CENTRAL AMERICA (Part 1) – October 2010

 

Through the Golden Gate we sailed

Getting onboard the Sea Princess was much harder than we expected.

As soon as we were collected by our 83 year old friend, IB and her daughter, M, at San Francisco airport, we were told that our departure from San Francisco Bay coincided with `Fleet Week’ festivities. Evidently, this meant that the navy was in town.

Yet despite this knowledge, the group decided to pause for a meal before proceeding to our embarkation point at Wharf  27.

It was only when we were in the car, bound for the Bay area, that it emerged that whilst our friends knew, in general terms, where Wharf 27 might be, they did not actually know the best way to get there. That, however, did not deter the three generations from entering into some very mischievous – and highly entertaining – banter as the blind sought to direct the blind… followed by the blind (playfully) arguing with each other.

Once we arrived at Embarcadero, the full impact of Fleet Week hit home. We discovered that we had entered the access road to the docks quite a distance from Wharf 27 and that the ground in between was clogged with Fleet Week traffic. A drive of (I’m guessing) five to ten minutes, ended up taking the best part of three quarters of an hour.

To complicate matters -rather astoundingly – the wharves in San Francisco are not numbered sequentially. At one point we were passing wharf numbers which were descending from 28. Suddenly we were back at wharf number one and the numbers began ascending, albeit with large groups of numbers missing.

At one point M jumped out the car and began running down the pavement, making much faster progress than the car in which she had previously been travelling. Some twenty minutes later she scampered back to breathlessly announce that she had spotted the Sea Princess and it was “way over there!

After an eternity, we finally made it. We had time to spare before Sea Princess sailed, but not that long.

The fond farewells we wished to bestow upon our dear friends – especially 83 year old IB – were truncated by the insolent behaviour of two San Francisco Port Authority baggage handlers. As Huckleberry B warmly embraced her old friend and thanked her for her long friendship (wondering whether they would ever meet face-to-face again), one porter announced loudly that our tip of two dollars was insufficient. Given that we had four bags and his going rate (allegedly) was one dollar per bag, there was a two dollar shortfall.

I happily handed over another two dollars and returned my focus to thanking our friends for their help and wishing them well. We were, however, again rudely interrupted by the baggage handler saying loudly to his friend: “Hey! They only gave me four dollars Dewayne! They must think I ain’t doing my job too good!” Followed by his friend yelling back, “Don’t worry, Marcus, I think you doin’ a fine job!”

By this stage, we were ignoring them, whilst silently praying that our bags would arrive in our stateroom safe and unmolested.

Our friends (sadly) and the baggage handlers (gladly) behind us, we were soon in our suite overlooking the rear of Sea Princess.

The voyage through San Francisco Bay – towards the Golden Gate – was one of the most spectacular sail-a-ways Huck B and I have ever had the pleasure to experience. With pleasure craft all around our vessel, enjoying Fleet Week, we made our way slowly past Alcatraz on our right with the striking buildings of the city on our left. Before long, we were under the Golden Gate Bridge and sailing out to sea. B and I toasted each other and looked forward to the voyage ahead.

And speaking of the voyage, this one was a genuine journey. Sea Princess would take us down the west coast of Central America to Cabo San Lucas (Mexico), San Juan Del Sur (Nicaragua), Puntarenas (Costa Rica) and Puerto Amador (Panama), before reaching the Panama Canal.

After a day navigating the Canal, we would look forward to a morning in Cartagena (Colombia) and an afternoon on the Island of Aruba, before disembarking Sea Princess for the last time in Port Everglades, Florida.

Ziplining across Central America

Mexico

It’s hard to know where my beloved Huckleberry got the idea from, but she decided during the early stages of her planning that this trip would be dominated by the zipline.

For those who may not know, a zipline features a steel cable strung between two points. By fixing yourself to the cable by means of a pulley and a harness, one can slide – or `zip’ – along the cable to get from Point A to Point B. As we found during our journey, the distance between Point A and Point B could range from a hundred metres to three-quarters of a kilometre.

Our first zipline adventure – and my first introduction to sheer terror – was in Cabo San Lucas, which lies close to the southern tip of Baja California in Mexico.

This `zipline park’, as it was described, traversed a place called Wild Canyon. The location was very well named. Imagine the Grand Canyon but on a one-tenth scale.

Standing in the blazing, late-morning, Mexican sun, our instructor gave us a demonstration of how to utilise the zipline. He showed us how to hang onto the two small handles, attached to the pulley, which sat perpendicular to the zip line. He demonstrated how one’s harness would be securely attached to the pulley. Finally, he explained how to brake by twisting the pulley side to side in order to create as much friction as possible between the cable and the inside of the pulley.

Meanwhile, I tried to count how many different parts of the cable, pulley and harness system could fail at any given moment, causing one of us – probably me –to plummet to the bottom of the canyon like Wile E Coyote (complete with puff of dust upon impact).

Suddenly it was time for a practice on the training zipline. No more than 20 metres in length and with a maximum speed just beyond a brisk walk, it looked easy enough. Yet my heart was well and truly in my mouth. When asked who would go first, I pointed to Huckleberry B. Afterall, she got us into this.

My daring wife, however, stepped confidently forward, had herself hooked up onto the cable and away she went. Zip-a-dee-doo-dah!

Soon it was my turn. I still felt anxious. But once on my way, I realised there was not much to fear.

My fleeting confidence disappeared, however, when I caught a glimpse of the first `real’ zipline. This one was over three-hundred metres long and literally spanned the width of a seemingly bottomless canyon. My brain told me that the system in place was perfectly safe. However, the swarming mass of faint-hearted butterflies in my stomach were not as self-assured. They told me that that if the system failed, that would be the end of me! Ker-plunk!

Once again B went first. I watched in horror as she hurtled across the canyon before gracefully pulling up at the platform on the other side. Then it was my turn.

As I was being strapped in, I recalled the anxiety I felt when the gondola in Vancouver became stuck for some fifteen minutes. Oh how I now yearned, with fervent nostalgia, for the safety of that gondola!

With a push I was away. My heart literally stopped beating as I left the comparative safety of the slope leading down to the chasm and entered the vast open air-space high above the canyon floor. But then a strange thing happened. My anxiety evaporated and, instead, exhilaration flooded through my veins…

That was until I saw the end platform racing towards me at an alarming pace. Suddenly, the panic returned. How was I going to stop in time without breaking my legs? I remembered the braking manoeuvre we had been taught and I twisted the pulley vigorously from side to side. This did not appear to achieve much. With a jolt, however, I found myself stationary on the platform, being greeted by my valiant wife who was beaming with excitement.

One Mexican zipline down, seven Mexican ziplines to go…

For the next hour we trudged up the hills surrounding Wild Canyon and zipped across the ravine from side to side. With each zipline my confidence grew. By the final cable, I was truly at ease with the process and was really enjoying myself. By the gleam in Huckleberry B/s eyes, it was clear that she, too, was having the time of her life. She’s always been more daring than me!

Our zipline adventure in Mexico was but one of four such escapades we would embark upon during our time in Central America.

Nicaragua

After three days at sea, we arrived in Nicaragua for our second zipline. Unlike the set up in Mexico, the zipline on this occasion was in a rain forest and the cables allowed you to travel from tree to tree. The zipline mechanism was also different. On this occasion, there were two cables and one braked by pulling hard on the lower cable. This produced an inverse hump in the cable, which caused the pulley to lose speed.

Whilst not quite as hazardous as the zipline adventure in Mexico, the zipline in Nicaragua was fun nevertheless, particularly given that we were now both stepping up to take our turns with self-assured confidence (if not arrogance).

Costa Rica

The next day saw us in Costa Rica and our third voyage on the zipline. This proved to be the most memorable of all.

After a drive exceeding two hours – including almost one hour on a winding, dirt road up the side of a mountain – we arrived at the Costa Rican `cloud forest’. Like the Wild Canyon, the location was well named. By the time we arrived, there was constant rain falling and this persisted throughout most of our escapade.  Luckily, we were given rain coats in order to keep relatively dry.

The zipline apparatus in Costa Rica was similar to the one we used in Mexico, with small handlebars projecting from either side of the pulley. What made Costa Rica remarkable, however, was the length of the cables. After negotiating a practice zipline, we boarded a gondola which took us higher into the rain forest. Once at the top, we climbed some scaffolding which included eight sets of staircases, taking us even further into the sky.

I actually thought we were going up to enjoy the view. I was staggered to find that the top of the scaffolding represented the platform for the zipline. I was mortified when I looked out and observed the cable extending out into an abyss. The cloud was so low that we couldn’t see the other side! The zipline simply disappeared into nothingness.

Suddenly, all the fretful anxiety I had suffered at the outset in Mexico came rushing back. There was something extraordinarily unnerving about hooking yourself up to a zipline whilst not being able to see your destination, particularly when the rain continued to teem down and the canopy of the rain forest seemed so far below.

If, when entering the clouds, one was simply propelled off the end of the zipline, they’d find you, far below, impaled on a tree branch!

With these horrid thoughts in mind, I embarked down the zipline, high above the canopy, rain pelting my face, through the clouds and, mercifully, towards a platform which slowly appeared within my vision. It was a frightening experience, yet strangely thrilling.

The remaining eight ziplines in Costa Rica were much the same, except the length of each cable grew longer and longer and the speed faster and faster. At times, the clouds cleared and you could see the other side. Often, however, we were hurling ourselves into the unknown.

Towards the end we ventured upon a zipline which measured 770 metres in length. According to the sign at the launching platform, speeds of up to 75 kph could be achieved. Now that I had, once again, come to ease with the integrity of the apparatus and had become used to the rain and the clouds, this proved to be my favourite zipline of all. Huckleberry `daredevil’ B agrees.

About half way down, I was so overcome by the thrill of the moment – as I soared across the sky – that I felt compelled to open my mouth and yell out words of jubilation. I may have screamed something about being `king of the world’…

I apologise for that! Sincerely.

Panama

The zipline in Panama was similar to the apparatus used at Nicaragua, where one was required to pull down on the cable in order to brake. Also similar to Nicaragua, we were zipping relatively short distances through a rain forest, rather than the vast expanses we were required to traverse in Mexico and Costa Rica.

Unfortunately, on this occasions we only had four cables to zip along.

Huck B excelled herself on the first cable by demonstrating how to stop without using the braking system whatsoever. As she raced towards the lower platform she found that pulling gently on the cable was not having much effect. Looking up, however, she saw that there was padding strapped to a tree on the far side of the platform.

Damn it!” she said as she let go of the cable all together, “I’m just going to go full steam ahead!

Hucklebrry may have thought twice as she ploughed majestically, feet first, into the padding. But her joyous laughter upon finding herself both vertical and uninjured was a sight to see and a sound to hear.

The highlight in Panama, however, was a very steep zipline which travelled past a picturesque waterfall. This particular zipline was unique in that one’s speed was regulated not by the gradient of the descent (and by any braking measures taken by the occupant), but by a man standing at the launch platform. My knowledge of knots and pulleys is inadequate to explain how this worked, but there were ropes and weights involved. Doubtless, my father will shake his head in disappointment upon being presented with yet another example of his son’s profound lack of aptitude when it comes to the fascinating world of knots. I should have paid more attention when I was a Cub Scout, I know.

In any event, it was quite a thrill to sweep through the trees on a steep descent, before pausing – mid-air – at the face of the waterfall, before proceeding to the platform below.

Sadly, however, after our last (rather tame) zipline, our adventure was over. There were no more ziplines in our future.

It must be said, however, that I enjoyed zipping along the zipline cables much more than I ever expected I would. Once I trusted the apparatus, it really was extraordinarily thrilling. Both Huckleberry B and I hope to do it again one day soon.

Moonriver

 

 

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