Letters From Exile

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

Fri, Oct 29 2004

Got My Software And Life Is Good

Well, today I had a pleasant surprise in my morning email. I had ordered a registration and access key for a very useful piece of software for my ham radio - efforts to communicate by email with the author failed, so all I could do was to have my U.S. bank send him a check with my email address in the memo line. It worked. He sent me the key file this morning, and the program is up and running now, after months of trying to get him paid and getting him to send me the key file.

It is a simulation program that allows me to determine in software how a given antenna design will perform, without having to go to the expense and effort of building it and testing it to find out. I have been having a ball, all day long, modeling some antenna designs that I have been considering for building on my property - large antennas that will take a lot of room and will require a good deal of effort to get installed. Turns out my original thought has been the best of anything I have simulated - a 40 meter horizontal quad loop antenna, installed 25 feet above the pond, will perform best for my needs on that band. I have been playing with some other antennas for other bands as well.

The gardener came by today, as usual for Friday, and I cornered him about getting some fruit trees planted that I had purchased at the vivero in Tilaran about a month ago. I needed to get them in the ground, and since yesterday was the full moon, he was figuring this was a good time - like most Ticos, he is really superstitious about planting when the moon is full, so I humor him and go along with it. So off we marched, into the rain, and out to the North Forty, where we got them in the ground. We found some good locations, and got them planted, as the rain continued to pour. Of course, about the time we were done, the rain let up.

We went into the garden the old man sold me, and he gave me a quick lesson in getting cassava root out of the ground - just pull up the plants, working them back and forth a bit, and up they will come. He wanted the canes for his own garden, and I have far more than I will ever use, so I was happy to give them to him.

We looked over my banana plants, and he pointed out that one of the reasons the banana plants have been tipping over in the garden is because animals are burrowing under them and eating the roots, leaving them to fall over. He picked a spot, put the shovel in the ground, and sure enough, there was a tunnel. He tells me I will have to get a "foot" trap and place them in the tunnels, and the animals will be rather swiftly captured as the try to exit the tunnel. That may be the only way I can save those banana plants. Arrgh! Didn't need to deal with that, but I do want to save those plants. I have a couple of bunches that are coming along, and one hanging in the kitchen now, slowly ripening. It should be ready in a couple of weeks.

Back at the house, we discussed the election in the U.S. as he was finishing raking up all the leaves. He seems to be relatively apolitical as he is not really intellectual or a deep thinker, but doesn't much care for Bush any more than I do. So he is hoping as I am that Bush loses the election. I read in the paper today that his attitude is typical of about 75% of Ticos, and that is pretty much the world view of it - the worldwide figure is about 80%. Seems the rest of the world understands American politics more than half of Americans do.

The weather continues to show evidence that the season is changing. Today was unusually windy and cold - typical of the early dry season, but we had quite a bit of rain, though it was rather light and not the driving hard rain we have been getting.

Didn't get to see the eclipse of the moon last night. This was the best part of the world in which to see it, but it was heavily overcast. So instead, all I saw was the sky gradually darken from when the moon rose in the east, to when the eclipse was full on, and it was pitch-black outside. By then it was about half-past nine, so off to bed I went, eclipse or no. Not worth staying up to stare at darkened clouds.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 07:33:37 PM

Wed, Oct 27 2004

Excellente! Muy Bueno!

I spent a little time digging around today in the garden that the old man sold to me. I dug a cassava to see if that particular bunch of plants is ready, and decided, after having sliced two tubers in two with my shovel, that I need some lessons in how to dig these guys up. Anyway, they were really great, quartered, with the center fibers cut out, and boiled for five minutes until tender. Lots of salt and butter, and they were wonderful - they taste a lot like potatoes when done that way.

I got a little more done with the path in the water garden, too. Spent about two hours cleaning out the drainage ditch of the latest batch of gravel to wash down in the heavy afternoon rains. The result was that it is now pretty well emptied out, and the path in the garden, where I have been dumping the gravel, is now about twenty feet from the end. I am glad to be getting near the end of that project - it has been far more work than I had bargained for. Once that is done, I can get down there in that part of the water garden to work a lot easier, with a lot less problems, and without getting all covered in mud that I track back into the house.

After I had exhausted myself with that effort, I spent some time relaxing in the rocking chair on the front porch. As I was sitting there sipping my fresco (fruit juice drink), I heard some commotion that sounded like it was coming from the far end of my property. A big truck and some workers, shouting and making noise.

I walked over to investigate, and it turns out it was an ICE pole crew setting new poles alongside the road at the west end of my pond. The only reason I could figure why they would be setting poles would be to replace the power line that runs through my North Forty - a power line I would sure like to see out of there. With it gone, I would be able to use some of the largest trees on my property for my ham radio antennas - something I would really like to do.

So I asked the crew if that was the plan, and they confirmed that it is - the streetlight, which is on my North Forty is hidden from the street by my trees, and that means that people walking up and down that rough, cobbled street in the night can't see where they are walking - while the streetlight simply uselessly illuminates part of my property. So the neighbors petitioned the line to be moved out to the street, and ICE agreed to do so. It is wonderful for me - gets that power line out of my way, and also means that I won't have to cut down one of my bigger trees that was threatening the old power line.

That was the good news. The bad news was that on the other end of my property, the neighbors, with the cooperation of the municipality, are widening their street, and putting down new lastre (road base) on the road that goes out the peninsula to the edge of the lake. I went to see what was going on, and talked to one of my neighbors who was working with the crew. He told me that they are doing this in preparation for the marina that they are building out on the end of the peninsula. Since this is a tourist project, the road has to be half-way decent, and they are improving the road out there to get it up to a minimal standard acceptable to tourists. So I will soon see a lot more tourist buses coming down that road. But what annoys me the most is that all the fresh new loose lastre will be washing down my part of the street in the afternoon rains - and that means I will be digging sand and gravel out of my drainage ditch for at least a year to come. Oh well, that's pura vida. Good news and bad news.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:46:58 PM

Sun, Oct 24 2004

On And Off Interference

Today was one of those late rainy season days when the sun shone from sunrise to sunset, with hardly an interruption. This is weather from off of the Guanacaste plains, blown in on the westerlies that occur at the end of the rainy season here. It is getting towards the end of October, and the rains usually end in November, so we are about due for some of the early dry season weather, and today's winds were westerlies, off the plains. My gardener tells me that here, the El Nino phenomenon means relentlessly dry weather for months at a time. And we are having a weak El Nino this year, so I expect the dry season to start early and be unusually dry. Which means I will probably have to start watering the garden next month.

I say "dry" season. I should say the burning season. Seems that everything grows up lush and green around here during the rains, as much as three feet in a month. All that green goes brown as soon as the rains end, and it gets promptly cut down and burned as soon as it is dry enough. That means that the smoke will fill the air as the neighbors in town burn all their leaf litter and yard waste, not to mention the stubble from their corn patches and other garden crops. I am not looking forward to that, but I do have plenty of my own yard waste stacked up and ready to burn, in four large piles, and I am hardly done yet. Can't wait for it to get dry enough to burn it and be rid of it.

Technically, it is not legal to burn it. You are supposed to compost it instead. But that is fraught with all kinds of problems in this climate, not the least of which is the fact that there is so darned much of it. I figure I have several tons already piled up and ready to burn, and composting that much just isn't practical without heavy machinery to handle it. So I will have to do the environmentally insensitive thing and just burn it like everyone else. If I had a chipper, that would be an enormous help, and if/when I get a carbonera (charcoal kiln) built, I can deal with it that way - and turn it into something I can really use.

I was feeling pretty good today, so I got out there and transported some large rocks from the west end of the property to the garden path project I have been working on, put them in place, and then filled the pathway I am building with sand, rocks and gravel from the drainage trench in front of the house. The trench was getting rather filled with lastre (road gravel) that has washed down from the street above me, from where the municipality made some half-hearted attempts to fix some drainage problems last month. That loosened all the lastre in the street, and the extraordinarily heavy thunderstorms of the last few days has washed a lot of it down the street and into my drainage ditch, where it settled out and started filling the ditch. So I spent two hours digging out about six wheelbarrow loads out and putting it in my pathway, where I can use it.

Well, two hours was about all I could handle, so I will have to finish the cleanout tomorrow, and that will add about another six feet to the pathway. The path is now built most of the way down the hill, and as soon as I add some dirt and fix the drainage around it so it won't just wash away in the rain, I can start using it. I have plenty of places to put more of the lastre that gets cleaned out of the drainage trench, so even when the pathway is completed, I will still be running the wheelbarrow up and down it.

The last few days I have been enjoying my ham radio immensely. It seems that the power line interference that has been plaguing me for the last two weeks had quit - as in gone away completely. It was like whatever was arcing had finally burned itself up. At least that is what I had thought. Tonight, I turned on my radio to discover that it is back, though not quite as bad as it has been - my radio is at least usable. Maybe this is going to be a dry-season thing. I certainly hope not. I wish it would just burn itself out and be done with it.

I now have lots of antenna wire, and have been contemplating how I am going to put up a 40-meter quad-loop antenna over the pond. I would really like to get that antenna up, but will probably have to hire some help to do it. I need to throw a rock, with a string tied to it, across the pond, so I can pull the antenna wire across.

But I don't know if I can manage the 50 feet or so that I need to throw it to get it across at the narrowest point. My current state of health is such that I just can't manage to throw anything very far, or very high, and matters have been somewhat worse since my typhoid - I just don't seem to have the strength or stamina I had before that illness. I have been considering the construction of a crossbow-like contraption to make that possible, and get ropes high up in the trees to take advantage of their height. I need to do something - I have lots of ropes I need to either get across the pond or up in trees, and a regular bow-and-arrow is just too expensive from the sporting goods stores. Don't need anything fancy or accurate, and that is all they sell here. So I will have to work out something. I have some ideas, but they all will require tools I don't have and will need to buy. Seems like the need to buy stuff never ends.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 06:23:15 PM

Fri, Oct 22 2004

Adventures in Plumbing, Part III

Still tired from yesterday's hurried and rather unnerving adventure, I got up fairly late this morning. By the time I was finally out of bed, the gardener was here and was cutting the grass - a noisy proposition with his two-cycle string trimmer. I had a quick shower and breakfast and took the opportunity to go into town and get what groceries were to be had, and get a copy of La Nacion and the Tico Times. Neither paper was available, so I struck out there, and got just a few groceries. It didn't even come to $5 worth - there wasn't much to be had, given that the road has been open only two days now, and not many delivery trucks have been here yet. Still no bread or eggs, but fortunately, I am in good shape on both. I learned living in Africa that it is always wise to keep a week or two's groceries ahead, so I am still in good shape on both.

The water was off today, as the aqueducto (water company) had warned me it would be when they came by this morning. By noon, it was back on, full of air and sediment as usual, and needing to be bled - I am the last customer on the line, and the lowest one in the system, so my water is quite reliable, but when the water goes off and is turned back on, it means I get all the air and sediment for my part of town. Since I have no meter, that's not a big problem - I just turn the water on and let it run for about 15 minutes, and pretty soon, the air and sediment are pretty much washed out of the pipes. Didn't think anything of it for the most part - business as usual.

But when I used the toilet and flushed it, the tank filled to the top and kept right on filling - running out onto the floor. Fortunately, the floor drains toward the shower pan, so the mess it made wasn't all that big. A quick investigation revealed that the air had blown the fill valve, and it was simply finished. The thing had given me trouble in the past from time to time, but never a serious problem, so I wasn't surprised when it died on me totally this time.

So I made a quick run to the ferreteria (hardware store) and in my limited Spanish, complete with sign language, made it known what I needed. They had a replacement valve in stock, a kind I have used before and quite like, and $8 later, I had what I needed.

Back at the house, the old valve was removed and the replacement fitted and adjusted in a matter of minutes, and it worked beautifully, on the first try, no leaks. Since I always seem to have had bad toilet repair karma, I was amazed that the project went that smoothly, but it did. My toilet is working beautifully again. But I still have the sediment and air to contend with from the town water, so we'll see how long it lasts. That's where my toilet repair karma may come back to haunt me.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:03:00 AM

Thu, Oct 21 2004

Harrowing Journey

Today was a trip to San Jose. One of the readers of my web page wrote to tell me she was coming to Costa Rica, and volunteered to get whatever I wanted and bring it in for me, if I would meet her in San Jose and pick it up. This was an offer too good to pass up, so I had her go to Wal Mart and get some medicines I need but can't get here, and get a roll of electric fence wire from the feed store for my ham radio antennas. She was happy to help out, and so that meant that yesterday, I needed to be in San Jose, come heck or high water, to meet up with her before she left for her place in the south of the country.

Well, the high water part was almost a problem, as it had cut the road from Arenal into Tilaran, where I normally go to catch the San Jose bus. That was more than a week ago, and I figured that there was some hope that they had fixed it by now, so yesterday, I went to town and asked the taxistsa (taxi drivers) at the parada (taxi stop) if they knew if it was open. They all replied in the affirmative, and there was a delivery truck in front of one of the grocery stores, too, so I figured that was a good sign - there was a high probability that the road was open. So this meant going to bed early, getting up at three for a quick shower and breakfast, and heading in to Tilaran by four.

I have always been nervous about doing this early morning drive to Tilaran, and was reluctant to do it again, but there was little other choice other than to catch a later bus and have precious little time in San Jose when I got there, just to turn right around and come back. So as usual, I got up early to catch the first bus out of Tilaran.

Everything was fine and proceeding to plan when I drove out of Arenal at four in the morning, through the small village of Aguacate, just west of Arenal. A vehicle drove past me in the other lane, and within seconds, had turned around and was following me. I knew that this was likely a setup for a highway robbery, so I sped up, driving as fast as I could, especially on straight stretches, so that whoever was following could not overtake me and force me off the road. Faster and faster, until I was doing nearly 50 miles an hour down a road safe for only half that speed in the dark, and still, my pursuer was keeping right up behind me, flashing his high beams, trying to induce me to stop. I was not even bothering to dodge potholes, just crashed right over the top of them, slowing down just enough in the curves to avoid toppling the car. It was quite a chase, and went on for a good ten miles. By the time I got to Rio Piedras, about five miles down the road, my pursuer started falling back on the straight stretches, and didn't attempt to get close behind me in the curves, and soon, he apparently gave up his pursuit. I could not see him behind me, but I kept the speed up just in case. The break in the road turned out to be fine - I knew it was coming up and slowed for it, and it was open to a single lane of traffic - no sweat.

When I finally pulled into Tilaran, 34 minutes had elapsed since I left Arenal - a new record for me. The trip usually takes me 45 minutes in the day, and an hour after dark. I got to the bus terminal early enough that the bus was just pulling in as I arrived. After I got out of the car and was walking across the street to the bus terminal, a small SUV, matching the description of the one I had seen pass me, came up the street and executed a U-turn in front of the bus station and left. If it was the robber, he apparently was scared off by all the crowds milling around, waiting for the bus.

After that harrowing trip from Arenal, the ride to San Jose was a breeze. The bus arrived in San Jose in record time, only three and a half hours, and so I had plenty of time to find the meeting point and meet my reader/courier. When I finally found the hostel she was staying at, she was not there, but had gone back to the airport to retrieve some luggage that had been impounded by security. So I went to the mall next door, where I had heard there was a computer store to see if I could buy a USB drive for my computer, but alas, the shop had gone out of business. When I returned to the hostel, she had returned and I had a good chat with her as I got my things from her and settled up. We talked until it was time for me to make my way back to the bus terminal.

The trip home was uneventful, if slow. The bus seemed to stop at every single bus stop on the entire 200 kilometer journey. But when we got to the Esparsa grade east of Esparsa on the Inter-American Highway, progress ground to a halt, as it seems it always does in that spot. Yet another accident, this one, an empty flatbed semi rolled onto its side in the pea-soup fog. Apparently the driver was injured, as an ambulance arrived just after we did. But the wait was not long, and soon we were on our way.

By a quarter to five, I was back at Tilaran, only about 15 minutes late, and stopped at the Dos Pinos AV co-op store and got the last of their Omitox pellets for killing leafcutter ants. Apparently Omitox is going off the market. Too bad - it was very effective, but it doesn't surprise me that it is going off the market, as it contains a persistent pesticide - a boron salt. But the store clerk assures me that the new formulation of Mirex, called Mirex G, is supposed to be just as good, in spite of all the disparaging remarks I have heard. We'll see - I have plenty of leafcutters on the North Forty to try it on.

Back home by six, and I was dead tired. I had enough strength put things away and to fix a quick meal and then go right to bed. By seven thirty, I was fast asleep. Didn't wake till six the next morning.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 01:58:57 PM

Tue, Oct 19 2004

When It Rains It Pours

Hasn't been a whole lot going on lately so nothing much worth writing up in the blog. So if you have been missing this, sorry. It has been pretty quiet here in Arenal, as it usually is. Haven't felt much like getting some gardening done, as I am still recovering my strength and stamina from the typhoid, and the last couple of days have been pretty rainy anyway, so I have spent most of the time catching up on my email and my reading.

Today I made a run into town to get a few errands taken care of. I needed to get to the cooperativa that pays my bills, and get receipts for this month's bills. And I needed to go to the bank and get some food stamps - I am planning a trip to San Jose on Thursday, and will need more cash than I had. Also needed a few groceries from the store.

I was alarmed at how low the grocery stores were on groceries. Apparently the supply trucks that normally come from Tilaran are not able to get here because of the cut in the road, which has still, as of today, not been repaired, a week after the slide cut the road. And that is going to cause a problem for me - I need to drive to Tilaran very early on Thursday morning to catch the bus to San Jose. That route is foreclosed to me, though, so I am considering a couple of alternatives for getting there. It is a trip I can't postpone until the road is open.

Back home, and it was a quiet day at the house. I should get out and get some gardening done - the mango trees are changing their leaves, and they are making a terrible mess with the old ones they are dropping. I need to get those leaves raked up. I found some black aphids and honey aphids working over my newly planted citrus trees, and so I got the Baygone bug spray from the kitchen and sprayed all the new growth where the aphids were noshing on the new leaves. The Baygone works great and doesn't seem to harm the trees. I keep that Baygone handy - yesterday, I found a two-inch scorpion in my kitchen sink - the first scorpion I have seen in the house, and needless to say, it got the treatment. And a flush down the drain. Needless to say, I am getting serious about shaking out my shoes before I put them on in the mornings.

I need to get some more work done on the drainage trench in front of the house - it is filling to the top in the violent thunderstorms we have been having lately, and the water is scouring away at the earth around the entrance to the concrete pipe I just installed under the driveway. I need to get some rocks in there and cement them in place. I also need to enlarge one spot that is filling and threatening to wash some rather large boulders into the pipe. Heaven help me if they got in there and got lodged - I would have to dig that whole thing up and remove the pipes one at a time to get access to the obstruction. That is the last thing I want to have happen.

The weather has been basically pretty good, but with really violent thunderstorms in the evening. The rainy season is clearly drawing to a close - thank goodness. The storms don't have much wind with them, but tremendous downpours and lightning like I have never seen - not even in Africa, where it was quite spectacular. The strokes were pretty close tonight - one was close enough that I could feel the shock blast from it. And thunder loud enough to make my ears ring.

As I usually do when the lightning is getting close, I shut off the electrical power disconnect from the house to keep anything plugged in from getting zapped. But I didn't shut off the power quite quick enough. Seems that as I was getting ready to go out and shut off the power, there was a particularly close stroke and I heard a snap in the bedroom. I hurried out and got the power shut off, figuring I probably would have lost something.

When the storm was over and I turned the power back on, sure enough, my shortwave portable radio would not work. All the lights light up and the dial numbers are normal, but there is no audio. Apparently, the surge wiped out the audio circuits. And I soon started smelling hot plastic. A quick investigation determined that the battery adaptor that powered the radio was extremely hot - after being on for only a few minutes. Apparently, the lightning surge shorted some turns in the transformer. It works, but gets hot very quickly, so it can't be safely used. In any event, the radio it was powering is fried anyway, so I will have to replace both.

My plan is to do some shopping on the Internet, maybe from the ham radio stores that sell by mail order, and have one sent down. The radio wasn't a really great loss - it is 15 years old and was getting rather flaky, needing its microcomputer to be reset quite frequently, so I don't think it would have lasted much longer anyway. And I have been wanting to get one of the new shortwave radios with DRM (digital broadcast) capability, so I can listen without all the noise and distortion of the old-fashioned AM technology that has been the standard for shortwave broadcasting for a century now. The new DRM radios are truly wonderful, and this is now my excuse to get one. And the battery adaptor, will be plugged into my computer UPS so it will be protected from lightning strikes. I hope.

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

Thu, Oct 14 2004

Back to Costa Rica With A Lot Of Luck

I was up early today, got showered and packed and was out the door by six. No breakfast - there are no restaurants open in Grenada at that hour, so I would just have to starve until I was on the bus and could get something from the vendor there. I was at the parada (bus stop) by six thirty, as the ticket agent had instructed. Of course, the bus didn't show till just after seven, but I was soon on it, and was nervously riding to my fate at the border.

After all I had been through coming into Nicaragua, I was not looking forward to everyone's favorite border crossing at Penas Blancas. The waiting in line is bad enough - taking hours as it usually does, but this time, was different - I was still concerned about the possibility of being detained.

The Nicaraguan side was quick and easy as usual - the driver collected our passports and exit taxes, and we milled around the bus while he was getting them stamped. Within 15 minutes, he was back and handed them back to us as we got back on the bus. When we finally arrived at the border on the Costa Rican side, the lines were mercifully short - we were the only bus there, so there were only about a dozen people in line ahead of us. A fellow American, another Costa Rican resident, who I was sitting next to on the bus, told me he once spent six hours at Penas Blancas - waiting to get stamped at Costa Rican immigration. Wow! That was twice as long as my worst border crossing ever. Anyway, within a half hour, I was up to the immigration clerk, and presented my passport. I was waiting to see what would happen.

Turns out that the clerk's computer screen was turned to where I could see it. He took my entry declaration, stamped it, and then swiped my passport. He got an error message - no communicarse con host central it said - not communicating with the host computer. Apparently their link was down to the central computers in San Jose. So all the fields came up blank when my passport was swiped - if they had wanted to detain me, the clerk would have had no way of knowing. Whew! I may have well been saved once again by a stroke of luck! The clerk simply entered my data, got another error message, stamped my passport and handed it back to me. I was in! The purpose of the trip was accomplished without a problem. What a relief!

While waiting for the customs inspection of the bus, I had lunch in the restaurant in the immigration building - stuffed pasta and rice. I needed lunch - nothing since dinner last night, and I was well and truly hungry. While eating my lunch, the fellow who had been sitting next to me on the bus came by with a copy of the day's La Nacion, and pointed out an article indicating that the road between Tilaran and Arenal was cut by a landslide - the road had slumped away into a ravine. This was a problem - this is a road I would need to travel. The paper showed that the route around it was a long one, and began in Canas, where I was planning to get off the bus anyway. If I needed to take the route around the break, I would have to do so from Canas. That meant that when I got to Canas, I would need to find out if the road was still cut.

When I finally arrived in Canas, I grabbed a cab from the bus stop on the InterAmerican Highway to the local bus terminal. I asked the cab driver if he knew, and he indicated that it was open again. At the terminal, I asked the ticket agent if he knew. He said it was. Well, these are Ticos, who will often tell you what you want to hear, not what is true, so I still wasn't sure. While waiting for my bus to Tilaran, an out-of-service bus from Tilaran arrived, and I asked the driver. He told me that the road was still cut, but patiently explained that the buses were still running, because they simply parked a bus on the other side of the cut, and when the bus got there, the passengers and driver would simply get off the bus, walk around the cut, get on the other bus and proceed on to Arenal. So I had nothing to worry about - the buses were running as normal.

I finally got a bus to Tilaran, and when I arrived in Tilaran, the bus to Arenal was waiting to leave. Lucked out again! Got on, and in minutes, was at the break. It was exactly where I had figured it to be - a place where the road had been down to one lane for some time because of a slump, and now, recent rains had worsened the slump to where only small cars could get around the break. As promised, there was a bus parked on the other side, and we got off, walked around the cut, got on the other bus and were on our way.

I was home as scheduled - at about half past three. A quick look around and it appeared nothing had been disturbed, so I opened the house and unpacked. I had a short nap on my own bed, and it sure felt good. Safe and sound and home at last!

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 06:26:49 PM

Wed, Oct 13 2004

Not Much To Do Today

Today was to be my last full day in Grenada, and I was a bit up in the air as to how to spend it. I had considered a tour of the islands in Lake Colcibolca, including the island fortress from colonial times, that once guarded the harbor in Grenada. But I just couldn't talk myself into doing a tourist trip.

So, I got up fairly late, and headed over to a new restaurant just a block from the hotel, for a leisurely breakfast. I then figured I would go do my email, and head from there to a shop run by a Canadian couple, where I could get a copy of the recent issues of The Economist, one of my favorite magazines.

I collected my magazines and bought a Nicaraguan guide book as well, and sat down for a bit of a chat with the proprietor. She mentioned that a recent arrival in town was considering taking a car to Costa Rica that she needed to sell, because she could not register it in Nicaragua because of bureaucratic problems. Having gone through the process, she figured that I would be a good source of information.

Turns out that the lady with the car is going to have problems. It is a popular model here, and would sell easily, but to the best of my knowledge, she can't sell it here without registering it first, and that is not easy to do for a recently imported car. I recommended that she contact one of the car importers that bring cars into Costa Rica and work with them. But her interest in the project waned when I advised her of the steep duties that have to be paid on imported cars here in Costa Rica.

The rest of the day was spent in my room, chilling out to the air conditioner, and avoiding Grenada's heat and mosquitos. Pretty well finished up the book I had started in Liberia on Sunday, and began reading my other book. Also read the guide book to Nicaragua, on what it had to say about the Contra war and the Sandanistas. Interesting.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 06:15:33 PM

Tue, Oct 12 2004

White Towns Tour

I had decided that this trip, I would like to take a tour of the White Towns. This is a district in the hills above Masaya, where the towns are known for their picturesque quality. The name comes from the fact that the churches are all painted white - most churches in Nicaragua are painted in pastels. Lots of ceramics and furniture shops, and the district is well known for its artesans. My interest in it was the fact that it is on a small plateau that is high enough to have decent weather. I figured that if I were to have to move to Nicaragua, this is an area that might be worth moving to. I wanted to check it out and see if that was true.

Last night at dinner, I dined with a lady I had met before in Grenada. An Australian lady, she comes to Central America to buy local crafts and art works, and ships them home to sell at a profit great enough to pay for her trip and the shipping. She was back in Grenada on one of her buying trips.

I had mentioned that my intent for this trip was to do a tour of the White Towns. She suggested that I simply hire a cabbie to take me for the tour - the price is about the same as a package tour, and the cabbie could customize it to my need to see the environs. She had a cabbie she often used on her buying trips, and called him for me to make an appointment for the morning.

He arrived about 15 minutes early, but that was OK, because I was ready and waiting. I made a serious mistake, which I knew better, but didn't think about. My dinner companion said she used this cabbie because he was one of the few around that was honest. His rate was supposed to be 80 cordobas per hour. Well, I did not confirm that with him as I should have.

We did the tour. Three hours on the plateau, seeing the sights in about a dozen villages and small towns. I absolutely fell in love with Catarina. Perched high on the edge of an extinct volcano, it is in a picturesque setting, and the village itself is a riot of colorful flowers - gardens everywhere, and two or three viveros (nurseries) on every block. People here are more passionate about gardening than the British! I would certainly have no difficulty obtaining all the nursery stock I could ever hope for here. The town is close enough to Masaya, a good-sized city, to be a practical place to live, too. I think that if I were to move to Nicaragua, Catarina is the town where I would look for a home. The other towns had their own charm - mostly the artesans and their open-air workshops and street-side markets for artwork, mostly ceramics and wood carvings. One town was specializing in furniture - dining room tables, sofas, rocking chairs, all made out of the local hardwoods. Really beautiful, and better than most of what I have seen in Costa Rica.

Well, at the end of the three hour tour, I was taken back to my hotel in Grenada, and when I settled up with the cabbie, he had charged me 133 cordobas per hour - 400 total. Damn! Gringoed again! But it was my own fault for not setting a price first. I know better and was careless.

I spent the rest of the afternoon reading, punctuated by a purchase of an ice cream cup from the heladeria (ice cream store) across the street from the hotel. The Nicaraguan ice cream is as about as good as any from the States. I was surprised that the price was three cordobas less than it was the last time I was in town. A two-scoop cup was ten cordobas - about sixty cents.

Dinner was with another fellow I had met from a previous trip. This is getting rather interesting - he was also on a visa renewal trip from Costa Rica where he lives, and I had met him on a previous visa renewal trip. A pleasant dinner and I was ready for bed. It had been a long day indeed.

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

Mon, Oct 11 2004

On To The Border

Today is the day I was to head to the border. The bus company had told me to be waiting by eight, but I knew that the 6 AM bus from San Jose would never be there that fast, but I didn't want to take any chances. So I was up, showered, packed and had breakfast by eight, and was out in front of the hotel waiting by eight as requested.

Of course, it didn't show until half past nine - about when I figured it would actually show - so I just cooled my heels in front of the hotel where it stops. During the wait, I was surveilled once again. A man drove up, sat down several tables from where I was sitting, ordered a cup of coffee, and sat there nursing the coffee slowly, glancing my direction with noticeable frequency. Eventually, he got up, got into his car, and sat there for quite awhile, looking like he was writing something, before starting up his car and leaving.

This gave me pause - I was concerned about the border crossing due to the fact of the "October Plan" that is making life interesting for us dissenters down here - it is a plan by the Bush administration to take dissidents into custody in the run-up to the American election. My concern was the border crossing - if I were likely to be snatched, that was where it would probably happen. So the ride from Liberia to the border at Penas Blancas was a rather tense one, to say the least.

At the border crossing is when the real scare happened. Once I was in the immigration line at the border crossing, I noticed that the man standing in line four places ahead of me was carrying a U.S. diplomatic passport. Since genuine diplomats usually travel by air, and intelligence agents often travel with diplomatic passports, this was a worry. Why was this "diplomat" traveling on an international bus? Was this man an intelligence agent? If so, was grabbing me his business here? After being surveilled in Liberia while waiting for the bus, this was an ominous development. What was this man's business? Should I proceed with the border crossing, or should I quickly and discretely hop a local bus, go back to a city in the interior to wait out the danger and make another attempt to cross the border in a day or two? What to do...?

I grew especially alarmed when the man was admitted to the building, and immediately went to talk with the Costa Rican policeman guarding the place. Was he telling the cop to expect a possible altercation? He then went to the immigration clerk, with whom he chatted briefly and got stamped out of Costa Rica. He left as I was admitted to the building.

I concluded that if they wanted to snatch me, they knew where I lived and could get me pretty much anytime they wanted, so I figured that I had just as well face the music. If it was going to happen, I probably couldn't stop it, and just as well accept my fate. I walked up to the immigration line and waited with as much non-chalance as I could muster.

Lucked out - I got a different immigration clerk than the one he had talked to - he had talked to the regular clerk, and I got one just returning from break. I presented my passport and exit application, both were stamped without a word, my passport was handed back to me, and I was free to go. Whew! What a relief! I turned around and beat a hasty retreat out of the building, watching for the man I was concerned about.

I wasn't home free just yet. I had no sooner gotten on the bus than the man I was watching also got on, and sat in a seat just behind the driver. I had not noticed him on the trip to the border. The ride to the Nicaraguan side was spent watching this man, sitting about ten rows ahead of me. He didn't look back my direction.

Going into Nicaragua on a bus is quite easy. The driver collects your passport with your entry tax ($8), and then you have your luggage inspected by the aduanas (customs agents) while the bus driver is getting your passport stamped for you. By the time you are done with the luggage inspection, the passport is given back to you, and you get back on the bus. The whole process seldom takes longer than about 20 minutes. I got my passport back, no problem, checked the stamp (and it was fine) and I was back on the bus, along with my "friend." I rode it to my destination in Grenada, and got off. He did not get off, so apparently, his business was not with me. What a relief!

By two thirty in the afternoon, I was at the bus terminal in Grenada, and went in and got my reservation made for the return trip on Thursday. I got a reservation for the 7 AM bus, and that suited me brilliantly - it meant that on Thursday, I should be home by four in the afternoon - great news.

I went to my usual hotel and got my usual room - one with a tiny window that can not be used as an entry, and a door that can easily be barred - and that is clearly visible from the front desk. I finally felt secure for the first time since I left Liberia. I had a quick shower and spent the rest of the afternoon reading. And relaxing. Which I badly needed after my nerve-shattering trip.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 05:03:14 PM

Sun, Oct 10 2004

Off To Nicaragua

What I could not explain, for security reasons, in yesterday's blog entry was that I was off to Nicaragua for a three-day visa renewal. Unfortunately, I am still being harassed and surveilled by intelligence services from Up North, and I wanted to say as little about the trip, my reason for it, and my itinerary as possible in my blog. That is why my entry for yesterday was so general - and why this entry isn't being written and uploaded until after my return.

Anyway, I was up at the usual time, and had a breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast as usual. No great rush - I only had to make it to Liberia today, and check into the hotel. Since that was a matter of a bus trip to Tilaran, a second to Canas, and a third to Liberia, there was really no rush. Each connecting trip has buses running every two hours or so, so getting there should not be a problem, even with a late start.

Once ready, I got the radios and computer secured and the house closed up, and went out front to sit in the rocking chair on the porch and wait for a cab. I called on my cell phone, and to my surprise, on the second try, got a cabbie. He was in front of the place in minutes. That got me to the parada (bus stop) in less time than I figured.

A forty minute wait at the parada, and I was on my way. This bus was the usual ancient, forty-year-old school bus from the States. Yes folks, Central America is where those old American Blue Bird coaches go to die - most still say "School Bus" on them. Some even still say "Blah-Blah County Schools" though a few have been repainted and decorated with - yes - Blue Bird corporate logos. Most have the names of the towns they run between, painted in the front window so you have an idea where the bus is headed.

This Sunday morning, the trip was fairly quick, given the lack of traffic and the recently patched roadway to Tilaran. Only about two miles remains unrepaired. So in about an hour, the bus pulled in to Tilaran.

I was delighted to discover that the bus to Canas was waiting to leave at the terminal, and I got off the Tilaran bus and right on the one to Canas, and left within a couple of minutes. That was awesome - no wait at all.

The wait in Canas was another matter. The next bus to Liberia was in about fifty minutes, and I spent that time dodging beggars and bicycle vendors in the terminal. But it arrived right on time, and by half-past eleven, I was on my way. An hour later, I was in Liberia.

I checked into my hotel, and settled in for the afternoon in Liberia with nothing much to do.

I had brought a couple of books with me, as I had figured I wouldn't have much to do in Nicaragua once I got there anyway. So most of the afternoon was spent by the pool catching up on my reading.

The weather in Liberia was (and always is) hot. Just plain hot. The place isn't much of a destination for gringos to go settle in, mostly because of the heat which is pretty much unrelenting, and there isn't a lot there to make the heat worth putting up with. Thank goodness my room had air conditioning or I would not have slept that night. Quite happy to leave Liberia in the morning.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 04:32:47 PM

Sat, Oct 09 2004

Will Be Out Of The Office

This is going to be my last blog entry for about a week. I am going to be out of town, and won't have my computer with me, so I won't have an opportunity to write another blog entry for some time. Don't worry about me; I am fully recovered from my illness now, and am doing fine. Should be back with another blog entry next Friday or Saturday.

The trip into town yesterday was a bit of a bust - my main reason for going was to get a copy of the Tico Times, but the paper seller didn't have any. Said I would have to come back today. I did manage to find a barber and get a haircut, which I badly needed. Two bucks later, I look a whole lot more civilized.

Meanwhile, my gardener came by yesterday and cut the grass. Glad to see that - the mosquitos were getting to be a bit much. This morning, they are a lot less serious. I asked him to cut the weeds on the North Forty, too, and he set about that yesterday, and cut until he was just too tired to continue. This morning he is back, and got the rest cut down. I noticed some more leafcutter ants over there yesterday, so that means I need more Omitox to kill them. They are raiding the cassava in my vegetable garden and I need to put a stop to that. So I may go into town just to see if the feed store has Omitox back in stock, and if I am lucky, get a copy of the Times as well.

The cassava in the garden left by the old man, is getting close to ready - I can smell it now, though the smell is a bit drowned out by the numerous tangerines that litter the ground and are rotting there. They are ripe and falling off the trees, so when the gardener asked if he could have a bagful, I was happy to oblige. They are wonderfully sweet and good - some of the best-flavored tangerines I have ever had, but they are terribly seedy - ten to twenty seeds per fruit. Mostly they are good for juice. But since we are outside the citrus belt here, I am grateful to have any citrus at all that is producing reliably. Would sure like to get my hands on a lemon tree like my neighbor has, though. No seeds at all, and the fruit is large, abundant and of excellent quality.

The anona (custard apple) tree on the North Forty is loaded with fruit, but the fruit is not getting big enough to be of much value. I should have gotten some fertilizer on it a couple of months back, but I failed to do that. So I may lose most of this crop. Too bad, too, because anona is a delicious fruit.

Some of the banana plants in the garden have fallen over too, and I need to get over there and replant them before I lose them, but that will have to wait until I get back. One had a bunch of bananas on it, and that means I will simply lose that plant and its bunch. Not much I can do about that. I have plenty of hijos bananos (baby banana plants), so once they are planted, I should be in good shape for an abundant crop next year.

I went into town today to see if the feed store had any Omitox in stock I could use on the zompapas (leafcutter ants). No such luck. They said they would get some in Tilaran for my on Monday, but I won't be here. Hopefully they will still have it when I am back on Friday. I did get a copy of the Times, and met the new fellow in town who bought a storefront on Main street some weeks back - he is going to open yet another real estate agency. I wish him luck, but he is going to have lots of competition. Nice fellow from California. He is looking to organize some Spanish lessons from a teacher here in town. If that happens, I am definitely going to attend. My Spanish is at survival-grade, and that is about it - and it isn't getting much better very fast. I clearly need some language instruction.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:50:09 AM

Tue, Oct 05 2004

Rush Trip to San Jose

Yesterday, I tried making a run to Liberia to take care of some business. Well, it didn't work out. The trip was fine, though a bit rainy at times, and the Interamerican Highway between Canas and Liberia has been freshly repaired. Very few potholes without patches on them now, and so the trip was quick and smooth. Unfortunately, when I got where I was going, I was refused. Only available in San Jose now, I was told.

Well, to say that I was annoyed, is putting it mildly. A two-hour trip - each direction - completely wasted. I had no choice but to turn right around and drive back home. On the way, the transitos (highway police) were out in force, but I had my seat-belt on, and was driving at a reasonable rate of speed, so there wasn't a problem. The fuerza publica (regular police) had only one post, checking for illegals from Nicaragua, but they didn't even stop me - they just waved me through.

So Monday was a bust. That left me no choice but go to San Jose today. I really needed to get this matter taken care of, and so I really had to go, whether I wanted to or not. On the way home from Liberia, I stopped at the bus terminal in Tilaran and got the bus schedule for San Jose, so I could figure out the best way to deal with this urgent business.

The plan I hatched was to get up early, drive to Tilaran, park my car in front of the police station so it would be a less tempting target for thieves, and then walk next door to the bus terminal, get on a bus and do my thing in San Jose, and return the same day by bus, and drive home from Tilaran. Unfortunately, the bus left at 5 AM. Really early. So that meant being on the road by 4. That was not my idea of a really wonderful way to spend the day, and since I can't sleep on a bus, it meant dragging myself through the day - it was going to be a long day indeed.

Up at 3:30 and a quick shower and breakfast, and I was on the road by four as planned.

I crashed and bumped my way around the potholed road, headlights on high-beam, as I was the only car on the road. During the whole trip, I only saw one other car. In the day, this is a very busy road, and one dodges the traffic as much as the potholes. But at night, no one is on the road. No one. And I was a bit concerned about highway robbers, as they are not unknown in this country. There was, however, no problem, and I arrived in Tilaran about five minutes before the bus was due to leave. I parked the car, got my ticket (about $3) and got on the bus, and not much more than sat down when it pulled out of the terminal and was on its way. I had arrived none too early.

This was not a "directo" bus. It stopped at just about every bus stop between Tilaran and Canas and well beyond that, almost to the Puntarenas junction. Sure wish I could have slept - not much to see, but endless trees and small farms, frequent bus stops and people getting on and off the bus.

The person sitting next to me was a Catholic nun from El Salvador. Between her broken English and my broken Spanish, we managed to communicate fairly well. She was sweet and very pleasant traveling companion. I never did tell her that I am a rather militant atheist.

Four hours later, the bus was in San Jose, and when it got as close as it was going to get to where I needed to be, I got off, and hailed a cab for my destination. It took just a few minutes to take care of my business there. I made one more business stop, this time a visit to Lawyer #2 regarding some immigration documents, and then headed over to my mail forwarding service and picked up my U.S. addressed mail - including a couple of care packages from Amazon.com. Finally, my reading drought is over! I got five new books to read, and am going to enjoy being able to sit down to a good read for some time to come. They also had a renewal credit card that I was in desperate need of. Once home, I would have to get it authorized, and then I could finally order things from the States, as well as pay bills at online web sites.

I had no idea where the bus terminal is in San Jose, where the busses leave for Tilaran. There are a zillion terminals in San Jose, and I had no idea which one it was, except that it is in Barrio Mexico. So when I got my mail, I asked the travel desk there for some help. She knew just what to do. She looked it up in a guide book, called the terminal on the phone, got the directions and the times the bus was leaving. Excellent! With the directions to the right terminal, I was there in minutes and just a one-dollar cab fare later.

I was at the terminal by 11, but the next bus was leaving at 12:45, so that left me almost two hours with nothing to do. I found a decent but cheap restaurant next to the terminal, and had a tasty and very leisurely lunch, and walked around the neighborhood a bit.

As I was waiting for the bus, who should walk in and get a ticket back to Tilaran, but the same nun that I had sat next to on the way to San Jose earlier in the morning. Turns out she was headed back on the same bus, though in a different seat - next to her traveling companion, a nun from the same convent in Tilaran.

The trip home was eventful. We had no more than pulled out of San Ramon to start down the hill toward Esparza, when the fog rolled in to a dramatic density. The bus was crawling along for several miles, when it finally came to a complete halt. There had been a landslide during the day that had undermined one lane of the road, bringing traffic on the Interamerican Highway to a single lane of traffic. This meant about a twenty-minute wait for our turn. And once past there, we were about half way between the Puntarenas Junction and Canas, when we came to a halt again. This time it was a traffic accident - a cargo truck had collided head-on with a bus, and the bus won. The bus had only minor damage, though it was off the road and into the barrowpit, but the cargo truck was literally cut in two - the cab, damaged but not as severely as one might expect, and the cargo cube and rails and rear axle sitting about twenty feet away. A wrecker was there and was loading the pieces, and that is why the traffic was so slow getting around it.

By four, I was back home, almost collapsed from the exhaustion. I answered email and did a few things, had a quick supper and was in bed by seven. Slept hard through the night. I didn't wake till eight the next morning.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:59:54 AM

Fri, Oct 01 2004

Pretty Much Back To Normal

My health is pretty much back to normal now; today I felt about as good as I have since this whole episode with the typhoid began. My energy level is back up to what passes for normal, and the headaches and fever are gone now. The Cipro I have been taking has done its job, though it was a bit slower than the Center for Disease Control website says it should have been.

My gardener was late showing up this morning, so I went ahead and went to town for a paper and to mail a letter. I stopped at a friend's place and chatted for a while, catching up on the local gossip, and headed back, and he still wasn't here. I wondered if he came while I was gone, and decided that since I wasn't around, needn't stop today. Well, after a while, he finally came by, and proceeded with his regular chores.

The last two days have been rather quiet around here, and I haven't felt up to much until today, so there really hasn't been much to report in this blog. So I hadn't felt a whole lot like sitting down to write it. I did write up a new Front Page Editorial, and it will be interesting to see if it gets any more reaction than the last one did. We'll see.

While visiting my friend, I found out that there is a whole new subdivision being planned, about thirty homes, complete with shopping center and all, and this is interesting news. I greet it with mixed feelings - it will bring a lot of gringos to the area, but it will also mean that Arenal will lose yet more of its small-town character. I suppose that's progress, but I am not sure how. If they bring a farmacia (drug store) here, I would certainly welcome it. Otherwise, I am not so sure.

Getting out into the garden, I have noticed some seasonal changes in the last two weeks. One of the flowering gingers is starting to die back for the season. I am told that it will eventually die back right to the ground, and when all the green is finally gone, one day a huge pėncushion of white flowers will appear in their place. Supposed to be quite a show. Can't wait to see it. The Burmese orchids are really putting on a show - their light-and-dark purple flowers are really beautiful, if the stalks are a bit leggy.

I am hoping that I will have the energy to get out and get to work in the garden tomorrow. I hope to get some work done on the entrance to the concrete tube in front of the driveway, and get it stabilized. In a real downpour, it scours around the entrance, and I am quite concerned that left unattended, it can erode away the driveway. Hopefully, I can get a good part of that work done tomorrow.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 02:33:25 PM
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