Clean, Green Medellin

Medellin Colombia by Night

One might think a city of 3 million souls would be grimy, noisy, confusing and generally dispiriting to inhabit. Medellin Colombia is proof that the opposite can be true. Disclaimer: we spent just five days in Medellin (pronounced Med-a-Jeen BTW) so we’re not experts by any means, but what we saw of Medellin enchanted us.

2 forms of public transport: World-Class Metro system; Free bikes (yes, free)

Please don’t tell anyone about Medellin, because we’re sure the Chamber of Commerce wouldn’t want the world to have this information and start a flood of immigrants, but this city does NOT match its reputation. And what is that rep? We’d heard the narrative: ‘dangerous,’ ‘drug-cartels,’ violent, anti-gringo, dirty, noisy, poverty-riddled etc. etc. Sure, there are parts of Medellin to avoid, especially at night, or drunk, or if your name is Donald Trump, or you’re soliciting for drugs and/or sex, or doing some other kind of criminal enterprise. Of course there are. So don’t do those things…duh! In fact, according to several websites, the homicide rate in Medellin has fallen more than 80% since the end of the cartel era. A fellow named Pablo Escobar and his minions were eliminated in the early 90s, and the turnaround in Medellin has been nothing short of remarkable.

Street performer in El Poblado; Parque de las Luces, ciudad central

City Parks have free WiFi…View from Envigado…Street Market Flowers

More street vendors & tiendas. Gotta love the ‘Super Todo Mickey Mouse’ market

The first thing we noticed about Medellin was how clean the city appears to be. Even in the poorer, more down at the heels estratos & barrios the utter lack of street litter and trash was remarkable. We were told that it’s partly a cultural thing, but mostly a point of civic pride. People tend to dress conservatively, (we saw no locals wearing shorts and/or sandals, for example) and there was no evidence of the slovenly apparel commonly seen in US cities. Also, many people told us the city is oriented around family & kids, with several initiatives, like the Parque Explora, and the wonderfully named Parque de los Pies Descalzos, (barefoot park). Proyecto Buen Comienza is a wonderful initiative that gives Medellin’s kids an early boost in education and self-discovery.

One reason the streets of Medellin are so tidy: street cleaners are on duty daily. Parking monitors help keep neighborhood areas free of abandoned and/or unattended vehicles.

Parque Explora, where kids can…be eaten by a T-Rex! Buen Comienza is there for ninos

So…what are the downsides to living in Medellin? Well, it is a big city, of 3 million people at last count. There’s traffic, including too many ‘motos’ to count, the motorcyclists that our taxi driver Carlos referred to as ‘hormigas’ or ‘ants,’ bikers that whip between cars, weaving like crazy people through stopped traffic and missing side mirrors by inches. Pedestrians often wander into roadways where Colombian drivers seem always to yield to them, and folks dodge other cars and trucks like an intricate ballet, often at top speed. Another challenge for expats is that Spanish is spoken in Medellin, and it is not an option. Very few Colombians we met and interacted with spoke English, so guess what? They expected us to speak espanol. It’s a novel prospect, I know, but an energizing one for us as we have every intention of learning the language. We consider it rude to expect them to speak English, and sad that we never acquired bilingual status in America! I’ll now step off my soap box, thank you.

The EPM Library in ciudad central…System map of the Metro…Mall SantaFe’

The EPM Library is a jewel of a resource in downtown Medellin on Parque de las Luces. The library is open to all, filled with books, magazines, newspapers from all over and, again, an entire section devoted to kids. From its reputation as ‘most dangerous city in the world’ in 1992, to 2014 winner of the Lee Kwan Yew award for city excellence, Medellin is a rising star in South America & elsewhere. With world-class infrastructure, a major symphony, Parque Botero, dedicated to the works of city resident and artist Fernando Botero, and the new Metrocable system built primarily to assist poorer workers of Medellin to return to their hillside homes, this city will enchant you, too. mde19

Metrocable system high above Medellin. This transport system was built to integrate all neighborhoods of the city, and to assist poorer folks returning uphill from work in the city. Most local people ride for free.

Medellin Colombia is a city that works for all. Just don’t tell anyone about it. Thanks.

World’s Best Shortcut Part 2

USS Ancon August 14th 1914

The Panama Canal officially opened on August 15th 1914. The USS Ancon seen above was the first vessel to transit the canal, on August 14th, the day before, to test the locks’ operations. Since its opening to commercial traffic more than 100 years ago, the Panama Canal has seen the passage of nearly one million vessels, and today averages more than 14,000 ships per year, and 40 per day. Here are a few statistics:

Δ Finished by Americans in 1914 after a failed French effort begun in 1881

Δ More than 30,000 died building the canal, most from yellow fever & malaria

Δ 800,000 French investors were wiped out when their effort failed

Δ The Canal is 48 miles/80 Kilometers long & 600 feet wide at its narrowest point

Δ Alternative passage around Cape Horn: 8,000 miles/12,875 Kilometers

Δ Cost of the U.S. effort 8.6 Billion dollars

Δ Revenue to Panama one billion dollars per year*

Δ Excavated material: 15,950,900 square meters. (Most of this material went to building the Amador Causeway in Panama City)

Δ Amount of dynamite used: 60 million pounds

Δ 2016 Fee to transit: $72 per TEU. A TEU is a Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit

Δ Longest ship to transit: Marcona Prospector at 973 feet

Δ Highest fee paid: $840,000

Δ Time to transit: approximately 8 to 10 hours

Δ Ships wait on average 4 days to enter the Canal. Some request entry up to two years in advance.

*As of 2015 prior to the opening of the Super Panamax locks

Map of The Panama Canal aboard Pacific Queen

Many people don’t realize that transiting the Canal from Pacific to Atlantic (Caribbean) side, a ship is traveling Northwest. When we moved to Panama we had a lot of getting used to the idea that it’s an East-West country, not unlike Tennessee. The chart above shows this orientation very well.

1-Locks at Miraflores; 2-A car vessel in the locks (this ship held more than 5,000 cars);3-The same vessel; 4-Miraflores Locks visitor center & museum.

Alejandro our Captain

No vessel, regardless how small, may transit the Panama Canal without a canal captain. The fellow above was captain of the Pacific Queen. He had to board a canal captain to accompany him through the passage. The fellow (named Felix, and not shown) mostly watched Captain Alejandro during our transit. Alejo had more than 14 years at the helm, and ‘more transits than I remember,’ he said.

For an in depth understanding of the Panama Canal, its construction, political & economic impact, engineering & administrative staff and the various challenges and difficulties encountered, read David McCullough’s definitive work, The Path Between The Seas. In the book, McCullough refers to the biggest challenge facing the French, the obsession of its chief engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps to build a sea-level canal. Messieur de Lesseps was the hero of France for pushing through a sea-level canal at Suez. He saw no reason the same thing wouldn’t work in Panama, and he was not to be dissuaded. De Lesseps scorned those who insisted on a series of locks, blindly pursuing his sea-level vision. In the meantime, disease was ravaging construction crews. At one point in the late nineteenth century the French team was losing 40 men per day to yellow fever and malaria.

1-‘Mules’ guide heavier ships; 2-The Canal employs 5,000 full time; 3-In Miraflores

Ships transit the Panama Canal under their own power. The so called mules, special trains with guide cables as show above, do not tug or drag ships along. They assist the canal captain in keeping ships aligned in the canal.

More numbers:

Δ Each lockage uses 52 million gallons of fresh water, all of it from Gatun Lake

Δ Existing locks are 110 feet wide, thought to be double what might be needed when the canal was proposed. New locks on the Super Panamax side are 160 feet wide. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s existing commercial fleet can use the Super Panamax Locks.

Δ Material is still dredged daily from the canal. This material is being distributed throughout Panama City and Colon for additional earthen levies and pedestrian causeways

Part three of The World’s Best Shortcut will arrive soon. Look for yet more astonishing numbers, weird facts about the Panama Canal (including a Nazi crane, and a two hour passage by hydrofoil!) and the background of its existence and future use. Thanks for reading.



The World’s Best Shortcut Part 1

Holland America Line’s Veendam transiting Miraflores Locks

The Veendam, one of 40 ships per day, on average, that transit the Panama Canal. Built between 1904 and 1914, the Canal was finished by the U.S. after a failed French effort. The Panama Canal has been called one of the wonders of the modern world. I call it the world’s best shortcut. This is part 1 of a series on this marvel of engineering, a vital link in the world economy, responsible for fully 5% of all goods shipped around the world, and 10% of all American shipping.

In the shot above, The Veendam is in the Miraflores Locks, the first set of gates on the Pacific side of the Canal. In Miraflores, ships are raised or lowered a total of 54 feet. From Miraflores, ships travel a short distance to the Pedro Miguel Locks which raises (or lowers) them an additional 31 feet for transit into Gatun Lake which is 85 feet above sea level. The numbers explain why the French effort failed; French engineers were determined to build a sea level canal, a simple excavation cut through the country, similar to the canal they built at Suez. The chief engineer in that effort, Ferdinand de Lesseps, dismissed the need for locks at Panama, and his determination essentially dictated the French failure in the latter days of the nineteenth century.

1- Ships awaiting transit, 2-Princess Cruises ‘Island Princess‘ 3-Under the bridge of the Americas, 4-Entering the Miraflores Locks

We followed the Island Princess for our tour of the Panama Canal. This ship is a good example of the canal’s utility and purpose. Launched in 2003, Island Princess is 965 feet long with a beam of 106 feet. Each lock chamber is 110 feet wide, so the Princess, like most ships, have been built with those dimensions in mind. As she passes through each lock, Island Princess has exactly 24 inches of clearance on either side. Until the new Super Panamax locks opened in 2016, with chambers of 161 feet wide and 1,201 feet long to accommodate so called Panamax ships, dimensions of the Panama Canal determined how wide and long a ship could be built if users wished to transit from ocean to ocean.

1-Flag of our tour boat, the Pacific Queen, from Ancon Tours in Panama City 2- Safety is paramount in Canal operation, 3-Car carrier at Miraflores, 4-Derricks offload containers for trans-isthmus shipping by rail.

As we entered Miraflores Locks, we saw a series of derricks to the east. Our operator explained that these are to offload cargo containers. If a shipper wishes to send only a few containers across the canal, they offload them here, then they’re shipped by rail to the other side by the Panama Canal Railway. It’s all about efficiency: if only a few containers must transit the canal, there’s no need to send the whole ship through. It’s about cost as well. The reason the canal exists at all is threefold. One, the cost of shipping. Modern container ships typically guzzle more than $100,000 dollars per day of fuel, not to mention crew, maintenance and insurance costs. By transiting the Panama Canal they knock off 16 days on average between oceans. Not only does this save $$$, it allows them to carry more goods instead of fuel. Number two is safety. Rounding Cape Horn is always a risky proposition, especially during the winter season when hazards include, ‘…strong winds, large waves, and icebergs drifting up from Antarctica,’ according to ‘Rounding the horn’ has caused the loss of many vessels and their crews, thus the Canal’s usefulness for lowered insurance costs for shipping. Number three, increased usage of vessels, since those ships can be used more often.

1-A ‘mule’ along the Miraflores Locks, 2-in the chamber, 3-the Island Princess in the east lock as we transit the west and 4-one of many tugs that assist larger ships.

Vital details of the Panama Canal: All raising and lowering is accomplished by filling and emptying the locks, in other words, by using water and the ships’ buoyancy. No electric or hydraulic power is used, except to open and close the gates. Each gate weighs 700 tons, and water pressure against them causes the lock to seal so no water is lost. No ship can transit without a pilot from the Canal Authority aboard. No exceptions are made as to size, crew, type of ship or cargo etc., every ship must carry a canal pilot. We came alongside one of the Canal boats, slowed to a crawl and allowed our pilot to board. The fellow’s name was Felix, and he accompanied our boat to the final lock at Gatun. Each lock uses 52 million gallons of water, all from Lake Gatun, and all of it fresh water for each fill. For this reason ships are carefully scheduled into the locks. For example, our tour boat shared the locks with five other vessels, to maximize the use of the lock, and to decrease time of transit for each boat. It’s not unusual for ships to wait for passage for up to ten days, though the average wait is three days. The Panama Canal Authority employs roughly 5,000 full time employees, and an additional 8,000 part timers, and it operates 24/7/365. The Canal delivers nearly 1.5 Billion dollars into the Panamanian economy yearly, partly for those employees salaries, partly to fund infrastructure and educational efforts in Panama. The cost of transit?

On the left, a car carrier. On the right, a container ship.

The car carrier above can transport as many as 5,000 vehicles. Typical cost to transit the canal for a vessel like this is upward of $500,000 dollars. The container ship on the right, seen exiting the new Super Panamax lock adjacent to Miraflores, will typically be charged more than half a million dollars as well. The fee is based on weight, length, type of cargo and equipment needed for the transit. Every Supermax ship, for example, requires a tug at both ends to navigate each lock at a cost of $3,000 per hour per tug, times the two new Supermax locks. Time from ocean to ocean is typically 12 hours. Because of the length of the vessel, Supermax ships require two canal pilots, one forward, one aft. All boats transit the canal under their own power, with tugs and mules simply keeping them centered. To date, the biggest check written to the Canal Authority which administers the Canal was $840,000 for the transit of a Super Panamax ship in 2015. The lowest charge ever for a transit was 36 cents paid by a fellow named Richard Halliburton who weighed in at 150 pounds, and swam the length of the canal in 1928.

1-A canal worker at Miraflores, 2-Each lock uses 52 million gallons per operation, 3-Tugs must be used fore and aft for the new Super Panamax ships.

More later in part 2 of our Panama Canal post. Read about the men and women who built it, operate it and rely on it every day and more amazing facts about the world’s best shortcut. Thanks for reading.

Hasta Luego 2016

Last Boquete sunset of 2016

One more trip around the sun, so always a great time to reflect and consider. The Romans gave us January, named for Janus, their god who looked both directions. Here’s what Janus might have rendered about the year just past:

On the good side—we saw The Chicago Cubs break a 108 year dry spell to take it all in The Fall Classic. As life-long Cubbie fans, we were pretty darned excited, especially since we were able to witness the final outs of game seven at O’Hare International. The concourse was alive, and in total chaos. Even White Sox fans were elated.

108 years is long enough!

(Photo Matt Slocum/AP)

Our LGBT friends & neighbors saw major strides this year yet again, as several countries abandoned long-held oppressive laws and restrictions on their freedom to be who they are. Italy became the last European country to bar LGBT people from civil marriage.

Simone winning…everything
Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP-Getty Images

Simone Biles stole many hearts and many medals at Rio, four golds and a bronze for the 19 year old phenom, arguably the greatest gymnast who ever lived. Happy 2017, Ms Biles, and thanks for the thrills!

Hamilton Smashed every record

(Photo: Evan Agostini/Invision via AP)

Pandas bounce back

(Photo: Reuters)

Other good happenings in 2016: The giant panda is no longer threatened; Hamilton is setting records on B’way; the U.S. and Cuba are on course for a much better relationship; women made political history as California Attorney General Kamala Harris became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate; Ilhan Omar first Somali-American lawmaker in the U.S; Catherine Cortez Masto first Latina senator in Nevada; and Pramila Jayapal the first Indian-American congresswoman in Washington state. Our large neighbor to the south gave us astonishing news. After 52 years of constant bloodshed and terror, Peace at long last may be arriving in Colombia after the government and the FARC met and came to terms. Felicidades, Colombianos!

A fragile but awesomely beautiful airplane named Solar Impulse circumnavigated the earth–without hydrocarbon fuel. Using only solar energy, Bertrand Piccard pilotd Solar Impulse around the globe to bring attention to alternative sources of energy. Bon travail, monsieur Piccard!

Fuegos artificiales Boquete 2016/17

Panamanians love their fuegos artificiales, regardless of the holiday and/or occasion. These were right outside our window, and waaaaay loud!

Fireworks of London: Welcome 2017!

You’re wondering about the bad news from 2016? I’ll let some other blogger post that, hope yours was not too disappointing. Prospero ano nuevo everyone, and here’s hoping 2017 is an awesome year for everyone.