Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Panama Trip 2: The Canal

Better late than never, right? At this rate, I'll get the third and final part of this recap up by September of next year.

Aaaanyway. After our four nights at Coral Lodge, it was time to head back to the city. For the first time since the night we arrived, it rained. The trip back took us along the coast by boat for 50 minutes or so to the Portobelo area, and then we hopped in a minibus and took the long trip along the canal back to Panama City and La Estancia, the bed and breakfast that was to be our base of operations for the rest of the trip.

Panoramic Panama is a tour agency that runs out of La Estancia, owned by the same people. So when we booked our room, we also booked two tours: a canal half-transit, and a birdwatching tour. In fact, when figuring out lodgings and so on, we arranged our trip around the canal transit, since they only happen on Saturdays, and it seemed somewhat ludicrous to go to Panama and not spend time on the Canal. Unfortunately, they only do full transits once a month, and the week we were there was not the full transit one. But that turns out to have been all right; the half-day trip was fascinating, and it left us time to visit Casco Viejo (old Panama City) in the evening and have our nicest dining experience of the trip.

But the Canal. Doing a half-transit allowed us to see some of the most interesting parts, go through a couple locks, and learn a rather insane number of statistics.

The day was somewhat rainy. The driver from La Estancia dropped us off at Isla Flamenco, one of the three islands connected by the Amador Causeway. From there, a bus took us to Gamboa, on the south shore of Lake Gatun, where we met our tour boat, the Pacific Queen. The tour guide spoke both English and Spanish, and kept up a running commentary throughout the trip.

Each ship that passes through the canal, be it our tiny tour boat Pacific Queen, a Panamax freighter, or a luxury yacht like the one above, has to pay a toll. The toll is determined by several factors, including what the cargo is; the largest toll ever paid was paid by a cruise ship, at over $417 000 for the full transit, as humans are considered the "most precious cargo." Most ships going through the canal, the big Panamax freighters, only pay around $100 000 per trip. This toll doesn't include incidental costs, such as the mandatory nanny tug or the mandatory canal pilot, who captains the ship for the duration of its trip through the canal. Even our little tour boat had a canal pilot.

We saw a couple of these creatures on the canal; I believe there are four in operation at all times. This barge drills holes in the bottom of the canal, which is hard-packed silt and rock. Once the holes are drilled, they're packed with explosives. The explosives are detonated and another giant machine comes in to dredge the canal bottom, to keep it deep enough for Panamax ships, and one assumes, eventually post-Panamax ships. The ship below is one of the dredgers, a little further down the canal:

So, all of this constructiony activity explains the muddy condition of the water, as does the fact that it's all freshwater constantly being stirred by enormous amounts of shipping traffic. It also explains why the corporation that owns the Canal charges so much for a transit; maintenance costs must be insane. Consider the amount of money just one of those drills or dredgers must cost, when something like the little locomotives that guide large ships through the locks cost over $2 million apiece.

Our little tour boat didn't need these locomotives, which are attached to ships by linesmen whose sole job it is to attach lines from big ships to the locomotives so that the ships don't bash the walls of the locks to pieces when entering, exiting, or sitting in the lock -- the tension has to be just right on each of the lines. I believe it also helps prevent the ships from running into the lock doors, though the doors we saw had dents in them. That was only the inner set, though, as all the locks have two sets. We didn't stand much of a chance of bashing the walls or the doors too badly, so the locomotives and the linesmen didn't bother with us.

The Panama Canal locks, when they were built in the early 1900s, were the first major structure to make use of the new building material concrete. Nothing on the scale of the Canal had ever been done, and engineers weren't sure how much concrete would be needed -- there's a lot of pressure on the middle wall when the lock on one side of the wall is full, and the other is empty. So they decided to play it safe, and the concrete wall separating the locks from each other is 50 feet thick. Which is massive.

Now, having spent some time in Thorold, living close enough to the Welland Canal to be able to see the lakers from the top of the hill on our street, the experience of going down the locks wasn't terribly novel for me. But the scale of these structures is something, and the amount of fresh water used every time the lock steps up or down a level is staggering. I was there, and I still couldn't really grasp the real, tangible amount. Luckily, Panama gets enough rainfall that they need to actually let it drain elsewhere, rather than jealously guard it to make sure that the Canal can keep running -- but they track their water usage very carefully, and we were lucky to not have to wait for a bunch of other smaller ships to join us in the locks.

The little boat behind us was the Isla Morada, the oldest continuously-running ship on the Canal. Apparently possibly owned by Al Capone at one point, currently used for ferrying tourists like us up and down the Panama Canal. It was a rather pretty little wooden boat. Behind the Isla Morada you can just see the bridge of a Panamax ship going the other direction, up a level as we were going down.

The shipyard in Panama City at the mouth of the Canal is huge. One thing I thought was pretty cool was that when the Canal was built, each lock could hold six of the largest ocean-faring ships at a time. Currently, about 20% of the world's shipping fleet is too large to fit in these locks. They're building a whole new set parallel to the current system.

Shipping companies can get around the Canal by offloading the cargo that needs to go through the Canal at either mouth, transferring it to the Panama Canal Company's dedicated railway, and picking it up with another ship at the other end. The equipment at this transfer point is pretty impressive and astonishing in its scale, too. There is so. much. stuff. in those containers. From all over the world.

Upon ending our transit, our canal pilot left via launch pulling itself alongside our tour boat (the leap from one to the other was a crowd-pleaser; everyone applauded), and we made our way back to harbour, then back to La Estancia.

From there we took a cab to the old city, of which we unfortunately have no photos; we didn't feel like taking the camera and being singled out as tourists, though I'm sure my perpetual trying-to-understand-Spanish-without-its-"s"s squint was a bit of a giveaway. We ended up at a lovely little restaurant called Ego on one of the squares, where we ate waaaay too much food and drank at least a little too much sangria, and felt very provincial and sophisticated sitting outside in the warm Panama evening. It was lovely, and I wish I'd gotten up the energy and courage to do it again, though we only had one more night left.

If you're curious about the canal, the Canal Authority's website is pretty good, and there are even real-time webcams trained on the locks. We waved at them when we were going through the Miraflores locks.

Next: La Estancia, birdwatching, and a final walk. Coming sometime in the new year, I swear.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Monday, October 11, 2010

Panama Trip 1: Coral Lodge

We started talking about this trip six months ago. The idea was to try to combine our love of complete relaxation and lying on the beach with a book, and our love of birdwatching. At this time of year, birdwatching is fine in Canada, but the beach-reading, not so much, so we figured we'd have to go elsewhere.

I was inspired to investigate Panama as an option by Birdchick, who spent time at the absolutely incredible Canopy Tower, the premiere birding ecolodge in Panama. Her photographs, plus her enthusiastic commentary on how awesome her trip was, convinced me I had to check it out. Unfortunately, there was a stumbling block: being an old US Army radar tower mostly made out of metal, Canopy Tower isn't so much on the relaxing privacy. It's more on the "you will need earplugs to sleep at night and the howler monkeys start at 5am" side of the spectrum. Someday we may still go, but it wasn't quite what we needed right now. So, we started widening the field.

Our first four nights of the week were spent at Coral Lodge, a very remote little ecolodge at the north end of Panama, along the Caribbean. Remote means a 2.5 hour drive and 45 minute boat ride to and from the place. It's right on the very edge, on the Panama side, of Comarca Kuna Yala, which is essentially a separate nation run by the indigenous Kuna people. There's not a lot around, and the lodge itself is pretty tiny. Because of its remoteness and tininess, the new owners are having to do a fair bit of work to make it economically sustainable, including adding more rooms. Right now there are only six.

But they are awesome.

And as advertised, the coral is also awesome. We did a lot of swimming and snorkling. There were sea turtles, stingrays, puffer fish, young barraccuda, lionfish (a long way away -- they're gorgeous, and exceedingly poisonous) and many, many, many gorgeous reef fish of all sizes and colours, right off our own little deck. The water was generally quite clear, though less so when things were windy. But I expect the diving here is spectacular, though I am too claustrophobic to try.

We went for a rainforest walk that ended with fresh coconut right off the tree. AND we saw monkeys! My first time ever seeing them in the wild. They're pretty darn charming, howler monkeys, even at 5:30am when they're booming away. The ones we saw were pretty high, so there was no way to get a good photo. So instead, me on the beach with my coconut, gazing out at a trio of whimbrels.

The food was very good, and service very attentive. The weather was absolutely stunning, with most of the time as you see above; it was raining just a little bit as we left. Not bad for the rainy season. As one of only two couples there, we did feel a little exposed at times. And there were fewer birds than we might have expected, although we picked up about 40 species between the airport, lodge, and our return to Panama City. Overall, it was a really lovely start to our trip.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

summer, anyone?

If you're anywhere in the northeastern States or Southern Ontario, you're almost certainly experiencing one heck of a nice holiday weekend. I cannot believe the weather we're having. It feels slightly wrong, even -- temperatures in the high twenties, gorgeous sun, and it's not even close to May yet. I recall snowstorms on the Victoria Day weekend in May, and I'm not old enough to be saying that sort of thing yet. Cold, wet, unpredictable springs are more the norm here than gorgeous, sunny, dry ones.

But I've been taking advantage. The raised bed is ready for its plants, and I intend to put the first round of beets and lettuce in tomorrow. I've planted the peas. I have no idea what is going to happen with the peas, because everything I've seen about planting peas suggests different things. Soak them, don't soak them. Plant them in dry soil. Plant them in moist soil. Plant them early. Plant them just before the last frost date. The only thing people seem to agree on is that peas are cool-weather crops -- but just what that means, they can't agree on.

Whatever. I had no luck with peas last year, period. I have planted 10 pea seeds, and I'm hoping for at least three plants. They're all sugar snaps and I'm really looking forward to snacking on them. We've been trying to cultivate a habit of eating veggies for snacks.

We're attempting a new method of mulching this year, involving newspaper covered in natural cedar mulch around the flower beds. The weather's caused the weeds to go nuts already, although there is this year a corresponding amount of nuttiness from the rest of the plants. When it cools off later this week (frost, even!) there's going to be some frantic running around covering things, I'm afraid.

Meanwhile, upstairs in the sunroom there are little basil plants and little tomato plants making themselves happy. The tomatoes are even growing their first set of true leaves. It looks, however, like I'm going to have to purchase pepper plants this year -- the peppers I started over a month ago have yet to germinate.

But, having seen a phoebe in the backyard this afternoon, I will not complain about recalcitrant peppers; I am very, very glad it is spring.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Trail, Gayla. You grow girl. Simon & Schuster: 2005.

This gorgeous weather we've been having is going to spawn a spate of reviews of gardening and/or garden-related books. Just a forewarning. The first of the onslaught is Gayla Trail's You Grow Girl, which is named after her blog. Good stuff on that blog, if you're interested in all things gardening, including her personal journey to/through gardening.

Friday, March 5, 2010

feeling passionate about pruning

I've caught garden fever good. It is March 5th. There is still significant snow on all the garden beds (and good -- I don't want anyone getting themselves frozen). And I am sitting here fantasizing about pruning. I don't even like pruning.

This year I really should prune the clematis at the side of the house. It's getting a little wild and a lot too big. Now, I could probably just add to the trellis -- the little white clematis, whatever the heck it is, would like that because it's heading its way up there anyways. The big pink one would probably appreciate having a little more space down lower to do its thing. The clematis out there was one of the success stories of my garden last year, one of the few. It just bloomed and bloomed and looked lovely, even when it was flopping over to take over the driveway.

I'm scared to prune it because I don't want to hurt it. But I think it's got to be done. There's dead wood in there, and if it was starting to get unruly last year it's definitely going to be unmanageable this year.

And then there's the forsythia. It's a monster in the back yard, this forsythia. I have slowly come to the conclusion that no matter what we do it will grow back. So all the old stems are going this year. We'll leave last year's new stems, and maybe a few from the year before. But everything else is getting pulled. The old 1/3 rule, but even more ruthless than I've ever been with a shrub. Then perhaps I will be able to see the campanula and the ferns and the phlox without having my eye poked out.

The dogwood, planted two springs ago, which came down from Ottawa with me when I returned home, needs tidying. It did super-well last year, so I'm going to hack it back into a nicer shape. I'll be much more gentle with it than I will be with the forsythia; it's not overgrowing its welcome. But the younger shoots are the reddest shoots, and so a little gentle pruning right about now should be good.

The rose in the front is getting transplanted this year. I've been saying that for years, but this time I really mean it. But first it will have to be chopped back to something I can actually move. And I need to clear a place for it. (Getting rid of some daylilies, they're overgrowing their welcome, too, along with the forsythia.) I will try to move the rose as soon as the ground is unfrozen. I have tried to kill this rose for three years now, and it's not dying, so I suspect it will handle my abusive transplantation.

There's a pair of wigelia, one of which seems to ignore everything and just does its thing, and another which seems to ignore everything and looks pathetic all the time. Sadly, the one I like is the pathetic one. I need to do a good trimming of it this year, just after it blooms. The other one could probably use a bit of a whack-back, too.

Oh, and the raspberries. I need to get armed with heavy leather gloves (and probably a jacket and a neck-protector, frankly) and some hefty shears and go after those as soon as they start to leaf out. They are out of control. And vicious.

And then there's the spirea in the front which I hate but haven't gotten rid of yet, and it's not just out of control, it's so ugly it makes me cross-eyed each time I look at it. Except when it blooms. And its little leaves are rather attractive. I might be convinced to keep it, but I can't let it go another year without hacking it all the way back, digging out its vicious little suckers, and probably digging out at least half of it. Which I'm sure the periwinkle will thank me for, grr.

Oh, and while we're speaking of the front, I think I've maybe let the sandcherry go on too long without pruning. That I'll do after it flowers.

Um. I think I've maybe got my hands full. This weekend I'm taking some flagging tape out there to decorate the branches that will have to go. The upside of my pruning enthusiasm? I now actually want to take the compost out so that I can go and inspect the shrubs without their leaves.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

not dead yet!

*pokes a little at the blog*

Oooh, it is still alive!

Okay, so yes. If you follow this blog and not my other, you can be forgiven for thinking I might be dead. The truth is, I have been hibernating a bit this winter as far as birdwatching and gardening sorts of things go. I have been cooking a little bit, but there hasn't been anything newsworthy (other than my decision, based on one mostly successful experiment, that the slow cooker is probably the way to go ALWAYS). I haven't even really been reading much that would be relevant here, although I should report that I am in love with Lucy Waverman's new cookbook, A Year in Lucy's Kitchen. I have not yet tried a recipe by her that hasn't turned out, even the ones that are a little tricky.

But we are closing in on the end of February, and my little calendar is telling me that this weekend is the time to plant my hot peppers. We had a day last week that even smelled a little bit like spring. Then we had a snowstorm, but I am watching the buckets of snow melting in a steady drip out the window right now. In a couple of weeks no doubt the Dutch iris will be peeking up, and the snowdrops. I will be able to find out if my new redbud and the two-year-old Kentucky coffee tree made it through the winter. Two and a half weeks from now I'll be looking at planting tomatoes and basil. We have a new wheelbarrow, lots of mulch waiting, and I have plans starting to take shape in my head. Bring it on, March!