Archive for December, 2013

A New Bottling Strategy

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

I use google calendar to remind me of the events in my winemaking life. It reminded me that this past Friday was the day to bottle the sour cherry wine. When I felt I had enough time to tackle the job, I took a deep breath and strode purposefully forward. I went into the basement, gathered the first load of necessary tools, and started to carry them upstairs.

I should explain that I store my winemaking equipment in the basement, as well as the brewing wine itself, and the bottled wine. It is cool and dark down there, and there is more room for things that are irregularly used than in the kitchen.

I was half way across the basement with the box of winemaking tools when I stopped mid stride, my mouth agape.

“Why am I hauling all this stuff up, when I could do the job right here?” I asked myself. I started listing the reasons. I have no drainboard for draining the washed and sanitized bottles. Also, the bottle brush was kept upstairs. That was it.

“So I could either make half a dozen trips loaded with various armfuls, and then carry the bottles wine back down here, or I could do the job down here after I fetch the drainboard and brush?”.

So the decision was made to try the project in the basement. As I entered uncharted territory, I discovered there were some advantages to this new technique. The drainboard worked well sitting on the washer and draining into the laundry sink. The sink itself is bigger than the kitchen sink, meaning I can soak more bottles in advance while I’m washing them. And putting the gallon jug on the clothes dryer and the wine bottle on the floor, means the siphon distance is greater than the one in the kitchen, making the fluid flow faster during bottling.

The process went very well this time, I neither made a mess in the kitchen, nor had to clean one up prior to my project this time. And putting the completed bottles away for their year of seasoning was just a walk across the room. I don’t understand why I get such a kick out of figuring our new ways to do things, but I really do. Partly, it reinforces the fact that I am still looking at things in new ways, and not getting stuck in ruts… which is something old people do.

A Magnificent Meal

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

xmasevedinnerSteve and John joined us for Christmas eve dinner tonight. And what a dinner it was.

When Alice and I started on this “back to the land” thing all those years ago, the goal was to produce a lot of our own food. What with school, jobs, raising a family, and other interruptions, we’ve never really felt like we’ve accomplished the goal. This year was different. We have lots of firewood put up, both for the house and the maple syrup operation. We had reasonable crops of many of our garden staples too, and are learning how to preserve them.

For Christmas eve dinner, we had two kinds of homemade wine, our own potatoes, squash, and beans. We also had a chicken that was purchased from some folks down the road. Dessert was biscuits with local fruit topping (ok, we had some Great Value aerosol whipped cream.) The point is the meal was special on several levels. Growing your own food is not necessarily about saving money (believe you me!) Our approach is to do the best for our plants, without adding any unnecessary poisons to the mix. And we’re less concerned about perfect looking potatoes than the produce section of your favorite grocery store is. After hoeing, mulching, watering, picking bugs, and harvesting, a small and/or misshapen potato is as good as gold in our book.

We have a long way to go in order to achieve the self sufficiency we strived for in our early years. Perhaps we’ll never make it. But we have come a long way indeed, and after a lovely meal like tonight’s, all I can say is the effort has been worth it.

Winter Snow

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

When Alice and I were getting ready to leave for our vacation in mid-November, one chore that could have made the list was putting the snowplow on the Scout. The weather was so nice up until we left, that I didn’t really think too much about it, and we left without tackling it.

I store the plow in an out-of-the-way place in the field because it is a big heavy useless hunk of iron for about 8 months of the year.

When we got back from our trip in early December, it had snowed and gotten cold. Oh yes, it was snowy and cold. The plow was now trapped in the field, because with all the snow, I couldn’t possibly drive the Scout back there unless I could plow a path… yes you can see the dilemma.

What to do? I’ve crossed this bridge in the past, and know from experience that I can move the plow with the bulldozer. I wrap a chain around the support structure of the plow, lift the bucket, and voila, the plow is mobile. Unfortunately, it was too cold to run the dozer for about a week after we got back.

The dozer sits a lot, and the fluids inside the machine can turn to pudding in very cold weather. I do have a engine block heater for the machine, but it does a poor job of warming the other fluids. My rule of thumb is to wait until it is at least 20 degrees F before I start the dozer. That wait was over yesterday.

I plugged in both the dozer and the Scout, waited a couple of hours, and started both machines. So far so good. Then I attempted to move the dozer forward. No luck. You know what it is sometimes like when you park your car on a dirt surface while the tires are still warm. On occasion, the warm tires will melt into the ice, and the car is stuck there until you gun the engine and it goes “POP,” and the car breaks free. Now imagine what it is like when both tracks of the dozer are frozen into the ground.

I knew I was on shaky ground here, because just gunning this machine can really do damage. So I put it in forward, rocked it a little, then reverse, back and forth, until I felt a little give. It still took me about a dozen back and forths before I was confident that I could move forward with it.

Then I had to plow a path for the Scout to get out, plow out the driveway on the east end of the house so I’d have somewhere to put the plow, and then I drove out to snatch the plow.

dozer2It was pretty tight in there, but I managed to wiggle the dozer in, grabbed the plow, and suspended it from the bucket. Then I carefully backed the dozer out and onto the road, plopped it down in the driveway, and got the Scout.

By this time I was really wet and cold. The Scout came out of it’s spot in the field like a champ, and did not get stuck on the road I made for it. I had to make a couple of trips to the shop for some tools in order to hook up the plow, but the hookup actually went pretty well. By this time my fingers were cold enough that they weren’t working very well.

With the plow attached, I moved snow in all the driveways, parked it, and walked inside. I told Alice I wanted 2 things, a hot bath and some hot chocolate. I made the bath and she (bless her) made me the hot chocolate, which I enjoyed in the bathtub. By the time both were complete, I was starting to feel like my old self again.

I Take Vitamins

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

vitaminYes, I am a vitamin taker… have been for years, and will probably continue. Yet I have to admit my resolve was shaken a bit today. My google news feed had an interesting article from Forbes you can read here:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2013/12/17/study-multivitamins-lack-clear-health-benefits-may-pose-risks/

The gist of the article is that several long term studies have shown “…supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful.” These studies used similar techniques. Large groups of randomly selected individuals were given either a vitamin/mineral supplement or a placebo for a long period of time, and their health outcomes were monitored. These studies found no significant difference between the two groups in terms of health outcomes.

This post is a followup to my post from yesterday. There will probably be a couple of different responses to this post from you readers. Some will think, “hmmm that is interesting. Perhaps I’ll read the Forbes’ article and give the matter some thought.” While some will think, “Ted has to be wrong, Forbes has to be wrong, and anyone that questions the value of supplements has to be wrong.” I put myself in the first camp, which is why I am happy to be firmly in the science camp. If data from well crafted and implemented studies cast some doubt on the subject, my first job is to determine if the studies were carried out by reputable non-biased scientists, and that the study model conforms with accepted practices. If all this checks out, and the data indicate a belief I’ve held most of my life to be false, then I need to take a better look at that belief.

My idealistic self suggests that the folks making money from vitamin/mineral supplements will jump on the bandwagon and work to fund and/or conduct credible studies of their own to determine whether the work they do has any benefit to society. And should the studies confirm nothing useful, then they’d use their resources to find something that is useful.

My cynical self says that these folks have a lot to lose from determining the truth in whatever form it may take, so they’ll probably not spend money looking for the truth, but will instead insist that the organs in your body are full of toxins, and that large doses of supplements will effectively detox these organs. No data to back up these claims, just claims made by seemingly credible folks that are appealing to ideas we already have.

So the question that presents itself is this: We are confronted daily with data that supports and contradicts our beliefs. If we refuse to believe the data that contradicts what we believe, how are we to move forward? Surely we all harbor false beliefs. Surely we all agree that these beliefs do us no good (if they’re false) and probably do us harm. Surely it is in our best interests to root out the bad stuff. What technique will we use to do this important pruning? The most useful and consistently correct technique I know of is science.

Baloney

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

I’ve been thinking about my good fortune today. I have a doctor that is smart, capable, cares about me, and been with me for decades. I have remained fairly isolated from the commercial world. We haven’t had a TV for 40 years, almost never listen to commercial radio, don’t get the newspaper or any magazines, so don’t see many ads. Yes, I do spend time on the internet and am exposed to more ads there than I care for. Also, I feel fortunate that I have a pretty good education.

What made me think about these things? Last Tuesday I was in line at Walmart waiting to pay for my weekly purchases. There are all manner of tempting tidbits displayed all around as you’re waiting your turn to check out. One magazine on display had an important looking doctor-type person on the cover, staring straight at the camera with a sympathetic and helpful look on his face. The headline above his picture said, “Detox Your Thyroid!”

I suppose if I mistrusted my doctor, felt the medical profession was out to take me for all the money it could while making me sicker for the effort, and I was attracted to the so-called alternative medicines, that I’d have found that headline so interesting that I might have picked the thing up and put it in my cart. As it was, I honestly felt sorry that this sort of thing is out in public view, and that folks actually spend their money on the magazine so they can read the article.

How many of us know what a thyroid is? Where it is located? What it does for us? How susceptible it is to being “toxed,” and whether detoxing it is possible or even desirable?

One way I pick out these things is the “skin in the game” test. If the author of the article had an incentive to make people well, and a disincentive for publishing false and/or misleading information, then I suspect we’d see fewer such articles. If my doctor (who has skin in the game) provided me with a medication, diet plan, or exercise plan because of a malady I’d come to him about, I’d expect some results if I stuck to the program. The magazine author’s motivation is likely magazine sales; in catchy headlines that have enough medical sounding terminology to make them seem credible, but whose results are vague. How does the toxed thyroid in your body act, and how much better will it feel when it is finally detoxed? I suspect the article is short on such important data.

Many of us are frightened about the world, and for good reason. We’re looking for reassurance because we want to feel secure. We look around for answers because that is how we’re programmed. And we tend to judge authority from cues, like how the person is dressed, how direct their gaze, etc.

So let me spiff up my suit, look you in the eye, and give you Dr. Ted’s prescription for detoxing your (fill in the blank.) Eat right. Avoid sugar and simple carbs. Eat lots of fruits, veggies, legumes, and whole grains. Exercise regularly. Discover your passion, and do something every day that helps you achieve it. Spend part of your day thinking about and helping someone other than yourself. Become part of your community.

There you have it. Dr. Ted’s detox paragraph. And it didn’t cost you a dime.

And if your interested in one of the best primers I know of on how to tell baloney from fact, check out this youtube video: The Baloney Detection Kit

Retirement Celebration

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Alice and I just returned from a very nice trip we’ve been planning for some time to celebrate her retirement from Michigan Tech after 37 years. We took a two-part trip. Part one was a flight and several days in Los Angeles, and part two was a two week cruise from LA, through the Panama Canal, and then on to Miami, FL. Everything went very well, and we came home tanned, rested, and ready for some cooler weather (no kidding!) We surely did get the cooler weather! The past few nights have been below zero, and there is a lot of snow. We nearly wound up staying in Chicago as the flight back home to the Hancock airport was iffy, but make it we did, even though we were a few hours late.

getty1

Our first stop after landing in LA and grabbing the rental car was the Getty Museum. I’ve visited a few times on previous trips, and have always wanted to return and especially to show this special place to Alice. The Getty was built on a hilltop with nice views of the surrounding landscape including downtown LA. A nice person offered to take this picture of the two of us out on one of the many balconies outside.

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Admission to the Getty is free. You have to pay for parking if you park in their facility. Once you leave the car and follow the signs, your deposited at the boarding area for a very nice cable driven tram system that takes you up to the museum complex. Those of you that know me won’t be surprised to learn I tried my hardest to understand how the tram attached itself to the cables that pulled it up the hill. I learned if I got there early I could get the front car with a view of the cables and pulleys. I thought I’d figured it out several times, only to be thwarted. I hope to go back someday and finally figure it all out.

getty3

There are so many things that could be said about the Getty. Besides being a museum with free admission for the people of Los Angeles, the structures themselves are works of art. The architect built with travertine rock imported from the same quarry where the rock for the Colosseum in Rome came from. Besides a museum, the facility houses a faculty of professionals procuring, protecting, and doing art outreach. In this picture I’m examining a piece of travertine wall.

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Mr. Getty wanted the visitors to his museums to get up close to the art. Each room has a guard that watches things, and if you are careless enough to get too close to and endanger the piece, they will ask you to stop. In general, if you obey these few rules, you can do about anything you want around the art. In this picture I’m listening to a commentary on an iPod touch that I checked out for free. You type in the 4 digit code visible near the piece, and an interesting story is told in the headphones. As I told Alice after we left the Getty for the last time this trip, “my spirit soared.”

nclstar1

Sunday morning, November 24, we checked out of our hotel in Santa Monica, told the GPS to return us to the car rental place, and braved the streets of Los Angeles for the last time. It was Sunday morning, hence light traffic, but still, driving in LA is not relaxing for me. As we were blindly following the GPS instructions, Alice suddenly said, “turn here now,” because she saw the Budget car rental place. Alas it was too late, so we let the GPS continue to guide us. Lucky we did too, because where she suggested I turn was the place with the spikes sticking out of the ground. The GPS calmly took us to the place where we were to unload the car, which we did without ceremony. We then jumped on a waiting bus that took us to the airport. We found the Norwegian Cruise Line rep, got on the list, and sat to wait for the next bus to take us to the port and board the ship. The process was pretty much like cattle being herded, in my opinion, and I was just as happy to comply. Just tell me where you want me, and get us there, and I’ll be happy. Once we arrived at the port and grabbed our luggage, we went through the procedure to check in, got our ID cards, and boarded the Norwegian Star.

nclstar2

Our room onboard was not huge, but very adequate for our needs. The bathroom was very cleverly laid out, and we had our own balcony! On other cruises I’ve done, I’ve not “wasted” money on a balcony, but especially this trip, where we’d be doing a daylight transit of the Panama Canal, and with Alice’s encouragement, we decided to splurge. We’re both glad we did.

nclstar3

Our balcony had a sturdy railing and heavy glass panels to protect us from falling overboard. It took us a while to get used to being able to just walk out our sliding door and experience the world rushing by, but by the end we were taking advantage of it several times each day. We made friends with the people on either side of us, but other than that pretty much just stared across the beautiful oceans and said, “ah.”

port1

I’ve long been interested in the movement of freight, and especially how things have changed over the years regarding ocean freight transport. The world’s exporters and importers have agreed on a standard sized shipping container (actually 2 different sizes.) Freight is packed in these containers, loaded onto special container ships, and shipped to the ports. At the ports, there are various cranes designed to grab the containers and move them places. There are trailer trucks designed to accept one container and move it around. I found the whole scene bewildering and fascinating as I observed it in the various ports where we stopped. This picture was taken as we were leaving the port of Los Angeles.

seminar

The cruise had a couple of ways to break up the days. We were either “at sea” meaning all day on the water, or in port, where there were usually shore excursions that could be signed up for. When we were at sea, we had a lot of different options. There was a large theater in the forward part of the boat, in which there were daily shows. There were also various demonstrations we could attend. In this one, one of the ship’s chefs was teaching a cooking class.

wine

We also attended a couple of wine-tasting seminars. In this one we were served 6 different kinds of wine, and were told when to sip which, what sort of food to eat to cleanse the palate, and when to try the next one. I have to admit that as hard as I tried, I had a lot of trouble tasting what the instructor wanted me to taste. I don’t drink wine, so only did sips, which may have been part of the problem.

snorkle1

At one of our first ports of call, we’d signed up for a snorkeling excursion. We were driven to the cove in a catamaran that had 2 outboards on it. The wind was in our teeth, and the seas pretty high for this boat, so we rocked and rolled a bit on the way out there. When we arrived, I was one of the first in the water since I had my own gear. The water was a little murky because of all the wave action, but I saw lots of fish, thanks to the fish-feeding efforts of our crew. I had to keep pinching myself when I realized I was snorkeling in warm water in late November!

snorkel2

On the way back Alice asked one of the crew to take her picture. Unbeknownst to her, another guy in the crew snuck into the picture with her. She had no idea about this until we looked at our pictures later on.

marry

At our next stop, our shore excursion was a little bit different. This place had a restaurant that served a nice buffet, a nice beach, a nature walk, and lots of other activities. Our first stop when we got off the boat was the buffet. The tables and chairs were out in the open on the beach, and Alice and I scored a very nice place to sit and eat. I wanted to get a picture of her, so I backed up with my camera. I knelt down to get the picture, and while I was on my knees, I thought, “what the heck,” I’m down here already, so I asked her to marry me. Her smile was my answer.

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The rough weather made this water a little murky too, but our snorkeling guide more than made up for it. He was constantly down looking for things to show us. He brought up sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and even a little puffer fish. It was one of my best snorkeling adventures of all time. After I was out of the water, we walked through their grounds. I got to hold onto a large globe spider, and saw lots of orchids, bromeliads, and other exotic plants and animals.

laundry

On this trip, we were away from home for over 2 weeks, so we knew we’d have to do our own laundry. I’d researches the process from home, and had accumulated the basic tools we’d need — a bar of laundry soap, and a good sink stopper. My technique was to try to do a few things every night. I’d stop and fill the sink with warm water and soak the clothes. Then I’d soap them with the bar, agitate them, and let them soak for a while. Then drain the water, wring them out, and refill the sink, and agitate them again. I repeated this once more until the water was clear, then wrung them once more, and laid a towel down on the carpeting. I’d then spread the clothes on the towel and turn the end as tightly as possible to roll the whole thing up. Once I had a towel tube with my wet clothes inside, I’d walk on the tube for a short time. When I unwrapped the towel, it was wet, but the clothes were much drier. I’d then hang them up and in about a day, they were dry.

taichi

We tried our best to keep up with our exercises throughout the trip. I’d bought an inflatable seat cushion for my situps (without some sort of padding, my bottom gets pretty sore after 200 situps.) Alice did her Tai Chi on our balcony just about every day.

theater

Alice and I went to most of the theater shows for the first several days of the cruise. I happened to be reading a very good book on my Kindle called, “The Path Between the Seas,” about the building of the Panama Canal. We struck a deal that she would go to the shows and I’d stay behind and read. If there was a show she really wanted me to go to, she’d ask, but otherwise I was excused from participating. Alice continued to enjoy the shows, and I finished my book just about in time for the transit of the canal.

birdwatching1

At one of our last stops in Mexico, we’d booked a bird watching excursion. We wound up on a dirt road next to a golf course; not the exotic location I’d pictured, but our guide was superb! He had eagle eyes and very good hearing, and was very good at making sure we all saw the bird he was talking about. We made friends with a fellow birder this trip, and crossed paths with him several more times during the cruise.

washy

The restaurants had dispensers for hand sanitizers at their entrances. We used the buffet for most of our meals because each of us has fairly specific dietary requirements, and find we do better when we have lots of choices and can see our food before we choose it. We also believe we tend to eat less because we can control our portions. At the buffet during the busy times, there would often be a crew member of the boat that would smile, meet your eye, and say, “washy washy!” Our job was to hold out our hands and they’d spray on the sanitizer. Keeping clean hands makes the relatively close quarters of all of us on this ship healthier.

walking

We did a lot of walking onboard. There were two places; deck 7 where this picture was taken. It was out of the sun, wind and rain and had a bit more room, so we often made this choice. The other was deck 13 which was open to the sky but was shared with the joggers. I’m pretty sure we walked several miles each day, and I got a few more days of barefooted walking out of the deal 🙂

sunset

Sunset from our balcony.

croc

We had one stop in Costa Rica. I hadn’t planned an excursion for this stop, and Alice looked at the possibilities, and thought we’d both like the crocodile safari. It sounded kind of touristy to me, but I went along with it. The woman that met us at the dock and talked to us on the bus trip to the river was excellent, and the trip on the river was spectacular. Our guide promised us that our pilot would step out of the boat and feed a crocodile by hand. “Yes right,” I said to myself.

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Here you have it. Young Juan Carlos knee deep in sticky mud giving chicken pieces to a 5 meter wild crocodile he’d affectionately named Osama bin Laden. Had this big guy decided to forgo the few ounces of chicken for the much more substantial Juan Carlos, we’d have had to pilot the boat back ourselves. We saw dozens of crocs this trip, and numerous exotic birds. They could have billed it as a bird watching tour that also included crocs, and we’d have been satisfied. We also saw some howler monkeys. Our guide said they were often to be seen lazing around up in the trees, which she figured was because they were vegetarians. That helped explain a lot about myself, since I can not look at a tree without wanting to laze around in it.

bridge

One thing that fascinates me about cruise ships is the underlying infrastructure. Large hotels, restaurants, or ships are complicated entities in themselves, but when you combine all three, the systems have to be robust and reliable, or lots of people suffer. Our ship was designed to carry 3,000 passengers and 1,200 crew. When we asked at the front desk early in the cruise, we learned there was a “behind the scenes” tour of the ship. We immediately signed up. The day before we arrived at the Panama Canal, we were notified that the tour would be that day. We visited the kitchens, the stores procurement and storage areas, the laundry, theater, waste disposal and recycling area, but my favorite was the bridge. We were met by a diminutive Filipino woman security guard and led upstairs. In this picture, I’m standing at the console that can control the ship if the autopilot is turned off. We were able to ask questions and take all the pictures we wanted. We were also allowed to walk around under the steely eye of the security guard. For such a small person, she sure had a tough persona. We all behaved.

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The day we were to transit the Panama Canal, we asked for a 5:30 wake-up. We didn’t want to miss anything. As we were approaching the canal zone, the first thing we saw was the massive breakwater they built with some of the spoil from the dredging operations. Then the skyline of Panama City came into view.

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We rounded the corner, and there was the Bridge of the Americas, which appeared to be bumper-to-bumper all four lanes this early in the day.

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In this picture, we’re approaching our first lock of the canal transit. As you can see, many of the people lucky enough to have balconies on this ship are utilizing them at this point.

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Our neighbor, a container ship, reached the locks just ahead of us, and is in the process of being raised. Our turn to have our compartment flooded will come as soon as we are safely inside with the lock doors closed, and our “4 iron mules” (2 forward and 2 aft which keep the ship centered in the lock) are in position.

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On our trip from the Pacific to the Atlantic, we had to “lock” up about 85 feet into Gatun Lake. As the ship proceeded through the locks, the iron mules had to climb with us. This picture shows the special hills designed for these specialized locomotives.

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Being so close to the container ship in the next lock, I could take a look at how they secured the containers. I’m sure these guys know what they’re doing, but it sure looked like inadequate cabling to me. These containers are heavy, and these ships can really rock in tough weather on the oceans. Ok, I admit it… I’m a geek.

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The designers of the Panama Canal decided to build double doors at each of the locks. Their rationale was in case of an accident which would make it impossible to close a lock off, Gatun Lake would drain, and it would take 3 years to refill it, costing shipping companies millions of dollars. This picture shows both sets of lock doors opening.

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The canal authority kindly provided our cruise ship with a guide, who used the ship’s PA system to tell us stories throughout our transit. He pointed the ship in the picture to us as a ship that frequents the canal. He said it was a “car carrier” that had 6,500 vehicles on board.

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The Panama Canal is in the midst of its first major redesign in 100 years. Ship builders have been making vessels too large for the locks for some years now, so the new locks will be able to accommodate these huge ships. Our guide told us these were the first 4 of the 16 new doors required in the new locks. It is difficult to imagine the scale of these monsters. There is a railing along the top that is as tall as a man. There is also a vehicle parked to the left of the leftmost lock.

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We’ve just about completed our transit of Gatun Lake. The ships in the distance are anchored, perhaps waiting their turn at the locks into the Atlantic.

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Our final lock down to the Atlantic.

columbia

Our final stop on the cruise was Cartagena, Columbia. We booked a “hop on hop off” bus tour. This was to be our first step onto South America. We hopped on the bus, and found that South America is HOT in the sun. The bus took about an hour and a half to drive us around the city. They dropped us off near the old walled part of the city for a walking tour that we both enjoyed much more than riding around on the bus.

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We enjoyed the energy of this place. There were street vendors everywhere, each with an angle. There were shirts, cloth of all sorts, pictures, jewelry, food, you name it. We were told to say, “no gracias” if we weren’t interested. It worked poorly. Alice did wind up buying a tshirt for $5 from a fellow. She had a $20 and he had no change. “I’ll be right back” he said, and disappeared with the $20. We waited some time wondering if we’d been scammed, but he did come back with the correct change, and we were able to continue with our tour.

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In Columbia I was finally able to take the picture I wanted of Alice on our balcony. I zoomed in with photoshop so you can see her.

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Here is the picture full sized.

atsea

We had 2 days at sea before arriving at Miami and catching our plane home. This is what I mostly did for the last two days.