Letters From Exile

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

Sun, Feb 29 2004

Tourism And The Full-On Aleutians Weather

Today is the sort of weather that the Tourism Ministry sure doesn't like to talk about. I thought it had ended with the end of January, but not quite. Apparently, a cold front made its way south from the U.S. gulf coast, and across the Caribbean and stalled just off the coast of South America. That means the cold front stretches across Central America about the Panama-Costa Rica border. That means that the north winds are blowing fiercely - the northerly associated with the cold front, combined with the usual trade winds, means that it's cold and very windy here, along with a thick fog and a lot of cold rain - just like what I lived through in the Aleutian Islands, only about ten degrees warmer. This has been going on for three days. Los Angeles Sur de San Ramon is sure living up to its reputation of being "La Penitencia." This should be the warmest time of the year here, but you could have sure fooled me - the temperature hasn't broken seventy degrees for three days now, and it's been windy, foggy and rainy the whole time. Sure looking forward to moving out of this Klondike into the warm, balmy weather of Arenal.

The weather affects tourism here, which of course is the largest single source of foreign exchange revenue for the country. Costa Ricans angrily resent the view of their country as being just a "banana republic" since such a description doesn't really describe the reality of the country anymore - and hasn't for probably thirty years. Tourism long ago replaced agriculture (read: coffee and bananas) as the major foreign exchange earner, and so weather like this certainly doesn't help. All those folks who are up at La Fortuna, camped out on the patios of their $100 per night cabinas, waiting for a glimpse of the fire on top of Arenal are sure to go away disappointed right now. Too bad they don't understand that there's a lot more to this country than what they're not seeing.

Arenal's now the number one tourist draw in the country. When you can see it, it's not hard to figure out why. Arenal is truly spectacular when the slopes are visible - fountains of lava on top, with cascades of red and orange-hot boulders, some the size of houses, crashing their way down the slopes. But right now, there've got to be clouds from about the 100-meter elevation on up. So the tourists won't be seeing much until this weather improves.

What really gripes me about the Arenal-Volcano/Canopy-Tour/Get-A-Winter-Sunburn-On-The-Beach tourism, though, is the fact that it's possible to come here, see and do all of that having a good time, and then leave, never having had even a hint of experience of the local culture, which is rich, interesting and easily accessible for those who just want to take the trouble to experience it. In fact, it's not only possible, but the sterile tourist-trap experience is the usual experience that the majority of tourists to this country have. Many never even talk to a local, other than the employees of the tourist traps. Many have never even tasted the local food, other than perhaps a single serving of gallo pinto for breakfast. Have they ever even tasted a manzana de agua, or a pejibaye? Tasting both are wonderful experiences that most tourists never have.

From the incredibly scenic, and refreshingly friendly highland towns like Zarcero where the tourists rarely venture, to the ox-cart competitions, to the topes (horse parades), to the Costa Rican bullfights and rodeos, as well as the frequent local festivals, both religious and secular, Costa Ricans are justifiably proud of their country and their culture and take a great deal of joy in sharing it with tourists. And its blessedly cheap to experience it. Most such cultural events are free or cost just a dollar or two, and decent hotel rooms can be found nearby for usually no more than twenty dollars a night, even during the high season. The culture of this country is incredibly diverse, ranging from a calypso-like culture, with Jamaican influence on the Caribbean coast, to the Latin cowboy culture of the Guanacaste plains or the indigenous cultures of the highlands of Puntarenas province. And everywhere, Ticos are absolutely thrilled when the rare tourist actually bothers to take the time to experience and enjoy it. Indeed, cowboys from the States can often enjoy the experience of being announced to the crowd as honored guests when they attend a Tico rodeo. That's how rare foreigners are at many Tico cultural events.

I wish I had a buck for every tourist who took a picture of the facade of the Teatro Nacional (National Theater) in the capital, San Jose, and went home, not realizing that it houses a world-class symphony orchestra, a ballet company and an opera company - and has done so, without interruption, for more than a century. How many know that when one of the great Three Tenors recently decided to retire, but give a farewell concert, he chose Costa Rica as the place to do it? Of course, I wish the Tourism ministry spent a bit more effort promoting Tico culture, but that's only part of the problem - most tourists aren't interested in much more than the venues suggested by the gazillion guide books, all recommending the same tourist traps. Sure, there are lots of tourist venues that are worthwhile that don't get anywhere near the attention they deserve, such as the Arenal Botanical Garden - a world-class facility that has done some really good science, in addition to exhibiting more than 2800 exotic species from around the tropical world, some of them really incredible - and it's less than an hour's drive from Arenal Volcano, and it can be a thoroughly enjoyable experience even when the volcano is cloud-covered. But I'd really love to see the ministry produce a web site, for example, that listed the dates and places for all the local festivals, so tourists could easily find out where something fun is happening before they come. That by itself would be a good start. And it would help those of us who live here actually find and attend them.

In the meantime, next week when I go to Arenal to finalize my purchase of the house up there, I'll be driving past the tourist hotels in La Fortuna, filled to the brim with tourists who'll sit on their porches, wishing they could see the Arenal fireworks, but seeing not much more than tropical clouds, and who will go home disappointed, not knowing that just an hour or two away, they could have had some wonderful experiences. How little do they know how much they will have missed, and what a wonderful vacation they could have had.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:33:56 AM

Sat, Feb 28 2004

Bucket Bath Day

Today, I took the first bucket bath I've had since I lived in Africa. The water is off, and has been since yesterday evening. I didn't shower last night because the water was already off by then, and I figured it would be on this morning if I got up early enough.

Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case. Since I hadn't showered since two days ago, I figured I'd better check into this, and see if it was just the usual low pressure, or if the water was actually off for some reason, and I'd be without until my landlord returned on Monday. I hiked down to a neighbor's house and checked, and they had water. No problem, they said. So I came back and checked the meter to see if the water company had shut off the water. They hadn't, but I discovered that the meter was turning - and at a pretty good clip - the pipes were losing water at the rate of 1.7 cubic meters per day.

I went over to the neighbor whose house was built with water scabbed on to our meter, to see if he was irrigating, or otherwise using a lot of water. No, no water running there, but he did have water pressure. Since his line is scabbed on before my landlord's house, I checked my landlord's house, and no water there. So apparently there's a leak beyond where the new house is scabbed on.

I called my landlord, who is out of town at the moment. He indicated that he'll come back this afternoon and locate and repair it. If the leak is in my landlord's house, which is locked up, it could be flooding, so I shut off the water at the meter until he can come home to investigate. That means that the occupant of the new house next door will be without water too.

Meanwhile, I still need to flush the toilet, take a bath, wash dishes - and I'd like to wash clothes. No possibility of the latter, but I was able to scare up enough water around here to do the rest. Since I was getting pretty gamey, I figured the first thing to do is take a bath.

For you millions of Americans out there who've never taken a bucket bath in your life, it works like this. You fill a bucket with water. Add a teakettle full of boiling hot water, and that makes a bucket full of water that is about the right temperature for bathing. You set the bucket in the bath tub and climb in to the tub. You use a small bowl to dip into the bucket, and then pour the water on yourself to wet yourself down. Lather up and scrub, and then rinse by dipping the bowl into the bucket and pouring more water on yourself again. It's a slow, inconvenient process, but it's reasonably comfortable and you can get yourself clean that way. It's the normal way of bathing where I lived in Nigeria - millions of Africans wash themselves with bucket baths every day.

Next on the agenda is washing dishes. This morning's dishes are sitting in the sink, dirty, drawing flies, and in bad need of being washed. I'll fill the sink from a plastic jug that I have been storing, heat some water on the stove, add it to the sink and wash away. I'll then let the water drain and refill with rinse water. Not perfect, but a man has to do what a man has to do. Brushing teeth? From a bottle of water that I stored away when there was plenty. Sure looking forward to being in my own place where I don't have to go through a landlord to deal with these issues.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 12:23:38 PM

Fri, Feb 27 2004

Gas Prices Went Up Wednesday

The prices for gasoline went up last Wednesday. The price rise was 17 colones per liter, the equivalent of 15 cents per gallon. Sounds like a lot, but gas has been cheaper here than world market prices, especially considering that there's been a general increase in crude prices worldwide. When I was in Panama last month, where gas prices are set by market forces, the price varied from $2.30 per gallon to $2.70 per gallon, depending on what size town you were in, and how much competition the dealer had.

Well, I got an email today from a friend in the States who is angry about the high prices paid up there, and the fact that they're approaching $3 per gallon. This is what I wrote in response:

Here in Costa Rica, all of our petroleum is imported for and refined to gasoline and diesel fuel by a government-owned corporation (RECOPE) which then sells it to all retailers, who must sell it to the public at a regulated price - the price is exactly the same everywhere, from the tiniest remote highland hamlet to downtown San Jose. Our high-test gasoline (95 octane) is currently priced at 295 colones per liter, which at current exchange rates, works out to the equivalent of $2.65 per gallon. Regular low-test (92 octane) is 274 colones per liter, equivalent to $2.44 per gallon. We can buy any amount we want, anytime we want - most gas stations are open 24/7, and there are lots of them - every town of a few hundred or more has at least one "bomba" because the government makes sure the markup is high enough to attract plenty of retailers into the business. And because the government makes money on RECOPE, they have an incentive to make sure the stations are well-supplied. I've never yet been unable to find a bomba when I needed one or had an attendant tell me he was out of gasoline.

Because the both the product and the price is exactly the same everywhere, gas stations are forced to compete for your business on the basis of the only thing they have control over - quality of service. Pull into a station, and you're immediately surrounded by attendants. Your gasoline is invariably pumped for you, by an attendant who is alert, intelligent, honest and invariably courteous and cheerful. Your windshield and rear window get thoroughly cleaned, without your asking - yes, they even scrape the bugs off. If you ask, your tire pressures, including the spare, are quickly checked and corrected if needed, oil and radiator is checked, and they're happy and eager to do it. Service stations here are just that - they still do grease jobs, oil changes, tire repairs, etc, in addition to offering the usual convenience store junk food. And of course, they're happy to let you use the rest rooms for free whether you buy anything or not.

RECOPE makes a LOT of money for the government. It's a real cash cow, and it's one of several reasons we have such ridiculously low taxes here, and yet the government still works for the most part; police are there when you need them, the roads still get paved (after a fashion) and the trash still gets hauled away, if a day late. Emergency medical services are second to none - usually better than even the States. Not bad for a third-world country.

If you're paying more than $2.44 per gallon for regular gasoline, you're being ripped off. Someone's taking the money and running up there, methinks.

I like living in Costa Rica. I like it better every day.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 06:45:11 PM

Wire Transfer Confirmed

Got a call from my European banker this morning, and they confirmed that the wire transfer will, in fact, take place as scheduled today. That's really good news - it means I can complete the transaction on buying the house sooner rather than later. Proved to be far less arduous than I had expected. My European banker can be a bit bureaucratic at times. While they had me on the phone, they also set me up for internet banking, and that's great news, too. I can now use this account for other things than just storing cash. I like that a lot. It makes me far less dependent on the consequences of being a "U.S. Person."

My landlady came by and collected money for the electricity bill from last month. Not a big deal - my share came to 1922 colones - the equivalent of the whopping sum of $4.52. To get my account established at my new home in Arenal, I'll have to take the factura (invoice) up there and present it as the bill I'm currently paying. My landlady was very helpful - she was happy to provide me with the original of this month's bill. So that should be sufficient - I can get the phone line and power ordered. I'll need also to get the water service started, and I'll need to go to the municipality to do that. Shouldn't be a big deal. I've got to go to them anyway and get a statement that I don't owe any taxes anywhere in the country before I can complete the property transfer.

So I've got quite an agenda of matters I need to take care of - in the order in which I need to do it:

1. confirm the results of the wire transfer, and that the money is safely in my account

2. cancel my order for telephone service here in Los Angeles Sur

3. go to the post office in Arenal and rent a P.O. box (or go to Tilaran if the Arenal post office doesn't have a box available)

4. go to the ICE office in Tilaran and order my telephone, internet and power service (I'm told that DSL is available there - hooray!!)

5. go to the Tilaran municipality offices and get water service and garbage collection started, and get my statement of no taxes owed

6. go to the local iron shop and have them give me a bid on the security enhancements on the grill work

7. get with Lawyer #4 and the seller, and get the property transfer finalized, and collect the keys

8. get the grill work done and the iron shop paid

9. call the movers and get them paid, and arrange for the delivery

10. give my landlord notice

11. start moving my stuff - will have to arrange for a truck to haul the appliances

12. move in!

I also need to go to Alajuela before I move, so I can get some parts for my PSK interface. I'd like to get that finished up. I need to get some rolendas (pulleys) so I can get some wire antennas up fairly soon after I move in. I also need to see if I can find a USB drive and take care of a few other matters while in town. I'd like to do that before I move - a trip to Alajuela will soon become a two-day trip.

Today, there's not much I can do until #1 above is completed. So I will be doing my regular Friday thing of going to the internet cafe, followed by a trip to the farmer's market. Also need to pay my whopping cell telephone bill - 3700 colones, about $8.70. Won't be buying a lot at the market today, as I expect to be in Arenal much of next week. But I'm in need of a stop at the supermarket, so I'll be doing that, too. I'm also going to start looking for a bed. Don't have one in my goods, and I'm using my landlord's bed at the moment, so I need to buy one and have it ready for when I move in. I'm going to just get a foam mattress. I find I sleep better on foam than on an inner-spring mattress anyway, and they're considerably cheaper, so it makes sense to get foam instead of spending big bucks on an imported inner-spring mattress.

After a couple of days running of hot weather, it's chilled off again, and Los Angeles Sur is once again living up to its reputation as "La Penitencia." It's downright chilly today, and windy as usual. Windy enough that I'm sure getting tired of it. Looking forward to the warmer, calmer weather of Arenal.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:07:54 AM

Thu, Feb 26 2004

Done Deal - I'm Moving To Arenal

Tuesday, I did the deal. Went up to Arenal and to Lawyer #4's office, and signed the "Promiso de Compravende," a sales contract on the house I'm buying there. By the time we were done at the lawyer's office, the bank was closed, so I had to stay overnight and go into the bank first-thing in the morning, and do the money transfer. But that was done by 9 AM yesterday morning, so the house is off the market and I'm going to go to work on getting the money to finish the deal transferred into my local account so I can finish up.

I found out when I went to talk to the current occupant that he's been broken into recently. He showed me how he welded up the grates where the thief broke in, but I wasn't all that impressed at his security measures. He was clearly taking the easy and cheap way out, and not paying attention to how to best deal with the problem. There have been several break-ins before, and each time, the measure to deal with the method of entry was piecemeal. I can see how the problem could be dealt with fairly readily, but only if the issue of security were dealt with holistically. I've contacted a gratework builder who knows how to deal with this problem, and will get a bid on properly securing the gratework. Once done, I'm reasonably sure I can discourage the thief, who I think is doing it to give the current occupant a hard time. I have a feeling that the thief is someone the occupant knows, and doesn't like him. That's not uncommon here.

When I got home yesterday, the power was off. Not a surprise; that happens from time to time, so I didn't think anything about it. I packed up this computer and took it to town for my daily internet session, and when I returned, the power was still off. On the way home, however, I found that the power company was working on the lines about two miles from where I live, and I suspect that it was because a passing truck loaded with sugar cane on its way to the mill snagged the cable and pulled it down. That is not at all uncommon this time of the year. Both power and telephones are commonly disrupted by sugar cane trucks, piled two stories high, snagging the wires as they sway back and forth, creeping down the highways.

I went to visit a friend down the hill and see if his power was on, but mostly as an excuse for a visit. It wasn't, of course, but it came back on while we were visiting.

Really hot weather yesterday - it was 85 in Arenal, one of the hottest days on record there, and was unpleasantly warm when I got back here to La Penitencia - the first time ever that I've felt the weather was too warm here. The wind was blowing out of the south, and carrying the odors from the polleria (chicken farm) down the hill up here to the cabina. The unusual wind from out of the south is only the fourth time I've seen that in the six months I've been living here. Normally, the wind is from the north - the trade winds - and so persistently so, that I've almost never smelled the chicken farm down the hill from me, even though it's only 500 feet away. I'd heard a report that a low pressure area is off the coast in the Caribbean, and is due to move onshore today or tomorrow, bringing several days of rain with it. But if that's true, I've yet to see any evidence. As I write this at seven in the morning, the skies, including to the north and east, are cloudless and it's a bright, sunny day. And the trade winds have returned to normal.

Went to town to do my daily internet thing, but found the net was down. At least in San Ramon. So I shined that on, and went to the computer store to get a printer. They had one model - a low-end Canon, and I was happy to find out it only cost the equivalent of about $60. They're doing the Gillette model - give away the razor, but rape 'em on the blades. That actually suits me fine. I don't need to print all that much, but when I do, I really need to print. Today, it was a fax request for a wire transfer to complete the transaction on the house in Arenal. Got that printed out, and went to town to fax it. The clerk at the post office didn't know what the international access code was for that European number, but tried the access code that she uses for the U.S. and it actually worked. So that's done, and I should have the money in a day or two. Once it's here, I can go up to Arenal and complete the transaction.

On the way home, I drove past the internet cafe to see if the net was back up, and it is. So I stopped and got my email and uploaded this blog entry. Terrible case of heartburn right now, and can't wait to get home to take some Gaviscon - the only thing I've found that works for me, and I'm running out. Don't know what I'm going to do when it's gone.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 06:42:06 AM

Mon, Feb 23 2004

Gay Rights Advancing In Costa Rica

National television here in Costa Rica showed a historic event this morning - the first two Costa Rican gay weddings (one each, gay and lesbian) being conducted in the Catholic Church in Ciudad Quesada, (San Carlos Canton) yesterday.

I don't have many details at this point, but apparently a gay marriage bill was passed recently by the Assemblea Nacional, and the vote was almost unanimous. And because all legal marriages here must, by law, be conducted in a Catholic church (it's the state religion), the Catholics who had opposed the law vigorously, ironically enough, will have no choice but to go along with it happening in their churches.

The irony is that if the law applies to foreigners (I don't know yet if it does), it would mean that a gay Catholic couple in the U.S. who wanted a church wedding could actually have one - a legal marriage in every sense of the word - by coming here and having it done in a church here. The local priest would have no choice but to officiate. I'm sure there will be lots of priests here who will be conducting gay marriage ceremonies here while grinding their teeth. And I love it!

Of course, that places Costa Rica in line with much of Europe and ahead of most (but not all) of Latin America. And I'm particularly gratified that the bill passed by a large majority. It either means that the diputados either have a good deal of respect for personal freedom and human rights, or they couldn't miss the opportunity to cop a snook at the Catholic church - I suspect, based on what I know of this country, it was both. And I love that, too!

Well, I'm planning to do the deed on the Arenal property tomorrow. I've made an appointment with a new lawyer, who I'll designate as lawyer #4, and the current owner, and my friend who will serve as a translator. Since we're just signing an option to buy at this time, and I'll be putting the down-payment money down on the property to take it off the market, it won't take too long. But transferring property here isn't much of a big deal anyway. The national registry is computerized, and if the network's up, it just takes a few minutes. The fees are reasonable, too - just a few hundred dollars, mostly in taxes. I've talked to Lawyer #2, who I had do the due-diligence on the property, and he has told me what the covenants and restrictions amount to, and what needs to be in the option contract. So I feel reasonably well prepared.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:31:25 AM

Sat, Feb 21 2004

Zarcero, Not Naranjo

Yesterday, I went up to Zarcero to look at the "Naranjo" property I found on TicoVista. The listing indicated that it was in Naranjo, but in fact, it proved to be on the outskirts of Zarcero.

I was told to travel to Zarcero to pick up the guard, and he would direct me to the property. I had assumed that I'd be traveling some distance to the property (the towns are about 15km apart), and I'd have to take him back. Naranjo is down fairly low - about 1000 meters, and I figured it would be a good, comfortable place to live for that reason - but Zarcero is quite high. It's scattered among some mountaintops, up at more than 1700 meters.

Well, I was a bit surprised when the guard directed me to a small road outside the town of Zarcero. After about a mile of traveling down the narrow, rather crumbled road, he told me to stop - we were at the property, much to my surprise.

Zarcero is a beautiful little town. Clinging to some rather precipitous slopes, most of the town is visible from some kilometers away, across deep, pine and cypress-covered canyons. Scattered among the farms are groves of cypress and pine, and the overall effect is a sort of Swiss-like - towering mountains with scattered little farms and villages amidst an alpine landscape. The high mountain air is scented with pine and cypress - a very pleasant, bucolic scene indeed, and certainly a pleasant place to be. The people were warm and friendly and welcoming, like most highland towns.

I'd love to live in a place like Zarcero, if it weren't for the fact that it's so cold. It never gets hot during the day, just pleasantly and adequately warm, but at night it can drop well below comfort levels, into the low 50's in fact.

The property proved to be something of a bust, too. It was a beautiful property in a good location, with a fine view of the Pacific and the Gulf of Nicoya, nice farm with lots of manzana de agua (a delicious kind of tropical fruit related to a pear, but a bit more tart) trees. The guard, who has worked for the owner for nine years, was very proud of the property, and gave me quite the tour, naming all the trees, flowers and shrubs. The property has a lot of avocado, sour orange and other fruit trees, as well as a lot of room for gardens and even a suitable site for a rental cabina. But the house was another matter.

It clearly had some structural problems, and it had the typically tiny Tico windows, and was dark and gloomy inside. The kitchen was so small, I'd have difficulty placing a stove and fridge in it. Worse was the fact that the owner is apparently rather paranoid about burglaries, and he had iron grates on everything, including some of the inside doors. There were steel doors covering the outside wooden doors, both of which had dead-bolts. The patio was even grated in. The guard was joking (half seriously) that he was St. Peter with the keys. Hey, if the crime problem is that bad in that area, I'm not sure I want to hang out there.

So I've decided to shine on that property too, and return to trying to secure the property in the Arenal area.

But Zarcero is beautiful, no doubt about it. If you're looking for a cool highlands town to hang out in, I can't recommend enough that you go have a look at the place. It's far more picturesque than Boquete in Panama, and far cheaper to live in, and big enough to have all the services you need. The scenery can't be beat. Too bad it's just so darned cold.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:47:30 AM

Fri, Feb 20 2004

Bust Of A Trip

Went to San Jose yesterday. The intent was two-fold: first, to visit ICE and see if they could get my cell phone internet connection working. Well, they didn't try very hard; they claimed that it still wasn't registered, and that's why I couldn't access the GPRS modem at the cell site, and that they had emailed the setup desk to get it registered - again. The brush-off. So that was a bust.

I had lunch with some friends who were interested in showing me a home in a suburb of San Jose that they thought would be a really good home for me. Quite nice, they said (they've seen it), and the price is right. But it's way up on the hillside of Irazu, and high enough up that it is quite cold there - temperatures often dip into the 50's and that is way too cold for my taste - it would play havoc with my arthritis, which is already bad enough. So when the owner's rep didn't show up to take us there and show it to us, I wasn't that disappointed - I'd rather have the time to talk with my friends anyway, than spend the time looking at a house I wasn't that interested in anyway.

My friends are well connected and offered some interesting background information on some of the geopolitics of the country, and we had a very interesting lunch as a result.

So the Coronado property is a bust, but I'm still interested in the Naranjo property. While I was having lunch with my friends, I got a call from the owner of the Naranjo property. We've set up an appointment for me to pick up the guard for the property in Zarcero this afternoon, and as soon as I'm done in the internet cafe, I'll drop off my radio here at the house, drive over to Zarcero and have a look at the Naranjo property.

Hopefully, I'll get that done in time to get to the market. Last week, I found some pina dorada (yellow pineapple) in the market for the first time in weeks. Certainly a refreshing change from all the rather flavorless and quite seedy pina blanca (white pineapple) that has been the sole variety available. Mangos went back up in price last week too, and they weren't as good as they've been. I was lucky and found some that were a bit over-ripe by local standards, but were just what I was looking for, and picked them up a bit cheaper than the usual market price. I'm wondering if this mango season is about over. Sure hope not! Last year, I was picking them up in March for as little as 400 colones (about 80 cents) for a grocery-bag full. And they were outstanding, too.

Weather has been chilly and windy a lot lately. It deteriorated last week to full-blown Aleutian weather here in Los Angeles Sur, and has slowly warmed up and dried out, but it hasn't warmed up much. Yesterday in San Jose, it was downright chilly, and I'd wished I'd worn a long-sleeved shirt. Today here in Los Angeles Sur, it's still quite chilly, in fact, downright cold. And with the wind, it's unpleasant. Some people seem to like that, but I'm certainly not one of them. And the cold together with the fly problem being created by the polleria (chicken farm) down the hill, it's making this place rather miserable - at any given time the last few days, there are probably a dozen or more flies buzzing around the place. When the polleria wasn't running, the flies weren't much of a problem, but now they are. Sure looking forward to moving out of here.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:47:29 AM

Wed, Feb 18 2004

State Visit Yesterday

Well, the country had a state visit yesterday in everything but name. A long line of stretch armored Suburban limosines, squads of motorcycle cops, traffic barricades and the whole bit. Everywhere they went, it seems that the roads were cleared and cross streets barricaded, sniper cops stationed at strategic points, and the motorcade was escorted around the various points of interest in the Meseta Central (central plateau). Security was very tight, and sufficiently so that the citizenry was considerably inconvenienced.

Who was the visiting head of state? No head of state, actually, but the brother of one. Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida and the brother of the president of the United States was in town.

The occasion? Seems that the organization of the Central America Free Trade Area is looking for a headquarters site, and Jeb was in town looking to get support to put it in Miami. The only problem is that the Costa Rican government has already indicated that it supports the bid of Trinidad and Tobago for it to be put in their capital of Port of Spain.

The Costa Rican government has recently concluded negotiations on adopting the CAFTA treaty, and the draft of the proposed treaty, as it was agreed to by Costa Rica, was recently published here in the English-language press. Costa Rica got most of what it was after, with the exception that wireless and internet services will have to be privatized, beginning in 2006. I'm not sorry to see internet privatized; the current monopoly could certainly use some competition, but I'm opposed to the privatization of the cellular network. This will have an adverse impact on quality of service throughout the regions outside the Meseta Central, where subscriber density is low. Currently, these areas are being served with a mediocre quality of service, but if four or five carriers were all competing for the same number of subscribers, the revenues for each carrier would never support the build-out in rural areas. As it is now, the rural build-out has to be subsidized. Under a privatized and unregulated competitive scheme, rural areas will just have to do without, and that means, for many, doing without telephone service altogether, since the telephone cables don't yet reach many rural areas.

With Jeb Bush coming to town and being given all the honors of a visiting head of state, and the cherished ICE cellular monopoly being broken in the draft CAFTA treaty, one can only wonder what the hidden quid pro quos must have been.

The president of Costa Rica, Abel Pacheco, has already announced support for the CAFTA headquarters being built in Trinidad. If he changes his mind, he'll only antagonize the Costa Rican people, who already look on Jeb Bush and his brother George, as carpetbagging gringos bent on yet more Yankee exploitation of Latin America, and the CAFTA treaty they pushed so hard for, is one of the principal instruments of that exploitation. And placing the CAFTA headquarters in Miami would only symbolize that exploitation to all of Latin America. If Pacheco wants his party to get re-elected, he would be well advised to send that carpetbagger back home with a humiliating rejection of his efforts. To many Latinos, the economic dominance of Miami already symbolizes Yankee dominance of Latin America. And if Bush (either one) wants support from Latinos, he/they would do well to be a bit more sensitive to appearances.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:27:30 AM

Tue, Feb 17 2004

The Properties I'm Considering

I made a trip yesterday to Arenal to take a second look at the property I'm looking at up there, and see if I could see why it is for sale for what looks like a price below market. I've concluded that there are two reasons - first, it is on a very rocky dirt road, about three blocks from the nearest pavement, and some distance beyond that from other approaches. Second, one passes a long row of older, smaller houses on the nearest approach, and that doesn't leave a good impression. It would appear that the result is that there isn't a lot of interest in it, in spite of its inherent value otherwise. That appears to be the problem.

But the property itself is quite nice, and is quite presentable from the front and when approached from the western boundary. It's not the best neighborhood, but it's far from the worst, and so I'm figuring it's about average for the town. The owner insists that there's only been one burglary attempt, and it was not successful; but I'm not sure I believe that. Nevertheless, I'll take proper precautions once I'm in.

Before I make a final decision, I need to see a property in Coronado that another friend has just told me about. It's about 20 minutes from downtown San Pedro, and that makes it quite convenient. Smaller, but big enough for my antennas. It's also quite secure. So I think I'm going to have a look before I commit. It has the advantage that it would appear I can get broadband from up there. And if I need to take a job in San Jose, it's within commuting distance. I've got to look at the radio noise issue, though. A friend in Belen has a terrible radio noise problem, and I don't want to end up with that sort of issue.

The legitimate (not spam) email volume is really starting to build. About two thirds of my legitimate email these days is about the gay marriage issue, usually in response to my essay on the subject. I guess the ranking for that essay must have risen rather high in Google - it's getting a ton of reads and I get about ten or twelve responses to it in every email download. So I'd have to check the statistics for sure, but I'd guess it's getting several thousand reads per day. Way cool! That means that at least a few people are checking out my other stuff too. I got an email from a young gay man who said he'd decided that because he is an independent thinker, he wanted to correspond before he even noticed that I'm gay - and that cinched it. Wrote him a long reply and I hope he writes back. He says he's lonely being a thinker in the town where he lives. I can understand that - I felt the same way growing up.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:34:25 AM

Thu, Feb 12 2004

Weather Continues To Deteriorate

The weather continues to deteriorate. This morning, I woke up to weather as bad as last December, and in spite of the advancing day, it just seems to have gotten worse. The wind's come up, and it's foggy and drizzly - the reputation of this area as being "La Penitencia" is certainly being lived up to today. When I stepped out for my morning walk, I immediately turned around and went back for my flannel long-sleeved shirt. Normally, this time of the year, it will start out chilly, windy and foggy, but as soon as the sun is up, the fog will lift and the temperature will rise a bit, but that's not happening today. There's just a persistent chill in the air, along with the drizzly fog. And it doesn't feel a bit warmer than it did at sunrise.

I've decided to ask my friend in Arenal to find me a rental up there for the short term. Even if it takes me a month or two to move in to the house I'm going to buy, I just don't care to hang around in this climate for much longer, and I sure don't like some of the other situations I've had to deal with here lately, either. There's been some livestock wandering the public roads nearby, and the dung has drawn a lot of flies, so they're a constant nuisance in the house again. And the tick season has started here, too, and I've seen several in the house. So far, I haven't found any on me, but it's just a matter of time. To top it off, my landlord's hens, which are free ranging, but haven't been a problem until now, seem to have suddenly taken a liking to my front yard lately, and their droppings have added to the fly problem. Time to get outta here.

I had an offer of a trip to Arenal for this weekend, but I decided to decline. I'm going to wait until my friend up there finds a rental for me, and I'll go up and have a look once he's got something found. I need to also take a very close look at the property I'm checking into, and make sure everything's OK with it and it's what I really want to do. My friends from Belen are going up tomorrow and offered to take me along, but that's a bit premature for me. So I'll shine this one on, and wait until I get the word on a rental.

I checked yesterday on some diodes for my battery project, but what I need is not available in San Ramon. Not much of a surprise. Guess I'll have to shine that on until I can get to Alajuela and get what I need there.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:17:42 AM

Wed, Feb 11 2004

Deposit Made - Bill Paid

Well, Lawyer #2 wanted to be paid before he would proceed with the due-diligence on the house I'm purchasing, so I did what is often done here in Costa Rica - I went down to his bank and deposited the money in his account. It wasn't a huge sum, as lawyers in the States would charge, but it was enough that I could see why he wouldn't proceed before being paid. So that's done. I can email him to proceed.

I looked around in town today for a power diode that I will need for the floating-battery project I'm working on. Couldn't find one of the size required - I'll have to wait until I go to Alajuela next week and see if I can find one there. Shouldn't be too tough - it's the sort of diode that alternator rebuild shops use, so there should be lots around.

I got a series of emails from my ham friend in Belen, too, three of them, with some rather sizable files attached. They're the software for modeling antennas, and I'm eager to get it installed and try it out. I have some antennas I would like to model and see if they're worth building. With this software, I'll be able to design and construct some rather sizable antenna projects in the house in Arenal, and be sure they'll work well before I actually go to the effort of building them.

My email download in town today included a ton of emails, so I guess I'd better get started...

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 03:05:42 PM

Blog Entry Deleted

I've deleted the blog entry for last Friday, at the request of someone who was offended by what I wrote in it. So if you noticed that it was there before and is gone now, that's why. Ordinarily, I don't allow people to censor my web site and what I write in it, but there were compelling reasons to do so in this case.

Anyway, it's Wednesday, and I've heard from Lawyer #2 regarding the property in Arenal. So far, so good. Looks like it has a relatively clean title, but with a deed restriction that I don't currently know what it is. I'll soon find out, however - I'm planning to have the lawyer continue to do the research on it. That's the only real problem we've encountered. It'll need a survey to be done and recorded, but that's not a big deal - that's a common situation here.

When I go to town today, I've got to see if I can find the materials I'll need to float a battery across the power supply for my radios. They've developed a hum problem that appears to be a failing filter in the power supply, so I'll fix it by doing what I've been thinking of doing anyway - get a car battery, and connect the radios to it, and use the power supply to keep the car battery charged.

A few days ago, I mentioned that the weather was improving, but wasn't good enough yet for my taste. Well, it's deteriorated again. This morning, it was cold enough that I could see my breath here in the bedroom again, and when I looked out the window, it was foggy and drizzly, and the wind was howling again. And at noon as I write this, it's still blowing hard enough to rattle the roof sheets on this cabina. The fog has lifted, and its a brilliantly clear day, with beautiful vistas 40 miles in all directions, but it's downright chilly. The cold has my arthritis flared up, again, after it had settled down during my visit to Arenal. The weather doesn't seem to be warming up much today, either. So I'm really looking forward to getting settled in Arenal, if and when that happens. La Penitencia is definitely not for me.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:59:14 AM

Mon, Feb 09 2004

Improving Weather, But Not Improved Enough

Well, the weather has been improving steadily, and it is now, as promised, almost tolerable here in this little village of La Penitencia, otherwise known officially as Los Angeles de San Ramon. The wind is down to a strong breeze... well, OK, a moderate wind, but that's about as good as it gets here. The temperature has heated up to where its comfortable mid-day - low 70's. And I'm told that this is as good as it gets here.

That's convinced me that it really is time to shine this place on. With the lack of water during the day, the neighbor's horses wandering through my yard drawing flies, and the cold, uncomfortable temperatures at night, this is certainly not the place for me. I've experienced all three seasons here, now, the dry, the wet and the windy. None of them are much to my liking.

So today, I'm going to press Lawyer #2 to get started on the due diligence on getting that place in Arenal bought. It's too good a deal to pass up, really, and it won't stay on the market long at the price being asked. And since Arenal has about the right climate (though a bit more rainy that I'd like), I'm going to go ahead and start on it. I emailed him Thursday, but haven't heard back yet. If I can't get him to move, I may have to hire the lawyer recommended by my friend in Arenal. He'd be lawyer #4.

Looks like I'll need to go to town this week. Besides getting some ham radio parts I need, I'd like to get my internet-via-GPRS connection working. I noticed when I got back from Panama that ICE, the local telephone/power utility, has got the GPRS modem turned on in the San Ramon cell site, and so I figure I should be able to access the GPRS network and the internet from home. That means it should work now, but it doesn't. It would certainly be wonderful if I could get it working - being able to do several email sessions per day, upload this blog, do some web browsing, etc., all from the convenience of my own home! What a wonderful concept! So I'm going to go into the ICE office in downtown San Jose and see if I can get them to figure out why I can't access the GPRS network from my cell phone. I'm also planning some meetings with some friends to help justify the inconvenience of the trip. I need to drop off the linear amplifier a ham friend asked me to fix, which I repaired yesterday. Next week, I'm going to do another trip to Arenal, to have a second, more close look at the property I'm considering before I go ahead and complete the buy.

Went to visit a couple of ladies who own a house near me, a Gringa couple. Only one was home (having some finish work done on the house they just completed), and we had a nice chat about my recent trip to Panama. Her partner is still at the beach where both were for most of a week, but the two of us had a nice chat. Apparently, there 's some good snorkeling at Playa Blanco, near Manuel Antonio. I ought to get some snorkeling gear and take a trip down there and check it out. I haven't been snorkeling in years, and I'd like to do that.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:35:56 AM

Wed, Feb 04 2004

Serious Interest In An Arenal Property

Talked some more to my ham friend in Arenal this morning on the radio. Turns out that he's interested in the property with a pond on it, for one of his children. So if I don't buy it, he probably will. The price is certainly right - $40k with a house already on it, including nearly two acres of beautifully landscaped land. I can see why he would like it. An additional attraction to me is that it is close enough to the telephone office that a DSL connection would be possible, and they're being offered in Arenal these days. That would solve my internet connection problems.

My only concern about the property at this point is whether it is too low, and the hills around it too high to get out on my VHF ham radios. But my friend is going to take his transit up there today and find out how high the hills are around it, and how high my tower would have to be to talk over the top. There's a welder in Arenal who can fabricate tower sections to go as high as I need, if it's feasible to go high enough to get out. And my friend already has a self-supporting tower that he's not currently using, that I could probably talk him into selling me.

The house will take some work - the kitchen needs to be remodeled, but that's cheap to do here, and I can probably have the ceilings replaced, get the kitchen redone, and have the carport closed in for under $5k, and that would make it ideal for me. It's already fairly secure, and little would have to be done to make it secure enough that I wouldn't need to worry about leaving it for a few days at a time.

One thing we discussed this morning was the possibility of cooperating on a community remote-base radio facility up on the ridge that is near the west end of the lake. It's a feasible project, if it would be possible to talk to it from the pond - we could use ethernet bridges and talk to it on a wireless LAN, which would make it possible to use the site to bring in bandwidth for internet as well.

The water is off today at the cabina. I got one load of laundry washed, but there's no water to rinse at the moment, and it's been off for more than an hour, so that's a bad sign justifying having a walk around the neighborhood to find out what's going on. I went over to the construction site around the back side of the hill, and talked to the crew there. Their water is on, but the pressure is very low, and they were just letting it run into their barrel, which left me with no water pressure at all. So I asked them to turn it off unless they were actually using it. While there, I discovered that another plantel (building site) has been cut on the hillside next door to the log cabin that was started three weeks ago, so there's yet another house going in. So this construction thing is going to go on for a while. Even though the first house is almost done, another is just getting a good start, and a third is now being started. And they've run an electric cable down there from the same service I'm on, too. There's no hope for any peace and quiet, not to mention water pressure or stable electric voltage on this hilltop, so I'd better get with moving out of here.

As I write this, I'm watching a special on skiing on BBC World. Apparently, the global warming issue is becoming a serious problem tfor the skiing industry in Europe these days - most are already having problems, and some will probably be forced to close by 2030. And they're saying that by 2070, there won't be any skiing left in Europe at all. Of course, if Yellowstone blows, it'll all be a moot point anyway. That one would pretty well 86 the whole lot of us, so there won't be anyone left to worry about it.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:15:32 AM

Tue, Feb 03 2004

Cascades Of Fire

No blog entries for several days - I've been out of town, visiting Lake Arenal and looking for properties up there. What a beautiful area! I'm glad that my ham friend who lives in Nuevo Arenal suggested that I come and offered to show me a few properties. It's just incredibly scenic.

My ham friend who lives in Belen agreed to allow me to tag along since he had been planning to go. So we took off at O-Dark-Thirty on Sunday morning, and arrived in Nuevo Arenal about 11 AM. We had a quick lunch at a local soda - pretty decent hamburgers - and then toured the area, looking at several properties that my local ham friend, who does real estate among other things, had listed. Since he's a ham, he knew what we were looking for, and since he has a lot of friends in the area, he had a lot of candidate properties to choose from. We looked at several that were excellent candidates, including a property with 2.5 hectares of beautifully landscaped gardens and a lovely home, redone with lots of hardwood accents and additions to the basic floor plan. Like most homes in the area, this one was built by ICE, the local power company, when the original town of Arenal was moved to accommodate the hydroelectric project for which Lake Arenal is the reservoir. The original town was flooded, along with Tronadora, and ICE, as part of the agreement with the locals, built a replacement city on the hills overlooking the new reservoir. The homes were very well constructed, using top-grade materials, and although they're now about 20 years old, they're still in generally good condition, and almost without exception, are structurally sound, if not cosmetically in good shape. New paint, floor tile and doors, and they can be made very presentable indeed, and will be servicable for the rest of my lifetime, anyway.

Sunday night, I stayed in a tiny cabina hotel in downtown Nuevo Arenal, and found that it was a bit warm - a ceiling fan would have been very nice, but the room didn't have one. Because it is off the beaten path, the room rate was exceptional - only $7.14 for a double - reasonably modern and quite clean - and the shower worked wonderfully! It was refreshing after a day of running around on the dry gravel streets of Nuevo Arenal.

Yesterday, we went looking at several more places, including one place with 1.7 acres of land, on which a pond is located. It's a large pond, too, at least an acre in size. It would be quite suitable for a guapito (a local fish, considered quite a delicacy) operation, and if I were to smoke them and sell them to tourists, I could probably make some serious money. Unfortunately, the site is not really super for radio, but it's tolerable, and I think I could get by. The price is right, too - $40k, including the 2-bedroom house, currently occupied by a gringo.

On a lark, we drove up to a little town just northeast of the lake. It blew us away when we got there - the views are tremendous. One can see volcanoes in Nicaragua, the entire length of the Nicoya Peninsula, and the Gulf of Nicoya, and some distance down the coast, as well as Volcan Arenal. What a site for radio! It's a ham operator's dream - nearly 2,000 feet above the average surrounding terrain, and yet we found some lots downwind from a forest, and so there was little if any wind. That site must truly be a tremendous site for both HF communications around the world, and VHF communications all over the northwestern third of Costa Rica. We found a sign for some lots for sale up there and called the owner. Unfortunately, it appears that he's asking too much money - as much as $8 per meter - for the land, which has only water brought to it. No power - I'd have to live off the grid, using wind and solar. But not a big deal - equipment for both are available here. I'd have to build, but my local friend says he can get a prefabricated house constructed on the site for $17 per square foot, ready to move into. And if that's true, the price would be feasible, if a bit steep. My local friend says he's going to look for some alternative properties. He's interested in a lot there for himself.

Last night, we drove to the outskirts of La Fortuna, Costa Rica's number one tourist destination, to stay the night. It's not hard to understand why. Just on the outskirts of town is Volcan Arenal, at 6,000+ feet, one of the highest volcanoes in the country, rising from an elevation of just over 2,000 feet. It's one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and one can sit quite safely on the patio of one's hotel room in the town and watch cascades of orange-hot boulders streaming down the sides of the volcano. Since you're only a few kilometers away, the sound of the large boulders, some the size of houses, crashing down the slopes is quite apparent. Last night was cloudy, so we saw the volcano doing its thing only occasionally when the clouds on the mountain lifted. But about eleven in the evening last night, the clouds lifted to where the top third was still enveloped in a lenticular cloud, but the lower slopes were quite visible. The effect was eerie. The top of the cloud would occasionally light up with an orange glow, and a few seconds later, cascades of orange-hot boulders would stream down the sides of the mountain, out of the clouds. Several times, the whole eastern flank of the volcano was aglow with incandescent boulders.

This morning, we had a quick breakfast and returned to drop me off at my home here near San Ramon. The weather was interesting as we drove south from La Fortuna. The weather there was delightful - nice shirtsleeve weather, but as we ascended the hill going south, the weather got noticeably chilly as we ascended through the 800-meter level, going up the Bolsa River valley, heading for the summit. When we arrived at my home here, the weather was downright cold, and I immediately put on my flannel shirt. I noticed as well that the remission in my arthritis abruptly ended. I can no longer close the fist of my right hand. I definitely need to move to a warmer climate, that's for sure.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:20:02 AM
Copyright © 2003 Scott Bidstrup. All rights reserved.