The Panama Canal Back Story

I think most people, even those who don’t care about history, have some idea that the Panama Canal is an amazing feat of engineering. I hope they know that the Panama Canal is widely regarded as one of the wonders of the modern world.  Most probably don’t know, however, why these statements are true.   Here are just a few fascinating details about the Panama Canal.

Prior to the completion of the Panama Canal, goods were shipped from New York to California around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. It was a long, dangerous journey and a shortcut across Panama connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans would shave off 8,000 nautical miles saving both time and money. (Completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 offered another transport option but that’s a story for another day.)

Expeditions to find or create a waterway across the isthmus of Panama are recorded as early as the 16th century when Vasco Nunez de Balboa explored the area for Spain. It was the French, however, that initiated a project in 1881 under the leadership of engineer and developer, Ferdinand de Lesseps. He previously had completed the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1869, after 10 years of construction at a cost of $100 million so he mistakenly thought a canal across Panama would be similar in effort and equally lucrative to investors. The Suez Canal, however, is a 100 mile pathway at sea level which was impossible to re-create across the 50 mile isthmus of Panama due to entirely different conditions.

“Apart from wars, it represented the largest, most costly single effort ever before mounted anywhere on earth,” wrote David McCullough, in his award-winning book about the Panama Canal, The Path Between the Seas.  Between 1881 and 1888, French investors spent over $280 million before the project went bankrupt.  The United States purchased the rights to the project in 1902 and spent another $375 million from 1904 until the project was completed in 1914.

The French plan called for a canal built at sea level which required monumental excavation through tropical jungle and mountainous terrain.  Due to heavy rainfall feeding waterlogged ground and the wild and treacherous Chagres River, excavation efforts repeatedly resulted in massive mudslides. Too late in the project but finally accepting that a sea level canal was impossible, de Lesseps conceded the need to use a system of locks to reduce the amount of earth to be moved. Thirty million cubic yards of earth were excavated in the French project which was a fraction of the total amount that would be moved.

In addition, tropical diseases decimated the workforce. By the time the French project failed, the death toll stood at 20,000 from malaria, yellow fever, or accidents. This is likely a gross underestimate, however, because deaths that occurred outside the hospital weren’t counted.

President Theodore Roosevelt initiated the American canal project and he is often credited with its construction but work actually continued throughout the term of President William Howard Taft and the canal was completed during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. When Colombia didn’t agree to the terms offered by the United States, U.S. gun-boat diplomacy ensured the success of Panama’s bloodless revolution to establish their independence from Colombia. Better terms followed. The U.S. obtained a 10 mile wide strip of land across Panama for a canal for a one-time payment of $10 million and $250,000 annually.

The American plan eventually called for a system of locks to raise ships to the level of man-made Lake Gatun at 85 feet above sea level, which was created by damming the Chagres River.  After crossing the lake, ships would pass through another set of locks to return to sea level in the other ocean. Beginning in 1904, the American experience was similar to that of the French but the tide finally turned when John Stevens was appointed chief engineer in 1905.  With better planning, a repaired railroad, more effective equipment, and improved sanitation (to decrease the mosquito population), the project finally took off. Over 238 million cubic yards of earth were moved and more than 5,000 workers died in the American project. It opened in 1914 on schedule and under budget. In 1999, the United States transferred control of the Panama Canal to Panama.

Today, the canal operates as it did when it was built and it is completely self-sufficient.  Three dams produce electricity and the tremendous rainfall replenishes the 52 million gallons of water expended in each transit. There are two tracks through the locks allowing 2 ships to transit the locks at the same time.  Water fills the locks by use of gravity while locomotives, called mules, actually tow the ships through the locks. It takes 8-10 hours to transit the entire canal including locks at each end and Gatun Lake in between.  Currently, over 13,000 transits occur annually producing revenue of $1.8 billion. The cost per transit varies by tonnage and number of passengers but a cruise ship, for example, pays around $300,000 to transit the Panama Canal. Curiously, it seems like you should be going east when transiting the Panama Canal from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. In actuality, you are headed northwest as the map below shows.

Miraflores Locks

Miraflores Locks

Gates closing on the lock

Gates closing on the lock

Workers walking across the gate of the lock when it's closed

Workers walking across the gate of the lock when it’s closed

Container ship in the lock next to us with "mules" to the right of the ship  on the track

Container ship in the lock next to us with “mules” to the right of the ship on the track

Terracing on the Calebra Cut

Terracing on the Calebra Cut

Man-made Gatun Lake, Panama Canal

Man-made Gatun Lake created by dam on the Chagres River

The Panama Canal expansion project began in 2007 and is currently over 80% completed. Another set of locks is under construction that will double capacity and accommodate new and larger ships. In addition, dredging will improve the navigational channels.

View of Panama Canal Expansion Project

View of Panama Canal Expansion Project

Dredging to improve channel navigation

Dredging to improve channel navigation

Everyone I’ve talked to that has taken a cruise through the Panama Canal cites it as their best cruise ever.  With so many endorsements, we simply had to do it and we thought the centennial year would be the perfect time.  Our friends, Lori and Rick, also wanted to do this trip so off we went. The day before we arrived at the Panama Canal, the Norwegian Star showed the PBS NOVA documentary, A Man, A Plan, A Canal–Panama, narrated by David Mccullough. After learning so much about the history, we were all excited and up at dawn when we arrived at the Panama Canal. In all honesty, I’ve seen locks before so this was not totally new to me.  After the first lock, I’d seen enough and it was kind of like watching paint dry thereafter. (In fairness, I must say my husband vehemently disagrees with this statement.) The back story, however, is fascinating to me and I hope you think so, too.

Categories: History, Travel | Tags: , | 6 Comments

Quarantine on the Norwegian Star

This was not my first time getting sick on a cruise ship. In 2007, I got seasick my first day at sea and had to leave the dining room and go to bed just as my lobster tail arrived. Jim dutifully stayed behind to consume my portion. Fortunately, I got a patch from a friend and within 24 hours I was fine. In 2011, I came down with an abscessed tooth in Barcelona, Spain, before boarding the ship for a Mediterranean cruise which resulted in my first trip to the medical department on board for an antibiotic and pain medication. The experience cost around $250 since neither medical or dental insurance would cover it as it was a dental event and I saw a medical doctor because there wasn’t a dentist on board.

This time I came down with gastroenteritis. I’ll spare you the details of my symptoms because you really don’t want to know. (Trust me on this.) I will tell you, however, that I am a constant hand washer while on a cruise ship. In addition, ship staff, standing sentinel outside every restaurant onboard, proclaim, “Washy, washy” while they spray passenger hands with antibacterial sanitizer and I am always cooperative. I assume I must have touched something that was contaminated and then touched my mouth without washy washy in between which allowed me to contract this scourge. Or maybe I ate or drank something off the ship in Mexico that contained the organism that took me down.

I waited to report my illness thinking and hoping it would pass.  My symptoms started about 10 am and by 4 pm I was still getting worse rather than better and finally decided it was time to seek medical attention. The nurse asked a number of questions before the doctor examined me, including whether I had used any of the public restrooms. I now have an idea how the doctor who rode the subway and went to a bowling alley before he showed symptoms of Ebola must have felt. Believe me, I felt like a pariah when they dispatched a team to sanitize the public bathroom after I confessed to using it.

The paperwork that had to be completed in the medical department was voluminous. My husband, who takes paperwork very seriously, interrogated me as I lay in the intensive care room of the sick bay. Jim recorded my every movement on and off the ship and every morsel of food that went into my mouth. Fortunately, I’m a creature of habit and follow pretty much the same routine in both food and movement (no pun intended) so even in my delirium I was able to recreate my previous 4 days fairly accurately. (The word delirium is an exaggeration but when someone is badgering me when I’m VERY sick, some degree of hyperbole should be allowed.)

The worst part is that I missed the second most important event of the cruise. Obviously, the most important thing on a Panama Canal cruise is seeing the Panama Canal. The only excursion we signed up for, however, was the aerial tram and zip line through the rain forest in Costa Rica. I’ve always said I don’t have a bucket list because if I want to do something, I get right on it. But if I had a bucket list, the one thing that would be on it is zip lining. As a recovering acrophobe, this is something I think I can now do with a high level of enjoyment. Another excursion option was the swinging bridge but I didn’t think I could handle height combined with swaying on a rope bridge.

I ended up being quarantined in my room for 24 hours upon discharge from sick bay that evening and the only view from my window was of another ship rather than Costa Rica.  The meds I got from the doctor worked quickly and I felt much better the next morning so I called the medical department to see if I could be released early to go on the excursion but they said 4 pm was the earliest I could leave my room. Meanwhile, my husband and my friend were living my dream. Lori wasn’t originally sure she really wanted to zip line but she was game to join us. Jim had no hesitation at all. Rick recently had shoulder surgery so he declined early on. So, off Jim and Lori went while I stayed behind feeling sorry for myself.

I also missed a meet-up with friends who were in this port on the ship my window faced. We’d met a couple from Kentucky while we were in South Africa in February, 2014 and discovered we would be on cruise ships going opposite directions with a common stop in Puntarenas, Costa Rica. We planned to meet up after our zip lining excursion, hopefully around 4 pm. The doctor called to check on me in the morning and said I was quarantined until 5 pm.  NOoooo!  Passengers had to be back on board at 4:30 for our departure. I explained my plan to meet friends on the other ship with no way to communicate and begged for an early release. The doctor agreed to call back at 3 pm to reassess my situation.

At 3:00, the doctor called to explain that I couldn’t get off the ship at all because it would expose the other ship to gastroenteritis. They would call at 5 pm to release me after we set sail. I had to remain in quarantine which was a bitter pill to swallow… although totally understandable.

When the doctor called soon after 5 and asked, “Have you been waiting by the phone?,” I replied, “Wherever I go in my room, I’m by the phone.”  She released me.   I checked with my sources on the ship that evening and learned there were 13 other people on board with gastroenteritis.

If you’re interested in the numbers of GI illnesses reported on cruise ships, the CDC tracks this data and you can find it here. Have you been on a cruise ship hit by gastroenteritis or norovirus?  Have you personally had either one?  If so, please share your story in comments.

For your enjoyment, I’m including some of Lori and Jim’s photos from the aerial tram and zip lining.

Zip lining, Costa Rica, 2014

Lori ready to zip line. Jim’s finger in the photo illustrates why I’m normally the photographer.



Zip line, 11/2014

Jim ready to zip line

Costa Rica, 11/2014

Lori, zip lining

Zip lining, 11/2014

Jim zip lining, Costa Rica

Costa Rica Rain Forest, 2014

Jim, zip lining in the rain forest


Categories: cruise, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 8 Comments

Margaritas, Chips, Pico de Gallo, and WIFI in Mexico

After a stop on Medano Beach in Cabo San Lucas at a place called the Office for margaritas and chips with pico de gallo and wi-fi, we decided it would be fun to try these items at each port in Mexico.  Then we would compare each stop and pick our favorites.

Cabo is beautiful and I would absolutely return there.  All items in our test passed with flying colors and became the standard we used compare offerings on our future stops.  Our table on the beach at the Office provided amazing views of the water with a relaxing vibe.  Although they are still cleaning up from the recent hurricane, we didn’t see a lot of damage but then we hadn’t been there before Hurricane Odile.

Our next port was Puerto Vallarta. The margaritas seemed a little low on alcohol and the wi-fi didn’t work at all at the restaurant where we stopped. We thoroughly enjoyed our walk along the renovated mile-long Malecon (boardwalk) in Old Town taking pictures of many of the incredible sculptures and watching the colorful aerial show of the Voladores de Papantla.  Accompanied by a flutist playing at the top of the 50 foot pole, the four flyers representing earth, water, fire, and air, fall head first from and circle the pole 13 times before reaching the ground in a religious ritual dating back 1500 years (Puerto Vallarta Official Website).  After our visit to Old Town including Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, we stopped at Starbucks right on the central square to use their excellent wi-fi, then took the local bus back to the cruise port.  I’m ashamed to admit we also popped into the Wal-Mart by the cruise port for some supplies.

After a day at sea, we arrived in Huatulco, my favorite of the Mexican ports on this itinerary. The beach is located directly next to the dock for cruise ships with restaurants lining the beach. This time we knew to try the wi-fi before ordering anything and then we all settled in to catch up on email and Facebook. We quickly discovered that the wi-fi was intermittent and very slow so frustration ensued. After our margaritas, we checked out the beach, determined to get into the Pacific Ocean at least once.  The water was comfortable but the sun on the beach was so intensely hot that common sense soon prevailed sending all of us in search of shade.

The following day, we arrived in Puerto Chiapas to learn that the city of Tapachula was 45 minutes by shuttle with no wi-fi until we got there. Off we went to Tapachula in search of Mexican culture to accompany our margaritas, chips with pico de gallo, and wi-fi. A city of over 300,000 inhabitants, I’m sorry to report that not much about Tapachula impressed me.  The wi-fi was again unreliable; the restaurant were we stopped didn’t serve margaritas; the city was crowded, loud, and dirty; and the next day I had gastroenteritis. Enough said.

When we got back to the port at Puerto Chiapas, we were surprised to discover a restaurant with good margaritas, chips and pico de gallo, and although there was no wi-fi, there was good music with a performance by local dancers and even a swimming pool.  Had we known, we’d have stayed right there and not ventured into Tapachula at all.

Hands down, the voting members of our group agreed that we had the best margaritas in Cabo San Lucas.  The best wi-fi was, without a doubt, at Starbucks in Puerto Vallarta.  First place for chips and pico de gallo goes to the restaurant at Huatulco.  Puerto Chiapas didn’t get first place in any category but if we had included entertainment as a category, I think we would all agree the local dancers were outstanding.

Next time:  Quarantine!



Categories: Mexico, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

High Seas Adventure at Cabo San Lucas

When we boarded the boat and noted the boat operator had the cover off the outboard motor, we should have expected adventure. In fact, Jim commented that it wasn’t a good sign. A fisherman with some experience with motor problems, it was an omen to him.

Instead of taking the cruise line’s excursion to Land’s End for 1 hour at a cost of $29 per person, we hired one of the water taxis on the dock for $20 each when we got off our tender at Cabo.  We were joined by our friends, Lori and Rick, and a mother and her adult daughter from our cruise ship.  (We later found out the mother and daughter negotiated a $15 rate.)  This is billed as a glass bottom boat tour but that’s a bit of a stretch.  The boat would seat 12 persons at most and the glass bottom is a glass insert on the floor of the boat providing a murky view at best.  We donned well-worn, somewhat grungy life vests and away we went.

Located at the end of the Baja Peninsula where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean, the rock formations found off the coast of Mexico at Cabo San Lucas are collectively called Land’s End. It’s a short boat ride and the photo opportunities were excellent.  The boat operator kept up a steady description of the area although some of his English was difficult to understand over the competing motor noise.  We saw the iconic landmark, El Arco (The Arch); caves in the rocks, and Lover’s Beach in the bay while hearing that Divorce Beach is located through the rocks on the Pacific side.  We even spied Pedro, the sea lion of youtube fame who was captured on film stealing a fish.

Land's End

Land’s End, Cabo San Lucas

The Arch

The Arch, Land’s End, Cabo

Lover's Beach

Lover’s Beach, Cabo San Lucas

The Arch

The Arch, Land’s End

Pacific Ocean, Land's End

Land’s End from the Pacific Side

Land's End

Opening in the rocks from the Sea of Cortez to the Pacific Ocean


Pedro, the Sea Lion

Pedro, the Sea Lion

As we reached the other side of the outcropping, where the bay meets the Pacific Ocean, the engine died. The water was considerably rougher out in the open ocean and the operator pulled the the cord repeatedly to start the engine as the bigger waves bounced us farther away from the coast.  The motor fired then died, fired, then died again, about five or six times.

boat, Land's End

Our boat operator trying to start motor, note orange rubber glove

This is when the adult daughter began to hyperventilate, indicating a panic attack. I sort of expected it. When I saw her put on orange rubber gloves earlier in the trip, I thought she might have some issues. Her mother tried to comfort her and the others of us weren’t sure whether we should ignore the situation to give her privacy or add our two cents worth. I finally said, “With all these boats out here any one of them can tow us in.” Sure enough, the operator used his cell phone, called someone, and another boat approached. Of course, about that time, the engine fired and finally stayed running so a tow was no longer needed.

All’s well that ends well, but it was, nevertheless, an adventure worth recording. The juxtaposition of feeling very vulnerable on a small boat compared to the security we felt on our huge cruise ship merits contemplation. Then when I compared these experiences with the events I was currently reading in the book, Unbroken, in which three airmen from a B24 crashed into the Pacific during WW2,  surviving for 47 days in a 2 man rubber raft with no food or water while surrounded by sharks, it gave me additional pause for thought.  Like, thank goodness for cell phones.

Categories: Mexico, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Packing for a 2 week cruise

Seriously, I can’t believe what fits into a 22 x 14 x 9 carry on suitcase.  For a 2 week cruise through the Panama canal, this is what I packed.

10 tops

10 tops

3 hats

3 hats

2 swim suits, 1 cover up

2 swim suits, 1 cover up

2 dresses, 1 skirt, 1 pair leggings

2 dresses, 1 skirt, 1 pair leggings

2 sets workout clothes

2 sets workout clothes

3 sweaters, wind jacket

3 sweaters, 1 wind jacket

3 shorts, zip off pants, skort

3 shorts, 1 zip off pants, 1 skort

5 pairs shoes

5 pairs shoes

So how does all of this fit in a 22X 14 X 9 suitcase?  2 tips: select lightweight, super thin garments (except for the denim shorts) and roll everything. Rolled items can fit into nooks and crannies in the suitcase and rolling minimizes wrinkling as well.

rolled clothes

rolled clothes in my suitcase

I also have 8 panties, 2 bras. 2 light scarves, and 4 pairs of socks tucked in here.  I plan to wash underwear at some point and there’s a line in the shower on most cruise ships to hang them. (TMI?) Make sure anything you plan to wash is lightweight and dries quickly.  Honestly, this is WAY more than I normally take on any trip of any length. Ordinarily, I would take half this much.  On a cruise, however, you don’t have to keep carting your stuff around. You board the ship and your bags stay put for the duration. It’s also dressier than most of our travels. We dress for dinner and a 2 week cruise includes a lot of dinners. Because all my clothes essentially mix and match, I have nearly limitless combinations.

In my personal item which is a lightweight back pack, I have:

1 ipad + keyboard

1 kindle

1 small purse

bag of toiletries

bag of meds

empty water bottle

deflated blow up neck pillow

Additional advice:  wear your heaviest and bulkiest items.  I’m wearing yoga pants, shirt, jacket, scarf, and tennis shoes on the plane.  I often get chilly while flying and it’s good to dress in layers so you can put on and take off clothes as needed in flight.

Happy Cruising!





Categories: Travel, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Cruising from the Port of Los Angeles

We always arrive a day early for a cruise departure, just to ensure that we have extra time in case of travel delays. This was our first departure from the Port of Los Angeles and we wanted a hotel near the cruise port with a shuttle to deliver us to the port. If you need a hotel, I suggest you book it when you book your cruise. I waited for several months after booking our cruise and the hotel I wanted was full so I settled on the Hilton Doubletree in San Pedro, as my second choice. I also arranged a deal with a breakfast buffet so we wouldn’t arrive hungry (don’t ask me why!) to our cruise ship, the Norwegian Star, for our 14 day cruise through the Panama Canal.

With an early flight out of Des Moines, Iowa, and a two-hour time change to the earlier, we arrived by 9 AM in California at LAX. The taxi ride early on a Sunday morning to San Pedro took only about 40 minutes with little traffic. Our hotel rooms weren’t available yet so we left our bags there and took the hotel shuttle to downtown San Pedro. Not a lot was going so early but we stopped by the visitor’s center which was open, surprisingly, and with advice from a helpful staff person, quickly decided that a foursome from Iowa should check out the Battleship Iowa at the LA Waterfront.

Jim and I toured this ship in Norfolk, Virginia, back in the 80’s before it was decommissioned but we were game to see it again. We were delighted to discover that Iowa residents can now tour the ship for free because the State of Iowa contributed funds for its refurbishment and preservation.

Iowa Battleship

Iowa Battleship, San Pedro, CA

Iowa Battleship

Iowa Battleship Admission Prices

Recognition Plaque

Plaque Recognizing Contribution of the State of Iowa

The Big Stick (the Iowa’s nickname) was launched in 1942 as the lead ship of four ships in the Iowa class of battleships. The others are the Wisconsin, the Missouri, and the New Jersey. If Jim had a blog, he would tell you all about the 16 inch guns on the ship and other details that you may find fascinating about battle ships in general and the Iowa class specifically.

!6 inch guns on Iowa Battleship

Rick, Lori, and Jim in front of the 16 inch guns on the Battleship Iowa

I, however, prefer social history over military history. To me, the most interesting part of the ship was a tour of the rooms used by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt while in transit to Tehran for the conference with Churchill and Stalin to plan the D-Day invasion of WWII. Doors had to be widened to accommodate FDR’s wheelchair; a kitchen was installed for his personal meal preparation; and the only bathtub on any ship in the fleet was installed for the President’s daily soak.

FDR's Rooms on the Iowa

Rooms Used by President FD Roosevelt While Aboard the Iowa

Volunteer aboard the Iowa Battleship

Volunteer Telling about President Roosevelt’s Journey to Africa on the Iowa

Another interesting tidbit involved the ship’s mascot, a dog called Vicky, short for Victory. The captain’s dog occasionally went AWOL from the ship but always seemed to turn up in time to set sail. One time she went missing in Long Beach, CA, and a call went out in the newspaper to help find her. Apparently it worked because a later report indicated she was back on board.

Mascot Vicky

Ship Mascot, Victory, during WW2

The walk along the waterfront in San Pedro is pleasant with a shopping area and locally significant sculptures to experience.

Jacob's Ladder

Statue of 2 Merchant Marines climbing a Jacob’s Ladder after a rescue at sea

Harry Bridges

Statue of Harry Bridges in San Pedro, CA, founder of International Longshore and Warehouse Union

Fishing Industry Memorial, San Pedro, CA

Fishing Industry Memorial, San Pedro, CA

Before heading back to the hotel, we ducked into The Whale and Ale, a local pub also recommended at the tourist information, for a late lunch. The owner was authentically British judging by his accent and the quality of the food was definitely above typical pub fare. We were all satisfied and ready to return to the hotel.

Local Pub, The Whale and Ale

Local Pub, The Whale and Ale, in San Pedro, CA

The Doubletree by Hilton is in a great location for cruising from the Port of Los Angeles. Overlooking the marina, the hotel is attractive and comfortable with a great breakfast. Our room was upgraded unbeknownst to us and we had a patio with a view of the marina. Some of the staff were a little wanting but most were topnotch. The carpet in the halls and stairways begs for replacement but overall, I would give this hotel high marks. The area is attractive with a long pedestrian walkway along the marina and my friend, Lori, and I felt quite safe walking without the men.

Hilton Doubletree, San Pedro, CA

View from our room to our patio at the Hilton Doubletree, San Pedro, CA

Hilton Doubletree, San Pedro, CA

Hilton Doubletree Pool and Hot Tub

Hilton Doubletree, San Pedro, CA

Pedestrian Walkway in front of the Hilton Doubletree

San Pedro, CA

Vestiges of Halloween at the Marina, San Pedro, CA


The following day we were delivered promptly to the cruise port to begin our adventure through the Panama Canal with stops in Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Huatulco, and Puerto Chiapas, Mexico; Costa Rica; and Columbia; ending in Miami.


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Sirens of the Lambs

The plan was to rendezvous in Athens, Greece, with our son, Michael, who was then living in Belgrade, Serbia, and travel together to Santorini for a family vacation.  As the saying goes, the best laid plans…  My version is one (worried mother’s) story and my husband who stayed behind to wait for Michael in Athens while Brian, Abi, and I went ahead to Santorini has another version, and Michael himself has yet another tale.  They are all true.

This is Michael’s story, written by him as my guest writer this week.

Sirens of the Lambs 

It started sweetly enough like a siren song, when I’d been told by this blog’s author that I would fly to Athens in order to meet up with the family. It sounded good.

In a roundabout way, it ended more or less as planned.

I just hadn’t planned on the way round.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in April, 2013, I made my way with incredibly limited funds on a bus to Belgrade, Serbia’s Nikola Tesla Airport, where I was told my scheduled flight wouldn’t depart until the following day. While Nikola Tesla defined technology for his era, the airport that bears his name is far from “current”, so I had to take the agonizingly slow bus back into town and log onto the internet to inform the author that I would not be arriving in Athens that day.

On Sunday, I went back to the airport, my funds now three airport trips lower.

As a general rule, I usually avoid male police officers, but due to the cosmic alignment, I had no choice at airport customs that day.  He was young, fresh, and not bored by years of airport tedium.  Additionally, not another soul had queued up behind me.


He questioned me in Serbian; I replied in a confused fashion in English, feigning ignorance in spite of my Serbian fluency. My charade didn’t work because the date stamps in my passport didn’t add up to a legal duration (since the standard visa-stamp covers only a 90-day stay and I was overdue to leave Serbia).

I was told I might go to Greece, just not today.

Instead, I would take a merry ride through the Serbian legal system.

Taken from customs to the police station in the airport, I was sent along to the Ministry of Justice, where I was placed in jail to await my judgment.

There, I remembered just days before I had thought that by this time I’d be enjoying succulent lamb and Mythos beer in Greece with my family but I was being summoned before a Ministry of Justice judge instead. At least it sounded important.

The judge was relieved that a court interpreter wasn’t necessary, so she told the clerk most of what I said, which the clerk dutifully wrote, even if those words never actually passed my lips. When it came time to pay, the judge told me a number, I went lower, she found a nice in between, plus the court tax, and I was off again, making my way around Belgrade to a. find a currency exchange, b. pay my fines at a post office, c. return to the Ministry with proof of payment, and finally, d. to get a document from the police responsible for vagabond foreigners. Needless to say, the sun hung low when I finally cracked open my laptop to inform the author that I wouldn’t be in Greece that day either.

At least the police had been nice enough to drive me from the airport to jail, so with my fines deducted from the scant cash remaining on my person, I was just able to pay for one more bus ride the next morning. As the bus inched down the highway, my fury began rising like bile in a spinning bed after a hard night of Ouzo.

But, it was going to get worse before it got better. The barely competent-to-dress-themselves folks at the check-in counter had no clue when the flight for Athens would depart.

Three days straight, numerous problems, and here I was, living my own personal Groundhog Day at Nikola Tesla Airport.

My eyes burned holes into the clock as I stared at it, hoping my gaze could slow time. They finally let us go just a hair late, which, upon my arrival in Athens gave me 10 minutes to sprint through the entire airport, swimming upstream past luggage-laden grannies to find my father and our flight to Santorini, where we would finally rendezvous with the rest of the family, and, where I should have been several bizarre days earlier.

The author, Michael, in Oia, Santorini, April, 2013

The author, Michael, in Oia, Santorini, April, 2013


Categories: Greece, Serbia, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

Greek Food. Opa!

When I think of Greek food, the first thing that comes to mind is olives.  According to Greek mythology, the goddess, Athena, gave the olive tree to the Greeks.  In a competition with Athena for the position of patron god of the city, Poseidon, God of the Sea, threw his trident creating a river where it struck the earth, but the water was too salty to be useable.  Athena gave the people the olive tree which provided the people with olives, olive oil, and wood.  The people chose Athena as their patron and named their city Athens.

Olive trees

Olive trees in Athens

Today, Greece is one of the leading producers of olives.  A young Greek told me that since their entry into the European Union, many Greek olives are shipped to Italy where they are labeled as Italian products for export.  I don’t know whether or not that’s a “new Greek myth” but it was an interesting story.

If you’re a cheese lover, you can’t help but associate feta cheese with Greece.  Apparently, there is controversy within the European Union over this product, too.  The Greeks prevailed on the issue and obtained a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) from the EU which essentially requires that cheese produced in the EU outside of Greece cannot be called feta.  If you’re interested, you can read more about “The Feta Cheese Dispute” here (Peluso, 2005).  The restriction does not apply outside the EU, however, so if you’re buying feta cheese in the US, look for a product made in Greece.  If it’s produced in the US, it’s likely made from cow’s milk rather than sheep’s milk and not nearly as tasty.

With olives and feta we’re well on our way to a Greek salad and lots of other Greek dishes, too.  What I especially love about a Greek salad in Greece is that there’s no lettuce, just tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, olives, feta, olive oil, oregano, and sometimes green peppers.  Yum!

Greek Salad

Greek Salad

On the other hand, I was never a fan of lamb. When I was a child and we had it at Easter, I think it was the mint jelly that I especially disliked.  As an adult, I prepared lamb one year for Easter and even the dog wouldn’t come into the house.  As you can imagine, I was hesitant to try it in Greece but I did and I’m happy to report I loved it.

Roast Lamb

Lamb roasting on a spit in the Plaka

We found several restaurants in Athens where we particularly enjoyed lamb as well as other Greek dishes.  Our favorite restaurant, Taverna Karavitis, sold lamb by the kilo and when you’re traveling with my family, that’s definitely the way to go.

Lamb by the kilo at Karavitis Taverna

Lamb by the kilo at Karavitis Taverna

We sat in the garden on a warm evening and enjoyed the house wine with our Greek salad, bread, tzatziki (cucumber yogurt dip), tirokafteri (spicy cheese dip), Keftedes (fried meatballs), and grilled lamb.  As my son commented, it was an epic experience.

Garden at Karavitis Taverna, Athens, Greece

Garden at Karavitis Taverna, Athens, Greece

Another favorite restaurant is located directly behind the new Acropolis Museum.  To Kati Allo is a small family run operation with food prepared right before your eyes.  We struck up a conversation with our waitress and learned she’s an American who met the son of the owners while studying in Athens, married him, and is still there raising a family and working in the restaurant.

To Kati Allo

To Kati Allo Restaurant


My fish on the grill at To Kati Allo

To Kati Allo

To Kati Allo Restaurant

Along the pedestrian walkway of Makrygianni Street, you’ll find many restaurants that cater to the constant foot traffic of tourists to and from the Acropolis metro station.  The outdoor seating is especially pleasant on warm evenings.  We had some very tasty dishes at God’s Restaurant, which is recommended by Rick Steves, according to their sign.

Restaurant on Makrigiani

God’s Restaurant on Makrygianni

Mixed grilled meat

Mixed grilled meat with tzatziki

Lamb chops

Lamb Chops


Dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves with lemon sauce)

There are many other good basic restaurants as well as fine dining establishments in Athens.  Strofi Restaurant was close to our hotel with a terrific view of the Acropolis from the rooftop dining area.  We had an excellent meal but I somehow neglected to get photos.  In the Plaka, a charming old neighborhood at the foot of the Acropolis, you’ll find lots of eateries but keep in mind you’re paying for location here in addition to the quality of the food.  If you want take-out, opportunities abound.  Be sure to stop somewhere for souvlaki, grilled chunks of meat on a stick, the Greek version of fast food.  (I’ll cover our favorite place for souvlaki in a later post about Santorini.)  Whether you prefer to wander and pick a place that appeals to you or do your research ahead of time, you’ll find plenty of delicious Greek food in Athens.  Opa!


Based on events from April, 2013



Peluso, M. (2005). The Feta Cheese Dispute, Issues of Regional Identification Involving EU Regulations and “National” Brands of Food. Retrieved from

Categories: Greece, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Still More in Athens, Greece

I’d be content visiting Athens if it offered no more than the Acropolis and the new Acropolis Museum but it actually offers the visitor so much more.  There are additional ancient sites, both Greek and Roman, world-class museums, inviting green spaces, interesting neighborhoods, great shopping, and outstanding restaurants.  Here are a few of my favorites.

We particularly enjoyed several ancient sites within walking distance of the Acropolis and our hotel.  On the southern slopes of the Acropolis are two ancient amphitheaters, the Theatre of Dionysus, and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus.  The former was built during the 5th century BCE as the venue for festivals and performances of early Greek plays.  To my knowledge, it was still in use until the major renovation project began in 2010 which is slated for completion in 2015.

Odeon of Herodes Atticus

Odeon of Herodes Atticus

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a newer facility built by the Romans that opened in 161 AD.  Seating around 5,000 and restored in the 1950’s, it continues to be used for performances today, most notably during the Athens Festival beginning in the spring.

The Ancient Agora was the marketplace, the center of social, economic, and political life in ancient Athens where Socrates and his student, Plato, walked and discussed issues of the day.  There are many ruins in the Agora to explore while imagining what it was like to live in 6th century BCE Greece.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus must have been a colossal masterpiece judging by the remains.  Only 15 of the original 104 marble columns are standing today but they make quite an impression both from a distance and up close.  Note the fallen column between the two columns to the right and Hadrian’s Arch in the lower left area of the photo below.

Temple of Olympian Zeus

Temple of Olympian Zeus from the Acropolis

Temple of Olympian Zeus

Temple of Olympian Zeus

The nearby Arch of Hadrian, built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 131 AD, separated the Roman city from the ancient Greek area of Athens.  You can also see the Acropolis through the arch.

Hadrian's Arch

Hadrian’s Arch

On our first visit to Athens, we visited the National Archeological Museum of Athens.  Although it’s not within walking distance of the Acropolis area, it was well worth the bus ride to see one of the top archeological museums in the world if you have the time and the inclination.  Here are a few exhibits to whet your appetite.

We walked to the Panathenaic Stadium which is close to Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch.  A stadium has stood on this site since 330 BCE but more notably, this restored stadium was chosen to host the revived Olympic Games in 1896.  For the 2004 Olympic Games, it was the site of the archery competition and the finish line for the Marathon race.

Panathenaic Stadium

Panathenaic Stadium

There are also other sports facilities within this complex and son, Brian, and daughter-in-law, Abi, were welcome to work out there.  One of the local coaches even offered some advice.



We enjoyed a lovely and leisurely stroll through the National Garden on our way to

National Garden

National Garden, Athens

see the changing of the guard in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Parliament Building at Syntagma Square.  The traditional uniforms of the guards (Evzones) and the pageantry of the ceremony were particularly impressive.

Changing of the Guard

Changing of the Guard

Finally, we finished our tour with a little browsing through high-end shops near Syntagma Square, then a walk through the Plaka to stop at some souvenir shops on our way back to our hotel.

We enjoyed many other sights and neighborhoods while visiting Athens and I’m looking forward to repeat visits in the future to discover even more.


Next time: Our favorite Greek food in Athens.


Based of events of 2009 and 2013


Categories: Greece, History, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The New Acropolis Museum

The new Acropolis Museum beautifully showcases the treasures of the Acropolis with views of the citadel from the new location.   The old museum, situated on top of the Acropolis, displayed only a fraction of the artifacts but expansion was not an option in that space.   The new facility, with 14,000 square meters of exhibition space, now displays over 4,000 objects.  While I am not normally a fan of modern structures, this is an architectural masterpiece.  Built over an archeological site, construction of the museum was required to preserve the site below and incorporate it into the architecture of the museum.  Both goals were accomplished in an astonishing venue.

As you approach the entrance to the museum, below your feet you will see the archeological excavation through both an open area and glass floors.  As you enter the museum, the glass floor continues on the first level of the museum allowing the visitor to view ancient archeological remains.

Entrance to New Acropolis Museum

Notice the glass floor between the stairs and the open area where you can observe the work below

Entrance to New Acropolis Museum

Jim, Brian, and Abi at entrance to New Acropolis Museum with view of archeological dig below

Inside, the exhibits are arranged in the order they are naturally found.  As you enter on the main level you’ll see an incline to the second level.   This slope simulates the walk up the Acropolis and every day artifacts uncovered on the slopes are displayed here.

Everyday items found on the slopes of the Acropolis

Everyday items found on the slopes of the Acropolis and glass floor on the first level

The second level displays finds from the archaic period which preceded the building of the Parthenon, followed by a partial level that houses a coffee shop and terrace.

The fourth level contains the Parthenon Gallery, exhibiting marbles from the pediments, the frieze, and the metopes (meh’ toe pees).  On the photo below, the blue line points to the location of the pediments and the red line points to the metopes.  The  frieze would have been at the same level as the metopes but on the inside of the temple so not visible here.  Large sculptures depicting the birth of Athena from the head of her father, Zeus, and the battle of Athena and Poseidon over Attica were found on the two pediments (gables) on the east and west ends of the temple, respectively.  The frieze depicts a Panathenaic procession which was a festival celebrating Athena’s birthday.   Finally, the metopes are individual mythological scenes that were placed high on the outside of the temple just under the pediments.

Photo showing pediment is at the top with metopes underneath on the Parthenon

Blue line points to pediment and red line points to metopes at the top of the Parthenon

The photo below shows large sculptures from the pediments, the continuous frieze, and the individual metopes above the frieze.  They have been removed from the Parthenon and displayed for optimal viewing in the museum.

Parthenon Gallery

Brian ad Abi with the Parthenon marbles: pediment sculptures, frieze, and metopes

Parthenon Gallery

Jim viewing the Parthenon marbles with the Acropolis visible through the window

Leaving the Parthenon Gallery, the visitor is routed back to the second level where artifacts from the Propylaia, the Erechtheion with the Caryatids, and the temple of Athena Nike are displayed.

Items that were removed from the Acropolis over the years and not on display in the new Acropolis Museum are the subject of controversy. The most well-known of these controversies concerns the Elgin Marbles which are on display in the British Museum in London. At the risk of totally destroying my credibility, let me tell you about my first look at the Elgin Marbles. I’d read that they were one of the most famous exhibits housed in the British Museum and, although I was anxious to see them, I wondered what could be so special about some marbles. I mistakenly thought I was going to see half-inch diameter glass balls. Imagine my surprise when I saw the collection sculpted in marble which “includes sculptures from the Parthenon, roughly half of what now survives: 247 feet of the original 524 feet of frieze; 15 of 92 metopes; 17 figures from the pediments, and various other pieces of architecture. It also includes objects from other buildings on the Acropolis: the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike” (The British Museum). Oh.

So how did Lord Elgin come by the marbles and what’s the controversy? The Greek version is simply that they were looted from the Acropolis and should be returned to Greece for display at the new Acropolis Museum. The British version is that Thomas Bruce, Lord Elgin, saved the antiquities from destruction in the early 1800’s when he was British Ambassador to Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Mainland Greece was, at that time, part of the Ottoman Empire and mostly had been since 1456. The story goes that he was authorized by the Ottoman Empire to take antiquities and that he subsequently sold the marbles to the British government who then placed them in the British Museum (The British Museum).

The British long maintained that Greece didn’t have adequate facilities to protect or display the Elgin Marbles but that argument was effectively refuted with the opening of the new Acropolis Museum.  Today, you can tell where the missing pieces belong in the exhibit as they are replaced by noticeable bright white plaster reproductions.

Incidentally, artifacts from the Acropolis can be found in other locations outside Greece such as the Louvre in Paris.  But then there are Egyptian antiquities found all over the world, too, including some in Athens at the National Archeological Museum.

No agreement to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece has been reached to date.


Based on events from October, 2009 and April, 2013.



What are the Elgin Marbles? The British Museum.  Retrieved from




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