Hurtigruten Cruise (2)

May 31st, 2018

Our next off-ship excursion was in Tromso.  Had a walking tour of this arctic capital of 70,000.  It was the starting point for many seagoing hunting and exploring trips.  At one time it was known as the “Paris of the North” because many of the men would come back through Paris and bring their wives the highest fashion in clothes!  We stopped at the Polar Museum.  Learned about the ways of hunting.  Interesting.

We walked around more of the town and visited an old pub 1928 – Mack’s brewpub Olhallen.  Until a few years ago their claim to fame was their beer was brewed the farthest north.  It has 67 taps.  Townspeople, fishermen, students, tourists all gather to meet and converse.

Our last day on the ship turned stormy.  And we mean stormy!  Our tour leader said it was not uncommon for this strong a storm in winter or early spring, but it is usually calmer by May.  The ship had to skip several ports because it just could not dock.  On our last day we were supposed to take a bus trip to North Cape.  It is the northernmost point in Europe that can be accessed by road.  However, they closed the road just as we were to go because of the wind.  (We heard later that there were some accidents – for one, a car rolled over.)  Therefore, we just took a short bus trip around a small area to get some feeling for the harsh environment.  Our ship rocked and rolled most of the day and night!

Our last stop on the ship – and where we disembarked – was Kirkenes.  We visited a bomb shelter from World War II.  It was a large underground area (about 2 km of tunnels) and dark, damp, and cold.  Several hundred citizens lived here while several thousand were sheltered in an old iron mine across the bay.  The Germans and the Russians were both interested in this area for the iron ore and there was fighting back and forth.  We made a brief stop at the Norway—Russia border and then on to the Norway—Finland border.

Hurtigruten Cruise (1)

May 30th, 2018

The Hurtigruten is a cruise, ferry and cargo line of ships beginning in 1893 with a fleet of 14 ships.  We were on the Vesteraalen.  It is a working ship so does not have all the amenities of a cruise line—which suited us just fine.  It has a capacity of 500 passengers but it didn’t seem filled at this time of year.  Local people got on and off along the way.  We pulled out of Bergen about 10:30 pm.

The ship makes 34 stops along the coast—sometimes for 15-30 minutes and sometimes for several hours.  Our first off-ship excursion was in Alesund.  We took an hour walk around the city.  There was a great fire in 1904 when nearly ¾ of the city burned.  Much of it was rebuilt in Art Nouveau style.

Our second excursion off the ship was in Trondheim.  We had a city bus tour which took us to a lookout where we could look out over the city.  Our tour guide had several “normal” Norwegian snacks for us to try while viewing the scenery.  Cheese (flavored with a type of jalapeno) in a tube (good for taking on hikes), “caramel” type topping for bread much like Nutella but caramel flavor, dried fish (on the order of beef jerky), chocolate covered things sort of like rice chex, and a type of soda that everyone agreed was much like cream soda.

We had a tour of the 11th century Gothic Nidaros Cathedral which was built over the burial site of St Olav, King of Norway.  It is the northernmost medieval cathedral in the world.  Absolutely beautiful inside—quite ornate and wonderful stained-glass windows.  The gargoyles were fun.  No photos inside allowed!  We then walked to a pedestrian bridge over the Nidelva River.  In the evening we made a brief stop in Rorvik.  We got off the boat just for a fast walk through a very small town.

On Day 4 of our journey we crossed the Arctic Circle.  There had been a contest on board for people to guess the exact time of crossing—down to the second.  We crossed at 7:16:01 am.  Neither of us won!  Later in the morning there was a ceremony to honor the winner.  Neptune was there to congratulate the winner.  The prize was the flag that flew at the time we crossed the Circle but then…..they poured ice cubes down the winner’s back and gave a shot of schnapps!!!!  Others could also go through this experience then.  Needless to say, we decided we were cold enough not to have the ice cubes!  People really yelped when the ice went down! The schnapps was said to help warm them up.

We had a 1½ hour walk in the town of Bodo.  Just a “regular” little Norwegian town of 50,000 in the north, capital of Nordland county.  We walked through the main district and discovered a beautiful church.  This church was destroyed in 1940 when the whole city center was bombed.  The new cathedral was built in the 1950’s with a 118 ft tall free-standing clock tower with three bells.

Later that day we had a short stop in Svolvaer where we visited a small World War II museum.


Bergen (2)

May 29th, 2018

Our last full day in Bergen began with a visit to the fresh fish market.  Our tour guide is a marine biologist so she had a great time talking about the various fish in the cases.

We continued the day with a trip to Edvard Grieg’s home and museum.  It was in a beautiful location.  Originally, Edvard composed on the second floor of his house over the kitchen.  That became too noisy for concentration and he built a small studio by the water. One does not need to wonder how he got inspiration from nature!  We attended a half hour piano/voice concert in a fabulous hall with windows looking out over the water.

We drove back to town and had a simple lunch in one of the old Hanseatic League assembly halls.  The highlight was a concert with the hardanger fiddle.  The is a traditional stringed instrument that is similar to the violin.  It has four strings and 4-5 lower strings that are not played but just resonate – sort of like the bagpipe drones.  Fascinating concert.


Bergen (1)

May 29th, 2018

Had a late lunch in a unique restaurant – Dr Wiesener’s.  The building was built in 1889 as a bath house in memory to the doctor’s work.  It was erected for the benefit of the “less fortunate” and continues the same atmosphere.  “Everyone” seemed to be there, including a wedding party, as well ordinary folk.  The owner said that several times a year he arranges to bring old people from various homes here for something special.

We had a short city bus tour, checked into the hotel, and then went up the funicular to look out over the city.  It is more than 2700 feet long and covers a height difference of nearly 1000 feet.  Lovely views.  We walked down.

Next day we walked to the apartment of a local guide to see her small flat.  We then went on to the Fisheries Museum to hear a bit about the history of fishing in Norway.  Super lunch of fresh caught salmon.  Walked back to hotel.  Later had a brief tour of an old part of town known as Bryggen.  The area was rebuilt after a large fire in 1702 and includes the old Hanseatic wharf and buildings.  The Hanseatic League set up office in Bryggen in 1360 and dominated the trading industry for 400 years.


Oslo – Flam – Bergen

May 28th, 2018

Next day we took bus from Oslo to Flam.  Beautiful scenery.  Stopped and toured the Borgund Stave Church completed in the 12th century.  One interesting thing we learned was that the pillars are from special pine trees that have had the bark removed and left to continue to grow for another 10 years.  This allows the pitch to come to the surface and makes especially strong wood.  These are known as “staves.”

Flam has a population of about 400 but gets 2.5 million visitors per year!  Luckily for us, the large cruise ships had not arrived yet.  After supper we took a recreational hike along the fjord and enjoyed the peace, quiet, and views.

From Flam we took an hour scenic train ride to Myrdal.  This was filled with tourists but what a ride!  Every turn was more gorgeous than before.  High mountains, gushing rivers, waterfalls, lakes, tiny villages and lone cabins.  Stopped at one gushing cascade and were able to get out of the train.  There was music and a dancer on some rocks in the mist.  Beautiful.

At Myrdal we got on a local train for the 3-hour ride to Bergen.  We still had beautiful scenery just maybe not so spectacular.  Also there were more small farms and tiny villages.



May 27th, 2018

Our Scandinavian trip began when we arrived in Oslo a day early.  We spent our free day walking to the Folk Museum – about a 3-mile walk.  Norwegian Museum of Cultural History.  We took our time along the way and enjoyed seeing the port and city of Oslo.  The museum is open area with collections of buildings and artifacts from around the country.  One of the main attractions is the Gol Stave Church, built in the 12th century.  There was an old 14th century farmhouse and an 1865 tenement building.  Also some buildings from the 19th and 20th century.

Our first day with the group was Constitution Day.  This is a huge patriotic and family day.  We began celebrating with a “champagne” toast in the park and then watched the parade.  We watched about 2 hours, but the parade continued longer.  The parade was made up entirely of children.  So nice not to see armed forces, political leaders, etc.  Focus on children.  They marched up a long street to the palace where they saw the king and royal family and continued down to water.  We were able to get close enough to see the royal family also.  Norwegians dress up for this—many in national costume and men in suits.

Took a short bus tour of the city, went to the Viking Ship Museum, a high ski jump, and lastly to the Vigeland Sculpture Park.  The park includes Gustav Vigeland’s lifework of more than 200 sculptures in bronze, granite and wrought iron. Vigelad did not clothe his statues – naked because he wanted them to represent all time periods and by putting any clothes on, this would date the figure.


February 10th, 2018

Flew to Cartagena, Colombia, a major port founded in 1533.  During the colonial era it was a key port for export of Peruvian silver to Spain and for import of African slaves.  Cartagena was one of three centers of the Spanish inquisition—only Catholicism was tolerated here.  In 1984 the walled city and fortress were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Tourism is a very important economic activity these days.

Our hotel was located inside the walled city; we found the historical city easy to walk around.  The hotel was a small unique/quirky one.  There were indoor balconies and several small courtyards with lots of plants.  Our room was located on a small courtyard with a fountain and a resident toucan.  Our shower and toilet were all glass.  If we didn’t close the curtains we could sit on the toilet and look out through the glass door to the fountain—and anyone else in the courtyard!

Our tour leader took us on a walk in the historical city.  Very colorful, very busy, very hot, very touristy. There are great colonial structures and narrow streets.  Saw some dancing that reminded us very much of Voodoo dancing we saw in Haiti and Senegal.  Later we took several walks around the area and were always drawn to the colors, music, and feeling of being back in Africa. A significant part of the population of Cartagena has African roots.  Near the Clock Tower is San Pedro Claver Square and the church and monastery named for Saint Peter Claver  (‘Saint of the African slaves’), as well as the Museum of Modern Art.

Cartagena is on the northern coast of Colombia facing the Caribbean Sea.  Several times we drove or walked near the coast.

One morning we went to an “emerald school.”  Colombia mines and produces about 80% of the world’s emeralds and they are usually claimed as the best quality.  The school takes children from poor families and teaches them to make jewelry.  They learn to cut and polish emeralds, melt silver and make threads, and bend threads to make various jewelry.  These apprentices cum instructors helped us each make pendants, bracelets, earrings, and rings.

We visited San Felipe Castle Fortress.  It was built by the Spanish in 1536 during the colonial era and expanded in 1657.  The castle is located on the Hill of San Lázaro in a strategic location, dominating approaches to the city by land or sea.

Another day we visited a fishing village and took a canoe ride around mangrove swamps.  We then stopped at a restaurant (on the beach) and had the best local food—fish soup, fried whole fish, coconut rice, and fried plantain.

We departed Cartagena for Panama City where we connected to our flight to Chicago at sundown.

Panama Canal

February 6th, 2018

We finally got to the day when we boarded and started the Panama Canal tour.  Our boat was a catamaran that held 24 passengers.  It was docked in a small marina with other yachts—some very large!  The captain and crew were very friendly.  Our rooms were small but very adequate and we had wonderful food on board.

Our first visit was to Taboga Island which had originally served as a get-away for the white canal workers.  Known as the “Island of Flowers;” San Pedro is a colorful village.  Visited the second oldest continuously used church in the Western Hemisphere.  Built in 1527.  Paul Gauguin visited here in 1887.

The next morning our boat got in line ready to go through the first two sets of locks when we got the signal.  Every boat/ship (no matter how large or small) must have a Panama Canal pilot on board—and fly the Panama flag.  We went through the Miraflores and the Pedro Miguel locks.  We were teamed up with another small boat and 2 tugboats to go through the locks.

We traveled through the Culebra Cut.  This is a cut through the Continental Divide that was considered one of the great engineering feats of the time.  “Hundreds of large steam drills bored hoes in which were planted tons of dynamite which blasted the rock … so that it could be excavated by steam shovels…  Dozens of … trains took the spoil from the shovels to the landfill dumps about … 12 mile away.” … “Six thousand men worked in the cut, drilling holes, placing explosives, controlling steam shovels, and running the dirt trains.”  (Wikipedia)  We had seen part of this cut when we took the boat to the Embera village.  They need to continuously dredge the area because of landslides.  The Canal officials do not feel confident that it is wide enough for two large ships to pass in the Cut.  So it is single-lane.  Ships going north pass along the cut in the morning and ships going south travel in the afternoon.

While anchored in Gatun Lake we had time to do some kayaking and took a boat trip around Tiger Islands.  (Not sure why it is called “Tiger!”)  Saw spider monkeys, several sloths, and some birds.

The following morning we went to the Canal Expansion Observation Center overlooking the new larger lock.  While there we were able to see a ship go out of the lock and another go into the lock.  On our return to our boat we saw a manatee which was a highlight for our guide since he had not seen one in 5 years.  We also saw several coatis which reminded us very much of raccoons.

When we got the call that we could go through the locks we went through the older Gatun locks with what seemed like a HUGE ship; it was carrying cars.

We docked at a small marina about 10 miles from Colona, an old town.  There was a large old sail boat also docked here.  We took a short walk where we saw a church and an army battery and bunker.  Both were abandoned by the U.S. in the 1990s.  It is amazing to see how fast the jungle will take over when it is not kept at bay. Later that evening we had a rum tasting – 3 different agings.

The next morning our bus picked us up to bring us back to Panama City.  It is only 50 miles between the two ends of the canal.

We stopped at Fort San Lorenzo, a preserved colonial military structure at the mouth of the Chagres River.   On the road we saw both howler and capuchin monkeys.  (However, no photos!)

We also saw the Gatun Dam constructed between 1907 and 1913, creating the Gatun Lake, a necessary component of the Canal.  When it was built it was the largest earthen dam in the world and the Lake the largest artificial lake in the world.  The hydro-electric station generates electricity used to operate the locks and other equipment of the canal.


Azuero Province

February 4th, 2018

We drove southwest out of Panama City, crossing the Bridge of the Americas.  We spent a couple a days in the Azuero Peninsula learning the culture of this area.  We stopped in La Chorrera where we visited a “drive-by” vegetable market.  Cars do drive slowly down this street and buy vegetables and fruits.  We bought 3 pineapples for $2.00!  (I forget the name of the red fruit pictured; I just remember that it can be made in to a drink.  Anyone help me?)

We proceeded to the home of Edita where we participated in making and eating twice-fried green plantains and once-fried ripe plantains plus some fresh pineapple and pineapple drink.  The green plantains were cut, fried till nearly soft, smashed, and then fried again.

We then briefly rode a “chicken” bus – one of the normal rural buses – just for the experience.  Also called “Red Devil” buses; they are individually owned.

We stopped in La Pintard where we saw the Panamanian Painted Hat.  These are the REAL Panamanian hats!  They have been made for 200 years and are all hand-made – there are no factories to make them.  They use 4 types of plants (though we have photos of only 3) and weave the fibers.  There are about 60 different styles of braids, each having a different meaning.  The hat maker was also an artist.

Sally Jo went on an early morning hike to a fascinating National Park that might be considered a desert.  On the route she felt like she was driving on the rural roads of Kenya to visit student teachers.  The narrow dirt bumpy road with lots of acacia and eucalyptus trees and cattle.  The area was very dry and one could see the results of dry wind and lack of water.  They have started a shrimp farm which helps stop the strong winds and some areas are slowly being restored.  Saw interesting formations which had hard volcanic rock in the center but the dry dirt around it is “dissolving the rock.”

We went to Iguana Island which has a beautiful sandy beach.  It was a windy day and the boat rides both to and from the island were quite rough.  The photos don’t really show the high waves.  We got wet!  (Of course in the cove of the island it was calm.)  The island was a beautiful relaxing spot.  We took a walk across the island through the jungle to a smaller rocky/sandy beach on the other side.  We also saw the indications of where the US practiced bombing in case they needed to protect the canal.

Another day we stopped at a a lovely peaceful chapel in Chitre before going on to Las Tablas.  Las Tablas is recognized as the center of Panamanian folk art, music, literature, culture.  Las Tablas has the 2nd or 3rd largest Carnival of Latin America celebration.  200,000 to 300,000 people descend on the town with a population of 9,000.   “… the city splits into two competing factions, “Calle Arriba” (Uptown, literally “Street Above”) and “Calle Abajo” (Downtown / Street Below), both centred on two streets of the same name. Each faction will have a carnival queen, a parade, fireworks, music, a decorated plaza, food stands, presentations, concerts, surveys, games, contests, etc., all attempting to overpower the other faction’s efforts.” (Wikipedia)  A queen is chosen for each side.  There are contests between the floats which she rides and the clothes that she wears.  A parade happens twice a day for three days.  The queen wears a new outfit each time and rides a different float each time.  Extravagance!!!

We stopped at a workshop where grandiose Carnival floats are created.  Each side keeps secret their theme until the float appears.  The person designing the floats devises a way so that people working on various parts of the float do not have an idea of what the final result will be.   The creations are made out of Styrofoam.

We stopped at the home of a person who designs and makes headpieces for the Carnival and other celebrations.  We stopped at another home where they design many of the polleras or dresses for celebrations.  The lavish embroidered pollera has been adapted as the national costume of Panama.  Traditionally, polleras are white with a full, two-tier skirt, and are hand-embroidered with details that increase the value of the garment from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

We saw leather sandals being made.

Children demonstrated some of the folk dances.

We visited a man who makes masks for the “Red Devil” dances which are held especially during the Fiesta del Corpus Christi in June but also throughout the year.  The dances impersonate the fight between the devil and God.  He starts with molding the clay.  (Two of the tour members worked along with him.)  He sun-dries the clay mask, covers it with vaseline and then covers it with paper mache.  By using vaseline, when everything is dry, he can carefully cut the paper mache and use the clay mold again.  Takes about 4 days.  A young man then demonstrated the dance showing us the costume plus the mask. The costume must be red and black having a tail with a bell.  The dancer carries a stick, has castanets in each hand and wears leather sandals.  Dancers perform 4-6 hours at a time.

Our last visit in the Azuero province was to a fishing village.  On the way we passed the largest salt farms in western Panama.  Ernesto, our fisherman, said that he remembers when there were a lot of fish, and also dolphins and sea turtles near the beach.  No longer.  There are government regulations but they are not enforced.  Ernesto makes his own nets by hand—takes 2-3 weeks and can be 150 metres of netting.  We also observed  large wind turbines.

Our hotel that night was near the International Jazz Festival.  A small group provided a free hour of music at the hotel.  Our room at the hotel looked out over the first set of locks of the Canal.




Panama Highlands

February 2nd, 2018

We flew from Panama City to David, capital of Chiriqui Province, (35 min flight) and then a bus ride to Boquete (another 35 min) where we would be staying the next three nights. Chiriqui means “Valley of the Moon.”  With its more moderate temperatures it is an agricultural province.  Boquete means “sinkhole” and is located in the hole of a volcano that last erupted 400 years ago.  Eighty percent of Panama is at sea level to 500 feet.  The highest point is the edge of the volcano at 11,400 feet which is the highest point in Central America.  We could see this point from our hotel.  Since this is higher ground, many of the residents of Boquete are retirees.  It was definitely a much cooler place than Panama City!  (We also celebrated Ron’s birthday!)

We visited a honey bee farm and had a honey tasting.  They have about 40 different flavors—depending on the floral source to various infusions. Ginger, cinnamon, cocoa, etc.  They teach how to care for the bees and the variety of forage.

Since this is higher elevation than most of the rest of the country, 80% of the vegetable crops of Panama are grown here.  We saw large vegetable fields, orange groves.  The biggest exports for Panama are bananas, pineapples, and watermelons.  Farmers sometimes join cooperatives so that it is easier to sell their products.  They often will make “puercas” – large plastic bags filled with a variety of vegetables.  A family can buy one of these and get a variety of vegetables cheaper than buying the individual items in a supermarket. We stopped at a cooperative where farmers can take their produce which is then sold as “puercas” or individually.  We bought two bags and delivered them to a family farther down the road that our tour leader knew and said could use them.

One day we drove higher up in the highlands (close to 7000 ft).  Along the way we stopped to see a deep gorge created by the volcano.  We also saw “leaf carrying ants.”  We could follow them down the tree trunk, across a long stretch of ground, to their hole.  Fascinating.  We visited the “Finca Dracula” Orchard Nursery.  Beautiful area with some 2,000 species of orchids (some rare species) along with cloud forest type vegetation.  We also walked through their beautiful cloud forest.

We visited the small rural town of Cerro Punta where we climbed a hill to look out over the valleys.  We found the use of old tires in making steps for the trail interesting.  We saw the horse farm which we later visited.  They breed highly prized thoroughbreds who have gone on to win some of the top racing prizes in Central and South America.

On our last morning in the highlands, we opted to do the Canopy Walk – on hanging bridges.  We hiked up through the “cloud forest” and walked over 6 hanging bridges—some of which were quite long and very high above ground in the forest.  We saw a sloth curled up in one tree.  The path was quite steep at times and somewhat slippery with big steps.  It was heart-pounding going up because of exertion and altitude and heart-pounding going down because of fear of slipping!  It was a beautiful area.

Before leaving Boquete we stopped at the flower and coffee fair.  It had opened the night before and would run for about 10 days.  It felt much like our county fairs in the U.S.