Sunday, September 28, 2008

Panama Canal Part 2: Miguel Lock and Gatun Lake

I found my diploma and no additional news on the move to Italy, so back to the cruise!

After a short trip through Miraflores Lake, we were into the Miguel Lock. This is the third and final lock up from the Pacific into the Canal. We had a better view of the ship next to us being hooked up to the locomotives at this lock.
From there we moved into the Gaillard or Culebra Cut, which is a 7.5 mile long cut through mountains and the Continental Divide. Shortly after entering the Cut, the ship goes under a very cool cable-stayed bridge that connects both sides. This is one of only two ways that vehicles can cross the Panama Canal. It was interesting to see how close we were to the land on either side, very good views of the incredibly dense jungle of Panama.

The Cut is the tightest part of the Panama Canal, at 192 meters wide. Because of the size of Disney Magic, while we were in the cut, no other ships could pass us in the opposite direction. This is also the source of the most problems for Canal operations, with mud and rock slides being a problem. It is dredged frequently to maintain a depth such that the ships can go through. This is the price of creating a canal where mountains should be! The earth seems to want to normalize back to its natural state.

Once through the Cut, we moved into the giant Gatun Lake. The channel for ships widens out and ships will pass each other, even though it still seems close!

All around small islands can be seen, these are the tops of the mountains that were flooded to form the lake. The lake was flooded without removing any trees, and the story goes that occasionally a large tree trunk will break off and float around in the lake bumping into ships here or there.This is where we sat back and watched the islands go by, and just marvelled over the fact that we were on a ship where no ship should be. We were looking at the tops of mountains, while sailing on an ocean-going vessel. Just amazing!

We enjoyed a hot and sunny day on the ship. It was fun to wander around and take in the views or watch the lake go by while Brandon swam in the pool. Everyone was excited, even the crew, who would stop here or there and take a picture. This was unique to them too!
Late afternoon, the clouds got dark and the storms rolled in. Lightning and thunder and rain closed the pools and sent everyone inside until we reached the Gatun Locks on the other side of the lake.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Visa process is beginning...

It's been a busy week. We had visitors at work from Italy for a class and meetings Tuesday through Thursday, so that took up quite a bit of time with the days being full and then dinners in the evening. It was fun though!

The big news this week is that we've been given a list of documents to compile for the visa process. The interesting thing that we have to do is get several of them translated into Italian and "legalized" by the Italian embassy. No real instructions on how to do that, however.

After some super sleuthing Patrick found out that we can get the legalization done by the Italian consulate in Portland, and they referred us to a translator, also in Portland. Now we just have to get all of the documentation together, here's what we need:
  • A letter of intent from my employer (translated/legalized)
  • My diplomas (translated/legalized)
  • My resume
  • Copies of passports
  • Marriage certificate (translated/legalized)
  • Brandon's birth certificate (translated/legalized)

The only one we haven't found yet is my undergrad diploma. I graduated 16 years ago and haven't had to actually do anything with it since, but I'm pretty sure it's in a tote in the garage. At least I hope so, because I can't find it in any other logical locations, and I'll have to get a new one from DU if it's not there!

I leave you all with this question - how many of you can put your hands on all of this documentation within a few minutes? It has been a little harder than I thought!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Panama Canal Part 1: Miraflores Locks

The wait is over, I'm finally writing about the Panama Canal! There is too much to write for one entry, so I'll start with a little bit of background and the first two locks. One of the great things about this trip was just learning about the Canal, and seeing it in action made it even more amazing. Disney brought a retired Panama Canal pilot on board, Captain Ken Puckett, to lecture and answer questions on the canal. In three presentations before we even got to the canal, he gave us information on the history and operations of the Canal.

There is a very long history behind the Canal, before the United States ever got involved in 1904. I'll refer you to this article on Wikipedia for the history. One of the more interesting facts that we learned is that the US Army undertook significant projects before building even began to eliminate the mosquitos and improve sanitation to reduce the diseases that would take the lives of many of the workers.

The Canal formally opened on August 15, 1914 and has been in operation almost continually since. A few facts about the canal and our trip through that have stuck with me:

  • There are 3 locks up into Gatun Lake and 3 locks down.
  • The lock system is completely gravity fed from Gatun Lake. It takes 52 million gallons of fresh water from Gatun Lake for a ship to move through the Canal; 26 million on each side.
  • Gatun Lake is man-made, it took 7 years for the lake to fill and has a surface area of 164 square miles. If 40 ships a day (typical) go through the locks, the lake level drops by 2 inches.
  • The locks are constructed of concrete - with no rebar. Think about the fact that these are almost 100 years old now - what a maintenance nightmare that must be!
  • There are 40 pairs of the miter lock gates, which are all original and undergo maintenance every 10 to 15 years.
  • The operation of the Panama Canal is by the independent Panamanian entity, ACP or Panama Canal Authority, who took over from the US on December 31, 1999. The Canal is completely funded by revenue generated from the fees the ships pay to go through the canal.
  • Fees are calculated somehow by the ship size (displacement of water), cargo and revenue-generating rooms. The Disney Magic set a record coming to the West Coast in May with a cost of $331,000. They were predicting it would be higher for our trip through, plus Disney paid a 10% surcharge to have a specific time to start into the locks. Typically, it is first come, first served.

OK, enough facts, how about some pictures? We got up on the top deck just as the ship was heading under the Bridge of the Americas. It was crazy in the front of the ship, people had camped out all night just to be in the front! We headed to the back of the ship, to the Deck 7 Aft viewing platform, a little-known deck that Brandon and I had found through some exploring the day before. This is the furthest back on the ship you can get without having a private room with a balcony. We stayed here because there was a great view of the locks as we moved through, without all of the people. We figured that this was the view that the people on the May cruise heading west camped out for!

It was a beautiful, sunny morning as we approached the locks. Since it is rainy much of the time in Panama, we joked that Disney had special ordered the weather. The ship had picked up our 4 Panama Canal pilots outside of Panama City sometime around 6am and we headed into the first Miraflores lock at around 8:40am, right on schedule. As we moved toward the locks, we could see two other ships in the locks ahead of us. The locks are side by side and typically traffic heads in two directions through them, but today everyone was going the same direction as us. At one time, we could see 4 giant ships at the same time - 2 exiting the second locks and 2 in the first locks.

The approach to this lock is the most dangerous of them all, because of the currents, tides and outflow from the locks meeting in the same place. There are two tugboats that stay with the ships up until they are secured by the locomotives in the locks, just in case they start running astray. A big ship can do a lock of damage to a lock! As the ship approaches the lock, the captain and pilot are doing their best to keep it tight up against the center wall. They hook the ship up to the locomotives on either side with cables. In the past, these locomotives actually pulled the ships through. Now the ships are too big and the locomotives just keep the ship centered in the locks, while the ship provides its own power to move through.

It was cool to see the lock gates close behind us and then watch it fill. We heard that it takes only 8 minutes for the lock to fill, but it seemed like longer. It took us almost an hour to go through each lock. When you consider the hook up of the locomotives, moving into the lock, closing the gates, filling the lock, opening the next gates, moving out of the lock... it takes a while. As we went through ourselves, another container ship came in alongside us. When I saw the size of the container ship, just a short ways away from us, I started to realize the magnitude of all of this.

The Disney Magic is considered a "Panamax" - the largest size of ship that can go through the canal. There are only 24 inches on either side of the ship as we went through. An ocean-going vessel, and the clearance is only 24 inches on a side! It is hard to fathom that they do this all of the time. As we looked behind us, we could see two ships coming up through the channel to come into the locks after us. The Canal is clearly well-used and a vital part of shipping routes.

After the first Miraflores lock, the locomotives go up a small hill as we moved into the second lock and process was repeated. This lock was right next to the Visitor's Center, which was packed with people. Seeing a cruise ship go through the Canal, especially one as distinctive as the Disney Magic, is clearly a popular event. Everyone, including the workers on the other ships, had their cameras out to take pictures of us. The Disney photographers were also out on the locks taking pictures of the ship as well, to sell to us later. (I must confess, I did buy a couple!)

After about two hours we were clear of the Miraflores locks and into the small Miraflores Lake. It was an incredible beginning to our journey through the Panama Canal. The scale of the operation is unbelievable, along with the age. Just incredible to move past the building with the date "1913" and know that this is the same design, same locks that have been in operation since then.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Thinking about the move...

We are thinking a lot about the move to Italy lately. This week I submitted information to the relocation company with data about us that they need to get the paper work ready. Things are moving at work around the upper management approval, although I don't know the exact status of that yet.

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night (mainly because the cat was sick) but after I was awake, I couldn't fall back asleep. I started obsessing about what happens if we can't rent our place here, will we have enough money to live reasonably in Italy, etc. I couldn't sleep so I got up and created a spreadsheet in order to just get some numbers down to sort it out and get it out of my head. Now that I'm starting to see some real numbers in the form of estimates for the move and everything at work, it is filling my head. What we really need is to meet with the Relocation consultant, tax consultant, etc. and start asking a gazillion questions.

Tonight I was reading our Living in Italy book and looking for banks online. Just something to do. It was a rough day at work and I can't seem to focus on anything since I've been home. Today was the last work day for many of the people at work who have been laid off, and it's affected me quite a bit. It's been quite a few years since I've experienced this at work, and at the time I wasn't in the position of being a manager or really knew the people who left. It's different when they are members of your team. Right now I'm looking forward to getting on to my new position and getting ready to move to Italy. I move out of management 10/1 but have a few more responsibilities that will bleed into mid-October, and then I'll be back to being an engineer again. I am finding that I am really looking forward to it...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


We've all seen pictures of the cliff divers in Mexico, haven't we? These are from Acapulco. Once a hot spot, Acapulco is not the destination it used to be for Mexican tourists, but we sure enjoyed it! It was a short port stop on Friday August 22, from 7am to 1pm, because the Magic needed to make sure it made it our Panama Canal entry time.

We woke up to rain - so much for our walking tour and beach plans. Good thing I had picked up an umbrella at Kmart before we left town! As soon as we got out of the cruise ship terminal, we were accosted by taxi drivers to drive us around town. We were going to walk but as we got a little farther, we got wetter and the taxis got cheaper, so we went with "Martin" in a VW bug cab. Acapulco must be where all of the VW bugs go to retire – we’ve never seen so many of them in one place in our lives!

Martin first took us through the old town to a flea market. We were the first customers of the day, and probably the most disappointing customers. We did get a t-shirt for Brandon, and he was amazed by the bartering I did, he thought that was pretty cool! From there we went to La Quedabra, where we saw the cliff divers. Normally the cliff divers don't start until 12:30pm, but there was a special show at 9:30am just for our cruise ship, and Martin knew about it and got us there. We watched outside on the platform, where it was wet but started clearing up. I thought it would be higher but it was still pretty amazing to see them dive. Brandon seemed to enjoy splashing in the puddles at least a much, if not more, than watching the divers themselves. Seven year old boys are so easily entertained!

On our way back to the ship Martin took us through more of old town, and up to an old hotel that had a marvelous view of the city. He guaranteed us it was the best view, and it was great. We were shocked that this beautiful old hotel, the Hotel Teran, was no longer in operation. We saw many hotels during our short trip that appeared abandoned and gutted. Very clearly Acapulco has seen some better days.

It was a fun little drive back to the Fort of San Diego, where we said goodbye to Martin. We went in for tickets, but didn’t have any more cash and they didn’t take Visa, so we thought we would have to go back to the ship but the lady said to go ahead and go in. Very nice of her! It was a nice museum about the history of the town and the fort, with displays in Spanish and English. The views from the Fort were gorgeous, but the little camera’s battery had run out and I didn’t have my good camera. Bummer!

It was only 10:45 or so by the time were done with the fort, so we went for a walk along the bay to find a beach. The water was quite yucky – lots of trash in it – so we didn’t let Brandon go in. It was cool to see the fisherman readying their boats, and some fisherman were already in with fish for the day to sell. We heard later you can buy the fish there and then go up the street and the restaurants will cook it for you. Again, I wished that I had my camera, because there were some amazing images there.

We got back to the ship about 11:30am. Since we had time and were right by the Fort, I decided to go back with my good camera and take more pictures from the top of the fort. Back out and up to the fort I went, and this time I had money to pay to get in. I got up to the top, got my camera out, and then... had to wait. Turns out – taking a camera from an air conditioned stateroom directly into the hot and humid tropical weather is not such a good idea. The lens steamed up and it took a while for the lens to dry back out! (I can't even remember how many times I did this on the trip, some lessons are hard to learn.)

I loved the hillsides of the houses stacked on top of each other in the old town, some painted in bright colors. I heard the instruments warming up in the music school just across from the fort, and the honking of all of the cars down on the main street. The fort itself was beautiful as well, with the bright yellow and white interior in contrast with the rough stone exterior. I left about 12:30 to get back to the ship, in plenty of time. The rain had stopped during the cliff diving, but it started to sprinkle on me as I was waiting on the gangway and then started pouring once I was on the ship.

I found Patrick and Brandon and we went to deck 4 to watch the sight of the city as we sailed out of Acapulco. We agreed that we enjoyed the location and the look of the town much better than Cabo, since that was mostly desert, but the town itself was pretty run down and so much was deserted. We can only wonder what it was like in its heyday.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Puerto Vallarta

Who says you can't find parking at the mall? We woke up in Puerto Vallarta on Wednesday August 20, parked right at the mall. And Walmart. Could you ask for anything less authentic?

Puerto Vallarta was a long port stop – from 9:00am to 1:00am. This was one port we had decided to do an excursion, so we were off to our Pirate Boat Sail & Swimming excursion first thing in the morning. It was a short walk from the Magic to the pirate ship “Magilante” parked at the next dock. We boarded and waited quite a while, as everyone boarded. There must have been close to 200 people on the ship!

The nice thing about this excursion was that everything was included – breakfast, lunch, drinks (soda, beer, mixed drinks) and so we could just have a good time. It was quite a long ride to the beach, with entertainment from the pirates along the way. There was a big show with pirates everywhere on board, swordfighting, jumping overboard. Not Disney quality but fun nonetheless.

Unfortunately, on the ride to the beach Brandon wasn’t feeling well. Or at least he was acting like he wasn't feeling well. We weren’t sure if it was real or not, he does this sometimes when he's not happy with what we're doing. It's one of those things that is hard to tell. He managed to survive the ride and by the time the show was ending he was watching and enjoying himself.

We arrived at the Las Mahautas beach – a secluded resort beach that several boat excursions seem to use – and we went ashore via boats to the beach for playing in the water and sand. Patrick and I enjoyed floating around in the waves while Brandon played in the shallows and in the sand. We met some nice people and chatted for a while. Just as I was in line to ride the Banana Boat it was time for us to board again. Once aboard, we rinsed off and then went down to lunch in the galley. The food was not bad, although I would have loved some Mexican food and it was normal cruise fare (chicken, fish or steak).

The ride back was enjoyable – Brandon was feeling fine, very animated. We heard the story of the ship and how it came to be in Puerto Vallarta, the kids got to play a while, there was some final dancing and games with the crew. Patrick and I had quite a few mixed drinks – Pepe just kept bringing them to us! We could see rain moving in over Puerto Vallarta as we cruised back and just as we were getting close it started to rain. I was on the edge of the cover and it dripped down and drenched me. No matter – it was warm, I was already wet from swimming and had a little alcohol in me so I was fine. The only problem was after so much work to keep my Birkenstocks dry (since I didn’t have water shoes yet!) they were soaked. Oh well.

It was 5pm by the time we got back in. We were going to go explore Puerto Vallarta in the evening, but between the rain and being tired out from the beach we revised our plans. It would have been nice to see the city, it's the one port we really didn't explore, but it seemed the best choice at the time. Patrick and Brandon went back to the ship to shower and get ready and I ran across the street to Walmart to get myself some water shoes since it was clear I would need them. So, would you believe, being parked at the mall came in handy after all!

No More Stampin' Up!

After 7 years of being a Stampin' Up! demonstrator, I am finally done! Last night was my first night to go to someone else's workshop. Sara, one of my long time customers, has taken over my workshop format and customers in order to keep their stamp fix going once I move. She's excited, the customers are excited, and quite frankly it was nice to go and stamp without doing the prep work! :) It was really my customers who were keeping me going for the last year or two, with their continued interest and enthusiasm, because I hadn't been stamping much for myself. One customer even thanked me for all I had done! That really made me feel appreciated.

Along those lines, today was my stamp garage sale, and I cleaned out more than ever. I had 4 random boxes of stuff left after the sale: 1 for Goodwill, 2 for eBay and 1 for Brandon's school. It feels great to have things cleaned out! I wasn't even tempted to "shop" Rainie and Jennifer's tables since I know I'm moving. (Confession: I did take one small thing from Jennifer's table...)

After the garage sale, my "stampin' sister" Rainie and I went to tea since she was down in Corvallis to participate in garage sale. Rainie and I have become friends through Stampin' Up! and really, her friendship is the best thing to come out of my demonstratorship. We'll keep inspiring each other with our creative endeavors and family exploits on into the future I have no doubt.

So, one small chapter of my life is closing as I move on from Stampin' Up! Surprisingly, I don't feel a lot of emotion either way - good or bad. I guess it must be time for me to do something different, and the Italy move is just a catalyst. It's interesting how much this change has made me reassess different parts of my life. I'm sure there will be more adjustments to come.

(Hey, is anyone there? Leave a comment or become a follower on the right hand side. I'd love to hear from you!)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Sunset at Sea

Some images just need to stand alone. This was the sunset that we saw after leaving Cabo San Lucas. We were waiting for our dinner seating at 8:30 and wandered to the back of the boat to find a snack for Brandon. We sat on Deck 9 aft and watched the sun go down. I thought it looked like it would be a beautiful sunset with the clouds and the ocean, so decided to watch it until its end (Patrick and Brandon left to go do something else). You always hear that the best colors come after the sun actually goes down, and that is so true. This photo was taken about 10 minutes after sunset.

I watched as the sky went from golden to flaming orange to magenta over about 30 minutes. I watched beyond the time that the point-and-shoot camera could take decent pictures, just drinking in the vitality of the colors. It was amazing, one of the all time best sunsets I've ever seen. A brief, quiet moment in time that I will never forget.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Cabo San Lucas

There is just so much to share from our cruise, I'm going to focus on specific days in port and the canal first and then come back with stories from around the ship. This goes against my chronological nature but will probably be a more interesting read. I would appreciate your comments on what you would like to see!

Our first port stop was Cabo San Lucas, Mexico on August 19. Our goal was to get up early and beat the heat by getting one of the first tenders into town. We enjoyed the beautiful scenery of El Arco (the arch) at Lands End as we ate breakfast on the ship. Could you ask for a better view from a restaurant?
This is the only port stop we had to take a tender in, and the process was quick and smooth. Our idea of "beating the heat" was laughable though. As soon as we got on shore at 9am we were sweating like crazy! Cabo is in a desert region, very dry and arid, and it is summer. HOT!!
The marina was just getting started for the day, and there were lots of boatmen trying to get us to go out for a glass-bottom boat ride to the beach or to El Arco. "$15 for adults and kids are free!" they kept telling us. We weren't quite ready for that yet.

We walked up past the marina and into the town trying to find the "town square" to start the walking tour. The town was just waking up, with the tourist shops starting to open up. It seemed that every street, even the side streets and out-of-the-way back streets, were filled with tourist shops selling embroidered shirts and dresses, t-shirts, blankets and sunglasses. If nothing else, it was colorful.

After getting a bit lost and overshooting our destination, we finally found the small little "town square" park where we visited the Museo de las Californias, a small museum of history of the area. It was all in Spanish, but we enjoyed wandering through and viewing the exhibits, mainly for the air conditioning!

At this point, we realized it was way too hot to just wander around and all Brandon wanted to do was go to the beach. So we stopped for a drink to cool off at the famous Cabo Wabo (owned by Sammy Hagar) and then caught a taxi to Medano Beach. We were dropped off at the north end of the beach and didn’t walk too far before we found a place to camp at The Office – we got some drinks, slathered up on sunscreen, and took turns playing in the heavenly water with Brandon.

One of use would go and play, then we would come back for a drink or a snack – good chips and steak tacos – and then swap for a bit. We were bombared with people trying to sell name bracelets, henna tattoos, blankets, shell necklaces. Even Brandon learned to say “No thank you” to get them to go away. They listened to him better than to us!

It was just the ticket to cool us off and enjoy the day. We aren't typically water people, so we didn't think we would want to spend time at the beach while in the ports, but we realized that with the heat we would encounter the water would be our savior. We had not planned ahead well for a beach visit in this port stop, but things would be different in the next ones! Towels, beach shoes, swimsuits would be on our list of standard port items.

After spending a couple of hours at the beach we caught a glass bottomed boat for a ride out to El Arco and to take us back to the marina. These boat guys are everywhere - $10 per person and kids free for our own personal tour. It was a nice ride out to the snorkeling area, we got to see a lot of fish through the glass bottom. A quick jaunt past Lover’s Beach and then out to see El Arco from both sides the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific. There were pelicans and sea lions all around, very beautiful and neat to see.

The water is a gorgeous green color in close and blue farther away. With the blue sky and green water the tan rocks were a gorgeous contrast. It was a nice break to be out on the water with the breeze, definitely a good use of our time and a “don’t miss” in Cabo.

We were dropped off at the marina for a last little bit of wandering through the Mercado before boarding a tender back to the ship. I loved all of the colors of the merchandise and took several photos.

Even though it was hot and we hadn't really planned well, we had a great time in Cabo San Lucas. The beautiful green-blue water, the boat ride and cooling off with drinks at the beach were highlights of our day. We were back on the boat for a beautiful "sail away" from Cabo in the evening sun.
One final story of the day... As we were getting ready to leave The Office, Brandon had is little toy Disney Magic ship out to play. One of the guys who worked there saw it and wanted to buy it off of him for his kids. Brandon said he'd sell it to him for $3 since we could get another one on the ship, so the guy scrambled around with his friends to get a hold of 3 US Dollars to buy the toy ship. So, after a day of being incessantly asked to buy something from vendors on the beach, we never bought anything but Brandon sold something!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

We're back!

We had a fantastic cruise! I'll update more in the very near future. Turns out internet was quite spendy on the ship (75 cents a minute!) and I was enjoying being completely unplugged from everyday life, so no real time updates from us. I did keep a journal so I'll pull out some of the more interesting stories and photos over the next week or two.

For those who were worried about us being in the hurricanes, we missed them all. We came through after Gustav and before Hannah was coming through the Caribbean. We had rain in Mexico and the Panama Canal, but otherwise it was clear skies and smooth sailing with Captain Mickey and his crew.

A quick Italy update - nothing happened on the relocation stuff while we were gone, unfortunately. We found out this week that work visas are hard to get for Milan. The paper work must first be submitted by a local host manager in Italy and then it's about 3 months for the paperwork to be approved. I'm not surprised given my personal research, but that puts us moving in December at the earliest. We'll keep everyone posted on the dates as we know more.