Letters From Exile

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

Fri, Aug 24 2007

The Move From Hell

Well, I am finally settled into my new temporary digs in Alajuela, near the San Jose Airport. It was a long, difficult move, but it is finally over, at least this phase of it, and boy, am I glad of that. This was one of the most difficult and unpleasant real estate deals I have ever done, followed by the worst move of my life. Sure glad it is all behind me.

I have rented a house near San Ramon, but unfortunately, it is not ready for me to move into yet. The landlord, a friend of mine, also owns this apartment and as it was vacant, agreed to allow me to move into it until such a time as the house I am renting from him is ready.

The completion of the deal of the sale of my house happened two weeks ago today, on the 10th, and I had until a week ago, the 17th, to be out. I had arranged for the movers to come on the following Tuesday, the 14th. Don't worry, I was assured, they would have all the packing materials and cartonage I would need. There would be a crew of three, and they would have me out in short order. Tuesday morning, the 14th, the weather was bright and sunny, a perfect day to do the move.

They were supposed to arrive at ten in the morning, and they didn't show till 11:30. And when they showed, there were only two of them, and they were woefully short of packing materials. They had virtually no packing paper and barely enough cartons to do the job - about forty boxes recycled from a grocery store. With only one guy plus the driver, and neither one showing much hustle, I knew this was not going to be a good experience. Fortunately, the buyer of the house sent his worker over, and one of my neighbors showed up to give me a hand. With a stack of newspapers that I happened to have kept around as a contingency for just this thing, we had enough packing paper, and with some packing tape I had bought the day before, we had enough tape to close up the boxes.

Everyone went to work, packing hastily and, I am afraid, rather poorly, and by two in the afternoon, everything was packed and loaded. At that point, the driver tried to tell me that I owed extra because the move originated in Guanacaste province, and that meant extra travel. Well, they have maps just like I do, and they knew that, and I should have been told that when given the bid. I feigned that I didn't understand his Spanish, and eventually, he gave up trying to explain it to me, and we headed out.

We got no further than La Fortuna, about an hour from Arenal, and the truck stopped at a soda for lunch. He insisted that they were entitled to lunch because of the length of the move, but I could see that our luck with the weather was not likely to last - the afternoon clouds were building to a thunderstorm. After a leisurely lunch in Fortuna, we headed out and up and across the mountain towards San Ramon. The truck, which was following me, was an incredibly underpowered Mercedes diesel, and just couldn't go up a hill of any degree faster than second gear. It took us 3 1/2 hours to get to San Ramon - a distance I can drive in my somewhat underpowered Dodge Raider in just two.

As we came over the continental divide at Los Angeles Sur, the clouds grew so thick I was forced to turn on my lights. It started to rain, and I knew we might be in trouble on the last three kilometers of gravel out to the house I had rented, where my goods were to be stored until I could move in. We finally arrived at the end of the pavement just as an intense thunderstorm was ending.

The driver made a single half-hearted attempt at going up the bare clay right at the end of the pavement, but spun out and absolutely refused to make even a second attempt to go any further. We arrived at a pulperia at the end of the paved road, and he called his boss from the pay phone there. After considerable negotiation, with my new landlord acting as a translator, it was decided that we would park the truck there overnight, wait for the road to dry out and go up the hill first thing in the morning before it could get wet again. The driver and his assistant would spend the night in San Ramon. And this was going to cost me. The truck was committed to another move the next day, the manager claimed, and that would have to be canceled, and so the manager was demanding an extra $200. And I had to pay the drivers' per diem, because they didn't have any cash with them. Reluctantly, I agreed to it, but told him I expected some consideration, as if the the driver had shown up when promised, we would have beat the rain and this would not have happened. I told him I would deduct the driver's per diem from the $200, and reluctantly he agreed.

Well, the back doors of the truck had no lock, but there was a metal worker in the village who had some old rusty chain, and the pulperia had a padlock, so we were able to secure it with that. I headed out to the house for the night, and the drivers got a cab to San Ramon.

We agreed to meet the next morning at the pulperia at eight, and get the truck up the hill, to the house and unloaded. When I arrived, I discovered the drivers were already there, and trying to get the truck started, but the battery was dead. They carried a spare battery, but it was dead too. As it happened, I had the car battery in the back of my Dodge that I use for my computer UPS, and I retrieved that, and we installed it long enough to crank the truck engine and get it started. The battery had barely enough energy to crank that diesel engine, but it did start. We put the truck's battery back in, and proceeded up the hill.

The truck followed me slowly, very slowly, down the rocky road to the house. After about an hour of unloading into the temporary storage area, we were finally done, and I settled up with the driver, got my receipts, and cut him loose. I was sure glad to see the back of him and his rather bad attitude. On the feedback form, I was quite happy to give the manager a piece of my mind about getting gringoed on that overnight adventure, and letting him know that the driver wasn't very well prepared and promises made to me had not been kept.

After cutting the moving truck loose, I worked out with the landlord just how we were going to do the trip to Alajuela to get me settled in the new apartment. It was agreed that I would follow him to San Ramon where he had to take care of a few items of business, and then I would follow him to the apartment where I am now living. I told him that I needed gas in San Ramon, as I was getting low after the trip from Arenal. Well, he forgot, and pretty soon, we found ourselves on the highway to Alajuela. He got pretty far ahead of me at many points, and of course, each was when we passed a gasolinera. My attempts to signal him to pull in to the gas stations all failed, and I made it to Alajuela with not much gas to spare. But I got settled into the apartment, and he took me on a quick tour of where I could find all the essentials - gas station being the first stop, ferreteria (hardware store), bank, grocery stores, etc. So I am all settled.

Wednesday, I did a serious grocery shopping run. The town's three grocery stores have all the basics and even a few luxury items (one store is a Pali, owned by Wal Mart), and some of the things I had been missing in Arenal. That will be nice. And the Chinese-owned grocery sells fresh baguettes every morning, and cheap, too - 285 colones each, or about 60 cents U.S. Turns out they are actually quite good. So I can have some decent bread while I am living here.

Yesterday, I made my first trip to the farmacia in town to get some stomach medicines. They are quite expensive - even here, $2 per capsule. I got enough to last a month, or so I thought. But when I got them home, I discovered to my dismay that one of the four little bottles had been opened and all the capsules removed, but the cotton and anti-humidity pillow carefully put back in. I was furious to say the least, but I also knew that it was pointless to go back and argue with the clerk. I should have checked before I ever left the farmacia in the first place. Gringoed again. This time for 7,000 colones, about $14. You can bet I'll check out thoroughly everything else I buy at that place.

Getting settled in, I am really enjoying some aspects of living here. I have a hot water shower, not just a flash heater. I have broadband Internet, so I can stream all the BBC World Service and National Public Radio I can eat. And one of the joys of this place is that I get access to my landlord's ham radio antennas, some of which are really big and highly effective. I am really enjoying that - it is the first time in my ham radio career that I have had access to such excellent antenna systems. What a joy it is, too. I have a big signal for now, and have no trouble being heard. One call and they always come back to me. What a refreshing change that is!

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:48:06 AM

Sun, Aug 05 2007

To Hell And Back With The Computer While Getting Ready To Move

Well, it has been a very exciting week around here.

In order to prepare for the upcoming sale of the house, due to be completed this month (or else), I went to a lawyer in Tilaran on Monday to confirm with him that my instructions to the buyer were in full conformity with the sales contract and the law. He spent a half hour or so reading the contract, and discussing with me what my situation and that of the buyer were, and gave it his blessing. So I returned to Arenal and presented it to the buyer, and as I expected, he refused to sign it immediately, but wanted to wait to review it with his wife (and presumably his lawyer as well, though he did not say so). The buyer told me that he was getting anxious about completing the deal, and said he had intended to come by anyway and discuss it. So we sat on the front porch for a half hour or so, discussing the details and working out the arrangements. At first, he had suggested an interest in possibly pulling out of the deal, and presented the reasons why, but after discussing it with his wife the following day, they apparently decided to go ahead.

Well, on returning from the trip to see the lawyer in Tilaran, I had forgotten that the ICE (power and telephone) people had planned to do some tree trimming in the neighborhood and had told me they were going to shut off the power for five hours, beginning just minutes after I left for Tilaran. So I came back from the lawyer's office two hours later all fat, dumb and happy, only to walk in to the house to hear the computer's UPS system complaining that the power was off and the battery was on the ragged edge of gone, and I had better shut down immediately. I had no more than started to shut down Firefox (which had been trying unsuccessfully to reload a page with Java on it), when the UPS finally died. When power came back on a few hours later, the computer rebooted just fine, but Firefox froze up immediately when I tried to run it. In fact, it froze the operating system, and nothing worked - not the keyboard, not the mouse, nothing. I couldn't even power the computer down with the power on-off switch, but ended up pulling the plug. Whatever Firefox and Java had done, was drastic indeed.

I figured that I would reboot, go online and use Internet Explorer to download a new copy of Firefox and install it. Well, the computer wouldn't reboot. Bios reported that there were some needed system files missing. All my attempts to boot it failed. This couldn't have come at a worse time - just when I was getting ready to close on the house, and need my computer for editing documents and for email.

I got out my repair disk and tried to repair Windows. No cigar. Same result - the same old Bios error message. Now my goose was well and truly cooked. In a flash of inspiration, I decided to load a whole new install of Windows on the second drive in my computer, and boot from it, copying the needed files from the new install to the old one. After some rather considerable fussing around, I managed to get a new bootable copy of Windows installed on the second hard drive. But when I tried to copy the corrupted files from the new directory to the original Windows installation, I got nowhere fast - the new Windows, from which I was booted, was holding open some of the files I needed, and wouldn't let me copy them - sharing violation, it said.

My ham friend in town is a computer whiz that everyone hires to fix their computers. I got on the phone and strategized with him - he suggested that I borrow a Linux live-boot disk from him, boot up in Linux and then use Linux to copy from the new Windows install to the old one. I drove over to his place and got a copy of Linux on CDrom from him, and brought it home and tried it. No cigar - my drive couldn't read it for some reason. So I took the computer over to his house, and he put his known-good copy of his Linux live boot disk in it, and it read it just fine. We transferred the missing system files, and booted the right up in the factory Windows install, though clearly things were not quite right - a lot of file associations and program associations were missing from the registry. I brought the computer back home to finish up with it myself.

Unfortunately, it still wouldn't recognize bus hardware, including my modem. Well, since I couldn't get online, I couldn't search the forums for answers, so out of desperation, I began by reloading all the driver disks that came with the computer. Nothing brought my modem back to life. Since I had found that my computer was recognizing USB hardware, I made a trip to La Fortuna, to the two computer shops there to find a USB modem to try to get back online with that. Unfortunately, neither shop had one, though one said they would order one in and have it on Tuesday. I drove back to Arenal empty-handed.

For one last stab at it before total desperation and Plan B of reloading Windows and starting from scratch, I tried running the repair on the original Windows install once again. Then I reinstalled the system drivers again. All of a sudden, my soundcard came to life, so I knew it was recognizing bus hardware again. But the modem still wouldn't work. I checked the connectoid properties, and discovered that Windows had forgotten about its own generic software modem driver. After some hunting around in search of some other things, I ran onto a vendor CDrom in my collection for a modem I no longer own, but which is a software modem like the one I have. I checked the CD and found it not only had the driver I needed, but a forced-install routine to install it as well. I ran it and the installer installed the driver and put it in the installed modem list. After setting the connectoid to use that driver, I tried the modem and it sensed the phone line, but wouldn't dial. But it was progress, and I knew I was almost there. Well, ICE's dial tone here in Costa Rica is weird and I suspected that the modem simply wasn't sensing dial tone, so I set commands in the modem set-up script to ignore the absence of dial tone and dial anyway. Success! The modem not only dialed up the Internet, but logged on successfully on the first try! I downloaded my three hundred plus emails and then downloaded a fresh copy of Firefox, logged off and installed it.

Well, it seems that the Firefox installer doesn't check file integrity; if it sees an installation of the current release, it leaves undisturbed all the files it finds already installed, so when I tried running Firefox, my heart sank - it immediately froze up, and apparently crashed Windows - exactly like when all this began. But in another flash of inspiration, it occurred to me that Firefox may actually be running, just holding up the show while rooting around in a memory loop, so I decided to call the task manager and wait and see what would happen. My theory proved to be correct. After about ten minutes, the task manager finally came up running, and I was able to close down Firefox in an orderly fashion. While holding my breath, I tried rebooting the computer and it rebooted quite normally. Saved! So I manually uninstalled Firefox this time and reinstalled it. With breathless anticipation, I tried Firefox again, and this time it ran normally. Phew! Back on line, and I can finally get back to work, even if my computer is still a bit funky.

That was yesterday. And so today, I decided to write up a blog entry about this harrowing experience, and began by calling up and running my blog editing software. I had gotten through about the first three paragraphs, when I heard thunder close by, so I decided to shut down and disconnect. And it was a good thing I did. The thunderstorm got violent and windy, and pretty soon I could hear power line arcs sputtering away in the distance. I decided to go out and see where they were happening. Apparently the wind had blown a telephone subscriber wire onto the secondary electrical wires about a half block from my house. The fireworks were spectacular, to say the least, but stopped suddenly and when they did, I knew that meant the power was off. When I went back into the house and confirmed that it was, I called ICE and reported the problem, then went out on the front porch and waited for the ICE truck to come by. When it did, I flagged them down and showed them right where the trouble was. They deployed the ladder, climbed up and pulled the broken telephone wire down, and in minutes my power was back on.

So all in all, it has been an exciting week. And next week will be equally exciting. Tomorrow morning, first thing, I head over to the office of the buyer's lawyer, and we write up and agree verbally to the wording in the final sales contract. The buyer then will wire the remaining money for the sales price to the bank, and when I have confirmed that it has been posted to my account, I will then call the mover to come and move my things to my new rented home near San Ramon. Once that is completed, and I am moved out and ready to vacate the premises, I return to the lawyer's office and sign the final sales contract. At that moment, the house is the full property of the buyer's, and he gets the keys and I am done and outta here.

I will be living in a temporary furnished studio apartment my new landlord owns out near the airport in Alajuela for a few weeks while my new landlord is finishing the house he is building, and then moves into it, vacating the house I am going to rent. We both figure that is about 45 days away, and so I will be storing most of my goods in an unfinished apartment he has, which is attached to that house. I will be living in a tiny, cramped apartment with no telephone or television, but it is not a big deal as it is for such a short period of time. The big plus: I will have access to some truly spectacular ham radio antennas he has on the property, and he already has broadband Internet installed and working in the apartment. So I can keep myself entertained with my books, music, ham radio and the Internet.

I am really looking forward to living in my new home in San Ramon. It is a beautiful home in a spectacular setting, with a commanding view of the Gulf of Nicoya. It would be a perfect home to live in if it were for sale, and if the lot were a bit bigger. It is a good site for my ham radio, except for being on exactly the wrong side of the mountain. But that also means that it is a lot dryer than here, something I am looking forward to after three years of 155 inches of rain per year - twice as much as Seattle.

So this is probably my last blog entry before getting settled into that little apartment in the Central Valley. I will be back online as soon as possible, but don't know for sure when that will be. Will keep you all posted when I am.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 01:39:58 PM
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