Letters From Exile

...Scott Bidstrup's Life And Living In Costa Rica

Tue, Dec 30 2003

70 cm. Ham Antenna Up

Last night, I got my 70 cm. colinear ham antenna finished. I put it up in the dark and drizzle, but was very interested in how it is performing, so I went ahead and put it up in spite of the cold, rain and darkness. I mounted it on the downspout pipe on the west side of the house. Not a really secure location, but it's not a very big antenna, either, so it should be OK. I left the feedline long enough that I can put it up on the main mast of my G5RV antenna, in case I need to move it there. As soon as it was up, I got on and called one of my ham friends in Alajuela to try it out.

Turns out, it's performing very well. He can turn his large beam antenna all the way around, and I can talk to him from the backside of it, and quite well. I can also key up repeaters that I've never heard before. So I'm pleased that the antenna is working quite well.

Today, my friend in Arenal is going up to Monteverdi to check out several potential sites for crossband repeaters, and it will be interesting to see how it is heard up there. We tried the path to his place in Arenal - over two mountains, through lots of jungle, and 38 miles away, and yet he could hear me and I could hear him! We were totally amazed - this antenna is really working well. I'm pleased with the effort and the low cost - it was certainly worth the trouble.

Beautiful weather today. Periods of fog and wind, but for the most part, the weather is brilliantly clear and the winds moderate. I can see all the way from the Irazu volcano out to the hills on the Nicoya Peninsula. It's a bit windy, but it's warm and clear for a change. A brilliant day in "La Penitencia."

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:48:18 AM

Mon, Dec 29 2003

Weekend Barbeque And Antenna Party

Saturday morning dawned bright and nearly clear, with just a hint of wind. This was a good day for antenna work, so I hurried outside and got the two-meter colinear antenna up and installed - and finished just before the weather turned bad again. I'm pleased to report the new antenna made a significant improvement - both in Alajuela, where most of my ham friends live, and in Arenal, where one of my friends lives, who has had a hard time hearing me, and I, hearing him. Due to the irregularities of the bamboo pole it's mounted on, and the wind that was present during its erection, it's oriented toward the Porvenir volcano - about 23 degrees off the axis of where it needs to be to provide the best signal to my friend in Arenal. So when I have a very calm day, I'm going to loosen up the hose clamps that are holding it up, and raise it up a bit and turn it to face him, at the expense of the signal to Alajuela, where my friends there are already hearing me with plenty of signal.

Friday, I put together my 70 cm. colinear ham radio antenna, but when I went to tune it, I discovered that I wasn't getting particularly useful readings out of my Radio Shack SWR bridge, so I asked around on two-meters to find out if any of my friends had a bridge suitable for that band that I could use. One of my friends in Alajuela had one, so yesterday, I went over to his house, along with another friend, and we had a little antenna party - we needed to build an antenna for the country's two-meter beacon as well as tune my antenna - and decided to have a barbecue after the antennas were done.

When I arrived, I was amazed at the size of his antenna and radio collection. I knew it was big, but I didn't know how big until I actually saw the place. He has about a half acre, and the place is densely packed with antennas and three large towers, one about 100 feet high. He hosts hams who come here from other parts of the world to participate in large operating contests, and has two shacks set up just for them, with guest quarters, detached from the house, and towers, antennas and radios just for them, in addition to his own, very impressive shack.

We quickly settled down to work, to take advantage of the remaining daylight, they working on the beacon antenna, and myself working on my 70 cm. colinear. The antenna tuning went very well - I was able to get my antenna tuned, and when finished, helped with the two-meter horizontally polarized antenna for the beacon.

When finished with the antennas, we got out the meat that we'd bought earlier in the day, and started up the barbeque. We had a bit of difficulty getting it going, as the charcoal was damp from having been in the rain, but a little gasoline and a hair-dryer solved that problem. Pretty soon, we were barbecuing away, no problem.

The carniceria (meat market) was closed earlier in the day when we stopped there, not surprising as it was a Sunday, so we had to buy meat in the supermarket. That's always a gamble here - sometimes you get excellent meat and other times it's awful - from the same supermarket. So we gambled, but won - the meat was excellent. Tender, juicy, flavorful steaks, similar in cut to a porterhouse, and done beautifully on the barbecue. The evening weather in Alajuela last night was delightful - low 70's, not a hint of a breeze, and just about perfect for an evening barbecue. No bugs, either, so the evening couldn't have been more enjoyable.

We had thought about going up to the Irazu volcano's summit communications site today, where we were going to reinstall the two-meter beacon. The weather today would have been perfect for it, but the ham organizing the trip, whose place we barbecued at last night, needed to get prepared for a trip with his family to the beach tomorrow, and he needed to get some marchamos (automobile registration stickers) renewed for a couple of his cars today, as today is the last business day of the year for the banks here. So that got postponed. We decided it was just as well, as we still need to build a six-meter antenna for a six-meter beacon, as well. That didn't get done yesterday, and so when it is done in a week or two, we're planning to go up to the mountain and do it all the beacon installations in one day.

I'm eager to see the Irazu communications site. I saw it from the outside, and took pictures of it when I was here in March, but of course couldn't get in to see the inside of the shelter. It will be fun to see that on this trip and gain a bit of insight into who is doing what in this country with microwave communications. Being up at 11,250 feet, the site is very windy and somewhat chilly, and so one must pick the day to have a pleasant trip. Today would have been a good day - the best in weeks - but other considerations prevailed, and so we stayed at home. That's OK, the weather should be improving, now that we're approaching the end of the usual December cold snap. I took advantage of the nice day today to get my two-meter colinear antenna's bamboo pole secured with some guy ropes so I don't need to worry about high winds blowing it down. I'll spend the afternoon getting my 70 cm. colinear antenna finally assembled and tested, so I can put it up in time for some tests my friend in Arenal wants to do tomorrow from a site in Monteverde.

Last night at the barbecue, I found out that while the village I'm living in at the moment is a very good radio location, it is also known throughout Costa Rica for its inclement weather. It's the second windiest place in the country, and one of the coldest. In fact, the Ticos call this place "La Penitencia," meaning the place that God sends people to do penance. Don't know what I did, but it must have been bad.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:04:23 AM

Fri, Dec 26 2003

Shaky Christmas

After going to bed quite late on Christmas Eve, as the result of playing around with my new PSK31 ham radio toys, I was abruptly awakened at 1:13 AM on Christmas morning, by what felt at first like someone shaking my bed. When I was finally fully awake, I realized that we were experiencing an earthquake. In the morning, I found out that it was epicentered at Puerto Armuellas, just across the border on the Pacific side of Panama. I don't know what the strength was, but it felt to my California-experienced body like about a 5 on the Richter scale, and lasted for about 30 seconds - much longer than most California earthquakes I've experienced. That strength must be about right - it caused a single building to collapse in Puerto Armuellas, killing one person. According to AMCostaRica.com, the earthquake was a 6.3, and caused some damage and a few minor injuries in Costa Rica.

The next morning on the 40m. ham net, I found out that it was felt in Panama City to the Nicaragua border. It was epicentered in an area of the Panamanian subduction zone, and big ones there are not unheard of, but are not particularly common. We get a lot more earthquakes on this side of the border, but most are quite small. This is the first that I know I've felt for sure since I've been here, though there have been quite a few small ones since I arrived in the country. There was no noticable damage to the cabina, nor did anything come crashing to the floor.

I spent the day Christmas day, puttering around on my PSK31, and copying conversations between stations from all over the world. I've found that many countries that are common on "phone" (voice) are relatively uncommon on PSK31, and vice versa. The biggest surprise has been that Cuba is quite common on PSK31, with a surprising number of signals of good quality, but is relatively rare on phone. I've heard at least three other Costa Rica stations on PSK31 as well, more commonly than I hear them on phone. So I don't know how popular I'll be on PSK31, nor how many QSL card (written confirmations) I can expect to have to send out. I didn't have any invitations, so I spent the day at home, and was happy to do so, having a lot of fun with PSK31. I found out that the software supports other digital modes as well, and so late in the day, I figured out how to get the MFSK16 mode working. It seems to be a bit more robust than PSK31 - signals that are weaker will produce better, more error-free printing than similar signals on PSK31. But I suspect if I had a radio with adjustable bandwidth, that advantage would disappear, and PSK31 would be the more robust mode.

Today is Friday, and that means it's market day, so I've got to get to town and do my thing in the market with a handful of 'shrapnel.' I'll also stop at the ferreteria (hardware store) and get the materials I need to build a 70 cm. colinear antenna, so I can get on the air on that band.

One of the local hams has asked me for some help with antenna installation on the 2 meter beacon on top of the Irazu volcano, so I'll probably be going up there on Saturday or Sunday. I'm looking forward to that - haven't been up there since my trip here in March, and I'd love to see the communications site, which I haven't yet seen.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:30:41 AM

Wed, Dec 24 2003

Quite A Scare

After operating my 70 cm. radio, with it's 50 watts of UHF energy right next to the computer, I had quite a scare this morning when I tried to log into the internet here at the internet cafe.

Seems that I could send ethernet packets to the LAN, but I didn't receive any when plugged into my usual outlet. So the internet connection wouldn't work. I greatly feared having damaged the computer with all that radio energy, and so I plugged into a different outlet and got exactly the same result. Wow! I'm really scared now!

Well, I used one of the cafe's computers, and it was working fine - the net was up and flying, so by now I'm convinced I've blown up my computer. As a final test, I asked the manager to let me plug into the port that the cafe's computer was plugged into, and it works! So my computer is OK; there are two bad ports on the internet cafe's LAN. Whew!

From here on out, I'll have to use a different outlet. But at least my computer is still operational, and I can still update this blog. What a relief!

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 01:17:53 PM

All Dressed Up And Nowhere To Go

Well, today is Christmas Eve, of course, and in this heavily Catholic country, the whole town is more or less shut down. I've not tried the Internet cafe yet, to see if it's open, but I'll do that later. I'd also like to stop at the cigar store and see if they've received my books, which would be nice to explore during this coming four-day weekend - when I can't go much of anywhere else anyway. So I've got to get to town and do that before noon - they're likely to close around then.

Yesterday evening, I ran some tests with one of my ham friends in San Jose who wanted to see if he has a path to me. It turns out we do, and a very good one - his signals on 70 cm. simplex are very strong. I'm encouraged, but not enough to want to buy a home on this cold, windy hilltop. I still think I'll look at the property in Berlin - even though it's higher, it's actually less windy, and it would be an outstanding investment if the telecommunications in this country ever get privatized. And the vegetation I saw up there leads me to believe that in spite of being higher, it's actually warmer up there. That wouldn't surprise me - the microclimates in this country are really amazing at how they can vary that way. Maybe I'll take a trip up there during the weekend when I don't have much else going on, and the weather won't permit me to put up my antenna. Whether or not I would buy would depend on the Nicaraguans that live in the tin shacks on the corner of the property. If they could be convinced to sell, I'd be very interested in buying the property.

I'm also going to try to get some material at the ferreteria (hardware store) today and if successful, spend the weekend working on a colinear antenna for 70 cm. It would be fun to get both of the colinears up this week, and be able to have some good signals locally for a change. Don't know if they'll be open - I doubt it - but it would be nice to have a project to do this weekend. It's possible they're open, selling last minute Christmas gifts.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:05:01 AM

Tue, Dec 23 2003

A Little Christmas Present

I haven't until now gotten serious about putting up an antenna for the 70 cm. ham band, because I didn't have a radio that transmits on the Costa Rican 70 cm. allocation. So I haven't worried about it.

Well, last night, I talked with a local ham who had some modification information that would allow me to do so with the radio that I have. It will be a nice little Christmas present if I can get on that band - there are several expats on it, and one repeater, just returned to operability, so it's worth having equipment to work it. So today, I tried the modification, and it worked, so now getting together a serious 70 cm. antenna will assume some priority. I'll probably put together a 4-element colinear, similar to the two-meter antenna I've already put together. It shouldn't be anywhere near as serious a project, as it will be only a third the size. In fact, I'll probably put it together out of 1/2" plastic pipe and 1/8" copper tubing for the electrical part of it. Unfortunately, I'm going to have to use my Radio Shack SWR bridge, well outside it's design frequency, and hope that it will work accurately enough to detect the resonant point of the antenna.

I also found out yesterday that the ham that hasn't been on lately, is not on the air for precisely the reason I'd feared - he's been offended and didn't wish to be on the air, but I wasn't sure who offended him or what was said. Yesterday, I sent him an email with a considerable helping of humble pie and offered an apology and asked for forgiveness if it was me and was in reference to what I think it was. He broke in to our conversation this morning, and while he didn't say over the air what happened, he did inform me that he sent me an email. When I got to the Internet cafe this afternoon and read it, it confirmed my fears that I had contributed to the situation. I sent an apology by reply email, and he seems to have accepted that. He's back, and seems to have forgiven me, and that's what's important to me.

When I got home, I did the modification to the radio, and we got on the air and tried the 70 cm. frequencies on my radio, and it worked fine. I'm able, using a jury-rigged, quick-and-dirty baling-wire antenna to talk to one of the hams in the San Jose area, 30 miles distant. That inspired us to try a 'crossband repeat' operation, and see if it would work. One of my friends can hear me just fine on two meters as well as 70 cm., but can't hear another friend, and I can hear both just fine. So we set up my 70 cm./two-meter radio into its crossband repeat mode, so whatever was heard on one band would be automatically retransmitted on the other. With that, each station could hear the other, and it worked fine. That's inspired us to consider installing a crossband repeater which will enable each to hear and talk to the other, no problem.

The cold, drizzly, foggy and windy weather continues, and I still can't install my two-meter colinear. A friend who has lived here for thirty years says I've got two months more of this weather to enjoy. I've definitely got to find a lower, warmer and less windy place to hang my hat. This is just too much for me - it's very reminiscent of the weather I experienced in the Aleutian Islands, only the weather here is about ten to fifteen degrees warmer. Just not my cup of tea - certainly not the weather I expected when I moved to Costa Rica.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:33:26 PM

Mon, Dec 22 2003

Christmas Week Is Here - And So Is The Wind

Christmas week has arrived, and with it, the wind has arrived in Costa Rica. This is typically the windiest time of the year here, and the village where I'm living, on top of a ridge-top as it is, it's particularly windy - and cold! One of my ham friends, a native of Costa Rica, says that this country has two seasons, the rainy season and the windy season. Well, others tell me that the start of the dry is the windiest time, and it sure is that now. I've been seeing winds as high as 50 mph. here, and they've been playing havoc with my antennas. At night, I can look out over the city of San Ramon and see what look like small lightening flashes - and a section of town will go black for half a second, and then come back on. It's quite a show.

Friday night, the wind was blowing so hard here that it snapped one of my fresh bamboo antenna poles. The wind was blowing so hard, it literally bent the pole in the middle until it broke, about two feet below the guy point. That means the top six feet was lost, but Saturday morning, in spite of the high winds, I managed to put it back up, in a spot where the terrain made up for most of the difference. So my antenna is only about two feet lower than it was.

During the rest of the day Saturday, I went through all the guy ropes, fittings, etc., to make sure they were secure from the wind. Well, the feedline for the HF antenna broke, fortunately near the ground, so it was easy to repair, and I got that back on the air. I found that the wind had stretched some of the guy ropes, so I got them re-tensioned, and now everything appears to be secure. At least it's survived the last two days of high wind.

This morning, the wind speed has abated a bit, but it's still unpleasantly windy, and add to that, the fog and drizzle that are so common here, and you've got an idea of how the weather has been. It's also been unusually cold, too, with temperatures as low as the low 60's. Not real sure of the actual temperature, as I don't have a thermometer to actually measure it - they're hard to find here for reasons I don't quite understand. Perhaps the natives figure that the temperature is always close to perfect, so there's never a need to measure it. Well, in this village it isn't, so I'd like to have a thermometer to measure my misery. I do know that I have to wear at least a flannel shirt, sometimes a sweatshirt to be comfortable, but when I drive to San Ramon, just three hundred feet lower, a T-shirt is just fine. It's remarkable how much difference just a little difference in elevation makes here.

One of the fellows who's normally on our morning 7086 Khz. gathering hasn't been on for two days. We don't know why - he hasn't been on either two meters or on the morning forty-meter gathering. As he's living alone at the moment, we're getting concerned. I've tried calling him on the phone, but he's not answering, so I'm concerned that there may be something wrong. It's not like him to simply disappear for days at a time. Either he's been offended by something that has been said and isn't talking to us, or he may have been incapacitated by a medical problem or violent armed robbery. Sure hope it isn't one of the latter - l'd feel terrible if I found out that he needed help and we weren't there for him. I suspect that he's been offended, because I tried calling this morning, and his line was busy, so he's obviously able to use the telephone, and that tells me he's not speaking to us. I certainly wish he'd answer the phone I call, so I could at least apologize. We miss him, and we value his friendship, so I'd do anything, including driving an hour to his house, to offer an apology in person if that's what it took to get him back on the air with us.

This morning's agenda is basically to go to town, get to the Internet cafe and upload and download email, then beat a hasty retreat back to the cabina. Christmas week, and the week between Christmas and New Year's is a time of partying, noise and nonsense, not to mention crowded streets in town, and I'm happy to stay as far from that as possible. Now that my taxes are done, and filed, I've got no pressing business till the first of the month, so I'm planning on staying home as much as possible. No invites so far for Christmas dinner, so the day will probably be spent at home, talking on my ham radio.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:16:26 AM

Fri, Dec 19 2003

Taxes Done - At Least For Costa Rica

Well, the last four days I've been focused "like a laser beam" on getting my taxes done (that's why there haven't been any blog entries). This was the last opportunity to get them done, as this whole country effectively shuts down during Christmas week and the week after, and so it was unlikely I'd be able to get in and see my accountant and get the forms to the bank and get them filed if I waited past today.

Wednesday, Lawyer #1 called and told me that he had been to the tax office in Alajuela, and got my Form D140s filed. Those forms are basically to register the Sociedad Anonimas (S.A.s as corporations are known here) with the tax office, and report those corporation's physical and postal addresses, and notify that they had commenced business operations. The most important forms, the D175s that report those company's assets and are the basis of taxes due, must be filed by the 31st, and have to be filled out by an accountant. I'd planned to have the lawyer fill them out, but it turned out he had to be out of town. So I had to get in to see my accountant today, at the latest. I went there yesterday, but he wasn't in, and today, he wasn't in either, but when I explained my predicament to his colleague in my broken Spanish, he kindly got out my file, filled out the forms for me and gave them to me to take to the bank, and in an hour, it was done. I was surprised when he refused payment! I'd love to see a CPA in the States refuse payment for doing taxes for two corporations!

Anyway, by eleven, I had the completed tax forms in hand, and went to the bank with them. The receptionist checked them over, stamped them, and returned my copies to me. They're done at last! Not that they were a big deal; they really weren't, just that it took a bit of running around to get it taken care of. After that, it was off to the Internet cafe to do my email, and back home, where I spent most of the afternoon waiting out the wind and chatting on my ham radio.

Now, I've got to get the taxes done for the U.S. They're not going to be anywhere near so easy, of course, and if it weren't that I have something of a refund due, I wouldn't bother - I didn't have any significant amount of taxable income this year. And I'll have to order the software from the States, install it, do my taxes, and then generate the forms and send them in.

Because I've been so focused on getting my local taxes done, I haven't done any more towards getting my two-meter colinear antenna installed. Yesterday, I did manage to get it repaired and re-assembled, but since the glue has been dry, it's been so windy that I haven't been able to get outside to do any antenna work at all. I would like to move one of the bamboo poles, too - it will enable me to get another six feet out of one end of the HF antenna, and that would be enough to make a bit of difference in a pinch. Worth doing. But my first effort when the weather improves is going to be to install the colinear.

The weather has been incredibly windy - wind speeds in excess of 40 miles per hour - for two days runnning, with fog and cold temperatures, and periods of drizzly rain. Yesterday, the wind was blowing so hard it actually broke the mount that my existing temporary two-meter antenna is installed on. I was going to reglue a broken glue joint - but I decided that rather than regluing it, I could drill it and install a pin - which would enable me to shift it to horizontal polarization if I needed to. And that would be a good idea, since the fellows I'm talking with a lot these days are always fooling around with horizontally polarized antennas. So I did that - drilled holes for both vertical and horizontal orientation. The antenna's back up now, but as windy as it is, I'm not sure it's likely to last. I'll be glad when the colinear is up, and I won't have to worry about it anymore. As I was writing this, I heard something hit the roof - a good, loud clunk. I went out and had a look in the fading sunset light - nothing visible on either side of the house. It must have been the wind whipping the temporary antenna's whip around.

I didn't make it to the farmer's market today, focused as I was on getting my tax forms filled out and filed, so tomorrow morning, I've got to grab a handful of pocket change and head over to the Agricola (agriculture center) for my week's food. I'm looking forward to seeing if the mangoes are coming down in price. They've been in the market for about three weeks, but haven't been particularly sweet, and have been very expensive. If they're down to 400 Colones per kilo (about 50 cents per pound - even then a bit expensive), I'll get some and see if they're any good yet. Tomatoes and bananas have been going up, as more and more are getting shipped north to the States, and potatoes are getting scarce, but pineapple is now blessedly cheap - field ripened, they're going for about 70 cents for a medium-sized one. I love fresh pineapple when it's field ripened, and so I usually buy two, and they provide a wonderfully sweet and healthy dessert for every dinner of the week - I never seem to tire of them. Food is running around $15 per week for me, a significant expense, but not a huge burden.

Eating mostly produce and the low-fat meat that is found here, and doing a lot more walking than I used to in Phoenix, my health has improved and I'm losing weight slowly. Three inches off my waist since I moved here in August. If I can keep that going for another six months, I'll be looking a lot better. The food here is certainly a lot healthier than eating an American diet.

As I'm writing this, at about six in the evening as it grows dark outside, I'm hearing coyotes howling. It's awfully early for coyotes to be out and about here. We have a lot of them in Costa Rica, but they're usually not heard until late at night. On investigating, I found that they're in a cattle pasture on the hillside just west of me. I suspect that a cow or bull is down in the pasture, and the coyotes have moved in for the kill. I'll have a look in the morning.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 05:06:55 PM

Mon, Dec 15 2003

Antenna Weekend

This weekend was antenna weekend. The weather on Friday morning wasn't great, but it was good enough that I decided to go ahead and finish getting my big antenna for my ham radio. After the morning gab session, which ran longer than I normally would have liked, I hurried, got down to the farmer's market and did my weekly grocery shopping and hurried home. The weather had actually improved, and by then it was a perfect day for doing antenna work. No wind, no rain and just enough clouds to break the sun's heat. So I went to work.

I got the pole up for the end opposite the one for which I did the pole on Friday.

As I was working on it, my landlord came by, and encouraged me. His reaction was precisely what I figured it would be - "Put up all the antennas you like," he said. "Make this place your home!" He wants me to get as committed to staying here as he can manage - he wants that reliable gringo rent money.

And as soon as I got the second pole done, and pulled the antenna up, the other side broke. I now had no choice but to go ahead and finish the antenna work by pulling down the center mast and replacing it, since the break occurred at the top of the second mast. By now it was just after one PM, and I figured that I could get the center mast up and replaced if I worked hard at getting it done. I got the old mast, a couple of pieces of plastic pipe glued together pulled down, got the new bamboo pole prepared and tried to raise it, with the two-meter colinear antenna strapped to it. Unfortunately, the combination proved too heavy to handle, so I had to abandon that effort. I removed the colinear, and tried again. This bamboo, freshly cut and still wet and green and 35 feet long, proved to be barely manageable just by itself. I had to use plan "B" and wrestle the pole up and rest it on the roof flashing while I pushed it upright. Fortunately, the flashing was well fastened, and it didn't pull up and loosen as I'd feared it might. So eventually, I got it up, and got the guy ropes secured. By now, it was getting close to four, and the sun was getting low in the west.

I looked at the old antenna where it had broken, and discovered that the wire had rusted in two. It was where the coax had been connected, and I figure that the presence of the copper had caused the wire to rust from electrolysis. So I decided that I'd best replace the antenna wire, and this time prepare the coax connection in such a manner as to make sure that there would be no stress where the antenna wire was connected to the feedline. Since I acquired a surveyor's tape last week, I measured out a proper G5RV antenna - a 103 ft. dipole, fed with 30 feet of 300 ohm TV antenna twin-lead. After being careful to make sure it was secure, I hoisted it up the pole, and cleaned up the mess I'd made, and went inside to test. I raised one of my friends, in San Antonio de Belen, about 28 km. from me, and tried it out. I was pleased with the results - the antenna is now up about ten feet higher than it's been, and my signal is now strong enough that I could carry on a conversation uninterrupted by signal fades.

Both yesterday and today, I had a wonderful session on 7086 with the payaso gang, being heard reliably for the first time since I've been on the air. It was a very satisfying feeling to know that I can be heard when I want to be. My antenna focus now going to shift to getting the two-meter colinear mounted where I can use it to good effect, and getting a 70 cm. antenna built and installed. This morning, I'm really itching and scratching from all the chiggers and blackflies I stirred up during all that work out in the tall grass, and of course, they got their revenge. My upper arms and elbows especially are a mass of chigger bites.

Today, I've got to finish the grocery shopping I didn't get a chance to finish over the weekend. A stop at the hardware store as well, and I should be ready to get the colinear up. I'm really looking forward to being heard well on two meters for the first time, too. I'm waiting to hear from my lawyer that he made it to Alajuela to file my first tax forms. Later in the week, I'll fill out and file the last of them.

It's beautiful weather today, too. I'm really enjoying it - it's like a pleasant June day back in Idaho where I grew up - puffy clouds, light breezes and pleasant 70-degree temperatures. It's the weather I came to Costa Rica for. Now if it will just last...

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:01:13 AM

Fri, Dec 12 2003

Honing My Campesino Skills

Today I had little on the agenda other than going to the Internet cafe and doing my week's grocery shopping with the handful of pocket change I've accumulated over the week. So I thought I'd use the free time to put up antennas, but the weather wasn't cooperating with that program. Other than the trip to town, I'm stuck in the house with little to do.

I figured that the one task remaining before putting up the bamboo poles and hanging the antennas from them, was to clean up the poles, and trim the branches off of them. And there was no reason why the wind and rain should stop me from that task, so I decided to get out my $3, Made-In-El-Salvador machete, and go to work.

Giant bamboo, especially when green, isn't all that easy to work with if you don't know how. Well, the gringo here tried several approaches to cleaning the branch nodes off of the poles, and nothing seemed to work, some attempts causing minor damage to the poles, until I hit on the method by which it is done: a cut is made on the branch node from below, about a third of the way through. Then with a wide, fast swing of the machete from above the node, the blade goes through and neatly slices it off. The result looks like it was done by machine - a nice, clean cut on the pole where the node used to be. A half-hour's work on the three poles, and they're all ready now. Clean, easy to handle and looking as good as a bamboo pole ever looks.

About the time I finished cleaning the poles, the rain and wind abated enough to get some work done on putting them up. I decided I'd take a chance and see if I could get at least one of the poles up and the antenna strung from it. So I put on my rubber boots, got out the polypropylene cord that I bought recently, and went to work. I got a pole up that supports the south end of the antenna, and got the antenna up on it. By the time I was done, it was four in the afternoon, and I figured there wasn't enough daylight left to do the pole on the other end, so I came inside and couldn't wait to see if it made a difference. It clearly has - I can hear the noise floor on the 20 meter band, and the broadcast stations are a good S-unit stronger on the 41 and 49 meter bands. It'll be interesting to see if there is any difference tomorrow morning with the other payasos being able to hear me on 40 meters.

ICE (pronounced EE-say), the local telephone/power company, came by today, looking for the house that is under construction a few hundred yards away. They thought that the telephone order they had was for my house, but I showed them that my order is in a different name, and pointed out that the number on the order was different, too. Of course, if they wanted to put in a telephone, I wouldn't complain, but that's not going to happen. They looked over the situation to the construction site, and to my house, and told me I'll have to run a telephone wire from where my landlord's power meter is located, to the house I'm in - no problem; I'd be happy to do that. But I'm not sure I'm going to stay here that much longer anyway, so if they don't get the order completed, I don't much care. I've decided that I'm going to move. I don't much care for this particular micro-climate. It's much too windy, rainy and cold for my taste. I've concluded that in this particular village, down-slope as it is from the Tilaran Mountains and the famous Monteverde Cloud Forest, the "rainy" season is when the mornings are bright, clear and beautiful, but it clouds over and rains buckets in the afternoon - and the "dry" season is when it is just plain windy and rainy all the time.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 12:40:14 PM

Thu, Dec 11 2003

They Pulled The Plug

Seems that ICE, the local power company, came out and pulled the plug on the electricity yesterday. The bill hadn't been paid.

There was apparently a misunderstanding between my landlord, from whom I get my power, and the manager of the construction that is going on next door. My landlord had an arrangement with them whereby they brought power into his house so they could take a temporary construction service from the house over to the construction site while ICE was getting a pole line built over to that house. Well, there was a misunderstanding as to who was to pay the bill.

The upshot is, of course, that each thought the other was paying the bill. Didn't happen. So as ICE is rather hardnosed about overdue bills, they came out and pulled the power.

It happened at about 10 AM yesterday, and I was in the middle of a conversation on the radio with one of my friends. The house went dark and the radios silent, so I figured it was a temporary outage here, and thought I'd wait it out. When it didn't come on for an hour, I figured I'd better check it out.

When I did, I found that the seal on the meter had been replaced with a red tag. That means that they pulled the plug on us. I tried calling my landlord, but didn't get through, and left a message on his answering machine.

I left for my daily session at the Internet cafe, and when I returned, I found he was there, along with three fellows from the construction site. They were discussing what had happened. It was clear that there had been a misunderstanding.

The construction people had ordered the electrical service, but had put it in my landlord's name, without his knowing about it. He wasn't all that impressed, since he'd had a deposit and application for power service applied for years ago, but it hadn't been acted on, because he didn't have the money to install the required pole line. Anyway, the upshot was that the construction people paid the bill so they could get the power turned back on and resume construction.

By the time the discussion was over, ICE had been back to the meter and had turned the power back on. So no serious problem; my food in the fridge didn't spoil. But dealing with the issue meant no work done on my antennas that afternoon.

During the evening, however, I did manage to get the power divider for my 4-bay colinear tuned and the antenna tested and reassembled. It's now just waiting for decent weather so I can put up the poles it will mount on.

Last night it rained, and hard, most of the night. It was just like the rainy season weather. The wind would come up between rainy periods, and blow pretty hard. This morning, it's blowing about as hard as I can recall it ever having blown since I've been here. So even though the rain has stopped, and the fog has lifted, I still can't get any antenna work done.

I went to Lawyer #1 and my accountant this morning to see if they had time to work on my tax forms, and it turned out they wanted to do them right then and there. They're in Spanish, of course, so I can't make heads nor tails of them, and I want to be sure I'm filling them out properly anyway. He filled them out, had me sign them, and had to create some personias (certificates of representation) to submit with them - along with yet more copies of my passport, etc. Turns out that the accountant advised me to fill out form D140, in addition to the D175 that I already knew about - and D140 is due by the 15th. So we hurried, got them filled out, and all the required documents for them rounded up, and they're now ready to submit to the tax office in Alajuela. Since my lawyer has to file the same forms himself, he's going on Monday to file his and mine. Once he has a receipt for those forms, I then go back and fill out form D175, and submit it by the 31st. Glad I didn't wait any longer than I did - the penalty for a failure to file is $185 for the 175 and possibly jail for the 140! It pays to keep your head up around here!

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:38:59 AM

Tue, Dec 09 2003

The BBC Drought

I have been tuning around the shortwave bands this morning, looking for an open BBC frequency to listen to. The English service to the Carribean and Latin America closes at about ten in the morning, so I'm forced to look for a frequency serving another part of the world. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much on offer. The Voice Of America, more accurately described as the Voice Of The Bush Administration, on the other hand, offers many frequencies to choose from, and a suitably strong signal can be found on just about every band, but why listen to a service that is blatantly intended to be propaganda? I don't find VOA to be very appealing, frankly.

It's a sad commentary on the state of affairs in Britain these days that the Blair administration isn't funding the World Service any better than it is. And the BBC World Service that remains from all the budget cuts has moved steadily to the right - presumably in an effort to not offend the source of it's funding, the Labour government.

I've found only a single frequency, 12,095 Khz., that is available during the daytime hours here. The signal is weak and fading, as it is directed elsewhere, but it is nevertheless all that is to be heard here during the day. If I didn't have a good antenna up, it wouldn't be listenable.

The situation with BBC World, the television version of the World Service, is disappointing, too. BBC World is set up as a money-making enterprise, on offer only to the subscribers of cable and satellite television services, and the result is that BBC World is trying to appeal to as many people as possible, in order to make the service attractive to the cable and satellite service providers. That means that the editorial content of the news programs is significantly different. You'll see more of the U.S.-media-style "infotainment" content on BBC World than you'll hear on the World Service news programs - freeway crashes, murder stories (mostly in Britain), and other such sensational content. The big story at the moment seems to be a murder of two young girls in Britain, and the trial of the suspect. And the last two days, there's been news of the trial in Germany of a man accused of being a cannibal, and having advertised on the Internet for victims willing to be eaten. Sensational, but not of much interest to me - and I fail to see why it is on an otherwise respectable international news program. Since the demise of Radio For Peace International, I'm not able to listen to any progressive radio anymore, and being limited to increasingly less professional journalism is getting depressing.

I guess I'm carping because today is the fourth day straight of Aleutian-like weather here in this village - an unremitting, dense, drizzly fog, driven by a forty-mile an hour wind, and chilly temperatures. It has me depressed and unable to get any work done outside towards getting my ham antennas erected. The temperatures have been about as cold as they get here, in the low to mid sixties, and getting up in the morning to see my breath is not why I moved to Costa Rica. I think I'm going to start asking around in San Ramon today to see if I can find a rental house in a somewhat more congenial micro-climate. People who have lived here for years tell me that I managed to pick just about the worst one available anywhere in the country at this elevation. It's a great place for radio, but it's just too darned cold and windy!

Today, while the weather is still crummy, I'm planning to get some material to make some dummy loads. I need them to tune the phasing harness that I need for my four-bay colinear antenna. That should be done in a day or two, and I can then get that antenna ready to mount on a bamboo pole and get it on the air. Hopefully, that will cheer me up a bit.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:07:59 AM

Sun, Dec 07 2003

Bamboo Day Today

Yesterday was antenna day; I decided to get off my one-spot and get my colinear antenna built for two meters. As soon as the morning ham radio coffee klatch which we jokingly refer to as the payaso (clown) net was done, I went to work. Using some eighth-inch copper tubing I bought at the ferreteria (hardware store) on Friday, I built and tuned two two-element colinear driven elements, and enclosed them in PVC plastic pipe. I then built a phasing harness and assembled the whole thing into a single antenna. Unfortunately the pagamento (glue) that is available here takes much longer to dry than what I'm used to using, and I picked it up before one of the joints was hardened enough to withstand the strain, and it broke open. I reglued it. By now, it was six thirty in the evening, and I was dog tired, so I fixed supper and went straight to bed, figuring that I'd let the glue dry overnight before trying again to raise the antenna.

When I woke up this morning, it was quite late - I'd slept for ten hours - and it was already bright and sunny when I awoke. It was late enough that I thought that the payaso net was over, but it turned out that it wasn't - my friend from Panama was on there, and there was a fellow from Guatemala who checked in. When it was over, I turned my attention to raising the antenna. Unfortunately, when I picked it up, the same joint broke again. I hadn't gotten it pushed far enough together, and the pagamento was still soft. I scraped it all off, and reglued the joint, making sure this time that it was pushed together as far as I could get it - at least as far as it was in the original gluing, and probably further. There was nothing more I could do until it dries, and I'm going to allow at least a day for that. So I decided to go for a walk.

I walked down to a friend's place, but it was closed up, an indication that he wasn't home, so I continued walking down the road. I walked past a bamboo grove that I know about, and found a campesino working there. I asked if the bamboo grove next to where he was working was his, and he said it wasn't, but that he had a bamboo grove on his own property, so he walked me down there and introduced me to his son, and told him to cut some bamboo for me. He did. It is really good bamboo, too - almost solid wood at the base. I acquired three poles about thirty feet long each, and when I get my HF wire antenna up on these poles, I'll have no problem being heard. I'm planning to mount the antenna I made yesterday on the side of this pole, and that will get it up about 20 feet above the ground and well clear of the roof of the house. It will ensure that I can orient it as I need to, and I'll have a strong signal everywhere I need to have it. The plastic pipe I already have will go on top of the longest of my bamboo poles, and that will get the feedpoint about 50 feet off the ground - plenty of height for HF radio.

By the time I got the bamboo back to the house (carried it on top of my car, scratching the roof paint a bit), I was thoroughly exhausted, so I took a good long siesta. There's not much more I can do to get it up today - it's very windy, and I need some hose clamps I don't have. So that's work for this coming week.

I figured I'd best check the antenna I made yesterday before I put it up, and so I soldered a connector on the end of the coax cable, and checked the standing wave ratio. Unfortunately, it proved to be too high. Investigation indicated that the problem is the phasing harness, so I've got to tune it - a job I was hoping to avoid. I'll get some copper tubing at the ferreteria tomorrow when I get some hose clamps and pipe couplings, and that will greatly facilitate the tuning as I've figured out a way to make a rather crude connector out of it. That will speed the process, which is likely to be rather tedious.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 01:02:30 PM

Fri, Dec 05 2003

Today Was Going To Be Antenna Day

Today was going to be antenna day. I had intended to start working on getting my HF antenna up in the air a bit higher, but unfortunately, I found that one of the three bamboo poles that were given to me last week was just too rotten to use. So I'm reduced to finding some fresh poles that I can use, and I don't know anyone with a giant bamboo grove close by where I can cut some bamboo and bring the poles home. I'd dearly love to find some forty-footers, but getting them transported any distance might get a bit interesting. I know someone who has a grove, but he's on the far side of San Ramon. And I don't want to have to lash them to the roof of my car and try to drive poles that long all the way back here - about ten miles. So I'm going to ask around in the village and find out if anyone has a grove where I can cut some poles.

Yesterday, I had a visit from a ham friend who lives up in Arenal, with whom I've been chatting with on 40 meters and on two meters as well. He was on his way to Belen to see the friend I had visited on Tuesday. He's an interesting fellow - has been many of the places I've been to, and was a delight to get to know. He owns a botanical garden up there, which is a major tourist destination in the country, and I need to get up there and take pictures anyway, so maybe in a week or two, I'll head up there and see his shack and tour his garden. He sells nursery stock, so he's a good man to know for that reason alone - he knows what grows here and what doesn't. He's recommending that I get some giant bamboo and plant it for windbreak here - he says its an excellent windbreak and has the advantage of providing all the poles I could ever hope to use - his grove is producing poles 60 to 70 feet long routinely. It's a great idea, and I think I'll do that if I stay here.

Yesterday was a good day for doing antenna work, but I didn't get any done. I'd accumulated so much email that it took me much of the day to finish it. By the time I was done, it was too late to do a blog entry, so I headed off to the internet cafe without having written one, and did my mail transaction anyway, quite late in the day. Today, I have far less email, so I've got the time to write a blog entry for the first time in three days. I'd hoped to spend some time doing antenna work, but no cigar - I'll have to do that this weekend if the weather holds.

Today it is bright, sunny and dry for a change, with just a scattering of patchy low clouds, and temperatures in the low 70's. Not much wind, either. It would have been a great day to get started on the antennas, but I don't think that will happen. I've got to get some poles first. But I sure hope to do that tomorrow and Sunday if I can get some poles in time. It's warmer today, too. I sure hope that means our usual December cold snap is over, and I can look forward to the nice weather that everyone says is coming. I heard this morning on 40 meters from another local ham that there's a low-pressure area moving in, and if that's true, the weather won't hold. It'll get cold, rainy and windy again. Looks like more indoor work on my two-meter antenna! Arrgh!

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:33:29 AM

Tue, Dec 02 2003

Coax Day Today

Today was coax day. My goal for the day was to get some good coaxial cable to build the antennas that I need. So I set out to drive to Alajuela. Going down the hill from my house, I encountered three accidents, and was sure hoping that wasn't a bad omen. As it turns out, it wasn't. I made it to San Antonio de Belen just fine, and found my ham friend who lives there. We had a wonderful visit at his house, and had a good time getting acquainted, with lots of papaya smoothies prepared by his wife. They were wonderful!

Around noon, we headed over to Alajuela, where he knows of a cable shop that sells coaxial cable of adequate quality. Well, my hopes weren't too high, and they weren't dashed. The shop does have suitable cables, but just barely. Certainly not what I would call top-grade, but adequate to get me by. Had I known, I'd have bought a couple of rolls of cable and shipped them down with my household goods, but it's too late for that. So I looked over their stock and bought what they had.

I now have cable sufficient for my needs to get my antennas built, and get them on the air. The shop also had some 300-ohm twin lead, and I got that too, so I can now tune one of my existing antennas properly. Anyway, I dropped off my friend back at his home in Belen, and headed back to San Ramon.

It was cold and rainy, and just after dark when I got home, so I didn't try to go to the hardware store to get the plastic pipe and fittings I will need for the antenna. Instead, I spent the evening tuning around the ham bands and watching TV. Tomorrow is another day, and I've got a big shopping day planned, as I need to get the pipe and fittings before I can do much of anything else. I'll also get some pulleys and rope so I can get my HF antenna up higher. And with my newly acquired twin-lead, I can tune it properly as well.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:08:21 AM

Mon, Dec 01 2003

First Of December

Today is Monday, the first of December, and that means the rent is due. I've got to go to visit my landlord and get that paid. I've also got to get the tax forms for my corporations bought, filled out and sent in before the end of the month. That's on the agenda for today, along with a brief grocery shopping trip. So is going to the bank and getting some cash - I'm planning a trip to Alajuela tomorrow to purchase some coax cable for my ham radio stuff, and also visit one of the new friends I've made on the ham radio since I've been on the air. He's going to take me over to the cable shop where I can get "the good stuff."

Saturday was a somewhat productive day. I visited some gringo friends who live just down the hill from me, and I mentioned that I needed some bamboo poles for my ham radio antennas, and it turns out they had some they were going to abandon. So I grabbed three of the better ones, and hauled them home. They're not really big - the longest is only a 25-footer, but that should make a big difference in my signal. Bringing them home thoroughly soiled my sweatshirt, so I did laundry as well.

Yesterday, out of sheer boredom as much as anything else, I decided to make up and tune the driven elements for the 4-bay colinear antenna I am building. Since I had some coax that I bought last week locally, I decided to use it for the baluns. When I stripped it, I was quite shocked to discover that it was some of the cheapest coax I'd ever encountered in my life - the braid was maybe 50 percent coverage at best. Well, the baluns only carry half the power, and only for a half-wavelength, so I decided that I'd go ahead and use it anyway. The losses couldn't be that bad. So I used my electric fence wire to fabricate the elements and matching sections, and the coax to fabricate the baluns. They ended up tuning just fine - in fact, quite sharply. So the antenna, when complete, should perform quite well. I'll have to obtain some good quality coax for the phasing harness, as it could be quite lossy with bad cable, and that's one of the reasons for the trip to Alajuela tomorrow

Today is another foggy, gloomy, rainy day up here on this hilltop. I've complained a bit about the weather to one of the fellows in the 40-meter ham group that I talk to every morning. He's lived here for thirty years, and he indicated that I can expect it to be this way through December, and then the weather should turn out rather nice - from January to the start of the rains in May, the weather should be delightful. We'll see. I expect to be here for at least another month, and by then it should have changed to that regime, and we'll find out if this particular part of the country is more to my liking.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:32:02 AM
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