Letters From Exile

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

Tue, Mar 25 2008

Automotive Adventures

Living as I do out in the boondocks on a 4WD trail, I have long feared what would happen when a sharp rock finally punctured a tire out in the middle of nowhere, and left me with no option but to change a tire right then and there, whether I was on a hillside or in the middle of a rainstorm. Well, today it happened. After discovering that I needed to go file some tax forms, I went into town today, and got no further than about half way to pavement when I started hearing that telltale sound - and so I pulled over and got out to have a look, and sure enough. Left rear, flat as a pancake.

Fortunately, it was on a fairly level spot, so I got some of the abundant rocks, chocked the tires and went to work. And discovered that the flat had been installed with an air wrench, and I couldn't budge a single lugnut. So, after looking in vain for something to use as a cheater bar, I tried a last ditch attempt by kicking the lug wrench with the heel of my foot, and much to my surprise, I had no difficulty in loosening each lugnut. Tire changed, I discovered to my discomfort that the pressure in the spare was dangerously low, so I drove the rest of the way to pavement, and on to the next town, on a semi-disinflated spare. To the surprise of an ICE truck, I waved them ahead, because I needed to drive slowly and carefully over the remainder of 4WD trail and on to pavement. I made it, and drove directly to the mechanic's shop and had him fill my tire. He directed me to a fellow that does tire repair in that little village, and the guy took my tire and went to work straight away. He found no fewer than three nails in it, one of which was in the center of the tread, and the rocks in the road had worked it around until the hole was too big to simply plug. He ended up removing the tire and putting a patch on the inside. We loaded the repaired tire back in the back of the Raider, and I was on my way. I have decided to hold off on putting the old tire back on until I can see if it will hold air for a few days - you gotta watch that sort of thing around here.

I spent some time running around San Ramon, and acquired the forms I needed, and made a stop at the mail courier's office to pick up my mail. They had received a copy of the Amateur Electronic Supply catalog, a ham radio store chain in the U.S., and so I came back home with a dream book to peruse.

Yesterday, it was get-the-car-inspected day. I was up early, because I had made an appointment to get my car inspected before the sticker expires at the end of the month. I had to drive all the way to Puntarenas, to the nearest inspection station, and, since I didn't know where it was, had to do a lot of asking around to find the place. I managed to find it and drive in just minutes before my appointment.

The lady in the office was nice enough, and we enjoyed a nice little chat in my broken Spanish, while we got the paperwork and $20 inspection fee out of the way. I got the car in line and was soon creeping into the inspection bay after waiting about ten minutes. First thing... Checked the lights. Nope. I hadn't been too worried about that one, as I had already replaced the burned out rear turn signal lamp a few days before. But it turns out that one of the headlight low-beams was burned out. I had no idea, since I never drive at night anyway, and it was kind of irritating, because I had just replaced that lamp only a year ago. But the lady inspector, whose English was about as bad as my Spanish, excused me and told me that she would reinspect without nicking me for a reinspection fee if I got it fixed and returned the same day. So I drove to an auto parts store that I had noticed on the way in, and got a new headlamp. $13. A bit pricey, but cheaper than a trip back to San Ramon and return. Had no screwdriver with me, so I had to buy one of those, too, at an additional $3. Nice screwdriver, but it damned well ought to be at that price. So out there in the parking lot, I dissembled the radiator grill and replaced the headlamp. Checked it out. Working A-OK now. Deposited the old headlamp in the store's dempster and drove back to the inspection station. As I got in line, the inspector lady noted my return ("Boy, that was quick!"), and proceeded with my inspection. After doing the seat belts, battery holder and checking the engine for oil and coolant leaks, I was instructed to drive forward to the brake test.

For three years, I had always gotten a warning, because the right-rear brake was a bit weaker than the others, about 27% weaker last year. But this time, it was 56% weaker, and that was weak enough that it flunked, so I got a "Grave" on that one. The rest of the inspection went fine, and I got three warnings - a leaking transfer case seal (hey, it has been doing that since I have owned the car), but two warnings that I had never seen before - a small crack in a frame weld, and a warning about the darkening film in the rear side windows - neither of these had ever been an issue before, even though both have been there since I bought the car. This inspection was much more rigorous than any I had ever had before in Canas, and I am sure that is why I had gotten those "lleves." Well, after getting my list of problems, I drove back home to Piedades, and stopped at the mechanic's workshop to make an appointment to get the repair work done. It will be a few days, because I want to have him do some other maintenance work too, and he will have to have the car for awhile to get it all done.

All these expenses are adding up. Another biggie I faced the other day was for a new computer monitor. Late one night, during a bout of insomnia, I was on my ham radio and noted that the computer monitor screen was suddenly getting dim. It slowly dimmed and finally went black. And as it did so, I could smell that distinctive smell of fried electronic component. It was apparent that the monitor had failed outright.

I dug up an old monitor that had been kicking around here, the one that I had bought with a new computer, but two computers ago, and hooked it up, and to my surprise, it worked. Being a very old monitor, it made a lot of radio noise that interfered with my ham radio, but I finally found a combination of screen resolution size and refresh rate that put the noise bands outside of the frequencies I usually use. And for a couple of days, all was well. Meanwhile, I tore into the failed monitor to try to find the failed component to see if I could replace it, but it never did show itself. I did find one bad solder joint, so I fixed that, and put it back together, expecting the monitor to not work, and indeed, it still didn't. So I gave up, and tore it apart to salvage parts out of it.

But my replacement monitor began to show signs that it was not all that happy, either. So knowing that its end was also nigh, I took a trip into San Ramon to the computer stores there to look for a new one. I decided that I wanted one of the new flat-screen LCD jobs, that don't make a lot of radio noise and mess up my ham radio, and that last a lot longer than the old fashioned CRT monitors. Every store that had what I was looking for, all had the same model - so I found the cheapest price ($260) and reluctantly got out my wallet and bought one.

When I got it home, I discovered that it wasn't happy with my computer. It is one of the new 16:9 aspect "cinema format" jobs. Seems that it worked fine only in the 800x600 mode, which was so coarse that it wasn't all that helpful, and even then, the video quality was mighty poor. When I tried higher screen resolutions, the monitor complained that it didn't support that input, even though the display actually worked. I went online and found a driver for the monitor, downloaded and installed it, but no cigar - made no difference at all. So I packed up the monitor and took it back to the store. The technician there suggested that what was probably needed was a new video card driver, or, if all else failed, a new video card itself, and anyway, he couldn't give me a refund because the manager wasn't in. So I would have to come back.

This was Thursday afternoon before Easter weekend (which is bigger than Christmas here), so I reluctantly went home, on his assurance that I could come back on the following Monday or Tuesday, and work it out with the manager when he returned. Over the Easter weekend, I decided that I would try to see if I could find an updated driver for my existing video card. Turns out that the company is still in business, and indeed, they had a new driver for my exact card that was dated 2006 - six years after I bought my computer. So I downloaded it, but decided to wait until Sunday night before loading it, so that if I had problems as a result, I could deal with it during business hours on Monday, when I could get support. Well, when Sunday night came, I bit the bullet and ran the installer. Sure enough, the old monitor was having trouble displaying things, but I got out the new one, and connected it up, and Voila! It worked! So after adjusting the settings, I am now enjoying a great new monitor, and sure enough, no more computer noise on my ham radio. That alone will be worth the price of admission.

The old burned-out monitor proved to have some rather valuable parts in it. It had some radio-noise suppression ferrite cores in it (they're those cylindrical bulges that you often see in computer cables) that I removed and set aside for working on the several radio noise problems that I have around here. One of them proved to be the exact core that I needed to suppress the noise coming from the power supply to my ham radios, so I got that noise problem solved too. Now, my ham radio is getting close to noise-free, at least from sources I can control, and I am really enjoying that. My only other remaining noise problem is the power supply in the computer itself, and I have the cores I need to fix that now, but it will mean making up a special power cord for the computer. I'll put one together Real Soon Now.

Speaking of ham radio, I am finally set up and running on electronic QSL (proof of contact, used for awards and such), and so I am now in the twenty-first century, with ham radio on one side of the desk and an always-on Internet connection on the other. It means that I can send my electronic QSLs instantly - and that will be really nice, not having to deal with the old fashioned QSL cards. They're sent and received by mail, and there is a lot of tradition associated with them, but they're also a bit of a pain in the butt, and are expensive in a third-world country like this. Now I want to get a second sound card, so that I can silently do my digital QSOs (conversations) with one sound card, while I am listening to music or the news on my computer with the other. That would be really nice. Yeah, we're finally getting modern around here.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 06:02:57 PM

Sat, Mar 15 2008

Bird Watching

Up early this morning, got to go to the feria (farmer's market) with a pocket full of shrapnel with which to buy my week's food. So I have been drinking my morning coffee out on the front porch as the sun comes up.

This morning there is yet a cruzero (cruise ship) coming into port in Puntarenas. It is the third one this week. Consider that when I arrived here almost five years ago, the first cruise ship coming into Puntarenas was big news - it meant that the cruise ship tourism market segment had finally been cracked as had long been hoped, and it meant that the Pacific coastal region - the country's poorest until that point - would finally benefit from the tourism boom that is sweeping Central America. Well, with three per week, you can be guaranteed that the tourists coming off the launches (Puntarenas' port is shallow water and cannot be dredged, so passengers have to come ashore in launches) will be met with wall-to-wall hawkers of tourist kitsch. And the beachfront bars will be packed till late afternoon with tourists paying outrageous prices for rum-sopped fruit juice decorated with slices of mango and tiny little Chinese-made paper umbrellas and such. All of those will go back to the ship with their wallets a bit thinner, and one or two likely to go back with no wallet at all - the Puntarenas beaches are famous for their pickpockets justly famed for their skill in operating a very lively extraction industry.

But sitting on my front porch, I am above it all. 3450 feet above it, to be precise, and about 15 miles away, where it is all something of a distant dream, visible only from a far distance. The other part of the dream is watching all the colorful tropical birds that inhabit this area of coffee farms, occasional houses and small patches of remaining forest, both primary and secondary. All that means it is ideal habitat for a wide variety of birds, many of which are the stereotypically colorful birds, and the mix of them is constantly changing. Last night there was a pair of kuwio birds (no English name that I know of) courting in the street in front of the house. They are a night-time bird, and like to come out at night and make the call that gives them their name while strutting their stuff out in the road. Koo-WEE-oh. One of the pair would sit on a fencepost, and randomly fly straight up, as high as the electrical wires, before settling back down on his perch, making his call.

This morning, it is the toucans - rainbow-billed toucans, which seem to be far more common at the moment than I can ever recall seeing them. The bird that is on the back cover of just about every tour guide of Costa Rica that has ever been published, it is not the national bird as you would expect. The quintessential "brightly colored tropical bird," it has a bill about six inches long, that is colored bright yellow, red and blue. It has a yellow bib in front of a black background, and some scarlet red feathers on its back that are hidden when it is perched. They are here feeding on the abundance of fruit in the forest trees that happens to be in season at the moment. Yesterday afternoon, there was one in the trees at the bottom of the hill, and in the morning, another flew not more than 5 meters over my head. Two days ago, there was a flock of five of them that spent a good deal of time perched in a dead tree down the hill from me.

And there are the Baltimore orioles, which are very common this year. Bright orange with black wings with white wing bars, they are a very striking bird. And at the moment, there is a large number of blue-grey tanagers, often mistaken by tourists as bluebirds, since their wings are a striking bright blue. There have also been a few scarlet-rumped tanagers, which are getting less common - I suspect they are beginning their northward migration. And then of course, there are the yellow and black great kiskadees, which are common here all year round.

All in all, it makes for a lovely time of it, sitting on the front porch, listening to the BBC on my brand-new Internet connection and catching up on the news, while watching flocks of green parrots or gaudy toucans fly by. It is the sort of experience that tourists come from all over the world to have, and for me, it is a daily, ordinary occurrence. Life is indeed good. Until I have to get up and prepare for my trip to San Ramon...

...Back now from San Ramon and laying a lot of portraits of dead Costa Ricans on a lot of merchants. Got my eyeglasses back for use on my computer - am using them now - and they are a huge help. I can see my computer again! They are just close enough to my usual prescription to serve as well as a backup for my regular glasses.

Did the feria while in San Ramon, and was delighted to note that manzanas de agua are in season. There is no English name for them that I know of; they are a fruit that is quite closely related to the pear, but are a bit more tart and more flavorful. One of my favorite tropical fruits, and so I bought a kilo of them. I'll probably plant some seeds; they are a beautiful tree and prolific producers of fruit. Mangoes are also at their peak for this part of the year, and I got some really nice ones quite cheaply - 500 colones per kilo, or about US 50 cents per pound. That is my other favorite tropical fruit, right up there with pineapple, so when they are in season and are of good quality, I nosh on those puppies. On the other hand, it looks like avocados are just about done, and I found only a few of modest quality, at US$1.30 per pound. That is quite expensive by Costa Rican standards, and so I bought only as many as I figure I can eat. They're the best local source for Omega-3 oils, so I consider them an essential nutrient.

I also had to buy a new computer monitor. The one I had been using gave up the smoke a few nights back, and so I got out my backup which I have been using since. But last night, it started showing signs of failure, and so I figured I had better get a new monitor. Well, all the old fashioned CRT monitors I have used make a lot of noise on my ham radio, so this time I decided to bite the bullet and spend the money for an LCD monitor. The only one I could find was a 17" model - and it cost me dearly. After biting the bullet to the tune of $275, I now have a computer monitor that is quiet on my radio and displays images beautifully. I am glad for that, but wish I could have gotten by a bit cheaper. But it was not meant to be.

Overnight, I downloaded more than a gigabyte of podcasts, so I won't lack for interesting programs to listen to for quite some time. I guess I should put together a web page of links for people who like to listen to science programs, political analysis programs and business programs. Now I need to get myself an MP3 player so I can listen while I am out on my morning walks, and take lots of entertainment with me on trips. That would be really nice. Soon now. Real soon now.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 07:07:10 AM

Fri, Mar 14 2008

Starting Over

Hello again.

If you have been a regular reader of this blog, you're aware that it has been more than half a year since I have written an update to this blog. And I apologize for that; it is the result of the fact that I have been without any internet access from home during all of that time, and it has not been possible to update this blog from an Internet cafe, which has been my only Internet access. My heartfelt apologies to all my loyal readers who have written to me in the last few months, wondering if anything untoward has happened and I am still around. No, I am fine and still kicking against the pricks, to borrow a phrase from the Bible. So here is a fairly long update.

About the middle of August, I completed the sale of my house in Arenal and moved to a temporary apartment in La Guacima, near the city of Alajuela. The landlord is a ham friend of mine who had agreed to lease me his house where I am currently living. But as it was not ready by the time I needed to move out of my Arenal house, he had to accommodate me in one of the rooms of his ham-radio hotel in La Guacima until he was able to move out of the rental I had agreed to rent, and store my furniture for me in the meantime. Accordingly, on August 16, when I had moved out of my house in Arenal, I moved into that apartment in La Guacima. It was a very small "efficiency" apartment of three rooms, a living room and kitchen, a small bedroom and bath, and a ham-shack room.

I quite enjoyed my time in La Guacima, as I had access to the ham radio hotel's antenna farm, which is quite considerable. It consists of a total of seven towers and a half-dozen tower mounted steerable beam antennas, which have won enough contest awards that the plaques and certificates cover most of two walls. Needless to say, I had a ball on ham radio. As my landlord was also my ham radio buddy, we enjoyed lots of chats about ham radio and what my plans are for when I finally get settled into a place where I can install some serious antennas. One weekend activity with him was to visit a garage sale, where I was able to pick up a Kenwood TS430 radio, which I picked up at a good price, as the owner was clearing out his ham shack, and wanted to get rid of a lot of his older radios. I needed a new radio, as the old Icom IC735 had some problems that limited its usefulness. The Kenwood radio proved to be a good performer, and quickly became my favorite radio. Combined with the enormous antennas at the ham radio hotel, I found that I had no difficulty talking with whomever I wished - my signal was always strong and top quality. It was really a lot of fun. I can see why hams come from all over the world to spend their vacations operating from there.

But I was under a deadline. My landlord had a whole group of fellows lined up to come from the United States to do a contest from the apartment I was occupying, so he had to get his rental ready for me to occupy, so I could move out of the apartment. One of the fellows that had displaced me from the apartment had kindly agreed to carry a radio in for me, so I ordered a new Yaesu FT857D and had him bring it in. On October 19th, my landlord was finally ready, so I moved out of the La Guacima apartment, and headed for the rental house in the countryside near San Ramon. After an early trip from La Guacima to San Ramon, including a stop at the post office to rent a P.O. box (Apo. 589-4250, San Ramon de Alajuela), I arrived to a hectic day of moving my stuff into the house from his bodega (storage room) and into the house. In the process, the toilet in the house began to leak onto the floor, and I had to make some emergency repairs to it. And that night, the kitchen faucet broke, and the landlord had to send his worker over a couple of days later to replace it - in the meantime, I was preparing meals and washing dishes in the pila (laundry sink). It was crisis after crisis just like that for more than a week, until I was finally able to relax enough to begin enjoy my new surroundings - a mountainside 3400 feet above the Gulf of Nicoya, with dramatic views of much of the west coast of Costa Rica, from Puntarenas to Punta Leona.

In the midst of all this, the really heavy part of the rainy season set in. October and November are always the rainiest times of the year in most of Costa Rica, and this year, it rained with a vengeance, the worst rains in quite a few years - it literally did not quit for three weeks, varying only from a heavy drizzle to a really pouring rain. I have no idea what the total rainfall was during that period, but it had to have been in meters, not just centimeters. The dirt road on which the rental house is located, began to muddy up to the point of becoming almost impassible. I never once got stuck, but even with four wheel drive, it was just barely possible to get in and out. I laid in a good supply of groceries, in case the rain made the road impassible and I was cut off for a week or two. The humidity in all of this was incredible - I have never seen anything like it. Paper was limp and felt almost wet to the touch, and fungus was growing everywhere - on framed pictures behind the glass, even in the foam padding of my office chair. My cowboy boot collection was totally covered with it, and I spent some considerable time cleaning the leather and putting foal oil on them to preserve them from the rot. My hats have all required extensive steaming, and I would get them blocked if I could find a place that could do it properly. There are two western-wear stores in San Ramon, but neither blocks hats.

Finally, one morning towards the end of November, I woke up to high winds, whistling through the pine and cypress trees across the street, and not a cloud in the sky. It was a bright sunny day, and I took full advantage of it to put many of my things, including my office chair and cowboy boots, on the front porch in the sun to dry them out. The clear weather and the high winds could only mean one thing - the rainy season was almost over and the dry season was beginning. And indeed, over the next three weeks, the rains returned only occasionally, becoming less and less frequent, until by the end of December, it had quit raining entirely. The road gradually improved, and I was able to get in and out without getting concerned about having to navigate the huge mud-bowls that some spots had become. Eventually it dried out, and even the occasional car or two-wheel drive pickup began to travel past my house. The climate here has proven to be a bit chillier than I had expected, and find it to be a bit too cool for my taste. When I seek a place to purchase, it will be a bit lower in elevation here. During the rains, the daytime highs never exceed 76, and nighttime lows in the low 60s. Now, during the dry season, the highs are in the mid 80s and lows in the upper 60s. I have become so acclimated to tropical weather that such temperatures are now feeling a bit chilly to me, so I am going to look for a place at about half this elevation.

Meanwhile, the promises for Internet access did not materialize, and being beyond the end of the telephone wires, even dial-up was not an option - my only connection to the outside world, other than ham radio, is a cell phone. I had managed to come up with work-arounds for most all of the problems created by the lack of Internet access, with varying degrees of success, so if the plan to arrange it didn't come together, I still won't be totally up the creek. Just very seriously inconvenienced by having to make frequent trips into San Ramon.

In the midst of all of this, my old anti-hero, Rupert Murdoch, the owner of both DirecTV and Sky Satellite TV, decided to merge both News Corp. business units and do away with DirecTV Latin America entirely (of which I was a subscriber), so I either had to subscribe to Sky at a $10 per month increase in rates, or give up watching television, since the national television here is hardly worth watching. Well, I decided that television wasn't so important to me that I was willing to pay $2 per day for the privilege of watching it, so I told them to come and get their DirecTV box. Which they still haven't done. So my television sits in the corner, essentially unused these days except for the odd national newscast (so thoroughly tabloidized that it is hardly worth the effort of turning on the TV to watch it), and that is it. The national television here is a steady diet of cheap game shows, incredibly sappy he-done-her-wrong soap operas called "TV-novelas," imported from Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela, and newscasts that are a steady diet of sensational car crashes, murder investigations, drug busts, etc. - all the news that kids shouldn't be watching and ultimately don't matter much anyway to one's life. It is so bad that one channel even goes so far as to divide up its newscasts with category titles, proceeding neatly from one category to the next: Stabbings. Shootings. Auto Accidents. Drug Busts. Criminal Arrests. When something unfortunate happens to a little child, the poor little thing is shamelessly paraded across the nation's TV screens with some really sappy sentimental music playing in the background. It is almost embarrassing to watch. Precious little about what is really important in the lives of Costa Ricans, and what the government and legislature are up to, as well as international news (I much prefer Nicaraguan television for that reason - it is much more intelligent, and the journalistic standards are vastly higher - when I can watch it, I much prefer it). And perhaps that is by design, since the two major channels here are both secretly owned by the Costa Rican government. Something about an ancient and long-proven formula of "bread and circuses" comes to my mind.

Instead of watching the BBC World news channel and getting informed that way, and unable to access media streams by Internet, I fell back on listening to shortwave radio a lot. Just like I did when I lived in the wilds of Africa. The BBC World Service was my staple companion for three months. Their English-language transmissions to the Americas is now limited to two hours in the mornings and two in the afternoon, so the rest of the time, I listen to the BBC Africa Service, as well as Radio Netherlands, and dare I say this? The Voice of America. As an American, I am truly embarrassed about the blatancy of the propaganda on the VOA these days. The propaganda is so bad it is almost not worth the effort of listening anymore. Since I have been listening in, virtually every night, the VOA has a story about how the Iranians are interfering in Iraq, how well the war (and the "surge") is improving the lives of Iraqis, and what an evil country Iran is for pursuing its nuclear program. We often (at least once or twice a week) hear stories about how the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan is really being misunderstood and misreported, and the lives of the Afghans are actually improving daily. Toss in the occasional story about how the Miami Cubans are on the verge of making Cuba a capitalist paradise, and Hugo Chavez is an ominous tyrant. Only token stories are thrown in that show the dark side of American foreign policy or the failures of the American system, and such stories are short and sketchy at best. Really, the propaganda is so blatant that the VOA would be better renamed the Voice Of Dick Cheney. No wonder that its audience figures are down dramatically from a decade ago, and are continuing to decline. The only reason I even bother to tune in are to get the latest Dow Jones numbers and business news, so I can monitor my investments. At least that part of it is still credible. Otherwise, the propaganda is so blatant that it has proven to be a surprisingly useful window into the unpublicized preoccupations of Foggy Bottom. As of this writing, they are clearly Iran, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, in that order - and the real estate slump only means cheaper housing for Americans. And the sub-prime crisis and all the economic instability it has caused is vastly overblown, to hear the VOA radio tell it. Honestly, I can't for the life of me, understand why the VOA's editors don't seem to realize that people have both newspapers and the Internet these days with which to compare the VOA's reporting.

My other entertainment has been my writing and my ham radio. I have written and have managed to publish two new essays, Not With A Whimper, But A Bang: The Endpoints Of Capitalism, and The Great Awful Truths of Leo Strauss. I invite you to check them out if you have not already done so. I think they are two of my better efforts. The first deals with the real meaning of the sub-prime mortgage crisis - the fact that it is a symptom of one of three basic underlying instabilities in the capitalist system that, if not addressed, will eventually lead to its demise. The second deals with the three Great Awful Truths as set forth in the writings of the godfather of the Neo-conservative movement, Leo Strauss. It deals with how the masses of people are in denial about them, and how that denial gives the ruling elites a powerful tool to maintain control. But it goes on to explore two other great awful truths about which Leo Strauss himself - and the ruling elites also - are in denial (or, more likely choose to ignore), which undermine completely the moral basis for firm, authoritative rule by the elite, and any moral justification for Strauss' own ideas.

As far as ham radio is concerned, it is nowhere near as much fun here as it was in La Guacima. I have the benefit of the tower built on the back of the property by the landlord, but the only antennas still on it is a trap dipole at the 39-foot level, and it has some bad traps and is out of tune anyway. I have to tune it with a transmatch to make it work with my radios. I also have access to a trap vertical on the roof of the bodega, but it has a couple of bad traps and is also out of tune. In frustration, I built a 5/8-wave vertical for 10 meters, which also functions as a 1/4-wave vertical on 30 meters. With those three antennas, I have been getting by. I don't want to go to a great deal of effort to build and install some really decent antennas for here, as both putting them up and getting them taken down when I move in a few months, would be a problem. So I have been getting by. I can hardly wait to get into a home of my own, where I can erect my tower and the antennas I am planning - for permanent use the rest of my life.

With the new Yaesu ham radio rig I had imported in November, I have been able to connect my radio up to my computer, and start running several of the "digital modes" including PSK, which is a weak-signal mode. That weak signal mode has enabled me to overcome at least some of the limitations of my crummy antennas and bad location (south-facing hillside), so I have been enjoying ham radio immensely in spite of the location facing away from the U.S., and the poor antenna and topography situation. Now that I have been generating a lot of new contacts, that has raised the problem of QSL (confirmation) mail. So I have been struggling to get set up on both the eQSL system and the American Radio Relay League's "Logbook Of The World" system. I am up and running on the former, with authenticity-guaranteed status, and am now online with the latter. In the meantime, folks have been forced to use snail mail to exchange paper QSL cards with me, and I have not been getting them very consistently because of the interference with my mail by the spooks. As a result, I put together a whole new section of this web site to deal with my ham radio - what it is like to be a ham here, how to get QSL cards through the local mail system, etc. You are invited to check it out if you are interested.

Since my last writing, I have made two trips to Nicaragua. The first time I stayed in a gay guesthouse in Granada, and enjoyed a wonderful few days with several new gay friends. I even had a date with a local gay man, and we had a very enjoyable time of it. The trip home, however, was the Bus Trip From Hell - held up at the border by a huge number of cargo trucks waiting to cross the border, it took five hours to clear formalities crossing back into Costa Rica, and work our way through the incredibly heavy pre-Christmas truck traffic back onto the Inter-American Highway. Between the border and the nearby border town, I counted 223 big-rigs parked alongside the road, almost all the way to La Cruz, and at least that many more in the various parking lots at the border itself and in La Cruz. I did not get back to San Ramon until well after dark, and ended up taking a cab from the bus stop all the way back to my home in the campo (countryside) - it ended up costing 10,000 colones - the equivalent of about $21 that night - almost as much as the round-trip ticket to Granada itself.

Last week, I made another trip to Granada, this one to check into the practicalities of moving to Nicaragua. I spent two days giving advice on business affairs and getting local advice on the current situation in Nicaragua, political, economic and social. I bought a book on the country (Moon Books: Living Abroad in Nicaragua) that will help me make a final decision. Should I go through with it, and there is a good chance that I will, I want to be sure that it is the right decision. The effort will be enormous and more or less permanent, and I want to be sure that my decision is the right one. The price of gasoline in Nicaragua is currently now $4.11 per gallon, versus $4.41 here, but utilities are considerably higher - three times as much, but food and clothing is cheaper. This time, the trip home from Granada was relatively uneventful, all went well and this time, the border was back to being just the usual, typical third-world mob scene. I had to wait only a few minutes to get stamped back in, and about an hour for the customs inspection, which ended up not happening - after collecting our declaration slips, the aduanas (customs police) allowed the bus driver order us back onto the bus and we were out of there fairly quickly. The trip back to San Ramon was uneventful, and we arrived mid-afternoon, in time for me to get some chores done in San Ramon before returning to my house in the campo.

A couple of weeks ago, I ordered some new eyeglasses. My old ones were 14 years old, and the prescription had changed, and in addition, the frames finally got so corroded that they broke. So being unable to postpone it any longer, I got an exam and ordered some new lenses, opting to have them installed in a set of frames that I have had for a lot of years which are still in quite good condition. I don't much care for the new styles, and they don't strike me as being particularly sturdy anyway, which I need. The total, for a computer exam with confirming manual exam, photo-gray glass lenses with progressive vision, installed in my frames, came to 62,000 colones, or $126 - about half what I paid for my old ones fourteen years ago in the States. Not bad. As the optical shop called the afternoon before I left for Granada, I was unable to pick them up until I got back, so I went in on Saturday and put them on for the first time. They're a bit stronger than my old lenses, and the optometrist warned me that I would probably have headaches and dizziness for a few days until my eyes adjusted to them. That hasn't happened, and I seem to be adjusting to them quickly, though the lower "progressive" part of the lenses are going to take some time as they are considerably different from my old lenses, particularly in my left eye. Meanwhile, I went back yesterday and ordered some cheapie plastic single-vision lenses with cheap plastic frames for use with my computer. That came to 28,000 colones or $57. I should be able to pick them up next week. I can't wait for that! Actually being able to see the computer without sitting up real close will be a welcome change.

The big news for me is that this morning, the wireless Internet provider finally showed up to install my Internet access - and after two hours of working to get it up and running, I now have Internet. As I write this, I am downloading a boatload of podcasts I need to catch up on, and am also listening to the BBC World Service by Internet. Tomorrow morning, I will sit on my front porch looking out over the Pacific Ocean and watch the ships coming from China loaded with toxic toys made by prison slaves in Guandong, and going out three days later loaded with pesticide contaminated coffee and bananas headed for Shanghai. Ah yes, life is good again. At least for me.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 11:07:23 PM
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