Letters From Exile

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

Sat, Jul 31 2004

July Break Over?

They tell me that we get a three-week break in the rainy season in July here in Arenal. Well, today is the last day of July, and I sure hope the break in the rains we've been enjoying isn't over. I've sure enjoyed the break from the incessant temporales (periods of rainy weather) that marked most of May and June. The last few days have had their intense afternoon downpours, and today was no exception, but otherwise, it has been mostly clear and intensely sunny, with the sun traversing through the northern sky as it does this time of year here. The sunshine from almost directly overhead meant warm temperatures of course, and today was a scorcher by Arenal standards, getting up to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. When at three, it finally clouded over and began to rain, the rain was certainly welcome.

Welcome not the least for my newly planted plants, most of which are suffering various degrees of transplant shock. Yesterday, when my gardener came, he brought with him some plants he thought I would like, and indeed, they were nice additions to the garden. But they arrived with bare, wilted roots, so I knew they would suffer from some serious transplant shock, and I was certainly right. My gardener was familiar with my new African-violet-like plant, but didn't know the name of it. He indicates they are easy to propagate from cuttings, and I was glad to hear that, as I want to propagate it a fair amount for my water garden. He was pleased to see the elephant's ear plants as well, that I got from my trip to my friend's patch of jungle. They are really spectacular when they are growing well, but that will take a while.

Worst hit with transplant shock has been that African-violet-like plant that I am very concerned about, and really want to see survive. Today, the heat and the incessant sunshine got it pretty well flattened out, and I sure hope it wasn't just a bit too much for it. It recovered from yesterday's wilting quite nicely last night, and I hope it does so again tonight. I was concerned enough yesterday that I felt I needed to do something. Not knowing what would be the right thing, I figured that the best thing for it would be some cloudy weather and maybe a bit of rain. But with that glaring sun, it didn't look too likely. I figured the best way to bring on some cloudy weather would be to really provoke the rain gods, so I got out there and did some serious gardening. I finally got all the remaining leaf litter pile finally cleared away that the tenant had left behind, and planted a diffenbachia that had been growing in the pile. Hey, this was serious gardening. Had to be provoking the rain gods.

Sure enough, within half an hour, it had clouded over, and within an hour, a serious downpour began. It rained really hard - as hard as I have seen it rain here. For an hour, it poured down, washing much of the debris left over from my leaf litter pile clearing project right down the hill and into the pond, where, like a flotilla of ships, it drifted in the wind in tight formation, straight towards the overflow grate. Wonderful. More debris I am going to need to clear out of there.

Most of the rest of the new plants that went in yesterday are showing a reduction in the wilting today, and I hope that means they're going to make it. The plants that I figured would do the best are indeed the tabacon plants, that are showing no signs of transplant shock at all. Not surprising, as being aroids, they are almost wilt-proof. I love gardening with aroids, as they are almost impossible to kill through abuse.

Speaking of aroids, some months back, I cut down a huge Monstera deliciosa plant (you might know it as the "cut-leaf philodendron" from the houseplant trade) that was growing on the west side of the house. It had been there for years, and its aggressive aerial roots were growing under the paint and peeling it off, and it had gotten so huge it was taking over the spot where it was growing - a mass of huge leaves, four feet across. It had to come down, and so I cut its stem into three pieces, as well as the stump. The top was planted against one of the mango trees, where it didn't wilt or even slow down from having its roots cut off. It is doing magnificently in its new home, where it adds to the exotic look of that part of the garden, in the middle of some tropical lilies, currently blooming with their blossoms that smell like sun-tan lotion.

The other two pieces of the trunk of that Monstera, lacking leaves, were planted in a part of the garden where I hoped the huge leaves of that plant would offer some privacy screen from my neighbor's yard. For all this time, they sat there, doing nothing I could see, just being ugly with their aerial roots with bits of that ugly blue-green paint still clinging to them. Well, finally, they have started to grow. One has a new leaf two feet across, and the other has a new leaf bud just emerging. And the stump left at the house has two new sprouts on it as well. Once they are well established, I'll cut them off and transplant them too, where I can get some quick privacy screen, in that same part of the garden. I'm not the least bit worried about whacking them off, still young and green, because I know they won't go into transplant shock. They're aroids, and that means they're transplant-proof.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:27:35 PM

Thu, Jul 29 2004

A Collecting Trip To The Jungle

Last couple of days have been quite sunny and nice, a bit out of character for the rainy season here in Arenal. This place gets more than 150 inches of rain a year, and that's why the jungle around here is so very lush and beautiful. So the "rainy" season is really more like the "rainier" season in these parts. But I took full advantage of the nice weather to continue my ditch-digging efforts to control the drainage on the road in front of my house. I needed to get that done so that I would be ready for the backhoe when it comes to put in my gutter pipe in front of the house. I am essentially ready now, and can't do much more without the backhoe. So I am going to go to town tomorrow and order the pipe and backhoe rental from the ferreteria. (hardware store). They can arrange things like this for me, and that helps out a lot, since I don't know any backhoe owners in town.

While I was sipping my breakfast tea out on the front porch this morning, I noticed the orchid man up in a field on the hilltop near my house, cutting sprouts off of the fenceposts. He was just about finishing up, when he came down to the house with some orchids to give to me that came out of the branches he had been cutting down. One was a small white orchid, with an incredibly fragrant blossom, and another was bright reddish-orange - an unusual color for an orchid. We selected new homes for them in some crotches in the mango tree near the house where I can sit in my rocking chair and enjoy them.

As I was talking to him, he mentioned that he had some property for sale up on the continental divide, and asked if I would like to see it. Sure, I said, indicating that I have some friends that are looking for property here in Costa Rica. I thought it would be a nice trip this morning to go see it - his description sounded beautiful indeed.

He indicated that it was a four-kilometer trip, so I closed up the house and we piled into the Raider and headed on up there. The road was a good one, but it was typical lastre (road base), and so was a bit slow-going, but were soon there, perched on the Continental Divide, where, he claims on a clear day, it is possible to see Lake Nicaragua and the Tenorio volcano. Today was cloudy, so not much could be seen, but it sure looked like it had potential for a beautiful view. The property proved to be everything he said it was, and more.

He has about fifteen acres there, with several really good building sites, though the power is still about a half kilometer away at the nearest. He pointed out stakes that he claimed were for a pole line that will be bringing power to within a few hundred feet of the property boundary, so that shouldn't be a problem if and when it ever gets built - a really big "if" in these parts. There is a covered spring that provides excellent water for the shack that is his part-time home there. Turns out that there is another, rather sizable spring on the property, which feeds a small creek that could be impounded as a very adequate hydroelectric source, if someone wanted to live off the grid up there. All in all, the property was a magnificent place that would be an ideal home for someone seeking solitude.

As it turns out, he has two adjacent parcels, and one of them contains mostly primary forest. It is a beautiful spot indeed, with huge trees in excess of a hundred feet high, dense stands of heliconias and many other interesting plants and beautiful flowers. Since it is private land, and we weren't after any endangered species, collecting was legal, so we collected several species of orchids that I do not presently have, being careful to take cuttings but not the whole plant. And while out looking around, he found some young tabacon plants, and brought them back for me as well. The tabacon is my favorite antherium, as well as everyone else's, so they are getting a bit hard to find, and are even endangered in the remaining jungle in the Central Valley. But they were growing in large numbers on this man's land, so he felt no compunction about digging up three young ones for me. I was really glad to get them. He also produced a heliconia that is unlike any heliconia I have ever seen before - a beautiful, scarlet red with hairy corrugations on the side - very exotic-looking. And while I was standing there in my sneakers in that very soggy spot waiting for him to dig up the heliconia, I looked down at my feet and noticed two other plants I very much wanted for my water garden. One is a beautiful, striking arum with huge, deeply veined leaves, and the other was a plant that looks like a really enormous African violet - huge, succulent, varigated leaves a foot across with bright red stems and a dense cluster of white flowers that look like white orchids, densely packed around the central stem. There were lots of both around, so I got starts of both. Wow! what wonderful additions to my garden they are going to make!

Well, on the way back to town, I got the sales pitch about how he needs to go to Tilaran today and get some medicine for his son. So I knew what was coming - I was going to get hit up for a bit of money, which, of course, didn't surprise me. When we got back to the house, we got all the plants properly planted, and sure enough, as I was thanking him for the flowers and the help in getting them planted, he asked if there was any way I could see myself clear to give him five grand for medicine for his son. Well, OK, sure, I figured that the tabacon plants alone were more than worth the price, and the heliconia and the African violet-like thing, not to mention all the orchids, were great bonuses. So I gave him the five grand - the equivalent of about $12, and figured that it was well worth the money for the beautiful flowers I had acquired. Sure hope all this money he has been getting from me isn't going to create a monster I can't control. After he left, I went out and watered everything that we had planted. They don't look like they're suffering much transplant shock, except for the African violet thing, so they'll probably all make it just fine. The latter is showing shock, but not really serious shock in spite of having been rather unceremoniously yanked from the ground, and it is now planted in a fairly wet spot, so there shouldn't be too much of a problem with it, I hope. It will sure be a nice addition if it survives. As an added bonus, when watering the orchids, I noticed a small, but quite attractive little philodendron growing in the moss of one of them. It will be fun to watch, too.

While out watering the plants I had just planted, I noticed that I have had a visit from the Costa Rican Army again. Those pesky leaff-cutter ants have been busy, and have denuded one of the leaves of my newly planted diffenbachias. So I got out the Omitox and gave them some of my famous sky-blue pellets to cart off as special prizes for their nest. I put a generous helping on their trail and will follow up to see that they are getting all they want to carry. It doesn't appear to be a serious infestation, but it will need to be controlled, so I'll be watching that one closely. My water garden area is starting to look a lot less like a garbage dump and a bit more like a garden, so I sure hope that I won't suffer a setback from those darned critters. I am really starting to enjoy the gardening out there. It is becoming quite a pleasant place.

Yesterday, the old man who maintains a garden on my property across the pond from the house, came by to ask if he could cut some fodder for his dairy cow. Well, the weeds are getting rather high, and that was a way to control them without any effort on my part, so naturally, I agreed. Well, this afternoon, I discovered that rather than cutting the fodder himself, he had brought the cow over to do it for him, and there it was, grazing across the pond. This is not what he had asked for, nor is it what I had agreed to, so I went to town to find his son in law, and ask him to tell the old man that he needed to get the cow off my property. When I finally tracked him down and told him the situation, he said that he'd had enough of dealing with this whole garden issue and he was going to tell the old man to not use my property at all anymore. So that is where it stands. When I got back, I took a look over there, and it appears that the cow is gone, and I don't see the old man on the property either, so I am assuming that the old boy has been told not to hang around over here anymore. I hated to see it come to that. I didn't really mind him gardening over there, but I sure as heck didn't want cows grazing on my land either, and if he wasn't going to do as we had agreed, I would just as soon end the relationship. In any event, that is (hopefully) over now, and the property will go to weeds until I get out the machete and go cut them down. Maybe this weekend. But probably not - I want to wait for the rain to wash the cowpuckies away before I tromp around in the tall weeds over there.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 01:35:32 PM

Mon, Jul 26 2004

Annexation Day Yesterday

Yesterday, Sunday, was a national holiday. It was the anniversary of the day when Guanacaste, the northwestern-most province in the country, had agreed to the Nicaraguan cession and become annexed to Costa Rica. Guanacaste is the dryest and poorest part of the region, and Nicaragua, dirt poor even then, simply could not afford to service this, the poorest and most remote part of its territory. The residents of the region felt they could probably get a better deal from Costa Rica than they had from Nicaragua, so a referendum was held, and the vote went in favor of Costa Rica.

Anyway, yesterday was the day of the celebrations. My ironworker friend came by early in the morning wanting to fish in my pond, but the rains of the previous afternoon had washed so much clay into the water that even the bait fish weren't biting. So he quickly gave up on that. He asked if I wanted to go to the Dia de Anexacion celebration, but I was still just too tired from last week's work to want to go. I begged off and stayed home to do laundry instead. In the afternoon, when I was feeling a bit more ambitious, I went into town, but by then apparently the party was over. There was no evidence of a party anywhwere to be seen. So I bought a couple of loaves of bread at the store and headed home.

Well, this morning, while I was sitting in my rocking chair on the front porch drinking my breakfast tea, an old Tico gentleman stopped by. He had seen all the cooking fire wood stacked in front of the fence by the garden, and got to talking to me about it. He advised that he had some land for sale (is there a Tico who doesn't?) and said that he would be by in a bit with a large gunny-sack to haul some of the wood away. He walked down to where the pile was, and started picking through it, looking for the best pieces, and removing the epiphytes and moss from the pieces he wanted. Just then, an empty cargo taxi happened by, and he stopped it, and hired it to haul the wood back to his house. He collected all of it, and he and the driver, with the driver's brother, loading the cargo taxi almost to the toppling point. Off they went with their treasure, swaying dangerously while the overloaded little diesel engine of the ten-year old Japanese pickup spewed out clouds of black exhaust.

The wood is all gone now, and all that is left is the bits of moss and epiphites the old man had cleaned off of the logs and limbs. I'm glad for the wood being gone. And I am glad that the wood will be put to a good use, if only to cook food. Beats adding it to the heaping pile of debris, destined to be burned, that is already well out of control. And now, that tree-clearing project is done, I can resume my project of cleaning the borrowpits in front of the house. That is a job I am not looking forward to, but since I can't seem to get it done the way I would like, I am going to have to do it myself, whether I like it or not. I need to get it done before I have the concrete pipe installed under my driveway. Because then, I am going to close off the water being diverted from the street into the pond, and I need to make sure that the borrowpit has adequate capacity to handle the flow in a downpour, and won't pour through the yard and end up in the house. I have had several close-calls already. And I want to make sure that I don't need to worry when it starts to rain in the way it only can on the windward side of the mountains in the tropics.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:48:34 AM

Fri, Jul 23 2004

Cleanup Day

It was cold and rainy this morning, and not a fit day to be outside working, at least as I saw it, so I spent much of the day doing email and generally getting caught up on things.

My gardener showed up rather late, so by the time he got here, my email was done, and I was sitting on the front porch, drinking some tea and watching and greeting the slow, sparse parade of humanity drifting past on the rain-muddied cobbles beyond my gate. When he finally arrived, he immediately noted the absence of the large madero negro trees in the water garden area, and I pointed out to him the missing trees in the west side of the property as well.

I had spent Tuesday afternoon, and all day Wednesday and Thursday, cleaning up as much debris as possible, so that he could cut the lawn when he arrived. Unfortunately, it was all too overwhelming, and while most of the debris was gone, there was enough left that cutting was not possible. So I asked him to postpone the chopiado (lawn mowing) till next week, and use his time to get the yard cleaned up as best he could. I was bone-tired and needed a break, and he could see that, and agreed. After two and a half days of very hard work, I had managed to clear only about two thirds of the debris.

In remarkably short order, he had the remains of the trees in the front cleared up, and most of the trees in the water garden area cleaned up as well. He never ceases to amaze me with his practiced efficiency - something this tired, fat old gringo can't begin to match. By the time his schedule forced him to cease for the day, he had nearly all of the debris cleaned up and the lawn raked of leaves and litter. We stacked all the bones out along the edge of the road where the poorer people in the squatter's camp, who still cook with wood, could pick them up and carry them off for cooking wood. All of the yard but about half of the water garden area is now free of debris and once again pleasant to wander in.

On my gardener's urging, I went to town and got some plastic to cover the debris pile, so it will dry out and can be burned. That is a process that will take weeks in the damp of the rainy season, but it will be possible, and in less than a month, we will set a match to a pile of debris that is now fifteen feet high. I also got another gallon of that magical Costa Rican all-purpose fluid - diesel fuel - to put on the cut faces of the stumps to kill the roots and prevent the trees from re-sprouting.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted, mostly from the previous two days' work, but also from just helping the gardener with his chores. But it is at least I can wander the garden and enjoy it once again, not looking at huge piles of debris and feeling the need to go to work.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:05:49 AM

Tue, Jul 20 2004

Tree Butchery On A Grand Scale

This morning I woke up to a driving rain. It was steady and the sky was a uniform gray, so I knew we were in another temporal (period of rainy weather), and so I didn't worry about the fact that last night, the peon who had cut some limbs for me out of my large mango tree some weeks back, had come by and asked when he could do the other trees. He said he would like to be by in the morning. I asked him to bring his hard hat and safety belt and he indicated that was no problem. But when I saw the driving rain on getting up this morning, I didn't figure there would be much chance of his actually showing up.

Well, promptly at seven, before I had even gotten around to getting breakfast, there he was on my front porch, wearing the usual rubber boots, a dripping wet blue poncho and underneath it, his blue hard hat. Turns out he didn't have a safety belt, and flat insisted that he didn't need one and could work more quickly and safely without it, even though the lichens in the trees was wet. And so, against my better judgement, I agreed to allow him to go to work without it. Off he went, out into the driving rain.

After a half hour or so, he had the branches thinned out and the main limb cut down from the first madero negro (black wood) tree that was crowding out one of my native fruit trees. He was up in the tree limbs, hacking away with my rather poor machete, and I was on the ground, getting soaking wet, trying to keep the falling limbs from totally destroying my newly planted plantains. In short order, the tree was in pieces on the ground, waiting to be hauled off to the bonfire pile.

Once done with that one, he went to work on the next madero negro tree, hacking the upper limbs off before cutting the main limb that needed to come down. With some struggle, we got it on the ground, too, only slightly damaging my newly planted diffenbachias and caladiums. The limbs were huge - more than eight inches across, and I was concerned about how I was going to get them out of there. But that was for later - for now it was on to the last tree.

The last tree I wanted him to butcher was a huge old guava (not the guavas you probably know, which are known here as guayabas, but an entirely different species with a very different fruit - it looks like a giant bean pod). He climbed up into the tree to where I wanted it cut, and started hacking. After three or four minutes, it was apparent that the wood was really hard and he was getting nowhere fast. So he yelled down to me that it was going to require a sierra (saw). I had visions of a quick trip to the ferreteria, to get a cheap hand saw, but that is not what he had in mind. He asked me to take him in my car to the place of a friend who he knew had a sierra.

We drove to his friend's place, a little pulperia (country store and meeting place) on the west end of the village, where he asked for his friend. His friend came out, discussed the situation with him in Spanish that was totally incomprehensible to me, and they told me that he would be right over with the saw. Sure enough, when we got back, within ten minutes, there he was in his pickup, not with a little hand saw as I had expected, but with a huge 48 inch Husqvarna chainsaw in the bed of the pickup, the very same model of chainsaw I had seen forest fire crews using back in the States. Now, I am quite well aware of why environmentalists consider the chainsaw to be the most destructive invention mankind has ever created. So I knew this wouldn't take long! Way cool!

The guy went right to work, carving up the big limbs that the peon had cut down for me, and in minutes had them in manageable pieces. As skilled as any forest fire crewman I ever saw, he quickly cut his way through the downed limbs out to where the guava tree was, climbed up it, and within thirty seconds, the big huge limb came crashing to the ground. He climbed out of the tree and cut up the limb and then stood there on the remains, grinning proudly, chainsaw in hand, asking, "Que mas?" (What else?)

Hey, this was just too good an opportunity to pass up. There were three more trees I had been thinking seriously of cutting down, a huge but diseased and termite-ridden old Creole orange, an arbole de bosque (forest tree), and the trunk of the Creole orange whose limbs I had cut down some time ago, to make room for the avocado tree. Since I had seen this guy cutting hardwood trees in the jungle near my house some time ago, and he seemed quite intelligent and well educated, I figured he probably knew what was what around here, and so I asked him if he knew what the forest tree was. He replied instantly with the name which I don't recall, and said that the wood is too prone to checking to be useful, and it doesn't produce fruit or flowers of consequence. As beautiful as it was, It was just taking up valuable space I need for the fruit trees I am planning, and its numerous and widespread surface roots in the lawn were a serious annoyance, so I asked him to cut it down. Within five minutes, it was on the ground, trunk cut up into three foot chunks, limbs shorn of branches, and ready to be hauled to the bonfire pile. I had him cut the diseased old orange tree, and part of it came down right on top of one of my newly planted bananas, which will set it back some, but thankfully won't kill it. And the trunk of the other orange tree, near the avocado, was similarly dispatched in literally seconds. Once done, the owner of the chainsaw asked me if he could have three of the madero negro trunks to use as fenceposts. Sure, I said, he was welcome to them. One proved to be too heavy to lift, so he simply ripped it down the middle with the chainsaw, splitting it in two in only a couple of minutes. He now has four enormous fenceposts. In all, he was here less than two hours, and asked for the equivalent of about $5, so I figured it would have been easily worth it at twice the price, and happily paid him. He left with his prize tree trunks, hanging out over the tailgate of his pickup, banging and crashing and splashing his way up the cobblestone street towards home in the pouring rain.

So there it is. Six trees in total, lying in pieces in the yard. I had the peon start hauling the heavy pieces of the trunks and heavy limbs to the bonfire pile. Once all the heavy wood is hauled off, I can go to work, slowly getting the yard cleaned up, hopefully before the gardener gets here on Friday, wanting to cut the grass. Boy, have I got my work cut out for me! But first, breakfast...

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 01:17:25 PM

Sun, Jul 18 2004

Tico Fishing In The Pond

Friday, the gardener came as usual, but I was still so exhausted from the trip that I didn't spend much time with him. We got some diffenbachias planted, that had been growing in the tenant's leaf litter pile, and I put him to work, cleaning up what was left of the leaf litter pile. But beyond that, I didn't do much else but rest and watch him work. I really needed some more quality time with a mattress. I did make a trip into town, though, to tell my friends I was back, and to get a copy of my passport and new entry stamp made, so I don't have to carry my passport around. While in the copy shop, I bumped into the ironworker, the Tico who had done my security door and shutters, and he asked if he could come by on Sunday to do some fishing in my pond. Sure, I said, figuring that would be a fine Sunday morning diversion. He is a really funny guy, with a terrific sense of humor. It is always fun having him around.

Saturday, I decided that I really needed to do some laundry. Since most of my T-shirts are getting a bit ratty, I had bought some used T-shirts from a small shop next door to the hostel in Grenada, and I wanted to wash them before wearing them. In addition, all my dirty laundry from the trip, and a bit from before I left, added up to a considerable pile of dirty laundry, so I spent much of the day working on that pile and catching up on my email, which had gotten away from me while I was gone.

This morning, I had not even had breakfast yet before the ironworker came by. His fishing tackle consisted of nothing more than some heavy fishing line with a single, rather large fish hook on the end, wrapped around an empty plastic coke bottle with a few pebbles inside. The coke bottle is set on the ground, and the pebbles are there to rattle the bottle and let him know when a fish was on the line. Since he wanted to fish for guapote, he needed some serious bait. So he began by digging up some worms from the flowerbeds, baiting the hook with them, and tossing the baited hook out as far as he could toss it. Almost instantly, a small tetra fish, three inches long with silver sides, known locally as "sardinas" (but quite unrelated to true sardines) took the bait, and he hauled it in and set it on the bank, where it never flopped around even once, though it was still quite alive. He baited the hook and tossed it out again, and once again, almost instantly pulled in another tetra. He took it off the hook and set it still alive on the bank with the other one, where it too was very well behaved.

He had enough bait now, so he cut the first fish in two and baited two lines with it and tossed them out as far as he could. Wrapping the excess line around the coke bottle so it was lightly taut, he laid the coke bottle on the grass and did the same with the other two lines he had.

He explained that guapote like to feed early in the morning and again late in the afternoon, but won't take bait at almost any other time, and that is why he came so early.

With the lines out, and the bait fish tempting the quapote, we sat on the bank and had a good long chat, catching up on the local gossip. As the church bells rang out, calling the faithful to Sunday mass, he faced the church and yelled, "Uno momento!" ("Just a minute!"). He's always good for a laugh.

After an hour of chatting, and with only a few nibbles, it became apparent that the fish just weren't biting this morning, so he invited me to take him back to his house where I could get some cuttings of varieties of coleus that I don't have. I eagerly took him up on it. He also invited me to take him to his home village of Guatuso in a couple of weeks, just a few kilometers from here, to see the rain forest up there and the Celestia River, with its unique turquoise blue water. Sounds like a fun trip, so we have it planned for the week after next. I am looking forward to that one. Haven't been in that part of the country, and I would like to see it. I am told it is quite spectacular. I'll be taking the camera, that's for sure.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 05:31:01 PM

Thu, Jul 15 2004

Return Trip To Arenal

Today was the day to get what this trip was all about - that stamp in my passport that allows me to legally remain in Costa Rica for another three months. I had to get up early because I needed to be at the Ticabus agency by six thirty. The front desk had asked me to pay before going to bed, as they wouldn't be there yet before I had to leave - they normally show at seven, I was told.

Well, during the night, I woke up with a horrible thought. What if the rejas (security grates) in front of the hotel were closed and locked, and the front desk clerk didn't arrive to open up till seven, forcing me to miss my bus? At two in the morning, I put on my pants and shirt and opened the door to have a look at the front entrance. Sure enough, the door was closed and the rejas were closed and padlocked. I looked for a back entrance through which I could leave, and there was one, but it was double locked, and I couldn't open it from the inside. I was trapped. Bad news!

I figured I would miss the bus and at best, would have to catch the afternoon bus and at worst, have to go to Managua in the morning to catch a bus from there, like I did the last trip. I was not really happy about that. Well, of course, I didn't sleep much after that revelation, though I made a concerted effort at it, and finally, by five, gave up and got showered, packed and ready to go. And to my surprise, just as I was getting my stuff ready and out the door, in walked a maintenance man, who had opened the front rejas and front door. No problem! All that worrying for nothing! Out on the street, and I caught a cab to the Ticabus agency.

There are no restaurants open that early, so I figured it would be a long, hungry bus ride to the border. But as it happens, the agency is near a bus parada, and as is often the case, there was a tiny little soda (diner) next to it. It was open, but didn't have anything more than coffee and snacks, so I grabbed some coffee and a bag of vanilla wafers, and headed back to the agency for the hour and a half wait for my bus.

Another bus, headed also to San Jose, came by and picked up passengers before mine, but there were no seats left on it, so I had no choice but to wait for the bus for which I had a reservation. It finally showed, about fifteen minutes to eight, and I was soon aboard, with the bus weaving and swaying its way to the Penas Blancas border crossing.

We arrived there in an hour and a half, through which I sat through a rather dreadfully dull movie, and we unloaded for the formalities. As usual, Nicaragua was quickly and painlessly done, taking not much more time that the time it took to work my way through the line at the comfort station. Costa Rica, as usual, was another matter. We were the only bus at the border crossing, so the line wasn't all that bad getting into immigration for the all-important stamp in my passport. While waiting in the line, I decided that I would be wise to have a bus ticket out of the country, so that immigration couldn't complain about that, and hassle me about it. So, for $7, I bought a ticket from San Jose to Managua, no reservation. Hey, I figured it was cheap insurance, and if they didn't hassle me like they did the last time, I could just consider it an entry tax. Not a big deal, since it was cheap enough. So I got the ticket, worked my way through the line, and presented my passport, ticket inside, to the immigration clerk. Without a word, he looked at it, looked at the ticket, stamped my passport, handed both back to me, and I was out of there. The main work of the trip completed, I went through the customs line without a hitch. There is a little restaurant there in the formalities building, and I had a quick bite of lunch, lasagna with "salad" (really just cold cooked mixed veggies). By noon it was back onto the bus, and soon we were weaving our way down the highway.

The trip to Canas, where I was to exit the bus, went smoothly, though the InterAmerican Highway between Liberia and Canas is getting bad and the bus spent a good deal of time dodging potholes. To slow things down further, the Costa Ricans have tightened border controls, and the bus was stopped twice so the police could check passports. But by two, we were in Canas, and it was off the Ticabus and onto local busses once more.

The wait in Canas for a local bus to Tilaran was a short one - less than ten minutes. Really surprised me, and I felt quite lucky that I didn't have to spend a good deal of time there. But soon, for two hundred colones - about fifty cents - I was heading towards Tilaran. In Tilaran, arriving at about three, I really lucked out again - the "lake bus" was just getting ready to leave. I quickly hopped on board.

The "lake bus" works differently than most local Tico busses. Normally, you pay the full fare when you get on, regardless of where you plan to get off. But on the "lake bus" you get on, find a seat, and then get off wherever your destination is - Guadaloupe, Aguacate, or one of the many numerous rural bus stops in between Tilaran and Arenal. When you get off, the conductor calculates your fare and you pay him then. If you get on the bus at one of these local stops, you pay the fare when you get on as per normal. I never quite figured out how the conductor knew which people were local pickups and which were riding the full trip as I was, but he seemed to know. Arriving in Arenal at just before four, I paid my 350 colones fare - about 70 cents - and got off, grabbing the first cab I could find for the house. Fare from the bus stop to the house - a kilometer and a half - was 500 colones - just over a dollar, more than the 34 kilometers from Tilaran to Arenal had cost me. But I was home, and glad of it, right on the stroke of four. Great to be back. I was exhausted from the trip, and had a quick snooze before even bothering to unpack. My concerns about a possible burglary proved to be unfounded - nothing was disturbed, though I found on a tour of the garden that someone had cut a rope that was holding a banana plant upright that I had tied up a few weeks ago. They had visited me, but hadn't bothered the house, thank goodness. I slept well that night. It was a well deserved rest and badly needed.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 04:43:29 PM

Wed, Jul 14 2004

What If Nicaragua

This being my last full day in Grenada, I decided that I would really like to see some properties, to get a feel for what it would be like to move to Nicaragua, and what it would cost to get into a decent property there. So after breakfast at the hostel, I went to the office of the real estate agent that I had been told about yesterday.

Turns out that the agent is a gringo that moved to Central America many years ago, and had been living in Nicaragua for about five years. We talked a good deal during the morning, and he asked me to come back in the afternoon, because he had some property he wanted me to see. He was developing an urbanizacion on the lower slopes of the Mombacho volcano, a few kilometers south of and about 500 meters above the city. I agreed, and as it was about 11, I decided to take an early lunch and a siesta, and come back for the visit to the development he was working on.

While walking up the street towards the suggested restaurant, I stumbled on a building with a Canadian flag out front, and a bookstand of English-language magazines. Well, I couldn't resist. The owners were a really wonderful young Canadian couple from Toronto, and they shared many of my political views, so we got into a long and interesting conversation, including among other things, the current political situation in Canada. They expressed amazement that I understand and am current on Canadian politics - as much or more than most Canadians, they claimed. The time quickly passed with the interesting conversation, and it was soon time for me to go back to the real estate office for my appointment.

I stopped at the restaurant of the Alhambra hotel, grabbed a quick burger, and returned to the real estate office, arriving just in time for my appointment. The agent introduced me to his worker, another Canadian, who came down here a few years ago, and has become well integrated into the local culture. The worker took me to the lots that he expected I would have the most interest in, and showed me several of them.

The views of Grenada and the west end of Lake Colcibolca (Lake Nicaragua) were really stunning. Granada's beautiful skyline, mostly colonial era churches, and the blue waters of the lake, were a truly magnificent combination. I could sure see myself living there. That's the good news. The bad news is that real estate prices have skyrocketed in Nicaragua in recent years, and the lots were selling quite well at $10 per square meter. In all, there were about fifteen lots, and the development had been for sale for only three months, but five had sold already. I can see why. Looking out from under ancient rainforest trees, a hundred feet high and as much across, with trunks fifteen feet in diameter, one could see the skyline of the city and the lake, and the mountains beyond. What a stunning view! Clearly, the lots were exceptional, and if I were to move to the Grenada area, I would love to live there. No doubt about it. On the return trip, I discussed how we could bring in telephones and broadband internet to the lots by microwave link, since both are available in Grenada, and avoid having to spend large sums to do it by wire. The agent was quite interested in this, and said he would be living in the house he has built there if he could get a telephone. Not a problem for me - I figured out how it could be done for about $700 for four lines and broadband internet for all. And then one could have it all - comfort, information and a piece of paradise, all in one spot.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 04:00:02 PM

Tue, Jul 13 2004

Changing Rooms And A Walking Tour

Well, the change of rooms proved to be necessary. Not only was the room unbearably warm, even with a ceiling fan, but the worst of it was that there was a row of decorative block along the top of the wall facing the kitchen, which meant that it had an open air connection into the kitchen. Which meant that there was the unmuffled banging of pots and pans till after midnight when the kitchen finally shut down. With the heat and no air conditioning, it simply wasn't possible for me to sleep decently, and the noise kept me awake till midnight, and promptly again beginning at five, when the kitchen began preparing the day's meals. This wouldn't do. So I decided to change hotels, even though my second choice was about $8 a night more.

After breakfast at the hostel up the street, where I usually eat while staying in Grenada, I checked out of my room and caught a cab to the other hotel, and checked in. Tiny room - not much more than a walk-in closet in some large homes, but hey, it had air conditioning and it was quiet and secure, facing the front desk. I had a quick shower, a much-needed nap for a couple of hours, and by now it was lunch time, so off to the hostel for lunch.

While at the hostel eating lunch, I bumped into a fellow who serves as a sort of unpaid concierge at the place, working mostly for tips. He offered to take me on a walking tour of the town, and also show me some rentals that would give me an idea of what I would have to pay to live there if I decided to move to Nicaragua. We walked all over downtown, and he showed me a typical colonial house, recently remodeled, renting furnished for $250 per month in a good neighborhood, but without a garage. We visited a language school, where I got the dope on what it would cost to get my Spanish skills seriously upgraded. He took me to a fort that had been a prison during the Sandinista era and showed me an escape hatch that had been used to enter a tunnel system, built by the Sandinistas, that connected several of the main buildings in the city. Fascinating. The place had been built in the 16th Century, had been used as both an armory and a prison in recent years. It was mostly in ruins, but an artist school had taken over part of it, and was using it for their classroom instruction. Some nice art was being made there, using the ruins as subject matter.

We visited several historical buildings, including one of the many churches in the city that date from the colonial era. This one in particular, on Calle Xalteva, had a facade that was blackened - which I had always assumed was blackened from years of accumulated, uncleaned mildew, but it turns out that the black was smoke damage from when William Walker, the American "filibusterer" had burned the city after being unable to hold onto it, in 1854. There was some real history in that blackened facade. We saw the Convent of San Francisco, where the bones of Walker's filibusteros are on display, as well as several other buildings. He showed me the office of what he considered to be the most honest real estate agent in the city.

Finally, tired out, I paid him for the tour, and went back to my hotel and a good afternoon siesta.

In the evening, I went to the DHL office, off the central plaza, where there is a very good (though rather expensive) internet cafe. Got my email done, and headed over to the hostel for dinner, and back home to, finally, a really good night's sleep for a change.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 03:31:57 PM

Mon, Jul 12 2004

Off To The Border

My bus for Nicaragua was due to arrive at the hotel in which I was staying at 9:00 AM; so I had a leisurely breakfast, and got checked out to wait out front for the bus. While waiting, I met a man and his mother who were also headed for Nicaragua, for the same reason that I was. They were also headed for Grenada, on the same bus, so we enjoyed a nice chat while waiting for the bus to arrive.

The bus was a few minutes late, but not seriously so, and we were on it, on our way to the border crossing at Penas Blancas. We arrived there after an uneventful trip, about half past ten, and began the border formalities.

We arrived just after two other bus loads of border crossers had arrived, and so I got to the end of a very long line that stretched the length of the rather large building, back again and half way around. The line was probably two hundred yards long. To make matters worse, there were the people jumping the queue - finding someone they knew towards the front of the line and sort of crowding in like they belonged there. That made the line much slower than it otherwise would have been.

The worst of it was that the Costa Ricans seem to have changed their method of handling the crowds at this border crossing. Instead of a single line which moved fairly quickly, served by several clerks, they now had different lines for different purposes - truck drivers in one line, consular passport holders in another, tourists with visas leaving, tourists with visas entering, tourists without visas, etc. Of course, there was a single clerk handling the hundreds of bus passengers leaving the country, and that was why it took almost three hours to make it through that line. After getting our passports stamped, we got back on the bus and waited for our trip to the border crossing formalities on the Nicaraguan side.

Unlike just about every other border crossing in the world, this one has both the Costa Rican and Nicaraguan formalities buildings at some distance from the actual frontier line. I was told that there is a reason for that. Seems that during the Contra war, the Costa Ricans didn't much care for stray bullets coming from the Nicaraguan side, and the Nicaraguans could not pursue the Contras effectively when they couldn't shoot freely, including in the direction of Costa Rica. So both countries moved their border posts back from the actual border, so they could avoid those problems. The two sets of buildings are now about a half kilometer apart.

On the Nicaraguan side, the bus driver collected all our passports, along with our entry tax, and handed the lot of them to the immigration clerk, who went through them rather quickly, stamping them and filling out a tourist visa in my case. Within an hour, we had our passports back, and were cleared through customs, and were on our way.

The trip to Grenada should have taken about an hour and a half. But it ended up considerably longer than that. We had not much more than crossed the border and cleared the border settlements and police checks, than the traffic on the Interamerican Highway we were traveling, came to a stop. Turns out it was a traffic accident. A semi, pulling a fully loaded trailer, hit a bridge rail, peeling about half of it off, and overturned on the bridge, blocking the road. When the flow of traffic resumed, about an hour later, the tractor was still on its side, wheels removed so that traffic could get past, and just past it, was the badly mangled trailer. Police were down in the river searching, presumably, for a body.

Eventually, we made it to Grenada, and the Ticabus agency. I got my reservation for the return trip, and took a cab to the hotel I had chosen. Unfortunately, they didn't have the room available that I normally stay in, but put me in a different one, near the kitchen, and with no air conditioning. It was cheap - $18 per night, but I was concerned about the lack of air conditioning in Grenada's heat. Well, if necessary, I would check out and change hotels the next day. That proved to be necessary.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 02:57:33 PM

Sun, Jul 11 2004

Journey To Liberia

Today, bright and early, I began my journey to Nicaragua for a visa renewal. I had a fairly early breakfast and by 8 AM, I was ready to leave. Unfortunately, as usual, no one was answering the dispatch telephone for the cabs, so I figured I was going to have to drive over to the taxi stand to get a cab as I did the last time I made this trip.

Just as I was getting ready to leave, however, a cab drove past and I hailed it and it stopped. I asked for a ride to the parada de buses (bus stop), and he agreed, so I was off. I got there around 8:30, and the bus schedule painted on the wall of the pulperia (country store and meeting place) indicated a bus at 8:45. I figured I was in luck.

Well things are seldom that easy in this country, and of course, the 8:45 bus never showed. The next was due at 9:15, but it didn't show till half past, so I figured this wasn't a particularly good omen. But I got on, and was soon dodging the potholes on the way to Tilaran. This bus driver was being quite careful about slowing down for the potholes, and was rather cautious in working around them, so I figured it was going to take a while to get to Tilaran, and it did. What normally would be a forty minute trip took just under an hour.

But I lucked out. As the bus was pulling into Tilaran, I noticed a bus parked alongside the road, saying Canas on it, and that was where I was headed. And as I was getting off the bus, a lot of other people were getting off and walking over to the Canas bus as well, so I checked and indeed, it was headed for Canas. I spent less than five minutes in Tilaran before I was on the way to Canas. What luck! In the past, I had always waited an hour or more to make this connection.

Soon the bus was in Canas, at the terminal there, and I was waiting for the last bus of my day's trip, the bus to Liberia, the provincial capital. The sign indicated it would be there in about twenty minutes, and it arrived early, in less than 15. Wow! What a day of luck! I was in Liberia by noon, much earlier than I had expected. My luck wasn't all that good, though, as I met a resident of Arenal while waiting for the bus in Canas. He was insistent on knowing where I was going and when I would be back, information I would rather not have told him for security reasons, but there was little I could do other than fabricate a story that would have me back in Arenal by evening. I told him my dreamed-up story, and I am not sure he believed me. So now I am worried about whether my house will be burglarized while I am gone.

In any event, I was soon on the bus to Liberia, and arrived there before noon. I checked into the hotel early, and had the afternoon to kill, so I spent most of it wandering around the city on foot, checking out the other hotels nearby for possible alternatives to the one I was staying in. Turns out the one I was in was by far the cheapest - at $25 per night, it was okay, and adequately cheap. The room I was given was right on the street, however, and was far noiser than I would have liked, but being very tired, I slept just fine anyway.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 12:37:25 PM

Sat, Jul 10 2004

The Last Supper

I have just finished my last supper here in Arenal, before taking off for Nicaragua in the morning to take care of some business. I am going to be out of town for some time, and don't expect to get another blog entry uploaded prior to my return on Thursday. So, if you are one of my regular readers, don't look for a blog entry before Friday at the earliest. My internet access won't allow me to do a blog entry until then.

Breakfast was early today; I wanted to be up and about in case the peon showed up early to get started on the borrowpit cleaning project. He showed up, alright, but only worked for half an hour, before he brought the shovel and pick back to the house, and told me he needed to go home to get his boots. I couldn't see why he needed them, as it wasn't raining, but, well, I saw no problem with that. So off he went.

In the meantime, the gardener came for his usual Friday work session and started cutting the lawn with his oversized weed-whacker. He wondered why I was having a peon clean the borrowpit, when I had told him last week of my intent to hire a backhoe to do it, and I told him that the fellow didn't have the money to pay for his electric bill and his lights had been cut off, and I thought I would give him an opportunity to make some money to pay it. So I didn't think anything of it for some time. He told me that he was surprised at how many good changes I had made in the place since I moved here. Well, that's because I am the owner, not just a renter.

After an hour or so, when the peon never returned, I figured that he had decided that this was just too much work for him, and so he didn't want to complete the job. Figuring that if it was going to get done, I would have to do it, I went to work, cleaning it a bit deeper than he had done, and extending the length of it to where I wanted the water runout to be. While working on that, the people walking past expressed their appreciation for the fact that the street drainage is being repaired - they are all tired of walking through mud and standing water as they apparently had been for years. And as the police drove past on one of their surprisingly frequent patrols, they rolled down the window and yelled, Muy bueno! (Very good!). Even my gardener commented that this was the first time the borrowpits had been cleaned since he has been working at this house - almost since it was built. Probably the first time they had ever been cleaned since the road was graveled and the borrowpits were cut in the first place, twenty five years ago. In three hours, I had it deepened, about twice as deep as it had been, and the runout built, in about the same time that the peon and his brother had spent working on it the day before. And hey, I'm just a fat, soft old gringo, and yet I got as much earth moved as they had. It convinced me that they hadn't worked that hard at it. As I had been warned, if you want some serious work done in this country, you need to hire an old peon, because they have more of a work ethic and will make more effort to give you value for your money. The young ones have just not got that hard-work ethic anymore.

By noon, I had moved about as much mud and sand as I could manage for the day, so I took off and headed for town, to tell my friends about my travel plans so they could watch the place and look for me to come back next Thursday. The phone was still off, so I figured I would check and make sure that they were out all over town, which apparently they were.

Once back, I had a spot of lunch and tried the telephone just to see - and voila! It was working! So I quickly did an email session and spent the rest of the afternoon answering the accumulated email. I am bracing myself - gay marriage is back in the news, and that means my essay on the subject is going to get a lot of reads and generate an awful lot of mail just like it always does when the subject is in the news. Just what I don't need when I am out of town and accessing the net through internet cafes. So I turned the spam filters back on, hoping that would at least keep my mailbox from overflowing while I am gone. All I can do is hope for the best and expect the deluge. And it looks like I'll be spending a lot of money in the internet cafes while I am in Nicaragua.

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

Fri, Jul 09 2004

Mi Telefono No Es Operando

My telephone isn't working again. I was deathly afraid that they had cut off my service, presumably for non-payment. I got a rather alarming recorded message phone call from ICE on Wednesday, advising me that I had not paid my bill, and if I failed to do so, my service would be canceled, not suspended, but canceled. I drove into town on Wednesday to check with my bill paying service to find out if they had paid it, and they said that the invoices hadn't been released yet, so there was no way for them to pay it, and ICE wouldn't cut me off because they'd have to cut off everyone else for the same reason. too. So not to worry. They said they expected them to be released on Thursday, so I checked with them today, and they said they didn't have a receipt yet - I should check back tomorrow. But I was concerned enough that I went to the bank and had them check my telephone account - and they told me that there was no bill to pay. So I didn't worry about it.

While in town, I bought a rake at the ferreteria (hardware store) to use in cleaning up the tenant's compost pile. I needed a regular garden rake to pull the branches and limbs off of the top of the heap so I could get to the leaf mould underneath. Turns out it wasn't expensive - about $5 and the quality appears to be quite good. It proved to work very well in doing what I needed to do. While at the ferreteria, I asked the manager there if he could order in the concrete pipe that I need for the driveway, and whether he could provide the installation. He tells me that he does it all the time, and that I would need six pipes, and a half hour of time on the backhoe, coming to a total of the equivalent of about $68. Hey, it is worth it to me. It means I can completely solve the erosion problem I have in the water garden area, where the street runoff is currently diverted, and is washing out a gully.

Not long after I got back, the Nicaraguan fellow showed up today to cut the trees, but as I had decided, I wanted to have him clean the ditch alongside the road instead. I got out the shovel and put him to work, and went back to the compost pile. By the time the branches on the top of the heap were pretty much cleaned up, I figured I had best check on him and see how he was coming. He told me that there was just too much rock and sod for easy shoveling, and asked me if I had a pico (pick). Nope. So it was back to the ferreteria. I didn't see one on their garden tool rack, so I asked a clerk, and without a word, he disappeared behind the racks and walked out with one, without a handle as they are normally sold here. I asked for a palo (handle), but by the time I got half the sentence out, he held up his other hand with a pick handle in it. The two together cost me about $8, but in watching how the peon (unskilled laborer) used it, I can easily see why he asked for it and why it will prove to be a useful tool to have here. Picks here have a very wide blade on one side, almost five inches across, and it turns out to be ideal for cutting sod. A quick blow, a pull upward, and six inches of tough sod is loose and ready to shovel aside. I went inside to get the peon a soda bottle full of water, and when I got back, he had been joined by a friend, who was wielding the pick while he did the shoveling. Before long, they had half the trench dug. By three thirty, they were tired out and decided to end the job for the day. They agreed to come by in the morning, bright and early, and finish up, at the same hourly rate I had agreed previously to pay the peon for the tree butchery. I paid the peon I had hired for the work they had already done, which was just a bit more than half what I had agreed to for the other work, so my expectation is pretty close.

Well, tonight, I went to check my email, and the modem reported no dial tone - so I picked up the phone and it was dead. Not even a click when I hit the hookswitch, so there was no battery voltage - as if the line had been cut. I was quite concerned that my service had been terminated. I wouldn't be the first person to lose service over an unpaid bill that can't be paid.

I figured I had best check this out, so I went to my neighbor's house and asked them if their phone was working, and they reported that their phone isn't working either. That was a relief - apparently it is a system failure. Not unusual here - the phones are frequently out in Arenal, usually for a couple of hours at a time. So I am not going to worry about it until in the morning. When you read this, you'll know that they have got the phones back up, and they are working again, since my sole internet access these days is my dialup internet account. And my phone is the only way I have of uploading this blog.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 05:34:50 PM

Thu, Jul 08 2004

Tree Butchery Part II Postponed

I went for a bit of an exploratory walk around the neighborhood early this morning, going up a road in the squatter camp that I had not been on before, mostly to have a look around and see what is out there. I had seen much of that area from the lake, paddling around the peninsula that I am on, but had not been out on the roads. I followed the new power line that is being built into that neighborhood, bringing power to most of those folks for the first time. I am sure they are quite happy to see it. Anyway, the road goes up the top of the hill and around the brow of it, with a beautiful view of the lake and the volcano in the background. The man who runs cattle down the calle publica (public road) in front of my house apparently lives up there. He has a tidy little home with a tremendous, million dollar view out the back. Wouldn't mind owning that spot, but since it is reserve land, no one will ever get a clear title to it, including him.

While I was walking up there, the ICE meter reader came by, and stopped at a meter that feeds power to one of the houses up there in the camp. He was there to red-tag the meter - someone hadn't paid their bill. I see that occasionally - the folks that live up there don't have much money, and so that happens with some frequency.

Well, this afternoon, I found out who it was. While sitting in the rocking chair on my porch, one of the fellows that lives up there was walking down the hill, and waved at me, in an unusually friendly manner. When he got to the front of the house, he stopped to chat, which he has never done before, even though I see him frequently. Well, he tells me, ICE cut his power because he doesn't have the money to pay his bill. He asked if I had any more trees that I need to have cut down, and I showed him the four that I want cut. We agreed on a price of five thousand colones for five hours work, and he said he would be back at seven tomorrow morning to start work.

I am having second thoughts, though, sending a campesino aloft on those trees, without hard-hat, safety belt or proper limb saw, and nothing to save him if he slipped and fell - two of the places where cuts need to be made are a good thirty feet off the ground. So I got to thinking about it and decided that rather than cut the trees, I would rather have him clean the ditches on the side of the road, and dig a ditch around the end of the pond so that I can manage the runoff from the street much better than it is being handled now. Once that is all dug out, I can put a larger pipe under my driveway, and divert the water that is currently running into the pond back into the street where it belongs. That will improve the water quality in the pond, and I can have a cleaner pond right off the bat, without waiting to get the culvert installed under the street. So that is my plan - I'll have him go to work on that project. It will give him something to make some money with, and will get a much-needed project started for me. The cost should be about the same - I figure it is about the same number of hours of work.

I decided today to try to get some Creole orange cuttings started, so I would have some rootstock for grafting my Bearss lime. I got a half dozen cuttings planted in some containers, and set the bunch of them out near the tenant's old compost pile, along with the bougainvillea cuttings I had already planted and set out there. That spot is ideal for sprouting - it is a natural potting shed. The light is filtered sun, the humidity is always high, and it is protected just enough from the rain that the cuttings will stay moist but not wet. It should work out well, enabling me to get a lot of sprouting done without a lot of maintenance.

My other gardening project today was to continue the cleanup of that compost pile left behind by the tenant. I have been pulling all the branches and roots out that have not decayed, and shoveling the leaf mould into the wheelbarrow and have been dumping it in the composting holes that were dug by the tenant, but not used. It has been quite a time-consuming project because the pile was so huge.

I have concluded that some of the gardening methods used commonly in the temperate zone just don't work well here in the tropics. Composting is, of course, a common practice by gardeners around the world, but here it is problematic. In this so-called compost pile, which has been there for about two years, the diffenbachia cuttings have not rotted, but sprouted, and are four feet high. Branches of the datura trees that were thrown on that pile have also sprouted, and many were two or three feet high, with roots going everywhere, tying undecayed branches into a tangled mess. Several other things hadn't rotted either, but had also sprouted, especially ginger and croton cuttings. And where things haven't sprouted, they became an invitation to large numbers of carpenter ants. While shoveling out the leaf mould, I opened up a nest of them, and sent them scurrying everywhere, and of course, they were in the wheelbarrow as well, so I quickly dumped that load before they found the handles - and my hands. The ant-eating birds quickly found them and had a field day picking through the mould. Since organic matter quickly decays here and doesn't leave much behind, I really think that carbonizing yard waste is a better option than composting - the charcoal, being chemically stable, makes the soil fertile for centuries, not just months. I need to figure out how to best build a kiln and decide where to build it. It is badly needed. I have lots of grist for the kiln.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 06:55:27 PM

Wed, Jul 07 2004

The Results Are In - Five Street Lights In My Front Yard

It has been interesting watching the power line construction going on, much of which has been happening in the pouring rain or in the twilight hours. Clearly the contractor working for ICE has been under the gun to get the work done. It is slowly happening, and it looks like there will end up being five street lights illuminating my front yard - at least that is the way it appears for now. They have been putting up the hardware to hang the fixtures, and five poles have gotten hardware installed for the street lights.

I went into town today to check on my phone bill. The credit cooperative where I have a bill-paying account told me it hadn't been paid because the invoices from ICE haven't been released yet, so even though I got a dunner phone call this morning, there is nothing that can be done to get it paid until at least tomorrow. I'll have to check on Friday and see if it got paid yet, and if not, pay it myself, since I am planning to be out of town much of next week. I don't want to take any chances on getting this phone line cut off.

I checked in at the ICE office to find out if they are going to demand that I have a new service before they will connect me to the new power line they are building. They told me that, contrary to what I had heard, they don't have any problem with simply moving the wires for my existing meter over to the new power line. He told me that he had already checked and my existing wires will reach across the street to the new line. I am going to go ahead with the new service anyway, so I can get an underground service drop to the place, and that will enable me to not have to worry quite so much about lightning strikes wiping out my electronics. But they will switch over my existing meter wires, no problem, even though the meter is on the house. I asked when they are planning to heat up the new lines and cut power to the old ones, and he tells me that will happen in about three weeks. It's a big relief knowing that I am not under the gun to get the new service built by then, and get it inspected and ready for service before they cut the voltage to the existing line.

While in town, I got some groceries today, and finally, the grocery store has some bacon, so at least I can have some bacon with my eggs in the morning. At last, the drought is over, and I can get back to my normal breakfast. I have been making do with French toast, with coconut syrup - it is a good breakfast, and I enjoy it, but I do like my bacon, eggs, toast and tea.

It has been quite rainy the last couple of days, so I haven't gotten much done in the garden. Yesterday, I resumed my project of cleaning up the leaf-litter pile that the tenant left behind, and it is mostly gone now, but not entirely. There are some diffenbachias growing up in it, from some of the discarded trimmings that were tossed there, and they are getting quite big - they're up into the $40 size that you would pay if you were buying them in the garden center at Home Depot. They're really quite beautiful, too, in almost perfect condition, and I have decided to put them in a spot in the water garden where they will look nice and not be in the way of the construction I am planning. That will get them out of the way, and utilize them as well, in a dark, shady spot where they should flourish and continue to add their rather considerable beauty to the place.

While here last Friday, the gardener trimmed my bougainvilleas in the front of the place, and cut up some of the trimmings into cuttings for me to start. He told me to plant the cuttings in the black plastic bags that are used here for rooting new plants, so I used some of the plastic bags I got in Tilaran on Monday. I got those planted yesterday, and they are sitting out there in the area by the tenant's leaf-litter pile, where things seem to get started very easily - filtered sunlight and a little rain but not too much, and lots of humidity - a natural greenhouse.

I have a young poinciana bush in bloom, that is blooming for the first time. Turns out it is bright yellow - no red at all in it, unlike every other poinciana I have ever seen. That's a welcome color - most everything here is white or red, to purple to blue, with just a few orange things, and it is nice having some yellow around for a change. Once it gets big enough, I can take some cuttings and set a few around to add some variety to the colors in the garden.

While on my morning tour of the garden, I noticed a Creole orange seedling coming up, and figured that was a good opportunity to get some rootstock started for my planned propagation of the Bearss lime that is finally showing some healthy growth. I got out the shovel to dig up the seedling and put it in the requisite little black plastic bag, but alas, when the shovel went into the soil, it immediately hit a large root. Apparently, the seedling was growing from the root of a long-dead Creole orange stump that was cut down long before I moved here and has almost disappeared from the termites and carpenter ants that are working on it. It amazes me that the tree would re-sprout from having been buried without any leaves for so long, but it was. Unfortunately, there were no roots near the sprout, so there was no way to utilize it. I had no choice but to cut it down. I'll have to try growing some Creole oranges from seed for my rootstock.

The other garden project for today was to cut down a dead limb from the avocado tree. It had what looked like a clump of mistletoe growing high up in it, and I wanted to get that cut down before the mistletoe could spread under the bark to the main trunk of the tree. Well, I got out the ladder and went to work, chopping with my machete, and finally, down it came with a crash. When I got down to the ground to have a closer look at it, it turns out that the mistletoe was really an orchid, and now I regret having cut the limb down - not that the tree was really harmed by its removal. It probably needed to come down anyway, since it was dead, and that means it would simply become a home for carpenter ants. But in any event, I re-planted the orchid up in a crotch in the avocado tree, closer to the ground where I can see it and enjoy it. Just hope it doesn't get stolen, like another orchid did here not long after I moved in.

I was really quite stunned at the beauty of the avocado wood, though. It is light, almost white, but with dark streaks through it, much like olive wood, giving it a really exotic look. It is of a medium hardness, so it could be used for furniture, but mostly for accent pieces - I think it is too soft for most structural elements of furniture, but would certainly look nice in inlays. Too bad it got tossed onto the leaf-litter pile, and is destined to be burned along with the rest. Just not set up to do woodworking here, much as I would like to.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 05:20:08 PM

Mon, Jul 05 2004

Trip To Liberia

The power crews were out early today, and strung two of the wires that are going up on the line across from my house. Apparently, they are going to do the new line on the cheap, too, with only a single phase wire, no ground, no neutral, similar to what is there now. So frankly, I don't really see why they are bothering, other than to get power out to the squatter camps, where it is currently run by long runs of triplex strung around the servidumbres (private roads). The final streetlight talley appears to be five - there will be five poles with streetlights on them, shining on my front yard - the other two holes turned out to be for guy anchors. Ugh, I hate all those streetlights! The only time I'll ever see the stars out here will be when the power is off during a clear night - and that will be a rather rare conjunction. I understand why they do that - so many people walk as a normal means of getting around, that it is useful to have streetlights so they can see to walk at night on these cobble-strewn streets. But it sure is annoying to have them glaring in my windows all night.

I had some business to take care of in Liberia, the provincial capital, so I got up early and drove there to take care of it. I took advantage of being in Liberia to check out the new mall that recently opened up there. They had a shoe store, and I've been looking for some new sneakers, so I looked for some cheap ones, and finally found some in my size. They are an ugly black and yellow, but hey, they were blessedly cheap - about $20 - and seem to be reasonably well made, mostly suede leather with thick rubber soles that should wear well. So I didn't mind paying that much for them. They are the first sneakers I have found in size 43. They seem to fit just about right, and they are the first ones I have found that do.

On the way home, I stopped in Tilaran to get some of those little plastic bags that the nurseries use for starting plants. No one here in Arenal seemed to have any. Fortunately, I found some at the coffee-grower's cooperative, and they were dirt cheap - about two and a half cents apiece. I got lots. I am sure I'll be using them.

Not much else got done today. I really was tired from all that driving - Liberia is a two hour drive - so I spent a goodly part of the afternoon in an extended siesta. I woke up not really all that refreshed - I really need some sleep medications, and I am sorely tempted to try Sinimet rather than my usual Permax, which I can't get here. I have long since used all the Permax I brought with me, and have been living without it ever since, but the restless leg syndrome is slowly getting worse, and making me increasingly sleepy in the day. The Sinimet that is available here isn't exactly the right formulation, but I think I can make do. I am getting desperate enough to try it.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 06:37:49 PM

Sat, Jul 03 2004

Duck And Stuck

After all the tree butchery last Wednesday, I was prepared for the butchery of two more madera negra trees as was promised by the tree butcher for Thursday. Apparently, the thought of chopping through eight inches of hardwood with a machete to take down each of two trees apparently was too much for the guy, and he never did show. So I am back to looking for someone with a chain saw and an extension ladder to do the job.

Instead, Thursday was occupied by cleanup of the area under the big mango tree next to the house, where all the chopping had been done, and where there was a huge pile of mango limbs and branches. Most of the big stuff got hauled off to the yard waste pile on Wednesday, before the end of the day, but Thursday, I went to work chopping up the bones and hauling them off too. Once done with that, I went to work on the pile of branches from the Creole orange that I had cut down, and that was pretty much done by noon. The bones of that tree were just too big to haul off by myself, so I decided I would leave them for the gardener to cut up and haul on Friday.

In the process of hauling the branches to the yard waste pile beside the pond, I discovered that a female Muscovy duck has taken up residence in the reeds beside the lake, and had hatched a brood of four little ducklings. Mama took the ducklings out for a little cruise around the pond as I was doing the final cleanup, and it was quite a delight to watch. The ducklings are quite charming, staying very close to mama, never straying more than a couple of inches. At the end of the cruise, she brought the ducklings up on the bank to nosh on the grass a bit, before heading back to the safety of the nest.

It is all very sweet, but frankly, I would rather not have them around. If you have ever been around ducks that have accommodated themselves to human presence, they can be quite a nuisance - their droppings can make an incredible mess. Muscovys are particularly bad, since they like to hang out for hours on docks and sidewalks. Before I had demolished the remains of the old dock, the duck droppings on it were an inch thick. Once I get the new dock completed, I sure don't want that mess all over it.

When the gardener came yesterday, I showed him the bones of the Creole orange, and he didn't flinch - he went right to work chopping it up and hauling it off. With his razor-sharp machete, it was no problem - he had it cut up and hauled away in a few minutes.

Afterwards, he decided that the time had come to fertilize most of the stuff around the garden that I hadn't. I learned something about fertilizing here, too - I'd been doing it quite wrong, and largely wasting most of my fertilizer, from what he tells me. Because there is so much rain here, sprinkling fertilizer around as one normally would, means that it mostly gets quickly dissolved and washed away. Instead, it is done here in precisely the manner your mother told you not to - you simply place a bit of it at the base of the tree or shrub, and as the rain continues to fall, it will get washed around the root tips, and some of it will seep into the soil and nourish the taproots, and more will eventually be absorbed, rather than washing away. So having gone back and re-fertilizing everything, we'll see how the results compare. The small avocado tree that was so very sickly is slowly greening up, and hopefully will improve. Now that it has been properly fertilized, it should do even better. My little lime tree is also doing well, and is now in bloom, with several new shoots. Glad to see that - I was quite concerned that it had shown little growth since I have lived here, and citrus should be exhibiting frequent growth flushes if it is healthy.

The gardener also told me that iguanas are really fond of hanging out in madera negra trees, the trees I need to remove. So that puts me in a quandary. I like iguanas, and think they're kinda cool to have around. So the question is whether I to take out the trees. I really need to - they're causing problems for my fruit trees. So I'll have to take out the trees with mixed emotions.

Today, it seems that the temporal (period of rainy weather) we have been going through the last week is pretty much over with, and while it rained hard most of the night, it promptly quit not long after daylight. So I can get a few things done in the garden, but only after completing the laundry. That's got top priority.

While waiting for the laundry to run, I was sitting around watching CNN when all of a sudden I heard the sound of someone stuck out front. I went out to investigate, and discovered that someone had driven a pickup into the sump alongside the road, while trying to turn around. The left front tire was up past the axle in the hole.

The fellow borrowed a shovel from me and went to work trying to dig himself out. But he was trying to dig in the lastre (boulder-filled gravel) in the street, and was getting nowhere fast. Someone came along, and seeing what was happening, suggested that digging out was pointless, but another method might succeed - putting weight over the spinning tire. They did that - the stranger, a hefty man the size of a linebacker, and the driver's son piled into the bed over the spinning wheel, and the driver was able to drive right out.

As he returned the shovel to me, the driver gave me his sales pitch - he is a fish monger, and had a bunch of fish to sell, especially covina, but not being especially fond of fish, I declined. I do, after all, have a pond full of them, and rather than spending $3 a pound for covina, I can catch and cook guapote, in my opinion, a better fish, for free.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:30:46 AM
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