Panama Canal at the Miraflores (flower lookout) Locks

Where are all the ships?

We peer over the viewing balcony expecting to see lines of ships passing through the Miraflores Locks.

Panama Canal (empty)

‘The first one will be here at 2:30 pm,’ says the man in the red jacket.

It’s only noon. Not realizing ships had a scheduled time to travel through the locks, we learn even more by watching the IMAX movie and visiting the museum.

Canal Workers

Feeling stuffed with Canal facts, we sit in the restaurant and play Uno… still another hour or so to wait….

Canal Centre of Operations

It’s a boring scene with no activity. Just a narrow, walled channel enclosed by a gate. The murky, green water sits waiting for customers.

Ships Waiting for Gates to Open

The crowd builds. A ship is coming… or two small ferries? But behind them is a massive freighter! They wait and wait… the water lowers. Slowly, they move along the canal.

Morning Composer Slowly Moving Through the Lock

Technical Stuff

Basically, a lock is a ship elevator.

Water from man-made Lake Gatun (33 km long in the middle of Panama) feeds the locks.

The lock gates, based on Leonardo Da Vinci’s miter design, close to a 45 degree angle, with water pressure from upstream sealing them shut. Piped-lake water rushes in and lifts ships to the level of Lake Gatun allowing the gates to open. Then ships sail across the lake to get lowered back down to sea level, exiting to the Atlantic Ocean.

Cables attached to freighters, pulled by as many as 3 small trains on each side, allow massive ships to pass through without hitting the walls.

Ships take approximately 10-12 hours to travel through the 82 km long Panama Canal. A short cut, as opposed to extra months of travel and dangerous seas, if they sailed around the tip of South America.

A Bit of History

In the 16th century,the Spanish explorer, Balboa – wanted to find a path through the jungle. He gave up.

Then the French came along. They carved the Culebra Cut (13 km long) through earth and rock, removing 153 million cubic metres of material. Not quite enough.

Dredger Ship in the Canal

They didn’t know what they were getting into.

Workers from around the world (Jamaica, China, Italy, Greece, India, Cuba) cleared land, removed debris, passing bucket by bucket, before illness struck. Thousands died from yellow fever and malaria.

They got rid of the mosquitos, but the French gave up in 1889.

Along came the Americans.

A special dredger ship, designed for the terrain, sped up the process … 52 buckets moved 1,000 tons of material in 40 minutes. Workers continue dredging the canal as I write this.

In 1914, the SS Ancon became the first ship through. And finally, in 1977, President Carter handed it over to the Panamanians.

106 years after all the noise and dirt and death ended, the impressive act of engineering stands in front of me, and I, beside a group taking selfies, lazily watch the ships pass through.

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Panama City (Skyscrapers Rival Nature)

Welcome to Casco Viejo – touristy, trendy old town – full of colourful French/Spanish architecture housing cool bars, restaurants, and punctuated by ornate churches.

We start our walk through clean, cobbled streets and find ourselves in a neighbourhood full of windowless buildings, peeling paint, smells of neglect. Stepping carefully over garbage strewn gutters, later, I learn we had ventured through the El Chorillo district – ‘peligroso’ (dangerous) at night.

A taxi to the Bio Museo – a Frank Gehry designed building full of facts: 3 islands, formed from underwater volcanic eruptions, merged to create Panama, connecting North and South America.

Taking in the impressive exhibits, we meander through a room featuring large creatures from the Pliocene Epoch including fast-moving, 2 metre sloths (lived 3 million years ago). How did they become sooo slowww?

The sweltering heat slows our walk along the Amador Causeway towards the towers of new Panama City on the opposite shore of Panama Bay – sleek, glass skyscrapers crowd together…does the skyline look like Manhattan?

City Overload …

Escape to Jungles of Gamboa (40 minutes from Downtown Panama)

Lost in the Jungle (only 40 minutes from downtown Panama City)

Trekking along the Shunga Trail, a bone-chilling cry makes me turn my head. It’s the elusive Howler monkey. Only 3 feet tall, but its cry is as big as King Kong’s and as ominous. It howls to tell other monkeys: I’m here, don’t bother me.

I picture it eating wild figs, high up in the trees, while watching the reaction of unsuspecting tourists.

Our guide says: ‘See those dark brown cone-shaped nests? Home of Aztec ants.’

‘Ow.’ Bugs are biting. I rub carbolic soap on exposed legs (should have worn long pants).

Wouldn’t want it to break open. He warns us to stay on the path. Beware of tarantulas and scorpions!

Still haven’t seen a sloth.

A smatter of rain begins, walk faster. It pours. At the end of the trail, high up in the Trumpet trees, a sleeping sloth (perezoso) and baby attached to her belly, hangs on a branch. Straining my neck, trying not to get soaked, I see the fuzzy brown lumps move.

Yay – sloth spotted!

Back in the taxi, scratching my bites, I look out to see a crazy twisting tower (the F&F Building) – aka The Tornado.

The Tornado (F&F Building)

At the next curve in the road, we pass a sculpture of young men climbing a wire fence. Informed by driver that it commemorates a student uprising against the American military on Jan 9, 1964 (Martyr’s Day) when 21 students died for freedom.

Rebellions, history, colonialism, innovation, nature … coming at me from all angles. Panama, a lot to absorb – I take it all in.

Onward to the Canal!

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Hear and Feel Mexico City

6-hour flight misery – didn’t drink enough water! We land, but they won’t let us off the plane – we’re trapped. Through the video screen on the seat-back, a guy in row 37B texts: LET US OUT!! My partner texts back: we are prisoners, help! As if we were in a B-movie, we wait for the hero to save us. No one comes. Finally, an hour later we walk down the plane’s stairs and cram onto a bus that will take us 12 minutes to the terminal at Benito Juarez International Airport.

Freed, I take a deep breath.

Off the bus, into the terminal, we’re confronted by a mob trying to get through customs – three flights have arrived at the same time. My head spins and I feel like vomiting, but I stand and stand (and at times crouch) for yet another hour. We are the last to be checked through. Bad luck?

I finally get a gulp of cold water. Relief.

Won’t let the month-long trip be coloured by a bad beginning.

We wander the streets of Mexico City towards the Templo Mayor – the area previously known as Tenochtitlan, where the Mexicas people thrived. Now they dance for tourists in the square. Impressive structures stood from AD 1325 until the Spanish conquered 200 years later destroying most of the temples and surrounding buildings. But today, the ornate architecture of the Cathedral Metropolitana de la Ciudad Mexico sits juxtaposed behind the temple ruins. The glorious (sarcasm) church towers over the remains of a once powerful people.

Sigh (isn’t that always the way).

A quartet (3 violins and a cello) play Vivaldi as we stroll down the street, 16th of September (Independence Day from Spaniards) and reach Constitution Square where a ‘plastic’ ice rink sits beside a Christmas tree of poinsettias. We skate awkwardly on the plastic in 25-degree heat. We wipe the sweat from our faces, trying not to melt before the plastic ice does.

We head back to our hotel, merging with the hoard of people along Franciso I. Madero Street, closed to traffic, but not to vendors shouting, handing out flyers. We weave and dodge through the mayhem. Mexico City, with a population of 21 million…I think we’ve met them all today.

We pass another group of musicians with a young woman singing opera. Her clear voice bounces off the buildings and onlookers. She coats the street with elegance.

Our room in the Hotel Isabel has 17-foot ceilings and overlooks the Republica de el Salvador street, bursting with loud trucks and more music. This time Bing Crosby sings Jingle bells, which morphs into a rap… stimulation at every corner.

For a brief moment, I forget where I’m from or where I am – feeling the air, atmosphere, creativity, music, heat – the city vibrates with energy.

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Victoria Marathon (#11)

Waiting in line for the 11 o’clock ferry to sail across the Georgia Strait to Victoria. Drizzle. Rain before a marathon gives me a minor panic attack. Skies clear on the eventful ferry ride – orca sighting on the port side of the ship!

After the ‘whale’ excitement wears off, my usual anxiety before the race (even though it’s my 11th) sets in. I struggle to picture the first step of the 42 kms in my mind – do I remember how to run?

Thinking about eating the right food, wearing the right outfit. Need to buy new socks – back of the heel has worn threadbare (see I’ve trained enough). Don’t need to get a blister at 37 km – my least favourite kilometre.

*

Beautiful race day in Victoria – great temperature 9 degrees, cloudy with the sun peaking through (no rain!)

And I remember how to run – feeling strong.

I take in the stunning scenery: ocean view, stylish houses, friendly cheerleaders. And a deer at 11 kms through beautiful Beacon Hill Park.

Then… at 30 kms things start to fall apart.

The positive course features are overshadowed by: how am I going to finish?

Walking (I don’t usually), but I keep moving … is it the last hill? There have been soooo many! I don’t care if I finish or not. I hate it! Please be the end.

Hills, hills and more hills – why didn’t I study the route more? Why didn’t I do more hill training? Too confident? Yes.

I notice a guy in blue ahead of me – then behind me – then ahead – we’re running at the same pace. I don’t acknowledge him until the 38 kms mark. I’m walking again and so is he.

‘If you get to the top of the next hill it’s downhill from there.’

‘Really? I don’t believe it. The hills are killing me.’

‘I’m walking to the top – see that woman in white – up to her.’

‘Ok. Can I stick with you?’

‘Sure.’

We walk up the decent sized hill (they all seem like mountains now).

‘Three, two, one – go.’ We start running together.’

abstract_colours

My Brain Towards the End of the Marathon

Do I have it in me – where’s my will, my passion to finish with my head held high. I had lost that conviction. I… DIDN’T … CARE. That’s the death of running a marathon – you have to care!

500 metres to go. The longest, stupidest, ugliest metres I’ve ever run – it felt like a never-ending amount of metres the distance seemed to be getting longer – I was on a treadmill going nowhere.

Turn the corner – I can see the FINISH line. OMG – I’ve got this. 100 metres out, the announcer says: ‘and Dr. Janet Green is finishing her 400th marathon!’ What? 400?!@! A humbling/motivating moment – I will finish my 11th.

At the last 10 metres, I find my burst of speed and pass my new partner, then he passes me. I finish just behind him, feeling powerful.

My big disappointment: betrayed by my mind. It made me think that there wasn’t a finish line – that I’d be running forever…

So, I have to do another.

Not that I’ll finish 400 marathons, but I will train better. I’ll focus my mind more and do hill training until I can’t bear it, even if it’s for the flattest course ever!

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Living with a Kitten

‘No, no, NO!

She needs to explore – I get that, but just not there or there. I try to be reasonable. She’s everywhere I don’t want her to be.

Is it better to have a perfect couch and drapes without rips or a crazy, energized creature that purrs and cuddles? I’m still deciding that. That sounds slightly embarrassing – material possessions over a living animal – could I be that shallow? I hope not.

kitty3

Sleeping Kitty

When she’s sleeping, all is well.

Awake, a terror.

Asleep, boring.

Awake, exciting.

Which is better?

Fishing line with dangling feather birdie makes her chirp and leap as if she were doing the high-jump in the Olympics. I try to hide it, but she knows where it’s hidden – and scratches the closet door to get it out. Can’t keep anything from her. She watches.

Please sleep – I’ll pay you, give you extra food?

‘Don’t go in the toilet!’ Her paws are wet – no pee in bowl, whew!

But Zinga is so cute – that overrides her annoyances. A muted calico – even her description is lovely. I only knew of a ‘calico cat’ from the musical Cats. I never met one in person – only black, tabby and Persian. She is unique (as all cat owners would say).

It’s a psychological adjustment that I’m struggling through.

The difficulty is keeping her awake in the early evening, so she’ll sleep through the night.

At around 8:47pm, she becomes the devil. The wall is her enemy. She flings herself against the invisible threat that surrounds her. She sideswipes the shoes by the bookshelf as she races down the hall. Then slides into the heating fixture with a crash. Her frantic energy makes me want to grab her by the scruff and massage her into quiet, calmness.

kitty5

Lounging

It works – I hold her, she purrs into my shoulder – we are at peace – she is almost dozing.

She lurches out of my grasp.

AAGH, come here Zinga!

After another 20 minutes of psycho cat – she sits on her perch, pretending like nothing has happened.

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Windsor Castle – Twenty Minutes from Heathrow

‘It is closed for cleaning.’

We are greeted by a woman in a red cape and blue hat – who takes care of what exactly? Proper and friendly – after 14 years of working at Windsor Castle, she gets a Christmas present from the Queen (as she mentioned to us). She seems to manage the visitor section of the Castle.

‘Oh, no. Really?’

Bad timing – we don’t seem to have luck with interiors of fortresses.

‘It is the yearly cleaning of the chandeliers.’

Of course.

castle

Wall of Windsor Castle

So, we examine the outside wall – our conclusion? It’s thick.

What’s the difference between a castle and a palace? The thickness of the walls? Yes. Built to withstand battles while a palace (thinner walls) is the elegant home of royals.

The weighty castle dominates the top of the hill, but if you follow the street along the wall (away from downtown), you’ll come upon a park. The grand path through its centre makes it feel as if you have wandered into the magical world of Narnia where a quiet beauty surrounds you.

I guess that is the theme of Windsor – calm, serene and a bit boring. A perfect weekend retreat for the royals. But what does everyone else do here? Take in the scenery.

Narrow, winding roadways lined with ornate storefronts, cafes and pubs…

But there is another revered institution to visit – the elite boys’ school of Eton College, founded in 1440 by King Henry VI, and where William and Harry attended.

Another walking journey – at least it’s downhill. We reach the Thames where boats for tours are available and many swans swim – can the scene be more picturesque?

Nearing the school, we notice two guys across the street hurrying along in formal attire – odd for a Monday afternoon. Then we pass another young pimple-faced boy, wearing a black waistcoat with tails, carrying a shoulder bag emblazoned with an ‘Iron Maiden’ logo.

Gargoyles (the friendly kind) look down from the heavy stone walls of Eton as if to say: welcome, we’re not so serious.

Dramatic history contrasts the banal daily life in the town of Windsor, England.

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Maât House in Marrakech

When the taxi driver finally figured out where our riad was located, we drive along Avenue Mohammed VI towards the massive Atlas Mountains rising dramatically in the hazy distance.

And what else do we see? The walls of yet another palace (the 3rd royal city). As the road veers, we pass by the modern palace: Hotel La Mamounia – expensive, exclusive elegant – we keep going to the rustic, shabby medina (old part of town).

Contrasts.

The taxi drops us at the end of the line for car traffic. We hike to our Maât House through the crowded street teeming with people and produce and motorbikes.

We enter our riad through a small, wooden door that opens to the grand courtyard – look up and up – to the plastic roof covering. All three floors to ourselves!

Beautiful design elements – embossed Arabic writing on the adobe-coloured wall catches our attention. Our host gives us a rough translation in English and French: something about the man behind the clothing – don’t judge him, we are all equal… I think that’s what he meant.

The small rooms surrounding the courtyard are cozy and warm, but step out to the toilet and ahhh, it’s freezing! It’s like camping in an antique tent in winter.

Living amidst a bustling market isn’t for everyone. We walk down our quiet cobblestoned alley past the kids playing with rocks at our front door, making us feel as if we are intruders in their neighbourhood. It’s an odd feeling trying to fit in. But as soon as we go food shopping and carry back our yogurt, bread, eggs – we feel like one of the locals.

At the end of our alley a man sells oranges and mint, the donkey and cart turn the corner in front of us and scooters whizz by – we pull back to brace ourselves for the onslaught of merchants and crowds. Not the most relaxing entry into the Jemaa el-Fnaa market. Once we reach the open plaza, there is room to breath – it’s still early – the crowds haven’t come yet.

*

A reprieve at the Marjorelle Garden (designed by artist Jacques Marjorelle) – an elegant cactus oasis – Yves St. Laurent and his friend, Peirre Bergé brought it back from ruin when they purchased it in 1980. People come to see it for the name of Yves St Laurent – would it otherwise attract as many tourists? Probably not.

Calm and serene – a place for contemplation and slowing down. A place that oozes wealth. Vivid deep blue highlights add a striking backdrop to the cacti. I feel special walking, no… strolling through a meticulously laid out pathway.

The vivid contrast of the garden to the medina makes me appreciate both. Wealth versus hustling and surviving – the medina suits me better even if it’s slightly unsettling.

henna_hand

Henna Hand

Back to the market – harassed by a henna girl – never let someone take your hand and squirt henna goop on it before negotiating a price!

A non-aggressive shoe shine guy carries a box complete with Kiwi brand shoe polish (as he points out with pride), and does a meticulous job. He lives in a town just outside the city and commutes for work. A friendly energy that comes from unassuming small-town people. My shoes look new again.

Contrasts make a city unforgettable, solidifying the place in my mind.

*

London is calling.

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Meknes to Volubilis

Another of the 4 royal cities of Morocco – Meknes.

Since it has a ‘royal’ status, a grand palace sits in the centre of downtown. Horses and carriages line-up near the gated entrance eager for tourists. We negotiate a fare with the friendly-tout and climb into the carriage while the driver and horse wait patiently. Riding through spotless surroundings, we admire the home of the former Sultan, Moulay Ismail (1672-1727).

Outside the walls is the open plaza that starts to fill with vendors and entertainers and…

A roof deck high above the market plaza calls to us. Sipping mint tea, we watch the crazy activity below. A woman holds the neck of an ostrich trying to wrestle it into cooperating for photos; children drive small remote-controlled cars, a man plays a horrible sounding flute to ‘charm’ the bored snake wrapped around his neck – the commotion before our eyes is like a weird movie.

We venture down as the mayhem builds and browse through the rows of colourful pottery glinting in the afternoon sun.

The rest of the city is ‘normal’ – full of typical restaurants, shops, lines of smelly traffic… but there is an added reason to come to Meknes – proximity to the Roman city of Volubilis.

*

A taxi ride along a quiet, olive tree-lined road – blue sacks of recently picked olives wait to be taken for processing at the factory. The smell of olive oil overwhelms us as we drive by.

Formerly the capital of the Kingdom of Mauritania, Volubilis’s Roman ruins (from the 1st century), lie 40 minutes outside of Meknes

I had forgotten how much of Northern Africa the Romans conquered. With the formation of Islam (beginning around 600 AD), the Roman descendants had converted to become Muslim.

The sun warms us as we walk through the remains of a once stunning place. Those smart Romans chose an ideal setting on a hillside – a perfect spot to see rampaging invaders from a distance, and to admire a spectacular view of the lush countryside. But there couldn’t be a city without a source of water and fertile land for growing crops – they had it all.

Appreciating the history of partial walls and foundations, makes it a magical place – I can almost see toga-wearing people strolling along the stone streets. A successful city, not only for its impressive columned edifices (I overhear discussions by governmental officials), and mosaic-filled houses but for its 16 bakeries!

Next stop: Marrakech, a 6 ½ hour train ride away.

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Fes, Morocco – winding streets, elegant riad and leatherworks

Yellow and red pieces of goat hide dry in the afternoon sun high on the hillside near Bab El Guissa – the gate above the city of Fes. I think that is the image that will stick with me as quintessential Morocco.

We climb down the hill and find ourselves on the outskirts of the medina. How to enter again without walking all the way around? A young guy appears to show us the way.

‘Ici, ici.’ He points to a narrow opening. We hesitate, then go through – angling our bodies sideways, feeling as if we are entering a secret passageway that will lead to the unknown – instead we follow the narrow tunnel out to the main stone walkway that will take us back to our riad, almost feeling like real adventurers for a moment…

Sitting on the roof deck of the riad – Fes, Fes, Fes – a chant in my head – or is it the call to prayer? Two competing mosques send out a wail of voices– just before sunset– eerie but romantic. There’s that word again. I feel the romance of the setting – a mysterious, exciting energy that takes me away from daily life. Intimate – that’s the word I’ve been looking for to describe my recently ruined vision of Casablanca, and now I’ve found it in Fes. The only flaw in the setting – satellite dishes outnumber mosques!

Roaming through the medina – piles of dates, candy nugget, olives and oranges wait to be devoured. Mmmm, but only an orange – ‘peel it, boil it or leave it’ (only way to avoid stomach issues).

The convoluted streets make for confusing (and cold) walks through the medina. From the 11th century Fes has been one of the four imperial cities and its ancient design works for protection against the heat, wind and invaders – you can imagine people for hundreds of years working and living in the stone structures.

Leather, leather and more leather – tanneries abound. Views of the cement pots of dye – the tanning process involves many steps –including soaking in pigeon poo for 3 days (softens the skin). Tannery Chwara – small, crowded work area – pounding, gluing and sewing bags and shoes, bundles of leather in piles on the floor but the beautiful results defy the mess.

Back at the riad, our lovely room makes us seem special, transported to an opulent time. The stained-glass door looks out over the inner courtyard, the curving light fixture, the steel canopied bed, the stone work – gives us a taste of life in another era.

Gita works in the dark kitchen. We wait for our breakfast in the cold courtyard, sitting next to the heat lamp. Strong coffee, fresh omelette and hard bread – merci, shukran Gita.

Heading to Meknes and Volubilis

 

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Casablanca Steps Out from My Past Vision of the City

My romantic vision of Casablanca is dead. The loud, traffic-filled city isn’t what I was hoping to see.

I wanted to be transported to a magical, make-believe place – like in the movie. I shake my head. How can I expect to step into that exotic small town – or take off from that remote airfield into the foggy night (check YouTube for reference) when it’s been over 70 years since the movie was made?

My fantasy is further ruined – the original movie set built in Burbank, California has long been dismantled. But Rick’s Café (supposedly, authentically recreated on Blvd. Sour Jdid) still lives on for travelers who haven’t given up on the allure of the past. (I kind of regret not going).

I’m mad at myself for judging a place based on a superficial image and not being able to see the city for what it is – a matter-of-fact-metropolis with a new tram system – and a combination modern/traditional atmosphere. So, it’s not as elegant and glamourous as I imagined…

Look! There’s the minaret of the Hassan II Mosque looming in the distance over by the Atlantic coast. During Ramadan – (the Islamic holy month of fasting) – 80,000 worshipers can prey in the huge plaza while another 25,000 prey inside. Part of the mosque juts out over the sea with a glass floor overlooking the water below – but since we aren’t allowed inside to view it, we study the outside walls instead. This seems to be a theme for us – couldn’t enter Alhambra either – oh well, a walk around the grounds looking up at the minaret is just as satisfying.

A final taxi ride through the busy streets to an ornate restaurant where a superb lamb, prune and lemon tajine is served by a friendly, eager-to-please waiter/owner. I see a new picture of Casablanca in my mind – a realistic one.

The city of Fes awaits…

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