Southern Exposure 9: Day 15, The Nats

On Wednesday, October 30, 2019, aboard the vessel Zaandam, en route from Peru to Santiago, Chili, we watched on the ship’s television the historic World Series victory of the Washington Nationals over the Houston Astros, said by some to be the best team in baseball, winning 107 games in the regular season. The game is now history. Through the sixth inning, the Nats had only one hit, and the two runs posted by the Astros seemed insurmountable. Scherzer had not gotten a strikeout and did not have his usual great stuff. The only upside was that he had managed to allow only two runs, leaving 15 runners stranded. We watched the game on board at a crowded bar with a wide screen TV. The 50 or so people watching seemed about equally divided between those rooting for the Nats and those rooting for the Astros. The situation appeared hopeless. 

But wait! The Nats had been in this situation before. In five previous playoff games they had been behind in elimination games and had fought back in late innings to win the game and stay alive. Could they do it one more time? Could this be another miracle?

Indeed it was! No team in World Series history had ever won the pennant without winning a single home game. No pitcher had ever won five playoff games without a single loss as did Strasburg. No team with close to the worst record in baseball in May (19-31)  had ever come this far  to win it all. It was truly a magic season.

Here is an excerpt from the email I received from my good friend and baseball guru, Jim Killebrew, when asked if he believed the Nats comeback victory to be a miracle:

Well, yes, I do believe in miracles. It’s called pixie dust. 

But this was a matter of the team with the best record in baseball losing to the wild card team that got hot in September and October and got to the Series by beating  the team with the best record in the National League. This was a Series where the visiting team won all seven games. That record may survive even Joe Dimaggio’s 56 game hitting streak. The team with four, count ‘em, four stellar starting pitchers lost to the team with two stellar starters and possibly the shakiest bullpen in baseball; and that was all thanks to the best job of managing ever. And, oh yes, don’t forget the no-name Howie Kendrick coming out of the woodwork and possibly winning the Series MVP. 

Thanks, Killer. And thanks, Nats. Washington needed this.

Southern Exposure 8: Day 14, Last Day In Peru

The way most cruises work–especially those in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean– is that you have a day ashore and then motor at night to the next port, arriving early in the morning, allowing time for explorations and excursions. You cast off late in the afternoon, and the cycle repeats itself. This cruise is a little different because of the great distances that we will need to cover. Overall the cruise will take 35 days, and we will have 17 days at sea and 18 at port. We have just spent four out of the last five days in various ports in Ecuador and Peru, so we have some long sea days coming up. This port day, October 29, marked the end of our second week of the cruise. It will be our last port before our three-day journey at sea takes us to Chile. 

When we woke up, the Zaandam was already tied up along a pier with no other vessels present. The area was desolate except for a small village at the other end of the bay. We were docked here, I presumed,  because of two major tourist attractions– a large national park and what was described in the itinerary as  Peru’s version of the Galapagos Islands. Unlike the other ports we have visited, this one had no cranes, no place to stack containers, and no sign of human activity anywhere near except for a fishing fleet, a couple of tug boats, and the tiny village across the bay.

Embry had signed us up for the “Peruvian Galapagos” excursion to the Ballestas Islands. The drill is pretty much the same at every port. If you have signed up for an excursion, you report to the main theater for instructions. Otherwise you go directly to security, check out, then hop on one of the shuttle buses, which will take you out of the port area to a central drop-off place where you will be on your own. As part of an excursion we were directed with 23 fellow passengers to Bus 11 where we were met by our guide, a 30-something woman with a broad smile and twinkle in her eye. The bus ride to the other end of the bay was along a lonely road with sand dunes on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. There was no evidence that the area had ever received any rain. The day was beautiful with sunny skies and temperatures around 70. My only complaint that day, and every day in Peru for that matter, was that due to very hazy skies we never got to see the towering peaks to the east, which we knew were there. That is where it rains. The rivers the rain produces make life possible along the coast. But you can’t see the mountains. Occasionally you think you can make out their slight silhouettes in the distance, but you are not sure.

The reason that it almost never rains in the coastal plains is that they are on the dry side of these invisible mountains. In the Southern Hemisphere, the prevailing winds are from the east, not the west, as is the case in the Northern Hemisphere. The humid air comes off the relatively warm Atlantic Ocean  (warm compared to the chilly Pacific Ocean). When the air rises, it cools and is unable to hold as much moisture, first producing clouds and then rain.   By the time the winds push the air west toward peaks of 15,000 to 20,000 feet, a lot of rain has fallen, sustaining the Amazon rain forest, and when the air falls back down the western slopes and warms again, there is no way it is going to produce rain. This is the phenomenon that affects the entire continent, though when we get to Chile and later to Argentina, I am anticipating that there will be differences from the climate in Peru. In any event the narrow coastal plain along Ecuador and Peru is about as dry as the Sahara.

After about a half hour driving along a dusty road, Bus 11 arrived at a village that was a mix of very modest housing and upscale, resort hotels and was buzzing with activity with  at least a dozen buses lined up  dropping off passengers. I had no idea where the other buses came from but guessed all or most were from our cruise ship. The center of activity  was a large pavilion, jammed-packed with people leading to a long pier where guide boats were lined up to take tourists like us to the Ballestas Islands. I had no idea what to expect.

Our enthusiastic guide led her charge of us 25 old folks down the pier to one of probably a dozen, sleek speed boats with twin Yamaha 250 hp outboard motors that could accommodate about 25 people each. How she and the captain got all of us into the bouncy and unstable boat without losing anyone overboard was pretty impressive, but they did it. We all buckled up with orange life vests, and off we went. 

The first hundred yards were not so bad as we slowly motored through a huge fleet of tuna fishing boats at anchor in protected waters. As we passed them and entered open waters with a two-foot chop, six to eight foot swells and a 25-knot head wind, the captain stepped on the gas. Off we went! 

Lord have mercy!

I do not know how fast the vessel was going, but it had to be close to 50 mph. Had the sea not been so choppy, it probably would not have been so bad; but as it was, every time we blasted through a wave at breakneck speed, water would spray up into the sky and splash down on the passengers, especially those in the stern where we were seated, cowering in fear. I did not look up. In fact no one looked up, not because we were not apprehensive, but because keeping our heads down helped keep off some of the frigid spray splashing down on us. 

My only comment to Embry, who was hunched down beside me shivering and trying to keep dry, was that there damn well better be some wildlife on this godforsaken island.

In about a half hour the boat started to slow down, the splashing on our heads ceased, and one by one heads poked up and started to look around. We had arrived. You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief.

Along with a dozen or so other speed boats, we found ourselves at the edge of the first of four contiguous tiny, rocky islands. We began to look around and dry out and to warm up in the morning sun as our boat rose up and then down in 10-12 foot swells. I could not help thinking that this experience would have to be something really special to justify the terror and discomfort of getting there.

Well, it was. I have never been to the Galapagos Islands. These Peruvian islands are much smaller and certainly can’t begin to compare with regard to diversity, but  in terms of the seabird population and sea lions? Oh my goodness! I have not seen anything that comes close to it. I have never seen so many seabirds  or  bird activity. On these four islands on a typical day, our guide told us there would be well over a million seabirds and over 200 species. On one of the islands there is a tall hill perhaps as high as a thousand feet, and this day it was completely  covered with tens of thousands of Peruvian terns. As our boat slowly motored from one island to the next, she tried to tell us what the birds all were when we got close enough to get a good look— many varieties of boobies, cormorants, gulls, pelicans, terns and so many more, some unique to this part of the world. However, there is no way she or anyone else could begin to describe the vastness of this extraordinary bird world.  I could not help wondering what kind of fish population would be required to feed a million, flying, hungry creatures every day. 

So as terrifying and uncomfortable as the voyage was getting out to these islands, I am the first to confess that it was absolutely worth it and an experience of a lifetime. (We also saw a whole bunch of sea lions sunning on the steep rocks at the edge of the sea.) On the way out before our captain let ‘er rip, he pointed out the side of a steep mountain beside the sea where there was an image carved out of the sand  that appears to be a candelabra. The image is over 300 meters tall and 100 meters wide and has been there on the side of this mountain above the sea for at least 2,500 years. No one has been able to determine exactly what it means or who created the image or how they were able to do it. There are some similar giant images on other coastal plains in Peru.

The trip back was downwind with following seas and much, much easier. Back on  board we enjoyed a delicious meal at the fancy Zaandam restaurant and then watched the Nats beat the Astros to force  game seven of the World Series.

Many good memories of Peru. Now on to Chile where  political instability has caused the captain to cancel our first stop altogether (too dangerous) and to alert us that other destinations may also be at risk. Stay tuned….

Southern Exposure 7:Two Days in Lima

The Zaandam spent  days 12 and 13, Sunday, October 28, and Monday, October 29, docked in the large port serving Lima. How do you make the most of a two-day visit to a sprawling city of 11 million people and come away with a profound understanding of its past and present? The short answer, of course, is you don’t. We tried to make the best of it by spending the better part of the first day visiting a private archeology museum, Museo Larco, and the second day visiting Mira Flores, the high rent district perched at the top of the tall cliffs along the southern shores of Lima.

The first impression of Lima is not dissimilar from what you see in  many large cities in what we used to call “The Third World.” Lima is loud, dirty, messy and seemingly out of control. Modest homes are packed together like sardines, the streets  jammed with cars and the sidewalks teeming with pedestrians. Tiny shops with graffiti on their walls sell food along with all sorts of merchandize, and every means of transport is visible at  a glance–cars and taxis of all shapes and sizes, buses of  all varieties, huge trucks puffing black smoke, bicycles with kids riding behind moms, motorcycles carrying three or sometimes four people, scooters, and covered, motorized, giant tricycles– all charging in different directions as  fast as they can.

  There is always a siren in the background and incessant honking. Within eyesight is at least one emaciated dog lounging on the sidewalk and a ferel cat darting into a dusty alley. Trash lines the streets; and at red lights, if you are in a car or taxi, chances are you will be approached by someone who wants to clean your front windshield, someone else who wants to sell you a newspaper, and another who is hawking bottled water or a warm coke. A young woman may tap on your window and ask for contributions to feed the infant she is holding, wrapped in a blanket. Invariably the traffic will come to a halt due to a car breaking down or an incident involving the police. You could be in Bangkok, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, New Delhi, Mumbai, Ulan Bator or Cairo. But you are in Lima; and if you have been to these other cities, as we have, you probably have that “I’ve seen this movie before” feeling. Yet as chaotic as they appear to be at first impression, these bustling “Third World” cities by some miracle actually seem to function, at least more or less, and what I love about them is their excitement, their humanity, and their soul, warts and all.

Also while similar in many ways, each of these cities is, of course, different with its own unique personality. We only saw one or two panhandlers in Lima. No  one tried to rob us, and the charges we negotiated with cab drivers (before getting in the cab!) were quite reasonable as were the prices of just about everything. The  people we met were polite and friendly, and most spoke at least a little English. The overall atmosphere, while chaotic was upbeat. It felt good to be here.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Lima and some of the other cities in developing countries that we have visited or (in Embry’s case) worked in is that in Lima there are a lot of solid middle class neighborhoods and some that are stunningly upscale. Embry made lunch reservations at Rafael’s, one of the city’s highly rated restaurants, which was in an upscale area called Mira Flores. When the taxi driver finally dropped us off in Mira Flores after inching his way in heavy traffic through typical neighborhoods with a mix of housing, some in pretty bad shape, we thought we had ended up in Miami Beach. Sparkling high rise apartments, 15-plus stories tall, towered  above the broad streets above the cliffs over looking the blue Pacific. Beautiful townhomes with tiny manicured gardens lined most side streets. The neighborhood was quiet, and there was no trash to be seen.

And so we have in Lima Exhibit A of the challenges associated with globalism. There is no question that Lima is better and Peru stronger than when we visited the country fifty years ago. The economy is robust (shipping, fishing, minerals, finance and more recently technology). People have jobs. Unemployment is low. The government has been reasonably stable, and the threats caused by  the revolutionary Shining Path seem to be well behind them. There is a large middle class, and some people have made a lot of money. But like practically everywhere else in the world, the fruits of the global economy have not been evenly distributed. There are winners and losers, and too many who have been shut out of the party altogether. The poverty rate in Peru  persistently hangs around 20 percent, and the social safety net is pretty thin. Protests, some violent, regarding inequality and economic justice are making headlines this week in Chile; and in many other South American countries, winds of discontent are starting to blow. This is not new. What is new is that decades ago some believed that socialism was the answer. Few believe that today, and the experiences of many countries in South America with often corrupt, socialist dictators did not help the cause. Venezuela, for example, is now a basket case and Cuba continues to struggle along. Yet at this stage in the evolution of life on the planet Earth, there is no obvious silver bullet that will magically solve the challenges of inequality exacerbated by the global economy.

The museum we visited was fabulous with beautifully displayed artifacts centuries old. And Rafael’s, the restaurant Embry picked out, was world class, ranking among my Top Five of all time. It had only about 15 tables, and the restaurant did not open for lunch until one; and when we left at three, it was still packed, mainly with men (all wearing tailored suits and formal shirts but no tie) and well-dressed women in their 40s enjoying business, power lunches. When there is no name on the building and you have to make reservations weeks in advance for a Monday lunch, you know it has got to be good. It exceeded expectations. 

So thumbs up for Lima. Not perfect and certainly struggling with globalism, but  dynamic, energetic, and  it has a soul.

Southern Exposure 6: Day 12, Peru

It is Monday, October 28, the morning after the Nats dropped the third straight World Series game at home to the Astros in another lackluster performance. Not the same without Sherzer. Odds for taking home the trophy don’t look good.

So  we are now in  Lima. We passed over  the equator two nights ago, but it is surprisingly cool here due to the chilly Humboldt Current which moves the frigid, Antarctica currents north along the western coast of South America. On shore typical high temperatures this time of year rarely exceed 70 with lows in the 50s. Mornings are usually gray, but the clouds and mist often burn off in the afternoons brightening the seascape and landscape.

 We were here in the late 1970s when we visited our good friends, Hank and Mel Ackerman in Lima. Hank was bureau chief of the AP at the time, and we spent about 10 days with them and their two young children getting a journalist’s perspective on the country. My most vivid memory was touring with Hank one of the huge barrios in Lima. Now euphemistically called an “informal settlement,” the Lima barrio was our first exposure to abject poverty on a massive scale. We also visited Cusco and spent a day in Machu Picchu.  Except for our near death experience due to eating street food in Machu Picchu (duh), the trip was fabulous.

So we are back in Peru, a country of more than 33 million and the center of the vast Incan Empire in the 14th and 15th Centuries. The first of three stops was yesterday in the port serving the small, bustling city of Trujillo on the northern  Peruvian Pacific Coast several hundred miles north of Lima. The main attraction of Trujillo is its proximity to two major archeological sites considered among the best in South America. So the theme of the day was ancient history.

Our two guides for this excursion were women in their forties, both very enthusiastic and proud of their Peruvian heritage, but very difficult for me to understand because of their heavy Spanish accent. The ruins were from two civilizations that preceded the Incan civilization. The first was the Moche civilization, which was dominant in the area for first several centuries in the Common Era. The second was the Chimu civilization, which lasted from 900 CE until the Colonial conquest in the mid 16th Century. One of the guides described herself as a proud Moche descendant and complained that the Incas got all the attention and credit while earlier and just as important civilizations were overlooked.

We will visit the big archeological museum in Lima  and learn more, but what is most interesting is just how far back their history goes. There is evidence that human life in what is now Peru was present as early as 11000 BCE though not much is known about these early human civilizations before about 2000 BCE.  Archeologists now have identified some 18 distinct civilizations prior to the Incas, many quite large and complex with centuries-long histories. One area we visited   was Chan Chan, an ancient, partially restored, Chimu city, which covers several square kilometers. We walked over a mile through a small part of the old city with its restored, adobe walls that made you feel like you were in a huge maze. Without a guide it is the kind of place that you could get lost in for weeks. The other ancient  city was the site of the Sun and the Moon Temples of the Moche civilization, huge impressive adobe structures carved out of the hills.

What archeologists now know about these early people is that religion was very important and for some involved human sacrifice. The sun and moon were both worshipped, and these early Peruvians believed in an afterlife. Rulers were buried in tombs with their prized possessions to help them get a good start in the next life, very similar to the religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians at about the same time. The restored art work on the walls of the city also looked to me to be very similar to the art of the Egyptians. They also were united behind a strong ruler, and war was central to their dominance. If there were peaceful cultures or civilizations in those ancient times, they did not survive long enough to leave a trace. I guess you could call this one of life’s sad lessons. We are still dealing with this aspect of our human nature today. In spades.

The town of Trujillo is a city of around 200,000 and thriving with traffic jams, lots of honking and the sidewalks full of people. While many of the homes were modest, and the narrow streets had their  usual trash and graffiti, you got the feeling that overall it was a fairly robust and dynamic town. The villages we passed through on our way to the ruins were a different story though not as bleak as what we saw in Ecuador mainly due to the fields of corn and potatoes around them, permitted by extensive irrigation. 

I could not help noticing that the vast majority of homes in the village were only half completed. There was a first floor, but on most houses rebars extended into the air waiting for a second floor to be built. The guide later explained that besides running short on funds to build a second floor, the real reason was that in those villages, only houses that were completed had to pay real estate taxes. 

The entire coastal area of this part of Peru is bone dry but viable for farming due to irrigation. When I asked our guide if it ever rains here, she replied, “Yes, of course, it rains. I heard there was a good shower about 20 years ago.” 

Next post will be about Lima, a mega-city with a population of over 11 million, making it the second largest city in South America, just behind Sao Paola.

Southern Exposure 5: Day 10, Ecuador

After a day at sea we arrived in Ecuador at sunrise on October 24, the morning after the Nats won the second game of the World Series from the heavily-favored Astros. Thankfully I am able to watch on the ship’s television. Inning Seven will go down in the history books.

At 6:30 in the morning the Zaandam tied up alongside a long pier across from two Mexican naval vessels and  near a vast harbor with scores of moored fishing boats. This port town in Ecuador is called Manta, a city of about 200,000 and very different from Panama City. There are no high rises here, and most buildings are old, some quaint, but most mundane. Our excursion began at 7:30 and took us as quickly as it could directly out of Manta on a winding two-lane country road along the coast. The only road near  where we were which appears on Google Maps is “Pan American15, ” but it is hard to believe what we were on is major highway. The narrow road took our bus loaded with two dozen passengers from the ship up and down steep hills for a drive taking over two hours. We passed through a dozen or so small villages– settlements, really—and one small fishing village. Our destination was a large national park about 50 miles to the south along the shore, which was home to one of the county’s largest “dry forests.”

The real story of the morning for me, however, was what we saw along the way. Embry and I have seen first hand a lot of poverty in the world. We have visited remote settlements  in Tanzania and Kenya and in India and Southeast Asia where people live in makeshift homes or huts along dusty roads, often without power or fresh water. We were not aware that villages like this dominated this part of South America, but here they were, staring us in the face. Every settlement we passed along the way consisted of homes similar to those we saw in the jungle in Panama but even more bleak. This may have been due more to the surroundings than the homes themselves. Instead of a luxuriant rain  forest with blue skies overhead, the houses we saw along this lonely stretch of road in Ecuador were surrounded by gray bushes and shrubs covered with dust under a steel gray sky. Our guide,–also very good, like the one yesterday, knowledgeable and easy to understand– pointed out that this part of Ecuador was just coming out of its winter season when it does not rain and all the leaves fall off the trees and shrubs. This was the “dry forest,” the main attraction of the tour. In the mist and under the dark gray morning skies, to us it mostly looked like a wasteland and another reminder of just how hard scrabble life is for a lot of people on the planet Earth.

The other thing that he pointed out was that Ecuador is one of the most climate-diverse countries in the world with dozens of microclimates. Not only is most of the country mountainous with peaks well over 10,000 feet, Ecuador  also includes the Galapagos Islands. 

On our way out we drove through a cloud forest with fog and mist and along occasional fields of green. Most of the time though, everything was gray and dreary.   When we arrived at the national park, except for two police cars, our bus was the only vehicle in  a parking lot that could accommodate at most about 50 cars. Though overcast the area was beautiful in a haunted sort of way with towering cliffs and a wide, sandy beach surrounding an inlet from the Pacific. Most of us in our group took off our shoes and walked along the two mile-long beach for an hour or so before hopping back on the bus. A couple of Scots and two younger guys from our group jumped in the chilly water and paddled around, later insisting that it was really not all that cold.

The trip back brought us to a small archeological site in a  deserted valley served by a trickle of water which when the rains come in several weeks will turn into a raging river. Our two-mile  hike along the riverbed took us through several banana farms and small huts occupied by subsistence farmers. Emaciated goats, horses and occasional pigs roamed the area. At one point when the trickle in the riverbed emptied into a small pool, we saw a dozen or so women  washing clothes and a couple bathing. This is a part of Ecuador that I suspect few tourists see. You could not call it representative of the whole country because Ecuador is so diverse in terrain and climate. The bulk of the population of this small country, smaller than any other country in South America except Uruguay and about half the size of France,  lives in the mountains in and around Quito. At an altitude of almost 10,000 feet Quito has a metro population of  over three million in a country with a total population of only 15 million. It is too bad that we will not be able to go there. It is the second highest capital in the world and the closest, large city to the equator. It is also too bad we will not get to see the Galapagos Islands.

In stark contrast to the poverty we observed as we inched along on the winding two-lane road, we had lunch on the top of a coastal mountain overlooking the sea at a small, upscale resort with outdoor tables surrounding a swimming pool and a hot tub perched at the edge of a cliff. The food and service were excellent and another reminder that vast disparities are a way of life here. 

On our return the sun finally burned through the gray clouds and mist and turned the gray Pacific Ocean into sparkling blue. The dust covered shacks that we passed on the way back did not seem quite so bleak as they did going out, but it will take more than blue skies to transform lives of toil and, what would appear to me anyway, with more than their fair share of misery.

I suppose that a shortcoming of this cruising adventure is that we will see so little of the countries we visit and our experience will be superficial, just skimming the surface. This is surely a fair statement to which I reply that just a touch is better than nothing. Tomorrow another day at sea and then our first of three stops in Peru.

Southern Exposure 4: Day 9, Panama

I had no idea what to expect from the rest of Panama. As we were approaching the series of locks on the Pacific side of the canal, the tops of thin skyscrapers in Panama City  peeped above the hills. Not your typical backwater town, I noted. Indeed! As we reached Panama City around nine pm, the skyline was lit up like lower Manhattan; and when we woke up the next morning in the predawn mist, the comparison that came to mind was Hong Kong. The thin city extends along the shoreline facing due south for something like 10 miles with rows of 50-60 story buildings that soon sparkled in the morning sun. 

The Zaandam  was anchored in a vast harbor dotted with  dozens of other vessels, mainly large commercial ships and fishing boats. We were up early to begin our first excursion, which departed for shore via tender at 7:00, along with about 25 others in our group. The boat ride to shore was only about 15 minutes, taking us to a large, private marina with  a whole bunch of million dollar yachts and a handful of large sailboats tucked away in floating slips that I calculated must experience something like 10-foot tidal variations.  There our guide and our tour bus for the day met us. 

We departed from the marina before eight and did not return to the ship until after four. It was a long day. We began by driving through the city with its mix of glistening new condos and office buildings and older neighborhoods with more modest buildings, many showing their age. Before we left the city the bus took us though the Canal Zone where the Americans used to live and which is now the most prestigious part of the city with many mansions and large homes. We then drove over the mountains and through the dense rain forests, passing by a number of small villages tucked away under banana trees and clearings in the dense forest where the houses were small and scruffy with tin roofs and cement block walls. Some had makeshift fences  around muddy “pastures” containing  goats and pigs and laundry drying in the warm, morning sun. Along the way our guide pointed out a few “informal settlements,” where squatters now lived but  actually fewer than I had expected to see. 

The sights and experiences of the day included a boat ride in search of wildlife on a secluded part of Gatun Lake, (We saw several monkeys, two sloths and a bunch of birds.), then a visit to a tiny, aboriginal village on the lake, and finally a visit to the new part of the Panama Canal, which we had not seen since the Zaandam made the passage on the old  section.

The guide was excellent. Probably in his early or mid thirties, he looked to me a little like Cory Booker and was passionate and enthusiastic about his country. He was also honest, pointing out the resentment toward us Americans for controlling the canal for so long and how the treaty signed by Jimmy Carter giving the canal back to Panama in 1999 averted a full scale revolution. He did not shy away from gently pointing out the income, class and ethnic disparities that currently exist in his country. 

The part I will remember most vividly is the aboriginal village. On a tiny peninsula in Gatun Lake, we visited a village of thatched roof huts where about 12 Indian families live —about 60 people including maybe a dozen kids. They have lived for a decade or so on Gatun Lake after they were forcefully removed from their homes in the rain forest to the south, which is now a national park. These people are no taller than four, at most four-and-a-half feet, and the men wear loincloths and the women colorful skirts and flimsy tops. The huts are elevated and have virtually no furniture. You can’t easily figure out how they survive. 

Well, one way they survive is hosting tourists like us, putting on a show of dancing and music, selling their arts and crafts, and telling their stories (through a translator). It felt to me at times  like we were guilty of exploitation. Certainly the small tribe we visited would not do this kind of thing unless they had to. Certainly it is not the core part of their life as hunters and fishers and subsistence farmers. Certainly the invasion of their privacy is not something they would wish for. But yet here they are. Is this how tribes like this survive into the 21st Century? They are part of a larger group of Panamanian aborigines estimated to number about 28,000 people. You can’t help asking how long they will last.

Part of the challenge of this trip will be keeping the countries straight. A day here and a day or two there. Before long a lot will be hard to keep straight. Was that in Panama or Peru? Argentina or Uruguay?  This may not turn out to be quite as confusing as it might be because the central story of the South American continent is a shared story: Humans migrated here from Asia via the Bearing Straight several thousand years before the Common Era. Some of these ancient civilizations were quite complex and sophisticated, comparing favorably with what we know about  what was happening about the same time in ancient, advanced societies like Egypt, Mesopotamia and China.  Civilizations came and went in South America; and by the mid part of the 15th Century, three vast empires had emerged: the Aztecs and Mayans, mainly in what is now Mexico, and the Incas in the western part of South America. These civilizations counted their numbers in the millions. Many lived in cities with populations in the hundreds of thousands. Then in the mid 16th Century when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, life changed forever. While the advanced weapons of the Europeans–and their horses–made the slaughter of the native population easy, diseases brought with them to the New World were the real killer, resulting in deaths totaling in the millions. The European invasion came close to wiping out an entire  population.

 Colonialism was the norm for the next three hundred years until the wars of liberation and nationalism of the mid 19th Century, which created independent countries for the first time. That is the essential history you need to know which affected all the countries that we will visit. Individual countries, of course, will have their own unique history and culture, but the engine that drives each one is the same: colonialism. They are still living with this legacy as they continue to chart a path forward. As we cruise to our next port, there are newspaper reports of violent protests in Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina; and Brazil is  borderline  lawless. Should be interesting….

So what else is important about Panama?

  • It is mainly a rain forest. Over 140 inches of rain fall a year in many places, and that affects all of life. Without the rain in the mountains, there would be no Panama Canal. There would not be enough water to replenish the water drained out when all the ships pass through.   Our guide warned us that it would rain on us; and that afternoon, the clouds poured out buckets. By late afternoon it was all over, and the sun peeked out just before it sunk below the Pacific.
  • It is mainly jungle.  The population of five million is smaller than that of the Washington metro area. Panama City accounts for almost half of that with over two million people.
  • It is a very new country, not gaining its independence from Columbia until 1904.
  • It has toyed with socialism and had its share of dictators, Noriega being the most infamous.
  • The disparities between those who have and those who don’t stare you in the face with fancy cars, fancy yachts, towering apartments and gated residences in and around Panama City and lots of tin-roofed shacks in the jungle areas.
  • International commerce drives the economy  due to the canal, two large container ports, one on each side of the country, the world’s largest duty free shopping area, and tourism. Compared to many other South American countries, the economy is considered robust.
  • If it has not already become apparent in this blog, the rain forest is spectacularly beautiful.

Now on to Ecuador!

Southern Exposure 3: Day 8, The Panama Canal

The passage through the Panama Canal did not disappoint. After a night at sea, on the morning of October 21st we rose at 5:15  when we were  to arrive at the Caribbean breakwater before entering the canal. After several days of cruising with rarely a vessel in sight, we saw  sparkling lights dotting the horizon everywhere as ships patiently waited in line. Cruise ships typically pay a premium to be able to break in line as was apparent in our case as we motored directly to the first lock as the sun was just starting to peak above the horizon. I  counted 26 ships behind us, all freighters, tankers or container ships. We watched from our balcony as the ship in front of us, a behemoth, red tanker, slowly started rising in the first lock.

So here is the deal on the Panama Canal, considered from its completion to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. For centuries it had become apparent that the easiest and fastest way to get from Europe to Asia, or vice versa, would be sailing through the narrow isthmus that connects the North American and South American continents. It was only about 50 miles wide at its narrowest point. If you could just figure out how to do it, you could save thousands of miles of travel at sea and cut weeks off the time—10 hours versus over three weeks for a modern freighter. But the hills were the problem. There were a lot of them, and the smallest were still almost 90 feet above sea level.

The French were the first to try it. In the late 18th Century, when the land was still part of Columbia, they negotiated a treaty, which gave them the rights to build a canal. It took over 20 years for them to throw in the towel, after tens of thousands of deaths and the realization that cutting a ditch over 150 feet deep for much of the 50 miles was not feasible. Most of the deaths came from sickness and disease—yellow fever, malaria, and cholera—than from accidents. The price was too high for the French. They bailed.

Enter the Americans. By the end of the 19th century,  Teddy Roosevelt, had his eye on the real estate and as president in 1904 persuaded the fledgling Republic of Panama to let the U.S. take over the canal project from France. The agreement provided for the U.S. to build and control the canal for perpetuity. It took just over 10 years to get it done, but not without losing over five thousand workers and costing what in today’s dollars would amount to over $ 8 billion plus another $25 billion paid to Panama and more than quadruple that to France. The solution was a series of locks—three on the Atlantic (Caribbean) side and three on the Pacific side—and creating a  massive body of water in the middle,  Gatun Lake,  by damming up two rivers.  It was an engineering masterpiece and still functions successfully with one new series of locks (wider and longer for the bigger commercial vessels)  completed three years ago. For the past 19  years the canal has been owned  and operated by Panama (the Torrijos-Carter Treaty in 1977),  which gained full control on the last day of the Twentieth Century. About 14,000 ships pass through annually or between 35 and 40 ships a day. Based on size and tonnage, the average fee paid by vessels using the original two-lane locks is estimated to be around $150,000 with cruise ships and large commercial vessels paying a lot more. The fee for the Zaandam was reportedly around $450,000 though I could never get anything definitive on this. The larger vessels using the new, one-lane locks pay more than double what the ships in the older section pay. All this produces over $2  billion in gross revenues annually, nets about $800 million for Panama, and is the main driver of Panama’s relatively strong  economy. Supposedly the canal is open to small, private vessels as well, but we did not see any vessel in the canal or waiting in line for passage that was not a large, commercial vessel.

The experience for me I suspect will turn out to be one of the trip highlights. Just being part of a passage experienced by passengers and crew on more than a million other vessels from all parts of the world for more than one hundred years was special. The weather cooperated as well with no storms or rain, which for Panama this time of year was unusual. Most of the crossing is on Gatun Lake. This 45-mile stretch was gorgeous with lush, dense rain forests lining the banks of the lake  and no sign of any human activity or habitation until we reached the last series of locks taking us back down to sea level on the Pacific side.  For some reason it took us about 12 hours to complete the passage, about two hours more than usual, and we did not arrive in Panama City, our next port of call, until just before nine pm.  Panama City will be the subject of the next blog.

Southern Exposure 2: Day 5, At Sea

We are at sea today 50 or 60 miles off the coast of Columbia, headed west toward the Panama Canal, cruising at 18.8 knots. Our scheduled entry to the canal is 5:00 o’clock tomorrow morning. Winds are out of the southeast at 10-12 knots with two-foot seas glistening in the morning sun. Clouds dot the blue horizon with showers and an occasional rainbow. Does it get any better? All I can think of that would be better is being on a sailboat in these near perfect conditions though there is nary a sail to be seen. 

Yesterday the Vaandam  was docked all day in Aruba, a tiny country off the coast of Venezuela.  The island, a protectorate of the Netherlands, is only 20 miles long and 10 miles wide and  has a population of around 100,000.  Its white, fine-grained sandy beaches are considered among the most beautiful in the world. Embry and I did not let the opportunity go to waste. Right after breakfast we headed out with towels in our backpacks and hiked about two miles to the nearest beach, where we rented two lounge chairs under a palm umbrella. Embry got in her swim in crystal clear waters with perfect temperatures while I sort of bounced around in the salt water and floated effortlessly. We strolled down the beach for lunch at a raunchy bar where we sat across from a bunch of drunk, beefy, middle-aged, laughing Americans with tattoos. Two foot long iguanas slivered up under our table begging for a morsel of food, and grackles perched fearlessly on the chairs around us.  Welcome to the islands! This will probably turn out to be the only experience we will have like this since the Pacific Ocean will much colder and rougher, and the South American ports will not be as lazy and laidback as Aruba. 

As we dozed away and read our books under the shade canopy, it was hard for me not to notice about a half dozen women and one guy under the canopy next to us, all in their early twenties, clad in very skimpy bikinis and all drop-dead gorgeous. I wondered if there might be a beauty contest going on somewhere. I could not help making the comparison between these 20-somethings and all us 70 and 80-somethings on the ship. A lot happens to our bodies over a lifetime. Were we passengers on the Vaandam ever that young? Did we ever look like that? Will they look like us in 50 or 60 years? Of course, the answer is yes, sort of. Such is life and our fate as homo sapiens on the planet Earth.  And looking  back on it as a septuagenarian or an octogenarian, you can’t help observing, my, how fast it all goes by.

Back on board that evening Embry and I had dinner at the fancy, onboard restaurant, which is not included in the standard fare and offers fixed-priced, gourmet meals for an additional $50. But for us it was free because we had received a special gift card upon our arrival from an anonymous source. We also received a special gift card entitling us to free alcoholic  beverages  for the entire cruise, limited to 15 drinks per person per day. Only 15 drinks per day? My goodness. While it is a bit of a mystery, we suspect that we are being cultivated for something. Once we figure out who is cultivating us, I will sign up and buy whatever it is they are selling. In  any event the meal was spectacular and worth ever penny that we did not have to spend. And we are indeed taking advantage of the drink gift card though, rest assured, we are staying well below the maximum allowed free drinks.

The service was also spectacular at the fancy restaurant as it has been everywhere  on the ship since the moment we arrived and leads me to my conclusion as to what is so appealing about cruising. Every employee we have passed onboard–and I mean every employee, no  exceptions—looks you in the eye, smiles, and says something like, “Good morning, how are you today?” Many also ask us if we need any help, just let them know. Now where, other than being on a cruise ship, do people smile at you all the time and ask how you are doing? I can’t help wondering how Holland America trains these people. Some hotel chains come close like the Ritz Carlton or the Hyatt or Marriott resort hotels, but nobody does hospitality training better than Holland America. I also can’t help thinking how much better the whole world would be if hospitality training was a required course for everyone on the planet. Having another person—someone you do not even know—greet you, look you in the eye, smile, and say hello is transformative. It makes you feel so good. It is contagious. You can’t help smiling back and something like, “Hope you have a good day too.” If we all did this to each other all the time, would there be wars? 

And to be clear: it is not because Holland America hires only “nice people.” They hire ordinary people just like every company does. The Holland America cruise ship experience is exhibit A that people can in fact be trained to be nice to other people, even if it is only during working  hours and on a superficial level. But, hey, this is a start and better than the day-to-day meanness and acrimony that are too much part of our lives in the “real world.” And I am convinced  that when all is said and done, a major part of the cruising experience is the hospitality you receive every day, every hour, no exceptions. If only one of the candidates for president would step forward and promise, “Mandatory hospitality training for all, no exceptions,” he or she would be elected, hands down.

The other thing that stands out about the crew on the Vaandam is their diversity, and I will return to that in a later blog. Now, on to the Panama Canal, one of the wonders of the world I have always wanted to see. Stay tuned….

Southern Exposure 1: Day 2, At Sea

On Wednesday, October 16, Embry and I boarded a Holland American  cruise ship, the M.S. Vaandam. The 20-year old ship is considered small (and old) by today’s standards, accommodating “only”  about 1,500 passengers and  500  crew. The cruise began in Ft. Lauderdale and 35 days later will end up in Rio with 17 stops and excursions along the way. We will spend several days in Rio after the cruise and then make our way  flying back  to Buenos Aries  for a few more days on our own before flying to Washington two days before Thanksgiving. It is a big trip, maybe not so big when compared to our around-the-world-without-flying adventure in 2015 but still big for us. Just two codgers trying to squeeze a few  more drops out of the lemon.

I have to give all the credit to Embry. She is the one who comes up with these travel ideas and makes all the arrangements. I just tag along for the ride. I have thoroughly enjoyed every trip. Last time we added them up, between the two of us we were just short of visiting 50 countries. When we return we will have added another eight: Aruba, Panama, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, the Falkland Islands, Uruguay, and Brazil. We will pretty much have checked everything off our must-visit list.

My guess is that most people reading this will have been on at least one cruise. If not it should go on your bucket list. The way cruises work   nowadays is that because there is a wide range in pricing depending on how big your cabin is and whether it has a widow or balcony, the experience is surprisingly affordable by people who do not consider themselves rich, and most cruises on mid-market ships like those in the Holland American fleet serve a pretty broad range of passengers, not just a bunch of rich white folks. For example, we had dinner last night with a group from Detroit who were retired skilled blue collar, union workers—and, I might add, Trump supporters. And having a mix is a good thing since living inside the Beltway limits our exposure to people who pretty much think like we do. Besides Americans from different walks of life and parts of the US, in just two days we have met or dined with people from the UK, New Zealand, Canada and Japan.

The thing that stands out most about this cruise, however, is the demographic profile of our fellow passengers: mainly people in our age bracket or older. There is a smattering of people with canes, wheel chairs and walkers, and lots of  people with gray and white hair. You could call it a virtual, floating retirement community. As one whose career was providing technical assistance to developers of retirement communities, I feel right at home. It sort of figures since a 35-day voyage does not accommodate most people with jobs or kids in school.

The two days in the  Caribbean have been spectacular—gentle seas and breezes with Carolina blue sky, white cloud puffs and blue-green waters.  We have not seen a single sailboat or private motorboat since leaving Ft. Lauderdale. Our vessel has skirted the north coast of Cuba and passed Haiti to our east and will arrive at eight tomorrow morning in Aruba. As with most cruises there is something going on most of the time if you are interested—cooking classes, card games, lectures, concerts, and evening entertainment—and food is ample and ubiquitous. Not sure if  power walks around the deck for a couple of miles each day will help keep the pounds off. To keep from gaining five pounds a week may be our biggest challenge. So off to a good start. Following the day in Aruba we head for the Panama Canal. Stay tuned. 

An Open Letter To My Friends Who Are Former Republicans

Dear Friends,

I know you are going through some hard times right now. You do not like Trump any more than I do.  He has stolen your party. He has forced you out. The ideals of a smaller, smarter federal government, personal responsibility, fair play in a robust private sector, responsible foreign policies, and balanced budgets—these Republican ideals are gone, vanished.  Having a vulgar, self-dealing narcissist in the White House is not any more your cup of tea than it is mine.   Your response has been to call yourself an Independent. Some of you may still call yourselves Republicans but are really RINOs (“Republicans In Name Only”), having had your fill of Donald Trump.

But you have a problem. Whom are you going to vote for in 2020? It won’t be Trump, that is for sure. But which Democrat can you vote for? What if the Democrats do not nominate a center-left candidate? What if it is Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren? Several of you have told me that you will sit this one out. 

And that becomes a real problem, not only for us Democrats but for the country. It is a problem because if the Independents, moderates and former Republicans do sit this one out, Trump will be in for four more years. We need you because we do not have four more years to waste.

Now it is possible that Trump may not survive the Whistleblower incident. He would appear to be in a meltdown mode right now, but we can’t count on his self-destruction. While the House probably will impeach him, the Senate most likely will not convict unless matters get really, really worse.  The only certain way to get rid of Trump is to vote him out in 2020. We need your help to do this. 

So hear me out on why you should not rule out a progressive, Democratic candidate. 

There are two issues that I have heard you complain about with regard to your voting for a progressive Democrat. The first is personality.  Some of you have told me that you held your nose and voted for Hillary but would not do it again for, say, Elizabeth Warren. She is just “too shrill,” too much like Hillary, and too far left-wing. And you think Bernie is a socialist nutcase, with Trump-like, authoritarian tendencies. There may be personality issues with other candidates as well. My response is that compared to who we have in the White House right now, any human who can fog a mirror is an improvement. I am asking you to put aside personality when you walk into the voting booth. I am asking you to think about policy and the future of the planet Earth.

The number one issue of our time—perhaps of all time—is climate change. Trump and too many, elected Republican officials deny that climate change is happening or if it is, that human activity has anything to do with it. We have pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and are pursuing an all-in carbon policy, and that will continue if Trump gets reelected. Need there be any other reason not to sit this one out?

There are, of course, lots of other reasons. Our foreign policy is a mess. Trump’s heroes are dictators. He has alienated our allies and befriended our adversaries. Trump has exploited the divisions in our country and made them worse. He is a racist. His immigration policies and actions are cruel. He is trying to shred the social safety net, and his policies benefit the rich rather than the poor and middle class. He is a habitual liar. The list is long.

While you would never call yourself a progressive or a liberal, I believe that in your heart you  agree in principle with many of the progressive policy goals: universal health care coverage (but not Medicare for all), a fair and reasonable immigration policy, fair and reasonable trade policies, stronger gun control policies, more affordable, public higher education, and preserving a social safety net. You may disagree on the methods but not so much on the goals; and overall, I believe many of the progressive positions should not be deal killers—though I recognize that the devil is in the details. 

The major disagreement it seems to me has to do with how we pay for all the “good things” the progressives want to do. The progressive, left wing of the Democratic Party sees the rich paying for the new initiatives and proposes higher taxes on the wealthy. Some of you see higher taxes as a non-starter and a brake on a robust economy. However, following the last tax reform, the situation now is way out of balance. I call your attention to David Leonhardt’s op ed piece in the October 6 New York Times (“The Rich Really Do Pay Lower Taxes Than You”), which shows that the super-rich now pay a lower share of their income than the average American taxpayer. For bleeding hearts like me, this is an absolute no-brainer. Of course the wealthy should pay more! Though hardly super-rich, yes, I would agree to pay more taxes to further a progressive agenda. I realize that for a whole bunch of reasons this may be a stumbling block for you. I am asking that you put this one aside for now. I realize there are probably a bunch of other issues as well that you disagree with, not so much as to the goal but the methods– like a guaranteed living wage, legislation encouraging stronger labor unions, and more government “over regulation.” No president is going to be able to achieve everything or even most of his or her policy goals anyway, so you need not panic. Chill out for now. The stakes are just too high.

And there is one other reason, and this may be just as important as the climate change reason. Donald Trump has debased the presidency and has put at risk the role of the United States as the leader and guiding light for democracy on the planet Earth. If our democracy goes down the tubes, what is going to happen to the other countries in the world? Just as the climate change issue is showing us how fragile our planet is, the presidency of the most corrupt administration in American history is showing us how fragile our governance is. Trump has convinced about forty percent of the American electorate that our press writes fake news, that facts are what you want them to be, that he is infallible, and that whatever it takes to get elected is fair game. If he can get away with his reckless and, frankly, unamerican actions, our democracy, our country and indeed our planet are in deep trouble.

Now there is one message that I have heard from you that resonates with a lot of people and that is that you are sick and tired of the divisions in our country and the us versus them attitude with not much room in the middle. You believe our country needs more than anything a leader who can pull us together rather than divide us. The very heart of Trump’s strategy, of course, is to divide us and play to his “base.” I agree with you on the need to come together and will be hoping that a Democratic candidate will emerge that has the ability to do this without sacrificing the principles of more fairness and less income (and class) disparity. That said, the voting process does not mean selecting the best person for the job but rather the best choice among those who are running for office. Think “any normal, functioning adult.”

So, my moderate and independent friends, suck it up. Keep your eye on the ball. Hold your nose if you have to, but for God’s sake, do not sit this one out. Vote for the Democrat opponent even if that person turns out to be Elizabeth Warren or (God forbid) Bernie Sanders. The world our grandchildren will inherit depends on it.