The Journey Begins...
Today is the day that I've been anticipating since I arrived in Costa Rica - the day I need to leave to renew my tourist visa. Indeed, it started early - up at 5:30 AM, a quick shower and breakfast, and then pick up my satchel, packed last night, and hike out to the road.
I got lucky - on the hike out, I met a fellow working at the construction site, who was hiking into work. He told me that the bus had not yet arrived and I might catch it, avoiding having to pay cab fare into San Ramon. Well, I arrived at the highway just as the bus was pulling up to the stop. I ran and caught it, and had the quick bus trip into town - distance, 7 kilometers, fare, 50 cents.
I got a cab to take me from the bus stop in town out to the bus stop on the highway, where I was to catch the bus to Managua. The bus to Managua was late in arriving. It finally arrived at 9:15 AM, and stopped for me as promised.
I was quite pleasantly surprised at the bus itself - air conditioned, modern and clean, and equipped with television and rest rooms. Not bad for a $20 fare! We proceeded at the usual 50 or 60 clicks per hour down th e hill from San Ramon, down to Esparza, a right turn at the Puntarenas junction, and we were headed across the Guanacaste plains to the Nicaragua border. Guanacaste was just beautiful - it always is at the end of the rainy season - green and lush, with plenty of patchwork farms interspersed with the large cattle ranches for which Guanacaste is famous. The landscape is reminiscent of east Texas - low, rolling hills with a savanna of large Guanacaste trees, the national tree of Costa Rica, and open grassy parkland in between.
We were served lunch - $2 for a dry ham and cheese sandwitch on white bread, with a coke - about half an hour after leaving Esparza. I wasn't terribly hungry, but I knew it would be a long trip before I arrived in Granada, and would get a chance at a decent meal. So I went ahead and bought lunch.
On we went, north through the seemingly endless plains of Guanacaste, through the provincial capital of Liberia, home to Costa Rica's only international airport outside San Jose. North, through Guanacaste National Park on one side of the highway, with Santa Rosa National Park on the other. Santa Rosa National Park was declared after the land it is on was confiscated from its American owner after he had allowed Oliver North to build a secret airstrip there and run guns to the Contras during the Nicaraguan Civil War - a brazen violation of the neutrality provisions of the Costa Rican constitution. Beauty on one side of the road, and beauty - and history - on the other.
We arrived at the border at about 2 PM. We were herded off of the bus, and given no instructions as to what to do, so I simply got in the same line as everyone else - which turned out to be the Costa Rica exit control. I got out my passport and handed it to the agent, along with my immigration declaration, he quickly stamped it and I was directed back to the bus which I got on - after changing about $150 into Cordobas, the Nicaraguan currency - at C$15 to the US dollar. Once on the bus, I checked my passport and the exit stamp appeared correct - half of the process completed.
Once on the Nicaraguan side of the border at the border plaza, it was back off the bus, and this time our passports were taken from us, and the entry tax - $10 - was collected. We were filed off of the bus and into a long line of people waiting to have their luggage inspected at Nicaraguan customs. When my turn came, it turns out that I didn't have the right form for a U.S. national - bus driver's mistake - and so I had to get the form from him, fill it out and get back in line. When my turn came again, the Nicaraguan customs agent simply took my form from me, without even looking at it, and sent me back to the bus to wait to get back on - didn't bother to check my luggage. After a half hour of milling about in the hot tropical sun, the bus driver finally appeared with our stack of passports. He called out each person in turn, gave them their passports and allowed them back on the bus. Once I had mine, I checked it to make sure it was right, and took my seat. Once everyone was on the bus, he closed the door, and we were off to Managua.
While waiting on the platform at the immigration plaza, I had met a young couple who were also headed to Nicaragua to renew their visas. He was from Chicago, and she was a Tica. I was informed by them that the bus wouldn't go through Granada as I'd been promised (they'd been promised the same thing), so they said we'd have to get off in a small village near Granada and take a cab from there. It was a relatively short trip, so I didn't think the cab fare would be horribly expensive and it wasn't - it turned out to be $6 for each of us for the 20 km. ride.
The drive through the Nicaraguan countryside is just beautiful. The route follows the shore of Lake Nicaragua, with views of two perfectly symmetrical volcanoes on the far shore. With the puffy cumulus clouds surrounding them, the near shore with its small villages, farms and ranches reaching to the shore line, it was a truly beautiful ride. After about an hour and a half, we arrived at our village, got off the bus and grabbed a cab for Granada, and in a half hour we were there.
Granada is not really a beautiful city. It's suffering from a certain amount of neglect, which is not surprising for a country as poor as Nicaragua. But interesting it certainly is. The architecture is unique - it is the oldest colonial city in Central America, founded in 1524 by the Spanish conquistador Cordoba, for whom the national currency is named. What is truly remarkable is that many of those buildings, built nearly five centuries ago, are not only surviving, but are still in use. And new buildings are being built in that same style, and it is quite possible to buy a colonial house if you'd like to live in one. The buildings are built of plastered adobe, several feet thick, and are built completely enclosing the city block. The building encloses a central courtyard, shared by the several owners of portions of the building.
The hotel where I stayed is in just such a portion of one of these buildings. The building itself was colonial and one of the older ones in town, which had been modified and remodeled many times in its history. The hotel took advantage of some of the colonial architecture, to which a lot of local hardwood planks and paneling had been added. It was beautiful in its day, but was a bit frayed around the edges. The price was right, though, at $25 per night, with air conditioning and cable TV, it was not a bad place. Old, but clean.
The hotel's architecture was interesting - built around the central courtyard, and each room's door opening into the courtyard. The courtyard featured two large coconut palms, and between them, a bridge-like affair had been built, to which a monkey was tied up. The monkey loves visitors, and seeks out visitors who would allow him to climb all over them, and give them big hugs. It was fun sitting on the porch next to the front desk, watching the monkey race up and down the palms, climbing onto the roof, hopping into the hibiscus bushes, and generally being incredibly active.
But I didn't stick around to watch the monkey - I walked downtown, and found a hostel with a good little restaurant, and had a wonderful dinner of fajitas and a smoothie - $5. A bit pricey by local standards, but the other restaurants in town that were open were even pricier, so I had dinner there anyway. A five-block walk back to the hotel, and I crashed. It had been a long day, and I was dead tired. Today is Halloween, and I was sure hoping that all the fireworks wouldn't keep me up. I needn't have worried - out like a light.
All Is Ready
I was up early this morning, having breakfast and doing my email to be ready for an early trip to the Internet cafe. My Tico friends are still having troubles with their computer, and it appeared that the problem was the wrong driver for their modem.
So we went to the Internet cafe, bought a floppy disk and plugged it into the Internet cafe's computer. We navigated to the manufacturer's web site, downloaded the driver, saved it to disk, and packed up and left. Went back to their home, and installed the driver with Window's install wizard. It initializes the modem properly, but when the modem comes off-hook, nothing further happens. In fact, we discovered that even turning the modem off would not release the line - clearly an indication of a modem hardware problem. So I've suggested that they go to the computer accessories store here in San Ramon and get a replacement modem. They'll do that while I'm still in Nicaragua.
After working on their computer, I had lunch in their home with some other mutual friends - all in all, a wonderful afternoon. We spent a good deal of time in their garden, looking over their latest acquisitions, making plans for cuttings and propagation of some of the more beautiful flowers. They have a beautiful potted orchid growing in a hanging basket on their front porch - with five-foot long streamers of golden flowers in the peak of their perfection. I can see why so many Ticos are fond of orchid culture!
It was a lovely afternoon, but I had a trip to get ready for, so I returned home and got the packing done for the trip. I called the hotel in Granada where I'll be staying, and verified the reservations. So I'm all set. I'll be up at 5:30 in the morning, getting ready to leave. I'll have to call a cab, and walk out to the highway to meet the cab - sure hope it doesn't rain tonight! It will be a muddy half-mile walk if it does!
You'll be reading this after I have returned home to San Ramon, as I can't upload it until after I return.
Wonderful Site Found
I went to town early and got my internet session done, and then headed to the bank to get some cash for the trip. Done. So I then went visit a Tico friend I know in town, who's a fountain of information about how to get things done. He told me that my bus line doesn't drive into town, but only stops at the main bus stop on the Interamerican Highway, and to get them to stop, I'll have to call them before they leave and remind them to stop at San Ramon to pick up a passenger. I reminded my Tico friend that I'm still looking for property, and he suddenly remembered about a mountaintop property he'd heard about that was for sale. He suggested we go for a ride to see it and we did.
So I just returned from Berlin. Not that Berlin, but the Berlin that's half-way between Athens and Barranca - and a twenty minute drive to either. This Berlin is dead-nuts on top of a mountaintop ridge at 1445 meters elevation, and has a view all the way from San Jose to the Gulf of Nicoya - a good half of the country. The property itself is not up to much, it's rather small and on a hillside, and worse, it has a good chunk carved out of it, occupied by two Nicaraguan familes, who own their plots and the rather ramshackle houses on them. I've asked them to consider the price they would want for their land, and we'll see what they say. I think I'd keep the better house and use it as a storage shed and communications shelter, and raze the other one.
The house on the property itself is old and in considerable need of repair, though it superficially appears to be sound and worth repairing. I would have to have it refurbished before I move in. The price, however, is blessedly right - something I can easily afford, and it's potential as a communications site is really incredible indeed. I'm planning to go back up when I get time, in the early morning if possible, before the fog sets in up there, and take some pictures of the view, so I can analyze it and see how much of San Jose I can see from there. It might make it a good investment, whether I end up living there or not.
I no sooner got home and started my day's laundry project, than a wonderful Tico couple I know, dropped by, asking me to come to their home and try to straighten out their computer. Seems that the computer could not command the modem to dial out to the Internet. The modem would pick up, but would not dial. As it turned out, the computer wizard had installed the wrong driver for that particular modem, and it wouldn't work. I checked over the list of available drivers, and sure enough, it wasn't listed. So we've made arrangements to go to the Internet Cafe tomorrow to download the proper driver from the manufacturer's web site and carry it up to their house on a floppy disk and install it. Sure hope their Windows 98 installation will recognize it and install it without a lot of hassle.
Well, when I got home, I finished my laundry between phone calls and dinner, watching the Beeb as I could peek in on the TV. It's nearly ten in the evening, and I'm dead tired, and quite ready for bed.
This will probably be the last blog entry until I'm back from Nicaragua. Other than tomorrow, when I'll upload this entry, I don't expect to have time for an Internet cafe session until I return from Nicaragua.
Tickets For Nicaragua
Well, I went to San Jose yesterday. Usual method - drive to San Ramon, and get on a bus, then take a taxi around San Jose. Sure beats driving in that city; the traffic is terribly heavy - worse than Los Angeles - and the drivers are shockingly dangerous. They'll scare you to death. So it's best to just let a taxi driver deal with it. You can travel from San Ramon to San Jose on a bus for $1.25, and get from about anywhere in San Jose to anywhere else for less than $3 by cab. I traveled, for example, from the University of Costa Rica, in the far northeast of the city, to the bus terminal in the far southwest, for about $2.
Anyway, it was a pleasant trip. I lucked out again, got one of the last few seats on the bus, and it left almost immediately. The trip, about 35 miles, takes a bit over an hour, because of the narrowness of the roads and the amount of traffic. Next year, they're planning to open up a new route to Panama which avoids the Pan-American highway, and that should reduce the truck traffic considerably - and make the trip a lot faster.
I got to San Jose by 9:30, and got a cab. Unfortunately, the cabbie, a young college student, didn't know where the bus terminal was where I needed to go to get my ticket. He took me to the wrong part of the city, and when he asked around, no one seemed to know either, so I went into a police station and asked. They told me that I had to go to downtown, and it was just a few blocks from the National Theater. So I hopped in another cab. This guy has been a cabbie for many years, and when I asked for the bus station, there was no hesitation - he knew exactly where it was. I was there in minutes.
The ticket to Managua, Nicaragua, with a stop in the city of my destination, cost a grand total of 8,000 Colones - $19.53 at the current exchange rate. The agent, who deals with a lot of gringo backpackers, spoke flawless English, so I got my transaction done and was out of there in minutes. Turns out that the bus will stop for me in San Ramon - I don't have to go to San Jose to get on it. Apparently, they do that all the time, from what he tells me. I'm leaving on Friday, but I don't know, for sure, which day I'll return - I have to make a reservation for the return trip at the terminal in Nicaragua once I get there, and I'll be arriving for the weekend on a Friday evening when the terminal is closed, so I won't be able to make the reservation till the next day - if I'm lucky and they're open on Saturday. It may be Monday before I can make the reservation, and by then it may be too late for a Monday return trip, so I may be stuck till Tuesday or Wednesday. But the little town where I'm headed is a beautiful little colonial town, and there are far worse places to get stuck, so I'm not too worried about it. I'm planning to take enough money to stay a few extra days if I need to.
Having completed the transaction, and having done what I needed to do in San Jose, I called a friend and met him for an early lunch. We found a little coffee-shop/art gallery, and had a wonderful cappucino, and started swapping war stories. Time went by, and we ordered lunch, still chatting non-stop. By the time we were out of there, it was three in the afternoon. We said our goodbyes, and I hopped a cab and headed back to the bus terminal.
This time I wasn't quite so lucky as to walk onto a bus that was just about to leave. I had to sit in the waiting area for about 20 minutes, but it finally boarded, and I got a prime seat next to a window I could open. That was great - it allowed me to open the window and lean my head out, pickup-dog style, from time to time, to enjoy the trip. Since the bus travels so slowly, seldom more than 25 m.p.h., it's a lot of fun to do, and relatively safe.
When I left San Jose, there were clouds building to a thunderstorm, but it hadn't started. By the time the bus got to Alajuela, it had started to rain, and by the half-way point, the rain was coming down in the usual afternoon downpour. The trip back to San Ramon was uneventful and enjoyable. The bus arrived about 15 minutes ahead of schedule, as the traffic was surprisingly light and moving smoothly.
When I got home, I turned on the TV to see if my DirecTV receiver was working. It was. It failed yesterday, slowly, during a heavy downpour, and I figured that the LNB had leaked and gotten wet, but it is working now. If this happens again, I'll have to climb up on the roof and put a bag over the feedhorn. Anyway, it's really nice having the BBC news to watch again.
Tomorrow, I've got to go to the bank and get some U.S. dollars for the trip, and find the bus terminal here in San Ramon where my bus will be here for me on Friday. It's laundry day, too. I've got to get some clothes washed and hung to dry, so I'll have lots of clean clothes for the trip. Gotta call the hotel in Nicaragua, too, and get the reservations made. Not that I expect them to be full - that's rare in Nicaragua, I'm told, particularly now, in the off-season.
Paying The Bill
I had intended to go to San Jose today to get a bus ticket for a trip to Nicaragua. Not going to happen. I've got to go attempt to get my cell phone bill paid and turned back on - it's been a month since I got the cell phone, and I failed to pay the next month's charges in advance, so they cut off my phone over the weekend. Here, they're unmerciful - if your thirty days runs out on a Saturday, you're cut off, and there's no mercy - you're out of luck until you go to the Camara de Comercio (Chamber of Commerce) and pay your bill - and of course, they're only open from 7-4 on Monday through Friday. I've gotta do that this morning, then take the receipt to ICE and have them turn the phone back on.
When I got to the ICE office, it turns out that my account is still current, and will be for another month. There was apparently a glitch in their system that had turned it off and wouldn't allow outbound calling. They got that fixed up and now there's no problem.
While there, I tried to get the GPRS problem with my cell phone internet access straightened out. Turns out, the GPRS network is down until they get some software and rate structure problems fixed, and they're not saying how long that will be. So my account is suspended until that happens. I'm stuck with the Internet cafe until then. Two or three months, they said. I'm not looking forward to daily trips to the Internet cafe for the next three months!
I've also found out that a delightful couple who live near me, are still having trouble with internet access themselves. If I have time, I'll try to make it by there today and see if I can sort it out and at least get them up and on the net.
The River of Jesus
I went to the property this morning that my landlord had told me about. It wasn't in Berlin as I'd thought, but is rather in the hills overlooking Puntarenas. It is a beautiful property, rather trashed out, however, that is near the Interamerican Highway, at a place called "Rio Jesus," or Jesus River. It's located at about 3500 feet of elevation, so there are bugs but not a lot of them, and it is in the first range of hills inland from the Pacific, so it gets quite a bit of rain in the rainy season. The coffee there is some of the best in the world - growing conditions are ideal. The combination of mountain elevations with a pronounced dry season make for a hard-shelled bean. The property has coffee on it, and the beans were ripening. The berries are sweet and juicy, and they're pleasant to chew on, but don't swallow - they'll cause diarrhea. The planting has a disease called "ojo de gallo" or "eye of the rooster." It's a leaf-spot disease that is caused by a fungus. This planting is in such good growing conditions, however, that the ojo de gallo is not causing significant loss of production. Not that I'd attempt to grow coffee for profit anyway - the price is below the cost of production.
The property has a lovely view of the Gulf of Nicoya and the town of Puntarenas. But the view is enjoyable only to the extent that the weather cooperates. The warm, humid, low-wind conditions means that just about any tropical fruit will grow there. Next to the house was a thriving guanacaste tree, a species associated with the dry lowlands of the pacific. If it will grow there, then so will a guanabana, which is a tree I'd love to have - one of the best tropical fruits around - three pounds of luscious sweetness that makes the best fruit juice you've ever tasted. Bananas, plantains and pineapples were all growing on the property.
I'd be really interested in the property if it weren't for one serious problem - the house is too close (about 300 feet) to the Interamerican Highway, and truck noise is almost constant. And being adjacent to a downhill grade, the trucks use their jake-brakes, adding to the noise. Inside the house, the noise level is tolerable, but outside it is noisy enough to make the yard and gardens less that totally pleasant. I'd dearly love to buy the place if it were just a bit further from the highway. The property also has a lot of trash on it - I'd have to hire a hauler to clean it up and haul away the trash - and it would take a couple of days to clean it all up. The house also has a lot of hairline cracks in the stucco - it probably should be replastered and repainted. The kitchen, like so many Tico kitchens, could use a lot of upgrading to get it up to a reasonable standard, too. And the house is only a two-bedroom house. It has a lot of potential, though - lots of tropical hardwood, and cathedral ceilings with dark-stained tablilla, a type of hardwood ceiling that is quite popular here. The house needs several thousand dollars of work, but appears to be structurally sound and has a lot of potential, and could be a very pleasant place to live.
Saturday Shopping Day
Today ended up being shopping day. I didn't make it to the farmer's market yesterday, and so I went this morning instead. Here in San Ramon, the farmer's market is Friday, after work, and Saturday morning till noon. That doesn't give you a lot of time to think about it, so you've gotta go either day if you're going to take advantage of the cheap produce.
Today, I got there a bit late, so I missed out on the bacon and napa cabbage, so I had to stop at the supermarket and pay twice the price for the bacon. The cabbage I can do without till next week, as I'll be out of town most of the week anyway.
Today's my last email/blog upload session at the Internet cafe for a while. I'm going to Nicaragua next week for three days, so that my visa here in Costa Rica will be renewed upon entry. That means I've got to be out of the country for 72 hours, so that's basically three nights and four days. That's most of the week.
Turns out I can get a bus ride into Nica for $20 each way. Dirt cheap for international travel, I'd say. And the hotel in Nicaragua, which was recently built, only charges $45 per night for a single, so the whole trip, including meals, won't cost that much - under $200. Still, it's money I wish I didn't have to spend, and I'd sure like to get the residency application filed so I don't have to do this. It's a pain, but of course I get to say that I've seen Nicaragua, as well. The town where I'll be staying is near one of the areas I was considering retiring to, so I'll be looking things over to compare the area to Costa Rica. Monday, I'm going into San Jose to the bus lines and get the ticket. I've got to buy in advance, because it's international, and they have to check my travel documents. Not like it's a big deal - they'll look at my passport and my Costa Rican driver's license, and I should be all set.
Talked with my landlord this morning about more properties in the area. He's expecting a commission, and I don't mind that, as he can negotiate a much better price than I can, since he's Tico. That means I'll save lots more than my commission to him will cost. He indicated he knows of a mountaintop property for sale, with a tower already in place, which is a terrific deal for me - it's essentially an abandoned microwave site that I could refurbish as a residence. And that means I'll already have technical power and grounding in place - just build some interior partitions, do wiring and plumbing, and I'm set. I could even build some technical space in it and rent microwave space. Can't wait to see it.
Life Is Good Again
It's Thursday morning and life is good again. It's a bright, sunny morning, the first in a week, and the views from the cabina are unspoiled by the fog and rain of the last few days. After living in Phoenix, I never thought I'd crave sunny weather again, but I find myself certainly enjoying it. Of course, by the end of the dry season, I'll certainly be looking forward to some rain again. It's very windy today - that's unusual during the rainy season, and it seems to be signalling the end of the rains - the dry season usually begins with a couple of months of rather windy weather, particularly over here on the Pacific side of the divide.
Yesterday afternoon, the water came back on. And my road is open, too. The backhoe operator had the trench open in the morning, but backfilled it during the afternoon, just before the downpour began. It was barely passable, as the last few weeks of rain has turned the soil to mud to a depth exceeding the depth of the trench, so everything he dug out was sloppy, gooey mud. And of course, in backfilling the trench, it got mixed with a good deal of runoff, so it was practically liquified. I put the car in 4WD and got a good run at it and flew across the trench, making it with only a bit of tire slippage.
I went to town yesterday as soon as the road was open, and got email - first in nearly a week - and uploaded the blog. Worked out great - on the way home, I stopped at the ferreteria (hardware store) and got a 5-gallon envaso plastico (plastic jug), so I could collect some rainwater and have plenty in case the water wasn't back on anytime soon. When I got back, I found that the backhoe and a lastre (gravel) truck had the road blocked. So I went the other way around, going through the front yard of my previous landlord. Unfortunately, his campesino was digging a trench across his road too, so that route was blocked. There was nothing to do but go back to my usual way in, and park as close as I could and walk the last two blocks to the house. Fortunately, I had the foresight to put my boots in the car before I left home, and so I was prepared with both a sombrilla (umbrella) and my botes hule (rubber boots). I parked the car at the side of the road, put on my boots and opened the umbrella, grabbed the jug and hiked back to the house through the four inches of runny mud on the road that had been created by all the construction.
As soon as I got to the house, I checked the water - still off - and since it was starting to rain, I went to my landlord's house with the jug and a soda bottle and set out a bucket to catch rainwater from the roof. As usually happens in the afternoon, the rain increased to a downpour, so it wasn't long before the bucket was full, and I filled the jug and soda bottle. I Slogged it all the way back to the cabina.
As I hauled the jug into the bathroom, I noticed that the toilet was filling. So I checked the water, and sure enough, all that effort at collecting rainwater had proved useless - the water was back on. I flushed the pipes and delighted in washing the huge pile of dirty dishes that had accumulated since Tuesday.
The downpour had driven off the backhoe operator, so I was curious if he left the road open or closed. When the rain let up, I walked down to the road to see, and to my delight, he had not only left the road open, but had covered the trench in lastre. So I had a virtual highway in and out. Great! I walked out to the car and drove it in.
By now, sundown was approaching and the weather cleared off to the makings of a lovely sunset. My landlord dropped by, and said he'd made some contact with neighbors who had some land for sale. He called one of them on my cell phone and made arrangements, and we piled into the car and took off. It was on the other side of the canyon, about a two mile drive, and was an absolutely lovely spot. I asked the price - the owner was asking 3500 Colones per square meter - about $8.50. That's an outrageous price - considerably more than I'd been offered on the other place I'm considering. So much for that spot.
Today is another washday - taking advantage of the sun and the wind. I decided to see if I could fix the leak in the junction between the short drain hose that I got with the washer and the long drain hose that I bought, so I could do washing in the spare bedroom and still drain the wash water into the shower pan. The long hose is larger diameter than the short hose, and just enough that the short hose will fit inside the long one - just barely. So I removed the hang-up clip from the short one and stuffed it into the long one, and tightened the hose clamp on the junction. Since the short hose has parallel ridges instead of a spiral, I figured if I was lucky, it just might seal - and it did. Not a drop of leakage. And when I open the drain, the suction of that large hose pulls the water out of the washer. In seconds, it's slurping.
After laundry, I need to go to town and spend some time on the internet, downloading Open Office (with which I'm going to replace Outlook) and looking for a quick, cheap tour to Nicaragua. I've got to go next week - I need to renew my tourist visa.
Still No Water To Drink
It rained hard last night. Most of the night, in fact. So there's water everywhere, but still not in my pipes.
I checked the water this morning when I got up, and nothing. Of course, I didn't expect any, but it would have been nice. Well, I shouldn't get my hopes up.
After fixing breakfast, I looked outside to see if the backhoe was back, and sure enough, it was. And right in front of my gate, too. That was a bad sign. So when it came time to leave, I decided I'd best go check things out.
I put on my rubber boots and went down there - sure enough, they'd re-opened the trench across my driveway. Why, I don't know - they had the pipe in it when they closed it last night. This trench was shallower, however, and I suspect that it's purpose is for the subscriber line - meaning me - to be brought out to where they're going to tee me in. Heaven only knows how long that will take. At least a day or two, I'm sure. Out at the site, the water company rep was there, but he was avoiding eye contact. No surprise there. I think he knows he's pissed off the gringo.
I'm able to upload this blog only because the backhoe operator had piled just enough dirt in the trench for me to get across it and drive out to go to the internet cafe in town. I put my rubber boots in the car before I left, and I'm planning on parking out at the road on the other side of the trench when I go home. That way I won't have to deal with this trench issue, even though it means about a 100 yard walk to the house, carrying my things as well as my shoes, and most likely in the rain. Before I leave town, I'm going to shop for a jerry can and fill it with water. I can see I'm in this for the long haul.
Water, Water Everywhere And Not A Drop To Drink
Today, in the midst of the wettest part of the rainy season, I suffered the first serious water outage since I've been here in Costa Rica. The water here is occasionally off for a few minutes, but rarely does it last long enough to represent a significant inconvenience. When it happens during a shower, it's usually back on in a minute or two, and there's no serious delay. That's why rooftop cisterns are rare here, unlike many parts of the third world, where they're ubiquitous.
The reason for the outage is the construction that's going on next door. Seems that the pipes that were laid when water came to the area were planned on the presumption that the finca (farm) that is being subdivided next door would always remain a finca. Well, it's not remaining a finca, so new pipes have to be installed.
Anyway, that means they've got the road in front of the house all torn up. A trench, four feet deep, runs right in front of the gate, and right across the driveway. This means that I not only can't wash, shower, brush my teeth, flush the toilet or even get a drink (the only liquid in the house is a liter of milk), but, worse, I can't drive out to fetch some water, either.
When I saw the backhoe out at the road, I went out to investigate. The backhoe operator promised me that I'd have water again in a half hour, and the road open in an hour or two. Three hours later, with no water still, I went out and checked the worksite. When I got out to the trench, there were a couple of Nicaraguans hand-digging it deeper, and I asked them if they knew when the water would turned back on, they replied that it would be two hours. That was at four o'clock, and I knew that it was highly unlikely they'd be working overtime to solve my inconvenience, so I just shined that one on. I figured I'm not going to have water anytime soon, nor did it look like the trench would be closed so I can't even go out and get some.
Of course, I wasn't told this was going to happen, so I wasn't prepared at all. A quick look around, and I worked out a possible emergency solution. The landlord had left a baby-bath in the shower, so I got it out and cleaned it up, using the afternoon's usual pouring rain. My cabina has gutters, and the gutters empty into underground pipes, so there's no way of collecting rainwater here, but my landlord's house, a couple of hundred feet east of me, doesn't have gutters. So I got my umbrella out, walked over to the house with the baby-bath and the only two suitable containers I had, a couple of empty 2-liter soda bottles retrieved from the trash, and set the baby-bath out under the dripline of his house. Just as I arrived, a downpour started, and it wasn't long before the baby-bath was full, so I simply dunked the soda bottles and filled them. Since it had been raining on and off for an hour or so, I'm presuming that the roof was reasonably clean by then, and the water reasonably potable; it looks quite clean. Even in Africa, I never had to resort to this! A friend who lives in San Jose called me, and as I explained the situation to him, he was astonished! And he's lived here for years. Well, this sort of thing happens in this part of the world, and there's nothing to do but grin and bear it. It's part of the price one pays for living in the country in a third-world nation.
As I write this, I've just returned from the construction site. The backhoe operator was backfilling a portion of the trench close to my gate, so the workers at the construction site could get home. As I arrived, I found my landlord, who had just returned from work, was on his way to have a word or two with the developer who is responsible for the construction. He didn't look particularly happy, and I can well imagine what was in his mind - I suspect he wasn't told either, and wasn't any happier about it than I was. While hanging around, I made sure that the backhoe operator opened the road to the cabina as well before he left, so now I can at least get out, even though it's too late in the day for it to do me any good. I found out that the water was off to the entire neighborhood, not just to the cabina and my landlord's house. I was promised that the water company was on its way to re-open the valve and return water pressure to the cabina and the rest of the neighborhood before the end of the day; It's six PM now, and I'll believe it when I see water coming out the tap and the toilet filling.
Driver's License In My Pocket
Well, I bit the bullet today, and took a long-dreaded trip into San Jose. Went to the driver's license office and got my driver's license. I'd been prepped in advance by some friends, and so I knew what to expect and how to prepare. It went like clockwork - I lucked out; there was a strike of some of the public employees, but not the ones in the ministry that deals with driver's licenses, so all the employees were there, and relatively few clients. Lines were relatively short. I got in and out in about an hour and a half - that's supposed to be something of a record; I'm told some folks have spent all day there.
I took a friend's advice and parked my car in downtown San Ramon, walked to the bus terminal and hopped on a bus. It was quick and easy - the buses here are clean, modern, safe and comfortable - and dirt cheap. The ride into San Jose, two hours, cost all of $1.25. Add in 75 cents to get to the driver's license bureau, and you can see the trip didn't cost that much.
The process, if you have a valid driver's license from one of the approved countries, including the U.S., is relatively simple. First, you get a medical exam - $18 in Colones. Once that paper has been duly stamped and approved, you get your passport title page and entry stamp copied, and then go into the process. The first thing they do is to validate the documents - the originals of your passport and your driver's license from the states - and getting in to do that was the most time-consuming part of the process. Then, once your copies are duly stamped, you go to the computer desk and sit down with a clerk and the clerk does the actual application on computer. You then take your copies to the internal bank branch, and pay your fee - $12 in Colones. That done, you then go join the queue to get your picture taken and the actual driver's license produced. First the picture. Then join the line waiting for the machine to spit out the driver's license. You've gotta check and make sure you got yours, and not someone else's, and that all the data on it is correct. Mine was fine. That's it, you just walk out with your brand new license.
Hailing a cab from there, I went to the Teatro Nacional to meet up a friend for lunch. While waiting, I saw a rather placid protest by demonstrators, mostly employees of the state telecom, electricity and water monopolies who are protesting the fact that the Costa Rican government is negotiating a free-trade agreement with the United States, with the U.S. trying to strong-arm Costa Rica into privatizing the power, water and telecommunications monopolies here. Like the demonstrators, I'm dead-set against it, and think it would be a horrible idea, though I wouldn't mind seeing the telecommunications monopoly opened up to competition if it were done in the right way. I felt a good deal of solidarity with the demonstrators, and kinda felt like jumping the barricade and marching with them. They understand what's happening to Costa Rica, as well as the potential consequences, and I am in full agreement with them about it.
My friend arrived a few minutes late, due to the traffic jam caused by the demonstration, but we finally got a cab and got to the restaurant with our other friend. What a lunch it was,discussing both fun and serious business. Turns out they're putting together a networking project, and have offered me a position in it. I'm quite interested, even though it means I'd have to find a home nearer San Jose than the one I'm in right now. But it means I could get some broadband internet access easily and quickly. I'd also be nearer to some of my friends. I've got to put together some proposals for them, and put some numbers to them, but as it turns out, I've already done most of the engineering, just gotta add numbers, so it won't be much bother.
From there, I grabbed a cab back to the bus terminal for the buck-and-a-quarter ride home. The total trip was maybe 35 miles, but it took 2 1/2 hours - it was right at rush-hour, and the traffic leaving town, past the airport, was at a dead crawl. I was concerned about leaving my car parked on the street in San Ramon all day unattended, but everything was fine when I got back. Drove home and found a whole load of chicken-hauling trucks parked at the turnoff to my house - I had to yell a bit at one of the drivers to get him to move his truck so I could get past. They're undoubtedly there to pick up chickens tomorrow at the polloria (chicken farm) that's just down the hill from the cabina. You'd think that chicken farm would be a nuisance, but it's really not. I never get any smell from it, and the only pollution I experience from it is just a bit of noise when the automatic feeders start up, and of course, the visual pollution spoiling an otherwise incredible view.Tomorrow, the Internet cafe to upload the last two blogs and the weekend's email. Lots of email, I'm sure - probably around 500 messages, mostly spam.
Adventures In Wiring
Today is Saturday, and this is the first blog entry since Wednesday. I've not had a lot to talk about, but have been preoccupied with a small crisis I had to deal with. I got word from the moving company that my household goods have cleared customs and are now in domestic storage in San Jose. The kicker was that Customs was owed the money - and if they didn't get it in a few days, my goods would be impounded. So I had to make a rather hurried wire transfer for the money, and spend a good deal of time making sure it went through and getting it verified.
Getting the transfer verified was the biggest problem. The moving company hasn't said they got it, but they haven't said they didn't either, so I'm left to assume that they did. I will have to call them on Monday and try to find out.
Looking out to the view out from my front porch, it's been cloudy and intermittently foggy all morning, and I've had occasional glimpses of San Ramon and the mountains beyond. I've been trying to get some clothes dried on the line inside the house, and everything's dry except the jeans. They're slow, of course, and I've had to keep the window open as much as possible trying to keep them drying as quickly as possible. But in this fog, that takes a while, even with the wind blowing right on them. They've gotten a little sour-smelling because of the delay. I think that once I'm in a house, I'll start looking around for a used clothes dryer. This clothesline business is awfully slow in this climate.
BBC World this morning ran a really interesting talking-heads program on capitalism in the 21st. century. It was quite interesting - they included a philosopher, a corporate CEO, the former head of economics for British Airways, and some economics and political professors. It was an intensely interesting discussion. For the most part, they were apologizing for the faults of capitalism, and were proposing various ways of trying to fix it, but they only danced around the real core of the issue - the fact that money equals power, and the reality that a significant percentage of capitalists pursue their capitalism not because it will make them rich (or richer), but because it gives them more power and control. They discussed the problems demonstrated by the Enron scandals, and proposed a lot of band-aid solutions, but never really got to the core of the problem - that, unlike what most Americans believe, the incentives created by capitalism are antithetical to the objectives of democracy, and the merger of capitalist incentives and government coercion, such as is taking place in the United States today, will inevitably lead to a serious form of tyranny, such as happened the last time this merger occurred, in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. I sure wish I had been there to put some hard, really hard questions to the panelists.
This afternoon, I went to town and bought a ducha, an electric flash heater for heating shower water. It was the last serious habitability problem to deal with in this house. A local ferrerteria (hardware store) was running a sale, and I figured it was a good time to buy. The cost was modest enough - about $9, so I figured I wasn't risking much if the electrical system here wouldn't allow it to work very well. Indeed, once I got it home, got it plumbed in and tested, it verified what I had suspected - the flash heater simply isn't going to work well in this cabina. The reason is simple - the power to the cabina is provided by a service drop of #6 aluminum wire that runs back to the meter, a distance of about 500 feet. Well, running power out through that length of wire that size, means there's quite a bit of voltage drop, and that flash heater sucks kinda hard on the end of the wire. There weren't any instructions with it, but the pigtail coming out of it is #10 wire, so I figure it's gotta want to draw 30 amps or so. And that much wire between me and the power company's transformer, means that there's simply not enough juice left for it to adequately heat the water.
Costa Rican wiring follows the American standards in just about everything except electrical outlet styles. So the power coming into the panel is two phase legs (240 v. phase to phase) and a neutral (called "negative" here). Ground is provided by a ground stake where the service attaches to the house. And like just about everything else here, including the stove I bought recently, the flash heater is 110 volt. That means it throws one helluva load on one phase leg. To make matters worse, the way the cabina, is wired, all electric outlets in the entire house, including the circuit for the ducha, are wired to a single 20-amp circuit breaker, with only a single wire appearing in the panel. All the lighting is on the only other single-pole breaker in the panel, on the other phase leg. The only other active circuit breaker in the panel is the one I installed for the stove.
Well, this means that the flash heater is on the same circuit as everything else in the place except for the lights. So this means that when the flash heater is on, the voltage goes way, way down on everything except the lights, so low it won't even trip the breaker. I noticed, for example, that when I turned on the shower, the refrigerator quit running. Suspecting voltage drop, I checked the outlet voltage with the shower heater on, and sure enough, it drops from 120 volts to 89. That meant that I'll need to unplug the fridge before taking a shower to prevent the fridge compressor from burning out.
I figured there might be a way around this, if I put the fridge on its own circuit on the other phase leg. But if that's to work, I needed to check and make sure that the phase imbalance created by the heavy load on one side of neutral didn't drive up the voltage excessively on the other phase leg. So I unscrewed a light bulb and turned that light on, and checked the voltage on that light socket when the shower was off, and again when it was on. Well, it went from 120 volts with the shower off, to 139 volts with the shower on - too high for safely running the refrigerator. So I'm stuck. The only solution is to unplug the fridge when I'm going to take a shower, and hope I remember to plug it back in afterwards. And to make matters worse, the voltage drop is severe enough that the water doesn't even get warm - it just takes the jolting chill off of it. So I still don't get to have a nice hot shower. It turns out that the ducha has a switch on it that enables one to switch from "hot" water to "warm," and the result is that the load is cut in half - enough that the breaker stays on, and I can take a reasonably comfortable shower. I still have to unplug the fridge, but at least I can get a comfortable shower now.
Adventures In Laundry
I faced the music today and went and bought a washing machine. It's a manual (not automatic) washing machine, made in Costa Rica. It was blessedly cheap ($160), and wasn't a problem hauling it in the back of my Raider.
Since most Americans have never seen a modern manual washing machine, I'll describe it for you. It's about the size and shape of a large clothes hamper - about three and a half feet high, two and a half feet wide and a foot and a half deep. It's light enough that I carried it into the cabina unassisted.
It has two sections - the wash/rinse compartment, and the centrifuga (spin drier). The design is simplicity itself. There are a total of three moving parts; two direct-drive motors and a manually operated drain valve. The wash/rinse compartment is a simple tub with a small agitator disk on the corner of the bottom. It's driven directly by a reversible 900 RPM motor. You fill the tub with water from a hose connected to the top - it just runs in, no valve, and you're expected to shut off the tap when it's full. If you don't shut it off, it overflows into the drain. The agitator motor is operated by a timer that runs fifteen minutes. Every three seconds, it runs in one direction and three seconds later, it stops, and runs the other direction - agitation is hardly gentle. After sufficient washing time, you move the drain valve from the Wash/Rinse position to the Drain position, and water flows by gravity to the drain hose. You'd better have a drain not more than a few inches above the floor! I bought some extra plastic hose and run it into the shower pan, and that seems to be working great. Once you've washed, rinsed and drained the clothes, you move them into the spin dryer. It's a small plastic cylinder about eight inches in diameter in the right third of the washing machine. Just pile them in, put the stopper in the top, close the lid and let 'er rip. And it flies at 3600 RPM, fast enough that the sucker can just about separate blood fractions! The timer runs for a maximum of 5 minutes, and when it's done, the clothes come out almost dry enough to wear. Good thing, too, as here in this humidity, it takes wet laundry several days to dry. Without a spin dryer, you've just about gotta figure a week to do laundry. With it, laundry's done the next day. Electric clothes dryers are available here, but they're horribly expensive (about $600 to start), and only the very rich use them. For us ordinary folk, it's the ubiquitous clothes line, usually in the pila (laundry room).
The results: It usually takes two wash cycles to get things clean in this cold water. The detergents here are formulated for cold water, and they do a very good job, provided that one is patient and takes the time to do two wash cycles before the rinse. And it generally takes two rinses to get all the detergent out. Once done, the clothes come out as clean as any automatic washer. The only complaint is that the process requires constant attention, and so it can hardly be considered convenient, but the results are just fine. I'm quite pleased at this point.
Tomorrow I was going to go to San Jose and get my driver's license, but I think I'll shine it on until at least Friday. I need to do some more laundry and install some more clothes lines so I can dry what I've already washed.
Roaches, Prefabricated Houses and Improving Spanish
This morning I awoke to the sounds of some crunching. It sounded like something chewing on something, but I couldn't figure out what. Well, when I went to sweep out the place (which I do every morning), I found out. Next to the bed were the few, scattered remains of a rather sizable cockroach. No mouse droppings (though I've seen a few small mice in this country), so I have no idea what was eating it, if it wasn't a very discreet mouse. The presence of cockroaches in the cabina doesn't surprise me at all. Like most Costa Rican houses, the doors don't have thresholds, and there's nothing to keep critters from crawling in under the doors. Cockroaches are ubiquitous in the environment here, and if you don't keep them out, they'll come in. The last place where I stayed, I saw at least five different species (including a flying one), and of course, mice and shrews. None of them are inclined to set up housekeeping, thank goodness, but they do come into the house if you don't keep them out, so I think I'll get some thresholds and door sweeps and install them here. If I have to have roommates, I want them to be the kind that pays rent. It's quite possible to have a house that's free of mice and roaches, but one has to work at it, and few Tico houses are tight enough to keep them out. They usually don't bother, since bad weather here means a slight chill with the afternoon rain, and there's no such thing as heating or air conditioning (except in the banks, where they'll chill you to the bone). Window screens are rare, here, too. Almost the only ones you see are installed by foreigners trying in vain to keep out the few mosquitos and those flying Volkswagens called dung beetles. Blackflies and chiggers are more of a problem, and of course window screens won't do a thing for them. You need "noseeum netting" for that.
This house has aluminum windows, and it would not be a problem to install window screens fitted with "noseeum" netting instead of window screen. The only real problem is getting some - I know of a shop in Salt Lake City that sells it, but that's a long way from here. The house itself is a prefab concrete house. It's a rather clever system. First, they pour the foundations and slab. They then insert prefabricated concrete columns into holes molded into the slab, on about 5-foot centers. These columns have slots down the sides that face each other, and concrete panels, each about five feet wide and two feet high (and about two inches thick) are then slid down the slots and stacked on each other, all the way up to the ceiling level. Plumbing and electrical is molded into the concrete columns, so all that needs to be done on site is to simply connect the electrical wiring and plumbing pipes. The roof is supported by stamped sheet-metal trusses (no snow loads, of course, and the roofing is lightweight), and the roof is powder-coated corrugated steel (ubiquitous here, even on expensive homes). The ceiling is then installed (in this house, drywall panels about 2' by 4', locally called "gypsum"), and finish work (floor tiles, baseboards, trim, cabinets and doors and windows) are done. From digging the slab trenches to having it up to the square takes about a week. The whole process, getting it ready to move into takes about a month, and the price I've been given for this construction method is about $20 per square foot. The system seems to be durable; the prefab I'm in was done about 15 years ago, and it's still in great shape - a few hairline cracks between a few of the panels, but that's about it. The floor tiles and bathroom tiles are quite attractive - but the cabinetry is sadly poorly-done particleboard, which is a shame, considering the abundance, beauty and durability of the hardwood available here.
I'm pleased to report that my Spanish has improved considerably since I've been here. I didn't realize how much it had improved until this afternoon, when I went to the bank and applied for a checking account for my business. This was a fairly complicated transaction, involving corporate charters, cedula juridicas and other documents of a fairly arcane and technical nature. Well, I'm pleased to report that when I got to the plataforma empresarial (commercial accounts desk), I got a very sweet and patient young lady who didn't speak a word of English - but I got through the two hours of the application process without having to ask for a single translation - I communicated adequately and read all the documents I was asked to sign, in Spanish, and what's even more remarkable, understood what I was reading. This is the best sign I've had that my efforts to learn the language here are bearing fruit.
Just as much good news is the fact that my application was successful. I'm now the proud signatory on a corporate checking account that is ready to go as soon as the checks are printed - and I'll have the checkbook on Friday. The bad news is that they really nick you here for the cost of printing them - it cost me the equivalent of about $23 just to have 160 checks printed. Whew! But there's no option - I need to have an active checking account, in my business' name, for my immigration visa application. That's a major hurdle completed on the road to getting my permanent residence visa and most important, my cedula, (ID number), without which nothing happens here.
Tomorrow, I'm going to try to buy a washing machine and haul (or get it hauled) up here to the cabina. I really need a washing machine - I'm down to my last few clean shirts, and almost out of clean socks - and I've got to go to San Jose later in the week.
Best Laid Plans
This morning, I was all set to go to town and make another attempt to get the checking account at the bank set up for my corporation. Well, I was just getting stuff together when I had a call from the DirecTV people, indicating that an installer was on the way, and would I be available? Yes, of course. This is something I've waited for, for a long time - being able to watch CNN or the BBC anytime I want, that has a lot of appeal, so of course I changed my plans and stuck around.
They've been here and gone. The installers were good - efficient, and knew what they were doing. They got it installed quickly and neatly, but when I turned it on, there was no color. I figured that my tuner was a bit off-frequency, and I found the fine-tune control and adjusted it - no success. So in desperation, I tried switching the reciever to the PAL-M mode and voila! Color! Apparently, the DirecTV box I'd been given had been previously used in Argentina, where the color standard is PAL-M. We switched it back to NTSC, the American/Costa Rican standard, and now it works fine. Beautiful, noise-free pictures, and I get the BBC along with CNN. There was a great movie starting on Cinemax, "All The Pretty Horses," and it hooked me in, so I watched that. By then it was noon, and the siesta was on, so I watched the BBC news while fixing lunch. Sure is nice having TV news in a language I can fully understand...
Sleepin' In Sunday
This morning I slept in rather late. By local standards, quite late. I awoke around 7 AM after a good night's sleep. The sun is up by 6 every morning, and goes down around 6 every evening, so if you're up late, you're missing a good part of the day. The tropics will make you a morning person if you're not one already.
I was ready to get up, but I had a hard time facing that cold shower. I've really got to get a "suicide" heater installed in the bathroom shower. The wiring is there, and the wire is electrified, but I just gotta go get one and install it. Getting hit all over with 65 degree water at 7 in the morning is, well, getting rather old. That's the last thing I need to do to make this place really livable.
Early yesterday morning, I went to town with my landlord and his wife - we both needed to do some grocery shopping, and since they don't have a car (not at all uncommon here, since the public transport is so good), they rode along. We both were headed to the same supermarket, and so they were quite happy to get a ride back with me as well. On the way home, we stopped at a ferreteria (hardware store) so he could buy some circuit breakers and light fixtures to install in his house - newly electrified after being there for twenty years. I'd noticed he'd been living by candle light this week, even though the power was connected to the house and the main disconnect was turned on.
I had a visit from an old friend, an architect from Cartago. He arrived a bit after noon, meeting up with me at a local soda (roadside restaurant) for lunch and we had a wonderful visit. I always enjoy my visits with him - we have a lot in common philosophically, and our discussions often get quite involved and complex. He's going to look for property for me in the Cartago area - an area I quite like. He followed me back to the cabina, and we walked from there to the homesite where I may be building soon. we talked well into the evening, when he finally had to face the two-hour journey back to his home in Cartago.
Not much on the agenda today; I spent the day getting settled into the cabina, checking out how I am going to set up a washing machine in a house not designed for one. I decided that the way to do it is to put the washer in the spare bedroom and simply open the window and pass the hoses outside when I need to wash, connect the water to the hose bib and the drain to the laundry tub drain. That avoids having to move the washing machine in and outside each time I'm going to wash.
Did a lot of walking around the area this afternoon - it was lovely being able to go for a walk without having to put on the rubber boots. Today is the third day without significant rain, so the roads and paths were dry and the weather was just lovely - mid 70's, and hardly a cloud in sight. It would appear that the rainy season is beginning to wind down a bit - the days with no afternoon rain are becoming more frequent. A month and a half from now, the rains should be over.
This afternoon, I decided that I really needed a better shortwave antenna than the one built into the radio, so I got out some of the electric fence wire I'd bought a few weeks back and strung a wire around the ceiling in the bedroom. It proved to be a spectacular success - I get excellent reception now on the portable radio, and so I decided to tune around the ham bands a bit to see what was going on. I got a good preview of what my reception would be like here if I had some decent antennas up. Lots and lots of DX (non-U.S.) stations, mostly from Latin America and the Far East. Even the 10-meter band had a lot of activity - a good sign, since that band is normally quite dead during this part of the sunspot cycle.
Today is the big Columbus Day festival in Puerto Limon - the anniversary of the day that Columbus is supposed to have come ashore in Costa Rica (which historians now doubt ever happened). I'd thought about going there and photographing the festivities, one of the biggest and best fiestas in the country, but decided against it when I discovered that there's not a hotel room in sight - everything in town and for miles around is booked, and long since. I'll have to plan early for next year.Tomorrow, I've got to get my bank account established in the corporate name - an essential part of my immigration process. Or at least I've got to try. I don't know how successful I'll be, but I do have the corporate cedula, so I shouldn't have too much trouble, I think. We'll see.
Mostly Moved In
Well, I'm mostly moved in now. I have finally got both a refrigerator and a stove, installed and working.
I went to town early this morning, intending to just go to the bank, get some cash, visit the appliance stores and get a stove and bring it home. Well, it didn't work out that way.
I made the mistake of stopping at the shop of a Tico couple I know, who are English-speaking and who are very friendly and helpful to wayward gringos such as myself. I mentioned that I was shopping for a cocina (stove), and that wonderful Tico quedar bien swinged into action, with their insisting that I ride with them around as they visit the shops as well as people they know that are selling their goods, to get me the best deal. Well, I did get a good deal - saved the equivalent of about $35 on the stove I wanted, a simple 3-burner apartment-sized stove with an oven. So it was worth the time - I also found out about a shop where I can get a good deal on a freezer - though they don't seem to have any upright freezers in stock at the moment. They'll actually build to order, though!
The stove was small enough that I was just barely able to load it into the back of my Dodge Raider, to haul it home. As I drove away, it dawned on me that I needed to get some wiring materials to connect it up - there's no outlet for a stove in the kitchenette in the cabina. I'd have to wire up a circuit myself. So I diverted to the ferreteria (hardware store) to get some wire and fittings.
The route to the ferreteria goes past a school and the local jail. As I was driving past the jail, there was a policeman standing in the middle of the road, directing occasional motorists to pull over. He kinda half-heartedly motioned for me to stop, but I wasn't in much of a mood to deal with digging out the receipt to show it wasn't stolen, and drove on. I looked in my rear view mirror as I passed, and he was giving me a rather dismissive wave.
At the ferreteria, with my rather terrible Spanish, I explained what I needed and got in the car and took the back streets to avoid the cop, and drove home. Got the cocina unloaded and unpacked and started wiring it, and as I was doing so, it dawned on me that today is Friday, and the farmer's market was happening. So I dropped everything, grabbed a handful of "shrapnel" (pocket change), and drove to the farmer's market. For the equivalent of about $7, I got enough fruits, vegetables, meat, cheese and eggs to last me the next week. I still need a few things from the supermarket, such as bread, cooking oil and salt, but the vast bulk of what I need I have. Cheap living!
I fixed a rather rudimentary dinner - no salt, no cooking oil, no salad dressing - but it was nevertheless a wonderful dinner. Potatoes, cheese and sausage in a one-pan fry, along with a coleslaw made with mayonnaise instead of coleslaw dressing (since I don't have the ingredients bought yet), and fresh pineapple for desert. Simple, yet, but good. I'll be able to do much better once I've gotten a few things from the supermarket.
I stopped by my old landlord's place to pay my rent for last month. We'd had a rather considerable dispute recently about the property I was looking to purchase from him, and so I informed him that I've decided not to proceed with the purchase and construction until the division of the property is registered in the Registro Nacional and I can be provided with a plana (plat map) and an escritura (legal description of the property and any encumbrances it may have associated with it). So until that happens, which will probably be the middle of December, I'm not going to put down any money on it and am going to continue to look for local property. He also stated that he feels free to sell to someone else if he wishes to do so, and I've agreed to that.
After dinner, I looked over to my landlord's house and checked to see if he was home and he was - living by candlelight - even though there's power at his house. I walked over to pay my rent, and see why he's still living by candlelight, even though there's power at his house. Turns out that he needed some circuit breakers that he didn't have, and didn't have the cash for. Well, now he has the cash - I paid the rent in Colones, the local currency, and he now should be able to buy all the breakers he needs.
Tomorrow, my friend the architect from Cartago, is coming by for a visit. I can't wait. He's a wonderful fellow, and we really enjoy each other's company.
Quite A Scare!
Well, my first night in the cabina was wonderful. The problems of living in a shared facility - noise, interruptions of sleep, waiting for the bathroom, etc. - were entirely absent, of course, and the bed proved to be more comfortable than I'd expected, so I got a terrific night's sleep. And when I woke up, I could turn up the radio as much as I would like and not have to worry about disturbing anyone. I'm delighted to be in a rental instead of a bed and breakfast. At long last! I awoke to a beautiful view out my living room window of San Ramon and the surrounding countryside. It's an incredible view.
Since there's no "suicide shower" (flash heater/shower head) installed in the bathroom, and I have no way of heating water yet, I took a cold shower. Well, it woke me up to say the least! Better than a strong cup of coffee! It's been a lot of years since I'd taken such a cold shower, and it brought back a lot of memories of Nigeria and the bush hotels where the bathroom water heater was just for show rather than the comfort of guests. Anyway, it sure is nice to be in a house by myself again, in spite of the fact that it's still got some problems.
It rained most of the evening and well into the night, but then cleared off.
Halfway through breakfast, the power went off. That's not an infrequent occurrence, of course, but when it didn't come right back on within minutes as it usually does, I began to wonder if it had been shut off for some reason. So I put on my rubber boots and walked back to the meter. It wasn't turning of course, so I checked nearby meters, and they were turning. Now I was really getting worried. I checked the meter seal (yellow, not the red that usually indicates a disconnect order), and walked up to the construction site which shares the meter with me. I had them check, and their power was on. Since I'd already checked the wiring going to both the construction service and the cabina, I figured it had to be a simple power failure. I walked back to the cabina and checked the lights, and thankfully, they were on. So I'm good to go to get appliances today.
I'm off to town to upload blogs and download email, and visit Lawyer #1 to get the corporate papers for my business, which have just arrived from the Registro Nacional. And go to the bank and get some money to get some appliances and pay my rent to both my past and present landlords.
The trip to town worked out reasonably well. Got my papers from the lawyer, and mentioned to him that I'm interested in properties besides the just the one I had been looking at. He suggested one that a client he had been working with had a property for sale and it was a cima (hilltop) as I had been looking for. We drove up together to have a look. The property was not quite on top of a hill, overlooking San Ramon with a beautiful view of the city, but the house was a disappointment. Too large, and in rather poor condition. It would have required considerable work to get it up to livability - it's being used as a bar, and would require a lot of modification, as well as refurbishing. Oh well... another property, another day.
I drove to visit my old landlord and pay the rent due him, and he asked for a ride back to town. I dropped him off at his mechanic's shop, and I went to the appliance store to shop for a stove and refrigerator. I didn't like the price for transportation that the principal appliance dealer in town was asking, so I began to shop around. Found an imported full-sized Whirlpool refrigerator that was being offered as a scratch-and-dent special - the freezer was missing a shelf, and that meant it was offered for a 10% discount - the equivalent of $486, cash and carry. Snatched that deal - especially as they offered to transport it back to my house for free, and the same day. I waited while they hired a 4WD truck, and got it loaded. They then followed me back to my cabina, and I helped them unload it. We struggled with it until it was into the kitchen, and set up and ready to go. There are no power outlets in the kitchen, so I had to go to the ferreteria (hardware store) and get an extension cord, so I could plug it in. I also got a wrench so I could replace the kitchen faucet, which was in pieces, and the landlord told me he couldn't get parts for. So after getting the fridge in place and the faucet replaced, I now have water in the kitchen sink, and a refrigerator happily making ice cubes. Tomorrow I can go to the farmer's market and stock up on tropical fruit, and have a good place to put it. Life is good!
Tomorrow, I've got to purchase a cocina (stove) and get it up here. I'm planning to buy an apartment-sized electric stove, and it should be small enough that I can haul it in the back of my Dodge Raider. Should have no problem getting it here. I'll have to stop at the ferreteria and get the materials I need to wire up an outlet for it, as the kitchen doesn't have an outlet for the stove, either. Fortunately, the breaker panel is surface-mounted in the kitchen, so that will be easy. I just hope that the 500 feet of six-gauge wire between me and the power company's transformer will allow the stove to work properly.
Finally In The Cabina
If you've been following the saga of my efforts to get moved out of the bed and breakfast into the cabina, well, I'm pleased to report that the effort has finally borne fruit.
Today I decided to move to the cabina, whether the power was in or not, and use a generator if it wasn't. Well, in the process of loading my stuff into the car, I found out that ICE, the local power company, had in fact been there and had gotten the power line connected and the meter set.
So it was with considerable joy that I loaded my things and drove to the cabina. It was pouring rain as I hauled the stuff in, and I made a quick survey of things I needed, and made a quick run to the ferreteria (hardware store) and the grocery store. I still don't have a stove and a fridge, but I can manage for a day or two until I can get to the appliance store and get them bought and transported out to the cabina.
I'll have to do without hot water for a time, too, as there is no "suicide shower" installed in the bathroom yet, but that's not as bad as it sounds. The water here comes out of the tap at about 65 degrees this time of the year - cold, but hardly freezing.
The cabina is probably 10 to 15 years old, I'm guessing, and has never had power since it was built, so I carefully turned things on, making sure that all was in order. First, the disconnect knife switch on the side of the house. Switched it on, no problem. Then the breakers in the panel, one by one, no problem. I then went around and checked the outlets, to make sure they were wired correctly, and all had the requisite 120 volts.
At the grocery store, I bought five light bulbs, and the checkout clerk checked each before bagging them - standard practice here. They're a new miniature bulb made by Phillips, about half the size of a regular light bulb. Anyway, I installed one in each of the two bedrooms, the bathroom, the kitchenette and the living room. Turned on the switches, and voila! Light! All the switches work just fine, as do the porcelain receptacles in the ceilings. This is a typical country cabin - just bare lightbulbs in the center of the ceiling.
The cabina is essentially unfurnished; it has a bed and a small sofa and chair in the living room, and four stools for the breakfast bar, but that's about it. I had to improvise a desk for the computer - it's a pair of 1x4 boards sitting on two of the stools from the breakfast bar. But hey, it works, and I've got a place to put my computer and my ham radio and shortwave receiver. It's great - I just need to get some antennas up now, so I can hear something.
Just for the heck of it, I hooked up my WinTV adaptor, and plugged it in to the computer to see what channels I can get with a piece of wire for an antenna. It turns out that I get two quite well - 11 and 13, the first being the main network in the country, and the latter being the fine arts channel. Cool! I've got something to watch until DirecTV gets here to install my next week.
Top priority for tomorrow is to get down to Casa Blanca, the local discount appliance dealer, and see if I can get an apartment stove and a refrigerator bought and delivered. I really hope I can - Friday is market day, and I'd like to take advantage of it to get lots of produce, fruit, cheese and eggs - most of what I'll be eating from now on.
Well, as I type this, I'm watching channel 11 on a window in the corner of the screen. What's interesting is that pornography is illegal here, but they hardly need it. The novelas (soap operas) from Mexico, Venezuela and Argentina that are shown here are pretty steamy. The news is on now, and the Colone, the local currency unit, is now devalued to 410 to the dollar. Lots of news about tin squatter shacks in the Desamparados area being washed away in today's torrential rains.
Had a short session with RACSA yesterday, trying to get the GPRS internet account straightened out. Today, here in the cabina with electric power, was my first real chance to try it, and of course, it didn't work. I still need to get the phone configured, I suspect. Anyway, I've got the phone number of the fellow who seems to know how to do it. I'll go to Fernando and Elizabeth's house in a day or two, when I have time, and get their computer sorted out and use their phone to call my contact and get the cell phone configured.
Two Day Absence
Two days have elapsed since I wrote a blog entry. Well, to tell the truth, there was a lot going on, but my mind was elsewhere. So I just couldn't get myself sat down long enough to write an entry, especially since there was no way to upload the entry to the web site.
My car is still in the shop, though I did get a call from the mechanic just minutes before they closed, letting me know that it is ready. Too late to get to the shop to pick it up, so I've been without it for the weekend.
Yesterday, I went to introduce myself to and visit with a delightful Tico couple who own a truly beautiful home on the hill above the place where I'd been staying. It turns out that both have lived in the United States for some years. And it turns out that they're both very intelligent and informed, and sympathetic to my point of view. I'm afraid that I spent far too much time talking with them, and rather wore out my welcome, but I had a wonderful time talking with them, and I hope that they enjoyed the visit as much as I did. They have a computer with an Internet connection, but it doesn't work properly, and I'm hoping that I can take my modem up there and get it to work on their computer for them and get them back on line.
Tomorrow, I'm planning to pick up my car, get this blog and my last few days' email downloaded at the Internet cafe, and make another stab at getting my GPRS internet connection working. I'm not looking forward to dealing with five days' email, but it's been that long since I've read any of it, and I'm sure some of my frequent correspondents are getting concerned. So I really need to get online again.
Deleted Entry (This entry has been deleted)
Well, I find myself offline. I haven't gotten my GPRS connection working on my cell phone yet - still struggling with RACSA, the local Internet monopoly on that one.
I'm without a car. My car developed a brake problem today, and the left-rear wheel locked up, forcing me to get a tow into San Ramon. It took most of the day for the hook to show - it was finally half-past two when he did. By then, I was late for my appointment with a building contractor whose work I wanted to inspect, and so I hurriedly arranged with the mechanic to do the work I needed done, and caught a cab to my appointment. Fortunately, he was still there, but he could only show me one building in San Ramon that he had built, a three-unit apartment building. The work was decent - solid, no obvious structural problems, but the finish work was rather crude. The good news this afternoon is that the power lines had been installed most of the way to the cabina that I'm renting, so I'm just a few days away from moving in. I hope.