Letters From Exile

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

Mon, Jan 31 2005

Phone Call About A Man With A Mission

Yesterday was such a beautifully gorgeous day, I figured it couldn't last. And it didn't. I awoke this morning to a high wind driving a chilly drizzle, and the now-familiar chill in the morning air. I had hoped against hope that this unusually long and chilly January weather was finally over, but it doesn't look like that was meant to be. The weather bureau here in Costa Rica says that this crazy weather may continue well into February this year. Sure hope not. The constant rain and saturated soil is wreaking havoc through my garden.

This morning, one of the bananas in the huge bunch of quadrado bananas I received from my ham radio friend a few weeks ago, was finally ripe enough to fry, so I cut it down and threw it in the bacon grease after frying my bacon and eggs for breakfast. It has been a long time since I have enjoyed fried bananas, and it was a joy to have them for breakfast, as I enjoyed so much when I lived in Nigeria. This particular variety is well suited to frying, too - the flavor isn't as strong as plantains, and so when they are fried, they're really delicious. Next I am going to try baked bananas - a favorite Costa Rican dish. Don't know how that will turn out, but we'll see when a few more are ready. I am told that they're best when the bananas are very, very ripe - almost spoiled. They're peeled, split down the middle, placed in a greased baking dish, and brown sugar and the local powdered cheese is placed on them and they're baked till golden brown. Supposed to be really, really good - a real delicacy in this country. I haven't tried them yet, but they sure sound good. It is really too bad that Americans don't have access to good cooking bananas in their markets - they're missing so much! The few plantains I have seen in U.S. supermarkets are picked way too green (to facilitate shipping and storage), and so even they are not up to much.

I waited through a break in the rain and cold to take a walk - I've been wanting to do that for some time, and the cabin fever was starting to set in. So this afternoon, when the wind stopped and the rain clouds finally broke up, I set off for a walk around my rather large block. It is actually about four blocks long, because of the hills, and two blocks wide, and I walk rather slowly these days, so it took me an hour to navigate it, moving as slowly as I do these days. I hadn't been around it in quite a while, and I noticed that one of the houses is now occupied by a gringo friend that I see occasionally, who stops by when he is walking around the block as well. Now I finally know where he lives. I knew he lived nearby, but didn't know where until now.

Had another phone call from my friend in Alajuela. He called to let me know that a friend of his has died.

Seems this fellow had a rather peculiar hobby. This ancient, 85-year old gringo was involved in a project - apparently, there is a little known provision in the Social Security Act in the United States that stipulates that mothers of children fathered by Social Security recipients are entitled to a child care allowance until the child is 18 years old. It is not a great deal, but here in Costa Rica, with the low cost of living in this country, it is just barely enough for a single mother to raise a child on, as well as live on adequately herself. And this fellow was nursing a real hatred for the American government as the result of what the U.S. has done in Latin America over the years, and was determined to cost the American government as much money as he could possibly legally arrange. In addition, his idea would bring some badly-needed foreign exchange into his beloved Costa Rica - a sort of private foreign aid program. He went so far as to encourage his friends to engage in the scheme as well. And of course, operating his 'system' would mean having lots of fun for himself. So to maximize his efforts, he was apparently on growth hormones, steroids and was popping Viagra like candy. His goal was to set up at least 40 lovely, young, nubile Tica (Costa Rican) women with 18-year child-care pension accounts before he pushed off. And apparently, from all accounts, he came close.

He had something of an assembly-line system that worked like this. Women would queue for the privilege (yes, there was apparently no shortage of takers - three young women were living with him when he died), and once they were suitably knocked up, he would send them on their way, never to see them again, with a little package of forms to be filled out. The ladies were instructed to take them to the U.S. Embassy in San Jose, properly executed, along with a cover letter. It began with the words, "Hi! It's me again!"

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 07:01:05 PM

Sun, Jan 30 2005

No Water Today

Last Wednesday, the aqueducto (water cooperative) sent a sound truck around town to notify everyone that the water would be off today. When the driver made it to my place, he stopped, got out and brought me a flyer, in English, informing me that the water would be off from 3 AM to about 8 PM, due to some urgently needed repairs and the installation of hydrants in the town.

So I got all my laundry done yesterday, stored up some water in soda bottles and a 5-gallon jug, made sure the dishes were all washed, and I showered before going to bed. This morning, I got up and discovered that the water was still available, though the pressure was very low. I am assuming that because I am at the lowest spot on the system, that all the water that has drained out of the pipes in town, ended up down here. And I am sure that since most toilets here don't have anti-siphon valves in them, that much of the water that is in my pipes at the moment has previously been in toilet tanks.

So the main problem with not having water is not being able to flush the toilet. So as long as there is still water up the hill from me, I can use the bathroom. That is certainly good news. And I have plenty of water to fill the toilet if necessary. So far, however, six hours into the shut down, the toilet is filling normally, if slowly, by itself.

Needless to say, I used my stored water for anything but the toilet, and when the water is turned back on tonight, I'll be flushing the pipes for an hour or so before I use the water.

I slept pretty hard last night, because I had been working hard all day. When doing the laundry yesterday morning, I noticed some poachers fishing in my pond over on the North Forty. I dropped everything and went out there to chase them off, and watch how they exited the property, so I could fix the fence at that point. They came out through a spot that I had not realized was a problem - the father simply pushed down the top wire and climbed over it - I didn't realize that the wire was low enough to allow that.. And his little boy spread the bottom wire and the next one, and climbed through. The fellow had a really nice two-pound guapotito, a species that I don't really want in the pond, so I let him keep it. He claimed of course, as they always do, that he had caught it elsewhere. So after getting the laundry done, with the weather still reasonably good, I grabbed the roll of barbed wire that I had bought at the ferreteria (hardware store) on Wednesday, and some tools and went to work.

I added another wire along the top of the fence, and closed some holes, one of which had been opened by a poacher several weeks back, someone I didn't catch. That hole was dealt with by twisting several strands of barbed wire together to make it difficult to break the wire with a pair of pliers, as the poacher had evidently done. I also added some vertical wires to prevent people from spreading the wires apart and climbing through.

All in all, it took me most of the day. It was work that a good peon (laborer) could have done in half an hour, but in my state of health, it was quite a chore, and rather exhausting. I was interrupted by brief rain showers, too, which slowed down the project, but eventually I was able to complete the work.

Time will see if I have solved the problem. Probably not, but I think I am going to put up signs that say that fishing is by permission only, and to inquire at the house when they want to fish in it. To make it additionally more difficult, I have planted some bougainvilleas around the front of and behind the fence, so they will have to deal with the sharp, inch-long thorns in them, as well as a barbed-wire fence itself. I am planning to plant a row of hibiscus inside the fence, close together, behind the bougainvilleas so that they will be impossible to climb through, to make it even more difficult. I know that nothing I can do will make it impossible, but I can at least make it sufficiently difficult that there is no incentive to try. Lake Arenal, by far the largest lake in Costa Rica, is only a hundred yards away through some rather poorly fenced property ICE owns, and I figure that if I make it sufficiently difficult to poach on my property, the poaching traffic will move there. Then the poaching becomes ICE's problem, not mine.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:15:40 AM

Fri, Jan 28 2005

Stung By A Scorpion

It has been another quiet week in Arenal, and not much going on for the most part. It has rained most of the week, and the locals are saying they can't remember a January as wet and cold as this one has been. The cold and rain has been truly unrelenting - one of my plantains is almost dead from the constantly saturated soil, and now, this morning, I noticed that my prize variegated ginger is also dying. When my gardener was here this morning, I asked him about it - and he said that it is root fungus from all the rain. He has pruned back all the old leaves, and that is about all he can do for it. Nothing more can be done other than to hope that the rain eases up pretty soon and we get some sun and warmth to dry the soil out. If that doesn't happen, I expect I'll lose a lot more than just the ginger. Several other things are showing stress from the weather. Even some of my terrestrial orchids are showing signs of root rot - and it takes an awful lot of rain to drown an orchid. The constantly saturated soil is stressing the grass in the lawn - as the grass dies back, it is being replaced by sedges, which are a bog plant.

I have spent most of the week playing around on the computer, involved mostly in the Humanist group that I am on. The intellectual level of the discussion is well above most of that to be found on the Internet, and so I have greatly enjoyed this as a pastime. I have been doing some reading, too, in preparation for some new essays I am planning for my web site. I have been learning a lot about the free-will versus determinism debate, and that, combined with what I am learning about the legacy of Leo Strauss, is going to make for some interesting essays on the origins of conservative political theory.

I woke up this morning to a lot of construction noise from next door. My neighbor is adding on to his house, and is building a huge plus a carport. He is closing in his pila (outdoor laundry room), too, and he is his own maestro de obra (construction manager), but is doing a remarkable job of keeping the job moving. It has been only since Monday that the work has been progressing, and already the place is up to the square, and the beams supporting the roof have been poured. They're putting the roof joists in place as I write this, and they're doing it in the intermittent rain. The block has been stuccoed, and as soon as it is dry, it will be ready for paint. It is surprising to me that they are using a very shallow pitch on the roof, and the slope faces into the wind. I suspect they are going to have constant roof leak problems, every time it rains here, when the wind is blowing hard out of the east. And since that is a frequent occurrence, I suspect they are going to regret the design. But I am not the architect. My neighbor's little boy came by and borrowed my wheelbarrow, and I took the opportunity to walk over and check and see what was going on. Turns out that whole, huge room is a new kitchen/pila combination. That means that the current kitchen will undoubtedly be converted into another bedroom. It will be a good-sized house, by Tico standards, when it is all done.

All this rain and cold has meant a bumper crop of biting insects. And we have certainly been having our share this year. First it was the mosquitos, and I got that under control by having the lawn mowed more frequently - every other week, rather than the once monthly I had been having the gardener do it. Now it is back to once a month, because of the poor condition of the grass. So the mosquitos are back, but worse has been the blackflies, though. It has been a biblical plague of those little blighters. I have to put on a long-sleeve shirt to go over to the North Forty because they are so thick over there. They'll drive you positively crazy! Over here, there are fewer, but they are still quite a nuisance. Not many in the house, but every time I go outside, I get nailed by one or two. It is one reason I haven't felt much like getting any more gardening done - certainly not over in the North Forty, where I badly need to go pitch limbs.

There have been a lot more insects in the house than I am used to as well. I think they want in out of the rain too. This morning, when I put on my clothes, I felt what seemed at first like a wasp sting on my upper right thigh. It persisted, so I pulled my pants down to see what it was, and out popped a margarita scorpion onto the floor. Sure enough, I'd been nailed. It looked similar to the scorpions in Arizona that are so dangerous, so I brought the gardener in (it's Friday, and he just happened to be here) to have a look. He said they are dangerous to very small children and people with allergies, but they're not much worse than a wasp sting to adults. Not to worry about it, he said. He advised that the scorpions that hang out in banana bunches are much more dangerous - if I am stung by one, I should call an ambulance immediately, he says, and have the scorpion ready to show the medic, so they know which antivenin to administer. This is the fourth scorpion I have seen since I have been in the country, and it is by far the biggest - about two inches long, light tan in color except for black pincers and stinger. My gardener tells me that they are commonly seen in houses, and his son has been stung twice by them, and he has been stung once. They like to hide in clothes, so it is always a good idea to shake out your clothes and shoes before putting them on in the morning. I'd been told that, but had never bothered - until now. A quick check of the Biodiversity Institute website revealed that there are 14 species endemic to the country, some dangerous, most not. I lucked out. It is a close relative of the Arizona scorpions that I feared so much there, however. Different species in the same genus, in fact.

The sting was like my gardener said it would be - about like a mild wasp sting, not much more. No other effects that I have noticed, other than after a while my ears were burning, and every insect bite I've had in the last two weeks was itching like mad. There was a short period of tingling around the wound, but it didn't last long, and now, a few hours later, the pain has subsided completely. I am definitely going to start shaking out my clothes and shoes, though. I don't want any more nasty surprises.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:18:12 AM

Sat, Jan 22 2005

Quiet Week

Not much happening lately, the place has been "muy tranquilo" (very peaceful), so I haven't had much of an urge to write. There simply hasn't been much worth writing about, and I haven't been able to get out into the garden either, so there has been little to do, other than play around on the Internet.

I have been part of a humanist email group on Yahoo, and that has been a lot of fun. Folks from all over the world on that list, and that has been interesting to share observations and various points of view. So that has occupied a great deal of my time while it has been too rainy and windy to do anything in the garden. Our weather here comes from the Caribbean, so when it is cold there, it is cold here.

There has been record-breaking cold and record breaking rainfall out along the east coast, near and south of Puerto Limon. The floods displaced as many as six thousand people at one point, and the president of the country said they were the worst in a century - and declared a national emergency. The cold has been the cause of it - cold air coming down from the eastern United States has come across all the warm water in the Caribbean and picked up a lot of moisture - and dumped it on the east coast of Central America. And large areas of the banana plantations that are such an important part of Limon Province's economy have been flooded out and the crops lost. The cold front has just hung around, not moving for two weeks. The sailboat crowd has been complaining that the weather has been so bad they can't move around. And just as the weather is beginning to warm, news comes of another approaching cold front. We're not looking forward to that!

All that rain on the east coast has meant rain for me here in Arenal. Record-breaking rain, in fact. The soil has been so saturated that one of my plantains has died from the soil being saturated for two weeks now. The other two are clearly stressed. I don't know if I am going to get a crop from them at all. They are growing, but the leaves are showing some spots and streaks - not a good sign.

Speaking of bananas, I tried cooking up some of the quadrado bananas that I was given. The peon I hire occasionally and my gardener both said that the usual way of cooking them is to peel and quarter them lengthwise and boil them until tender. Well, I did that, and was totally amazed - at how completely lacking in flavor they were. That was a waste, as far as I am concerned. When I asked my gardener about that, he said that he usually puts some natilla (a lightweight sour cream unique to Costa Rica) on them. Well, I had done that, but still they were not much to my liking. He confessed that he prefers them fried in some bacon grease once they are ripe, and so I am letting them ripen and will try that. I hope they are more flavorful that way. I wrote about this experience on a Costa Rica residents email list, and a couple of list members responded - they tell me that they usually let them ripen and eat them like a regular banana. They're fine that way, but have a bit firmer and more chewy flesh than regular bananas. I am going to try that, too. I was also informed that they are known also as "morroca" bananas, and also mule bananas - they are often planted as mule fodder on the banana plantations, since they are immune to most banana diseases, and are quite nutritious, if not particularly flavorful. I would like a good method of preparing them, because I have lots - the old man's garden on the North Forty has quite a few growing there, and some are getting big enough that they will soon be ready.

A few days back, I visited my one of my ham friends, and while there, the subject of my recent bout with typhoid came up. His wife is a registered nurse, and has a Merck guide, and so we looked it up - turns out that it has an 8-14 day incubation period, so I could not have contracted it from swimming in the pond. I must have gotten it from somewhere else. So I looked through my blog entries for anything that could have happened at about the right time, and the only thing I turned up was that I had salvaged some lemons from my neighbor's tree that had rolled down onto my property. They had been laying on the ground, of course, and I suspect that I might have not washed them sufficiently, and that was where the infection came from. Anyway, I am not so afraid to swim in the pond now. Good news. It sure is inviting on a really hot day. Not that there has been very many of them lately.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 03:38:47 PM

Thu, Jan 13 2005

Back Across The Border And Home At Last

I was up late, not needing to get any kind of move on, and so I thought I would enjoy the incredibly lovely weather with a leisurely walk to a new breakfast spot I had heard about yesterday at the bookstore. Turns out that the place was easy to spot and was run by the wife of an expat American, who was eating his own breakfast out at one of the sidewalk tables. I enjoyed a wonderful cheese and mushroom omelet, though the accompanying potatoes were liberally sprinkled with black pepper - something I occasionally have allergic reactions to. But not a problem this morning, fortunately. After taking care of some business back at the book store, it was back to the hotel to do the final packing and check out.

By the time I was ready to check out, it was close enough to noon that I figured I would take an early lunch so I would not be hungry on the bus. There was a perro caliente (hot dog) stand down at the end of the block, and they offered a quesoburguesa (cheeseburger) and a coke for about a dollar and a half, so I figured I would give it a try. The burger was fine, actually, rather good, in a seriously oversized bun with a truly huge slab of cheese. Back at the hotel, I grabbed my luggage and paid the bill, and got a cab for the bus agency.

The cabbie didn't seem to know where the bus agency was, and so I had to explain it to him, but I was soon there and waiting in line for my ticket to be processed. There was a backpacker there, a young lady from Germany, with whom I found myself in a conversation rather quickly. She ended up on the bus in the seat next to me, and we had a very enjoyable chat, between glimpses of "Garfield, The Movie" being played in Spanish on the bus video system.

She was quite unfamiliar with the process at the border, which I had been through many times before, so I filled her in, lending her my pen to fill out the declaration forms. When we arrived at the border, a bit after four, we were the only bus on the inbound direction, and so there was no line at all going to the immigration clerk. I walked up, presented my declaration, passport and onward bus ticket, and without even consulting his computer, I was stamped in. A fairly short wait for the customs check, and we were back on the bus, headed towards my exit point of Canas.

My German tourist friend had never been to Costa Rica before, and was interested in all the sights, which she seemed to have studied up on. I gave here the "nickel tour" as we worked our way along the InterAmerican Highway, through the fading light of Guanacaste Province. It was almost dark when we finally arrived in Canas, and I wished her goodbye and got off the bus.

I intended to take local buses all the way back to Arenal, but I knew that I was way too late for the bus from Tilaran back to Arenal. The question was whether I could still get a bus from Canas to Tilaran. The cabbie taking me to the bus parada (bus stop) insisted that there was one at seven. But I didn't think there was one that late. When I got to the parada, I asked other passengers waiting there, and confirmed what I had thought to be the case - there was one more bus, due in about fifteen minutes. It soon arrived and I got on, enjoying the warm, pleasant air blowing through the open window next to my seat. Once we were well away from town, I looked out the open window to see if I could see the comet near the Pleiades, and sure enough, soon found it. What a magical evening!

That pleasant reverie was soon shattered, however. As soon as the lights in the passenger cabin were turned out by the driver, a fellow in the back of the bus started singing rancheros (the Costa Rican equivalent of country music songs) a capella, at the top of his lungs. Now, I don't mind rancheros, though I am not a big fan. But this fellow could hardly carry a tune and he was loud - and I do mean loud. It was almost painful to hear. Blessed relief came only when the bus driver would stop and turn on the cabin lights - only for the rancheros to resume as soon as the lights went off again. Every time the lights went on, everyone would look around for the culprit, but nothing was evident. Finally, after one stop when some passengers from the back of the bus got off, the rancheros were blissfully and finally ended.

In Tilaran, as I had suspected and prepared for, I was way too late for the last bus when we arrived at seven thirty. So I got a Tico Welcome car to take me to Arenal. It was late enough that he wanted to have another driver with us for security, and we were soon on our way. The driver was incredibly skillful, dodging all the potholes with amazing skill - we barely hit three or four out of hundreds on the whole trip. An hour and 6,000 colones (about $12) later, I was on my front doorstep.

The house seemed to have been untouched in my absence, and I fixed some quick dinner and went right to bed. It was a long trip, and I was sure glad to be home at last. Unpacking could wait till in the morning.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:41:07 PM

Wed, Jan 12 2005

Last Full Day In Town

No hurry getting up this morning, as I didn't have anything particular in mind to do today. It is my last full day in Granada, so I got up lazily, and headed over to my usual breakfast restaurant, for my usual breakfast of Nicaraguan food. The restaurant is about a block and a half from the hotel, a short walk, and near the central market, with its increasingly bustling activity. I always enjoy the early morning walk to breakfast in Granada, watching the merchants arriving to open their stores, and the busy activity of early shoppers.

I just couldn't seem to wrap my mind around the idea of spending $25 on a tour, so I figured it would be another day of reading in the hotel courtyard, and maybe some more conversation over at the book store. So after breakfast, I spent a good deal of time reading. When the farmacia (drug store) across the street was finally open, I went over there to take care of the only real chore I had in mind for this trip. I wanted to buy some of my heartburn medication, mostly to see what the comparative prices are, here in Nicaragua compared with back in Costa Rica. What I found did not surprise me - a single 300 mg. tablet of ranitidine sells for the equivalent of about 45 cents in Costa Rica, but only about 12.5 cents in Nicaragua. Needless to say, I bought a goodly supply to bring back with me.

By about ten thirty in the morning, I had decided that I was ready for some more conversation, having enjoyed thoroughly the conversation of the previous day. So I headed over to the Canadian bookstore, about a five-block walk from my hotel.

The conversation proved to be as good as ever. One participant, a recent addition to the pensionado community, had driven a car down from Canada, and was having one heck of a time getting it registered in Nicaragua, in spite of what she had been told to expect - by the Nicaraguan authorities. Another was a backpacker, who was a student at Harvard and was taking a break from his studies to do some travel. He and I had a lively discussion about politics and market economics. And a third was a very recent arrival who had only been here for a few days, and needed lots of advice. All in all, the conversation, stimulated by lots of coffee and juice, lasted well into the afternoon.

When I had finally had my fill of conversation, I decided it was time for some food. I headed over to a near-by Nicaraguan restaurant for a late lunch. The restaurant is blessedly cheap and has pretty good, authentic Nicaraguan cuisine. I had some pasta, filled with bits of chicken breast in a tomato sauce, with rice and fried plantains, for about thirty cordobas - a bit less than $2. Then it was back to the hotel room for a siesta.

By five, I figured it was time to head over to the Internet cafe to deal with my spam-stuffed inbox. I had to wait for a computer - and this at the most expensive Internet cafe in town. The tourists, it seems, were everywhere. Nicaragua is enjoying its best tourist season ever, and it seems most tourist facilities, including this internet cafe, seem to be rather crowded with them. So it was hardly surprising, but in the past, I had never had to wait for a computer. In fact, I had often been the only tourist in the place on previous trips. But not this time.

It took me more than twenty minutes to sort through and delete all the spam. Geez, that problem is getting bad! But soon enough it was done and I could get down to answering some of the email that had been piling up. That done, and it was back to the hotel to catch the evening news.

Again at seven, I headed back over to Cafe Chavalos for Wednesday night's "gourmet hamburger" night. It was gourmet all right, weighing in at a good half-pound, and coming with butter lettuce, which I had never seen in Nicaragua before, and onions and all the trimmings. It was served with chilled fried potatoes in a sage dressing, similar to a potato salad. Again, a chocolate "sausage" for desert. There was conversation at dinner tonight as well, this time with a couple of back-packing tourists who had come down from the States. It was lively conversation about politics in the States, and lasted till the restaurant closed at nine. It was too late to find a cab, so I bummed a ride back to the hotel from them.

Once back in my room, I packed everything up for the trip home in the morning. Not that I had to be up and at it early, since I only had to be at the bus stop by half-past noon. But I had little else to do while watching the evening news. It was another good night with hard sleep. The next day was to be a long trip home.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 07:24:17 PM

Tue, Jan 11 2005

Gourmet Food Served By Street Kids

I was up fairly late this morning, and had a leisurely shower in Granada's cool, but not cold tap water. The hotel does not have hot water, but Granada's tap water is not cold enough to really make a shower uncomfortable. I dressed in a clean shirt and headed over to the Nicaraguan restaurant nearby for a desayuno tipico, a "typical" Nicaraguan breakfast. The usual gallo pinto (rice and beans - both Nicaragua and Costa Rica claim it as their national dish), it was accompanied by deep-fried cheese, fried plantains, of which I never seem to tire, scrambled eggs with some Nicaraguan salsa, and coffee and orange juice. A deeply satisfying breakfast.

I spent several hours lounging around the courtyard of the hotel, soaking up the early sun and catching up on some reading. By ten, I figured that my Canadian friends' bookstore would be open, so I wandered over there to look for English-language magazines and books to take home with me. The place was open, and I went in and bought a juice drink and sat down in the reading area for a bit of a chat with some of the local expats.

The place is the local hangout for the intellectual expatriate community in Granada, so it is always a great place to go for some good conversation. I enjoyed a long chat with several of the locals I had met there on my previous trip, including the owner of the place. We got involved in some really good discussions of the recent American elections and the outcomes for Latin America. It was a conversation I enjoyed immensely.

One of the participants in the discussion was a woman who has lived in Granada for quite a few years, arriving as a Peace Corps volunteer, and when her stint was up, she never left. Turns out that she still does charity work there, and her current project is a gourmet restaurant, staffed and run by street kids. They were taken off the street and given the opportunity to learn food service in a quality restaurant setting, by a retired chef from Mexico who works with her to give these kids an opportunity to learn skills that they can use to make a living in Nicaragua's budding tourist industry. She indicated that the restaurant is open for dinner from Tuesday through Friday nights, and she suggested I give it a try.

That night, I figured that it would be worth doing - a good meal at a good price, for a good cause. At seven in the evening, I got a cab and headed over there. The cabbie didn't seem to know where it was, but we managed to find it - and the confusion cost me double the usual cab fare.

But the effort of finding the place was well worth it. Cafe Chavalos ("young men") is located a half-block east and a half-block south (on the east side of the street) from Hotel Grenada, near the lake promenade. I recommend it highly - it is the best food in Granada, at least that I have found. The prices are not particularly cheap - about average for the better restaurants in town, but the food, prepared by the street kids under the chef's supervision, is truly excellent. I had the "garden chicken" - which was served with special potatoes, rice, vegetables in a sage sauce, and was accompanied by "chavalos salad," a cucumber and onion salad in a light creamy sauce. It was preceeded by some of the best onion soup I have ever enjoyed - complete with "chavalos" written in sour cream, floating in the soup. Dessert was "chocolate sausage" - some vanilla wafers in a chocolate matrix. It was truly a marvelous meal, at about the same price as any of the better restaurants in town. The bill came to C$145, about $8 U.S.

When I was about half-way through the meal, the ex-Peace Corps volunteer who is the organizer of the restaurant, arrived and joined me at my table. We had a pleasant conversation, in which she told me about the background of some of the young men working in the restaurant, and some of the other street kids in town that she has known. One had been found pimping his cousin. Another had been addicted to glue-sniffing, and others had been drug dealers and petty criminals. One kid had been kicked out by a hateful stepfather when he was a small child, and had been living on the streets of Granada ever since, growing to manhood with almost no emotional guidance and direction. Those working at the cafe had eagerly left those kinds of lives behind for this opportunity, and all were a joy to be around - they were truly fun to watch, their enthusiasm and friendliness being quite infectious. The young men now run the restaurant for themselves and make the decisions regarding its operations - the supervising chef is often gone for increasingly long periods of time while they handle the place by themselves.

After the meal, the tables were cleared back, and the patrons were treated to some street dancing that the boys had been practicing. It was quite a show. By the time the dancing was over, it was getting late, so we shook hands and I departed, catching a cab back to my hotel. It was a pleasant evening at the Cafe Chavalos, worth every cordoba it had cost. And I slept well, knowing that the money I spent on my evening meal had helped build a future for four young men that truly deserved and appreciated the help.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 06:29:56 PM

Mon, Jan 10 2005

A Run For The Border

I was up fairly early, having slept quite hard - better than I had expected, given the fact that my room faced the rather busy street. The early morning truck traffic was what awoke me. I turned on the television to catch the local news, and there were plenty of stories about the flooding in Limon and the terrible misery it was causing. But the day in Guanacaste's capital city was sunny, dry, pleasant and hardly at all like what I was seeing on the news. It made me quite glad that I did not elect to buy a property on the Atlantic side of the divide. Had I done so, I would have probably wanted to do a visa renewal at Sixaola on the Panamanian border, but Sixaola was one of the flooded communities, among the worst affected. I would have had to change my plans and go out elsewhere - and that would have meant a very long trip.

As it was, I was up, showered and ready to go long before the bus was due, so I went to the restaurant in the hotel for a relaxed and pleasant breakfast. The typical Tico breakfast, it was gallo pinto (the national dish of rice and beans with light seasonings), fried eggs (that were not fully fried - I complained to the waiter about that), and warm corn tortillas, with coffee and orange juice. A very satisfying breakfast, indeed, but a relatively expensive one at about $5. The Food Mall across the street wasn't open yet, and I really need to find a cheaper place nearby for my Liberia trips. I've grown spoiled by the cheap restaurant meals in Costa Rica, and feel like I am being ripped off if a meal costs me more than $3.

I was packed, out of my room, and checked out of the hotel long before 9:30 when the bus was due. I knew it would be arriving soon, when I saw competitors' buses go past, also headed for the border. That meant that the road was open, so it would not be terribly late. And it arrived late, of course, but not seriously. I got on, found the last seat on the bus, right behind the driver, and we were off for the border.

The trip to the Penas Blancas border crossing into Nicaragua is not a long one from Liberia. The ride is less than an hour and a half, and so it was not long before we were there. This time there were no police stops, and there was none of the usual inspections of passports and declaration forms by the bus conductor. Being at the head of the bus, I got off immediately and headed straight for the end of the immigration line, being the first passenger of the bus in line. Only the conductor was ahead of me.

The line moved with far greater speed than it usually does. Within twenty minutes, I was in, presented my immigration declaration and passport, and was stamped out. Back on the bus after showing the stamp to the driver.

There is a gap of about a mile between the border posts for Costa Rica and Nicaragua (a consequence of the Contra war), and during that short trip, the conductor collected our entry taxes into Nicaragua. Central Americans pay $1 in local currency, but Americans, Panamanians and Costa Ricans are charged $8, payable only in American currency, thank you very much. Fortunately, on my trip to the bank last week, the clerk had given me change in dollars, so I was prepared and was able to give him what he was looking for.

On arrival at the Nicaraguan border post, I got off the bus with my hand luggage, and headed straight for the customs line. Since the bus driver was dealing with our passports, immigration was not a concern. But the aduanas (customs inspectors) were taking their own sweet time about getting our bus cleared, and eventually even some police appeared. They spent a good deal of time on the bus, and meanwhile, no one's luggage was getting checked. I suspect that they must have found some contraband, because it was nearly an hour before the bus was cleared and the inspections of the passengers' luggage began. I was the first, and was ready, straightaway, to re-board the bus.

While waiting for my passport to get back on the bus, a Nicaraguan policeman asked me twice to take my hand luggage over to the aduanas for inspection. Twice I had to explain in my broken Spanish that I was already inspected, and they had my customs declaration form. The fellow didn't seem to want to accept that explanation on the first try.

Once the bus driver came back to the bus with the stack of our passports, he explained that passengers who wanted to go to Granada (and I was one) would have to board another bus. He insisted that I should go over there, but I pointed out to him that he had my passport - that I needed it back first. I soon had it, and boarded the other bus.

There were only eleven passengers on it. I am not sure why they did that, but I suppose that it was to enable faster service for the other two buses there, which could then go to Managua directly. But soon, we were on the way.

It is about a two hour trip from the border to Granada. Normally, the bus will show a movie during that time, but the bus driver could not seem to get the movie running properly (this bus had a DVD player rather than the usual VCR), and so we were watching a movie with no sound, but Spanish subtitles. It wasn't much of a movie anyway, so I disregarded it, and enjoyed the scenery as we drove past Lake Nicaragua, with the beautifully symmetrical twin Omotepe volcanoes out in the lake. A beautiful ride of which I never tire, and I was on the right side of the bus to see the best scenery. It was a windy day, and there were some pretty good rollers coming in off the huge lake - surf at least five feet high. Soon, we were in Granada, and I was off the bus at the agency, arriving at about half past four.

As I always do, I made my reservation for the return trip. But I was surprised to find out that there was no seat available on any of the three Thursday morning buses. I would have to return on the noon bus - that was the earliest available. I wasn't pleased with that - it meant that I would not be back in Tilaran in time to catch the last bus to Arenal, and would have to get a cab - at about $12 - to get home. But I had little choice. I took the reservation.

Off to the hotel where I usually stay. Owned by a Tico, it turns out he had rented out the hotel operation to a Nicaraguan who was now running it. Things weren't quite up to the usual standard, but they were good enough, and it was still the cheapest room in Granada that has both a TV and air conditioner - the latter being vitally necessary for me to be able to sleep in Granada's heat. And it was just as warm in Granada as it ever gets - unusual for this time of year.

I went to the bank and exchanged some money, and headed over to the Hospedaje Central where I often eat, for some food. I hadn't eaten since breakfast and by now I was truly hungry. The usual hangout for CIA agents looking for traveling Americans on which to spy, the place seemed to be eerily vacated by them. Just the odd backpacker here and there, and the usual street cats begging for handouts. I had an early supper, headed for the Internet cafe and did my mail, and headed back to the hotel for a badly needed sleep. I slept hard. It had been a long day.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 05:37:37 PM

Sun, Jan 09 2005

Off On A Little Jaunt

My visa was due for renewal, so it was necessary to take another trip to Granada, Nicaragua, to get it renewed. This is the reason for the hurried business trip to San Jose last week - to buy the bus ticket and make the reservation. For security reasons, I could not disclose in this space the reason for my trip to San Jose, nor the fact that I was planning a trip to Granada. Today, I planned to go only as far as Liberia, so I could be up early and catch an early bus to Nicaragua as it came through Liberia in the morning on Monday.

So last night, I carefully dissembled my ham radio station and hid everything away, got packed and this morning, was ready to go. I was up fairly late, not having to travel all that far on this leg of the journey. Today, I was planning to only go to Liberia, about 120 km. away, and had all day to get there, so I was not worried at all about time. I got breakfast out of the way, washed the dishes, and closed up the house. With the luggage out on the front porch, I called the cab.

My usual cabbie arrived in the midst of a driving rain. Not an auspicious start for the journey, but consistent with the recent weather. I found out later in the day, when I saw a paper, that the rain had been sufficiently intense to drive six thousand people from their homes along the Caribbean coast. During the night, it had rained hard enough that all the puddles were full and running over, and the front lawn had lots of puddles in it as well. I ducked through the rain and quickly got into the cab's back seat, and it was off to the bus parada (bus stop) in downtown Arenal.

The bus was late in coming, about twenty minutes late, arriving at five past nine. I was concerned that I would not make it to Tilaran in time to catch the bus headed for Canas. That would mean an hour and a half waiting for the next bus. But as it happened, the bus from Tilaran to Canas was late itself, and I got there just in time - it waited while I got off the Tilaran bus and boarded the Canas bus. So far, so good.

The driving rain had given way to drizzle by the time I had reached Tilaran, and when going down the hill from Tilaran to Canas, it ended altogether, and soon the sun was out intermittently. In Canas, the weather was warm and dry.

Before the bus got to the terminal in Canas, it stopped at yet another parada and the bus driver announced that the Liberia bus was present at the same stop, so I got off the Canas bus straightaway, and right onto the Liberia bus. In seconds, I was barrelling down the InterAmerican Highway towards Liberia in a surprisingly new and comfortable coach, rather than the usual school bus.

The highway between Canas and Liberia has been recently resurfaced, so the trip was fast and pleasant. The blooming madera negra trees, with their faded purple blossoms, and occasional cortesa trees, with their large, flamboyant blossoms of bright yellow, made for a most pleasant journey.

I arrived in Liberia in record time for such a long bus trip with two changes of bus - nearly as fast as I could have arrived by driving myself the whole way. By half past 11, I was at the front desk of the Hotel Bramadero, checking in. It was a truly magnificent day in Liberia, pleasantly breezy with temperatures in the low 80's. I can see why Guanacaste is such an attractive place for Europeans and Canadians to come to and winter over. It is just the kind of weather I would have loved to enjoy in my motorhome in the winter if I had had the option in those days.

Well, there isn't much to do in Liberia on a Sunday afternoon, so I spent most of the day watching television and reading in a poolside chair. In the evening, I enjoyed watching Star-Trek - the Next Generation Movie on Cinemax, seeing it for the first time. I still admire the Star-Trek Second Generation as some of the best-written science fiction yet done by Hollywood.

Dinner was across the street from the hotel, at the Papa John's franchise in the new Food Mall there. I am always amazed when I go in that place at how very busy it always is. With four American and one Tico fast food franchises, there is plenty to choose from and the Ticos and tourists alike keep the place busy and noisy. A little bit of the States for the American tourists to remind them of home, and for the Ticos to enjoy a bit of American culture.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 04:57:33 PM

Sat, Jan 08 2005

Help In The Garden

Well, it has been quite a while since I wrote, so here it goes. Not a lot happening, but a few things worth writing about...

This week I needed to get some business taken care of in San Jose, and I have been putting it off, because I really don't like going there. Things finally came to a head, and would have caused me some inconvenience to put it off any longer, so I bit the bullet and went ahead and got it done. I decided that this business of getting up really early and trying to dodge the highway robbers to get to Tilaran to catch the first bus was not a really wonderful idea. Just too exciting for me. So I figured I would be up and travel at first light, and be there for the 7 AM bus. I got there just as it was loading and getting ready to go. Parked my car in front of the police station, as I always do, and got my ticket and got on the bus.

The bus was a lot faster than the early one, which, I swear, stops at every single bus stop between Tilaran and San Jose. That process takes four hours for a three hour trip, so taking a later bus gets you there not that much later. The early bus arrives about nine, and this one arrived at half-past ten. Anyway, I got both my errands taken care of, headed over to the mail forwarding office and got my $10 worth of mail, and headed over to the bus terminal to wait for the return bus. Still had an hour and a half before the next bus home, so I could have taken care of even more business, had I needed to.

I had a fine lunch at the restaurant next to the bus terminal. It was pollo a la plancha, something I had never tried before, or even seen on a menu. Well, that translates roughly as "chicken a la flatiron" - yes, as in iron for ironing your laundry, so I was intensely curious as to what that might be. The waitress explained that it was cooked in a press. And, sure enough, when it arrived, it was a boneless chicken breast, which had been squashed flat in the cooking process. It was less than a half-inch thick. Quite tasty, though. It was served with ensalada, a "salad" which was basically some cooked vegetables marinated in a vinegar sauce, served cold. Along with some potato chips, it was a satisfying meal for the equivalent of about $2.50.

The bus left on time, with several of the passengers aboard that I had seen on my trip into town - they were also doing a single-day trip as I was. It was uneventful, and there were no stoppages on the Puntarenas grade as there often is. The Guanacaste plains are a lot dryer than I have seen them before, and this is just the beginning of the dry season there. The Cortesa trees were starting to bloom, and that was a real treat - they have a large, flamboyant yellow blossom, and the tree, in full bloom, is covered with them. The coffee shade trees, that were imported from Brazil and have since become naturalized here (I don't recall the name) were also in bloom, with their light orange color, they lent a nice color to the highlands forest. Many other dry-season bloomers were also putting on a show, blues, and purples, in addition to the usual reds, whites and yellows. All in all, it was a very pleasant trip home. When I got home, I wasn't anywhere near as tired as I usually am, and so I have concluded that unless I am really pressed for time in San Jose, that the 7AM bus to town and the 12:45 return is the way to do it. Worked out quite well.

This morning, I went for a visit to a ham friend's place and he gave me a start for "quadrado" bananas. It is a cooking banana, and he has tons of them on his place - they were there when he bought the house - and he doesn't much care for them. Well, I do, and there was a bunch that was ready to be cut, so he cut them and gave them to me. I had several plants already, but they were killed by the gophers, so I needed starts again. Was quite happy to get them.

The gardener had told me that if I plant them deep enough, they will survive the gophers, so when I got home, I got out the shovel, and braved the trickle of rain to go out and plant the start I was given. As I was finishing up, and noticed another offshoot from another banana that needed planting, I was planting it, too, and just then, the young Nicaraguan showed up that I had do some tree trimming for me a few months back. He asked if he could earn some money by pitching in and doing some work in my garden, and I was happy for the help, so I agreed. He got some yuca (cassava) cut down that had been eaten by the gophers and got the canes stacked on the bonfire pile. He pointed out that some of the bananas that came down because of the gophers, could be replanted, so we cut the tops off and replanted the roots. We stacked the old tops off to the side of the garden where they could decay and not make a mess. He cleaned up some of the weeds around my existing yuca, and told me that if I keep the weeds cleared around them, the gophers won't bother them. The gophers are attracted to the roots of the weeds, he tells me, and if there are no weeds, the gophers won't find the yuca. This is contrary to what my regular gardener said - he indicated that the yuca does best when the weeds around it are allowed to grow. But this got me to thinking - if what the peon tells me is true, maybe some plastic mulch is the answer to my gopher problems. I am going to give it a try when I get a chance. I have to do something - they've eaten most of my yuca and toppled most of my bananas and papaya. And that has got to stop.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 06:59:22 PM

Sat, Jan 01 2005

New Year's Morning And Some Strange Goings On

Well, it is just before one in the morning in Arenal, on a fairly warm night when I can't sleep. So, lacking much else to do, I thought I would put together a blog entry. No sleep, because this is New Year's morning, and what happens in Costa Rica is what happens throughout most of the world at midnight on New Year's eve, and that is fireworks. Lots of them. Loud, noisy fireworks.

Not much inclined to stay up for this sort of thing, I went to bed at a humane hour, and hoped to get a usual night's sleep. The disco was running, as usual on the weekends, but tonight the music was not unbearably loud like it was Christmas night. I figured it would be possible to sleep through it as I usually do on Friday and Saturday nights. I did manage to fall asleep.

But a good night's rest was not to be. At the stroke of midnight, fireworks started going off all around town, and even a few reports that did not sound exactly like fireworks. But a few sounded like major fireworks, so I decided to get up and see if I could see them from my place. It didn't take long to discover that most were coming from the city park - and the town apparently has decided to put on quite a display. At least as good as some I have seen in municipal celebrations back in the States. And my house being only about six blocks from the park, meant that I could see most of it from my back porch. I quickly got dressed, and grabbed the umbrella to protect me from the light drizzle, and went out and enjoyed the show. It was quite impressive for such a small town.

After it was over, I went back inside but still couldn't sleep for all the firecrackers and the like going off all around the neighborhood, so I decided to get up and write this blog entry. That is why you see it as being entered at such a weird hour.

Earlier in the evening tonight, I had a call from one of my friends who lives in the Central Valley who called me up to wish me a happy new year. He owns a bar/restaurant/conference center there, and he got me caught up on what has been going on in his life since he last called. Things have been rather interesting around his place as usual - he seems to have a karma that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. Even the most innocent things he does, seem to somehow come back around to complicate his life, sometimes enormously. Being an advocate of peacemaking, decided to put up a monument in front of his establishment, dedicated to world peace. One of his friends, an artist and sculptor of some note, apparently, liked the idea and offered to do a statue for it. So a masonry statue was created, of a woman, life sized, in a classical Greek style. That means with a robe over one shoulder and, well, nothing over the other. Yup, you got it, a bare breast hanging out there for all those Costa Rican Catholics in the street to see.

This is nothing particularly unusual for Costa Rica; there are statues like that around in various places in this country, including a very nice example right in front of the Justice ministry. So nobody should be startled to see it. Well, in spite of that, it didn't take long for it to start getting attention.

The attention began with the odd pedestrian now and again crossing himself as he walked by. Now, mind you, this is a Catholic country, alright, and there are plenty of Catholics around, but hey, this is no statue of the Virgin Mary. Doesn't even faintly resemble her. So why would they would cross themselves as they walked by? Were they horrified at the sight of a bare breast on a statue? Praying for peace? Praying to some imagined Virgin of Peace? Who knows?

Pretty soon, however, it went beyond that. On more than one occasion, my friend looked out to notice someone kneeling and praying before the statue. Were they praying to what they thought was the Virgin Mary? Or were they praying for world peace? Or something else? Dunno. No idea.

Now, this is where my friend's bad karma kicks in and it gets weird. I mean really weird.

One day he heard a bit of noise out front, and when he got out there, he discovered a man had climbed over the fence, gotten up on the statue pedestal, and in full view of the street traffic, was fondling the statue's breast.

I'm serious now, I'm not making this up. My friend swears up and down that it's absolutely true. And, to top that, he says, it wasn't even two days later, that another man had done the same thing, except he was actually licking the breast! We're thinking that there must be some truly sex-deprived Ticos out there. I suggested that he ought to have a camera ready, in case some sex-crazed dude climbs up there and tries to engage in some, well, um, X-rated activity. He didn't laugh. But I can't help it. I get a good chuckle every time I even think about it. While his buddies are praying for world peace, I suspect my friend is secretly praying for some well-placed pigeon poo.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 12:35:50 AM
Copyright © 2003 Scott Bidstrup. All rights reserved.