Letters From Exile

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

Sun, May 29 2005

Watching Tico Television On A Homemade Antenna

Well, the weather has finally been settling into a more normal pattern here. The southerly winds that created hurricane Adrian a week and a half ago have finally diminished, and been replaced by the usual trade winds that blow out of the east. This has brought with it a more normal rainy season pattern, with evening and night-time rains, and overcast but only intermittent rains during the day. The last few days have seen only a few sprinkles, however, and things are actually getting a bit dry around here. Not what I would expect this time of the year - usually, we can expect about a half an inch or so per day, but not this last week. Weather sure has been weird this year.

The unusually dry weather of the last few days has meant that the construction season around here has continued longer than normal, and construction in Arenal continues unabated. The real estate boom (and the bubble that is driving it) shows no signs of letting up, and the result is that the builders have all been pretty busy. Whenever I see my Tico friends in town who are doing construction work, they are all usually busy. Have never seen things booming like this around here.

My health has been rather poor for the last couple of weeks, forcing me to spend a good deal of time in bed, and so I have not been able to get out and do much. Just a bit of puttering around in the garden, less than I would like to do, but all that is possible. The weather has not been much of a factor, except that it seems that when I have been feeling good, the weather has been lousy. So I have been getting a lot out of my DirecTV subscription lately. Watched "Enemy Of The State" once again, and once again, it reminded me, somewhat uncomfortably, of what I went through before leaving the States. Great movie to watch if you want to know how the U.S. government deals with dissidents these days. I was shocked to learn recently, too, that nearly a quarter of high school students in the States think that the government should approve stories before newspapers print them, and more than a half think that newspapers are licensed. Wow. But the way they never question their government's behavior, or seldom criticize the current administration, I am not terribly surprised there would be so many American teenagers who think that way.

Not that the media down here in Costa Rica are up to all that much either. We have three daily newspapers here, two of which are tabloids in every sense of the word. The one serious daily, La Nacion, is not really particularly hard-hitting for that matter. There is criticism of the administration, but it is not really deep, investigative journalism, nor is it highly critical or antagonistic, reporting scandals, but not investigating them with any real vigor. And apparently it has treated past administrations of either party in a similar manner. The television here seems to have learned its lessons in journalism from television news departments in the States - if it bleeds, it leads, and the serious affairs of state, including what is happening in the legislature or the Supreme Court may garner three or four minutes at best out of an hour's newscast.

But the Ticos really love their novelas (soap operas). They run all day long, and into the evening, and other than locally produced game shows, represent most of what Ticos watch. The rest is the occasional soccer game, and late in the evening a movie, often in English with Spanish subtitles.

On Tuesday, I received an invite to visit a Tico family that are friends of mine, just up the hill. Turns out there was an ulterior motive - they have a daughter who is starting college and needs to earn money for tuition, and they strongly hinted that I need a maid - and they just happened to know one. Well, she is a really sweet girl, , young, intelligent and attractive, and I am sure a hard worker, but I don't need or want a maid. Sorry.

Had a good visit during the afternoon, and finally at one point, he turned on his TV to check the progress of the soccer game. The reception was rather poor, and as most Ticos seem to have television antennas, but usually the wrong kind and usually aimed the wrong direction, I decided to go out and have a look and offer suggestions as to how it might be improved. Since we are only about thirty miles from the transmitter site and line-of-sight to it, the reception should have been far better.

Well, the antenna was the front half of a much larger antenna that had long since come down in a storm and had been smashed into unusability. But it was apparent to me that some improvement could be made by using the remnant as the feed for a corner reflector, and explained how to do this when he got his hands on some wire mesh. Well, he took me out to his chicken coop, where he actually had some, just enough to do the job. We scrounged up some aluminum tubing, which with the mesh, would make a reflector just large enough. We went to work. After some doing, working with almost no tools and very little in the way of materials, mostly just junk, we had fashioned a rather crude reflector to test the concept, and mounted the remnant of the old antenna in front of it to try it out. The television signals came alive, and finally the reception was quite good on the major channels. They were amazed. The result ended up too large and way too rickety and fragile to put on the roof, but as the house is on a hillside facing the transmitter site, that was not much of an issue. They simply placed it next to the fence line, behind a bush. They are now getting far better reception than they have ever had. And not a a single colon was wasted.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 02:59:09 PM

Fri, May 20 2005

Adrian Dies - Kinda

Well, just when you thought it was safe to go outside... Adrian was a bit of a bust, as far as Costa Rica was concerned. The emergency management people had everyone in a tizzy just in case - emergency committees were activated from Puntarenas to the Nicaragua border along the Pacific coast, but I am not aware of any particular problems that have occurred.

This is not to make light of what happened in El Salvador. The emergency evacuation plans seem to have come off reasonably well, and only two fatalities have been reported so far as this is being written, though there were thousands left homeless, and as usual, it is the poor who suffer most. And El Salvador has its share of poor.

Well, the storm moved through El Salvador and on to the northeast through Honduras, but fell apart quite quickly as it moved inland. The organized low more or less disintegrated as the circulation pattern pulled the remnants out into the Gulf of Honduras and the west-central Caribbean. Heavy rains for the next 24 hours are still being predicted for Honduras, so that country will suffer a lot of landslides, flash floods and its share of devastation. Here in Costa Rica, throughout the day, we have been on storm watch, but only a couple of rain bands went over us here in Guanacaste, and flooding was not serious, at least this far south. I have not seen any reports of damage here in Costa Rica.

But just when things looked good, the latest weather map shows the moisture, of which there is lots, has circulated back out into the Caribbean, then down to the south a bit into the easterly trades that are going to pull it right back across Costa Rica. There is a big thunderstorm brewing over the northern half of Limon province as I write this, and if the circulation over Guanacaste resumes to normal, which it appears to be doing, it will be carried right over us. As I look outside right now, the southerly surface winds of the last two days have died out and it is dead calm - and the weather map shows the easterlies resuming, though the clouds are still coming up from the southwest. We're still being advised to be on the watch for torrential rains and possible flash floods tonight and until mid-day tomorrow.

The local television news just came on, and the lead story was rain in the central valley. No problems out on the coast, and the subsequent stories were the usual sorts one sees on Costa Rican television news - crime, highway accidents, corruption and the high cost of living. Things are getting back to normal around here.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 06:33:03 PM

Thu, May 19 2005

Adrian Arrives - Sort Of

Well, the first tropical storm of the new season, Adrian, has come ashore, a long way away - in El Salvador. It is battering the coast well and truly, and all the people living in tin shacks in the colonias of San Salvador, the capital, are doubtless seeing their homes torn apart and their possessions scattered by the hurricane-force winds by now. One can't help but feel sorry for people who lost so much during Reagan's war on them, who have been reduced to living on remittances from relatives living mostly illegally in the United States, and now this. This must surely be a terrible trial to them. I fully expect them to be in the news by this time tomorrow.

Further south, the folks in Nicaragua, particularly in the north of the country along the Pacific coast, are enjoying some badly needed rain - though this is probably a bit much. Nicaragua as a nation is chronically short of water, particularly on the Pacific side of the divide, and now they will be experiencing a huge surplus for a few days and weeks. So far I haven't heard any reports on local television yet, but I am sure that the results are not going to be good there, either. Having a drought broken by a hurricane is not the best way for it to happen.

Here in Arenal, in the northwestern part of Costa Rica, the storm has been a bit of a bust so far. The wind has shifted around and is coming out of the south - the first time ever I can remember the wind here blowing from that direction (it rarely blows from any direction other than from the east and rarely from the northeast). As the storm has come ashore, the weather has clouded up gradually during the day, and as I write this late in the afternoon, we have seen the passage of two rain bands. Neither dropped much water, settling the dust, and producing just a bit of runoff.

I keep waiting for some serious rain to start, but so far, none has. Occasional rumbles of thunder, and light rain, but not much more. When I went to bed last night, the hurricane was headed straight for the Nicoya Peninsula, but during the night, changed back to its predicted course. And it looks like it is continuing on that course as it comes ashore. So I doubt we'll see much more of it here. Just cloudy, muggy weather, little wind, thunder and a bit of rain from time to time. My idea of a nice way to have a hurricane.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 04:27:35 PM

Wed, May 18 2005

Waiting For Adrian

The weather has continued to settle into the rainy season pattern. Yesterday was a day of humid, warm overcast all day long, until late afternoon, when a thunderstorm which had been brewing all day long, finally let loose. It was a huge thunderstorm, lasting for hours, with intense tropical downpour the whole time. We have been having a bit of rain off and on for several days now, but this is by far the most intense rain of the new season so far.

Well, I thought I ought to check out the flow of water into my driveway culvert, and see how it was doing. I thought this might be quite interesting to see how it was handling a large flow, after several hours of intense rain. So I put on my boots, grabbed the umbrella and went out into it for a look.

I was concerned by what I saw. The water was up over the intake, and was swirling straight downward into the intake end of the pipe. Checking out the exit, it was coming out at a rapid rate, and was within two inches of the top of the twelve inch pipe. This was a concern - if it proved more than the pipe could handle, I would have a problem - likely end up with a flooded house. There was nothing I could do during the rain, so I waited for the storm to die down and have a closer look.

When it did, after about three hours, and just before sunset, I went out to see what the situation was, and was horrified at what I saw. The sand from all the construction activity uphill from me, had washed into my culvert and had filled it to within two thirds of the top on the downstream end, and within two inches of the top on the upstream end. The sediment had backed up downstream from the culvert, to where it wouldn't just wash out - I needed to dig out the drainage trench downstream from the culvert, for at least 50 feet. I got the shovel, put on my boots, and went to work

I busted my butt for two hours, until it was getting dark enough to be difficult to work, hauling the sand from the trench in my wheelbarrow to where I could use the fill in the garden. When I finally gave up, it was about one third done.

This morning, I figured as soon as the night rains let up, I would have to get to work and finish up. By about nine thirty, they had done so, and with breakfast over, I could get out there to finish the trench work. Boots on, shovel in hand, and I was out busting my butt once again.

I concluded that trying to move all that sand and rock to the garden was just going to take too long and require too much effort. I needed to get this done. So I decided to continue my spoils heap alongside the trench in front of the house except directly in front of the pedestrian gate, and that will greatly facilitate the cleaning in the future - just dig it out and pile it up. Most of the sand will eventually wash away, and will not leave a huge pile behind, and it is likely to be deposited in some low spots anyway. So I am quite prepared to let it do so. The lawn will quickly grow into the rest, and make it a lot more attractive.

The reason for all this quick preparation is that the first tropical storm of the Pacific season is due through Central America tomorrow. Adrian is a rapidly organizing storm, and as I write this, it is off of the El Salvador coast, and moving towards the northeast. That should take it across El Salvador, Honduras, and through southeastern Guatemala, brushing by Belize and northern Nicaragua (which could use the rain - but not all at once). Well, I am not too sure that it will actually follow that path - it is very rare for a Pacific hurricane to move to the northeast, so I am not sure the predictions are reliable. If it does move southeast - not likely, but possible - that could take it through southern Nicaragua and across northern Costa Rica. This would be a huge storm for us. We don't get named tropical storms through here very often, because the vast majority form in the Caribbean to the northeast of us, and they move to the northwest - making landfall hundreds of miles north of here. Most Pacific hurricanes also move to the northwest, out to sea or up into Mexico, and so Adrian, with its easterly drift, is a huge, glaring exception. Costa Rica is south of the hurricane belt. We get lots of tropical storms, but few hurricanes. The last to score a direct hit on Costa Rica was back in the '60's.

If Adrian hits here, two days from now if it happens, I can expect torrential downpours for most of two days. And that means I need to ensure that the sediment is cleaned out of the culvert, and it can handle the flow, which is apt to continue for some time. So I have been careful to make sure it is as ready as it can be. Now, gotta go batten down the other hatches...

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 01:22:57 PM

Sat, May 14 2005

A Plague Of Tilapia

Well, the weather is settling into the rainy season pattern, at least the early rainy season. Usually drizzle and light rain in the morning, filtered sun in the middle of the day, and thunderstorms in the late afternoon and evening. The rain hasn't really started in earnest, but are intense enough at least to keep things wet and avoid the need to water. And they are just about right for the bougainvillea cuttings I planted along the fence last week.

When the gardener was here yesterday, he brought with him a new plant for my to try, something I have not seen before. The leaf looks a lot like impatiens, but the flower is a creamy orange color, and he tells me that they bloom all year round and are prolific from seed. We planted the two plants he brought in my front flower boxes, where the color should be quite compatible with the tile and paint I am planning for the house.

The paint may happen sooner than I had thought. I have a friend in the States who is planning to visit, and may be spending some time with me. So I need to get some paint on the walls, inside and out, and get the shelves up in the kitchen, and a bed for the second bedroom. And I would sure like to get my remaining wooden windows replaced, too. They are in pretty tough shape.

While the gardener was here, I took the time once again to go into town and take care of my week's business, while there was someone in the yard to scare off burglars. So I got some cash from the bank, and went to buy my groceries and deposit some money with my bill-paying service. On the way to the post office to check my mail, I was walking past the soda, and one of the customers inside rushed out to introduce himself. Turns out he was one of the first owners of my house, and was the owner who had installed the water impoundment to create the pond. He is apparently something of an aquaculturist, and said he needed to get some sardinas (a small tropical fish in the tetra family unrelated to sardines but similar in appearance) to plant in a new pond he was building, as a forage fish for the guapote (the famous Costa Rican game fish) he wanted to plant in it. Fine, I said, come by in a couple of hours, and he could catch all he wanted.

Well, around half-past eleven, he and his brother and son came by. He had an improvised dip net, and some bait, which was boiled rice. He set the dip net out, tossed some grains of rice into the water in it, and tried to entice the sardinas into it. After a lot of attempts, no success. He told me he would come back in a couple of hours with "another system" to try. Sure enough, a bit after one, he came by with a fishing pole improvised from a long stick, some nylon line and small fish hooks. He had some worms with him for use as bait.

We went down to the pond, and went to work. He baited the hook and cast it out as far as he could with the stick. It went out about ten feet, in water about three feet deep.

In seconds, he had a strike, and pulled it in. As soon as he had it out of the water, he gave me some bad news - the fish was a tilapia. Someone had planted tilapia in my guapote pond. The problem is that tilapia are a fish that reproduces very rapidly - they can fully populate an empty pond in six months, and, worse, they'll out-compete any other fish in the pond, including sardinas and guapote both. Not a good sign.

He cast again, and again within seconds, pulled in another tilapia. And again and again. This was really bad news. It meant that the tilapia that someone had placed in the pond had taken over, and had driven all other species out. After catching about ten to fifteen tilapia, he caught only a single sardina. The tilapia had eaten the sardinas to the edge of extinction, and doubtless had finished off the young of any guapote they could catch, too. This was really bad news. He told me that there were lots and lots of tilapia in my pond - thousands and thousands, he said. Well, that was certainly a great disappointment. Not what I wanted to hear.

It means I have two choices. I can drain the pond, with all the hassle that would entail, kill off all the tilapia and restock it with guapote after restocking it with sardinas first - and hope that no small tilapia had managed to swim up the brook that feeds the pond, to repopulate it again. That is an iffy proposition at best. And god himself knows what I would find in that pond - rusted out car body with a skeleton in the trunk? I am not sure I want to know what all is there.

The other choice is to leave it as a tilapia pond. Sure, the tilapia is OK, but it is nowhere near as good as guapote. Certainly not as much fun to fish for - the tilapia are no challenge at all. Bait a hook with a chunk of dog food, cast it into the water, and in seconds reel in a small fish of about 2/3 of a pound. Kids play, but not much fun. Easy dinner, too. It means if I ever ran out of cash, I would never run out of food - a high-protein dinner is always just a quick cast away.

If I drain the pond, I will have to wait until next dry season when the pond would dry out enough to kill any tilapia eggs or fry in the mud. And that is now nine months away. So I have lots of time to decide what I want to do.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 04:23:27 PM

Sat, May 07 2005

Rainy Season Begins

The rainy season seems to have begun in Arenal. Short and sweet is our dry season here, but this one was fairly long, by local standards, and quite dry - it has had me irrigating my garden to keep things going. The heat has had me running the fans most every day, but yesterday the heat finally broke and today the windows are closed and the fans are off. Temperature, as it is through most of the rainy season here, is just about perfect. Today, I awoke to a gentle, steady early-morning rain - a sure sign of rainy season weather in these parts.

Yesterday when the gardener arrived, he brought with him a huge pile of bougainvillea cuttings, prunings from one of his other clients. They were a welcome sight, and hopefully, with the impending rainy season, they'll get well-established, at least enough, to make it through the wettest part of the rains. They really like dry, hot, sunny weather, but only when they're well established. Too much rain and cuttings won't root. So a little rain a couple of times a week for a month or two would be just about right - and that is typical of how the rainy season here begins, so I am hopeful most of the cuttings will take root and grow.

When the gardener was done with mowing the grass and raking things up, we set about planting the cuttings. Rather than dig a hole, he suggested I get out the pick - and he proceeded to poke a hole in the ground, plant a cutting in it, firm up the soil with his foot and go on to the next. It didn't take long to get the entire pile in the ground - and there are now bougainvilleas planted every few feet from the gate in front of my house, around the end of the pond and most of the way on to the property boundary on the north side. I now have bougainvilleas planted along about two-thirds of my frontage with the street. I can't wait till they're all grown and putting on their show. It should be quite spectacular.

Well, yesterday, as the gardener was cutting the grass, as always, I went into town to get the week's grocery shopping done, check my mail and get copies of the papers to bring home and read. No La Nacion, they were all sold out - surprising, as it was still fairly early. I am wondering what big story I missed that caused them to sell out. Walking back across the street to my car, I bumped into one of my old friends in town, and we got to talking. She told me that the owner of the ferreteria (hardware store) had approached her husband to buy the business. He had been considering it, but had decided not to do it. It is a good thing, too, because a chain of ferreterias had been surveying the area, to see if it would be feasible to open one of their stores in town, and had apparently decided to do it. As it turns out, instead they bought the existing ferreteria. I have not been in there yet since it opened up under new management, but I am told that they have considerably increased the inventory, and it will be interesting to see if they have, and if so, how much they have done so. The new owners hurriedly put in a new driveway and paved the parking lot - the one change I have seen. I've generally been happy with the ferreteria's management so far, and seldom have gone away empty-handed when I need something, so if this new outfit does better, that'll be great, but I'll be surprised. I am concerned, however that the old owners would readily do small contracting jobs, and that was kind of handy - it is how I got my driveway culvert put in. Now I'll have to find an alternative, but I think I know of someone who can do these small jobs for me.

The ferreteria was bought up by a chain because the little town of Arenal is growing like a noxious weed. A few months back, our local fast-food shop shut down (we have had several others, though this one was my favorite), and the building was occupied, within two days, by a chain appliance ("white goods") retailer - the first in town. The chain supermarket here moved into the ferreteria's old building, greatly increasing their floor space. And now, as a result, there is little need to go to Tilaran for groceries - just about any basic grocery item you might need is available here (though produce and fresh bread still remains a problem). The ferreteria built a large new building, and greatly increased their floor space - and now their inventory. All this construction and change gives me mixed feelings - on the one hand, I hope it continues - it can only do good things for my property value. On the other, I am scared that Arenal can lose its charm, if not its beauty - and that old-fashioned small-town friendliness and flavor that I so greatly cherish.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:55:41 AM

Tue, May 03 2005

Good Deed Goes Bad

The dry season weather continues here in Arenal, and it seems like it won't end. Every time it appears it is going to change, the following day is back to the hot, dry, sunny routine of the last two months. I am loving it. Wish it would last, but I know it won't. The change of weather to the rainy season is due, and there is a noticeable increase in humidity in the last couple of weeks, so the rains can't be far away. The garden really needs it, too. I've been watering, but in this sun, that is only a stopgap measure. The heat and bright sun just burn up delicate things like impatiens, and some of the other more delicate things.

The last few days have not been terribly busy, kinda relaxed - the way I like it. Last week, the municipality sent a road grader around to clean out the drainage trenches on my street - second time in six months. I am certain they had not been cleaned out for years before I moved here, so I don't know what the deal is, other than the fact that the poor highway maintenance the municipality has done on the road to Tilaran has made the national news - and with presidential attention focused on the situation, I think the municipal government has felt the heat to be more responsive. Not only did they clean the drainage trenches, they even dumped some gravel in the big hole in the road that is next to my northern property boundary. Unfortunately, it was just gravel - nothing to hold it in place, so the traffic driving through it is scattering it fairly quickly. If they had used some 3/4 minus, the sand and soil would hold it, but there is nothing, so uphill traffic, especially when it spins tires in the loose gravel, is scattering it well outside the hole. Well, at least their hearts were in the right place.

Yesterday, I was sitting here in my chair watching television about four in the afternoon, when a neighbor came by and asked if I could pick up his sister and his at the medical clinic and take them to Cote Lake, about six miles from here. Well, to be honest, I wasn't really keen on the idea, but they would have been charged about $4 each by a cab, and they simply didn't have that much, and had no way home otherwise, so I agreed to take them up there for a single fare.

We got in my car and headed out. Stopped at the clinic to pick up his sister and his mom, and drove out the Tilaran highway, enjoying the newly patched surface. Every single hole has been patched, at least this far, and it was a pleasure to not have to dodge potholes anymore. I turned off at the Cote Lake sign, and headed up the gravel road towards the Continental Divide. We had a good chat, dodging the big rocks and the loose chickens, up the hill to the top. At the divide, the road curves off to the right and heads down the other side briefly before coming out into a beautiful view of Cote Lake, a natural lake of about a square mile in size. As the road heads down, the gravel chunks getting bigger and the road narrower. We came to the farm that my neighbor indicated his dad owns, a nice, big spread with a beautiful view of the lake. His mom and sister got out of the car, and we turned around to go home.

I hadn't gotten back to the top of the hill, when I began to hear that distinctive sound of a flopping tire. Carumba! We pulled off where there was room for traffic to pass, and I got out for a look. It was the left rear, and it appeared that the tire was intact, not bruised that I could see. Looked like it would be repairable. We got out the tools, and went to work.

The jack that came with the car is a hydraulic axle jack. I had to slide it under the axle near the wheel, pushing gravel out of the way, and work the handle as best I could, because rather than having a twist pump, it had a standard piston pump, which meant that I had to work it up and down. There simply wasn't enough room to work it as the pump was designed, so I had to use the lug wrench as a shortened handle to do the job. I had barely enough strength to do the work. My neighbor, who was wearing a fresh dress shirt and pants, couldn't do much without ruining his clothes, so I had to do the dirty work as best I could in my poor health. But I managed to get the tire off the ground, and get it changed. My spare, a cheap, two-ply Chinese tire, had been checked a month ago, and was fully inflated, so no problem there. We got the spare on the wheel, the flat on the spare carrier, let the jack back down and put the tools away.

We drove slowly and carefully down the boulder-strewn gravel road, down to the highway, and back to town. I did not fancy the idea of hitting another rock and disinflating another tire, only to have to walk that distance back to town. Especially, considering the cheap spare I was driving on. He suggested we stop at a restaurant enroute so I could clean up, but I didn't see the need for that - I wanted to stop at the gas station to drop the tire off anyway, and would just get dirty again handling it.

At the gas station, the only one in town, the place was incredibly busy - a long line of tourists getting gas for their continued journey, several large trucks, and the usual local rush-hour traffic. Finally, after about ten minutes of trying, I got the attention of the owner and let him know that I would be back in a day or two to pick it up. He agreed. I washed up quickly in the windshield-wash barrel, and we headed home. I dropped my neighbor off at his sister's house, and then drove back home.

Tomorrow is pick-up-the-tire-if-its-ready day. No bets on whether it will be - the gasolinera has been quite busy lately. So I'll check, and bug the owner if it isn't. If the tire isn't usable, I'll have to consider a trip to Canas to get a new one. But I need to get to the grocery store tomorrow for some bread anyway. And with any luck, it then it will be back to tranquilo.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 03:48:54 PM
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