Monday, December 21, 2009

A Big Canal and a Little Village

Our arrival in Panama on December 9th seemed to designate the start of "Phase II" of this Great Adventure. We've regained our landlegs and, for the first time since leaving San Diego, stayed off boats for more than a week!

An adventure in itself was our passage through the Panama Canal on the 11th. It was a thrilling experience, and probably one of the most memorable of our entire trip -- not just in the sheer awesomeness of the processes, people, and moving parts of the Canal, but also in the opportunity to be part of a extraordinarily impressive system that has functioned continuously and flawlessly for nearly a century. In case you missed us on the live web cam, we made the eight hour transit under the adept direction of our assigned Transit Director, Robin, with Ben controlling the port bow line, Emily at the port stern line, and two hired linehandlers taking care of our starboard. The first stage of the transit, called "uplocking," involves a series of three chambers, each of which successively brings the boat to the height of the next chamber by rapidly filling with water; our job as linehandlers is to maintain tension on the lines connecting our boat to the massive concrete walls, thus keeping the boat in the center of the chamber and a safe distance from the 800 ft. cargo ship that is only about 20 ft. in front of us in each of the chambers.

After uplocking, we arrive at Gaturn Lake, 85 ft. above sea level, which takes about three hours to motor across. For the downlocking portion, which starts at the end of the lake, we were in front of a Japanese container ship -- its 40 ft.-tall bow towered over our little catamaran; its anchor dangled perilously over Emily's head. Downlocking, which also takes place in three successive chambers, is a bit less physically strenuous for us linehandlers than is uplocking, since it involves letting tension out on the four lines as the water level drops.

Back at sea level at the end of the day, the giant metal gates of the final chambers opened up before us, leading us straight onto the Caribbean Sea. From there, it was a few days cleaning Escapade at the Caribbean-side marina, a bus ride back to Panama City, and a few days exploring and eating our way through the metropolis of the capitol before escaping for the beauty of Barrigon.

This secluded mountain community is home to one of Emily´s closest friends, Kayla, who has been our hostess with the mostess for the last five days. Kayla is a Peace Corps volunteer who, during our time here, has been working with the community on edible garden plots, nutrition-related education, fuel conservation/efficient wood-burning stoves, and a variety of other endeavors too numerous to name. Kayla has integrated herself into the community in a truly admirable way, and the people of Barrigon have a mutual love and respect for her.

We have been indirect beneficiaries of this work and trust -- at just about every turn of the forested paths, we are greeted wtih a smile and "Buenos Dias." We have been readily welcomed into every family home we have visited and to every community event, including a raucous end-of-the-year school fiesta and a First Communion ceremony.

We´re having such a good time that we don´t want to leave! We´ll spend one more night in Kayla´s beautiful little house, and from there journey into the National Park that is a six hour trek up the road from Barrigon. We´ll spend Christmas in Panama City with Kayla and another dear friend, Micaela. From there... who knows?

Happy holidays! We wish everyone happiness and good health in the last days of 2009.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Canal Transitting

Tomorrow, Friday the 11th, we transit the Panama Canal. It's kind of a big deal. If you're interested, you can catch us on live web cam (okay, it's more like still shots updated every few minutes) at sometime during the day.

On the site, you'll see options to view several cameras placed at strategic places throughout the transit. The order by which we'll pass each will be: Miraflores Locks, Centennial Bridge, and Gatun Locks. We'll begin our trip sometime around 7am East Coast time and will probably be to the Caribbean side sometime between the afternoon and the evening - but due to the unpredictability of the transit schedule, it's impossible to say where we'll be at any given time. So be hip and take the whole day off to watch us on this momentous journey. Or check in every now and again and try to get lucky - we'll be the big catamaran sitting in the middle of the locks, hopefully not getting run over by a 900 foot container ship.

We're really excited - wish us luck!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

We Have Arrived

Pictures from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama:

Kayak-bound Mangrove exploration near Puesta del Sol (Nicaragua)

Loungin´ Aboard Escapade Under a Full Main and Genoa:

Morning reading spot on Escapade (Otto, the autopilot, takes care of the driving most the time)

Ben and Boat-Dog Nash in Costa Rica´s Spectacular Bahia Santa Elena

Ben harvests coconuts in Las Perlas:

Emily enjoys the harvest:

Our cabin porthole - not a bad view to wake up to, eh?

Ben and Emily, Survivors of a different sort

Emily casting for the big lunker...end result: skunked!

Our own private island for a day: Isla San Bartolomé in Las Perlas:

Well, not quite literally - it´s hard to ´arrive´when your final destination is ambiguous, at best. But figuratively, we´ve totally made it. After our taxing, nearly nonstop passage from Nicaragua, we have reached Panama and are preparing for our transit through the Canal, scheduled for Friday. As a reward for our quick pace, we spent a few days relaxing in Las Perlas Islands in the Bay of Panama, about 50 miles southeast of Panama City and the Canal.

During a trip with no defined final goal, these islands were about as close as it comes to fulfilling our images of what we were looking forward to when we started this crazy hare-brained adventure. Las Perlas are the embodiment of the idyllic tropical scene - small, barely-inhabited islands covered with palm trees and ringed by white sand. Fresh coconut water is ample...for anyone willing to shimmy up a tree, knock loose a coconut, smash it on a rock, painstakingly pry it open and get doused and splashed with its leaking juice in the process of reaching the remaining tablespoon of water - there are plenty of coconuts; our energy is the limiting factor. The rest of our days are spent enjoying the fine sand, the big blue sky with corresponding big red sunsets, the warm water and - with the help of snorkel and fins - the myriad fish, rocks, and coral formations beneath the surface. No wonder ABC (NBC?) chose these islands to film the Survivor series a few years ago.

And now in Panama City (anchored beneath the historic ´Bridge of the Americas´) we are seeing more human bodies than we´ve seen since leaving Los Angeles a month and a half ago - talk about sensory overload! If all goes as planned, we will transit the Canal (three locks up, across huge Lake Gatun, three locks down to the ´other side´) this Friday, the 11th; Escapade will tie up to the dock for Christmas and we´ll go ahead on our own way, wherever that may lead. Stay tuned in the next day or so for more complete details on the transit - you may be able to watch us on a live video stream.