Letters From Exile

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

Thu, Nov 30 2006

Dining On A Record-Class Guapote

I had a dinner invite tonight, and it was far too tempting to turn down. My newly-arrived friend, who is marketing his fishing guide services here as "Captain Ron," caught a near-record-sized guapote (rainbow bass, as they are known to the sport fishermen, but actually a member of the cichlid family) out in Lake Arenal a few days back, and decided to invite his friends over for a truly killer guapote dinner. It was the largest guapote caught in Lake Arenal in quite a few years. And tonight was the night it got served up.

A friend of his has opened a new restaurant in town, called "The Gingerbread" and invites fishermen who catch guapote in the lake to bring them to the restaurant, where he will cook them up and serve them for dinner. Well, tonight, the chef did himself proud. The nearly 12-pound fish was served on a turkey platter, after having been baked with special marinades and sauces. It was served with some lovely Italian pasta, a beautiful leaf-lettuce salad, baby vegetables and a special red sauce that the chef has invented himself for the fish. To say that the dinner was exquisite is putting it mildly. This was the best fish I have had in a really long time, and the fish was truly wonderful. There were seven people that showed up, and we all tucked into this fish and barely managed to finish it off. Dinner ended with Boca Negro, a special desert of chocolate glaze over vanilla ice cream, served on some special chocolate pastries, along with a bitter citrus drizzle. I must say that the whole thing was truly wonderful. The guapote had not even a hint of fishiness to it, and it was tender, juicy and flavorful. It is one of the few fish species that does not get old, dry and fishy when the fish is very large and quite mature. So in spite of the size, the quality of the meat was still excellent.

The trip over to the restaurant and back was in the rain, as usual for this time of year, but I never had to turn on my windshield wipers, or start my heater to de-fog my windshield on the car. I found some Rain-X in the grocery store the other day - both kinds, the anti-rain for the exterior, and the anti-fog for the interior glass, and I put that on the glass this afternoon. And I was delighted with the results - better visibility through the rain than I have ever had in this country. That stuff is the perfect product for this country - with all the rain we get here, it sure enhances visibility through the glass. I had never seen Rain-X in this country before, but was sure glad to find it. It is an excellent product for driving in Costa Rica.

Well, the rain I spoke of has been hanging around for several days now. In fact, it has rained almost continuously for the last five days, varying from a light drizzle to a heavy downpour, and I am beginning to think that the weather pattern has returned to normal. Haven't been hearing much about the El Nino, so I am beginning to think it might have faded away. If so, that would account for the almost steady rain we have been experiencing - rain that is badly needed in the lake. Temperatures have returned to more seasonable levels, too - a high today of 77, and a low of 71. And it has been like that since the cold front left the region on Monday.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:55:04 PM

Fri, Nov 24 2006

Kids Will Be A Pain In The Butt

The weather has been cold. Not just a little cold, but a whole lot cold, and in fact, Wednesday was the coldest November day in Costa Rica in the last 25 years, according to the Meteorological Institute. I can believe it. It was colder than anything I experienced here last winter. The low Thursday morning was a rather bone-chilling 63 degrees - the coldest I have ever recorded on my little electronic thermometer here, and in San Jose, it got down to 57. Sure glad I have my cold weather gear from the States - I have been living in padded flannel shirts waiting this thing out. Fortunately, it is warming up a bit now, and has made it all the way up to a relatively balmy 76 this afternoon - the warmest all week. Most days have not been above 74, and yesterday only made it to 73. The temperatures should be back to normal tomorrow according to the Meteorological Institute, but there is another powerful cold front building up in the western U.S., and if it comes this way as well, I am going to get rather annoyed.

I have been listening to the sailboaters' net on my ham radio each morning, and seeing how they have been making out in this weather down in Panama, where the vast majority of them hang out. Turns out that the cold front made it as far as the Panama Canal and has just stalled there, with the winds in the harbors just tearing up the place, and going on and on without letup. The wind associated with it has been vicious - several boats were reporting that they were dragging their anchors, a couple were dragging their moorings, and two freighters apparently broke their moorings and crashed onto a sea wall. A couple of the boaters checking in said that in the many years they had been in the area, this was the most violent cold front they had ever seen. Checking the weather map, the front has apparently punched through the Intertropical Convergence and has sunk as far south as Ecuador - and that is very rare. I have never seen that before.

Well, for only the second time since I have been in the country, I have had official contact with the police.

When my gardener arrived this morning, a bit late, I headed into town on my weekly grocery and errands run. All went according to plan, and I headed back after a half hour or so of grocery shopping and various other errands, including checking my post office box and that sort of thing. The fun began when I returned to the house.

As I drove up, I discovered the gardener out in the street talking with some kids, and as soon as I stopped to open the gate, he told me that he had caught the three schoolboys, on their way home from school, had been keying the paint on his car, which was parked in the street in front of my house. We discussed the situation for a bit, whether to go get the parents, call the police, or whatever, and it was decided that the best course of action was to call the police. I went into the house with the groceries, and the called around to some of my friends to see if they had the telephone number for the police. None of them did, so I decided that the best course of action was simply to drive over to the cop shop and explain what happened, and ask them to come by to investigate. As I was leaving the house, the parents of one of the three boys happened by and began discussions with my gardener. I went to the cop shop and explained the situation, and they said they would be by on their motorcycle in a few minutes.

I returned to the house, and told my gardener that the police would be coming, and by now the whole town had heard what had happened, and a small crowd was forming. Meanwhile, the three boys involved in the incident were sitting on the bank of the desagua (drainage ditch) in front of the house, contemplating their fate. After a few minutes, two policemen showed up on a motorcycle, and began interviewing my gardener and the father of one of the boys. Once that was done, they went to talk to the boys, in a rather loud, gruff and intimidating voice. The one responsible for most of the damage was almost in tears, apparently afraid of what his parents were going to do about it when he got home.

Meanwhile, the father and my gardener had been discussing what the damages were, and the consensus of opinion is that it will cost about $300 to get the door and rear quarter panel repainted. I felt really bad for my gardener - the car, much newer than mine, is his pride and joy, and is always kept spotlessly clean, I don't know where he is going to come up with the money to get it repainted.

There's another election campaign happening, this time the cantonal elections for mayoralities. And that means more darned sound trucks running around, disturbing the peace. Wish they would skip my place, since I can't vote, but they won't and it means more disruption until the election finally happens. I have noticed that the center-left party of Otton Solis, the just-barely defeated candidate in the presidential elections, seems to have the biggest presence in this municipality. Guess Oscar Arias' star is fading a bit, which doesn't really surprise me.

Still no luck on my rental-house hunting. A friend in Cartago has turned up a house near there for a good price, but the bad news is that the house is for sale, and I would have an endless stream of people traipsing through the place gawking at my home like I were some animal in a zoo. Besides that, I might have to move right back out in a month or two, and have to do this house hunting routine all over again, so I am probably not going to take it. I have two friends looking for me in San Ramon, both insisting it shouldn't be much of a problem, but so far they haven't turned up anything either. I am getting rather depressed about that situation, I don't want to back out of the sale of the house, but if I can't find adequate housing soon, I may have to. That would cause a lot of problems for me and for the buyer, but I don't know what else to do. I can't afford to just go hang in a hotel some place, and would hate to live like that even if I could afford it. So the house hunting continues. Wish me luck. I am going to need it.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 04:35:42 PM

Tue, Nov 21 2006

Winter Comes To Arenal

There has been a change in the weather, and it signals the official change of seasons. Overnight, the temperatures cooled off by about five degrees from what they had been, and this morning, a stiff wind came up, bringing a chill with it that I have not felt in quite some time. The temperatures overnight dropped to 68 degrees, and yesterday, rose only to 77. This signals the onset of the dry season in most of Costa Rica, but not here in Arenal. Since we are in a microclimate here, dominated by winds off the Caribbean, which carry with them a considerable amount of moisture, the weather rules that apply to most of Costa Rica don't apply here.

While the rest of the country will enjoy a cessation of the rains, but with cooler temperatures and a great deal of wind, here we will actually have an increase in rainfall, a slight increase in wind and consistently cloudy skies for the next two months. Only then will we experience the "dry season" as a period of actually dry weather. The wild card in all of this is the El Nino this year, which should mean dryer and warmer weather than normal, but at the moment, it seems to be having little effect, other than to suppress much of the usually heavy rains we would be getting right now.

I gave up trying to stay comfortable wearing shorts and a T-shirt in this chill, and put on a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt yesterday. But this morning, not even that was enough, and I got out one of my padded flannel shirts - of the kind that I used to wear back in the States while doing microwave links in mountainous highlands country. It is about right and is keeping me comfortable. I think that if I were to stay in this house, I would seriously consider installing a heat pump to heat the place this time of year. I'll be drinking a bit more tea and hot chocolate for the next few months.

My friend who moved here recently and has started a fishing guide business, called last night to tell me that he has finished getting the wood trim on his boat installed. The boat is all tricked out now, and I can't wait to see it - he has the latest in fish-finding electronics, lots of newly-installed wood trim, fresh upholstery, and paint. It should be quite a fancy boat. He's been quite busy, too, and has had several trips per week, taking some upper-crust clients out on the lake, fishing for the famous guapote, known in the sport-fishing circles as the "rainbow bass" (not really a bass, but a member of the cichlid family). Being an extremely personable fellow, he has the right personality for it, and his guide business has been an instant success.

I have been expending a great deal of effort and a lot of time in the last week or two trying to find a house to rent once I have moved out. I am beginning to get a bit discouraged - all the rental agents I have talked to, tell me I am trying to rent too cheap - that rents have gone up hugely in the last year - and that I am going to have to take in a roommate if I want to rent as cheap as I need to. Well, sorry, but I can't see myself doing that. I have found some apartments in my price range, and that would be fine, except that everything I have found has been furnished studios. I need an unfurnished one or two bedroom. If I have to, I'll cancel the sale of the house and stay put before I am reduced to taking in a roommate. I did that for too many years, and just can't see myself doing the roommate thing. I have been talking to some Tico friends, and they say that they are sure they can find me something, but it may take some time. I keep hearing that one of my friends has found a house for me in Oreamundo, near Cartago, but so far, I haven't heard any details. So I am just spending my time, combing web sites, reading Craig's List and checking the classifieds in both the English and Spanish-language press. A few close calls - I found one house in my target area, but it was furnished, and the landlord was not willing to rent it unfurnished - renting it furnished and storing my goods puts it out of my price range. So back to Square One.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 08:42:04 AM

Sun, Nov 12 2006

The Tourists Are Coming

The tourism season is slowly getting underway. When making trips to town recently, I have been seeing an increasing number of the Daihatsu Terios, the little economy 4x4 SUV made by Daihatsu that is such a popular rental car here. And they have all been full of gringo tourists. Being close to American Thanksgiving, it is time for the tourists to start piling in here in numbers. But there are noticeably fewer this year than at this time last year, and last year was the first time in many years that the number of tourists visiting Costa Rica actually declined - by 4.7% - to less than a million and a half.

I suspect that there is a combination of two factors at work here. First, the less well-off middle-class in the United States is being squeezed between real incomes that are not increasing when adjusted for inflation, and they are no longer able to pull equity out of their houses to finance lifestyles that are beyond their means (the net savings rate in the U.S. is still negative, as it has been for more than a year). That means that those long-planned trips to Costa Rica are being postponed.

The second reason, in my opinion, has been the lack of investment in tourist infrastructure. Last year, significant numbers of tourists were turned away when trying to make reservations - rooms were just sold out. And part of that problem has been the result of a new tax law which took effect two years back, which repealed the investment tax credit on goods imported to improve tourist infrastructure. In addition to that was the almost total lack of investment in road repair and construction during the Pacheco administration, and it is not a surprise that tourists stay away when they can't get a room and even if they do, they face endless bumpy rides getting from A to B.

Another factor that may be involved is that other Latin American nations are making major investments in their tourism infrastructure and marketing. Panama, Ecuador, Peru and even Nicaragua are really pushing their tourist industries hard - picking up on Costa Rica's recent neglect. All have reported significant growth rates with Nicaragua reporting a double-digit growth rate. So it may be that Costa Rica's competitors have started to eat Costa Rica's lunch - a turn of events that the gringo community here has long been predicting. One thing I have noticed on my recent trips to Nicaragua is that the number of backpacking tourists - young people traveling on the cheap - is declining, while higher income tourism is increasing. Exactly what Nicaragua needs to pull itself out of its "isn't-there-a-war-on-down-there?" reputation among North Americans.

On a personal side, one of my friends from the States who owns property here (and a long-time reader of this blog, I am pleased to report) and comes for fairly frequent visits, is in town, getting some work done on his property here. I spent yesterday morning visiting with him, helping to translate with the gardener what his needs are for getting some fence work done, and generally assisting him in getting set. He told me that he was very pleased with how the election turned out, and that had it gone the other way, he would have settled up his affairs in the States and would have moved here permanently. I am seeing similar sentiments being expressed on some of the email lists I am on.

I have noticed with a certain dark satisfaction, all the snow and heavy rain storms that have been wracking the northwest, including east Idaho, where I grew up and where my family still lives. The weather person on CNN International tonight ascribed it to El Nino, which continues to influence weather here. For the last four or five days, we have been getting more rain than in the past, but still certainly not the seasonable norms. The lake remains as low as I have ever seen it, and that is really ominous for this time of the year, when the reservoir should be full up to the spillway. And the dry season hasn't even started yet. The storms we have been getting have tended to be real ripsnorters, though, even if usually brief, so the water in my pond has remained a bit on the muddy side. I have noticed, however, that the herons and egrets have really been active in the pond, so I suspect that the sunny weather has led to an increase in the minnow population - which should be good for the guapote. The weather is noticeably warm for this time of year, too. Highs every day have been in the high 70's to the low 80's, and the lows remaining in the 70's. More than once I have had to get up in the night and turn on the ceiling fan. Not used to that this time of year. Maybe I'll actually start looking forward to the arrival of the cold fronts, which are already making it as far south as the Guatemala-Honduran border. Never thought I would look forward to the arrival of a cold front. With all this global warming, I might just have to move up in altitude a bit.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 07:54:38 PM

Tue, Nov 07 2006

Gonna Go Scratch For Awhile

Being the militant atheist that I am, I am not one to go around expressing gratitude to imaginary deities, but in this case, I have to make an exception. If there is a god out there, I have to thank him or her that the interminable torture of American voters, known as a "general election," is finally over. Yes, even down here in faraway Costa Rica, it has been hard to escape the slime that has become the dominant symbol of America this year. The sleaze-fest is over.

Now we're down to the sausage-machine vote-counting. And that is going to be sleazier and greasier than ever, but this time, with all the fair warning, the fraud and intimidation will be better-documented by armies of Americans fed up with rigged elections, who are armed with video cameras. Of course, the fraudulent counts provided by the secret and proprietary software in the vote counting machinery (provided by companies openly supportive of the Republican party) will not be scruitinized - because they can't be.

It was designed that way. Old Joe Stalin was right - it's not the votes that count, it's who counts the votes. And in most districts, it will be Republicans counting the votes. So one guess as to who will win.

Besides all the sleazy mudslinging, as if that were bad enough, this has been an unusually bad year for dirty tricks, the top of the list being fraudulent felon-voter scrub lists that seem to always somehow disqualify more Democrats than Republicans, as well as the time-proven challenges of Democratic voters at the polls by Republican poll workers. Then it was the Ohio Secretary of State, who is responsible for organizing that state's elections, including the one in which he is also a candidate for governor, pretending that somehow, even in spite of the obvious conflict of interest, that we are supposed to believe that he is fair and even-handed, even though he pulled every dirty trick in the book to prevent the registration of Democrats likely to vote against him, intimidate them against voting, or making it difficult to vote in a Democratic precinct. I predict he'll win, even though he is 28 points behind in the polls. And there was the lovely Kathleen Harris, who was Secretary of State in Florida in 2000, responsible for that state's manipulations of the election of Smirkey, while she was at the same time serving as Smirkey's state campaign co-chair. She is running for the U.S. Senate in this election. At least she had the good taste to progressively reduce that hideous blue eye shadow that makes her look like the vicious, meanspirited, sanctimonious old hag that she is. I suppose it was each of her numerous, successive campaign chairman, one resigning after another, that must have told her she was still looking like the Wicked Witch of the West, a character with which she certainly has a lot in common. There was a long parade of other characters, too. Senator "Macaca" Allen, a man whose racist background wasn't even hidden, Senator Conrad Burns, who was so closely allied with Jack Abramoff that it was hard to tell them apart, and Duke Cunningham, who actually had a menu of prices for his vote in the House. After he resigned, his replacement was sworn in before the votes (in a very dubious election) were even counted, much less certified. The lawsuits will be going on in that one for years. That doesn't even get us to the state level, either.

Then there is that bastion of More-Moral-Than-You conservatism, known as the Republican caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives. An institution so corrupt that when their Majority Leader had to resign, they had to go through two candidates before they got to a third that wasn't sufficiently tainted by scandal that he wouldn't become an object of scrutiny. Same thing happened when they had to replace the Speaker. Not that the current Speaker isn't tainted - he is. But hey, it was just stepping out on his wife, nothing that other More-Moral-Than-You conservatives haven't been doing routinely for years, including the Moralizer-In-Chief and Bill Clinton's chief accuser, Newt Gingrich.

But then, what do you expect from a body that would install a man whom their leadership knew for years was a pedophile - Mark Foley - as chairman of the House Select Committee on Missing And Exploited Children?

Compared to all of that, Sunday's election in Nicaragua - that supposedly quintessential Central American banana republic - was a model of accountability, fairness, the rule of law, and the suppression of corruption. By all accounts, it was exemplary for how fairly it was conducted - the problems that occurred show no evidence of having favored one candidate or another. And the Nicaraguan people themselves are becoming more insistent on the rule of law than are the Americans. The last U.S.-installed president not only got arrested for corruption, but he is doing a stretch for embezzlement of state funds - he tried to run the last campaign for his successor from behind bars. And the people got so sick and tired of his right-wing, U.S.-lackey hand-picked successors that they were willing to brave threats from a long list of right-wing meddling Republicans (ranging from Ambassador Trivelli to none other than Oliver North) that came down here, that they appear to have voted back into power the leader of the Sandinista revolution, Daniel Ortega, by a wider margin than expected. Guess the Republicans didn't adequately teach the right-wingers up there in Nicaragua how to respect national sovereignty and self determination by sufficient levels of voter intimidation, electoral fraud and vote-rigging.

But it's over, thank God. It is all been so draining, that, in the words of Molly Ivins, it "just makes you want to sit down like a tired dog and scratch for awhile." Pardon me, I'm gonna go scratch.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:16:40 AM

Sat, Nov 04 2006

Wedding Bells In Arenal

Today was the big day for my Tico neighbor, who married off his daughter this afternoon. As mentioned in a recent blog entry, I was invited, so I went to the Catholic Church for the wedding this afternoon and had an interesting cultural experience. I arrived at the appointed hour of 4 PM, and waited for about a half hour for the ceremony to begin. By the time it started, the church was full, with maybe two hundred people in attendance, and a few standing in the back because the pews were full.

The bride was, as they say, radiant. She is a very sweet girl, someone I like a lot, and intelligent and attractive, and she was clearly thrilled with the whole affair. The groom is a fellow I don't know, but seems to be very much in love with her, and is a handsome fellow that struck me as being intelligent as well. The bride was dressed in a white satin wedding dress, with a long train carried by attendants, and the groom was in a dark brown business suit. The wedding began with the entry of the bride and groom, followed by the ring bearers, each of which was borne on a pillow carried by two children. The children were each dressed to the nines, satin dresses for the little girls and a suit for the boys. There were four chairs in front of the alter, occupied by the bride and groom, and the bridesmaid and the best man. Other than the bride and groom's families, they were the only ones formally dressed. Most of the congregation was dressed rather casually - a lot of jeans and even the odd T-shirt here and there. With slacks and a dress shirt, I almost felt overdressed. Glad I didn't bother with a tie.

A woman I did not recognize began the ceremony, with a reading from a book - her accent was thick enough that I did not get much of what she was saying. That was followed by a hymn sung by a young man with a guitar and a woman. Everyone rise. Then the priest got up, read some from the Bible, some from another book, spoke extemporaneously, and read from the bible some more. Then there was a prayer - everyone knelt but us heathens, and after that, another hymn. Everyone sit down. The priest got up to give another short speech. Everyone rise. This sort of thing went on for quite some time, and finally, the priest went to the alter and did the deed - The "I Do's" took the form of a simple "Si" - not once, but three times each - agreeing to raise the children of the marriage as Catholics (that was the first "Si"), then agreeing to honor the "sacrament of marriage" as a holy institution, and finally agreeing to be faithful to each other, the church, and the community. After the rings were suitably sprinkled with holy water and blessed by the priest, the bride and groom then placed the rings on each other's fingers, and... Sorry, no kissing of the bride. Instead, it was another lecture from the priest about the holiness of the marriage sacrament, occasionally interrupted by a hand bell being rung vigorously by a wedding official in the audience. I didn't get the significance of that, as again, the Spanish was a bit beyond me. After that, the priest celebrated mass, and the congregation was invited to come forward for communion - about twenty people participated in communion. More lectures from the priest. More hymn singing, standing up and sitting down. I'm sure it would have made a lot more sense to me if my Spanish were a bit better. But anyway...

The congregation left via the front door while the bride and groom went out the side door to a waiting car. They were suitably sprinkled with rice enroute. At that point, it was all over, so like most, I headed home.

All in all, it was a most interesting cultural experience, even if I didn't understand everything that was happening. I would have enjoyed it a lot more, however, had it not been for the fact that the wedding pictures were being taken with my digital camera. Yes, that's right, the camera that was stolen in the burglary of my house about four months ago - an Olympus C2500L single-lens reflex, serial number 2021587. I know it was mine because of several features that were unique to that camera - and the fact that the person who brought it even brought it in the same gadget bag in which I had been storing it when the house was burglarized. And he made some mistakes in using the camera because he doesn't have the manual, so not all the pictures are going to turn out properly - especially since the camera was designed more for landscape photography than for weddings anyway.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 05:53:01 PM
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