Letters From Exile

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

Fri, Apr 30 2004

Telephone Hell Freezes Over

Today started out OK, about like any other day around here in this potholed paradise. I woke up rather late, and hadn't so much as got my britches on when my gardener arrived and immediately got out his week whacker and started cutting the grass. That went on all during breakfast, and I didn't much mind, except that the noise is rather loud - he uses a rather considerably-sized weed whacker for the job, and it is gas powered with a two-cycle engine and makes quite a lot of noise.

I checked the phone and still no luck on it working. So I figured I would have to do another trip to the internet cafe today to get my email and upload the last few days' blog entries. In the process of finishing up my last email and drinking my morning tea, I was informed by one of my buddies that there is an article on immigration in this morning's Tico Times, the English-language weekly here. Since that affects me directly, I figured I had better head right into town and get a copy of the Times before they were all sold out, and I put a sweat on getting into town. Got there fairly early, and got the second to the last copy.

There was nothing in the article that I didn't already know, but it was decent coverage, for a change, of an issue that directly affects a good deal of their readership. The only other article of note was that the National Geographic Traveler has downrated Costa Rica from "The Good" to the "Not So Bad" category - mid way to the "Getting Ugly" category - mostly because the continuing deforestation of some of the national parks and reserve areas is not being halted, and other environmental concerns are not being dealt with. And that directly impacts the main basis for Costa Rican tourism - the fact that this is a place where one can experience a reasonably natural and, in a few places at least, unspoiled neo-tropical environment at no great distance from the comforts of civilization. In my case, the jungle begins right across the street - yet I have yet to see a poisonous snake, be bitten by a venomous spider or fall victim to some unknown tropical disease. I can look out and enjoy toucans in the trees and hear howler monkeys in the distance, and enjoy the forest canopy, from the comfort of my living room. There aren't many places in the world where one can do that.

In any event, I got back from the internet cafe and got out my cell phone to make a call, and discovered the red light flashing - it said I had an "unregistered SIM." That meant the cell system didn't recognize me as being a legitimate subscriber. Nothing I could do but drive over to Tilaran to the ICE telephone office and see if they would help me out. I was in Telephone Hell - two telephone lines and neither one working.

I went to the ICE office in Tilaran and got the only agent there who speaks good English, and told him, for the second time, my tale of woe on my wireline telephone. He made a call and indicated that the technician had been to my house, but had not found me home at the time. He rescheduled the repair. On my cell phone, it turns out that the SIM card (the smart card embedded in the phone) simply needed to be reset. He did that, and it worked fine.

So the trip to Tilaran was worth it - at least I had one working telephone. I drove back home to Arenal a very happy camper. I figured I would have to wait again and see if they would fix my wireline telephone, but at least I could call and could be reached, since at least I had a working cell phone.

I was pretty tired so decided to take a nap. It was interrupted by ICE's telephone installation contractor. They asked if I were "Charles." That's my middle name, so clearly I was the guy they were looking for - this is my first indication that ICE was actually working on fixing my wireline telephone. They asked to check my line, so I led them to the phone and they verified that it was not working. They said they needed to go to the pedestal, and went there. A few minutes later, they were back, and checked my line. It was working! They asked me to call it, and it rang as it should! Finally! My line was working again! They asked me to sign their repair order, which I did "con gusto" ("with pleasure") and everything was done. They were on their way and I was happy again. I have both lines working again, for the first time in more than a week. My friend, who has lived here for some years, told me that I would have my line working again when hell froze over. Well, apparently telephone hell has frozen over.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 05:02:12 PM

Thu, Apr 29 2004

Moved Out Of The Dining Room

Late yesterday, I got the computer and ham radio equipment moved out of the dining room. It was getting pretty cluttered, and I decided that the best thing to do was go ahead and move it, even though I didn't have the antennas prepared for my new ham radio shack in the second bedroom as I had intended. But the mess was just getting to be too much, and there was no place to sit for a meal, since I haven't found stools for the breakfast bar yet, and the table was covered with computer and ham gear. So I set about moving it.

I investigated running the cables over the roof and down the wall outside the house, and bringing them into the room through a hole in the wall, but decided that would not work with the cable lengths that I had, and one would be too short to make it into the new ham shack at all, no matter how I routed them. So I got out the last piece of RG8 cable that I had and spliced it onto the end of the existing two-meter antenna cable, and it came out just barely long enough, and then only if I came in through the dining room window and hung the cables across the ceiling and down the wall and through an existing hole into the second bedroom where the ham shack was to be located.

After some effort, I managed to arrange to get the cables through the inside shutter mechanism of the dining room window so that the shutter can be closed with the cables still in place. That was a bit tricky - I ended up having to chip away at the cement around the window, just a bit, so they would fit past the shutter frame. It worked, but just barely. So the cable is now secure, and the shutter frame can be closed securely without having to remove the cables and leave them outside. That will be a lot less inconvenient.

By sundown, I had the project complete and the radios turned back on. I was discomforted to note that there is some ground leakage and I get tickled a bit when I lightly touch the cases of the radio - and reversing the plug polarity didn't seem to help. The wiring in this house has no grounds at all in it, with the exception of a single outlet in the kitchen, so I am going to have to bring a ground into the shack so I can get everything properly grounded. I need to do that for technical reasons related to my radio equipment anyway, and so when I go to the ferreteria (hardware store) this morning, I will pick up some ground wire and fittings to get that taken care of. I will also check with a friend who has a hammer drill, so I can get the hole through the wall done, and then I can put in a proper ground installation that the wiring in this house badly needs. The current electrical system master ground is a single #14 wire going to a small ground rod driven into the soil in the carport where it never gets wet, so the existing ground is clearly inadequate to the point of being useless, and there are few outlets even connected to it anyway, even though the electrical outlets are all three-wire outlets. Someone clearly didn't know what they were doing, or, more likely, just didn't care. I'll be surprised if some of the outlets are not wired in reverse. One more project to tackle. But other than checking the outlet wiring polarity, I may defer that until I replace the roof. With the roof trusses and ceiling romoved, it will be far easier to get the ground wires pulled in, because the top of the block walls will be exposed, and it will be easy to get the ground wires brought to the walls, and pulled into the outlet boxes. I can also easily bring the ground wires back to the panel, where they should properly be wired from.

Still no telephone today. ICE has not, apparently, made any successful efforts to fix the central office problem that is keeping my phone from functioning. So today I am going to start calling the repair service on a daily basis until it gets fixed. That is supposed to work, from what I am told. But this is a technical issue with the programming in the switch, and that requires some experience with telephone switch programs, so I am not sure I will have luck with that. I may have to resort to Plan B - order a new telephone line, and once it is in, cancel the existing line. In the meantime, I will have to continue to go to the internet cafe for blog uploads and email synchronization. Argghh!!! I am sure getting tired of that! Especially when I have to pay for a line that doesn't work.

I am going to try to build my interface today for my ham radio PSK. I finally obtained the last part I need for that - one of my ham friends made a trip to Liberia yesterday and stopped at the electronics parts shop there and picked it up for me. I went and got it last night at the disco/sports bar where he and another friend were having a few beers and pizza. I sat down at their outside table and joined them for a while, and during the time I was sitting there, the ground shook noticably - and for quite a long time. It was an earthquake. We went inside to watch the television to find out where it was, and it turned out to be a classic subduction-zone earthquake off the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, west of Managua. It wasn't really strong here, but was strong enough that even the drunks in the bar noticed it.

Weather here is continuing to adjust towards the rainy-season regime. Today, we are having a steady drizzle interrupted by a few periods of intense rain. I don't mind that - I just planted a bunch of pineapples, and can use the rain to help them get a good start. I found out today that my friend, the owner of the botanical garden, has a species of passion fruit with an exceptionally large fruit that is quite good. So I am going to go get some seeds from him and plant them on some arbors - he says they are well suited to arbors, provided the arbors are strong enough, and mine are. Passion fruit vines attract a lot of butterflies anyway, and this species has a spectacular flower, so besides the fruit, which makes lovely desserts and jellies, I get the added benefit of more butterflies and flowers in my garden. I love the concept of things that are both a delight to the senses as well as feeding me.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:56:59 AM

Wed, Apr 28 2004

Changing Weather

Today started off warm and sunny, but it has turned cold and windy, with periods of rain. I am thinking that the rainy season has begun. This morning, as I was doing email, we had a sudden downpour, and as quickly as it started, it stopped. Since then, we hve had periods of light rain, with periods of sun. Typical rainy season weather. It has been cool, too, which after yesterday's heat, I much appreciate.

I am definitely in the tropics. The sun has moved into the northern sky. That happened early last week, and it is far enough north now, that it is apparent in the shadows at high noon. By the middle of the northern summer, the sun will be about thirteen degrees north of zenith at local noon. I find that rather disorienting - all my life, I seem to have determined north, south, east and west, by the position of the sun. But when it is straight overhead, it is no real reference, and I find myself getting confused rather easily - particularly when it is in the northern sky for part of the year. I need a pocket compass, particularly when I am in San Jose. The sun being straight overhead at noon means that the thermal equator has moved over us as well. That means the rainy season can't be far off, and indeed, it seems to have already started in a small way.

The water out on my pond is rippling strongly in the wind that has come up. This morning, it was dead calm - so still, I could see ripples from the fish jumping for insects, and the ripples would travel much of the way across the pond. Now, the wind is even creating the occasional whitecap, and the kingfishers have been quite active too, diving for the insects and minnows that the wind is stirring up. This morning, I saw another pair of rainbow-billed toucans flying through the trees, this time on my own property. What a sight they are! Last Saturday, my garden had a visit from a huge four-foot long iguana, bright green with patches of color all over his back. They are a protected species here, since hunting has reduced their numbers to a dangerously low level, mostly because they are supposed to be good eating, but I wouldn't know, not being interested in trying them. But I was delighted to see one not even five feet from where I was standing. He didn't seemed alarmed at my presence, and so I got a good look. They definitely look prehistoric!

Yesterday I saw some "black cowled orioles" in my bouganvilleas, too. They are a very handsome bird, black heads, with yellow patches on the wings and a yellow rump and backside. I'm getting rather spoiled at all the brightly colored tropical birds hanging around this place. Hardly notice the hummingbirds anymore, they're here so much of the time. The flycatchers nesting in the fern basket outside my window are building the nest ever bigger, and it is getting to the point where I can't help but believe it is unstable. But they keep adding on, like they are planning a large family or something. They are also a rather pretty bird, mostly yellow with striped gray on the wings and crown of the head.

Today I have spent the morning working on my email, getting it caught up, and ready to synchronize. Time also to do a blog entry, and get my readers up to date. I've been getting a bit of feedback about this blog lately, and it prompted me to check the stats to see how much it is being read. Turns out, it gets read a lot more than I realized - it is now one of the more popular features on my web site. So I am gratified that all this typing isn't for nothing.

I have been listening to a little music on my computer as I write this. Before I moved down here, I ripped a good deal of my library onto MP3 format, so I could burn some CDroms, and have much of my music with me. Sure glad I did. It makes things a bit more pleasant, plugging away at all the mail I have been getting lately. The flood of email in response to my gay marriage essay continues. I am getting about twenty a day, and keeping up with it is becoming a bit of a chore. A lot of it is high-school kids writing to ask for more information, but being down here, I am not in a position to provide it. And I am not sure I want to do all their research for them anyway.

All the attention that my gay marriage essay has attracted has also increased the traffic to the rest of my site as well. Sure glad that I got a hosting service that doesn't charge extra for the bandwidth I am burning through! Seems that the fundamentalist Christians have found my site and are happily trying to argue me down, or more often, convert me. Sorry guys, but I have been there and done that, and I am just not interested anymore! In any event, the traffic to my site has never been higher. It is running in the tens of thousands of hits per day, and while I am delighted for the increased attention, it has made my email chores that much more onerous. I am now spending about three hours a day answering emails generated by my site, and that compares to about fifteen minutes a year ago. Now if I could just turn that traffic into a revenue stream...

Telephone still not working today. This morning, I donīt even have dial tone, much less getting that annoying little intercept, telling me that my service has been suspended, even though the bill is current. In fact, in just checking, it, there isn't even any battery voltage on the wires, so there is something serious happening at the central office. I just hope that when it comes back, my phone service will come back with it. If they are doing a hard reset on the telephone switch, that could possibly happen. I should be so lucky!

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:23:41 AM

Tue, Apr 27 2004

Junk Pile Slowly Disappearing

Beautiful sunset tonight as I sit down to write this. The temperatures have been moderating a bit, and I sure appreciate the cooler weather from the record-breaking temperatures of the last few days - temperatures running into the low 90's Fahrenheit. We have set a lot of temperature records here this year, and everyone is wondering if this is early evidence of global warming. It means that lowland species that were marginal growers here have been flourishing this year - guanabana (custard apple), a lowland tropical fruit that produces here, but not well, has done well this year. I don't have any trees in my yard, but I am going to plant some. It is a luscious fruit, and I would like to have a few trees. They haven't done well at this altitude in the past, but it appears they may be doing well from now on, if this increase in temperatures ends up being permanent.

I didn't get a lot done around the place today, mostly because I had to hang around and wait for the telephone repair service to show up. I had a call from one of my friends in town, who has a shop right across from the telephone switch, and when the phone guy shows up, she runs over to tell him who's phones are out of order. She checked on the status of my repair order, and it didn't appear on his repair list. So he added it, along with my cell phone number and directions to my house. He told her to have me wait until he arrived or called me on the phone, so I had to hang around waiting all day. Of course he never did show, so by four, I figured he wasn't going to. I went ahead and made a quick trip to the ferreteria (hardware store) to get some screws for a table I was putting together during my wait.

The table was made out of the top half of a Dutch door that I took off of the entrance to the pila (outdoor washroom). It appeared to be fairly sound, though in removing the hinges, I noted that dry rot had taken its toll. It was in good enough shape, however, to make a suitable table for my ham radio gear. So I figured I would use it for that. I needed legs for it, of course, and it had occurred to me that the bamboo I have in the garden would make suitable legs. So I went out there and selected a newly-sprouted shoot, and cut it down.

That sprout was about chest high when I moved in a month and a half ago. When I cut it down today, it was more than thirty feet long and three inches across at the base.. The stuff grows with amazing speed! Anyway, I had been warned that bamboo has a considerable amount of silica in it, and it will dull saw blades extraordinarily quickly. So I used a hack saw to cut it down, and to cut the legs out of it that I needed. I figured that if I ruined a hacksaw blade it was no big deal, since they're cheap and readily available.

In the process of cutting it up, I learned a bit about why it is so strong. It appears that all the high-tensile strength fibers are near the outside surface, in about the outer eighth of an inch. Inside that, the stuff is pretty lightweight, but has good compressive strength. the combination of the two makes for a really strong pole. The trick to cutting it green with a hacksaw, I discovered, is to make a really light cut along the outside skin all the way around, and then saw through from that vigorously, and using that procedure, it was pretty fast and easy. The trick is to get those high-tensile strength fibers cut first.

Once everything was cut, I began to notice that I was itching all over my arms. On investigation, I noticed a large number of very fine black fibers, about a millimeter long, and as fine as a fine hair. They were present anywhere I was itching. I have a suspicion that these are the silica fibers I was warned about. If it is true, then bamboo is really a natural form of fiberglass - silica fibers in a lignin matrix. Interesting how nature figured out about fiberglass millions of years before man did.

Anyway, the table went together just fine. After being careful to cut the legs straight and the same length, I simply drove three dry-wall screws into each of the ends of the legs from the top of the table. I had cut the ends of the legs from the nodes in the bamboo, where the walls would be extra thick, and that way there would be plenty of meat for the screws to grab into. Since I don't have a drill, I had to drill the holes with the reamer tool of my Leatherman, but that proved to be quite easy - the wood was plenty soft from the dry rot to allow the reamer tool to make holes quickly and easily. With three dry-wall screws into the end of each leg, the table ended up adequately sturdy.

After putting the table together in the living room, I had to move it into the spare bedroom. That proved to be a challenge. No matter how I oriented the darned thing, it wouldn't fit through the doorway. Finally, I determined that by laying it on its side and working it carefully through the door frame with a little bit of force, it would go, and it finally did. That was a close call!

It is in there now, and is ready for me to move my ham equipment onto it. My next challenge to doing that will be to blow a hole through the wall to bring my antenna cables in. That won't be easy. I will probably have to find a hammer-drill, because these walls are really stout, and they're not easy at all to get a hole through them.

After getting the table done and ready for use, I took a break and did the standard Tico thing of sitting on the front porch in the rocking chair with a glass of ice water, while watching the world go by. Here, people walk as much as they drive, and so there is a steady stream of pedestrians walking down the road, all smiling and greeting as they pass, occasionally stoping to chat. It is all very pleasant - like America was a century ago. Well, as they pass, they are looking around, and this evening, a family of Nicaraguans walked past, and noticed some old arbors made of re-bar that were sitting on the junk pile. They asked if they could have them. Sure, I said, it would be my pleasure to give them to them. So they rummaged through the pile and found the several that were there. While digging through the pile, they came across the bottom half of the Dutch door that came off the entrance to the pila. They asked if they could have it, too, and I was quite happy to see it go. It is somewhat dry rotted, but is still sound enough to be useful, and I am glad they will find it useful. I watched them haul it up the hill towards a squatter camp not far from here, and I am sure that the stuff will quickly end up as part of their squatter shack.

Glad to be of help to the Nicas. Nicaragua is to Costa Rica as Mexico is to the United States. The Nicaraguans, many of them here illegally, who make up about a fourth of Costa Rica's population, are at the bottom rung of the social ladder here, and do the jobs that even the Costa Ricans don't want, and for the most part, earn very little for it, usually well under even Costa Rica's piteously low minimum wage. They have a mighty tough row to hoe, and I don't mind helping them out wherever I can, including giving them whatever building materials I don't need or can't use. There are some pieces of corrugated roofing sheets on that junk pile too, and I am surprised I havenīt been asked for them. I would just as soon see them disappear too, and if someone can turn them into a part of his home, I'd be pleased to see it.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 06:01:19 PM

Mon, Apr 26 2004

I've Got Mail!

Well, I just got a call from my mail forwarder, that a whole pile of mail has arrived for me. Nine month's worth, to be exact, a huge pile indeed. Other than a single piece I received directly to my Costa Rican P.O. box address in San Ramon, it will be the first mail I have received from the United States since I have been living here (mail sent from other countries has been arriving just fine). I was told that it just arrived, too. Funny how it took so long. Everyone else I have talked to who uses this service says that they get their mail very quickly - in a matter of a week or less from the States.

Apparently this is one of the ways that the Boys from Foggy Bottom (read: George W.'s political enforcers) have of harassing political dissidents who live abroad - they make sure their mail gets delayed for months. It would be against the law and against the International Postal Union treaty for them to knowingly not forward it on to a known good address, so instead of 86'ing it, they just hang on to it for a very long time and make sure it gathers plenty of dust and becomes as useless as possible before they let the person being harassed to actually receive it.

This can really mess up your life. Try not getting any tax documents, checks, credit card statements, bank statements, brokerage slips and the like for nine months, and you can appreciate how my life has grown to be complicated. I have figured out work-arounds for most everything, but taxes and credit cards are still problematic - I just found out Saturday that my last Visa card had been suspended because they didn't receive a response to an inquiry they had sent me. Now I just have to get to the office where my mail is being forwarded to, and collect it. I'm looking forward to almost a year's worth of Scientific Americans, Discovery Mags, National Geographics, and other magazines that I enjoy, and I sure need to get going on some tax matters and credit card problems. So this is certainly welcome news. I am already planning a trip to go collect it.

I still have no working telephone. Friday, as I left it with ICE, they were going to send out a technician on either Friday or today to check my line and find out why I am getting an intercept whenever I come off hook and try to place a call. Well, it is three in the afternoon, and it doesn't appear that they are going to show, so I think I will go to the internet cafe and upload this blog and synchronize my email. I also need to talk with the proprietor about her weekly trips to San Jose. If she would be willing to stop at the office and collect my mail, it would save me a trip. At least she will know the bus schedules to San Jose from Tilaran, which would help as well, because then I could go on my own and get it myself, if I can get an early enough bus.

Walking around in my garden on Saturday, I noticed that one of my Macadamia trees has a small, but useful crop on it. I asked the gardener, and he told me not to look forward to having any Macadamias anytime soon - the squirrels around here just love them, and as soon as one falls, within minutes they'll be spiriting the darned thing off to their nest. I have got to figure out a work-around for that, because I love those nuts. I am told that the Macadamia farm about two miles from me loses most of their crop to squirrels - and that is why there are so many squirrels around here. I have four trees and should have enough nuts to satisfy anyone's taste, but that would mean keeping them away from the squirrels somehow. I have got a plan, and I'll see if it will work. I am going to try it on the trees on the north side of the pond, where I don't have to stare at the contraption I am going to build. It it works, I might sell my idea to the Macadamia farm - or maybe patent it and sell them the devices.

It is beginning to look like the rainy season is starting. As I write this, we're having a rather intense afternoon thunderstorm - a typical rainy season pattern. The howler monkeys in the jungle on the other side of the street from me are really having a good time with this. They must have missed the thunderstorms as much as I have, I suspect - in any event, they're really active today, hollering more than I have heard them in weeks. Yesterday, I saw a flock of rainbow-billed toucans flying through the trees across the road - I think they are on their migration to the lowlands for the rainy season, too. The humidity is up and the weather is definitely changing. I need the rain for the garden. It is getting dry out there, and there's no doubt that I can use the moisture. Last month's heavy rains caused two of my mango trees to drop their fruit. But I noticed a third is in bloom, so maybe I'll get a late season crop anyway. I am looking forward to that. Hate to buy mangos when I have four really big trees that should keep me in all the mangos I could ever want.

I noticed that my coconut palm is in bloom again, too. It has four big bunches of pipas (coconuts in the husk) already, and will soon have a fifth. Love to see that! I really like coconut water, and since I now have a Champion juicer, I can juice the coconut meat for millk and make my own pina colada, from produce in my own garden. One of my all-time favorite drinks, with or without the rum.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 02:16:50 PM

Fri, Apr 23 2004

Attempt Number Four

Today, I am going to go to the internet cafe to upload these blog entries, and synchronize my email. The promised repair of my phone line didn't happen of course, so it looks like I am going to be dependent on the cell phone and the internet cafe for communications for some time to come.

One of my friends related a similar experience to this. He said that he could not use one of his telephone lines and continued complaints to the repair service resolved nothing. So eventually, after several months of frustration, he finally ordered an additional phone line. Once it was installed, he simply canceled the inoperative line.

If I get desperate, I may have to do something similar. I may simply have to cancel this line, wait two months, and re-order it, after all the accounts that have been associated with this cable pair are discontinued and are out of their system and can't interfere with the provisioning of the telephone line in the central office.

So after I am done with the internet cafe this morning, I am going to go back to the regional ICE office in Tilaran - for the fourth time - and make one more plea to get this problem repaired. If that doesnīt happen in a few days, I intend to order another phone line. Once it is installed, which will probably take months, I will simply cancel the non-working line.

While waiting for the internet cafe to open this morning, I decided to change the washer in the faucet in the bathroom - it is hard to get it to not drip. So I shut off the water and opened it up. It is a cheap, Chilean-made faucet, and I discovered, much to my dismay, that there is no way to tighten the packing (which is leaking) or change the valve seat, which is cast right into the frame of the valve. It is rough enough that it needs repair, but I can't do that. I know I'll never find a plumbing valve seat grinder around here (and it probably wouldn't fit the valve even if I could find one). I may just end up replacing the valve. Since I can get a decent replacement in Tilaran when I go there for my daily ICE fight, I will probably do just that, and toss this valve in the trash.

I bought a UPS for my computer when I was in Tilaran yesterday, and have it up and running now. It has kept my computer alive through two power bumps so far, and that is what I got it for - it ensures that I won't have to worry about every little power bump, of which there are a lot here.

The gardener is supposed to come by today, too, for his weekly work. It is nine o'clock, and no sign of him yet. I would like to get him paid so I don't have to worry about being gone when he shows. I went out and checked to see if the leaf litter heap is dry enough - after this week's rains - to burn, and it appears that it is, at least the outside foot or so. That would be enough to be well worth burning. In checking out the pile of leaf litter, I noticed that one of the discarded pipas (coconuts opened for the water - a popular drink here) has sprouted and is doing well in the leaf litter. I have looked around for a place to transplant it, and I found a good spot down by the pond. So it will soon have a new home and hopefully, in a year or two, I'll have a second source of pipas and fresh coconut.

The weather has been warm and sunny for the last two days. Typical dry season weather. I'm loving it and hope it stays this way for a few more weeks.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:37:20 AM

Thu, Apr 22 2004

Tilaran - Three Times In One Day

I went to Tilaran, as I wrote this morning that I would have to. The results at the ICE office - they were sympathetic enough, and after a lot of phone calls to various people, it was suggested that I needed to call the repair service from the telephone I was having trouble with. So I drove back home, and tried - no cigar. The intercept is active even on the repair service number.

So it was back to Tilaran. I told them about that problem, and they again expressed some sympathy. The service agent sent off some emails, and then told me that the central office technicians had been notified of the problem. They claimed to have fixed it, and the service agent said my phone was working now. She called it, and the line rang, so I went home a happy camper.

When I got home, I tried calling my wire line phone from the cell phone. It didn't work. So I tried calling an 800 number from the wire line telephone, and that didn't work either. Nothing had changed.

So it was back to Tilaran once again, this time to inform them that it still wasn't working and ask them what their plans were for fixing it. I got there just before closing time, and the agent was surprised to see me. I told her that when she calls my number, her phone sounds like mine is ringing, but mine never does. And I still can't make outgoing calls, either.

"Pobrecito," she said ("poor boy"). A few more phone calls. Another email. Go back home, she said, and wait for them to make the changes at the central office. How long,. I asked. Days? "Menos", ("less") she said. Hours? No answer. I had little choice but go back home and wait for a day or so, and see if the service got restored. If it still isn't working by noon tomorrow, I'll go back and see if they can explain why. Or more importantly, when. Tomorrow morning, if it still isn't working, I'll have little choice but to take another trip to the Internet Cafe and use their phone line. Hate to have to do that, but I need to get my mail. I have some urgent business I am transacting, and this came at a bad time. But I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and hope that it is working in the morning. I have been here long enough, however, that if it is working, I'll be surprised.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 07:23:10 PM

Cut Off At The Knees

You may have to read this at least a day or two after I write it. My internet access has been cut off, and I currently have no way to get email or upload blogs. I've been using the local internet monopoly RACSA's 900-number service for internet access since I have had a telephone line here.

It has been working brilliantly for me, but the problem is that this morning, I have discovered that I cannot make an outgoing call. And a check with the cell phone determined that I can't receive calls either.

The problem I have is that I have a new line. But it uses the same wires as the occupant's phone did. They just changed the phone number and put the phone in my name.

No problem, you say. Well, there is a problem. It seems that the previous occupant simply didn't pay his phone bill or get it shut off, so he left the country with a telephone account still active. Well, that was a month ago, and since ICE hasn't received a payment, they have suspended his account. Well, since my cable pair is associated with that account, the system simply cut my line and put the intercept on it, informing me that the service for this line has been suspended.

I'll have to travel to Tilaran and beg and plead with ICE to do something about the problem. I don't have any idea what kind of success I will have.

The ICE office I need to go to is in Tilaran, and there is a computer shop there that I'm told sells UPSs, so I am also going to get a UPS for my computer. The power here in Arenal is generally reliable, but it keeps getting cut off for about a second or so, just long enough for my computer to take a dump. So I need to fix that, and a UPS is probably the easiest way to remedy that problem.

While in Tilaran, I am going to look for a light fixture to mount over the breakfast bar. I have no idea if there are any electric shops there like there are in San Ramon, but I'll go to Canas if I have to, where I am sure there must be one, or at least a shop that sells light fixtures.

So wish me luck in my quest to get all this done in Tilaran today. I'm going to need it.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 07:24:31 AM

Wed, Apr 21 2004

Midweek And Better Weather

Well, the pesky cold front that has been hanging in here and giving us chilly weather has finally cleared out, and given us our warm, sunny weather back. Today was a delightfully warm and sunny day, and just the sort of day that I expected when I moved to Costa Rica. Not hot, not oppressively muggy, but just a delight all the way around.

This morning, I heard a loud, continuous, high-pitched buzzing sound that I've been hearing a lot lately. It was close by, and so I thought I would go out and investigate. I found the source, about thirty feet from my front door. Turns out it was a kind of cicada, similar to those I knew from the western U.S., but this one was just huge - a good three inches long and dark blue. I called my ham friend from the botanical garden and asked him about them. He says they're somewhat famous around here - their presence announces the onset of the rainy season in about a month. Since they've been ubiquitous in the last few days, the folk wisdom says that we'll be into the rainy season a month from now. Which is about when the rainy season normally begins anyway.

My friend had asked me about the program I use to predict satellite passes. Well, I gave him the URL and he downloaded and installed it, and now I am afraid I have created a monster. He is really into this satellite thing right now, and is constantly calling me to let me know that another ham radio satellite is about to pass overhead, and I should check the downlink frequency to see if I can hear it. Well, so far, I haven't heard any, and I suspect that I just don't have the right antennas and receiver equipment to do an adequate job. So if I want to get serious about satellites, I would have to get some additional equipment and build antennas for it. Well, it would be fun, but I am just not that serious about it, and after being involved in satellites professionally, just don't have that much interest.

Not much going on with the house; mostly clearing the yard and garden of debris left behind by the tenant. I have a huge trash pile that I have accumulated, that will need to get hauled away soon. It's getting truly out of hand - it is about twenty feet across and six or seven feet high. And I am a long ways from done, adding to it, too. A few days ago, I transplanted a corkscrew ginger that was growing in one of the piles of garbage strewn around the place, and put it in the bare spot left behind by the gallinera (chicken coup) that I demolished last week. I planted some pineapples around it, to give it a bit of a cultivated appearance. Well, the rains were just what the ginger needed, and it is starting to come out of the transplant shock, and looks like it is going to like its new home. I hope so. The species has a truly spectacular flower, I'm told, and am looking forward to seeing it. The pineapples won't bloom and fruit for about 18 months, so I won't have to deal with it for some time. I also have a lot of other work that needs to be done in the garden before the onset of the rains - a lot of thinning and replacement of some of the giant ginger that is getting old and starting to die. Fortunately, it has lots of babies, so it won't be a problem finding replacements. I have lots of heliconias, too, that need to be thinned out. I also have a couple of bunches of bananas that need to be cut down and hung in the pila (washroom) to ripen. And some plantains that need to be cut and eaten, too. The garden is finally starting to feed me as well as delighting my eye.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 06:58:21 PM

Tue, Apr 20 2004

Slow Day

This morning is a slow morning here in Nuevo Arenal. Not much on the agenda today, other than some bookkeeping. Don't even know what to write about for this morning's blog entry, because there just isn't much happening.

My ham friend from Belen is moving here to Arenal today - he has to move out of his rented house in Belen and that means he has to move into his newly purchased house here, whether it is ready for occupancy or not - which it is not. His house is in far worse shape than mine was, and it needs a lot more work to make it livable, but he's more capable of that sort of work than I am, so it won't take him long to get it up to snuff. It will be nice having him in town to help when I need it, and to talk to on the radio. It will also be nice to have his three kayaks out of my back bedroom, and his fridge out of my living room.

Got the word from a friend of mine who just downloaded Mozilla 1.6 that he likes it a lot - and the Java works a lot better, so I think I'm going to download that and install it today, too. Apparently, all the javascripts on my "fun" page work in this new version, including the clock that follows the mouse around the screen, the news ticker, and the time ticker. It'll be fun to see it all working all at once from the same browser.

The weather here continues to be awful. Apparently there is a cold front over us, that has stalled and is bringing us all this rain, unusual for this time of year. It has been cold, too, at least by Arenal standards - meaning temperatures in the upper 60's. I got online and looked to see what it was doing, and the weather bureau here is pretty much right - it's not moving. Just sitting here, boiling up thunderstorms that bring us this rain. My ham friend at the Arenal Botanical Garden says he's been freezing to death - swaddled in two blankets at night, and doesn't want to get out of bed in the morning. I gave him a hard time about hating a mild chill, yet being from the Bitterroot valley in Montana - one of the coldest places in the United States. Asked him what he'd do if he ever had to go back there. He says he's not planning to go back there anytime soon, thank you very much. Can't say as I blame him.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 07:37:59 AM

Sun, Apr 18 2004

It's Done - And It's Drop-Dead Gorgeous!

The bricklayer just finished up with the tile on the breakfast bar. I just agreed to a final settlement price, and loaded up his stuff and took him home. The breakfast bar is done. And it's drop-dead gorgeous! All that remains is to purchase and install a light fixture for it.

It has turned out just as I had visualized it - modern, but with a bit of an antique Spanish colonial feel to it. I was very concerned, when he started grouting the tile, that I had chosen a grout too dark to look good - it's a dark coffee color. But now that it is done, and the tiles are cleaned off, I can see that the color was the perfect choice - it is a nice contrast with the counter-top tile, which is a patterned clay-ish beige color, and the accent tile, which is a chocolate brown. The accent tile has a glossy glaze, which, contrasted with the rough glaze of the countertop tile, accentuates the Spanish colonial feel. Once the kitchen and dining rooms have decent paint colors, and there is tile on the floor, it will make this place look really sharp.

Next big project? I haven't decided for sure what I'm going to tackle next, but I think it will probably be cutting in some glass block into the kitchen wall to give it some of the light that I gave up when I closed off the window into the pila (washroom). The kitchen is desperately dark now, and I think that some glass block, with a flourescent light fixture, will fix that without compromising security too seriously. The bricklayer gave me a price of $50 roughly, to install it.

On the other hand, the floors in this place are terrible. They are polished concrete that hasn't been polished in many years, and they're badly cracked. I'm told that simply tiling over them will work fine - the cracks are ubiquitous in these ICE homes, and they don't progress, so just tiling them up works OK. The hangup is cost. The quotes I have to do it right, with decent tile, will end up costing close to $900 by the time it is all said and done. But it will sure make this place a lot more attractive. Since it would add to the resale value anyway, it would probably be worth it. Certainly make it a lot more saleable if I end up needing to sell it.

The big expense that I can see coming up, is a rafter and roof replacement. Not that I'd mind - by replacing them, I can make the place truly secure - about as secure as it can be made. The roof has at least two leaks in it, and I could patch them and get a few more years out of the roof, but I would have a security problem in the meantime. I haven't gotten bids yet, but I'm guessing about $4000 to do it. It is too late to do it this year; the rainy season is here, and I can't do it until next year's dry season. But once the weather dries out, and I dare have the roof off of the place for a few weeks, I'll probably start on it. After all, it's got to be done sooner or later.

But for now, I can sit at the breakfast bar with a hot cup of coffee, and think about it.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 03:06:27 PM

Sunday Work Schedule

This morning, the bricklayer is here, and is finishing up the tile work on the breakfast bar. Last night, he worked until he had to leave at eight o'clock, and got all the trim around the arch done, got the cement work done for the tile inside the arch, and got the tile laid on the counter top, except for a row of centerpieces that needed to be cut to fit. The tile is looking really good, and I'm pleased as punch about how it looks so far. He tells me he's pleased with the quality of the tile I selected. He says Italian is best, with Brazilian and Spanish tile tied for second place. Mine is Brazilian.

As I write this, he's hard at work doing the trip pieces around the edge of the counter top, and that is fairly slow going, because he has to cut each piece to fit. Since the tile I actually received didn't match the size listed on the label in the store (both the trim and the main pattern tiles were larger), the counter top was poured to the wrong thickness as well as the wrong width, and that meant that the tile had to be cut to fit. So he's busy doing that now. His little boy, an eight-year old, is also here, helping him prepare the small trim tiles by cutting them out of the squares and trimming off the rubber joints that hold them together into the squares. At the rate the bricklayer is laying tile, I expect he'll be done by two or three this afternoon. I can then get to the laundry that I need to do - all of my clothes from the Nicaragua trip are still dirty, and I had some dirty laundry from before I left, so there is quite a pile waiting to be done.

The bricklayer sent me to the store for some Brillo pads, and I needed to hit the ATM machine anyway, because I'm almost out of cash to pay him. So while I was in town, I stopped by the bank. Unfortunately, the ATM machine errored out - reported that it was unable to communicate with the central computer, so I couldn't get the cash that I know the bricklayer is going to ask me for. He'll just have to wait till tomorrow when the bank opens.

This morning was a rather chilly morning - my ham friend at the Arenal Botanical Garden told me on the radio this morning that it was 68 degrees this morning when he got up. It dawned rainy and cold, with patches of fog rolling through. But as I write this, at about ten o'clock, the weather has improved a bit. It quit raining and looked like the clouds may break up a bit, but soon settled back into the steady, gentle rain that is so typical of the rainy season here.

My garden needed the rain - rather desperately, in fact. I was about to resort to watering, if I needed to, because a few things, such as the impatiens were starting to show early signs of wilting. I'm hoping that the brief but intense dry spell we had will stimulate a few more of my orchids to bloom. So far, I've seen only three varieties in bloom and this time of the year, they should all be blooming. They need a good dry spell for that to happen. My wisteria is in full bloom, and there's a hummingbird here that seems to really like the blossoms. It is a rufous-tail hummingbird, and it is working those blossoms over almost constantly - as good as having a hummingbird feeder, but without the maintenance, and a lot prettier to look at. I'm going to try to get a picture.

Rain this time of year is a bit unusual, but in looking at the satellite images, the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, the weather pattern that gives us our rainy season, has moved over us and is likely cause it to rain for some time. It appears that the rainy season has begun, and about a month early - a very rare pattern. The weather has been so strange this year that everyone is wondering if it is an early sign of global warming. I wouldn't be at all surprised. The weather here is very unstable anyway, because this town is located very close to the crest of the continental divide, and weather from either the Pacific or the Caribbean can dominate, depending on which regime is stronger at the moment. That is why we're likely to get rain or dry, sunny weather any time of the year - dry air and bright sun one minute, and rain and fog the next. It's never boring, that's for sure.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:21:11 AM

Sat, Apr 17 2004

More Work Getting Done

Today was going to be a fairly laid-back day. I got up late after having been up late, and didnīt figure there would be that much going on. Well, about two in the afternoon, the bricklayer showed up and announced that he was going to go to work getting the trim tiles installed around the edge of the arch over the breakfast bar.

When I saw how he intended to do it, I grew alarmed that he would paint himself into a corner by not getting the tiles on the front and back sides of the arch in exactly the same spot, meaning that the tiles insode the arch could not be laid square to the trim tiles on the outside. He assured me that he knew what he needed to do, but I wasnīt so sure he understood my concerns. I called a friend who is bilingual, and asked him to find out what he was planning. Turns out he needed a square from his house, and used my phone to call the house to have his son bring it over. By using it, he will be able to get the tiles in exactly the same spot. Any excess of the remaining wall's blocks will then be chipped away, and the tile inside the arch will then be cemented and tiled.

As I write this, heīs moving right along, with the trim tile nearly in place for one of the outside surfaces of the arch. It is going to look really nice when it is done.

This morning, I went out and checked on the results of yesterday's trash fire. The huge pile of leaf litter has been reduced to not much more than a couple of inches of ash - a valuable commodity around here, as it is alkaline, and that helps neutralize our acid soils. There were a few smouldering embers, in spite of my rather thorough dousing of it before I went to bed last night, but they'll be out by nightfall.

The remainder of the pile is drying out, too, so I may just move some of it to the burning area and have it ready to light when the gardener gets here next week. I've also got a bucket of used motor oil to get rid of, left behind by the tenant, and I may use that to soak the leaf litter and get it going so it will burn a bit hotter without such copious quantities of smoke. My big concern is to get it all to burn so it doesn't wash into the pond. If I can successfully use it up, it will be awfully nice to have that out of the carport, too.

When the bricklayer is done this afternoon, I may have a problem if he asks me for an advance on his work. If that happens, I'll have to make a quick run to the ATM. The trip to Nicaragua flattened my wallet well and truly.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 03:02:09 PM

Fri, Apr 16 2004

Hijacking The Crew And Lighting The Fire

First thing on the agenda this morning, of course, was to get to ICE and see if I could get the power turned back on today. I'd hate to have it off for the entire weekend, and lose the contents of the fridge.

After breakfast at a local early morning cafe, I went to the ICE office as soon as they opened. I got the factura (invoice) and headed over to the bank to pay it (that's how utility bills are paid here - that way, utility employees can't graft the money coming in). Once paid, I went back over to the ICE office and got the reconnection order arranged. At that point, there was nothing to do but go back to the house and wait for the ICE crew to show up. I hoped they'd show sooner rather than later, because I needed to go to Tilaran to pick up the tile for my breakfast bar.

About ten o'clock, an ICE crew did in fact show up. But they weren't here to reconnect me; they were looking for another customer. After telling them where the other customer was, I asked them if they could reconnect me. I got a copy of my factura and the receipts, showing I'd paid it, and they called the office on their two-way and checked. It was okay. So they pulled my meter and pulled out the insulators they install to cut off power, and plugged the meter back in and sealed it. I was back in business!

In the middle of all this, the gardener showed up and started hauling two-year's worth of leaf litter down to the edge of the lake to start burning it. Seems the tenant had forbidden the gardener from burning any of it, so it had been accumulating into a huge pile, thirty feet across and six feet high. It was enormous, and in a bad location - a spot I would like to landscape. So he began shifting it to the spot we'd agreed would be suitable for the big bonfire.

I took off for Tilaran and got the tile. When I got back, the fire was well underway, creating enormous clouds of acrid smoke. I was concerned that the neighbors might complain and call the fire department, but apparently since they'd been burning garbage too, they weren't too eager to complain. Burning garbage without a permit is illegal here, as it is in the States, but unlike the States, you can do anything you want here as long as no one complains. It is a much more sane approach to liberty and freedom, in my opinion. Since no one complained, I'm off the hook.

The fire burned all afternoon and well into the night, more smouldering than burning, just bursting into flame occasionally. As I write this, at just after midnight, it is still smouldering. I'll have to go put it out before I go to bed, but at least half of that enormous pile of leaf litter is gone now. I can start landscaping that area next week when the rest of it is gone. Good riddance, too. Yes, it would have been great to turn it into compost, but that was just not feasible with that much. So burning it was really the only practical way to get rid of it. Little by little, the legacy of the tenant and the mess he left behind is going away. And I'll be a happy man when it's all gone.

Just about sundown, I got a call from my friend, whose car had stalled right alongside the roadway. He couldn't leave it there for the night, as doing so would invite theft of the tires and wheels, so he asked if I could tow his car to the mechanicīs workshop. I got there to discover that the only rope he had was his brand new lariat rope, and it was all he could use. So we roped up the car, and proceeded on to town. His place is about a mile from town, and the mechanic's workshop is about a mile the other side, so I drove him slowly and carefully through town, much to the amusement of passersby.

The mechanic's workshop is on top of a hill, approached by a very rocky gravel road. About half way up, I felt the tires in the back begin to slip, so I stopped and locked up. Letting the clutch out ever so slowly, it grabbed as it is inclined to do, and the car lurched forward, almost breaking the rope. But it held, and we made it to the top.

On the way home, we stopped in town to pick up his fish order - about 20 kilos of corvina and other local species. For helping me out, he gave me several of the fish, and when I got home, I fixed a lovely fish dinner. The corvina was wonderful, and am looking forward to the other fish as well. It's good to have friends who share.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 12:30:43 AM

Thu, Apr 15 2004

What A Rip!

I was up early, getting everything together, and getting ready to go to Managua, as soon as I could get breakfast and get checked out of the hotel. The restaurant didn't open till seven, so it was the limiting factor. I had everything ready to go, and had breakfast as soon as the tables were out on the sidewalk, then back to the hotel, checking out, and catching a cab for the parada (bus stop) for the busses to Managua.

As I had expected, it proved to be a different parada than the one to Masaya. Good thing the cabbies know where it is. It was in a barrio in a place I'd never have found it on my own.

Unlike the other busses I'd been in. This one wasn't the ubiquitous BlueBird school bus, but a fifteen passenger van, converted to carry more like twenty passengers packed in like sardines. The aisle between the seats was fitted with folding seats, which, once the passengers were settled in in the regular seats, were unfolded, back of the bus first, so that every possible square inch of possible passenger-carrying space could be utilized. Like other busses in this country, fares are collected in the middle of the trip, but since the purser couldnīt reach each passenger, the passengers relayed the fares up to where he was standing in the doorway.

The trip took me about an hour. I was surprised at how new, modern and clean Managua is. Much more so than San Jose, but I guess that's not surprising, since the entire city was leveled in a massive earthquake about thirty years ago. So there are no buildings of any consequence in the city that are more than thirty years old. The reconstruction also allowed for a modern expressway system which carries traffic efficiently around the city, and so Managua isn't plagued by the traffic jams that so annoy residents and visitors to San Jose.

The bus parada (terminal) had the usual fleet of cabs waiting for fares, so it wasnīt hard to get a cab to take me to the terminal of the international bus company I was going to take to get back to Costa Rica. I arrived about nine, and the bus was due to leave at noon.

After checking in at the ticket counter, and getting my documents inspected, I settled in the shade of a large fig tree to wait for the bus. I had a good conversation with a Nicaraguan fellow who is working in Costa Rica as an engineer for a large cooking-gas company here. Very interesting fellow, and very friendly. He gave me a recommendation letter for a hotel run by a relative, for my next visit to Managua. Supposed to get me a discount.

By noon, the bus had arrived and was quickly prepared for the trip to Costa Rica. Once on it, I settled in for a long trip to the border - about a four hour ride.

As the bus left town, however, I noticed something that annoyed me. It appeared that the bus was headed through Granada. As the travel progressed, the bus failed to turn down the InterAmerican highway, but headed to Granada instead. Sure enough, within an hour, it pulled into the very bus terminal that had told me there was no bus from Granada on Thursdays. And the door opened up, and about twenty people got on. My trip to Managua had not been necessary! Boy, was I steamed!

We left Grenada, and were soon on our way to the border crossing. This was all familiar country, but beautiful nevertheless. I'd picked a window seat on the left-hand side of the bus, where I could enjoy the views of Lake Colcibolca (Nicaragua), and the perfect volcanic cones on the Northern shore. What a magnificent sight!

The border crossing was uneventful, if somewhat time-consuming. I quickly got my passport stamped by immigration, but the immigration clerk tried to tell me something, but with the noise and confusion, and my lousy Spanish, I never did decipher what he was trying to say. I noticed that he stamped my passport with a red stamp, however. I have no idea if that is significant - I'll have to have my immigration lawyer check into that.

Waiting for the customs check, I noticed a somewhat telling, if insignificant detail. Behind the customs office is located the Costa Rican - Nicaraguan Peace Garden. The sign says "Ticos - Nicas siempre hermanos" (Costa Ricans - Nicaraguans always brothers.) But the garden was full of litter and strewn with burst bags of half-burned garbage. Somewhat symbolic of the slightly testy relations between the two countries' peoples.

The formalities behind us, we pulled out of the Penas Blancas border crossing and headed for the Costa Rican interior. The movie that came on the closed-circuit television was a movie I was intensely interested in watching - "Seabiscuit," the story of the champion hoirse and the people around it from the 1930īs A moving story, though I found the movie a bit disappointing - lots of skulduggery, exploitation, cheating and the like, with relatively little about how Seabiscuit was brought from an incorrigible, unhandleable horse headed for the glue factory, into a horse that became the object of national fascination.

But by the time the movie was getting good, the bus arrived in Canas, and it was time for me to get off. I caught the last bus to Tilaran, which arrived about 15 minutes late, and when in Tilaran, discovered that I had missed the last bus to Arenal. So I had no choice but to take a cab - about a $12 cab ride.

On arrival home, I discovered that the power was off in the house. After some extensive fumbling around, I finally found a flashlight and had a look - sure enough, my meter had been red-tagged. I'd figured that I would have plenty of time to pay the bill after I got back, but not so - in spite of Semana Santa (holy week), the power company still expected the bill to be paid within ten days of it becoming due, holidays or no. My fridge had been off, of course, since the meter was red-tagged. but it was still cold, so I figured it had been shut off during that day. Nothing I could do but go to bed and visit ICE in the morning when I got up.

No fan. No shower. No dinner. But I was tired, and I had no trouble going to sleep anyway. Tomorrow would be another day I could battle the dark forces of the power company.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:49:28 PM

Wed, Apr 14 2004

Not Much To Do Today

I had thought about doing the Islet Tour today, but when I got up and walked down the street to my breakfast haunt, I gave up that idea very quickly. The wind was really strong, and looking out on Lake Colcibolca (Nicaragua), I could see that there were some pretty sizeable rollers out there, and I didn't want to be out in a small boat in that. So no chance for a tour today.

Back to the hotel room. I'd failed to pack any books, so all I could do was go get a paper and read that, and then watch TV. The forty-page Wednesday edition of La Prensa occupied a good deal of the morning, as I worked my way through the somewhat opaque Spanish. The easiest Spanish was in the Wall Street Journal section, two pages of business news, written in a style that was quite comprehensible to me. The rest was difficult, though not impossible, for me to decode.

By lunch time, I was hungry enough for a good cheeseburger, so I headed over to the local gringo hangout and sat down for a burger. It proved to be good, although the cheese was dried out, and the bun was dried to the point of being crunchy. I felt like complaining to the owner of the place, but he was nowhere to be seen.

While having lunch, another man showed up who proved to be an interesting fellow. He knew the tenant who occupied the house I bought when I bought it - they were the best of friends, apparently. And indeed, when the tenant's wife died a year or so ago, it was on his sofa that it happened. I had no idea that the tenant had been spending some time in Nicaragua. He expressed some interest in coming here, so I gave him my email address and invited him over. I have no idea if he will ever show.

The rest of the day was spent in my room, watching TV and sipping sodas. Not much else to do but pack for the return trip tomorrow.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:36:14 PM

Tue, Apr 13 2004

Off To Masaya

Last week, a ham radio operator from Masaya, a town just outside of Granada had checked into our morning forty-meter coffee klatch, and when he found out I was headed for Grenada, he invited me by to come see him. He gave me directions, and as I had little else to do today, I figured I'd take a bus to Masaya and see if I could find his place.

Once I had breakfast, I found the bus parada (bus stop) for the busses to Masaya, and got on the first one out of town. The local busses in Nicaragua apparently work a bit differently than in Costa Rica. In the latter country, you give your fare to the driver when you get on the bus. But in Nicaragua, the system is different.

When I got on the bus, the driver didn't ask me for my fare. I thought that a bit odd, but figured I'd go with the flow, and at some point someone would demand my six cordobas (about forty cents) from me. Indeed, that's what happened. The way the Nicaraguans enforce fares is that a purser rides the bus, and about half way through the trip, will ask you for the fare. If you don't have it, the purser instructs the driver to stop, and this fellow, about the size of a Packers linebacker, will boot you off, leaving you out in the middle of the sticks with no way home. It's a good way to enforce fares. Indeed, it happened to two passengers.

We had no more than pulled out of town than a sweet little Indian girl sat down next to me. About five or six, she was carrying a tiny kitten, wrapped up in a jersey shirt. The tiny kitten, which couldn't have been more than a month old, was clearly malnourished, and too weak to struggle against the swaddling in the shirt that it was being subjected to. The little girl was really impressed when I admired her little kitten, and she tried her best to communicate with me, but I had to explain that I was a foreigner and couldnīt speak her language. Nicaraguan Spanish is different enough from Costa Rican that what she was saying was pretty much incomprehensible to me. It was really sad, because the little girl and her kitten were really sweet. She and her mother soon got off the bus, a few kilometers outside of Masaya. As she got up and left her seat, she smiled widely and bade me an hasta luego (good bye). Very sweet little child.

When I arrived in Masaya, I took a cab to the barrio (neighborhood) where my ham friend lives, and set about trying to find his house. He had told me that it was visible from the Central Park, so I went there and looked - no such antenna. So I set about walking down each street that led away from the park, one at a time, a block or so, looking to see if there was such an antenna. After about my fourth attempt, I spotted a ham antenna and started walking towards it, even though it wasn't the type he'd described. But as I got closer, I spotted the kind I'd been looking for, and when I got to the house where it was located, I found a sign with his name on it.

After all that effort, it turned out that he wasn't home. With little else to do, I headed for Masaya's principal tourist attraction, the mercado artesano (artists' market). A short cab ride and I was there.

As it turns out, the mercado was certainly worth coming to Masaya for. It is quite large - better part of a city block, and crammed with leather goods, ceramics, glass art blown from recycled glass, and a some imported tourist souvenirs. I had been told that this was a good place to buy a hammock, and indeed it is, if you're looking for a knitted two-seater. They were beautiful, with lacework trim and hardwood spreaders - about $20. Unfortunately, the hardwood spreaders would be a problem on the busses I was going to need to travel in the next few days, so I shined that one on. Found some hand-made cowboy boots I really liked, but at $48, they would have left me strapped for cash, and since it is hard to change colones to cordobas in Nicaragua, I didn't want to chance it. I did get a new belt (my old one was almost broken in two) and some T-shirts, at $2.50 each. Great buy, and I need them, as I'm wearing out all the ones I came to Costa Rica with.

Anyway, after doing the mercado, I headed back for the bus parada, and Granada. On arrival back in Grenada, I was astonished to look at my watch and discover it was only ten thirty in the morning - so I still had all day ahead of me.

I decided to take advantage of the time to go to the bus depot and get my reservation for the return trip on Thursday. Once there, I was told that there is no bus from Grenada to Costa Rica on Thursdays. My option was to get a reservation for Friday, or go to Managua and get on a bus there. Since I'd never been to the Nicaraguan capital, I chose the latter option. I was given my reservation and I put my ticket back in my passport, salting it away for the trip home in two days.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:01:30 PM

Mon, Apr 12 2004

Off To Granada

I was up early, not able to sleep much, which I've never been able to do the first night in a strange bed. So I had my shower, shaved, brushed my teeth, got dressed and turned on the TV. It was still two hours before the restaurant would be open for breakfast.

When it finally was, I sauntered over in a leisurely fashion, had a leisurely breakfast, and sauntered back to my room for more CNN and History Channel in Spanish. I figured that it was at least my daily Spānish lesson. My Spanish is good enough now that I can generally follow the gist, if not the detail, of what's going on.

At nine thirty, I checked out and wandered out front to the bus stop to wait for my bus to Granada. The first bus from that carrier that showed up about 15 minutes early, proved to not be my bus. I asked if it was stopping in Granada, and it was. I then asked if mine was going to stop in Granada, and as it turned out, no, it wasn't. I was more than a bit annoyed - that meant that if I were to take my own bus, I'd have to get off in a small village outside of Granada and take a taxi into town - another $6 expense. I asked the driver of the bus if I could get on this one, and he was evasive about an answer. When I pointed out that it was their own agent's mistake, he finally agreed, saying that I'd have the last seat on the bus.

I got on and indeed, it was the last seat. I felt grateful to get it, as it meant I'd get to Granada sooner and at less cost. There were about six men standing in the aisle, and I never did figure out what that was all about, until we got to the border crossing after about forty-five minutes later. Just before we arrived at the crossing, they all got off - apparently, they were employees of a trucking firm. Never did figure out why they were riding an international bus.

The border crossing was uneventful, but rather tedious. We arrived about the same time that several other busses did, and that meant a long wait to check out of Costa Rican immigration. The migration police were allowing only six at a time into the building where the clerks were stamping passports. Everyone else was out in the hot sun, waiting. Of course the vendors were busy, working to sell juice and sodas in plastic bags with a straw to the Ticos and Nicaraguans, or small plastic jars of mineral water to the gringos and Europeans. The money changers were working the crowds, too. I got the best rate I could on exchanging 100,000 colones into cordobas, and spent the rest of the wait trying to avoid the worst of the sun. Took about forty five minutes to get through the line, which stretched about a block down the road.

Once my passport was stamped, I got back on the bus and rode the short ride across the physical border into Nicaragua. The bus driver collected everyone's passport along with the entry tax, and parked next to the customs inspection bench. While the Nicaraguan migration authorities were stamping our passports, we got in line and had our luggage inspected by Nicaraguan customs. When they got to me, they simply took my declaration form, and waved me through - I guess they figured that a little carry-on bag couldn't have much in it that they'd be interested in.

Soon we were back on the bus and headed for Granada. After two hours, when we got to the turn-off to Grenada, I was relieved when the bus actually turned down the road to Granada. In a few minutes we were there. I got off the bus and hailed a cab. Told the driver to take me to my usual haunt in Granada, but he took me instead to another place, insistent that my hotel was closed for renovation. Well, the price was about the same, and it was closer to my usual restaurant, so I went ahead and registered. The room was recently renovated, and had very nice tile on the floor and in the bathroom. It had effective air conditioning and a TV, and that made me quite happy - it was 95 here too, and I knew I'd be watching a good deal of TV for the next three days. It was cable here, too, and pretty much the same choices as in Liberia, but with the added benefit of BBC World, my favorite cable news channel. I was settling in for my three day visa reset.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:33:49 PM

Sun, Apr 11 2004

Off To Liberia

Well, today's the day I start my trip to Granada. It's up early, get breakfast, let my friends know I'm headed their way to drop off my radios for safe keeping, and the catch the bus.

Things didn't work out quite how I'd planned, though. Once I dropped off my radios, I realized that I forgot to give my friend the keys to the house, where he is storing his kayaks, so he could get access to them. So in considering the problem, I didn't have time to make another trip over to his place, so I hid the keys and called him on the phone to tell him where I had hidden them. Sure hope he finds them okay.

Once that was all done, I called for a cab, but no one answered. There is no dispatcher here in Arenal - the cabs work by having a telephone in a box in front of the grocery store, where the taxis hang out, waiting for calls. When someone calls for a cab, the first driver to the phone gets the fare. Well, I called. No one answered. So I called again. No answer again. Dang it! Seems like this happens whenever I need a cab. This left me with little choice but to drive over to the taxi parada (taxi stand), and have the driver follow me home. I got over there and discovered the reason no one had answered - the box was closed and padlocked. No one seemed to have opened it on this holiday weekend morning. So my call was heard, but no one could pick up.

In any event, the cab followed me home, and I dropped off my car. He wanted to know why I needed a cab, and I told him I was taking a bus to Tilaran. He was curious enough to ask why I didn't just drive. Well, I answered, it was because my car had a problem and I didn't want to drive it that far. By telling him that, I discouraged him from telling anyone that the gringo had gone out of town and his car, a nice little Dodge 4x4, was available for the taking. It also avoided telling him how long I would be out of town and my home would be available for a burglary.

I got to the bus parada at a quarter to ten - just in time for the ten o'clock bus. Sure glad I decided to get there early! The ride to Tilaran was the usual local bus ride in this country - passengers getting on and off the bus every hundred yards or so, most of the way to Tilaran. A trip that takes about 35 minutes in the car took well over an hour, but about an hour on this ancient old school bus and sixty cents worth of colones finally got me there. The bus was an ancient old BlueBird school bus, still bearing the name "Carbondale County Schools" on the side. If you ever wondered where all those old BlueBird school busses go to die, now you know. Many down here are painted with decorations inside, even bearing various stylized BlueBird logos. I guess the bus owners are proud of their BlueBird acquisitions.

I got to Tilaran only to discover that I had an hour and a half wait till the bus for Canas. There was quite a crowd milling around, and I found out from talking to them that most of them were also waiting for the Canas bus. So I figured that when it got here, I'd best get on as soon as possible so I could get a seat and avoid having to stand for the hour-long trip. The principal entertainment was a little dachshund that one of the passengers had with her. It's name was Salchichone, meaning "sausage." It was the right name - looked just like a sausage with legs.

Well, I crowded around the bus and finally was on it, with a seat of my very own. Many of the passengers weren't so lucky - a good third of them were standing. But the price is right - about fifty cents for a thirty-mile ride.

The arrival in Canas brought another hour's wait. This one for the ride to Liberia. The next bus was due at one o'clock, and it was a long and boring wait. No restaurant nearby, so the only food was some junk food from a refreshment stand at the bus stop. I bought a bag of homemade empanadas, a torte filled with cheese. At least that's what the label said. Turns out it was mostly bread, but with a very thin layer of cheese inside. That and a Coke was lunch, but hey, I was hungry and it was better than nothing.

The bus to Liberia showed up at one on the dot, and soon I was off to Liberia, in my third BlueBird school bus of the day. This one at least had some overhead luggage racks in the roof, so I was able to get my bag off my lap. A three hundred colones fare - about sixty cents - and an hour and a half later, and I was in Liberia.

By now it was two thirty in the afternoon. I'd been on the road for five hours and could use some rest. My bus to Granada was due at ten in the morning, and so I had an Easter Sunday afternoon to spend in beautiful downtown Liberia, with no real entertainment available, and only a few hotels to check out.

The first I looked at, the Hotel Guanacaste, was certainly priced right, at six bucks for the night. I couldn't argue with the price, but the room was another matter. About the size of a large walk-in closet, and with no air conditioning (it was 95 degrees in the shade), and no TV for entertainment, I couldn't see spending the better part of a day here. So I went on to the next one - the Hotel Brahmadero. This wasn't bad. A bit pricey at $30, I figured it was only for one night, so I'd go ahead and spring for it as it had the requisite air conditioning and TV. The local cable had CNN, so I could feed my news addiction, and most of the usual cable channels, including four New York network affiliates. Not that I care about that, but I thought it interesting that the Ticos can watch American TV if they understand enough English to get what's going on. Don't know why they would, as I certainly wouldn't, but apparently there is enough demand for the local cable to carry it.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:54:18 PM

Sat, Apr 10 2004

Tomorrow Is D-Day

I'm not going to upload this blog entry for nearly a week. Thatīs because of security reasons that I can't go into here. Suffice it to say that I have good reasons, and I apologize to my regular blog readers for the lapse.

Tomorrow I'm headed for Grenada, Nicaragua for a 72-hour visa reset. The reason is that I'm still in Costa Rica on a tourist visa, and I have to renew that visa every three months. My three months since the trip to Panama is up, and I've got to get out of the country before my visa expires on the 21st. I will soon be applying for a permanent residence visa, as soon as my documentation is in order, but in the meantime, I have to do this little chore.

I chose Grenada for this visa reset, mostly because it is close, has good tourist facilities, and is an interesting place and is cheap to get to. Itīs about a six-hour bus ride from Liberia, but getting to Liberia is going to be the problem. I already have the bus ticket - got that last Monday, and am all set. It'll be a bit of a trip, as I have to stay overnight in Liberia since the bus connections to Liberia are so poor. That's a price that I pay for living in a small, out of the way place.

I'll drop off my radios at a friend's place, since I am not done getting the security up to snuff in this place just yet. I'll then drop off the car at the house, take a taxi to the bus parada (bus stop), and catch the first of three bus rides to Liberia.

Gonna be a long trip tomorrow, and I am off to bed to get an early start.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:43:48 PM

Fri, Apr 09 2004

Good Friday And A Three Ring Circus

I fully expected today to be a wonderfully quiet day that would let me get caught up on email and write a leisurely blog entry. Well, it wasn't meant to be.

I knew that the brickmason would be by to brick up the window in the kitchen that faces into the pila. And I had to go pick him up at seven, because I needed to haul some sand from his house to mine. No problem; a hurried breakfast and it was over to his place to load the sand and bring him back. I quickly cut down a trucker's tarp that was hanging in the carport, and put it in the back of the Dodge Raider, with the back seat folded down. With the tarp, there was some hope that the sand wouldn't make a thorough mess out of the cargo area.

When I got there, I found that he had some huge polypropylene bags from the feed store. We filled the bags, set them in the back on the tarp and drove back to my house, up his hill, which proved steep enough that I had to lock up. With the weight of the sand in the back, probably four hundred pounds, the car rode remarkably smooth on the rough, rocky streets between his house and mine. Of course, I took it very slowly and carefully the four blocks or so.

At my house, he quickly set to work, and by noon, had the window completely bricked up. While the brickmason was working on that, I was surprised to see my gardener show up and go to work weeding the flower beds. His tool was that remarkably versatile instrument, the machete. He had a remarkably deft way of handling the machete, and it didn't take long to do each flowerbed. Quick whacks of the blade dispatched browning palm fronds, errant weed sprouts, and leafless branches, flicking them with the end of the blade into the piles to be picked up.

As soon as the gardener was going good, I went to work on the gallinera (chicken coup), and finished the demolition of it, being very careful of the carpenter ants inhabiting the insides of the two-by-fours from which the frame was built. I managed to get it knocked apart and hauled over to the junk pile, without a single bite from the ants. Thank goodness!

I no sooner had the gallinera demolished than a junk merchant stopped. He wanted some of the pieces from the gallinera, and I was more than happy to give them to him, as it considerably reduced the size of my junk pile.

So here I was, on Good Friday, a major public holiday in this country, supervising three craftspeople getting stuff done on my place. I would never have expected it, but of course, two of those three were going to ask for money when they were done. This is a major partying weekend, after all.

At noon, the brickmason headed back to his house for lunch and siesta, and told me to come by and pick him up at one thirty and get a second load of sand. About the time I was ready to head over to the brickmason's, the gardener finished up, and as I had figured, he asked for an advance on the month's fees. I told him I didn't have the cash and that I preferred to pay once a month at the end of the month, and he agreed to that, with some disappointment. I would have been happy to pay him, had I had the cash, but since I didn't expect him, I didn't prepare by going to the bank and getting some cash to make sure he could be paid. He also informed me that since there are five Fridays this month, the price would be a bit higher this month. I expected that, too, so no surprise there.

When I got back to the house with the brickmason and the sand, he went right to work on plastering the newly bricked wall. It had hardened just enough through the lunch hour to make that possible, and by about three thirty, he was done. So I now have a huge patch of green concrete hardening slowly where the window used to be in my kitchen. The plaster patch looks surprisingly good - but then, this brickmason has done this a lot before on these same houses, so he's gotten good at matching the texture. I was surprised at the plaster he used - just ordinary cement powder mixed with a lot of coarse sand. He explained that this brand of cement, locally made, has a lot of lime in it, and works just great as plaster, so I shouldn't be concerned about how well it would stick.

After the plastering was complete, he let me clean up in the kitchen while he cleaned up in the pila. He then went to work on the forms for the breakfast bar. After several mistakes regarding the width, he finally got it right and we went to work, soon getting the forms ready for mud. He then went to work on the re-bar. I was quite surprised at how much re-bar he actually used - we used #3 re-bar, with a bar every six inches, each direction. This meant a lot of wiring, of course, and he spent till almost six in the evening wiring it all up. Once done, he set to work mixing concrete and pouring it. By seven he was done. He did a hurried cleanup, leaving most of it to me, and got all his tools gathered up. And then of course, came the request for money. Since I didn't expect this much work to actually get done today, I was a bit flat-footed again. I gave him some money, and agreed to give him the balance of his request tomorrow, after I had a chance to get to the automatic teller machine.

So tomorrow, I've got to go to the ATM and get some serious cash, not just to pay the brickmason, but for my trip next week as well. I can't pay bills, but I'll have to do that first thing Monday morning. I don't want my phone, or especially my power, to get turned off while I'm gone, only to come home to a stinking refrigerator full of spoiled food. So that's got to get done first thing Monday morning.

Tonight, I'm dead tired, and I have got to get a good night's sleep. Tomorrow's another day, and this retirement thing is wearing me out. I never realized I could be so busy not working for a living.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:18:24 PM

Thu, Apr 08 2004

Semana Santa And Work Is Getting Done!

Today is Thursday of the Semana Santa (Easter) week, and it's a big public and private holiday in this country. The last thing I expected was for craftspeople to show up today to continue my construction work, but it happened.

Most of the day was spent working in the garden, cleaning up trash left behind by the tenant. I figured it would be a good way to use the day, since everything in the country is closed except for emergency services. So I went to work demolishing the gallinera (chicken coup), and got most of it demolished. It was a fair amount of work. When I got to the last part, a wooden frame covered in roofing sheets, I got part of the roof off, and then tipped it over to get access to more of the nails, and out came a swarm of carpenter ants, who had been happily dismantling it themselves, one tiny bit at a time. Since I was demolishing their food supply, they took exception to what I was doing, and came swarming out, carrying off larvae, eggs, etc., and angrily swarming to defend their little paradise. Well, it didn't take long to get a few on me, and these blighters know how bite. They're big, too. Some of the bigger ants I've seen in my day, and they can take a chunk out of you without even trying hard. Well, one got me on the wrist of my right hand, and it was soon bleeding, not to mention hurting like mad. So I used the hammer to drag the wooden floor of the gallinera off to the junk pile, and pushed the remnant of the gallinera onto its backside, where none of the wood would be exposed to the soil. That will force the ants to abandon it as a nest, and I can hopefully get the rest demolished in peace. Another day.

By now it was late in the afternoon, and the early rainy-season afternoon sprinkles had started, so I retreated to the front porch with a Coke on ice in hand, to rest up and enjoy the rest of the late afternoon light in my garden, filtered through the rain.

I had not much more than settled down in the rocking chair, than the brickmason showed up, carrying a square and a handsaw. He announced that he wanted to do some trabahandito (a little work), and far be it from me to stop him, so I showed him into the house and asked what he intended to do this evening.

As it turned out, he wanted to demolish the window that I'm having bricked up, and also start on the concrete forms for the breakfast bar top. He said he'd be back in the morning to actually brick it up. He quickly went to work, and within minutes, it was gone, with a huge gaping hole over my kitchen sink and stove top, facing into the pila (semi-outdoor washroom).

He then started on the concrete forms for the breakfast bar. First, he had to take the hole in the wall down just a bit, as I decided that it was higher than I wanted. So he soon had concrete chips and dust flying everywhere. It didn't take long and he soon had it down to where I wanted it. He then went to work framing in the forms for the concrete work, and soon I could get a feel for how the breakfast bar will look once it's done.

He worked until he couldn't go any further with the materials he had, so by half past seven, he was done for the day. I don't have any suitable sand for the concrete work, and the ferreteria is closed for the Semana Santa, and so he offered to lend me some of the sand he has at his house. I'll have to haul it in the back of the Dodge, but I think I've figured out a way to avoid making too much of a mess of the car. Since I didn't know where he lives, I offered to take him home, so I'd know where to pick him and the sand up in the morning. I got out the car and drove him home. Turning around to drive home, I got the car stuck in the roadside ditch. No problem, I've got four-wheel drive. I locked up and drove right out of the stuck. Great invention, that four-wheel drive!

Tomorrow, I've got to get up early and have breakfast quickly and get it over with, so I can get over to his house and pick him up and load the sand. It's going to be a heavy work day tomorrow, I expect, and so I have to get to bed. I was looking forward to a little Pura Vida this weekend, but that's not going to happen. I'm going to be one of the few people in the country getting work done during Semana Santa. Pura Vida is just going to have to wait for another day.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:30:14 PM

Wed, Apr 07 2004

Tile Found, But No Installation Today

I needed to drive to Tilaran yesterday, and see if there was any tile there that would be suitable for my breakfast-bar project. I needed some cash, though, so I stopped at the bank and hit the ATM, then went to the one tile vendor in Arenal. Closed for the holiday week (Semana Santa, Easter week). So I shined that on, and tried to execute a U-turn, to hit the road for Tilaran. Right beside the park, there are some creole lemon trees whose branches hang out over the street, and in the U-turn, the limbs of one of them snagged my roof racks and sent the one in the rear flying of the back of the car. Even though I had carefully re-installed it the day before, getting it as tight as I could, I hardly felt it as the darned thing went flying. I saw it fall, so I stopped and put it in the back to take home and re-install it once again. This time, I worked out how to install it even tighter than before, and got it pretty solid, hoping it would hold the lumber I needed to haul back from Tilaran.

In addition to the lumber, I needed to see if there were any tile vendors there. Dodging the potholes and driving through a pouring rain, I got around the other side of the lake, out of this microclimate, and into the Tilaran microclimate and out of the calm winds and heavy rain, into a light sprinkle and high winds and sunshine. This country never ceases to amaze me with how wildly varying the microclimates can be - in distances as short as a mile apart. There are some places where the climate can vary in as little as a hundred feet - I saw that in Los Angeles Sur, where the hilltop was noticably colder than the southern slopes of that hill, just a hundred feet away down the hill.

Anyway, I found there are two tile vendors in Tilaran, and one of them had some really nice stuff, including matching tiles I could use for borders. So I ordered the tile - not in stock, it will have to be shipped in from San Jose - and was delighted to find out it will only cost me about $60. It's all Brazilian tile - hope itīs good. Looks like it should be, seems to be made from good clay, and it's plenty thick. Rather than get a few really large tiles, like the brickmason suggested - big tile is "in" these days - I decided to go with 15cm. tiles that can be more easily replaced if they get broken. And I'm getting lots of spare and lots of grout in case the tile is more fragile than it looks.

After ordering the tile, I figured I had better get the lumber that the brickmason needed for the forms while still in Tilaran, since I knew I could get it there. So it was off to the maderaria (lumber yard) to get the formaleto (lumber for concrete forms). No problem, that was all readily available, quickly loaded, and about 7,000 colones ($17) later, I was outta there. The form lumber is rough-sawn hardwood. Beautiful hardwood. It seems a terrible shame to use it as concrete forms, but I think I'll keep it when I'm done, since two of the boards are 30 cm. wide, and together would make a nice tabletop. Run them through a planer (I have a friend who has one), glue them together, sand them down and varnish, and I'd have a nice hardwood tabletop. I have seen that done with this very species, and the result was just beautiful. Seems to me a terrible waste to just throw such beautiful hardwood away.

That was it for Tilaran yesterday, so I drove home out of the wind, and back into the rain. I was concerned for the wood, but since it was pretty green anyway, I didn't figure it would be hurt all that badly, and since it's just formaleto anyway it wouldn't be a serious problem if it did warp just a bit.

Not much more than got around the end of the lake, and the rain let loose, of course, and I had to drive the last five kilometers home in a driving rain. I arrived with the wood quite wet and stacked it in the carport where it could drain and dry off. I went to the ferreteria (hardware store) and got the remaining materials that the brickmason would need, and returned home. Of course, he never did show last night.

Today, I didn't have a lot on the agenda, except that it dawned on me that I had ordered some of the wrong quantities for the tile. That meant another trip to the ceramic shop and I had to do it today, because they'd be closed the rest of the week. I also needed to go to the bus depot and get the bus schedule so I could decide how best to get to Liberia for my trip out of the country next week. Turns out that there is no bus in Tilaran that goes to Liberia directly; the only option is to go to Canas, and then get a bus from there to Liberia - and they run every few minutes along the Inter-American highway. Well, I could do that, and probably get to Liberia by ten AM, but rather than chance it, I decided I'd be best off to go to Liberia the day before and take a hotel room for the night, and then saunter off to the bus agency in my own good time in the morning.

So I went to Tilaran, and once again, came out of the rain as soon as I got around the west end of the lake. Back into the wind. By the time I got to Tilaran, it was bright and sunny, and of course very windy as it seems it always is in Tilaran. Did my thing at the ceramic store, and decided that I should check the fluid level in the transfer case of my Dodge, since it had been a while since I had done so. I found a lubricentro (oil-change shop) that wasn't busy, and went in. Turns out it was only a half-quart low. It cost me less than a dollar to have it topped off.

While in town, I figured it would be a good idea to stock up on groceries for the holiday weekend as well as check out the store, which Iīd never been in. It is the biggest grocery in Tilaran, and I was a bit disappointed to find there wasn't much in it that I couldn't get in the two independent groceries in Arenal. That done, I headed back home - twenty kilometers, and out of the sun and high winds, back into the clouds and calm but steady rain. But just as I came around the lake, the clouds over Arenal began to break up and soon it was a brilliantly sunny day. After the rain of the last two days, everything was fresh and green and with the sun, it was just brilliantly clear and beautiful. The temperature was perfect, of course, and the bright day reminded me of why I moved here. Such a lovely day!

Since the brickmason didn't show last night, I didn't figure he'd show today, but much to my surprise, at about six thirty this evening, he did. I told him that I had everything he needed except the tile, and he said that without that, he couldnīt size the concrete forms properly, and would prefer not to start on that tonight. He indicated that heīd be back on Saturday to brick up and plaster the kitchen window. Thatīs great - I'll get that done in one day, and before I leave for Nicaragua. I like the thought of having that secured while I'm gone. That will mean all the major security problems will have been solved, and just a few minor ones are left. I can leave without worrying all the time I'm gone.

Tomorrow, if the weather is good, I'd like to see if I can get the roof installed on the patio. That means that if I see a hammock or two I like while in Nicaragua, I can buy them and have a place to hang them when I get back here. It'll mean I can relax out of the rain and enjoy the view of the my lagito (little lake). Pura vida!

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 06:42:20 PM

Mon, Apr 05 2004

Blog Program Crash On A Busy Day

Before I could upload yesterday's blog, the blog software I'm using crashed. I mean it crashed hard - I couldn't even call the program and run it. Not sure why it happened, but it was a nasty problem. First time in over a year of using this program that I've ever had a problem.

Well, I wrote to the author of the program, and, to my surprise, he responded, quite quickly, as it happens, and suggested that I delete the old .ini file and reinstall the same version over it, generating a new .ini file. It worked! I'm back up and running, and grateful, exceedingly grateful, to Fahim Farook for promptly answering my email with a suggestion that worked on the first try. It works great now! Fahim, you're a hero! I'm delighted for the support I've had for a program that didn't cost me a thing! Wish commercial vendors would provide that kind of support!

Anyway, today was quite an experience, aside from the program crash. I had to get up early and head straight for Liberia, the provincial capital, so I could get a bus ticket for next week for my trip out of Costa Rica. I had to go to Liberia because that was the nearest agency for the bus company I'll be riding. Bummer to have to drive an hour and a half to buy an 8400 colones ($20) bus ticket, but the only other option was to drive to San Jose, a trip that would be three times as far. The only advantage to the latter is that it would make it possible to get the bus to stop for me in Canas, instead of having to go all the way to Liberia to get on it, but that's not really that much of an advantage. It just means a longer ride on a local bus - about another half hour.

In any event, after stopping at the hardware store and getting five padlocks so I could lock up this place, I finally got out of town by half past nine, and on the road. By eleven, I was in Liberia, and quite happy to find the bus agency and buy my ticket. A bit of an anti-climax; it took all of three minutes to get the boarding pass and get out of there. Back across the street to Burger King, to check out what a Burger King burger is like here in this country. Well, itīs about the same as in the States, I'm able to report. Price was about the same, too. The Number Five Combo meal is two cheeseburgers (smallish), with an order of fries, a "medium" Coke (there's no "small" option on their beverage menu) - 1480 colones, about $3.45.

While in Liberia, I'd been asked by a friend to stop at the Do-It Center, a sort of Home Depot kind of place, and get a tool he was looking for. Well, I drove all around Liberia and never found it. In the process, I found Electronica Hidalgo, a local chain of electronic parts stores. I stopped and got some parts I need for various projects, and was dismayed to discover that they're selling only acid-core solder because they don't seem to know better. Anyway, I got all the parts I need for my PSK interface, except a box to put it in, and was soon out of there. Called my friend on the cell phone. Asked were this Do-It Center was. West of town, I was told, on the Nicoya Highway. So I set out across town towards the airport, and drove and drove - nearly all the way out to the airport. No Do-It Center. So I shined that one on and came back to town, heading for the Pan American Highway towards Canas. I had to get home, because I had a lot of material to buy for the brickmason to keep his job going.

Arriving in Canas, I figured I'd try to find the ceramic tile shop the brickmason had told me about, so I'd have the tile for the brickmason when he showed back up at seven. After some driving around, I finally found it, and went in to see what they had. Only one pattern I liked, unfortunately, with no border tile available. I looked for something resembling a reasonable match, but no cigar. Nothing that I could use for the border on the arch above the breakfast bar. And it wasn't even the preferred size. I asked the clerk if there were any other sellers of tile in town, and he told me about one, a ferreteria (hardware store) that also sold tile. Went there, but their selection was really poor - only about a half-dozen patterns, none up to much. I figured I may have to go all the way to San Ramon, where there are a lot of tile vendors, and I'd have some real selection. That may take a day or two to arrange.

Since I didn't have some of the information I needed for the brickmason's concrete form boards, I just drove straight back to Nuevo Arenal, to the ferreteria to get the rest of the stuff. Well, I got to the ferreteria fairly late - it was half-past thee by now, and I got the stuff I needed paid for and went across the street to the large materials warehouse to pick it up. Of course it was a bit much for the car, three bags of cement, thirty cinder blocks, a quarter of a cubic meter of gravel, and twelve lengths of #3 re-bar. I'm still at a loss for why he needs that much re-bar, but he insists he'll use it. Anyway, I needed a cargo taxi, so I called a fellow named Julio (calls himself Julio Iglecias), and in ten minutes he was there, in his nice fancy personal pickup, much to my surprise, dressed to the nines. No pipe rack on the pickup. I had no idea what he had in mind for hauling the twenty-foot lengths of re-bar. The ferreteria staff got the stuff loaded, and much to my surprise, simply put the re-bar on the bed of the pickup, with most of it hanging out over the open tailgate and laying on the ground. He put the bags of cement on top of them to hold them in place, and wired them together so they wouldn't splay out, and off we went towards the house, re-bar dragging on the pavement, sending sparks flying everywhere. It was quite a sight. Everyone was turning their heads to watch - had to be the best entertainment in town in weeks.

At the house, we unloaded what he had - the re-bar, blocks, wire and bags of cement. Simply dumped them beside the road, and left them for me to put away while he went for the gravel.

I struggled with those bags of cement. Hey, I'm a wimp and I'll freely 'fess up to it. Bags of cement here are heavy with a capital H. Theyīre fifty kilos - thirty pounds heavier than the bags of cement in the States. I had to struggle to get them in the wheelbarrow. The blocks I managed to move six at a time in the wheelbarrow. Got them safely out of the weather in the carport, and it started raining, with the re-bar still out there, waiting to be put away. Quickly I shoved them in, helter-skelter into the pipe rack the tenant had built into the ceiling of the carport. They're not pretty in there, but at least they're out of the first rain we've had in a week. I was glad to see the rain, but thereīs not enough of it to do much good - my giant ginger is showing drought stress, and Iīve got to get it watered in the morning for sure. Itīs a beautiful, showy red flower, and I'd hate to lose it.

Before long, the cargo taxi showed up with the gravel. We shoveled and shoveled - a quarter cubic meter is a lot of gravel! Finally got him cleaned out and he took me back to town where my car was parked in front of the ferreteria. I paid up the fare - 2500 colones, about $5.80, and sent the taxi on its way.

By now it was too late to get to the local maderaria (lumber store), so I could do nothing more than have dinner and wait for the brickmason to show up. Just as I was done cooking, about six thirty, he did. Hadn't had a chance to eat, and he was a half hour earlier than he said he'd be. And to top it off, he arrived in the middle of a telephone conversation with a friend which I had to cut short, even though I was really interested in what he had to say. Anyway, as soon as he and his helper realized I didn't have everything needed, they left, to return tomorrow. Fine, that gave me a chance to get the blog software running, and have dinner. I was grateful for the little peace and quiet this evening.

Tomorrow, I need to make another stab at getting some suitable tile. The bricklayer told me about a tile vendor here in Arenal, and Iīm going to give that a shot. If not, I'll head to La Fortuna, and see if there's anything there. And if I get really desperate, I'll go to San Ramon. But I've mostly got to get some lumber for the concrete forms. That's what held the project up tonight. But right now, Iīm too tired to worry about it. I've got to get to bed. It's been quite a day. And tomorrow will be another one.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:25:42 PM

Sun, Apr 04 2004

Sunday Morning Two-Ring Circus

I knew today was going to be a busy day. No doubt about it, when I went to see a construction site, to see how they were doing their roof, and ended up hiring a brickmason to come to work today. He came by yesterday after getting off work at noon on his regular job and checking out what I needed done in my kitchen - brick up the window going into the pila (a sort of outdoor washroom that is common here) because the window is a serious security problem. I also wanted part of the wall knocked out between the kitchen and dining room, and a breakfast bar installed. That would open up the kitchen and make it a lot more airy and open, and give it a lot more light than it has had with the window into the pila.

He gave me a bid - just under $250 to do the whole job, materials not included, and could do it on evenings and weekends, moonlighting from his regular job. Materials will come to about $100 more, including the cement, mortar, tile, re-bar, and framing lumber, and I'll buy them myself. Once it's done, it'll be a beautifully tiled addition to the kitchen and dining room. And considering the price I'm paying to get a considerable improvement to both security and the beauty of the home, I figure I'm doing OK. Anyway, after agreeing to the price, he said he'd be back this morning to do the demolition of the partition, and get it ready to begin the installation of the breakfast bar.

The ironworker also said he'd be by this morning to finish the installation of the shutters and complete the steel door into the pila. I'd never seen him working before on a Sunday, so I was a bit curious. Why is everyone so suddenly eager to work on a Sunday?

This coming week is Easter week, and here it's a major holiday - Semana de Santos, it's called, week of the saints. It's a big deal - almost as big as Christmas. The whole country will be shut down from Wednesday through the weekend, and it will be impossible to get anything done during that time, and precious little will happen from today on. Everybody will be out partying, and that's why the money - everyone needs a few bucks for the celebration. So the ironworker was eager to get his work finished up and get paid, and the brickmason was going to want to be paid for what heīd done.

Well, sure enough, both arrived bright and early - the brickmason at two minutes to seven, and the ironworker not long after. Within minutes, there were welding sparks and concrete chips flying everywhere - dust from the demolition thick enough to choke on. The brickmason brought his son with him - a lad who couldnīt have been older than six or seven. The fellow and his kid really went to work and by eleven they had the hole cut in the wall for the breakfast bar. Soon there was a huge pile of rubble to be hauled out back, and the kid went to work on that, filling my wheelbarrow with it, and hauling it out. Meanwhile, the ironworker was needing my help hanging the last shutter, so between the two, it was a two-ring circus, trying to keep an eye on everything that was happening, helping where I could, and keeping both out of each others' way.

By noon, it was done, and as I expected, he hit me up for an advance on the work that he was doing. I agreed to about a fourth of the total, gave him his money, and sent him on his way.

That pretty well cleaned out my wallet, so when the ironworker had finished up, he told me that he'd like to be paid too, so I told him to ride with me to the bank, where I drew out some cash from the ATM and paid him for the installation of the shutters and the steel door. All told, that came to about the same - $250 for the labor, and I'd sprung for the materials already, about another $200 - about what Iīd figured I'd have to spend.

I'm delighted with how the breakfast bar is going to work out, though I might want to lower it a couple of inches, it seems a bit too high to me. There was an outlet in the middle of the wall, and the conduit went up into the ceiling, smack dab in the center, so I'll take advantage of that to install a light at the top of the arch. With the tile border Iīm planning, it ought to look sensational, and work out very well.

After both the brickmason and the ironworker left, I had quite a mess to clean up. There was a thick film of concrete dust all over everything in the whole house, and concrete chips and a whole lot of dust everywhere in the kitchen. So it took more than an two hours to remove all the dust and debris, and get the kitchen livable again. What a job!

The ironworker got the last porton (shutter) installed in the master bedroom, and it works great, although the handle of the jalousie window got broken in the process. Iīll have to open and close the window by using the remainder of the handle to pull down to open, and then twist the panes to close. But with the handle broken and off, I donīt have to worry about having to be sure to remember to close the jalousie before closing the shutter - it'll fit over it just fine without the handle getting in the way.

After spending most of the afternoon cleaning the dust and debris out of the house, I can get back to living here. I'm really tired, and due for a nap. Wish I had my patio roof installed now - I've got the materials now, just need the time to do it. I'm tired out, and could sure use a rest in a hammock. But that's going to happen another day.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 03:11:59 PM

Fri, Apr 02 2004

Porton Number Three Installed

The ironworker came by today quite early - ten after seven, in fact. I wasn't really ready for him, but far be it from me to prevent him from working when he wants to - it's hard enough to get him over here to work at all. So I went ahead and put him to work. I was concerned, however, because right away, he needed some rollers for the sliding shutters he was going to install over the dining room window and the master bedroom window. The localferreteria (hardware store) didn't have any, so that meant a trip to Tilaran, and the ferreterias there. I was concerned that he'd have enough to do to keep busy while I was gone.

|'d no sooner gotten the ironworker started than the gardener showed up for his first day on the job. I got him started too, mowing and raking this rather considerable garden and yard. Between his weedcutter (that's how most grass gets mowed here) and the ironworker's angle grinder, there was quite a bit of noise around here, and I was quite happy to leave the place.

I had invited the wife of one of my ham friends to come with me, and she met me in town, and we were off. Thirty five minutes of dodging potholes later, we were in Tilaran, and hit the first ferreteria. They had only two of the four rollers I needed. They sent me to a ferreteria across town, and I tried that one. No cigar. They told me about a third, one that specializes in building materials, and with that one, I got lucky. They had two of what I needed, although in a smaller size than I would have preferred.

My friend's wife hit the grocery store while I went looking for the maderaria (lumber yard). I found it just a half block from the lumber yard, and went in to get the wood I need for my patio roof. They had what I needed, and the price wasn't too bad - about 3000 colones for five pieces of 1x2's twelve feet long. That's about $6. I forgot to get the tornillos (screws) that I'll need, but those I can get in the ferreteria here.

The trip back to Arenal got a bit exciting. Seems that the guy at the maderaria didn't do a particularly good job of securing the lumber to my roof rack. And just as I was coming around the lake, nearing Arenal, the rear end came loose. Fortunately, I noticed it in time, and stopped and re-secured it, but only after the bungee cord was lost. I dropped off my friend's wife at the corner and drove home. As soon as I got onto the very rocky road that goes to my house, the bouncing twelve-foot lumber came unsecured again. Stopped and fixed it. Proceeded on. A hundred yards further, the rear rack bar came loose and flipped right off the car roof and onto the ground. I was near enough to home that my gardener saw what was happening and came and rescued me, carrying the lumber back to the house himself, with the roof rack still swinging from the bungee cord. It must have been quite a sight.

Anyway, after getting everything unloaded, and getting the rollers to the ironworker, I looked into why the roof rack came undone. It's not a particularly good design, and it isn't very secure the way it fits the roof of my car. So I will have to reinstall it, when I can finally find the key to take the covers off, and can get tools in there to do it.

Once the gardener had mowed and raked the yard, and was finally gone, I went into town to get a copy of this week's Tico Times, and check on a keyboard for use with this laptop. The keyboard on the laptop is getting quite worn, and the keys don't always work properly, so I went to the Internet cafe to see if they had any replacements. Turns out they did, and they wanted only 4000 colones (about $9) for one, so I figured that would be a worthwhile investment. I've still not figured out how to do accented vowels on my laptop keyboard anyway, and would like to be able to do that, so I've finally gotten a keyboard that will do accented vowels. This keyboard is a Spanish language keyboard, so I have to tell the computer I'm using a Spanish language keyboard. But it has the tildied N as well as the accented vowels, so it makes it a lot easier to type Spanish language words. Finally, I have the means to spell Spanish words properly on this computer.

When I got back from town, the ironworker was just about ready to hang the porton (shutter) on the dining room window. After some work, getting the fit right, we finally had it installed and sliding properly. By now it was after six, and getting dark, so the ironworker finished up, painting over the nicks and scratches, and then putting his stuff away. The last one is built and ready to hang, and he's promised to be back in the morning to hang it. I'll then have all my windows secured, and can start on the doors. That won't be anywhere near such a big project.

I took the ironworker home, and on the way, he rolled down the passenger window. I'd recently removed the tinting film from that window, but didn't realize how much adhesive was left on the glass until he tried to roll it back up. It was sticking so bad it pulled some of the trim pieces right out of the door frame. So I told him to leave it, and when I got back, I used what was left of his paint thinner to clean that adhesive off the window so it would roll up and down properly. The paint thinner left some residue behind, so the window's a terrible mess now. But that was the best I could do in the dark of the car port. Tomorrow, I'll clean that window off and reinstall the roof rack on the back. And then put the roof on the patio, so I can hang a hammock out there. That's getting increasingly urgent. Gotta do that. I keep getting these pura vida attacks.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 06:43:31 PM

Thu, Apr 01 2004

Rainbow-Billed Toucan For Sure

This afternoon has been a delightful afternoon. Pleasant temperatures, no rain (could use some - I've had to start watering the garden), and calm breeze-like trade winds. Couldn't be more perfect.

The ironworker is here, and is getting the work on the shutters. No real problems encountered so far, but we need some rollers for the sliding ones, and so far, no luck at the ferreteria (hardware store). I went there to see if they'd ordered them in, but they hadn't. So tomorrow, I've got to go to the ferreteria in Tilaran to see if they have any. It's a bigger place with more competition, so they're more apt to have them. I also hunted around for some plastic roof sheets here for the patio, and found some cheap ones at the local ferreteria, and got three of them to do the patio cover. Cost came to about $19 for the three, a bit much for cheap plastic roof sheets, I thought, but hey, it's what I could get. I tried to find some wood in town to fasten them down with, but no luck locally. Nothing quite long enough. So that's planned for the trip to Tilaran as well. I found out about a lumber store there that should have what I need.

When I got back from the local wood shop, I got a drink of ice water and went out to the front porch to sit down and enjoy it. I'd no more than sat in the rocking chair when a rainbow-billed toucan flew into a tree right across the road from me. Couldn't see it really well, because it was silhouetted against a cloudy sky, but I was able to identify it by its unique call - a harsh crrrrrik sound with a distinctive wooden characteristic to it. It sat in the tree for a long time, looking for lizards and birds' eggs.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 04:37:44 PM
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