Letters From Exile

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

Thu, Mar 29 2007

Instant Winner

Well, for the last few weeks I have suffered from a bad case of lassitude, is why I haven't written to the blog. But enough has been going on that it is worth an entry, so here goes...

The dry season weather is in full swing, but the Intertropical Convergence is making its northward movement a bit early this year, so we are likely to have an early rainy season. That is consistent with what the Meteorological Institute has been saying - the El Nino is over, and it is going to be swiftly replaced by a La Nina. That usually means early and intense rainy seasons in this country. The last one happened the winter after I moved to Arenal, and it literally didn't quit raining for two months, from the first of December right through January, resulting in the drowning of some of my prized landscaping plants, including the varigated ginger I so loved. It is but a distant memory now. Daytime temps have been in the mid-80's, and lows at night in the low 70's. I have been using a fan to sleep most nights.

I decided to go ahead and renew the sales contract on the house. I concluded that living in a small town with a bitter enemy (the buyer made it pretty clear he would be pretty upset and was not going to have anything to do with me if I didn't complete the sale), would not be a healthy situation, not in a town as small as this. And the revenue derived from the sale would enable me to get a rentista visa, at least if I can get the paperwork done and submitted before the change in the law that has been submitted to the Assemblea. So I have gone ahead and finally found a house to rent, which will be ready in July or August. My plan is to move as soon as it is ready, and get the paperwork going on the visa as soon as possible thereafter.

About a month ago, I did a visa renewal trip to Granada, up north in Nicaragua. The trip was uneventful for the most part, and I was quite eager to see how Nicaragua is doing under its new president, and George Bush's arch-nemesis, Daniel Ortega - the very man over whom the Contra War was fought. He was elected president in December and installed in January.

One of the things that had so annoyed me about the last president of Nicaragua, Enrique Belanos, was his love of all things right-wing. He never saw a market he didn't want to "free" or a national asset he didn't want to privatize. So when the Spanish company, Union Fenosa, which bought the national electric grid a few years back, began to extort the country for a huge rate hike (by instituting rolling blackouts lasting as much as eight hours daily), Belanos was an easy roll, and readily agreed to a 30% rate increase - on top of the 24 cents U.S. per kilowatt hour Fenosa was already getting. The existing rates had already made Nicaraguan electricity the most expensive in Latin America, and the 30 percent increase wasn't going to help any. Fenosa's excuse was that there was so much energy theft that the load had outstripped their generating capacity, which was sized for their load of record, so they claimed. Hence the blackouts. And they said they weren't making enough money to build new generating capacity or increase their wheeling capacities, without the rate increase.

Daniel Ortega was having none of it. It became a campaign issue, as one might expect, and this time, since business was being affected by Fenosa playing like an Enron wannabe, a surprising amount of support from business went to Ortega, that supposed old Cold War socialist leftie, because he promised to do something about it. Just what he was going to do, he wouldn't say specifically, as he wanted to be cagey about it, but everyone knew he wouldn't be the easy roll that Belanos had been. So come inauguration day, Ortega announced what he was going to do. He was going to organize a forensic accounting team and audit Fenosa's books - going over them with a fine-toothed comb, to see if everything contained in the sworn testimony given by Fenosa's executives before the energy committee of the Assemblea Nacional was, in fact, accurate. Specifically, he wanted to know how much energy theft was actually occurring and what the difference between installed capacity and actual load really was - and what Fenosa's real costs are.

Well, miracle of miracles. Somehow, Union Fenosa, that hard done-by Spanish outfit that hadn't done its due diligence load audits before it bought the national grid, seemed to miraculously be able to come up with enough generating capacity to keep the lights on. And there hasn't been a non-maintenance-related blackout in Nicaragua since Ortega took office. What a difference the threat of a little discipline and regulation can make. And all this talk of a 30% rate increase? Haven't heard any more about that, either. But from what I hear, Ortega is going ahead with the audit, and if it is shown that there was any fraud involved in the blackouts, Fenosa will lose its contract on the basis of contract fraud and its assets will be confiscated - meaning that Nicaragua gets one of its crown jewels back, and those greedy sharks at Union Fenosa get left holding the bag. I am all in favor of that one. There is no reason why Nicaraguans should be paying that kind of money for electricity, when right next door in Costa Rica, we pay less than a third as much, and our lights are on all the time.

So how is Nicaragua doing under Ortega otherwise? Well, if all the doom-and-gloom predictions I heard from the right-wingers before the election are coming true, you would have been hard pressed to see it in the economy of Granada while I was there. The town has never looked so good, nor has there ever been so much construction going on. Scaffolding, wet concrete and drying paint are everywhere - it was literally impossible to escape the smell of drying paint while I was there. And tourists? Ortega certainly isn't scaring them off. There were so many tourists in Granada that every third person you meet on the street now is a tourist. Compare that to when I first arrived in Granada three years ago - you might find one or two hanging around the park or down at the lakefront, but otherwise not a sign of one. Now, they are so ubiquitous that they're hard to escape.

That has had its effects: when I arrived on this trip, I simply went to the hotel I usually stay at, only to discover that their rates had gone up by 33% and they still had no rooms for me. I hadn't made a reservation because it has never been necessary in the past - I had never been turned away in the years I had been going there. The front desk clerk called around for me and the only room they could find was at the Hotel Granada - down by the lake, a long, long walk from anywhere else in town, and the hotel itself is undergoing major renovation. In all, I had to take a room at 40% above what I am used to paying, in a hotel with a lot of noise going on during the day, and a long walk from a meal. And I got the last room in the place, and had to beg and plead for it, because it was a triple.

New businesses, especially tourist infrastructure, is springing up in Granada like grass after a spring rain. At least half of the hotels that were checked on trying to find a room for me were new places that had not even been open when I was last there. And Calle La Calzada, the pedestrian tourist promenade that runs between the central plaza and the lakefront, boasts at least half a dozen new restaurants since I was there. The locals tell me that it is almost impossible to hire a construction crew, because everyone with any experience is busy as can be right now. Instead of causing real estate prices to collapse, the price of real estate in Granada is climbing faster than ever. Nicaragua, under that old socialist leftie, Daniel Ortega, seems to be really hitting its stride. So much for the wisdom of the "Washington Consensus" and the doom-and-gloom predictions of the U.S. ambassador and that veteran Republican meddler-in-chief, Rep. Dan Burton of Illinois, who had said that Ortega would be nothing but bad for Nicaragua if he got elected. Well, check it out now, Danny boy. I found a property near Granada that is rather enticing, and as Nicaragua is one of the easier places to get a residence visa, I am getting rather tempted to buy it. The big problem would be getting a house built on it, given the lack of idle construction crews.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed in Costa Rica Living, a Yahoo email group, that someone had a an 80-foot radio tower for sale. I called him for details and it turns out he had installed it eight years ago to facilitate getting an Internet connection microwaved in to his business in Heredia. He had broadband by cable now, and didn't need the tower anymore and wanted it to be removed, so I bought it for $250 plus removal. As it happens, I know someone in the communications tower business - one of my ham radio friends - and he agreed to remove it for me for $150. So I paid the guy, and had my friend go over to remove it. Turns out it is a very sturdy tower, well suited to my needs for a ham radio tower, and so for only $400, I now have the radio tower of my dreams - it is a tower that would have cost me five times as much in the States. It will require some refurbishing - the years have not been kind to some parts of it, but the work needed is not extensive, and my friend can arrange it done for me. So as soon as I get a new house bought and ready to move into, I am going to have that tower erected. I am planning to build my own antennas for it - my friend and I have been cooking up ideas for a number of years, and have come to an agreement on the best arrangement. I plan to begin construction on the antenna as soon as I move, and it should be ready to install by the time I have bought a house. I am really looking forward to that - it will be by far the best ham radio antenna situation I have had access to in the 30-plus years I have been a ham. I can't wait!

Well, Tuesday, I made a routine visit to the grocery store, and it turned out to be my lucky day. I went shopping at the local supermarket that is often running contests and promotionals, and they are currently running an instant drawing for a bicycle - one of 350 that the chain is giving away. If you buy a combination of products from three sponsors, you are automatically entered, and the computer will instantly pick winners at random until all the prizes are gone. I didn't think anything of it, because I never win anything, and even if I did, what would I do with a bicycle? Well, I bought the right combination of products apparently, and the computer picked me as an instant winner.

I had figured, from graphics in the promotional material, that the bike was going to be a cheap kid's bike, and was told to come back and pick it up today. I was trying to figure out what family in the barrio to give it to, who had a kid that needs it to get to school. I called some of my friends and talked to them and got some ideas. Today, I went to the store to claim my prize, and was shocked to discover that it is a decent-quality adult-sized ten-speed mountain bike, which I would love to be able to use myself.

But alas, balance problems that are the result of my Asperger's Syndrome mean that, like many Asperger's patients, I have never successfully been able to ride a bike. So here I have a beautiful, brand-new "Upland" brand ten-speed mountain bike sitting in my spare bedroom, with the fresh tire rubber making the house smell like a tire shop. What to do with it? I haven't a clue, but it is too good a bike to just give away. So now, I have to consider my options. Anybody wanna bike cheap?

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 12:11:12 PM
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