Letters From Exile

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

Tue, Aug 31 2004

"Big Monday" A Bust

Yesterday was supposed to be the "big day" for the general strike that is supposed to have shut down the country. Well, near as I can tell, it was a bust. Press reports indicate as many as twenty roadblocks scattered around the country, but there has not been any way to confirm that - several web sites report only about five or six scattered around the country, and the only major disruption was a shutdown of the autopista (expressay) roundabout in front of the fountain at the San Pedro Mall - close to the University of Costa Rica, where most of the protesters came from.

The government is back in negotiations with the truckers, and the press is expecting a resolution today, and some of the taxi drivers are saying that the protesters are at home, and are waiting for the outcome of the negotiations before most of the protesters decide whether to continue the strike and blockades.

I can't help but believe that a resolution is likely, because the strike is hurting mostly big business - the agricultural export industry normally earns five to six million dollars a day in fresh produce exports, and most of those exports have ground to a halt, because the produce can't be trucked from the farms to the processing plants, and from there to the ports. Additionally, manufacturing, both for domestic consumption and for export, has been badly affected, as goods from the ports (mostly Puerto Limon on the Caribbean coast), are not moving, and owners of ships are incurring fines running to as much as two million dollars per day for their ships having to remain at berth for days on end longer than they were given permits for. So the real pressure to get this settled is now coming from big business, and that means that this government - quite conservative, and business oriented - has to be listening to the complaints.

But I must say that in general, the restraint shown by the government has been impressive - in the States, the National Guard would have been called out long ago; the trucks would be in impound lots and the truckers and other protesters would now be cooling their heels in the local slammers. But here, there is a culture of respect for human rights, including the rights of assembly and to protest, so the government has been much more restrained. And I am impressed, and have to have a lot of respect for that, in spite of the inconveniences it causes. It is, after all, evidence of genuine democratic processes. Which is one of the reasons I moved here.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:38:22 AM

Mon, Aug 30 2004

National Strike, Tico Style

Not a lot happening over the weekend. Things were pretty quiet in town, and no evidence of disruption from the strike that I could see. The press was reporting that there were very few blockades reported in the country on Saturday or Sunday. The union officials, who have broken off talks with the government, have said that they have something "big" planned for today. We'll see.

All I have noticed so far is that the trash pickup didn't happen this morning. At first, I assumed that I got my trash out too late, but then it dawned on me that the strike was back on. I checked my usual news sources, and what they are telling me is that the union leadership is getting more hard-lined than ever, and they are claiming that the disruptions will get worse, not better. There wasn't much about it in Saturday's paper, but the English-language web press seemed to be much more informative. I had heard that the water and power were off in Cartago, but it turns out that it was only the water, and that was because it had been contaminated with about 5 gallons of gasoline (according to La Nacion, the nation's principal paper). The contamination occurred because of a dredging barge accident near the aqueduct intake in the Orosi reservoir. The power hadn't been off at all, as it turns out.

Over the weekend, the two weeks I have given the old man to be done with his garden on my land expired, so I went over and gave him the money for the remaining crops, as we had agreed. He is now off of there, and I am free to do with the garden as I see fit, and there won't be any more problems as a result of his garden there. My gardener came by on Saturday to cut the weeds down on that side of the pond as I had asked, and after three hours, he got it all done, and cleaned up the weeds along the street, too. So I am in good shape for now - the property looks sharp, but I need to clear up all the branches and trash that litter the property, so that he can keep the weeds mowed. I am planning to have him cut them every other month during the dry and every month and a half during the rains.

One does not plant a lawn here, one merely starts cutting the weeds on a weekly basis, and the grass, which is always present, and tolerates the cutting more than the weeds do, just pushes the weeds out. And I may do that - have him mow the weeds on a monthly basis, and thereby encourage the formation of a lawn. That will make insect control much easier, as it will discourage the leafcutter ants that plague any attempt at gardening here. I also think I am going to move some of my banana plants over there, so that I have room on this side of the pond for more fruit trees. It may also help cut down on the blackfly problem here, too. I certainly hope so.

I don't know much about what is happening with the strike except what I am reading in the press, so I think I will start going to town on a pretty-much daily basis during the strike, so that if it starts to develop into a serious situation, I can be prepared. It will also give me an opportunity to assess for myself what is actually happening.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 01:25:51 PM

Fri, Aug 27 2004

Protests Widen But Support Flags

When I went to town yesterday, I was surprised to find the grocery stores fully stocked, and the gas station had gas and was selling it as per normal. I actually had a hard time finding a place to park for all the delivery trucks parked out on the street - the trucker's strike is obviously far from totally effective. I went in to the grocery to stock up on a couple of weeks' worth of groceries, and found everything I was looking for. And talk on the street seemed almost to be of the "Strike? What strike?" sort. So the major effort to disrupt the lives of average Ticos doesn't seem to have succeeded, at least out here in the hinterlands where, like myself, most Ticos live.

So, not feeling the effects of the strike myself, or seeing any real effects in the town where I live, I decided that to understand what is happening "out there" in the rest of the country, I would have to turn to the press. Looking at the online press, it appears that the protests have widened to include the employees of the Caja de Seguridad Social (state medical system) workers. Most of the ICE (power and telephone utility) workers were supposed to have joined the strike, but I noticed several trucks out doing their normal thing yesterday, so apparently not all of the ICE employees were honoring their strike. The scheduled five-hour power outage yesterday never did happen; power went off about three yesterday, but came back on within a few minutes, so it was apparently a typical accidental interruption, not the scheduled line work that was supposed to take place.

Press reports indicated blocked roads near San Ramon, Ciudad Quesada (San Carlos), Limon, Liberia, and a few other smaller provincial towns and cantons. My gardener this morning indicated that he had heard of a roadblock near Puntarenas, and another near Canas. But this is nothing that could even remotely be described as a national paralysis. Apparently, there were spot gasoline shortages in Alajuela and a few other places, but not much more than that. There was the usual march down Avenida Dos in downtown San Jose yesterday, with about 4,000 participants, but that is more or less typical of the protest marches that take place there every month or two over various issues in San Jose, that hardly even draw notice anymore.

What is most significant is that there appears to be a bit of resentment growing towards the strikers. The anger felt by the strikers is widely shared, but not as passionate, and not deemed worth causing a wholesale violation of everyone's right to a normal life. The president, according to the press, is proceeding to negotiate, but how much good faith each side will exhibit remains to be seen. The president tried to toss the Riteve contract legality issue into the lap of one of his ministers, but the minister tossed it right back, saying that his opinion wasn't legally binding. So now the prez will have to deal with it directly.

I am still planning to go to town today and get a paper and see what is being said in the Spanish-language press, as well as get a feel for what is happening around town. My gardener indicated that from what he could see in town, things appeared pretty much as normal. So I am not fearing any real disruption, and I expect that the enthusiasm for the strike will continue to wane. But I am going to maintain a couple of week's worth of food stocks just in case.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:47:16 AM

Thu, Aug 26 2004

General National Strike In Its Third Day

I am hurrying to get this blog entry written and uploaded before 8 AM. The power is supposed to go off at eight, and it will be off until about one in the afternoon - if it comes back on. I don't generally comment on the news or local politics in this blog, but the current news is of such importance that it may make the international press, and if it does, people will be looking for local information here, and so I feel somewhat compelled to comment.

The power outage I am expecting is a scheduled power outage, related to the construction of the new power line that runs in front of my house, that I have discussed in this blog in the past. Today they are going to heat up the new line. But I am concerned about the national strike that has the ICE employees out on strike, and that may affect what they do with the power. The power may not go off at all, if the ICE employees didn't go on strike, or, if they go out on strike during the day, it may be during the outage, in which case the power may not come back on for a day or two. I don't know, and neither does anyone else I have talked to around here lately.

The general strike started with the truckers, who are upset over two issues - the appalling state of the roads, and the "Retieve" inspection - safety and emission inspections - that every vehicle must pass if it is to be allowed on the roads. The truckers contend, not without justification, that when trucks are driven over potholed roads, that the damage done to the front-ends and suspension systems means that no truck driven in this country for very long is going to be able to pass inspections, and that the company contracted with the government, Riteve S y C S.A., has an illegal monopoly and abuses it by charging $20 for an inspection and $10 for a re-inspection for vehicles that didn't pass the first time. The unspoken, but widely shared common wisdom is that Retieve and the local repair shops conspire together to flunk a certain percentage of vehicles, so that the repair shops can make money - which they then pay a portion of to the local Retieve employees.

Whether there is any truth to that, I do not know. It is hard for anyone to know, and of course, if it is true, it is illegal. But that doesn't stop the rumors. But I do know that Riteve is very inconsistent about what it passes and flunks vehicles for. For instance, a friend of mine flunked when the inspectors noted that he did not have a triangulo (stalled vehicle warning triangle) in his trunk, to put out behind the car if he is stalled alongside the road. Well, on my last trip to the Riteve inspection, I didn't have one either, but wasn't even given a warning about that. And there are other such examples I know of that I could cite.

The arbitrariness of the inspection is one of the issues that the truckers were upset about. But the lack of repair work on the roads was another. So the truckers blocked the busiest freeway in the country, between Cartago and San Jose, and pretty soon the taxis joined the strike, bringing San Jose to a grinding halt. That's because most people around here move by taxi and/or bus, and without the taxis running, it has become hard for most folks to get around.

The momentum of the strike grew yesterday, and got to the point where the public employees decided to join the strike, because they have been promised only a 4.5% wage increase this year - even though inflation is running at more than 15%. So that is why ICE, whose employees are considered public employees, decided they would go out on strike too. They have tried, unsuccessfully in the past, to open negotiations regarding this issue, but the government, badly strapped for cash, refused.

And now, the latest, is that the students at the University of Costa Rica, the nation's premier educational institution, have also joined the strike. They are upset over the terms of the Central America Free Trade Agreement, signed with the United States recently, which would, in effect, cede elements of Costa Rican sovereignty.

Well, President Pacheco went on TV yesterday to address the nation, and try to calm things down a bit, but it didn't help. In fact, if anything, it inflamed the situation, and so this morning, I am reading in the paper that he is now opening negotiations on three fronts - the legality of the Riteve contract, the public employee salaries, and the CAFTA agreement. The situation, if it is allowed to continue, will become dire indeed. With no trucks on the road, the supermarkets are likely to run out of food rather quickly, as they tend to keep very small inventories, and gasoline tankers can't get fuel to the gas stations to keep cars and trucks on the roads. If power and telephones go off, emergency services could be crippled, and things could go from bad to worse. If unrest develops, Costa Rica's tourist image of a quiet, peaceful little tropical Switzerland could be irreparably threatened.

I certainly wouldn't want to be in Pacheco's shoes right now. He is between a rock and a hard place. The local Libertarian party, which has a presence in the Assemblea Nacional, is funded and supported by the hardest of the hard-core, right-wing elements in the United States, has blocked the tax reform package in the Assemblea Nacional, along with a lot of other legislation. Without the tax reform, it has become impossible for the government to fund itself adequately. So there is nothing that Pacheco can do to fix the roads or pay the public employees adequate salaries. This general strike is the result. And the fact that the students are upset over both the CAFTA agreement and Costa Rica's support for the war in Iraq, is the result of Pacheco's policy decisions, and that means that Pacheco is going to have to make some hard decisions between reflecting the will of the Costa Rican people, or trying not to ruffle feathers up there in That Capital Up North. It has come down to the wire. The administration is going to have to make a hard decision - and it will be interesting to see which way the decision goes. Meanwhile, I am going to town today, and stock up on groceries and gas up the car. I feel a need to "get" while the getting is still possible. This whole thing is starting to bring back memories of living in Nigeria.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 07:37:36 AM

Mon, Aug 23 2004

The Acid Test

Well, after spending the last two days cleaning up after the installation of the concrete pipe in my driveway, I was ready for a good rainstorm to see just how well things were going to work. I expected to have some minor problems, but I didn't know what they would be, and so yesterday, I got out the garden hose and flooded the trench-work to see if I had any significant high spots that would cause problems with sediment accumulation. The results of the expense and hard work looked pretty good, though I could see that I would still need to keep the sediment cleaned out.

Today, I got what I had been waiting for. A serious gullywasher, bordering on a real ripsnorter. I could see if my estimation of the pipe size was adequate for the amount of water I need to carry under the driveway. It had been cloudy all morning, but hadn't rained at all, so I went to town to get my mail, do some grocery shopping, get a paper and pay the ferreteria (hardware store) for the pipe and installation. Once back at home, all I could do was wait for rain. I didn't have to wait for long.

I had not much more than laid down for my siesta when the rain started. It started out slow, perfect for seeing if there were any serious problems. None. So I was ready for heavy rain, and I wasn't disappointed. Pretty soon, it was raining hard, and for long enough that the soils got saturated, so I could see what would happen in a serious rain. The rain gradually intensified, just as I had hoped, until the flow in the drainage ditch was enough that I could see what I wanted to see.

Unfortunately, I had a problem, and it quickly became serious. The entry to the pipe was not well structured, and as the water swirled around the entry, it was sucking in some ominously large cobblestones, some the size of large grapefruits. If they became lodged inside the pipe, I was done for. So I had no choice but to get out the shovel and go out in the rain and dig out the area around the entry so the water could enter the pipe more smoothly, and not churn up and suck in large cobbles. I couldn't wait until the rain ended, simply because the large cobbles around the entry were becoming unstable, and a few of the smaller ones were already being sucked in.

I spent the next two hours with the pick and shovel, making like a gold miner and getting the rocks and soil dug out as quickly as I could manage. Finally, just as I was finishing, the rain started up again, and soon it was coming down as strong as before. But this time, I was ready, and the new channel worked fine. Water entered smoothly, carrying the sediment and gravel with it, through the pipe and out the other end. Whew! At least I can sleep tonight, knowing that it will work okay in any rainstorm I am likely to have during the night.

A big concern was the accumulation of gravel and sediment in the salida (exit trench). There are no high spots to impound the sediment along the length of the salida, but as it turns out, there isn't enough slope to keep it washed out, either. So I am going to have to spend my days digging sediment out of that trench. The only other option is to deepen the trench downstream, so I can increase the slope, and therefore the flow velocity, and I will probably do that, just so I don't have to spend so much time cleaning the salida.

Another concern was the size of the pipe - whether a twelve-inch pipe was large enough for the task. Well, I may have a problem that way. It seems that during the real gully-washer this afternoon, the water rose to within two inches of the top of the pipe. And this was by no means the biggest storm I have experienced here, nor anywhere near the largest that occur here. I wish now that I had sprung for eighteen inch pipe instead. As it is, I am into it about $78, and larger pipe would have cost probably twice that. But that is all water out the salida now, and all I can do is resort to plan B - build up the driveway and around the entrance to the pipe, so that water that cannot flow through the pipe is diverted out into the street. Not an optimal solution, but in a serious rain emergency, it could save the house from getting flooded.

The final concern was the effect on water quality of all that muddy water getting dumped into the west end of the pond. My hope was that the muddy water would enter the pond and sink to the bottom, and be carried along the bottom and not mix into the surface layers. Well, it worked brilliantly. With all the dirt and mud from the construction getting washed in, today was probably the most serious mud event that the pond is likely to face, and the scheme kept most of the pond from getting muddied up. The muddy water does, in fact, stay along the bottom, and the surface layer - at least to a foot or two in depth, stayed clean. As soon as the rain quit, the muddy water began to dissipate, and fairly quickly was replaced by clean inflow from the upper end of the pond. So this part of the plan to clean up the water in the pond appears to be working brilliantly. Next on the pond's agenda, I will get the overflow fixed, to draw water off the bottom, so it will suck up mostly muddy water during a flood event, and there should be very little muddying of the water during even the heaviest rains. The fish will like that. And the pond will certainly look better for the effort.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 05:06:47 PM

Fri, Aug 20 2004

Concrete Pipe Day

Today is supposed to be the big day for getting the concrete pipe installed in front of my house. While the gardener was here this morning, the manager of the ferreteria (hardware store) dropped by to tell me that they were ready, and asked when I would like it done. Well, my answer in halting Spanish, was the sooner the better, and so they are supposed to be out this afternoon to get it done.

I think the thing that may have stimulated the manager coming to my house was my visit, yesterday, to the pipe warehouse at the ferreteria, where I was looking at some ten-inch plastic water pipe that they had there, that it would be possible for me to install myself. I suspect that the warehouseman told the manager that I had been by and had asked about it, and he realized that he still needed to get the job done, and I was getting sufficiently desperate to be looking at alternatives. At any rate, I'll be delighted if they show, and disappointed but hardly surprised if they don't. I really need to get that done, so I can get started on other projects in the water garden that are being held up by the need to maintain the diversion channel through the water garden.

Speaking of the water garden, the gardener finished cleaning up in there this morning. That was today's project for him, and now that the huge volumes of leaf litter and trash are finally out of there, I can finally see what I have to work with and what it is going to take to implement my plans. It is finally starting to come together in my mind, and I think I have a pretty good idea of how it is going to look once it is done. It should be quite an attractive spot, and once the landscaping is mature, a very pleasant place to spend time.

While out there working with the gardener this morning, he pointed out a mistletoe vine that is growing in the huge fruit tree at the top of the water garden. I had never noticed them before, because this particular variety looks quite a bit like the tree itself. So while he was working, I took a good look at the tree, and discovered that there are at least four other mistletoes growing in it, all of which need to be cut out as soon as possible. My gardener informs me that mistletoe is a serious pest here, and it is a parasitic plant that, if unchecked, can kill its host. I suspect that the reason this tree has never been particularly productive of fruit is that it has had mistletoe growing in it for some time, and no one ever bothered to clean it out. The tree also has a terrible epiphyte burden than needs to be cleaned off, too. I can plainly see that I need to invest in a big extension ladder so I can get up there and do all of that without having to hire it done every time. The tree needs serious help if it is to survive, and I am quite fond of it and would very much like to keep it.


Well, it is six in the evening, and lo and behold, the backhoe from the ferreteria showed up about one thirty this afternoon, concrete pipe in his blade. Well, I was basically ready for him, though I didn't have my work clothes on, but hey, this was so good I wasn't about to let that stand in my way. So I showed him what I wanted in the way of cleaning the borrowpits alongside the house, and where I wanted the pipe placed across the driveway. In trying to empty his blade of the six concrete pipes, one rolled out from too-high up, and hit the ground with a thud and broke about a foot out of the end. Well, I had five more pipes and hopefully, that would be enough. If he didn't break any more.

He promptly went to work, and with huge piles of dirt out in the street, pretty much blocking the road, had the trench dug. At this point, there was no choice but hop down in the trench and help him position them, so I did, getting my shoes and pants thoroughly covered in fresh, slimy, gumbo mud. After a few retries, we got them all coupled, and where a couple of joints weren't quite tight, I put some large polypropylene feed bags over the joints, to prevent the soil from sinking on through. It ended up that five pipes just wasn't enough, so we had to use the broken one to make the pipe long enough. So the upstream end of the pipe has a jagged end on it, and I intend to grouse about that a bit when I settle up with the ferreteria manager on Monday. There are three pieces to the broken pipe, and I may try to mortar them back on to make it look half-way decent.

With the pipe in place, it was on to cut the salida (exit trench). The trench seemed awfully deep to me, deeper than I figured it needed to be, but he insisted that was the depth required to keep heavy vehicles driving over the pipe from crushing it. OK, I let him go ahead, against my better judgment. So the salida ended up considerably deeper than I had hoped I would have to have, and I was deeply concerned about how it would interfere with parking in front of the house, and be a hazard for carelessly driven cars on the street.

After he backfilled the driveway trench, and cleaned the borrowpit upstream from the pipe, he closed off that darned street-runoff overflow that has been such a nuisance in the water garden (and which has prevented me from starting my grand project there). At this point, he was done and I cut him loose. Now it was time for the fun to begin.

Cleaning up the mess proved to be an enormous undertaking. I began by filling in a slope from the street, so that cars that run off the road and into the borrowpit don't end up stuck or, worse, damaged - at my expense, of course. That was a big job - the trench he dug for the salida was about 50 feet long and about two feet deep, so I began by cutting down the edge of trench along the street, and then making a slope from the cut-down edge to the far-side bottom of the trench. By the time I was done, I was surprised at how well it turned out - once the soil is packed hard, it won't end up being anywhere near the tank trap that I had feared.

At the end of that project, I had run out of both daylight and energy, so the rest of the cleanup will have to wait until tomorrow. My plans are to remove most of the soil piled up along the trench in front of the house - that embankment , with a two-foot deep trench below it, is high enough now it could have repelled the Normandy Invasion. It needs to get cut down, so the Jehovah's Witnesses, lottery salesmen and lost tourists can still make their way to my door. But at least now, I don't need to fear a heavy rain. I am ready for just about anything that mother nature and global warming can throw at me - and the runoff will finally drain from the street in front of the house, and won't muddy-up my pond.

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

Tue, Aug 17 2004

Bananas For Breakfast, Lunch And Dinner

Today dawned relatively cold and windy, a fair amount windier than I can recall it having ever been since I have been living in Arenal. And because of the slight chill in the air, I just pulled the covers up, and stayed crawled under them for quite a while this morning before I actually forced myself to get up and face the day. The weather has been kinda weird ever since all the hurricanes started brewing out there in the Caribbean.

Highest priority for the day is to go to the ferreteria (hardware store) where I need to bug the manager about getting out here and getting the concrete pipe installed for the street drainage in front of my driveway. I am interested in his current excuse. It will be interesting to see how creative he is with it.

At breakfast, I noticed that the bunch of bananas that has been hanging up over the stove for the last two weeks was finally ripe and ready to eat. They were almost ready yesterday, and I had a couple of the most ripe ones, but this morning, they are all in their prime. And boy, do I have a bunch! This is a large bunch, almost up to commercial size, probably thirty pounds of them. And since I left the bunch on the plant until they were almost ripe, they have ripened almost all at once. That's a problem, because I can't eat them all. I am eating them as fast as I can, with bananas with the bacon and eggs in the morning, banana and peanut-butter sandwiches at lunch, and bananas in milk for dessert at dinner. And bananas as a snack in between.

What's worse is that I have a truly enormous bunch of bananas growing on a large plant out in the garden. This is a truly commercial-sized bunch, and when it is ready, I am going to have way more bananas than I can ever use. I think I am going to try cutting down a portion of it and ripening it first, leaving the remainder on the plant, and then cut the remainder once the first half is eaten. I don't know if that will work, but it is worth a try. I sure hope it does.

Yesterday, I worked a bit at getting some of the last several years' worth of leaf litter accumulation cleaned up in the water garden. It appears that the bananas that are growing there, were simply tossed there as bare tubers to dispose of them, and were never planted. The root tubers are simply laying on the ground and have taken root there. I found some red calladiums growing in the leaf litter too, and carefully transplanted them into the areas where I want to cultivate them. The general outlines of what I want to do with the water garden is starting to take shape in my mind. I am going to dig out some of the seeps around the spring and put drainage pipes in, so I can have the water coming out where I want. I am going to concentrate it all at the one large spring, which I am going to dam up to form a small pool. The spring, as it is, is slowly eating away into the bank, and will cause it to collapse eventually if something is not done, so I have to deal with that issue, and I think the best way is simply to submerge the spring in a pool so that it can't eat any further into the bank. If I collect all the seeps into the pool, I'll have enough flow to make a small waterfall, that will make quite an attractive centerpiece for the garden, and I can plant some fish from the pond in the pool to keep the mosquitos and blackflies from getting out of hand.

But before I create the pool, my highest priority is to build a pathway to enable easy access to the flat area below where the waterfall will be, which I will use for the construction of the small dam. It will also be used for access to the leaf-litter pile which is I am already accumulating around the corner and out of sight of the water garden, and so the pathway will have practical, as well as aesthetic use. In that flat area, I am planning a little picnic spot, shaded by the fruit trees, which will be a delightful place to have lunch or sit and read. Very pleasant spot to enjoy a little pura vida.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:12:48 AM

Sun, Aug 15 2004

Final Answer

Today started out to be cleaning day - I was in serious need of getting some laundry washed and hung up to dry, and my feet were burning, which tells me that it is time to mop the floor. Still don't understand that one. Anyway, I got the floor mopped too, and cleaned up the kitchen, which was getting to be a bit of a mess.

The last thing I did was to clean up the front porch and mop it, too. Just as I was finishing up, the old man who has the garden on my property across the pond, and his son-in-law (who is blessedly bilingual), came by to work out the final arrangements on getting the garden closed out and getting the old man's fences down and crops and property off of my land. We discussed what the arrangements needed to be, and the old man is concerned that the crops won't be ready in anything like the time needed, and so he asked if I would be willing to pay him for the crops. I wasn't all that keen on the idea - it is mostly cassava and taro, with some bananas. But to get him off the land, and end up with everyone happy, I have agreed to pay him 10,000 colones - about $22.

The taro is something I have no idea what I will do with it. I may transplant it into the water garden, as the leaves are large and showy, and it can make a nice addition to that area. The cassava is quite nice when it is peeled, sliced and fried like potatoes - that is how it is done here, much unlike how it is done in Africa, where it is shredded and dried into a tapioca-like thing, then soaked and boiled. I will enjoy lots of fried cassava Of course, it is poisonous when raw, so anything I do will involve cooking it. I may try shredding and drying it, and using some of it for tapioca pudding. Anyway, I have lots and lots with which to experiment, but I will certainly have far more than I need or want - I'll probably end up giving most of it away.

The old man has promised to take down the fence and the lean-to, too, and that is certainly good news. I am going to want to pull up the fenceposts, at least the ones that haven't taken root as many of them have, and cut the rest down. My current plan is to use most of that area for my fruit orchard, and the rest of it for a garden area.

The thought has occurred to me that I could build a floating bridge across the pond, and extend my garden over there onto that area as well. What a lovely garden that would be, too, with nice views of the pond and beautiful picnic spots under the huge ficus trees that are growing over there. I also found out that that portion of the property was once a coffee plantation. I didn't think that coffee would grow at this low an altitude, but apparently it does fine here, so I may get a few bushes from the coffee producer's co-op in Tilaran, and plant some there, so I can have some coffee of my own with which to experiment. It is apparently not that difficult to process small amounts for my own use and as gifts for my friends, which is something I have wanted to do since I have been here. Since I also have some cacao trees, I might actually, eventually, be able to produce gifts of chocolate, gourmet coffee, and even macadamia nuts. Clearly, I have a lot of work to do to get to that point, but it is going to be fun getting there.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:26:20 AM

Fri, Aug 13 2004

Passing The Word

Today, other than working with the gardener, there was not much on the agenda, except for one big item, a matter that I have been avoiding, but which needs to be done. I needed to speak with the old man who maintains the garden on my "north forty" and give him the sad word that I can't allow him to garden there anymore.

I have decided that the problems associated with that are just not worth it, and I have also found out recently that he actually uses it, not because he has no other access to land, but because it is convenient - he lives about three blocks away. He actually owns more land than I do, and grazes a small dairy herd on it, but it is some distance from his house, and that is why he is gardening here. So I have decided that his garden has to go.

I wrote up a letter to him, and went online, and used an automatic translation site to translate it into Spanish. While my gardener was here, I asked him to read it and see if the grammar was correct and the word usage proper, and he said it wasn't optimum, but it was readable and correct, and it would get the message across. So after the gardener was done and had left for the day, I headed out into the glaring noon-day sun, looking for the old man's house.

I was told what to look for, but I'll be darned if I could find it. Drove all around, and nothing seemed to match the description I had been given. Not surprising, of course, but annoying and frustrating nevertheless. Finally, after giving up and heading back home, driving past where the house was supposed to be, there he was, walking down the sidewalk. So I stopped and got out the letter and gave it to him. He read it while we were standing there on the sidewalk, and his son came by and read it too.

He indicated that it wasn't a problem, except that he had a problem with the yuca (cassava). He made some digging motions, and I suspect that what he meant was that he needed some time to get it dug up, and he couldn't do that in just a week. So, to be sure I am clear as to what he needs, I am going to look up his son-in-law tomorrow, who speaks both languages, and ask him to translate for me. I will be willing to give him an extra week, but no more. But after that, he has to be off of the property, as I am planning a wholesale weedcutting, grazing fence removal and ground clearing project. I want to get the ground free of weeds and fenceposts and ready to cultivate, so I can start planting some fruit trees. I want to get the trees in the ground sooner, rather than later. Now that I have a source for wonderful fruit trees, I want to take full advantage of it. I don't care what my gardener says, maybe I am just a crazy gringo, but this is my dream. And it is a dream coming true for me.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:04:02 AM

Tue, Aug 10 2004

The Road Is Getting Patched!

Today was bright and beautiful when I got up, and looked like a lovely day to get some gardening done. But I had other matters to attend to, specifically a trip to Tilaran, to see Lawyer #4 about a fairly urgent matter. When I was in town briefly yesterday, the manager of the ferreteria (hardware store) saw me, and came by to let me know that the backhoe was broken down, and was waiting for parts from San Jose. He indicated that it would be at least Tuesday, and most likely Wednesday before I would see the backhoe show up. So I was concerned about leaving for Tilaran, but figured given the history of this project, I had best not concern myself with it, but just go ahead and go.

So I went. And much to my shock and surprise, I actually encountered a road repair crew, working on the road about four kilometers west of Arenal, just past the Guatuso turn-off. Not only were they patching holes, but the poorly-done patches that were coming undone, were actually getting some new asphalt! I was totally amazed! All in all, they have done about four kilometers of road from Arenal west, and about five kilometers of road from the Tronadora junction, west, towards the end of the lake. That's a total of nine kilometers out of the thirty four on that route. I guess the road blockade, and the bad publicity on the national news, was what it took to spur the local government into action. And I am pleased to report that the newly patched roadway has already shaved about ten minutes off the time it takes to get to Tilaran.

After seeing the lawyer, I decided to go over to the coffee producer's co-op, and get some plastic bags for my nursery operations. While there, I asked them if they knew of any good viveros (nurseries) where I could purchase some fruit trees. They told me about one that is about a mile from town on the highway to Monteverdi. My map shows that as a gravel road, so I was not thrilled about going on it, but it proved to be paved, and the road was in excellent condition. This means that I'll have to make a run to Monteverdi someday to check the place out and see how good the road is before all my visitors arrive this fall.

Anyway, with some difficulty, I found the vivero. And what a vivero it is! I was totally blown away by the place - it is on a scale rarely seen in this country. Huge piles of sawdust, used to mix their potting soils, large piles of sand and topsoil, and backhoes to work it all. There was a dozen or more huge screenhouses, and an enormous show area. I asked for the trees I have been looking for - a guanabana (soursop) and an anona (custard apple). Of course they had them, and many other tropical fruits I have not heard of. This place is a tropical gardener's paradise! Cas, the Costa Rican sour guava that makes such wonderful fruit drinks, and manzana de agua (water apple), that tastes like a tart pear. Both varieties of avocado. Many more, too numerous to mention. I have decided that since I have all that land on the north side of the pond, I am going to start a fruit tree collection, and see if I can grow some of the better varieties of the incredible variety of tropical fruits that grow here. Jackfruit is one of the trees I am going to look for, as well as another breadfruit tree. I want to get a Chinese guayaba, a variety of (what English speakers call) guava, that has better flavor and much more meat than the native guayabas I have around the house here. I'll probably take those trees down, once my Chinese guayaba begins bearing fruit in about two years.

My gardener thinks I am going a but nuts, but hey, this is something I have always dreamed of, and my dreams are finally coming true. Why not have fun? I have the room, and I have the resources, it is time to play in the garden.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 04:57:06 PM

Fri, Aug 06 2004

Chocolate Trees Discovered

I woke up to a full-on temporale (rainy period) this morning, and figured that the gardener would probably not show up until a bit later in the morning, hoping that the rain would slacken off a bit. Sure enough, as the rain began to let up around ten, he showed up, and began his usual chores of cleaning up. He brought his pump sprayer with him and I was a bit skeptical about whether or not today would be a good day to spray weeds, but he indicated it would be, that the rain would quit, and not resume for long enough for the weeds to absorb the herbicide. And indeed, he was right - it hasn't rained since he sprayed.

We spent some time cleaning up the water garden area, getting rid of the remaining limbs and branches from the tree butchery of a couple of weeks ago. While we were getting some weeds and saplings cut down, I pointed out a small sapling that I was curious about. He advised me that it was in fact a cacao seedling that the wife of the tenant had planted there before she died about a year and a half ago. He pointed out another one she had planted, too. Neither one was really prospering. I asked the gardener why that was, and he indicated that they were both planted where there was a bit too much water and not enough sun - apparently cacao likes a fair amount of sun, but not too much, and it likes a well-drained soil, so we searched out the garden for a better place for them, and transplanted the stronger of the two. The other one, rather sadly insect-eaten, and quite a bit smaller, will be transplanted tomorrow, when I have some time to do it carefully and dig a larger transplant pit and mix some leaf-mould in with the soil to give it more of a fighting chance.

I asked him about what sort of trees they grow into, and he indicates that full-grown, they're rather small - seldom getting over ten to fifteen feet in height, and about as much across. The yellow fruit pods, bearing the cacao nibs, are borne on the underside of the limbs. He indicates it will take probably five years before I will see any fruit pods. But I've always been fascinated by chocolate, and have often dreamed of actually having some cacao trees in my yard. Well, my dream has come true. Once I have some fruit from them, I plan on doing my own chocolate - I love the stuff, and the process isn't all that complicated, so it will be fun to try.

We also cut down and dug up a hibiscus bush today that had grown too large and was crowding out my only lime tree. It was a large and very vigorous hibiscus, with lots of thick limbs and big, exotic-looking, scarlet red flowers, with burgundy centers, and long yellow stamens. I hated to cut it down, but it had to go. In discussing what to do with the bones, we hatched the idea of starting a hibiscus fence next to the barbed-wire on the unused property on the north side of the pond. So we carried the branches and limbs over there, and cut down some grass next to the fence, and went to work. I now have a newly planted hibiscus fence about fifty feet long, and within a few months, it should be an impenetrable thicket, with beautiful scarlet flowers.

The old man who has been tending the vegetable garden on the north side of the pond, was back today. He was cutting weeds, and while I was mighty pleased to see the weeds getting cut, but I am dismayed that he is still cultivating over there. I didn't want to see that. After my discussions last week with his son in law, who indicated that he would talk with him about ceasing the use of the property, I was a bit disconcerted to see he is still working the garden. This means I will have to speak with him personally, and express my regrets that he will have to discontinue use of the property.

While the gardener and I were cutting the grass to plant the hibiscus, he saw us, and walked out the gate, but did not stop to say hello. He didn't even wave to me when I waved to him - I think he knows what is coming and is quite annoyed about it. Well, hey, he was using the property for free, and he knew that I could ask him to vacate at any time. So he doesn't have much of a leg to stand on, I'm afraid. Whether he is annoyed enough to try to assert usage rights legally, I doubt, but it is possible, so I'll see lawyer #4 on Monday to get a demand letter recorded that will forstall that.

I checked with the ferreteria (hardware store) manager yesterday when I was in town, and he confirmed my suspicions that the reason that they didn't come out to install my concrete pipe was that the backhoe has been busy. He said he would try to have it done today, but no one showed up. Which, of course, didn't much surprise me.

The backhoe had been busy working the blockades on the road that I talked about in the last blog entry. Turns out it was only the road from here to Tilaran had been blockaded and it sure made the news - in fact it was the lead item on the news. The story talked about the fact that a recent presidential visit has sparked repairs - but only on the portion of the road that the president traveled was fixed, and the rest went quite unrepaired. My gardener, whose principal customer lives out on that unrepaired stretch of road, tells me that the bad national publicity had sparked some serious action by the municipality - they had several crews out today, at least filling the holes with lastre (road base), and the workers said they had been told to work hard at it, rain or shine, until the entire stretch was done, which should take about one to two weeks. Will the potholes actually get asphalt patches? I doubt it. Not that it much matters - some of the asphalt patches previously done for the presidential visit are already coming undone - they were clearly done to look good, but not necessarily last, and were done on the cheap. Meanwhile, most everyone in town has taken to shopping in La Fortuna, which is about the same distance away, but reached by a much better road. If the merchants in Tilaran realized how much money they are losing to La Fortuna, they would be demanding action from the municipality too. And maybe they would blockade it from their end.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 06:26:14 PM

Wed, Aug 04 2004

Costa Rican History - And A Warning

Well, the concrete pipe for my driveway didn't show up yesterday, and it didn't show up today, either. I suspect that the excuse used will be the transport strike that had the country pretty well shut down yesterday. Seems that there are lots of Ticos out there that are getting rather steamed about the concept of paying taxes, but still having to drive on potholed roads nonetheless. So they shut down all but emergency transport on the nation's highways from seven in the morning till one in the afternoon yesterday. I can certainly understand how they feel - the InterAmerican Highway from Canas to Liberia is getting so badly potholed that even the buses have to slow down and dodge the holes. And that's saying something. The buses in these parts don't slow down for much.

Speaking about the situation in the country, I am sitting here writing this while listening to a drum concert. I have been listening to it every afternoon for some time now. Just after the schools let out, it starts, and doesn't end until it gets dark, and then sometimes to a bit after. It's the school kids.

There's a cultural thing here about that here. It has to do with Costa Rican history. A real tear-jerker of a story, one that would make a terrific movie. It is the story of the heroism of a ten-year-old boy who preserved the independence of the nation. I may have it a bit garbled, but as I recall it goes something like this:

Back in (I think) 1855, William Walker, the American "Filibustero" who ostensibly had come to Central America to carve out a slave-state empire for himself (and who, by the way, was secretly in the hire of the U.S. State Department), had conquered Nicaragua and was setting out to conquer his other objectives, one of which was Costa Rica. He invaded Costa Rica in Northwestern Guanacaste province with a few dozen men, not far from the current border crossing at Penas Blancas. His arrival was met with a militia consisting mostly of local farmers intent on turning him back. During the engagement, the Filibusteros were fought to a draw, whereupon they took refuge in a thatched-roof adobe building from which they had a commanding view, enabling themselves to pin down the Costa Ricans. The Costa Ricans could not attack, because the musket-fire from the building was just too intense to advance, and they could not withdraw because all their escape routes were much too exposed. It was a stalemate.

On discussing amongst themselves what to do, the Costa Ricans decided that the only hope was to toss a burning torch onto the thatched roof and burn the Filibusteros out. But to get close enough to toss the torch onto the roof, meant whoever did it would surely be shot and killed. Any volunteers? No hands went up.

At this point, without a word, their ten-year-old drummer boy, Juan Santamaria, grabbed the torch and ran as fast as he could, and when he was in range, tossed the torch on the roof. At that instant, he was shot at close range and was killed.

As hoped, the torch caught the roof on fire, and the Filibusteros were forced to flee the burning building. As they fled, most were shot and killed, and with their deaths, Walker's "dream" of a Central American empire (and the American president's dream of an additional slave state), died with them. On their return to Nicaragua, the Filibusteros faced a revolt sparked by the news of the defeat in Costa Rica, and lost the fight, nearly all being killed. So Costa Ricans say that their country was saved and Central American independence preserved by the ten-year-old drummer boy, Juan Santamaria.

Damn that Juan Santamaria.

Look, I have nothing against heroism, and certainly not by ten-year-old drummer boys, and I'm mighty pleased and personally very grateful to him that Costa Rican independence was preserved, but now every kid in Costa Rica wants to be another Juan Santamaria. But they start by taking up drumming instead of heroism. That's the rub.

Every time there is a national holiday coming up (Independence Day is approaching), all the local schools' drummer teams (and every school has at least one, usually consisting of most of the kids) start drumming, preparing to march in the holiday parade. And they drum, and they drum and they drum. Incessantly. Day after day, right up to the holiday parade. It could drive a hard-core prohibitionist to serious drink.

If you ever move to Costa Rica, be sure that any apartment you take or any home you buy is well away from the nearest escuela (primary school) or colegio (middle school). I'd recommend a couple of miles or more. I live more than a mile from any of them here, and it's not enough. And if the central park or soccer pitch is anywhere near the school, steer clear of that, too. They use the parks and soccer pitches for their marching practice - while drumming, of course. And drumming, and drumming, and drumming...

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 05:03:54 PM

Tue, Aug 03 2004

Concrete Tube Today - Maybe

I didn't sleep much during the night. Around midnight, a thunderstorm woke me up that had some of the loudest thunder I have ever heard. By timing the delay between the flash and the sound, I was able to determine that the lightning was hitting about three miles away, but the thunder was still so loud that it rattled the windows and roof sheets. I would have hated to have been close to where it was striking. That would have been truly awesome - and really loud. It went on all night and into the morning hours. I had the computers and radios all disconnected in case a strike hit close by - with that kind of noise, the current per strike had to be really huge and it would do a lot of damage.

Accompanying the incredible lightning were short periods of intense downpours, interspersed with a long, steady rain. This wasn't welcome, because I needed to get out front and do some heavy work in the driveway.

Yesterday, I went to the ferreteria (hardware store), amidst my errands in town, and asked them to come out and install some twelve-inch concrete tube in the driveway in front of my house. I have decided to have the backhoe do the remainder of the borrowpit cleanout as well, when he is here. So I was delighted when I was told that they would be out this afternoon or tomorrow morning to install it. So in spite of the rain, I needed to get out there by noon and shovel back the gravel layer that is on the driveway, so I can re-use it when the concrete tube is installed. There were also some concrete blocks alongside the driveway, used to keep the grass out of the driveway and the gravel from the driveway out of the grass. I needed to get them pulled out and stacked out of the way as well.

I took a leisurely breakfast, hoping that by the time I was done, the rain would let up a bit. By about ten, it had, and so I went out to brave the rain and dig out all that gravel. Well, gravel is heavy, and it took a while. Between intense bursts of rain, working in a light drizzle, I finally got it dug up and piled out of the way, along with the concrete block. That is all done now and is waiting for the concrete pipe. During the digging, a German tourist stopped to ask directions. I set him straight, and off he went into the rain, unwittingly approaching thirty four kilometers of some of the most potholed road in all of Costa Rica. I sure wish the municipality would put up some signs directing the tourists properly between Tilaran and La Fortuna. It only makes sense - we are on the road between the two most popular tourist attractions in the country, and it would certainly help if I didn't have to spend my time explaining the facts of life to lost tourists. One thing I have noticed, though - when I am on my front porch in the rocking chair, they drive right past without stopping, even though they see me, but when I am working out front, they always will. I don't have a clue as to what the difference is.

Of course, about the time I finished up with the gravel project, about lunch time, the sky cleared off and the weather was bright and beautiful. It would have been a perfect day for the installation of the concrete pipe, but all afternoon, I waited as promised, and the ferreteria's crew never did show. Tomorrow is another day, hopefully a sunny one. With some concrete pipe for my driveway.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:59:43 AM
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