Letters From Exile

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

Fri, Dec 29 2006

House Hunting In San Ramon

Well, here we are between Christmas and New Years. In Costa Rica, that means limbo - nothing is open, nobody is doing anything except celebrating, and economically, nothing is happening. All of the money everyone got in their aguinaldos (Christmas bonuses) has been spent. I have been laying low, concentrating my mind on working on finding another house to live in (that is why entries to this blog have been sparse indeed lately).

I made a run to San Ramon last week, trying to find a house. A friend of mine has been good enough to devote a good deal of time checking around town. He is a very well connected gringo, and he has been asking everyone he knows. So far without much luck. Everything he turned up had been rented by the time he called.

He had a couple of possibilities, and so on Wednesday of last week, I headed up there. I arrived mid morning, and before long, we were out looking all over town, checking out the prospects he had - unfortunately, they had also been rented by the time we got there - and asking some more locals. We spent all day tracking down leads, checking things out, but with absolutely zero results. What a discouraging day. The closest we came was a house being renovated behind the stadium, and it would have been just fine - adequate security, adequate size, etc. Painted in shocking pink, the decor was something to be desired, but hey, I'll take what I can get. There was only one problem - the owner had no interest whatever in renting, only selling. I offered him a lease-option, and the answer was a flat no. He said he had been burned before on lease option deals, and didn't want to repeat the experience.

Figuring I had nothing to lose, I took a hotel room for the night - for $14, I got a decent, modern room with cable TV, and private bath with hot water (which is an extra in this tropical climate) and a balcony. Not a bad deal at all. It was right in downtown San Ramon, so I did have truck traffic going by, but fortunately, it didn't keep me up.

The next day, we resumed our househunting expedition, tracking down more leads, driving more neighborhoods, and asking more people. But no cigar.

By mid morning, things were looking pretty bleak, so we drove out in some of the suburbs just on speculation, looking for "se aquila" signs. In one suburb, San Isidro, I stopped at a pulperia (small country store) and asked, and the clerk, a young lady, happened to know of a house. She gave me directions to the owner's place and I went there to check it out. The owner wasn't home, but her daughter was. A delightful, exceedingly polite and quite attractive young lady, it turns out that she speaks very good English - she is studying to become an English teacher. I asked about the house and she indicated that it was indeed available, and the price was $140 per month. She walked me up to the house, on a hill nearby, and I was delighted to discover that it is brand new - never yet lived in. It was on a hillside and had a stunning view.

But as it turned out, there were problems. First, being a new house, there were no telephones. ICE, the local telephone and power company, would be installing a line in January, I was told. Second, the road getting up to the place ran straight up a steep hillside, and it had been badly rutted from the winter rains, so it was apparent that I would have to purchase a load of road base to fill in the ruts. But the biggest problem was the size. The house was very small, and with only two bedrooms, I was somewhat concerned that things might not fit, but the house was a good deal otherwise, and the price was right, so I was just about ready to rent it.

By now it was close to noon, so I had lunch with my friend, and departed for the trip back to Arenal. When I arrived back home, with the memories of the San Isidro house fresh in my mind, I looked around and realized that I'd best determine whether or not I could get all my stuff in it. I called the owner and asked for dimensions, and she called back the next day with them.

I created a drawing in my Visio with all the shapes and sizes worked out, and scaled the drawing to move the shapes into it. Turns out that everything fits - just barely. I would have been able to get everything in out of the rain, but there was literally no room to walk - I would have had to climb over everything. That just wasn't workable, so I decided to pass on that house. I called my friend and gave him the bad news. He said he had heard of another house, but it had a serious security problem, so I passed on that one.

So my plans are to make another trip in the near future, and this time, scour Palmares and Naranjo and see if I can find anything reasonable in either of those two towns. No one can believe there is such a shortage of rentals - but this is the time of year the gringos start showing up in large numbers, so it doesn't surprise me. So I am stuck in Arenal for now, and will have to look for a rental another day.

My little kitten is growing up fast. She has gained at least two inches in body length, and is now eating a whole can of cat food each day. Her energy is boundless, and is determined to ensure that I play with her almost constantly, and won't leave me alone unless I do. Well, she's a spoiled little kitty, and gets lots of attention. She is now sleeping in the house with me nearly every night, and usually sleeps through the night now, creating terror around the house most of the day. She still craves affection and attention, and so I am convinced she was taken from her mother before she was ready. But she is adapting well, and loves to crawl around all over me when I am on the sofa watching television. Her face is filling out and looking more cat-like with each passing day, but still has the little sad-sack look to her that is so endearing. I have finally picked a name - she is now "Pintada" - the feminine for "spotted" in Spanish, after her four almost perfectly round spots of grey fur amidst the white fur on her left side.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 05:59:07 AM

Sun, Dec 17 2006

Another Run For The Border

I apologize to my regular readers for the lack of a blog entry for the last week. I have been out of the country on a visa renewal trip.

My visa was due to expire on the 29th of December - right between Christmas and New Year's, and rather than go to Nicaragua during the middle of the annual Christmas Nicaraguan Hajj, I decided that it would be wise to go out a bit early and avoid the rush. It proved to be a wise decision.

I left on Monday the 11th, and headed for Liberia to spend the first night there. That would enable me to catch an early bus out of Liberia and get to Granada, Nicaragua by early afternoon. I arrived in Liberia at about half-past noon, and got settled into my hotel room. Since I had several hours of daylight left, I wandered around town a bit, and did some shopping, without success, but at least it killed a few hours. The next morning, I got up early, had breakfast and checked out early to head to the bus stop for the international bus. There was a half dozen Nicaraguans there waiting, along with a couple of gringos. One was the owner of a hotel in Tamarindo, and we had a pleasant time chatting all the way to Granada. He was new in the country and this was his first visit to Granada. The border crossing was unusually busy, but not overwhelmingly so, and there were extra agents from both immigration and customs ministries to take care of the rush, so the wait was not out of line.

I was surprised when I got to Granada at the number of tourists I found there. In fact, I almost didn't get a room at my usual hotel - the place was booked up entirely except for the last room, which I took. It was quite a shock - this is normally the slowest season in Nicaragua, as most of that country's tourists are backpackers from Europe, who come during the summer months between college classes. But most of the tourists I encountered proved to be Americans. It appears that the electoral victory of Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista party did not seem to slow down the tourism from the States as I would have expected, but had in fact the opposite effect, as leftists from the States view Nicaragua as increasingly friendly territory.

It was also interesting checking around with the local real estate people. The victory of Ortega has meant that the right-wingers have all panicked and have been selling out quickly at fire-sale prices, expecting doom and gloom and the death of democracy in Nicaragua. But it hasn't happened, of course, and all the left-wingers are buying up the property the right-wingers are selling. So fast, in fact, that the prices for real estate in Nicaragua are actually continuing their price rise, much to my surprise. One of the more wealthy foreigners there in Granada told me that he has already bought up ten properties and is looking for more - and figures that this will be a great way to make a buck. I suspect he may be right. If I were inclined to be looking to move to Nicaragua, I would have stayed in town and done some looking myself, taking advantage of the right-wingers' panic. If Ortega does even a fourth of what he has promised, he'll go down in history as Nicaragua's best-ever president, and that will only have a good effect on Nicaragua's attractiveness to gringo retirees. The Nicaraguan gold rush is only beginning, it appears.

All in all, it was a good trip. Had a lot of fun talking with old friends and making some new ones while there. The street construction on Calle La Calzada, in front of my hotel, which has been going on for a year, was mercifully at an end, so that was a pleasant change. And it seems that many of the old colonial houses are getting fresh coats of paint, so the town has never looked better.

The return trip on Friday was uneventful, other than the difficulty of getting a cab at five in the morning. I waited on the front stoop of the hotel for nearly half an hour before one finally showed, and it got me to the bus depot about 15 minutes late, but the bus had not yet come, so it was not a big deal. We arrived at the border at seven, and were through the Nicaraguan side fairly quickly. Formalities went fast on the Costa Rican side as well, though there was a small delay in the customs inspection. But the real holdup was in getting out of the border crossing area - there is now so much truck traffic that we were stuck for half an hour just trying to get back on the Inter-American highway. Trucks were backed up about half the way to La Cruz, the first town inside Costa Rica, about six miles from the border. Once back on the highway, the trip back to Canas was pleasant and uneventful. I had to wait only a short while at the Canas bus stop for a bus, and was back in Tilaran just after 12:45. Unfortunately, the 12:30 bus to Arenal had left just before we arrived in Tilaran, but just barely, so a cab driver offered to race me to the bus and get me on it. We caught up with it in San Luis, about 4 miles out of Tilaran, and got it stopped. I was charged about $3 for the cab ride to the bus, and the bus fare to Arenal was about another 75 cents, so it ended up working out just fine. Almost broke a record for getting back home early - I arrived at the house at 1:45 - just ten minutes behind my early arrival record from Granada.

While I was gone, I had a friend taking care of my sweet little kitty. I left her in the house and had him come by and play with her a bit and give her some fresh food and water. He did a good job, and she seems to have been fine. Nevertheless, my being gone and her being couped up in a house with the shutters closed had clearly traumatized her. The poor little thing was hoarse from crying so much. She was sure glad to see me, and I have to admit that I missed that little furry ball of sweetness. All the rest of the day, she would not leave me alone - she insisted on my playing with her the whole afternoon, never tiring of chasing her little ball and string.

She has actually grown noticeably while I had been gone, and has gained enough strength to hop up on the sofa without struggling to claw her way up the last bit. She has also discovered the joys of climbing the screen on the front door security grate, and will climb it to let me know she wants out. I am dreading the day when she is strong enough to hop up to the kitchen sink - or worse, the stove.

Last night, she insisted again on being let out for the night, and fearful as I am of letting her out only a half a block from raw jungle, it was either that or get no sleep at all. So I let her out, and at five in the morning, before it was even light, she wanted back in - and let me know it by climbing the security grate on my bedroom window and clawing at the screen, making a loud rattling sound that made sleep impossible. This cat's intelligence is amazing to me for such a young kitten. She knows already which room I sleep in, even from the outside with the shutter closed from the inside, and she has quickly learned how to push my buttons to get what she wants. Today, she has been much better behaved than yesterday, and I think that being out all night has given her the stimulus she lacked while I was gone. I just wish she were a bit older and better able to care for herself. Putting her out at night worries me a great deal.

But everything else was in order when I got back - the only things disturbed in the house were what the cat had massacred in my absence, as well as the food that my friend had been giving her. I couldn't get a photocopy of my passport and entry stamp made at the local libreria (stationery store) when I got back, so I'll have to carry my passport until I can make a run to Tilaran. No other photocopier in town. I sure miss having a working scanner for my computer. Maybe I'll go to Tilaran to see if I can find a cheap one - and get the copy made for which I would have used the scanner in the first place.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 01:38:16 PM

Fri, Dec 08 2006

Kitten Fatherhood - Day Three

The routine of managing this kitten is starting to settle in. The kitten apparently has been rather malnourished, and as a result, was decidedly placid and prone to long naps, but that has all changed. A steady diet of all the nourishing food she wants, has meant that in the last two days, she has turned into a bundle of non-stop energy and mischief, punctuated only by the occasional twenty-minute nap. Her curiosity has also markedly improved - she's into everything she can manage to climb to, and that is now just about everything in the house. Keeping her out of trouble (and out from underfoot) is occupying much of my day. So far, I have managed to step on her only once, and fortunately, the damage wasn't serious.

She loves chasing strings, and I use that to exercise her as much as she seems to need. And that is a lot - an hour or so several times a day. I manage to keep her chasing it around while watching television. So it is not as much a burden as you might expect it to be. She is learning fast, too. She seems to be an extremely intelligent cat - she has figured out that if she wants to keep the string from being slowly pulled away, she has to grab it as close to my hand as she can. That way, as it slips, there is still some left to hang on to. She also grabs it and hauls it off to her special corner of the sofa, where she proceeds to chew it at her liesure - until it slips out of her grasp. And she has discovered the "ambush." She'll hide between my feet and charge out to grab the string as it makes its closest approach.

She is also developing a number of favorite sleeping spots. Besides the satellite reciever, which is both warm and high up, giving her a good view of her dominion in the living room, she also has taken to sleeping on my ham radio transciever - also warm (because I leave it on most of the time) and also high up - in my office. The space on top of the radio, between it and the shelf above, is just barely big enough for her to fit into, but she doesn't seem to mind. It may even give her a sense of security.

In discussing her with friends, the subject of a name has come up, and so far I haven't come up with a good one. She has a rather odd nose shape - in profile, it is almost Roman, so an Italian lady's name would be appropriate. Given all her mischief, a thought was that maybe the Spanish word for "trouble" would work. "Molestia," however, just doesn't cut it - not suitable for a lady. So what will it be. Looks like I am stuck with her (as I had figured - can't find anyone who wants her), so at some point I have to come up with something. The default value is "Punkins" which is what I call all cats simply out of habit.

I slipped out of the house today while the gardener was here, to go to town for my weekly errands. I did some quick grocery shopping, and then went to the veterinary store to see if they had a litter tray and some litter - and to my great surprise, they had both, and the litter is even clumping litter (or at least it is supposed to be), sold as a local brand. It will be wonderful if it really is. All I will need will be a scoop for it, which I should be able to get at the grocery store, and I'll be all set. When I put the litter out, she seemed to be a bit reluctant to accept it at first, but she seems to be using it consistently now. Thank goodness.

Well, yesterday's earthquake seems to have been one of four which happened just north of Tilaran about ten kilometers, and at a depth of about ten kilometers. That is information I got from the paper here - they never did show up on the U.S.G.S. earthquake web server They varied from about 2.7 to 4.1 on the Richter scale - hardly serious, but felt rather strongly here since I am so close to the epicenter. The scary thing is that, according to my gardener, they were also felt in Guatuso, where there was considerable underground rumbling heard. That, with a slow, rhythmic rocking motion that was felt there, may indicate that magma is filling an underground chamber in the Volcan Tenorio complex - maybe the volcano is getting ready to come to life for the first time in several decades. Should not be a serious problem here if the eruption is not too large, as the prevailing winds should carry the ash away from Lake Arenal and the town. In fact, there is no town of any size that is downwind from Tenorio, so if a small eruption should happen, it shouldn't do too much damage. Hope it holds off until I am moved out of here. I am not too worried in any event - most of the soil here is very weathered clay, which means that ashfalls here are very infrequent - thousands of years apart, so there is little likelihood of a serious problem.

The other local news is that the municipality here has put together an environmental council to recommend ordinances and enforcement procedures to protect the local environment, specifically Lake Arenal, which is rapidly becoming contaminated from a variety of small point sources. The highest priority is to set standards for and inspect the construction of septic tanks, many of which in this area are substandard, or are old and leaking, or both. This is badly needed, and I am glad to see it happen, as Lake Arenal has a pollution problem that is growing rapidly worse with the rapid development happening around the lake. Ultimately, I suspect they'll have to form a sewer district and require everyone to hook up to it. but that will be many years away. In the meantime, they have an immediate problem to deal with.

I got the pics today of the interior of the house in Cartago that I didn't get to see on my trip last week, and they look good, but I still have some questions about the security of the place. A couple of things I noticed in the photos I got didn't look encouraging. And now, I have to ask if the landlord will accept a cat. So we'll see what responses I get when I ask some questions.

Haven't given a weather report for a while, so for those still interested, for the last week, it has been more like December in Arenal is supposed to be - lots of rain. Today was fairly nice as these days have been, with a lot less rain than most, but still periods of rain nevertheless. So I have not been out in the garden much, especially since the lawn has been wet to the point of squishy. The temperatures have been mild, though, getting down to a warm 71 at night and rising to a very comfortable 78 in the day.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:21:42 PM

Thu, Dec 07 2006

Kitten Fatherhood - Day Two

The tiny kitten that adopted me yesterday has made inroads into getting settled in. The adorable little thing kept me busy all day yesterday, keeping her out of trouble and occupied - at least when she wasn't sleeping. The poor little thing was definitely malnourished - it sought out as much food as it could eat, and kept asking for more all day long.

Last night, I was dreading facing going to bed and seeing how the kitten would respond. And true to my fears, she hopped up on the bed and started to lick my face very aggressively. This is something she does when she wants something, so I got up to see what it was, and she was wanting to be let outside.

As tiny and defenseless as she is, I was very scared to let her out, knowing that there are a lot of posotes (coati mundi) from the rain forest nearby that roam the neighborhood, and might find her easy pickings. And I knew from experience that I couldn't just put her in another room and close the door - she has a very loud meow, and would keep me up for sure. So against my better judgment, I let her out and went back to bed.

It wasn't more than five minutes later that I heard a loud but very brief scuffle outside, and I was sure that the posotes had gotten her. I looked out and couldn't see anything, so once again, I went back to bed and finally got to sleep.

This morning, while in the shower, I heard that familiar, plaintive meow, which I continued to hear while I got dressed. I opened the front door and there she was - out on the porch, looking a bit intimidated, but quite unharmed. She was quite eager to come in, and when she did, headed straight for the food bowls. I fixed some fresh milk and the remaining trozos (bits of ham and lunchmeat that are sold here for use in cassaroles), and set those out for her.

Once she had some food on board, she just came alive and demanded that I play with her. So I wadded up some aluminum foil and tied it on the end of a piece of string and let her chase it. Well, the improvised toy was a big hit. She chased it until I was totally worn out and had no more patience for it, and was still asking for more. By now, I was starving and took a break for breakfast, and then went back to it, trying to wear her down a bit. Finally, when she showed a bit of fatigue, I put away the toy and let her settle down. After spending some time trying to get into trouble, she hopped up on top of the satellite receiver, the highest point in the room that is easily accessible to her, and lay down for a nap. That spot is becoming a favorite, and so I have folded up an old beach towel and put on it so that if she has a little kitten accident it won't ruin a $600 reciever. It doesn't generate enough heat that the "blanket" should be a problem for it. And the kitten accepted the presence of the towel quite happily. That problem is solved.

I now have to deal with getting some food and cat litter. Pets are not terribly popular here in Costa Rica - they're an expense that most Costa Ricans don't need. Most frequently, dogs are kept only as guard dogs, and nearly all pets, dogs and cats, are kept outside where they are expected to forage for themselves. As a result, even small towns in Costa Rica, including this one, have a serious problem with packs of street dogs, and that is one reason I was reluctant to let the kitten out. The paucity of appropriate care is also why pet supplies are a bit hard come by - the grocery store here in Arenal carries dog and cat food, but mostly because there are a lot of gringos here. Most markets, even in big towns, seldom do, and one has to go to a veterinary clinic or feed store just to buy cat litter. For now, I am just getting by with some building sand in a trash-can liner in the bottom of a cut-down box. But I really need to see if the feed store has some cat litter - I have been told that they carry it. And I would love to have a self-cleaning litter tray like I had in Phoenix when I lived there.

I have had some discussions with other cat owners in town by telephone yesterday afternoon, and have thereby worked out some of the ways to deal with the cat while I am gone on occasional trips. She is awfully young to leave in the house by herself, but I may need to do that. One of my friends has volunteered to come by and feed her, at least once a day while I am gone, so I think I can at least get by. Not optimum, but it will have to do.

As I write this, we have just had yet another minor earthquake. Not serious, just enough to rattle things a bit, and nothing fell onto the floor. The epicenter was apparently far away, as it shook slowly for about ten seconds. Did the kitten alert me to it before it happened as everyone says animals can do? Heck no. She has been fast asleep on top of the satellite reciever, and didn't even stir during the earthquake. So much for her being a hyper-alert watch-kitty.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 10:47:53 AM

Wed, Dec 06 2006

Adopted By A Cat

Well, it has been bad news all week. Last Friday, I went to Cartago to check on a possible rental there, and visit with my Tico friend who lives there. I decided to drive up, because I knew I would need a car while there, and so I elected to brave the traffic in San Jose and drive my car over there.

The trip was uneventful enough, but I noticed that the engine was heating a bit more than I had ever seen it heat, particularly on long, uphill grades, and by the time I made it to Cartago, I was starting to get nervous. I parked near the Basilica de La Virgin de Los Angeles, and waited for my friend. We checked out the car and discovered that the only real problem was that the radiator was low on water, in spite of the fact that the overflow bottle had plenty of water in it. I am going to have to look into why it is not filling the radiator automatically.

In any event, the owner of the rental did not show as he had promised, so we could only see the outside of the house. It had been partitioned off, and one side is rented out as a law office, but the remaining side ended up quite small, though adequate for my needs. The big concern for me is that it was apparent that a burglar has recently punched through the soffit and crawled into the attic to gain access through the ceiling. That is a concern - Cartago is not the most crime-free city in Costa Rica, and I am reluctant to rent a place that is not reasonably secure.

After not being able to get inside the place, we shined that on and went up to my friend's farmhouse so I could settle in for the night. Well, it is at 6,000 feet in the Irazu highlands, and I knew it would be chilly up there, so I had brought extra bedding and padded flannel shirts to try to stay warm.

We spent some time driving around the area, visiting a trout farm and having afternoon coffee at a new restaurant near Pacayas. And that evening, I met his partner and him at a pizzeria in Cartago for an evening meal - an excellent pizza. We had quite a fine time chatting and getting caught up on everything - it has been years since we had seen each other, and had a lot to chat about.

Sure glad I brought a comforter for the bed. The temperature during the night got chilly enough that even with two thermal blankets, my comforter, and a sleeping bag unzipped and laid out on the bed, it was barely warm enough. I always enjoy staying at the farmhouse, but the chill was a bit much to deal with. I have decided that this is a bad time of the year to stay with him at his farm. But the incredibly beautiful setting, and his beautiful home made up for it.

The next morning, we were supposed to meet the owner of the house once again, but again, he did not show - in fact, we found out that he had taken off for Limon, so there was no point in waiting around to try to get in to see the place. So after lunch with my friend at his parents' house in Cartago, I took off and headed home. The trip home was uneventful, except for having gotten a bit lost in Curridibat while trying to find the entrance to the expressway. Eventually I did find it, and made my way around the city, doing the "rotundas" one at a time until I was back at the Interamerican Highway. I exited the expressway, got on the freeway and headed out of town, arriving back in Arenal just before dark.

Still looking for houses in San Ramon and environs, I have not had much luck, but for one that is ideal other than being a bit pricey. If I can get the owner down to a reasonable price, I will probably take the place if it matches the descriptions I have heard. Haven't seen it yet, but if it pans out, I expect I'll have to take it even though it is a bit high priced.

Another issue is whether the owner will take a cat. Yes, I have been adopted by a cat. As I write this, a tiny little kitten is perched on my left shoulder, sleeping as I am typing. This morning, I heard what sounded like a kitten on my front porch, and when I opened the door, sure enough - a tiny little kitten, just barely weaned, looked up at me with frightened little blue eyes. As soon as it saw me, it scooted around behind the flower beds, and continued its plaintive crying. Well, I had to help it out. So I mixed some milk powder in some water, and set it out, and the kitten instantly went for it, drinking her fill as quickly as she could. She was obviously very hungry. My neighbor, whose cat just had kittens as described here last month, has denied that the kitten is theirs. If that's true, I have no idea where it came from - it was obviously left here, as there are no cats anywhere nearby.

It is a tiny female, white in color with patches of grey - clearly a calico mix, and with the most plaintive face you ever saw in a kitten. Really pathetic, and I just couldn't say no to it. I sat on my rocking chair on the porch and encouraged it to come, and within minutes, shaking with fear, it hopped up on my lap and accepted my affection. It wasn't long before it was calmed down and was soon sleeping on my lap. It has proven to be the most affectionate little kitten I have ever seen - already, after less than a day, it can't bear to be apart from me.

So there you have it. I find myself a daddy to an orphaned kitten. What to do with it right in the midst of a move - that is my dilemma. Well, I am working on a plan to deal with it. First, I am trying to find it a home. If that doesn't work, which it probably won't, I will have to work out an arrangement for it to be fed and cared for while I am on my various trips, some of which might end up a day or two. So what to do. Anyone out there want a sweet little kitten?

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 01:32:48 PM
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