We know that some of you have been anxiously waiting to read the reviews of "Panama Canal: The Cruise," but it's had to wait while we caught up on the shooting of "Return to Houston: the Recovery" and for a new scanner to arrive.

We left on Saturday, March 27th. How difficult was it for Liz to leave Fredric? Well, throughout the cruise, a photographer was taking pictures for sale; the only one that Liz bought was the one of Fredric on the gangplank. Even before our suitcases were delivered to our cabin, we had a lifeboat drill. This is mandatory for all ships, but we found it reassuring to know what the emergency plans were, just in case. The ship left late, because we discovered, through gossip later in the trip, that a number of the Filipino crew had gone on strike (they said that the cruise line hadn't been sending their paychecks to their homes). They were sent off of the boat, and they were replaced by seamen in Galveston. We took the opportunity to explore the boat. We tried to sign up for the first dinner sitting but discovered that we had the late sitting (8:30), because the early one was already full. We had dinner with a couple from Houston. The food was absolutely first rate and a large selection. The menu always had at least one Greek dish at every meal, and I took advantage of most of them. I also chose a nice Greek salad with most of my meals. Each meal also had a choice of three other entrees, a Pacific Rim entree, and a health-conscious entree along with a choice of salads, appetizers, soups, and three or four desserts. The chef was also extremely good at pastries. We had a small cabin, but it was sufficient -- two single beds, a desk, and kind of a night table with a built-in radio. The four onship radio stations broadcast pop music, classical music, a military news source (with too much static to understand), and Greek music. Returning to our room after dinner, Oscar, our cabinboy, had turned down the beds and left a mint on the pillows along with the next day's schedule of events.


Sunday morning was Palm Sunday, so we got up early to go to Father Jack's interdenominational service. He even had some palm leaves for us to wave. While getting ready, we discovered the 8:00 daily radio show which reiterated the day's events and gave a brief history lesson of where we were. Later in the morning, we attended the bridge lecture; Liz wants to learn so that we can teach Fredric, and he'll have something that he can do with Grandma. In the afternoon, we went to Dr. Bopp's lecture about how he comets and how he discovered the Hale-Bopp comet. Before dinner was the Captain's cocktail party. He introduced his senior officers in the lounge, and then we went to our formal dinner. We discovered that at dinner, unlike breakfast and lunch, we had an assigned table. That meant that we had a regular waiter, Kostas, and after the second or third evening, he no longer had to ask us whether we wanted white or dark rolls, and instead of us asking about dishes to avoid allergies, he would tell us "you can eat this." He was a smart aleck, however. We asked him once what was in the seafood cocktail; he smiled and told us "seafood." Our dinner companions from the night before had switched to a private table, so it meant that we also had a private dinner every night. That was nice, but we also enjoyed sitting and talking with different people at every breakfast and lunch. By far, most of the passengers were retired, but everyone had fascinating stories to tell. At lunch on this day, I met a stockholder in Warren Buffet's company who told us about the big party around their annual stockholders' meeting in Omaha. Also at dinner every night were Duo Alexandru, a violinist and accordion player who played table to table. They were good, but I started to get tired of hearing "Laura's Theme" and "Fly Me to the Moon" each evening.


The bridge class

Dr. Tom Bopp

Liz & Kostas

Duo Alexandru

On Monday, we were still en route to Jamaica. We learned to waltz after breakfast (but I'm not sure we still remember how). Then, we played some cribbage before going off to our bridge lecture. Liz stayed to watch some games, and I went to hear a lecture on Mythology of Central America: from the Maya to the Cuna, and it was really interesting. We took it easy after lunch. I went to Team Trivia and ended up on the Llano Lamebrains team; we won on a tiebreaker question. That evening, we got one of the best surprises; a guest classical artist performed the first of her three piano recitals. The pianist was Cristiana Pegoraro (www.cristianapegoraro.com), and her charm was exceeded only by her fantastic talent. It turns out that she's the premier performer of Latin American classical music.

Cristiana Pegoraro (center) jogging around the deck - not as elegant as when she's at the keyboard.

Tuesday, March 30th. We rushed from breakfast to a talk from David Cowder, the port and shopping specialist. He told us what to expect from Montego Bay, where to go to get deals, and to offer about half of what they offer. (Good advice -- I saw a Sony digital camera which they were selling for $1600, and it lists for $799 mailorder). After his talk, we went to the bridge lecture. We reached Montego Bay around 2:30 and watched the ship dock and went to town on the shuttle bus. We weren't very comfortable there; the merchants are very pushy and follow you all around the store asking "what can I do so you will want this" and "what about ...." We got some souvenir shopping done, at least. The best part of Montego Bay was that it didn't rock back and forth, so we tried to spend a little extra time there. We were happy to get back to the boat in time for happy hour and snacks, and we sailed again at 9:00.


David Cowder, shopping & party expert

Wednesday, we actually got up early enough to do the walk a mile around the boat at 7:00 with Monika (the fitness lady). Then, she led yoga-like stretches. After breakfast, we got to go to dance class again. This time, we learned the Greek syrtaki of Zorba. I only remember the end part where everyone gets in a circle and dances around while the music gets faster and faster until no one is in step with each other, we're tripping over each other, and we all give up laughing. We stayed in the lounge after that to hear a lecture about the history of the Panama Canal and a preview of our trip through it. It was so good that we missed the bridge lecture. Liz rested in the afternoon while I did some reading. This day actually turned out to have the choppiest waters, particularly around lunchtime. Somehow, despite the early start for the day, we stayed up until 11:30 to go out and do constellation-watching with Tom Bopp. The ship's lights were turned off on the Boat Deck for us, but, unfortunately, we had a very full moon that blocked out most of the sky, but we all had fun.

Thursday, April 1st. We went to the bridge lecture again in the morning. At 1:00, the ship arrived at the San Blas Islands. These are a set of islands (over 365) on which the Cuna indians live; they actually belong to Panama. When the ship arrived, natives paddled out in canoes, and we were watching the crew throw things off of the deck, and the boys would dive in the water after the items. We videotaped some of it from our cabin. We took a ship tender to one of the islands where native women hung and sold the molas that they created.

Kuna woman with her molas.

We got a few of those for souvenirs, but then we spent the rest of the afternoon, until about 6:00, just sitting on the beach (under cover) and walking through some of the tide.

Our beach on a San Blas Island

Despite this being a very small island (we crossed it in about ten minutes), it had an air strip, and we saw the plane land and take off. We were warned that if we missed the last tender back to the boat, this was the only way to meet up with the ship in Panama (not that you could get left behind on this island -- unless you were hiding behind one of the small buildings). This marked the most relaxing point of the whole journey and was just terrific. When we returned to the ship, we went and saw You've Got Mail in the ship's theater. We left the islands and headed towards Panama while we were at the movie, but we barely noticed it. For the entire remainder of the trip, the ship travelled in extremely smooth waters.

On Friday, we reached the Panama. The daily activity newsletter warned people that the port cities of Cristobal and Colon have significant problems wtih street crime and urged us not to walk into or around the town. Another passenger said that the cruise lines make deals with the local merchants and usually encourage people to go to town, so he was taking this warning very seriously, and so did we. We at least wanted to get off of the boat, so we wandered around the port. It was Good Friday, so the few shops there were closed, but there were some Cuna women in the warehouse selling molas, and we got some more. Then we just walked around and got some pictures of lizards and other ships waiting to enter the canal. After we returned to the ship, we went to the Good Friday service. After that, we stayed in the theater to see the 3:30 movie, Crimson Tide. With about 30 minutes to go into the movie, we began our approach to the Canal, so we went to the top deck to watch and film it. The whole trip through the locks was fascinating. Frederick Allen, who had given the lecture a couple of days earlier, narrated the activities and pointed out sites and ships of interest on the ship's PA system as we went through. There's too much to describe, so you'll just have to see our video if you want to know more about it.

Saturday was another terrific day as we reached Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. We went to our bridge lecture again after breakfast, and the ship arrived in Costa Rica around lunchtime. After lunch, we got off and began looking for a taxi to take us to the beach and come back for us around 5:30. We found one persistent guy who began by offering us a tour to show us a banana plantation and the edge of the rain forest before taking us to the beach, and his price kept dropping. He even offered to let us rent his cab from him for the day. We had to return to the boat to get something and went back out and found another driver. We made a deal for him to take us to a beach and then return for us that evening. It was bright and hot, and the sandy beach was beautiful. There was a crowd there, but it wasn't packed, and we found a spot in the shade of some trees.

The water was fabulous, and we enjoyed just resting there and watching the ad-hoc soccer games going on around us. We wandered over to the bar in the late afternoon and found Dave Cowder, a couple from San Diego, and the first cab driver sitting at a table on the beach drinking beers. We joined them and also met Gabriel, the driver's father and owner of some cabs (including the one we'd used). Dave told us that they took the offer of the tour and even met a monkey in the rain forest who sat on their shoulders. It was a nice, relaxing afternoon and evening. Back at the ship, then, it was Greek night, and the meal featured Greek appetizers and dishes and ouzo (which we knew enough about to be careful of). We raved over the dolmades, and Liz asked for seconds (we'd been disappointed that they hadn't been served other days); Kostas came back with an entire plate of them for us. After dinner, members of the crew performed Greek dances and songs for us. It was a very fun day.

We got up early enough on Sunday to go to the Easter service and our regular bridge lesson later in the morning. After lunch, I went to the team trivia, and we won another close one. We had a lecture on the Popul Vuy: the Maya book of the dawn of life after that. That afternoon was Cristiana's second concert, and it featured Cuban and Argentine music of the 20th century. I spent part of the evening testing a Big Bad Voodoo Daddy CD on my laptop that I'd brought along. The reason is that the passengers were presenting a talent show that evening, so I signed up to show off my tall tale, Chuckbo. I didn't have my regular theme music with me, but I found an instrumental swing piece to use with my story. It went pretty well -- though my timing was a little off; but not too bad for not having given it for nearly ten years. At dinner, Kostas brought us a plate of dolmades that had probably been saved from the previous night. I tell you: having a personal waiter will spoil you.

Monday was another spectacular day -- Cozumel. Before that, our trivia team won again (we discovered that these were all warmup events -- the contest would be held the last day). We arrived at Cozumel in the early evening. Dave had recommended a place to go for dinner, Carlos & Charlie's. We did some shopping at some stores for more gifts before dinner and then found the place. It was a Mexican restaurant, and I had some good fajitas. As the evening went on, the Spring Break crowd showed up, and they led the way to the dance floor after we'd eaten. It was a big party, but we decided to start heading back around 10:30 or 11. On the way back, we started bumping into crew members who were getting off duty. This was the one port where we were scheduled to stay overnight. We heard, the next day, that many of them had ended up at Carlos & Charlie's. It definitely had the reputation as the place to be. When we returned to the ship, the night's show was still going on, so we went to the lounge and saw the end of the mariachi show.

We woke up the next day, and things seemed a little odd. I looked out the porthole, and it looked just like Cozumel. Our itinerary had been for us to travel the ten miles to Playa del Carmen and arrive around 7. We learned from the morning report that there had been large swells there and that we were still at Cozumel. However, our trip to Tulum and Xel-ha were still scheduled; it was just that we would have to take the a ship tender over to Playa del Carmen. We have video of these two places, too. Tulum was the only Maya city overlooking the Caribbean, and we learned about its ruins from our guide, a Maya who invited us to his house to dinner ("stewed lizard") if we didn't get back to the bus on time. In fact, we barely made it back to the bus before it left, because there's only one small passage through the wall in and out of Tulum, and we didn't realize that the line to leave was so long. Xel-ha was absolutely fantastic. It's described as a natural aquarium. Both it and Tulum are places where we could easily spend an entire day (I'd prefer Xel-ha), but we were rushed since we had to make the extra trip from Cozumel, and that probably cost us at least an hour of our tour time. While we were waiting at the pier for the hoverboat which would return us to our ship, we admired the water there; Playa del Carmen is definitely on our list for an ideal spot for a Hinkle reunion. We returned to the ship for a very late lunch. After lunch, I found a young man at the ping-pong table that I'd seen there before, and I let myself get talked into playing. He was good, but I think he felt sorry for this old guy, because I won all six games. He came very close twice, but I held him off with rallies. Cristiana gave her final concert that afternoon. At dinner, Liz told Kostas that it was my birthday; we'd seen cakes delivered to other tables during the week with Alexandru Duo coming over to lead the Happy Birthday song. Kostas told her that he already knew -- that Greek waiters know everything. That was also the evening with the flaming baked Alaskas for dessert. The lights were dimmed, and then the waiters came down several aisles and crossed in formation, carrying the blazing desserts. Very impressive -- and the dessert was so tasty, too. After dinner, on the way back to our cabin, we stopped off in the Grill Bar where a jokefest was being held. The only new joke I heard that I liked was about a man who was watching a funeral go by in New Orleans with a long line after the casket. He walked up to the first man in line and asked "who died." The man answered "my mother-in-law." "What happened," he asked. "The dog bit her," was the reply. He thought for a moment and then asked "Can I buy the dog?" The man in line answered grimly, "get in line." I had to tell my joke about the true meaning of happiness, and it got a good laugh.

On the 7th, we were now heading back towards Galveston, and things were winding up. We received information on the disembarkation and customs procedures for returning to the US, we had to review our onship bill, and we had to make arrangements for the crew's gratuities. We went to the last bridge lecture in the morning. Then, I went down for a ping-pong tournament; there were only two of us there, and I won all of the games, so I ended up with a Stella Solaris ribbon. We had the final round of the Team Trivia tournament after lunch, and we won another very close contest. This time, there was a prize for winning; our team got something better than a ribbon -- we got a bottle of champagne at the bar. We had the last tea time that afternoon and went to the last happy hour that evening. At dinner, Duo Alexandru definitely expanded their repertoire and were taking requests. They played the Chicken Dance at one table, so Liz requested Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. They played it extremely well. By now, we were busy anticipating the next day and seeing Fredric again.

Llano Lamebrains

Tea time

We had to pack and put our suitcases out by midnight of the 7th, so this morning was mostly get up, get dressed, and have one last breakfast. We went to the discussion on clearing customs, and then Liz and I went up to the Boat deck, where the bridge lectures had been, and we found two other people to practice playing bridge with. After a little of that, we finally got to get off, zip through customs, and meet up with Fredric, Grandma, and Angie again.