Letters From Exile

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

Tue, Mar 29 2005

Real Smart, Fellas, Real Smart

The weather for the last two days has been downright wintery - at least by Costa Rican standards. That means I have turned the fan off and am wearing long pants for a change. Yesterday, for a second day running, we got some rain, and enough of it to actually do some good. No more watering the lawn today.

The Mother Of All Bonfires that I lit off on Sunday is still burning, believe it or not. in spite of the rain yesterday afternoon and during much of the night. And it is more than just a tiny smoulder, it is generating a significant amount of smoke, and for it to burst into flame, all I would need to do is gather together all the smouldering log ends, and it would promptly burst into flame. I spent much of the day doing just that yesterday, and managed to get rid of nearly all of the limbs and tree trunks that were in the pile, but there are still a few left, and today I expect I'll be finishing the job. As I write this, the weather is clearing off, and it looks like most of the day should be sunny, so that will help in getting the last of the material burned.

The weather has put a halt to the gardening I had been doing, and so, besides dashing out in the rain to keep the bonfire going, I have not gotten much more gardening than that done. Instead, I spent some time on the computer.

I have been having a terrible problem with Yahoo Groups. I am subscribed to four email lists, but unfortunately, Yahoo doesn't seem to want to send me email from them. I have not received any email at all from two of the groups, and so I unsubscribed from both, and re-subscribed using email only, hoping that that would solve the problem. It didn't. Instead, it seems that the third group, the highest volume list, is no longer sending email to me now, so I now have the problem with three email lists, not just two.

I suspect that the problem is that I have my marketing preferences turned off in my Yahoo profile so they and their corporate allies don't send me spam. Maybe they figure that since they're advertising supported, that I should have to put up with spam to get their email list outputs. Well, I'll unsubscribe before I put up with much of that. Maybe I'll look over the preferences and say "yes" to the most innocuous one I can find, and see if that turns everything back on. Sure hope so.

Well, the Boys Up North continue to amaze me with their blazingly evident stupidity. There was an article in this morning's paper indicating that the Internal Revenue Service is now demanding that airline pilots from Latin American countries who fly through U.S. airspace actually file tax returns to pay taxes on the income earned while flying over the U.S.! No, I'm not making this up! It is actually true!

Of course, what the results are going to be should be obvious to anyone who actually stops to think about it - but, then, as recent history has shown, thinking things through before acting is not this administration's strong suit. Latin American countries are not going to take this lying down, of course, and U.S. pilots are going to end up filing tax returns for every single country in Latin America that they fly over.

I can see it all now. Some poor hapless soul who flies a run for a couple of months from Los Angeles to Santiago de Chile with a stop in Panama City, finds himself faced with filing Spanish-language tax returns for Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, possibly El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile. And since U.S. airlines dominate the skies in Latin America and U.S. pilots earn a lot more than Latin American pilots do, which countries are going to gain the most - the U.S. or the Latin American countries? In other words, what is the effect going to be on the net balance of payments? This is the most brain-dead ideas the Bushies have had since they went to war in Iraq without any discernible plan at all as to what to do when it was over.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:45:47 AM

Sun, Mar 27 2005

Mother Of All Bonfires

The weather has been delightfully sunny for more than a week now. In fact, too sunny - I have had to start watering the lawn and the garden to keep everything from starting to wilt. The sunny weather has been a good thing, though, for my mango crop. It appears that at least two of my four mango trees have set fruit, and so I should have a bountiful crop this year. More, in fact, than I will be able to eat or process to juice. I will probably end up giving most of it to the neighbors, if all the young mangos I see on my trees grow to maturity.

This has meant that my roof patches have had plenty of time to set, and so the mastic fill should be well and truly sealed by now. This afternoon was the first serious rain since the roof patches were put in place, almost a week ago, and none of them leaked that I know of. There were no drips in the kitchen, anyway, during the half-hour downpour we had. It can rain all it likes now, as I am quite confident that the roof will no longer leak and I do need the rain to keep the garden watered. My bougainvillea cuttings really need the water, and there are more of them now than I can water by hand, so I really could use a good soaking.

I don't need to worry about the rain soaking the huge piles of yard waste that have been accumulating for the last year, either. Friday, I decided that the leaves appeared to be dry enough to burn, and so the gardener and I set both huge piles on fire, and one of them took off and burned out thoroughly. I was delighted for that, as it means it is almost entirely gone now, burned to ash, and the ash can be spread on the garden to help fertilize it. Actually, I think I will add most of it to my compost pile to help it along.

The other, larger pile failed to burn very much, however, just a few dry leaves around the edges. It was composed mostly of large branches and limbs of the six trees I took out last fall. The bamboo on the bottom of the pile had sprouted, and was growing up through it. In addition, some of the branches I had chopped off and thrown on the pile had sprouted, and the saplings were six feet high. And there were even weeds sprouting in the pile. No wonder it didn't take off when set on fire on Friday.

I figured that if it were ever going to be set alight in a meaningful way, I would have to accelerate the fire a bit. My gardener had told me to save all my plastic bags, as they make excellent fire accelerators, and I had by now accumulated several large bags full. So I got them out and went out there to the big pile and went to work.

I used a long stick to poke them far into the pile, here and there, and when most of them were suitably stashed in the pile, I got a bunch of newspapers and started wadding them up and doing the same thing. After a four-inch stack of newspapers had been wadded up and pushed into the pile in this way, I figured I was ready to see if all this paper and plastic would burn hot enough to get the still-green wood to dry out enough to burn.

The best way to light it, I figured, would be to get down-wind and light it at the bottom, letting the wind carry the flames up and around the pile and getting everything going at once. So I did that, lighting some of the lowest paper and then getting out of the way as the flames quickly spread.

Well, it didn't take long. This time, the pile caught fire well and truly and burned very hot and fast. The plastic bags melted down and the liquid dripped on the branches below, accelerating the fire as if it were oil. The paper spread the flames quickly and thoroughly, ensuring that the heat would quickly dry things out enough to cause the wood to burn hot. Sure enough, the scheme worked exactly as planned, and within minutes, flames were leaping fifteen feet into the air. Very little smoke - it was burning hot enough to burn completely, and the high heat incinerated everything but the biggest limbs. The sprouted bamboo quickly dried, and burst into flames, the leaves burning like gasoline. The flames were even incinerating the nearby branches of a mango tree, and I grew a bit concerned that the tree itself could catch fire, as they are somewhat resinous like pine trees. But fortunately, it did not, simply burning off a few of the nearby branches.

As the fire burned lower into the pile, a series of explosions began. They sounded like rifle shots, and sent embers and ash flying everywhere. I had been warned by the gardener that bamboo will do this - the interior cavities, the size of the cylinder in a car engine, fill with smoke, and when they finally get hot enough, the smoke ignites, causing a small explosion. They were loud enough that I grew concerned that someone might think there was an armed conflict going on, but surprisingly, nobody showed up to investigate.

Once the fire had burned down, I was alarmed to discover a coconut on the pile. That is a standard bad-boy prank in these parts. It is quite dangerous to throw an intact coconut on a hot fire - the liquid inside will boil until the pressure is great enough to rupture the shell - and then it will explode with the violence of a quarter stick of dynamite, sending coconut shell shrapnel flying in all directions. Fortunately, this one did not explode. But it could have - and I am quite fortunate it did not. I have no idea who put it there - I know I certainly did not, I know better.

By the time the rain began this afternoon, the fire had pretty well burned out. Not much was left, just a few large, green limbs that were too wet to burn and a small group of branches that were still wet from rains two weeks ago. But the rest is finally gone. I can now clean up that area and get it ready to plant with flowers to replace the huge pile of garden waste. That will certainly be a pleasant change when looking out my dining room window.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 06:59:16 PM

Wed, Mar 23 2005

The Roof Leaks No More - I Hope

When Monday morning rolled around, I decided that I had best get with the roof repairs before we had another rip-snort thunderstorm that would inundate my kitchen with rainwater. So over the weekend, I gave it a great deal of thought and hatched a plan to deal with it without climbing on the roof, and on Monday morning, when the ferreteria (hardware store) would be open, I would execute the plan.

The plan was to buy a small sheet of roof zinc and cut out a cover. I would then bend the cover into a tent-shape and solder a handle in the peak on the underneath side, so I could tie some cords to the handle, drop them through the hole in the peak of the roof, and use them to hold the cover in place by tying them off to the roof trusses from below. That would prevent the wind from blowing the cover away. I also got a can of urethane foam to fill in the gaps if the rain was still able to get in.

Yes, I know that would have the corrugations in the roof zinc running the wrong way, but I figured that would not really matter - I would get some heavy gauge zinc and it should not rust out for several years - and I am still planning to replace the roof at some point, so I figured it didn't really much matter. I went to the ferreteria and got everything I needed - some good tin snips, a small sheet of roof zinc, some urethane foam, and a few bits to make a handle out of some 1 1/2 inch plastic conduit I happened to have, by which I could get the hole cover manipulated onto the peak of the roof without actually climbing up on the roof itself. All told, I was into it about $30 for everything.

Back home, I went to work. I glued together the conduit into a fifteen foot handle, and once the glue was set, I taped a wire hook onto the end to reach up and pull the broken pieces of the crown-piece out of the way and off of the roof. That worked beautifully, and in a few minutes, the area around the hole was cleared of debris.

I then fabricated the cover according to the plan, making sure the cover was far larger than needed to actually cover the hole, so that it would be rain and drip-tight. I taped a small string to the top, so that I could use the conduit to lift it over the hole and set it down. The plan worked beautifully, and the cover was soon sitting nicely over the hole.

Inside, I pulled down a ceiling tile to access the hole in the roof, and pull the strings through the hole. It took a bit of trying to snag the strings with a wire hook taped to the end of a piece of small plastic pipe, but I soon had the strings pulled down and ready to tie off. The only snag in this whole program was that the strings were too short, and I had to add some length to them to get them securely tied down. But now the cover is secured in place, and covers the hole in the roof with about six inches to spare all the way around, and I should no longer have to worry about that hole. Now I am waiting for the rain to see if my plan works where the rubber meets the road.

That was the good news. The bad news was that in the process of getting the strings in place and tied down, I noticed a split in a roof sheet which had been leaking, right over the north wall of the kitchen near the bathroom. So yesterday, I went to the hardware store and got two meters of roof repair tape.

Turns out that the roof sheet had split along about two thirds of its length, and had been leaking for many years - a perlin that ran underneath it was damaged by the moisture. But the leak had not been severe, because the split was along the top of a corrugation, and would not leak significantly except in a heavy, long-lasting rain. I had never seen evidence of water running into the house except for one puzzling leak in the bathroom near the toilet, that was a problem only on rare occasions. I had figured it was a leak in the toilet plumbing, but I now realize that it was a roof leak, and the water had been running down inside the cinder-block wall, and coming out in a small crack at the floor.

To repair the split, I had to pull down the ceiling tile in the northeast corner of the kitchen. Being a corner piece, it was caulked where it ran next to the wall, and that made it rather difficult to remove intact, but I finally had it down and was able to get up into that portion of the attic and commence repairs. The crack was a big one - five feet long, and nearly a quarter inch wide at one point, so it took a half hour to fill it with mastic and put a piece of roofing tape over the crack. That done, I had a look around, only to discover yet another crack, this one about two feet away, also at the top of a corrugation, and it also had been leaking for years, but without causing much of a problem, as it was nowhere near as big. I was able to reach it, fill it with mastic and tape over it as well, but with less elegant results, as it took a lot of hard reaching to get to it. But finally, after patching the two cracks, and nailing the ceiling tiles back in place, I should no longer have any roof leaks. As I write this, it is starting to rain, so I should not have long to find out.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:36:41 AM

Sat, Mar 19 2005

Gaping Hole In The Roof

Thursday had started out so successfully, that I knew it couldn't last. Finding just the tire I needed at a good price, and getting the Riteve inspection done quickly and painlessly, life was just a little too good to be true.

Well, Thursday afternoon, life struck back. Late in the afternoon, a thunderstorm blew in from the west - an extremely unusual situation here - and the westerly winds were nothing short of fierce. The strongest winds I had seen since I have been here, and strong enough to break limbs off of some of the trees. Accompanied by lightning and some very intense rain, the strange westerly wind blew hard enough to break a restraining strap that held up a bamboo pole on which my 2-meter and 70-centimeter ham radio antennas were mounted. It was a big bamboo pole, four inches across at the base and forty three feet high, strapped to the patio roof leg frame, about 12 feet from the main part of the house.

With the restraining strap gone, and no way I could deal with it in the storm, the wind blew the pole down. And down it came - right on my roof, at right-angles to the house alongside edge of the patio roof. When I heard it come down, I could hear things breaking, and I figured it would break some roof sheets, which are old and quite brittle. I went into the kitchen to see if the roof was leaking in the pouring rain. Indeed it was, but only in one spot. I knew I had a problem, but a careful look around revealed no other leaks, so I figured I probably had one broken sheet at worst.

When the storm finally let up enough that I could get outside with my umbrella, I went out for a look. It was bad, but nowhere near as bad as I had feared or as it could have been. All that appeared to be broken was a single crown piece. None of the sheets were broken - thank goodness for that. The bamboo came to rest on the roof, and getting it off looked like it could be a bit of a challenge. As it was almost dark by the time the rain let up, there was not much I could do about it that night, so I figured I would have a look at first light and go to work on it Friday morning.

After breakfast on Friday, when the sun was up, I went out for a close look at the damage. My original inspection during the storm was confirmed, indicating that the 2-meter antenna was totally destroyed, but the 70-centimeter antenna appeared unharmed. Unable to sleep during the night because of all this, I had hatched a tentative plan to get the bamboo off the roof without further damage, and it appeared in the morning light that my plan was feasible.

The strap that held the bamboo to the top of roof truss of the patio roof was intact, and it was the bottom strap near the ground that had broken, with the butt end of the pole swiveling up and away from the house. The upper strap was twisted and deformed, but still intact, and I figured that the upper strap was likely to let go and would not survive the removal efforts, so it would need to be reinforced with some rope.

The gardener came and cleaned up the yard as is usual for Friday mornings, and as soon as he was out of the way, I went to work, rigging for my attempt to lift the pole off the roof. My plan was to get a come-along from the ferreteria (hardware store), and jack the butt end, swiveling it down while I used a long rope from the top end of the pole to pull the pole up and off of the roof. The idea was to swing it up, beyond vertical, and down the other way into the yard. I was afraid that it might come down on my prize tree fern, which was directly in its path, but I was determined that I had to get the pole off the roof as soon as possible, no matter what. A couple of trips to the ferreteria provided the required chain, come-along and rope, and I was ready to proceed. Turns out that during the rigging, I noticed that the pole was resting unsupported on the edge of a roof sheet. It had not broken it, but all the weight was on the end of that one sheet. That made getting it off the roof as gingerly as possible more urgent than ever.

I lassoed the top of the pole, and got the rope around the other side of the house where I could pull the pole up and off of the roof. I soon had the come-along chained to the butt end of the pole and the patio roof frame, jacked it to put some tension on it and take the pressure off the roof tile, and then went to the far end of the rope to begin pulling up the top of the pole, off the roof and towards the vertical.

With tension on the butt end applying leverage to lift it vertical, pulling on the rope proved to be far less strenuous than I had expected. It came off the roof quite readily, but unfortunately, began to swing around to the side. That wasn't a terribly serious worry, though it had potential to damage the patio roof truss where the swivel point was located, so I went ahead and proceeded to raise the pole a bit at a time while watching what was happening everywhere.

Once I had the pole almost clear of the roof, I hear a loud snapping sound. The pole had developed a split from the sideways tension of the rope. To prevent it from breaking, I figured out I would need to rig another rope to swing the pole back towards its original position perpendicular to the house. Just as I was doing that, my gardener, who had finished his weed-cutting chores on the North Forty, came by and noticed what I was doing. He offered to help, and I really needed it, so I was very glad for his assistance. I gave him the new side-pulling rope and told him to maintain the pole perpendicular to the house as I pulled the pole up and over into the yard.

He did exactly as instructed, and the pole came up easily and quickly, past vertical, and crashed down almost exactly as planned, but swinging into the limbs of a mango tree as it came over, sparing the tree fern. Seems the side-pulling rope broke just as it came over the top, and the pole broke as well, at the split just above the swivel point, but it had come down harmlessly into the mango tree. But the objective had been achieved - the pole was off of the roof, and with no further damage to the roof. Getting it out of the mango tree was relatively simple - the gardener hacked off the end of it that was on the ground, and the remainder came crashing to the ground, doing some minor damage to a ginger plant. The last fall broke the 70-centimeter antenna, but that was not a horrible loss - I'll have to rebuild it, but I had been contemplating that recently anyway. This just made up my mind. But the main thing was that the bamboo was off the roof and the rest of the roof was intact. Now I have to turn my attention to repairing the roof. Since this style of roof sheet is no longer made, I am going to have to search to find a crown piece that has been removed from another roof. I think I may have located one, but I won't know for sure until I have actually secured it. Getting it installed , however, is quite another matter. I am going to have to get creative for that one.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 07:34:37 PM

Thu, Mar 17 2005

Inspection Day

It has continued to be delightful summer weather here in Arenal. I have certainly enjoyed it, to say the least. My health has been rather poor, so I got little accomplished around the yard, but have enjoyed the weather nonetheless.

On Wednesday, I decided to drive to Canas to get my car inspection done at the nearest Riteve inspection station. It was due at the end of the month and I figured I had better take care of it now, so if I had to do anything to the car to get it to pass, I would have the time before the end of the month. I finally got on the road around noon, and drove to the Riteve station to get it done. I timed my arrival for just after lunch, figuring that the morning crunch would be gone, and being in the middle of the month, likely to have a minimum of a wait. Well, my speculations worked out - when I arrived, there was only one other vehicle there being inspected, a semi tractor, and an a Jeep Cherokee that was in the final stages of an inspection. I had a tire that I wasn't sure would pass, but I figured I'd give it a try. Well, it didn't pass. Since the national strike last year, the Riteve people are doing some quick pre-inspections before you go in and pay for an inspection - your tires and lights are checked, as well as the readability of your license plate (they're permanent here, and stay with the car when it is sold, so the older the car, the older the plates) and your windshield wiper function. Well, I figured I would not have a problem with anything except the tire.

The tire failed the pre-inspection (there was some discussion about it between the inspector and his supervisor about it), so I left and went shopping for a tire. Didn't find anything - I checked every gas station and tire shop I passed. Nothing in Canas, which really quite surprised me. So I headed home, surprised I couldn't find anything suitable - only a very cheap Chinese-made tire with only a single ply in the sidewalls and a single ply in the tread, and incredibly stiff sidewalls. Barely even qualified as a radial tire. They wanted almost $50 for that, and I wasn't about to resort to that kind of desperation. I stopped in Tilaran on the way home, and looked around there. I found one tire, a Taiwan brand I was not familiar with, and at a fairly high price. Nothing more. A taxi driver had told me it was a good brand, but I felt I could do better. Back to Arenal, and a stop at the gas station indicated that they had no suitable used tires and didn't sell new. So tomorrow, it would be back to Canas for more looking, and on to Liberia if I really had to.

This morning, I got up early and got breakfast out of the way. I headed for Canas quite early, and when I got there, found some more gas stations selling tires, but still nothing suitable, or even in the size I needed. One attendant suggested I try the Bridgestone tire shop on the other end of town. I had no idea it existed - hadn't seen in on Wednesday. I followed his directions, and sure enough, there it was. I was amazed.

It was a full-blown tire shop like one would expect to see in the States. Hundreds of tires in stock, in every conceivable size and style, and a ten-car service bay complete with spin balancers which are a rarity here. I knew I had found my tire. The salesman knew from looking at my car what I was looking for and took me right to the pile. The only tires of any reasonable quality in my size and type (all-terrain), were some Firestone Wilderness AT radials. It was the same model and size that had been involved in the massive recall in the States a few years ago, when a significant number had been involved in tread separation incidents. But I knew that the only ones that had been a problem were tires that had come out of a single plant in Ohio. I checked this tire - it was made in the Firestone plant here in Costa Rica, and so it should be OK. Because of the publicity surrounding the recall, Firestone was offering a full replacement guarantee on the tire, good for the life of the tread, and the price was great - about $90 for it, including mounting, balancing and installation on the car, less than the cost of the Taiwan tire I had found Wednesday in Tilaran. I paid for the tire, got the receipt and guarantee certificate and headed out the showroom door while the tire salesman took the tire to the service bay.

I got in the truck and headed for the service bay, where the tire gorilla guided me into the last bay. He and his team of two other gorillas went to work. In seconds, my wheel was off the car and in a couple of minutes, the old tire was off the rim. With the new one on the rim in a couple of minutes more, they were about to put the wheel back on the car, but I reminded them that they had neither balanced the tire nor checked the bead for leaks. I insisted that they do both, and they mumbled a quick apology. The tire balance was almost a formality - it needed only a half an ounce, but a weight was installed and the tire was checked for leaks and installed on my car. I got in and drove it away. First stop was to be the bank - the tire had pretty well cleaned out my wallet, so I needed some more cash for the inspection, which costs about $22. The ATM was closed when I got there, so I had to go inside and wait in line - it took almost 20 minutes by the time I was out. But it was only 10:30 AM by now, and so I figured I would head over to Riteve and see what the results would be.

When I arrived, the place was almost abandoned. I was the only customer there. They had remembered me from the day before, so they skipped the pre-inspection and directed me straight into the inspection bay. First, the shocks and headlight aim. Then the brakes, steering and wheel alignment. Finally, it was emissions. To my great relief, I passed and with only a couple of minor problems noted, a transfer case leak that I already knew about, and slight brake imbalance. They put a new inspection sticker in my windshield and I was out of there. It was an enjoyable ride home - felt good that I had escaped the clutches of the auto mechanics for at least another year. I was on top of the world.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:05:25 PM

Tue, Mar 15 2005

Leave The Tattoos At Home

The lovely weather continues, interrupted Sunday by a day of rain and cooler weather. But summer is definitely here, and the mango trees are in full bloom, filling the air with their fragrance. A lot of rain is damaging to them, and will cause them to drop their fragrant, but rather uninspiring blossoms, and the year's crop is lost. But the rain was not quite enough for that - just enough to water the garden and keep my bougainvillea cuttings alive, but not enough to cause a loss of my mango crop. At least yet.

My health has been a bit downhill again, so I haven't been up to getting much gardening done as I would like, and have spent a good deal of time on the computer, interacting with the list members of the Humanism list on Yahoo. It is a lot of fun, and absorbing, as they are a very intellectual bunch for the most part and tangling with them can be a bit challenging at times - mostly college professors, engineers and other professionals, they know their stuff - and they'll take you to the woodshed in a heartbeat if you screw up.

Yesterday, the Hallmark Channel for Latin America ran the full four-hour version of the movie, "Hitler." It was a fascinating movie to watch, especially Hitler's early years, in which he was struggling to find his way to power. The parallels between that movie and the current events in the United States were chilling, to say the least. Sure am glad I am out of there.

Not much happening around the neighborhood these days. A house two doors up that was recently bought by a gringo investor has been seeing some activity, even though no one has moved in yet. Last week, a crew tore down the rather makeshift carport and poured a concrete driveway and pad for it, and then built a new, more substantial carport in its place. Looks much better now. And the Tico renter has been by from time to time supervising, and he seems to be a really nice fellow. Have had several good chats with him. I have no idea when he is planning to move in, but a couple of weeks ago, the ICE crew was out and hooked up a new service for the place. So I should have a new neighbor soon.

The aftermath from last week's horrible failed bank heist in Monteverde continues. There have been a lot of recriminations in the press about how it could have been prevented, why the gang responsible had not been previously caught, etcetera. But the heroism of the policemen who attempted the rescue was also feted and the officer who was shot and killed by the bandits received a state funeral. It was quite an event on TV. The final casualty figures: nine dead, seventeen injured, twenty eight hostages taken, all of which except one managed to escape through the blown-out glass door of the bank. Of the nine dead, two were gunmen, six were bank employees, and one was a policeman. None of the bank customer hostages, a mix of locals and tourists, were killed, though several were injured. The gunman was down to a single hostage by the time it was over - and that hostage was rescued unharmed. The gang, it turns out, were either four or five Nicaraguans, including three brothers, two of which were among those killed and the remainder was the captured suspect. At least one, possibly two members of the gang, escaped early on in the events, one the driver of the get-away car, but it is uncertain if there was a fifth suspect.

A couple of months ago, I wrote in this space about my trip to Granada, Nicaragua, and the interesting young men who were rescued from the streets of that city by an ex-Peace Corps worker, and given a new start in life by being trained in food service and small-business management by their participation in the Cafe Chavalos project. Well, it seems that several of the fine young men I met there, and whose hospitality I much enjoyed, made the paper last week. The were all arrested for wearing tattoos.

The lady who rescued them and who manages the cafe, Donna Tabor, the hero of our story, wrote an article about their experience in the Tico Times. It seems that a couple of the young men had expressed an interest in knowing more about the Mayan civilization from which several of them were descendants. So she organized a trip for them to go to Honduras to visit Mayan ruins and talk to the archaeologists there. They boarded an international bus in Granada, and when they arrived at the Honduran border, everything was cool until they got to Honduran formalities. The security guards noticed that they were all sporting tattoos and wearing baggy pants. It seems that Honduras is cracking down hard, and I mean really hard, on street gangs, and part of the profile they look for is the wearing of tattoos and body piercing jewelry, along with baggy pants, loose shirts and backwards baseball caps. The three young men fit the profile. They had it all - tattoos, body piercings with jewelry, baggy clothes and backwards baseball caps. That was enough - they were arrested and hauled off for interrogation at the local police station. When Donna tried to intervene, she was arrested too as being a possible accessory.

Well, it took a lot of talking and persuasion, including a visit to the police station's computer, where an internet check turned up the "Building New Hope" web site, where the Cafe Chavalos project was listed. The police bought the explanation, somewhat reluctantly, and released all of them, but confiscated their body piercing jewelry and made them change the baggy pants, which promptly went to the bottom of their bags never to see the light of another Honduran day. The rest of the trip was solemn and, in the case of one of the young men, rather tearful, as he had had visions of spending ten years in a Honduran jail, where most of the inmates really are street gang members.

So there is a moral to all of this. If you are a young person, inclined to body piercings, baggy clothes, backwards baseball caps, and the like, don't even consider a border crossing into Honduras (or El Salvador, for that matter - they're even more strict). And tattoos? Especially tattoos - they could get you ten in a pretty horrible place.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:56:52 AM

Wed, Mar 09 2005

Hostage Crisis Ends, Nine Dead

At about 8 PM, tuning in to local television, I learned that the police had captured the last remaining gunman and freed the last remaining hostage, a female bank employee. At least seven are dead and many more, including a pregnant woman, are wounded. Several tourists were among the hostages; one, a 21-year old Canadian man, was among those injured. The hostage takers released two young foreign women this morning, who appeared to be Americans. All told, twenty people had been in the bank at the time the holdup occurred.

Earlier this afternoon, as I watched on television, the police unsuccessfully stormed the bank, on two occasions, resulting in the death of one policeman and the wounding of another, but freeing several hostages. As I write this, about 8:40 PM, the television news is showing the first shots from inside the bank, including the body of one of the hostage takers. There was also footage of the police hauling away the only remaining suspect, who made no effort to hide his face from the television lights and cameras.

Information I have learned since the blog entry this morning is that the gunmen were part of a gang that had been robbing banks in Costa Rica for several months, but never with such violence as this time. Previous attempts had been successful, and the robbers had eluded the law on several occasions. This time was different, however, when one of the bank guards saw them coming and opened fire before they entered the bank, killing two of the robbers. The remaining three gunmen entered the bank while shooting, resulting in the first casualties, including apparently, at least one woman. The police quickly cordoned off an area of about 400 meters in radius around the bank and no one was allowed into the downtown area of Santa Elena, which meant that most services in town were shut down all day, and there was no transport through the town. Most of the tourists who had been in town quickly fled. Dozens of police surrounded the bank and medical clinic, ensuring that the full facilities were available for victims. Finally, after two aborted attempts at rescuing the hostages this afternoon, the last remaining gunman surrendered at about 7:30 tonight. No word yet on the identity of the robbers, except that three were Nicaraguan nationals, and the television news has been making a big deal about that, which will only add to the resentment people here feel about the large number of Nicaraguans, many illegal, who live here.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:19:21 PM

Tourists With Stories To Take Home

The weather continues to be hot and dry - unusually dry for Arenal. There has been only a brief shower, a few days ago, and so things are starting to wilt, particularly the impatiens that are so dependent on daily rain. I have watered them twice and they need it again.

Yesterday was oil change day. I took my car over to the local gasolinera (gas station) to get the oil changed, and as luck would have it, the help was not around, so I had to wait between cars for the sole attendant to do it. I didn't bother with a chassis lube, the oil change alone was taking enough time.

People stopping for gas were mostly tourists. The high season is on, and the tourists are here in numbers. Seems that the Americans are outnumbering the Europeans by a considerable margin right now. The Europeans show up mostly during the "green" season (read: rainy season), and the Americans during the dry. My fellow Americans are fair weather tourists, I guess. There isn't that much difference, normally, and the Americans miss out on the vastly cheaper prices.

While at the gasolinera, I directed several tourists as to the route to Monteverde. Here in Arenal, we are between the two major tourist attractions in the country. The Arenal volcano, is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and one of the very few where a casual trip to visit is likely to turn up views of an eruption. The other tourist attraction is the Monteverde cloud forest, with its Quaker colony and the cloud forest that National Geographic says is one of the ten most beautiful places in the world.

So there is a lot of tourist traffic between those two sites. And it all has to go through Arenal. So while waiting for the oil change at the gasolinera yesterday, I watched a fair sample of the tourist traffic as it went through the town, some of it stopping for gas. Many of the Americans, in particular, were embarrassing in how they completely ignore Tico dress customs, being offensive in wearing shorts, no shirt at all and flip-flops everywhere. I almost wanted to say, "hey, I am not one of them!"

Well, while at the gasolinera, I directed several tourists coming from the volcano towards their destination in Monteverde. The latter is a small place without much in the way of tourist facilities, and most everyone who goes there, stays in the small, nearby village of Santa Elena. And the tourists I unknowingly directed there were in for quite a surprise when they arrived in sleepy little Santa Elena.

Seems that about half past three, well before any of them would have gotten there, a group of five armed men, three dressed in army camouflage and balaclavas and toting AK-47s, walked into the local branch of the Banco Nacional, and, in a bungled robbery attempt, took 19 people in the place hostage. One of the guards had seen them approaching the bank, and managed to foil the robbery, but four of the robbers made it inside, where they began a night-long standoff and shootout with police. As I write this, the drama is still going on, with three dead, all of them robbers, nine hostages released including at least one child I saw being hustled away by police. A hostage who managed to escape, and a bank guard, have been injured in the gunplay, and were airlifted to the country's principal hospital, Hospital Mexico, in San Jose. One of the guards managed to make an escape, captured by the television crews, and with his bloody shirt, it made for some dramatic television - so was played over and over again, endlessly. Also played over and over, was footage of two of the dead robbers, bodies slumped on the steps of the bank. Confirming the old adage about television news: If it bleeds, it leads.

At 8 AM, as I write this, it is still going on, with the two remaining robbers demanding a 20 million colones ($43,000) ransom, and the television news crew is still on the scene, airing occasional clips of the interior of the bank, shot through the window, with shadowy figures inside, and the ambulances lined up outside the police line, ready to take away the injured or dead after it is finally over. The news crews are pressed for new information to report, so they are interviewing everyone in sight, the doctors in the ambulance crews, bystanders, and of course, re-running the dramatic footage from last night.

This is certainly the biggest television drama in Costa Rica in quite some time, certainly out-doing the other big news of the day, the death of the Catholic Archbishop emeritus of Costa Rica, a man who had been in the forefront of gay-bashing in this country until he was caught by the police in a park in the middle of the night with a teenaged boy in his car - in a "compromising position," as they say. He was also implicated in the murder of a journalist who was investigating malfeasance in a Catholic-owned radio station. No wonder the Catholic church is rapidly losing influence here.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 07:13:31 AM

Sun, Mar 06 2005

Zero Noise

Weather has been warm - really warm. For the last week, it has been as warm as January was cold around here. Almost record-breaking. Fortunately, today has been cloudy, and that has kept the temperature down to a reasonable level. There hasn't been any rain since the weather turned warm, not even at night, which is unusual. Two weeks without rain around here constitutes a drought - and after January's downpours, it is quite a change.

The clear weather means that I have been able to see the volcano from the hilltop just a few hundred yards from my house. It has been interesting to watch - it has been quite active lately. There have been several lava flows that have cascaded most of the way down the slope, and the ash plume has been quite large, more than it usually is. And a couple of days ago, there were a couple of explosions that were audible even here. I am wondering if it is entering a more active phase. The other volcano near here, and closer to me, is Tenorio, and it has not been active at all that I can see.

My gardener felt that the hot, dry weather would be really good for cutting and planting the watershoots from the bougainvilleas around the house, to extend the row of bougainvilleas that I am planting along the street along my fence. I have about six hundred feet of fence line, and about a third of it is now planted, and most of the cuttings I have planted have sprouted new leaves, so it looks like the project is a success so far. We also planted the rooted cuttings that I put in bags of compost last winter, which are now well rooted and were well ready for planting. My plantings from about three weeks ago are also showing signs of sprouting, so in a year or so, the long row of bougainvilleas should be quite a show. The first I planted are already in bloom.

My health has been pretty good too, since the warm weather began, and I have been taking advantage of that to get some work done around the place. I have gotten the entry to the driveway culvert blocked up now, and have filled in the cinder blocks that line the driveway, so that when the rains begin, I can get them planted with the shrub cuttings I have been given.

Well, I had some good news and some bad news from ICE last week. They finally came out to finish moving the wires onto the new poles they planted a couple of months back, and off of the old wooden poles that run through my North Forty. As they were looking the job over on Wednesday, they came by and told me that I am going to have to put up a new service. The old wires that are currently running through my front yard are going to also be replaced in a few months, and they are not going to allow my current service to be connected to the new wires that will be across the street, as they are too low, and the meter cannot be read from the street. This means I have to put a meter base out on the street so the meter reader can read my meter without coming onto my property. It also means that my service must be grounded at the street, which will help in lightning management during the rainy season, too. I plan to put the meter some distance from the house, so that power line noise and lightning voltage spikes coming in on the wires will be filtered out. I stopped at the ferreteria (hardware store) on Friday and checked prices; it looks like it is going to set me back about $150 to build and install it.

I was glad to see the wires get moved off my North Forty on Thursday, though - it means I can now use the tallest trees on that corner of my property for my ham antennas. And I am quite eager to do that. As they were doing the preparatory work for the move, they told me that I would be without power for five hours the next day, Thursday, while they were installing the new wires and moving the connections over to them. Sure enough, on Thursday morning, right at eight, off went the power. So I went out to watch and see how it was going, and it looked like it was going slowly enough that I didn't think they would have it back on by one, but to my surprise, they actually finished up an hour early. All the wires are now gone from my North Forty, and I am free to put antennas there anywhere I want.

I was hoping that moving the high voltage wire onto new insulators might mean that the power line noise that has plagued my ham radio and shortwave listening since I have been here would be fixed. So when the power finally came back on, the first thing I did was to check, and to my delight, all my power line noise is gone now. I mean totally gone. Not a hint. This place is now the quietest home I have ever had as far as ham radio is concerned, and I can't wait to get some good antennas up to take advantage of it now. It has been three days, and I have yet to hear so much as a burst of power line noise. All the high voltage anywhere near me is now on insulators no older than six months, so there is hope that it will stay that way for a while, too. To say I am delighted is putting it mildly.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 04:59:17 PM
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