The end of an era

On Memorial Day weekend 2013, my friend Sam told me about the great health results he was having with his Fitbit One pedometer.  It sounded easy enough to try, so a few days later both Diane and I bought one, and we used them faithfully – I kept using mine even after getting my Apple Watch (and even after upgrading to the Apple Watch 5).  It was simple, rugged, and only did one thing – and I could compete with friends.  The only real problem with the device was keeping it – it was small, and could easily slip out of my pocket, but I always managed to find it, even when it escaped me on a small cruise ship last month!

Late last year, the battery in my Fitbit died; Diane had upgraded to a Fitbit watch, so I took her One and kept on stepping.  The battery in hers was in better shape than mine had been, but of late, it’s been doing well to get through two days without charging (and would die without warning), so I knew the end was near – but I wanted to nurse it through its seventh anniversary.

That plan ended yesterday; we were out on a walk and when I got home, I noticed that my left pants pocket had my phone, but no Fitbit.  And the app couldn’t find it, either.  I posted to the local NextDoor group, but no luck.

Today, Diane and I retraced our steps; I used the Bluefruit app to look for Bluetooth devices in the area.  I found many interesting devices in the neighborhood (such as an Ember Ceramic Mug), but my One was nowhere to be found.  And then Diane reached down and picked up the clip that used to hold the Fitbit…but the Fitbit was gone.

I’ve figured out how to export my weight data from Fitbit to the Apple Health app, so my history is not lost, but I’ll still miss my Fitbit One.  For the record, here are my lifetime activity stats:

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT STATS

Steps | 41,950,251

Floors | 35,274

Distance | 20,344.19 mi

BEST ACHIEVEMENT STATS

Steps | 33,507 on June 25, 2017

Floors | 186 on August 17, 2016

Distance | 16.18 mi on December 20, 2017

We see the light

Our room at the Grand Hyatt at SFO was comfortable, but it had a surprise waiting for us that we didn’t discover until the middle of the night – if you got up, the room thoughtfully turned on some lights under the bed. On both sides of the bed. And the only way to stop it from happening required a visit from Engineering. If we stay there again, I’ll know to make a request to have them turn off the sensor before we go to bed.

Other than that, our stay was uneventful, and we enjoyed the continental breakfast in the hotel restaurant. We had to kill a little time before we could pick up our rental car, so we took the AirTrain back to the terminal and enjoyed the French Wallpaper exhibit in the International Terminal lobby.

After that, we packed, took the AirTrain to Hertz, picked up a car, and drove home!

I took advantage of having turned the water heater to “vacation” mode and flushed it for the first time in a long time; then we walked to Whole Foods to pick up salmon to make on the Traegar – yes, we had to do our own cooking again!

It’s good to be home.

It’s time to go

Our last day in Panama was hot and sunny. We had breakfast at the hotel again, then walked down to the waterfront. We had heard that the fish market was worth a visit, and it didn’t look too far away on the map.

The view of the city was stunning.

We could see the old quarter (Casco Viejo) in the distance – our goal, the Mercado de Mariscos (Fish Market) was there.

The waterfront path was busy – there were flowers to enjoy everywhere.

About an hour after we started our walk, we’d gotten to the Floral Clock (it was 15 minutes slow) and were nearing the Fish Market.

But when we got to the Fish Market, we discovered we’d arrived too early for any restaurants to be open – there was nowhere to get a drink, and even more important, nowhere to dispose of the ones we’d had with breakfast!

Luckily, there was a port building with a kind guard who let us in to use the facilities, which made the walk back much less stressful. On the way back, we saw the famous “Panama” sign, which demanded a selfie.

We also saw the statue honoring Balboa (a gift from Spain).

But my favorite statue along the way was this one of wildlife near the Inter-Continental Hotel.

By the time we returned to the hotel, we’d walked five-and-a-half miles in a bit over two hours – we were ready for a shower!

We had time for lunch before we had to leave for the airport – we took a quick walk through the neighborhood around the hotel and chose Beirut Restaurant, which had the great advantage of being open. The food was good, but the beer selection was mostly American beers – we tried one of the few Panamanian beers on offer, Atlas. We should have had an American beer.

We returned to the hotel for our ride to the airport; we were one of the last two couples left from our group, and rode out together. Diane’s nail scissors were confiscated at security! We went to the Copa Airlines lounge to wait for our flight, which was a non-stop to SFO. Copa treated us well, both at the airport and on the plane – I’d fly them again.

We arrived at SFO about 11pm Pacific Time and got through Customs quickly. We took the AirTrain to the brand new Grand Hyatt at SFO and settled in for the night.

Mostly in the Zone

Our Panama City hotel was the Bristol Hotel, conveniently located near the waterfront and the shopping district. Our room was enormous and comfortable. Breakfast was in the hotel restaurant, and, while perfectly acceptable, was probably the least interesting breakfast we’d had on the entire trip.

The day’s touring began at Panama Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We saw the ruins of the Church and Covenant of the Conception.

Panama Viejo was founded in 1520 and destroyed by the Welsh privateer Henry Morgan in 1671 – I wonder what they would have thought of modern Panama City.

The area was popular with photographers and their subjects, too.

We got back on the bus and traveled to the [Panama Canal Administration Building] in the middle of the former Canal Zone. The outside wasn’t all that impressive, but the inside rotunda was loaded with plaques commemorating the Panama Canal’s engineering achievements.

There were also busts of Carlos V of Spain, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ferdinand de Lesseps (builder of the Suez Canal),

There were also murals showing stages of the construction of the Canal, but the Canal Authority’s page has much better photos than I was able to take.

There is an invisible lock just outside the Administration Building – the building is 85 feet above ground level (the height ships rise in the lock), and the palm trees are 110 feet apart and cover a 1000 foot length, matching the size of a lock chamber.

After lunch, we decided to follow the recommendation of the Director of STRI and have a drink at La Rana Dorada brewpub on Via Argentina, about a 20-minute walk from our hotel. Our friend Desi joined us. There were several possible routes; the one we picked might not have been optimal, because we found ourselves in a neighborhood that was under construction…with narrow sidewalks, a couple of feet higher than the street…and not much pedestrian traffic. Suddenly, I heard Desi shout, “David!” – I turned around quickly. We’d gotten far enough ahead of her that a group of four people had inserted themselves between us – she felt hands tugging at her pack, and that’s when she shouted. She saw a 10-year-old (or so) vanishing behind two of the people, and they all ran into a store. She was lucky – nothing had been taken, but we were all nervous (especially her!) until we got into a better area a block later. We all had something harder than beer at the pub.

We took a different route back to the hotel – one with wide, well-traveled streets the whole way. We stopped at the [Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen](Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen) on our way – it’s a Gothic church in the heart of Panama City. People were gathering for Mass, but we were able to take a quick look inside.

It was Valentine’s Day – Diane and I had dinner al fresco at a true local hotspot, Coffee Max. We split a burger and each had a mango water smoothie – it was delicious! And the company could not have been better!

The Post-Tour Begins

We left the ship just before 8am.

Disembarkation was easy – though they did have dogs sniff all of our luggage! We boarded a bus and took a quick driving tour through Colón en route to the Panama Canal Expansion Visitors Center. There wasn’t much to see in Colón, but our path did take us by the Monument to the Founders of Colón, who were Americans working on the Panama Railway.

A short time later, we were at the Agua Clara Visitor Center near Gatun Lake, on the Canal Expansion. We watched a movie about the canal, saw a very large ship go through the lock (note the sliding lock gates here, versus the mitre gates on the original canal), and spent some time and a little cash in the gift shop.

The highlight of the day, though, lay ahead, in the Gatun Basin. The bus parked under an overpass and we walked down a path to the Gatun River, where we met our guides and boarded their dugout canoes for a journey to the village of Embera Drua.

Of course, the canoes had 40-horsepower outboard motors and we were required to wear life vests!

It didn’t take long to arrive at the village.

This village makes its living from tourism, so they greeted us enthusiastically.

Millie, a 23-year-old who had a BA in Business, was working on her MBA, and would be going to Japan in a few months to present at a conference if the coronavirus permitted, gave a brief talk about the village and its people. There were 20 families, about 80 people; they had moved here from the Darien in Colombia about 13 years ago because FARC controlled their area and it wasn’t safe. They had better economic opportunities here, and better education was available for the children – in the Darien, going beyond elementary school required leaving their community, while they have an elementary school here in the village and the junior high and high schools are only an hour away.

Tourism gives them the chance to make money and preserve their culture instead of moving to the city and being absorbed by it – they want us to share our experience on social media and encourage friends and family to visit (and I’m happy to comply!).

Millie spoke in Spanish and Joshua, our guide, translated to English for us.

While Millie was talking, some of the women prepared lunch for us (fruit, followed by fried tilapia and plantains served in a banana leaf cone – absolutely delicious!)

After lunch, we took a tour of the village, including the most distracting classroom I’ve ever seen.

Our guide was one of the village elders.

We returned to the center of the village for a show of music and dancing.

There was one more chance to shop (some of the villagers accepted credit cards, and there was good cellular Internet available), then it was farewell.

A couple of hours later, we were in a very different environment – Panama City.

We had to figure out dinner on our own for the first time in a week; we walked a few blocks with friends to the waterfront and had wonderfully delicious seared tuna at Azahar.

We ate outside – the view wasn’t half-bad!

It’s our last full day on the ship

We visited one of the San Blas Islands today to enjoy a morning on the beach, a chance to meet the Guna (or Kuna) indigenous people who live there, and a “coconut walk” around the island.

We saw some of the residents – they had a small market set up and Diane bought a small mola purse (with a shark in blue). They were happy to pose for photos for $1, too.

The buildings they used were mostly made out of thatch, but they did also use some modern plastic when appropriate.

We didn’t snorkel – again – and returned our gear, unused, when we got back to the ship.

In the afternoon, we got a preview of what to expect on the post-tour (starting tomorrow) and attended John Meffert’s lecture on Teddy Roosevelt and the Gateway to Empire.

The day ended with the Gala Dinner…and packing.

Crossing the Panama Canal

The ship sailed away from Panama City early in the morning and we were entering the Panama Canal at the Miraflores Lock by 8am.

Even though our ship was small by Canal standards, it was large enough to require being guided by a pair of locomotives, called “mules” – there was one on each side of the ship.

Fairly soon, we were near the lock gates.

They don’t like to waste water, so we were accompanied by several smaller ships, including a local sightseeing boat loaded with daytrippers

and an even smaller passenger vessel, the Sundance Sunset which we nicknamed the “S. S. PortaPotty” for obvious reasons.

The Sundance Sunset tied up to the other ship for the transit through the gates; I’m not sure why.

About 45 minutes later, we had cleared both chambers of the lock and were about 50 feet higher in elevation, on the way to the Pedro Miguel locks, just southeast of the Centennial Bridge.

The process at the Pedro Miguel locks was very similar; this time, we could see traffic coming the other way – the container ship Maersk Innoshima. It’s not quite a Panamax ship, but it dwarfed us (233 meters long versus our 131 meters).

There was traffic moving on the Canal Expansion, too, which can take even larger “New Panamax” ships like the [Mendeleev Prospect]. It’s painted green, says “Powered by Natural Gas” in large friendly letters, and carries crude oil…but it’s greenwashed crude oil!

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We spent a good part of the crossing inside, out of the sun, but we did go out from time to time for photos!

By 2:30, we were midway through the third and final lock, the Gatun Locks, which have three chambers. You can see the Atlantic Bridge in the distance.

We sailed under the Atlantic Bridge and anchored in Cristobal Bay for the evening, having made the westbound crossing from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

The passage through the Panama Canal was the raison d’etre for the trip, but once you’ve seen one lock, you’ve seen them all!

In the evening, we enjoyed a classical piano recital by the ship’s pianist, Sergey Yurchenko, and bought his CD as a souvenir of our passage through the canal.

Touring Panama City

Even before we docked at Balboa Port, we could see the ships waiting at sea for their turn to cross the Panama Canal.

Our morning tour took us to the BioMuseo and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Punta Culebra Nature Center, both located on the Amador Causeway in the former Canal Zone, just a few minutes from our docking spot. As we drove there, we passed what I thought was a parking lot – the cars and trucks there were waiting for drivers to take them across the Isthmus because it was cheaper to unload them, have someone drive them across, and put them back on a ship than to pay the freight to send them through the canal! I wonder if the odometers get reset?

BioMuseo

The BioMuseo was designed by Frank Gehry – inside, we learned about Panama’s natural history and its amazingly diverse wildlife.

Panama’s National Bird, the male Harp Eagle

The best part of the BioMuseo was spending time in the gardens outside, seeing the biodiversity in the real world.

Red Ginger
Heliconia
Lily pads
Fig Tree

And we couldn’t forget why we were in Panama – to explore connections, like the Bridge of the Americas, which connects North and South America over the Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic and Paciifc Oceans.

Punta Culebra Nature Center (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute)

We got back on the bus and drove to the Nature Center – the Smithsonian was one of the groups on the tour, and the Director of STRI was one of the expert lecturers, so we were treated very well indeed!

We could see the remains of the old quarantine station (for yellow fever) just offshore.

When Noriega was the dictator of Panama, he used the aquarium here as a lounge – the bar is still here (but there was no beer to be had on the day we visited).

And of course, there was nature in profusion, like two-toed sloths

and a beautiful bird

and sea stars and sea cucumbers

and one BIG iguana!

Casco Viejo (San Felipe)

After lunch on the ship, we returned to the bus for a walking and shopping tour of the old city. John Meffert from the National Trust was our leader – we’ve traveled with John many times (in fact, we chose this trip because he was going to be the Trust’s leader), so we knew we were in good hands.

There’s a lot of construction going on in the old city – gentrification in some places, just maintenance in others.

John pointed out the sign offering “free entry” at the front of La Mayor – and explained that it was a brothel. Entry might be free, but….

We continued on to the Church of the Sisters of Mercy.

There’s an altar to Saint Hedwig inside – Panamaians pray for her intercession in their housing needs, and when their prayers are answered, they place a minature house on her altar. She must be good at interceding!

Gentrification and renovation are happening at a brisk pace, so you can see the new and the rather old side-by-side.

The house on the right is to be renovated sometiime

We stopped at Mosaico chocolate shop, which occupies the building which was the home of Tomás Arias, one of the founders of the Republic of Panama. The chocolate was excellent.

We wandered around the old city for a few more hours; many people, including Diane, bought Panama hats, but I didn’t need one – they’re actually made in Ecuador, and I’d bought one there in 2018.

We returned to the ship for trivia, dinner, and a show (“Frida”, about Frida Kahlo, told through dance and song). The docks stayed busy with ships making Canal transits; we would join them tomorrow.

Cébaco Island

We spent most of today onboard, enjoying delicious food and drink and attending lectures about Panama, the Smithsonian Tropical Institute (which we’ll visit tomorrow), and marine microbes.

Our only landfall was on Cébaco Island, Panama, which is far off the beaten path – we enjoyed the scenery and walked on the beach; the only wildlife we found were snails, hermit crabs, and fish.

Manuel Antonio National Park

We were the first group to leave the ship today, which meant we had to be on the tender at 6:30am. The tender took us to the town of Quépos, where we caught a bus to Manuel Antonio National Park and were met by our guide for the day, Luis.

We didn’t have to wait long to see wildlife – this three-toed sloth was waiting for us just inside the entrance.

The park was busy, even at 8am; fortunately, there were viewing platforms off the main path so we could look at wildlife without being trampled.

They have white-faced monkeys here, just like Curú — this one looked surprised to see us.

Luis didn’t carry his spotting scope in vain – we never would have seen this dragonfly without it.

We probably could have used the scope to see these baby bats better.

But this iguana was hard to miss.

Of course we took a selfie to prove we were here!

Hermit crabs enjoy having a nice beach.

There were nice flowers to look at even after we left the park on our way back to the bus, like this hibiscus.

Quépos itself is tourist-oriented, with shopping and services along the waterfront. They are also ecology-sensitive, turning thousands of plastic bottles into a sailfish sculpture.

We returned to the ship and sailed away, en route to Panama.