster stations; ours is on Deck 7, in the Connexions Lounge.

With the drill lasting about 45 minutes, we were back up in the craft room roughly an hour later, packing away.

The weather has been particularly humid and muggy today. We walked a few laps after lunch, to the boisterous sound of the ‘Officers Cocktail Shake Off’ on the Pool Deck below. This appeared to be some sort of competition, centered around different cocktails being promoted by different officers, the object being to see which cocktail was the most popular by virtue of the largest number of units sold. Alternatively, I suspect the true object was to get folks nicely pickled.

The rest of the afternoon remained quite low-key. We completed our laps of the deck and retired to the coolness of the cabin to read and catch up on the blog.

We now have an interesting few days ahead of us. Tomorrow, we will be in Cartagena, in Colombia, where we plan to do our own exploring and try again with the shopping list. The day after that, we will be in Colon, in Panama, where we will be lined up ready to enter the Panama Canal the day after, and pass from the Caribbean Sea into the mighty Pacific Ocean.

WILLEMSTAD CURACAO

Finally, after seven long days at sea since leaving Madeira, we made landfall at Willemstad, on the island of Curacao, the Dutch Antilles, in the Caribbean Sea.

Needless to say, everyone – I’m sure – appreciated the chance to walk on solid ground for a change.

Having set the alarm for a (relatively) early start, we headed ashore as soon as we could after breakfast, armed with our little shopping list of art materials. Unfortunately, we soon learnt that Willemstad does not have anything even remotely resembling an art shop – or even a stationers. When we asked an artist in one of the local galleries where he buys his materials from, he explained that he ships his stuff in from the Netherlands. The nearest art shops on Curacao are several miles away, in other towns, but even then, he assured us that their prices are extortionately high.

The best we could do was to buy some packs of pencils from a supermarket. There wasn’t even a hardware shop to buy masking tape from.

All of this aside, once we’d established that our shopping spree wasn’t going to happen, we relaxed and enjoyed exploring the town. Not that there was a massive amount to see. From the cruise ship travellers point of view, Willemstad appears to be mostly populated with cafes and tourist gift shops. The only issue I have with that – apart from the fact that I’m not really interested in tourist gift shops – is the fact that most of them all seem to be selling exactly the same merchandise.

That said, Willemstad is a colourful place, with most of the buildings having been painted in several vivid, pastel hues. The architecture is also quite interesting, reminiscent of some of the buildings we’ve seen in old Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

The Columbus was one of three large ships berthed on the various quaysides adjacent to the town. The walk from our quay was the longest, though, with the MV Rotterdam berthed right in the harbour, just across from the old town. To get from one side of the harbour to the other, pedestrians have to cross a long, floating ‘pontoon’ bridge, which is quite an interesting piece of engineering in itself. When a ship needs to enter or exit the harbour, a siren is sounded to evacuate pedestrians and the entire bridge, powered by some sort of built-in vessel located at its extremity, swings open. Once the ship has passed through, everyone then has to wait until it has returned to its starting position before they are allowed back on. Crossing it is fun as you can feel it moving about beneath you as you walk.

We took a leisurely walk through the town, and around a lake, where there were a few birds and lizards to be seen but not much else. It was hot, so we weren’t in a hurry. Returning back to the central area, we took a look at a small market and gravitated gradually back towards the floating bridge, where we were just in time to see the bridge in action, closing again after letting a small yacht through. We found a free bench to sit down on and I siezed the opportunity to make a sketch of the bridge.

On our way back towards the ship, we paused briefly to make use of the free wifi available in the small shopping centre. Today was the first chance I’ve had to try out our data-sim-loaded mi-fi unit, with little success. Sadly, it told me that it had connected, and that internet was available, yet I couldn’t get a squeak out of it. Tracey was also having problems connecting to the local, free wifi, so it rather felt like we were having a bad technology day. All I can say is; thank goodness for the on-board wi-fi… and it isn’t very often you’ll here me say that!

All-aboard time was 5:30pm, for a 6pm departure. As the ship left Willemstad, we headed towards the craft room to set-up in readines for tomorrow morning’s class, as we have a single sea-day before our next port-of-call, Cartagena, in Colombia.

After dinner, we went along to watch Cruise Director Tony Parkins’ ‘Comedy Crooner’ show, which we enjoyed very much. Not only is Tony a naturally entertainer, but he comes across as a genuinely nice bloke.

At the end of the show, Lee, the Assistant Cruise Director, happened to mention that tomorrow, as well as being a sea-day, we will be having a Passenger Emergency Drill, in the morning. This was unexpected (but right, as it is two weeks since our last one, and the new global cruising regulations stipulate that ships have to hold such a drill for all passengers every two weeks)… and Tracey and I looked at each other. We both knew exactly what the other was thinking; how was this going to impact upon the class? (which normally starts at 10am). We dashed off back to the cabin to check out the daily programme – the class has been moved to 9am, with the Emergency Drill scheduled for 10:30am. Okay… I can work with that…

THE WHOLE CIRCLE OF LIFE THING

This is our final sea day of our Atlantic crossing (I got the count wrong in an earlier post – it’s taken seven days, not six), and it’s a non-class day, which meant heading straight out onto the top deck for a few laps, interspersed with pauses to watch the sea and wildlife, and to take much needed shelter in the shade, because… it… is… HOT out there!

Now that we are in the Caribbean, things have got a little more interesting. Surprisingly, the sea is a little on the rough side, which means lots of white horses, so, as far as I know, there haven’t been any sightings of dolphins or whales (very difficult to spot anyway, when the sea is choppy).

We have been entertained by the whole ‘circle of life’ thing, however, with lots of flying fish scurrying along the surface of the water, to get out of the way of the Columbus, thinking we might be a predator. Lying in wait for the flying fish, were large numbers of masked boobies, that prowl around, hovering on the thermal air currents, occasionally diving straight down into the water, and coming up with a beak full of flying fish. Hovering menacingly even higher up, however, were a couple of large frigate birds (I always think their silhouete looks a little like a pteradactyl). Frigate birds let the boobies do all the hard work, then swoop down on them to steal their booty.

Wading into the mix was an unexpected visitor; a small swift-like bird, who we were told by Mike, one of the regular birders, was a Purple Martin (also known as a Caribbean Martin). given its miniscule size (in relation the boobies), and the distance from land, it looked like it might have be looking for somewhere to land and take a rest. Its back shimmered purple each time it flashed past us in great circles around the front of the ship, and brought added entertainment value to the proceedings.

As the temperatures rise, so the bodies on the sun loungers get redder. We were rather surprised at one passenger who insisted on running around the deck. Most folks who want to indulge in that sort of masochism do so ether early in the morning or in the evening, when the air is a little cooler and there are less people about to get in the way. Then again, that would be fewer people to see him and be impressed by his diligence, since that is clearly what he wants (‘Only Mad dogs and Englishmen’ springs to mind…).

Another thing that raised our eyebrows was seeing tables being laid out on the upper deck, just below the big screen, for more food, only half an hour after breakfast had ended. This was for something billed as Bavarian Fruhschoppen, which, as far as I can tell, is a bit like a second breakfast, common in Germany. They’d laid out quite a spread, with a whole range of foods, pastries, sausages, the lot, along with several tables with tablecloths… all out in the burning sun. That they’d squeezed yet another serving of food between breakfast and lunch seemed surprise enough, until I saw how many people were queuing up to consume yet more grub. They had to hurry, though; the feast was only on from 10:30am until 12 noon, when lunch would be starting.

I mentioned the big screen there… There are two distinctive elements that make the Columbus stand out alongside CMV’s other ships (of which another two are to be added to the fleet next year, by the way). One of those is a large, curved gantry that reaches across from one side of the top deck to the other. The lights attached to it give it the looks of a fancy, quite chunky, lighting rig, but it was in fact originally there for acrobatic performers in an ealier incarnation of the ship.

The other dominant element is the large digital screen that looks out across the upper deck. It’s clearly seen better days, though; when they play videos on it, as they have been doing, there are great chunks of screen randomly missing here and there. They’ve obviously decided to try and address its shortcomings, however; over the last couple of days, a couple of technicians have been working on it, presumeably in the hope of restoring it to a full-screen experience. I would say that they have their task well and truly cut out for them, with lots of dead pixels in evidence… it would be great to see it fully restored, though – maybe then we could have outdoor movie shows… like a drive-in cinema… complete with popcorn…

If all of these endless sea days sound a bit boring, then I’d have to say that I agree. The fact is; I struggle with the concept of doing nothing at the best of times. I’m lucky in one respect, that I have the classes to run, at least every other day, but the rest of the time can seem seem rather endless. Walking laps helps to pass the time, and wildlife spotting punctuates that time – and once we pass through the Panama Canal into the Pacific Ocean, we’re expecting there to be an increase in activity. I’m also enjoying the opportunity to read some books – time that I generally don’t get much when I’m at home. Christine, the Creative Writing tutor has taken a positive, join-everything approach, signing up for everything that’s going, as well as running her own sessions, but then she’s going the whole way round, back to Tilbury, and 120 days is a really long time.

Having said all that, we are now coming up to the first of the really good bits. We’ve got Willemstad, Cartegena and the Panama Canal to look forward to over the next few days, and then, once we are in the Pacific Ocean, we’re hoping to see a few whales and a wider variety of birdlife. After that, we face a mind-bending stretch of nine consecutive sea days. If I was a punter, I think the prospect would probably drive me nuts. There will be lots of classes for me to run, of course, but that’s a whole lot of sea in all directions before we can think about what’s to come after that (South Sea islands and Middle Earth…).

Maybe I just need to relax more…