Letters From Exile

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

Sun, Dec 26 2004

Asian Earthquakes - And Winning Friends And Influencing People

Last night, Christmas night, I didn't get a whole lot of sleep. The local disco, owned by a friend of mine but run by someone who is renting the business (as is often done here), was in operation, and the "Discomovil," an operation run by one of the radio stations in San Jose, was here, running an announcer, live "DJ"s and an incredibly powerful sound system. It was running full bore, with outdoor speakers, making noise all over this village. I live a half mile away (a distance I had believed to be adequate when I bought the place), but in spite of the distance, inside the house, even with earplugs in, I still could not sleep.

I gave up, hoping that the operation would shut down by midnight, when it usually does, but it did not. Since it was a beautiful moonlight night, I decided to get up and go for a stroll up and down the street. I walked several blocks each direction from the house, slowly strolling and taking in the beautiful evening calm with the full moon lighting the way - with the disco blaring away, making a good deal of disturbance of the peace.

As I walked along the street, I noticed that the house lights were on in every house I passed - without exception. Usually, the lights are out around here by nine PM, and almost never after ten, but tonight it was past midnight on Christmas night, and everyone was still up. Curious to see if it was the noise from the disco that was the cause of this, I waited till the disco finally shut down at a quarter to one, and sure enough, as soon as the noise was gone, the lights up and down the street started quickly going out.

So tomorrow I am going to go visit my friend who owns the place, and let him know that the way that disco is being operated is not exactly winning friends and influencing people over on this end of town. He knows well enough of the importance of dealing with that - he himself has cautioned me about the importance of staying on the right side of the Ticos around here. I do hope he listens. The noise on ordinary Friday nights and Saturday nights is annoying enough, but last night was simply intolerable - much worse than normal.

This morning, I got up quite late - almost nine by the time I finally awoke and felt fresh enough to get up and around. When I turned on the television, I discovered that there had been a monster earthquake - 9.0 on the Richter scale - in Indonesia. The tsunami that was created by the earthquake had killed thousands and left more than a million homeless.

This got me reflecting on the earthquakes here. I have been through three magnitude 6 or greater earthquakes since I have been here, the latest just a month or so ago. In looking at the history of earthquakes in Costa Rica, I discovered that there was an earthquake here in 1973, magnitude 7, that pretty much destroyed the town of Old Arenal, now inundated by the lake, and the town of Tilaran. This house was built three years later, and is incredibly strong - it takes twenty minutes to drill a hole through the cinder block from which this house is constructed. I had heard that the reason was corruption - someone had paid ICE, the electric utility who built the house, to spec a lot more concrete for the blocks than would normally be used, but I suspect that the real reason was that the recent earthquake in Arenal had convinced ICE that a little extra money spent on reinforcing the walls and using a strong but light roof would pay dividends if there were a recurrence. They would be far less likely to be sued for shoddy construction if the walls were overbuilt. That explains why, after all the earthquakes this house has been through, that there isn't so much as a single crack in the walls. Kinda reassuring.

There are a lot of earthquakes in this country. I have been through more small ones here than I can recall - far more than in the Bay Area, the other place I have lived where they are frequent. In looking at the University of Costa Rica's web site for their earthquake program, it is clear that most are centered around the Gulf of Nicoya and around the canton of Puriscal, south of the capital of San Jose. The Puriscal center appears to be becoming less affected while the Nicoya center seems to be increasing in earthquake frequency. Not surprising then, that the most recent serious earthquake here was centered on the shore of the Gulf of Nicoya, in the town of Quepos.

I need to get prepared for a big one. I haven't bothered to do that, but really ought to. One of the things I am planning is a 12-volt lighting system, which can also power my ham radio gear, and that will take care of the need for information and emergency communications as well as lighting at night. I need to get a propane burner and a small propane cylinder so I can cook as well. I have a five-gallon jug which I need to clean out and put some chlorinated water in to store in case of an outage. Then I should be good for at least two or three days. After that, I should be able to get supplies in the aftermath of all but the biggest, and should have utilities restored. Better prepared and not need it than unprepared and sorry.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 07:08:37 PM

Sat, Dec 25 2004

Christmas Day In Paradise

Christmas day this year had weather just about as picture-perfect as it gets. Hardly a cloud in the sky, and the temperature in the mid '70's. I don't know how it could get much better.

Christmas got off to kind of a rough start here, though. Last night, about bed time, some of the locals decided that fireworks would be appropriate, so there were lots of bangs and whistles, as all those festivities proceeded. I never did see where it was coming from, and with all the drunks on the road, I didn't much care to drive around to try to find out. Just walking around the neighborhood didn't turn up much of anything.

I went to bed at about the usual hour, and at two thirty in the morning, woke up to the sound of a fair amount of traffic out on the street, and a lot of people talking out there. They were jabbering away in rapid-fire Spanish I couldn't make out, but it sounded like mostly Nicaraguan accents. Since Nicaraguan illegals account for much of the crime around here, I figured that was rather unpromising to deal with, and if they were drunk, they might try something untoward, so I just rolled over and did my best to ignore what they were up to. It didn't sound like it was close enough to be on my property, so it was none of my business anyway.

Since I don't do the Christmas thing, there was no need to be up early. I woke up about seven, and decided that I was still tired enough to sleep some more, and went back to sleep for another hour and a half. When I finally did get up, it was bright and sunny and warm - quite a contrast to last week.

I turned on my ham radio to just listen around as I was fixing breakfast, and lo and behold, one of my old friends from my time early in the country showed up, calling a mutual friend. The friend didn't answer, so I got on and called him. We chatted for the better part of an hour, catching up on what we had been missing out on. It was a joy to talk to him again after so long.

I spent most of the day just puttering around on the computer, answering emails, reading my mail lists, not being particularly ambitious about anything. At about one in the afternoon, two local Tico teenagers showed up and asked about renting kayaks. They knew that they had come here before, when my friend who is in that business, was just moving into his house and was storing his kayaks in my spare bedroom. They inquired about renting some kayaks again, and I told them where his house was, out on the Fortuna highway, and they looked a bit disappointed. So I invited them in while I called my friend, and told him that they were there and would like to rent a couple of kayaks for the afternoon to go out paddling on the lake as soon as the kayaks could be loaded and driven over here.

We made arrangements for him to bring the kayaks by and pick up the boys and take them to the lake. He arrived quite fast, within about ten minutes. I was surprised. What a lovely afternoon to kayak out on the lake! No wind, bright sunny day, and ideal, low waves on the lake surface. I kind of envy those boys! Should have rented one myself!

Well, there hasn't been a lot of traffic out on the road in front of the house today. Just a few locals walking by, on their way to visit family and neighbors, and it has been a calm, quiet day. Quite ordinary, in most ways actually. Christmas day in small-town Costa Rica is pretty quiet and ordinary. And that suits me just fine.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 12:53:02 PM

Thu, Dec 23 2004

Christmas Eve Tomorrow

Well, this country is as quiet right now as it ever gets. That is why I haven't written here in awhile, as there just isn't much going on that is worth talking about. Combined with my usual end-of-the-year funk, I just haven't felt an urge to write.

Traffic on the roads is at a low ebb. Other than Ticos going to town to shop for the holidays, there has been precious little traffic and not much business going on. Everyone is on holiday, and everyone is spending their aguinaldo (Christmas bonus) money on gifts and holiday trimmings.

But there is surprisingly little evidence of it in town these days. Not much in the way of holiday decorations in the stores, other than the occasional store window painting, and maybe a little tinsel strung across the cashier's displays. Ticos just don't go in for a lot of the big, flamboyant decorations you see in the States, most can't afford them anyway. There are a few Christmas trees here, mostly locally grown cedar trees, but they are relatively uncommon. You see the occasional home decorated in Christmas lights, but they are mostly in San Jose. Out here in the sticks, there isn't much of that.

And the weather is warm, at least for now, and so it doesn't feel much like Christmas, either. The position of the sun in the sky is about where it is in the northern U.S. in the middle of the summer, so even that doesn't seem winter-like.

But the weather has been cold and rainy for the last week. And I do mean cold. The temperatures have been as low as they have ever been here in Arenal, 62 degrees Fahrenheit, so the house, which has no heating or insulation, has been downright cold lately. I first broke out the flannel shirt, and eventually that wasn't enough, so I put on my sweatshirt instead. And even that got a bit chilly at one point, so I put on the flannel shirt under the sweatshirt, and that was barely adequate. Felt like living in a barn. Occasionally we get cold fronts that extend this far south, but they are rarely this intense. And not just intense, but persistent - several days.

The last two days have been a bit warmer, just about ideal in fact, even though the rain has persisted. A bit rainy for the "dry" season, though. From what I hear, I have about another month of this to look forward to. It should then warm up - dramatically. And even get warm enough that I may wish for an air conditioner. And then I'll direct my attention to the pond as a source of cool water for cooling the house.

I won't be out driving around much in the next two days. I will stay pretty close to home. This is the time of the year when the incidence of drunken driving skyrockets, not just here in Costa Rica, but everywhere of course. But here it is especially bad - the Tico tendency to drink heavily, combined with the crowded, badly designed and maintained roads, all add up to a rather lethal combination. I've gotten everything in Tilaran done that I needed to do, so I won't be inconvenienced by simply hunkering down here and waiting for the nonsense to pass.

Speaking of Tilaran, last Monday, I went there to file the declaracion de bienes y muebles that the accountant in town here tells me that I needed to file. Well, I showed up at the municipality by about ten, and was prepared for a lot of the usual Costa Rican bureaucracy. The staff in the municipality office was very helpful and patient with my bad Spanish, but it was quickly determined that I did not need to file it. It is something that the current property owner files once every five years on each property he owns, and it details such things as the size of the house, area of the land, what municipal services it receives, etc. In other words, it is more or less what a county assessor would do in the States. But it apparently does not need to be done when a property is purchased - the previous owner's declaration is good until it expires. And a declaration was filed on this house last year, so I am good to go till 2008. All I needed to do was to pay my taxes.

I went over to the caja (cashier's booth) and gave her the name of the corporation that holds my house. She looked it up on the computer and told me the amount I owed in property taxes - 16,800 colones - the equivalent of $36.70 No big deal. I paid that out of what was in my wallet. Considering that this covers twice-weekly garbage collection, I figure that taxes really aren't that burdensome in this country.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:50:37 AM

Tue, Dec 14 2004

The Tax Man Cometh - And Goeth

Yesterday, as discussed in the previous blog entry, I rushed off to Tilaran to get a set of tax forms. I got there shortly before noon, and after asking around, finally found the bank that carries them. After waiting in line for about twenty minutes, I got in to see the clerk. There were four forms that I thought I needed. I got three of the four, and he told me that the other was only available at the tributacion (tax agency). So I did some quick grocery shopping and headed back.

When I got home, I took a close look at the forms. Well, my Spanish has improved to the point where I could, with a bit of help from the Spanish-English dictionary, pretty well dope out what information the forms were asking for. But in looking them over, I quickly discovered that while my Spanish was up to the task, I concluded that I was totally clueless about Costa Rican accounting rules. Total passives? I have no idea what they mean by that. Getting the services of an accountant was not only advisable, but it was clear that it was vital.

So I spent the rest of the afternoon yesterday, looking around town for an acquaintance who I knew had worked with a local accountant to get her own taxes filed. I hoped to get an appointment with him, and sort out what I really needed to file. Never did find her. So I gave up the task for the day.

This morning was windy and cold, with pouring rain. I didn't want to be out and about in it, but I really felt I had no choice. One of my acquaintances yesterday indicated that I had to get everything filed by the 17th, because if I didn't, the bank wouldn't accept the forms through the end of the month. I figured I really better get on with it. I finally found my acquaintance at the property that her husband is renovating, and she informed me that the accountant didn't have a phone at his house, so it was necessary to send a taxi to fetch him or at least deliver a message. We did that, and the taxi came back, reporting that he couldn't come immediately, but would drop by her house at four this afternoon.

I spotted a couple of my ham radio friends having a beer at one of the local expat hangouts, so stopped in for a nice little chat. Afterwords I headed home for lunch and a siesta before the afternoon tax session. After lunch I laid down and promptly fell asleep.

At three, I had not much more than awakened when the phone rang. It was my aquaintence, and she indicated that the accountant was at her house, and she asked if I could come right over. Yes, I said, not wanting to miss this chance to get my taxes done, so I locked up the house and headed over straightaway.

When I arrived, he asked me the details of my situation, and I showed him the escritura (a type of property title) to my house and explained when and how I bought it. He indicated that my situation did not require that I file - so I was delighted for that. I took him back to his house, so I would know where he lives in case I need him again. He didn't even charge me!

So the tax man came and went, as it were. I am off the hook for this year, and unless I buy a property or sell the one I am in, I don't need to worry about it. I certainly don't have enough local income to trigger a tax liability under the current law (though that may change under the law that is pending in the Assemblea), but for now, it is easy street. The only tax liability I have right now is property tax on the house and car. That's it.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 04:46:37 PM

Fri, Dec 10 2004

Quiet Week

There haven't been any blog entries this week simply because there hasn't been much happening that has been worth talking about, and I have been going through a depression cycle that has left me very much disinclined to want to sit down and write something. So I haven't felt much moved to write any blog entries. It has been rainy through much of the week, and that has kept me inside, playing with the computer, mostly using my antenna simulation software to analyze what kind of ham antennas would give me the best results. I have re-thought my plans for a 40-meter quad loop, and have decided to go with what is called a "double extended Zepp," an antenna that was originally developed seventy years ago for use on the German Zeppelin airships. I have modified it somewhat, shortening it a bit, and mounting it over the pond in a northeast - southwest configuration. As modified, it should give me excellent results, both close in here in Costa Rica, and up and down the spine of Central America. I should even be able to use it to talk to old ham friends in Salt Lake and Nevada. And it should give me reasonable results on 80 meters, if I ever decide to use it there, too.

The bands have been pretty quiet, and being in the middle of the winter, the long-distance signals, called "DX" by hams, have been about as strong as they get during the year, so the ham bands have been fun to listen around on. Can't get on, because the antenna I have really sucks, but the new one I am planning will change that.

The gardener was here today, of course, being Friday, and he sort of hinted around for his aguinaldo, the annual Christmas bonus that is mandated by law here. I told him I would have it for him next week, as it would leave me flat broke, and I need to have some cash for a trip to Tilaran on Monday. No grass cutting today, but we spent the time getting some bougainvillea cuttings planted out around the west end of the pond, where I have problems with trespassers. The two-inch thorns on them puppies will keep everyone and everything out - and that is exactly what I need. We also went and checked the gopher trap we set last week, and found that the gopher had tripped it but not gotten caught - and then buried the thing. So we dug it out and put it in another spot, more carefully concealed this time. He pointed out that some of the bananas growing over there are cooking bananas, not plantains, but another variety. That was certainly good news. We also dug some cassava, and I brought that back for dinner. I love the stuff, boiled and mashed like mashed potatoes. But the trick to making mashed cassava good and tasty, is to use a bit of natilla (a Costa Rican version of sour cream) on them, along with some butter and salt. Cassava is sold in American supermarkets, coated in wax, as "yucca" root, which it certainly is not. It is called that, because the Spanish name for it is "yuca", which leads to the confusion. To prepare it, you peel and carefully quarter it lengthwise so you can carefully cut out the fibery center. Then boil it until soft, add a little sour cream, butter and salt, and mash as you would potatoes. My all-time favorite Costa Rican dish - with the possible exception of tres leches, which is basically pound cake soaked in sweetened milk and cream. Mmmm... Good!

The trip to Tilaran on Monday is being mandated by the fact that I cannot get any tax forms here in Arenal. I checked at the bank today, and they told me that I have get them from a bank in Tilaran. I found out on Monday that I need to file a couple of tax forms, one for the corporation that I used for holding the house. It has income and expenses this year - the house itself - so I am going to have to file on that, but don't know how badly the taxes will bite. Shouldn't be much if anything. I also have to file a regular tax form on my interest income, which is my sole personal income this year. Since it is foreign, I won't owe taxes (at least not this year - they're planning to change that, though), but I do have to report it. And I also need to go to Tilaran anyway, to pay my property taxes on the house. They won't amount to much, but they do need to be paid.

I read in the Costa Rica resident's magazine today that the plans to change the immigration law on pensionados has been shelved. Looks like it won't happen - reason and sense and a lot of lobbying by the residents association prevailed. This means that Costa Rica will be able to cash in on the hordes of American baby-boomers who are about to be robbed of their Social Security, and will have to retire on the cheap as I have done, and are going to come down here to Central America looking for a cheap place to do it. Glad I got here first. They're going to drive up the prices - a lot.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 05:48:45 PM

Fri, Dec 03 2004

The Bruja And The Gringos Sleeping Around

Today my gardener was due come by and cut the grass, and I hate being around when he is doing that - his chopiador, king-size weed-whacker, which he uses for that task, is very noisy and unpleasant to be around when he is using it. He got here fairly early today, a bit after seven thirty, and went right to work, but I couldn't get anything done in town until eight, so I put up with it anyway. I left for the bank as soon as it was open, around eight.

I needed to get some cash, and in addition, pay my marchamo (car registration) for 2005. I also wanted to check on what I had read in the paper, that the Banco Nacional, where I bank, is now offering retail savings accounts in euro, as well as dollars and colons. I got there fairly early, and had to wait in a short line, but got to see my neighbor who, conveniently, is also the accounts manager and speaks English beautifully, besides being a good friend. I checked on the euro accounts, and it is true. I can get one by simply applying as per normal, which I will do early next week. I got my cash, and also had him look up my marchamo on his computer so I could pay it. He asked me for my placa (license plate) number, and I gave it to him. He told me that I owed roughly seventy thousand colons, about $154 at current exchange rates. This was a whole lot more than it was last year, and I knew that rates had gone up, in addition to the inflation of the colon, but this seemed an awful lot. Well, I went ahead and paid it, not having a whole lot of choice. He told me that I could come back to the bank at the end of next week and get my windshield sticker and new title paper. I got my cash in addition, and headed to the grocery store to get my week's supply.

Once I parked in front of the grocery store, I decided I had better check out the receipt for the marchamo. I just couldn't believe that amount. Sure enough, the name on the receipt wasn't me, and it wasn't my placa number either, so I headed straight over to the bank, and showed the clerk my problem. Not a big deal, in a few minutes, he had the old receipt canceled, and issued a new one, and gave me my change. Turns out my fee was actually twenty nine thousand colons, a bit less than $64. Whew! That was a relief!

I went back to the supermarket and got my groceries for the week, and headed back to the house.

The gardener was done with the mowing of the lawn and had pretty much finished the raking too, and was on his break when I arrived. I got the groceries unloaded and went out to chat, while he was finishing his lunch. Turns out that he got a taltusa (gopher) trap for me - an ordinary large rat trap as it turns out, and after his lunch was finished, we went over to the North Forty to set it up. He showed me just what I needed to do to nail that little bugger - turns out that the way to do it is to find a burrow, set the rat trap and put it in the tunnel where the gopher has to step on it to get past. Then it is necessary to cover over the hole with a number of banana leaves so the hole is left completely in the dark. Tomorrow, I will go check on the trap and see if it was successful. We cut down a large bunch of bananas that was overly ready, and I gave the gardener half of the bunch - it was far more than I will be able to eat when it finally ripens. And I already have a bunch ripening in my kitchen now anyway.

As I have been typing this, I had an interesting phone call. It was from a friend of mine who lives in Alajuela. For some time, he has been harassed incessantly by a bruja, a female shaman, whose behavior has been downright weird to say the least. Well, as it turns out, she has, for years, been sleeping around with a lot of the gringos in Alajuela, including, apparently, at least one that I know. Apparently, her strange behavior closely matches the symptoms of syphilitic dementia - the insanity that results from years of chronic, untreated syphilis. And to make matters worse, chronic syphilis is also a significant predisposing factor in the spread of HIV infection - either for the syphilitic or the partner. So, the rumor is that as a result, the public health people are out desperately looking for her so she can be tested. If she proves positive for either disease, this could be quite an embarrassment to a lot of gringos in Alajuela. Not that I mind seeing them being embarrassed. As far as I am concerned, the reckless partying (often including drugs), wild sex and irresponsibility both during and afterwards that so many of these gringos engage in, deserves this kind of embarrassment. That juvenile behavior discredits all gringos, not just those that behave that way, and every gringo, even the decent ones, pay the price in terms of stereotyping and discrimination. More than a few Ticos have gotten the idea that most gringos that have moved to this country have come here for the purpose of engaging in that kind of behavior. I pay the price every time I have to deal with a bureaucrat or a businessman who doesn't like gringos because of that. So the more embarrassment and inconvenience these guys suffer, the better I'll like it. In my opinion, no one could deserve it more richly.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 05:45:44 PM

Wed, Dec 01 2004

Getting Some Work Done

Yesterday and today have been outstanding, weather wise, and, having a bit more energy than my ailing liver has been normally allowing me recently, I decided to get some gardening done.

Highest priority was to get the drainage trench in front of the house cleaned out. Since the roadwork was done up the street, and on the hilltop road above the house, the sand and some of the gravel from the new roadwork has been washing down the hill during the rains and into the drainage trench in front of my house. It had filled the new concrete pipe under my driveway about a third of the way up, and I really needed to get that cleaned out so it wouldn't block the pipe and cause me some serious trouble. So for two days, I spent all the energy I had getting that dug out and the sand and gravel hauled down to the garden path I am building in the water garden. About six or seven wheelbarrow loads was all I could manage, along with setting the foundation stones for the extension of the path, but at least I got the path all the way down the hill now, and very close to the end. The foundation has been filled with gravel and sand, and I just need to finish the top now, which I will cover with a sand-clay mixture that will hold everything in place, once the grass grows into it. I need to get the drainage around it squared away so that it doesn't all wash away in a heavy rain, but at least the foundation gravel is stabilized enough now that it can be used to get down to the yard waste heap out by the pond. That by itself is a big help. I figure after two or more rains, I will have accumulated sufficient gravel and sand in the drainage trench to finish the job. It has been a lot of work - three months, on and off, so far, but it is close enough to done that I can really appreciate the results. I now need to get the landscaping done down there, and my plan to clean up the property will be pretty much complete. The taro plants that I planted there a month ago are slowly getting established, and hopefully will start to fill in soon. It will make that part of the garden really beautiful. Now I need to get the impatiens planted that have been waiting for some time, and that will give the area some color.

I went over to the North Forty today to get some cassava for supper, and see how things are doing. I discovered a vast new leafcutter ant colony, and I will have to get that under control sooner rather than later - before it discovers all the juicy little tidbits that await in my garden over there - the starfruit tree that was attacked two weeks ago, but which has a lovely crop of nice, tender new leaves; three mandarin orange trees with their tasty new shoots; lots and lots of cassava in the garden, some of it just coming up and others with healthy crops of leaves, and of course, the bananas. Oh, the bananas! Huge leaves that the leafcutters dearly love. I also discovered the taltusas (gophers of a large local species) have been very active, and have been eating a lot of roots in that garden. I have got to do something about that, and I'll speak with my gardener about that when he comes on Friday. I can't walk in the cassava patch without sinking in, so I know they are really having a field day there.

After getting the gardening done, and resting up for a bit, I set to work on trying to get the encryption running on my new open-source email program. I have the decryption of incoming mail working fine, but I can't seem to get the program to encrypt - seems it wants a certificate that I don't know how to generate. Since my mail program, Thunderbird, is still in Beta, and it does not have the "help" part of the program implemented yet, I cannot find out from the documentation how to generate the certificate it insists on having before it will encrypt an outgoing message. So I have asked my linux guru friend for help, and he says he will get back to me. We'll see what he turns up. I would sure like to evict Office and gain up all that disk space occupied by Microsoft's bloatware, but I can't do that until I have encryption up and running. I need the security even worse than the disk space. Such is the life of an American activist in George Bush's world - even one living in exile.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 05:05:23 PM
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