Letters From Exile

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

Tue, Dec 15 2009

Giant Senatorial Sausage Machine Churns Out Smelly Sausage

The U.S. congress has spoken and we're not going to see meaningful health care reform in the United States anytime soon.

That's because the people who control congress - the lobbyists - don't want to see health care reform (the insurance industry is already getting rich without any help from "reform," thank you very much) and so our beloved Senator from Aetna, Joe Lieberman, has torpedoed any meaningful health care reform by vetoing it (yes, he has veto power in a senate where his vote is required to break a filibuster). So health care in the United States will continue to be business as usual except for the one big change that is being made, and that is to impose taxation by corporation - using the power of government to force you to buy "insurance," whether you can afford it or not, whether it is useful to you or not, or whether it gives you real, actual access to health care or not. Some reform.

Well, here in Costa Rica where I live, I have no such fears. We have socialized medicine here. Yes, that's right, full-on old-fashioned Fabian socialism, of the very kind that sends the conservatives in the United States into apoplectic shrieks of fear and horror.

And you know what?

It works!

Costa Rica spends a tiny percentage of what the United States does per capita on health care, but the health outcomes here are every bit as good as the United States - the percentage of deaths resulting from inadequate access to health care is tiny compared to the U.S., the life expectancy here is longer, and the infant mortality rate is comparable, in spite of Costa Rica's relative poverty. The rate at which women die in complicated childbirth is actually lower. You may have to wait a few hours for health care at the emergency room if your issue isn't life-threatening, but if it is, you'll be whisked right in. I know. It has happened to me, even not being "in the system." Because I am not, I had to pay my own full freight when I was hospitalized for an entire week. The result was that when I was discharged, I was presented for a bill for $2736 for a week of emergency cardiac care. That's probably one percent of the fee I would have been hit with in the United States - if I had been given access to health care there at all.

The Fabian-socialized-medicine system here works, because the one absolute prerequisite that is required to make socialism work, is in force here. Accountability and transparency. A former president who tried to game the system to get rich through corruption is now doing time in jail. When hospital administrators can't keep the local population happy with how the hospital is run, they get replaced, and that occurs with some frequency. Sure, there are lots of problems with the system, but there are none of them at all that couldn't be fixed by spending even half as much here as is spent per capita on health care in the U.S.

Of course, the obvious question is why does Costa Rica have a functioning health care system that meets most all its citizens' needs, and the U.S. does not?

The answer is obvious. The U.S., with its obsession with privatization and "free market solutions" has applied that doctrine to health care when that is clearly a sector to which the free market "solutions" cannot solve the problem - because of the perverse incentives inherent in private enterprise. That is now obvious to everyone. Something needs to be radically changed if everyone in the United States is to have access to health care at a price they can afford.

But in response to the obvious, the free-marketeers are now rather cruelly suggesting that access to health care is not a right - implying that somehow, some people deserve to die in the streets. Will such arrogant rich folks be the first to give up their place in the health care line to a poor person? Somehow, I didn't think so.

Costa Rica has shown that decent, if basic health care for everyone, regardless of their "socioeconomic status" can be done, even by a poor country. It considers itself a more humane country for having done so, and that's true and it's one of the main reasons why I live here.

Why doesn't the U.S. follow this successful example?

Ideology. Pure and simple. The United States Senate has used ideology to justify putting the wishes of corporations ahead of the needs of the USAnian public, and the sheeple of the United States, because they believe in the ideology, are going to go along. Some are even demanding it.

So enjoy your ideology, USAnians. Here, I enjoy health care that doesn't bankrupt me.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Tobosi de El Guarco, Costa Rica 09:09:42 AM

Sun, Dec 13 2009

Things Are Tough All Over - And Some Places Tougher Than Others

I am reading in the paper today that the sale of lottery tickets for the biggest draw of the year, "El Gordo" or The Fat One, are down substantially this year. The article says that fully 20% of the tickets remain unsold, in spite of the fact that the draw takes place tonight. Ordinarily, the tickets sell out quickly - usually within a week of their going on sale. Not this year. It's the first time since 1988 that the El Gordo hasn't been sold out by the draw. That's a big deal in this country - El Gordo is the draw that the lottery enthusiasts look forward to all year - it would be kinda like Macy's cancelling the Thanksgiving Day parade in New York.

Everyone is scared about the economy. Rightly so. Some time ago, my worker told me that he had heard that foreclosures had been running at the unprecedented clip of 1700 per month at just one of the many banks. By any measure, that is a lot in a nation of fewer than five million people.

As you are probably aware, the largest single component of the Costa Rican economy is the tourist business, and with personal consumer wealth in the United States down hugely since last year, the tourism business is taking a huge hit, too. The worst hit are the high-end tourist resorts; golf-condominium beach resorts out on the Nicoya beaches are the worst hit. I've seen all kinds of numbers, but the most often repeated number is that business there is down by 40 percent. That is believable - I just don't see anywhere near the number of tourists on the streets of Cartago as I did last year. Condo sales in the beach towns has grown to a halt, as has construction in those towns.

That doesn't mean that the tourist business everywhere is in the toilet. There is still construction going on in Cartago, a city that has traditionally been one of the first hit by slowdowns. But not this year - the construction has slowed but I still see houses and commercial real estate being built. There is still some money around and it is being invested. My architect friend isn't lacking for commissions, either. Low-end tourist spots, and those that cater to the backpacker crowd, are all doing well. Some are up over last year. And in Nicaragua, where the tourist economy is almost exclusively low-end, bookings are up over last year by 19%.

Here, in this, ahem, "less than average income" town of Tobosi de El Guarco, there are a few gringos renting low-end apartments and houses, and the properties all seem to be as full as ever, including commercial real estate. Apparently people who would have done a beach resort in years past are this year renting a Tico house in the mountains and doing some mountain tourism instead of the overpriced and usually crowded beaches. That is giving the less-wealthy tourist businesses a break. Frankly, if some rich dude from Heredia with millions invested in a risky condo project at the beach goes broke, it doesn't bother me as much as someone struggling with a small property trying to generate enough income to feed his kids and send them to school. Since this town was until recently an Indian reserve, it has only recently been opened up to "white" settlement, and lots of folks are moving here because it is an easy commute to Cartago, but prices are still low. At least for now. But there are subdivisions springing up like weeds, and being sold to wealthy Ticos and gringo retirees. And while construction has slowed, it hasn't stopped.

One of the reasons that the Tico economy has been largely able to weather the storm has been that Costa Rica had been practicing fiscal conservatism for a long time, ever since it got badly burned by Wall Street in 1982, and forced by Ronald Reagan to implement some very unpleasant (and very counterproductive) neoliberal economic policies in return for loan guarantees. The three largest banks in the country ended up owned by the Costa Rican government in that crisis, and they're still state-owned banks to this day. The central bank, who runs them, keeps them on a tight rein. The private banks are all tightly regulated and carefully supervised, so the go-go capitalism that got Wall Street into trouble has had only a secondary impact here, making only very large loans difficult to get. A qualified residential borrower has no problem getting a mortgage.

Additionally, Costa Rica has had a policy of diversifying its economy to the maximum extent possible. So even though tourism and construction were traditionally big components, they have been reduced in importance considerably in recent years. The result is that while some sectors have been down, others are humming along (such as the ornamental flowers business) and that is helping stabilize the economy generally.

Not that there aren't any problem areas. There are, and they're not limited to tourism. The incrementally increasing unemployment rate has led to a rise in crime, and the criminals are getting bold. A large commercial building in Quebradilla, a neighboring town, had been sitting vacant for several months after the occupant business had folded, and a few weeks ago, some robbers looted the building completely, pulling out the plumbing fixtures, stripping electrical wire out of the walls, removing windows and doors, and robbing the place of anything that could be carted off and sold. Even the rafters in the ceiling were taken.

The neighbors apparently saw what was happening, and called the police. But the police agency they called (the "Fuerza Publica") refused to do anything, saying that it was a matter for a different police agency, the OIJ - which can't be called after hours. There are more than two dozen specialized police agencies in this country, and each one has a limited jurisdiction and can't tread on the toes of the others. So figuring out who to call is a nightmare - and one of the reasons why policing is so ineffective in this country. Nobody wants to take ownership of a situation. And this case was no different. So the robbers stripped the building with impunity, and left it a total shambles. It will have to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch. None of it is salvageable.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Tobosi de El Guarco, Costa Rica 11:47:46 AM

Sat, Dec 12 2009

Global Warming - And Baby, It's Cold Outside

This is the point in world history at which global warming is supposed to be kicking in big-time. And indeed, if you look at what is happening in Greenland and elsewhere in the Arctic, it certainly is. All over the world there are signs of global warming - birds migrating north earlier in the spring, trees blooming earlier in the year, etc. I needn't go on down that long list.

Here in Tobosi, global warming is probably happening, but you'd be hard pressed to tell it right now. For a tropical paradise, this place is surprisingly chilly - the low this morning was 59.7 degrees Fahrenheit. But that is actually warmer than normal for this time of year. Normal for this time of year is more like 55, and morning lows as cold as 52 are not unheard-of. That's because the elevation at this place is right up there - 5,000 feet. Roughly the same elevation as Idaho Falls, the town in which I grew up, and which is also seeing some significant effects from global warming.

The high elevations, especially in the tropics are supposed to be one of the places most affected by global warming. The models predict that we will probably see about a ten degree rise in average temperatures by the end of the century, and even more than that in night-time lows. Those who have lived here all their lives are telling me that the climate has changed noticeably since they were children, and wintertime weather is significantly more moderate. Maybe it is, I don't know. But I do know that this year is vastly warmer than last year, and is significantly warmer than the running 30-year average that is used to determine what is "normal." For me, a confirmed tropical hot-house plant, that is welcome news.

But it is bad news for the country. For along with the warmer weather has come dryer weather. This year, the rainy season began early - about a month early - but kinda fizzled out half way through. We didn't get a drop of rain for about three weeks in September. That was great for me as I was in the middle of the construction project for the fireplace in my living room. And the rain held off just fine - it didn't start again until about two weeks after the project was done, and the concrete was dry enough that I could safely light a fire in my new fireplace. And just on cue, the rains and cold weather had started in again, and I was ready to throw another log on the fire once the rain and cold rolled in. Unfortunately, it was too late for the coffee crop, which is down by 20 to 50 percent this year, depending on whom you believe.

I had also found and fixed the last of the roof leaks with which this house was abundantly endowed when I moved in. So it wasn't with much dread when I saw those dark clouds to the east, with the grey sheets of rain below them, moving my way in over the city of Cartago, and rolling across the fields towards my village. And having a fireplace with an ample supply of firewood meant that a chilly evening could be broken by a warm, welcoming fire in the fireplace. And having the ability to listen to the news on the Internet radio, while warming my toes in front of the fire, meant that finally, this house is becoming warm and comfortable. It has been a long, expensive struggle, but it is finally coming together - I have a comfortable home, which I own outright, in one of the best ham radio locations I have ever seen, and have an expansive, endlessly changing view to enjoy when the bands are closed. I am starting to enjoy living here.

But the nights and mornings are still chilly. And that's not the kind of weather that I moved to the tropics for, so I do have that one regret in having bought a house at this altitude. But with global warming kicking in. that may all change. The mango trees that the previous owner optimistically planted in the yard may actually begin to grow and flourish, and eventually produce one of the specially blessed of all tropical fruits. My bananas may become more productive, and I won't shed any tears about that. My avocado tress, already doing well, may do even better. And my native guavas and custard-apples may produce less and less, and eventually die - because my high-altitude climate has become too warm.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Tobosi de El Guarco, Costa Rica 09:07:46 AM

Thu, Dec 10 2009

Back To The Future

Well, this is the second attempt at editing this blog entry. My blog editing software has an annoying bug that sometimes will delete an entry without ever even posting it, and you have no idea this has happened until get done editing the entry, save it to disk and then post it to the web site, only to discover that nothing got posted and your entry is gone. Arrrghh!

The point I was making in that failed entry was that my worker came to work today with his ox team. He's a "boyero" and that means he owns, maintains and rents out an ox team. Yes, they are actually still in use here - many hillsides, including mine, are simply too steep to use a tractor, so he used his ox team this morning to haul a large plastic barrel up to my house. I am using that barrel to build a sand filter to clean up the water supply which the acueducto is delivering to me. I live above their filter tanks on the hillside, so I get the raw stuff, strained but unfiltered, so I am building a filter to clean the mud and sand from the water coming to me. It's potable, they insist, but it is very unappetizing, and the sand wreaks havoc on my plumbing.

My worker is a boyero because he has been one since he was a little boy and had to go to work full time at the age of six to help support his family in some very hard times. He has had oxen ever since, and continues to maintain a championship team, famous across the country. He frequently takes time off to go do a job for a nearby farmer who needs an ox team to plow a field, haul some coffee cherries, or help clear some land.

In spite of his limited education, he is surprisingly well read and informed, and we often have long chats about politics and world events while sitting in the shade of a tree here on the property. And he and I have discussed the fit of ox teams in the modern world. I have taken the position, and he agrees, that in a world where oil may rise to $300 per barrel, or in a dire economic collapse, oil may become unavailable altogether, and his ox teams may end up becoming very busy indeed.

So the bucolic television image of Juan Valdez lovingly picking his coffee cherries, one at a time, putting them in burlap sacks and hauling them off to the beneficio on the back of a mule is not all that far from reality. Only the animals are oxen, not mules, the sacks are polypropylene rather than burlap, and Juan Valdez is wearing a crush-cap rather than a cowboy hat. But the use of animals is far from obsolete, and it may become the norm for many farmers if not most - if the capitalists don't get their act together and fix the finance industry instead of just papering over the cracks. If globalization collapses, as it has many times in the past, the world economy may enter a post-petroleum phase, with oil either ridiculously expensive or unavailable at all.

And Costa Rican campesinos, who are already used to using oxen on their land, may end up teaching the rest of the world how to do agriculture.

Back to the future.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Tobosi de El Guarco, Costa Rica 01:58:35 PM

Mon, Dec 07 2009

A Christmas Present - Sorta

Well, Christmas is almost here in Costa Rica, and like everywhere else in the Christian world, it is a Really Big Deal. This year the local telephone/cellular monopoly is giving the country a Christmas present by turning up 950,000 new cell phone lines and giving the 50,000 people on the waiting list a shot at actually getting one of those cute little boxes to carry around in their pockets and annoy everyone on the bus and in the restaurant.

I already have a cell phone, and have had it for years. But I got a tiny little Christmas present myself anyway, when I checked this morning and discovered that the Internet function on it is finally working. They got the Internet overlay finally running on the local cell phone tower. Not that I ever use it anyway, but at least it is nice to know it is there. I think that the big push to get this 3G thing turned up here is to get ICE, the monopoly state-owned provider, ready for competition. CAFTA is being implemented, and other cell providers will soon be entering the market - at least two more have applied for permission to build. I am not too thrilled about that; it means that each provider will have fewer subscriber-minutes to pay for all those towers, and that means fewer towers and spottier coverage. And probably higher rates. I like it fine the way it is - cell coverage and quality of service here is every bit as good as in the States and only costs me $12 per month, including Internet access and 60 free call minutes which I rarely use (and incoming call-minutes are free). I am getting ready to get out my wallet to pay for all that unnecessary duplicated infrastructure with multiple tower networks duplicating the same service we already have. But never mind, the All High God of the Free, Deregulated Market will somehow make things better. I am not sure how, but That's What They Tell Us.

Television news tonight is full of images of the materialist orgy of consumption that takes place throughout the Christian world this time of year. Today is the "official" start of the Christmas shopping season. Down in Golfito, one of two tariff-free markets, the town was full of people today buying high-ticket items that they would like to avoid paying import tariffs on - fridges, matresses, TVs, stereos, all that sort of thing. Apparently the hot item was 31" plasma screen TVs, which are being dumped here because we're still on analog television signals, using the same standard the U.S. used to have. So surplus stock that couldn't be sold in the States prior to conversion to digital there, is now being dumped here at some reasonably decent prices. I am not really tempted to buy one - I have an old CRT television that is quite suitable for the amount I actually watch it, which isn't much. And Costa Rica is getting ready to switch to digital in a few years anyway.

I was wading through the usual TV "news" fare tonight - drug busts, bar-fight stabbings, favela riots and freeway crashes because my worker told me that he saw an item on the news this morning to the effect that the Turrialba Volcano is expected to erupt soon. It has been quite active, with lots of very small eruptions, for about a year now, and the level of activity has been increasing somewhat since June, with lots of smoke and occasional light ashfalls. So it looks like it might be getting ready to blow. I was up there a couple of months ago with a friend, and it was interesting to watch the activity wax and wane as I was sitting in the restaurant having lunch. But alas, nothing on the news tonight, and I spent some time searching the Internet, including the volcano observatory's web site, but nothing. I suspect it was just the TV station looking for viewers by making a mountain out of the molehill of the eruption that happened last Saturday. I saw the plume from it as it drifted over Volcan Irazú, but that has been a common sight in recent months. My impression is that it was tempest in a teacup. The settlers on the slopes have long since left, because of all the sulfurous smoke, so no one is in imminent danger from even a significant eruption. And that particular volcano is not prone to big eruptions.

I would like to go back there and check it out again, if for no other reason than to get some more cheese. There are lots of cheese producers on the upper slopes there, and it is the only place in the country where you can get quality aged cheese at a decent price - about half of what it costs in the supermarket, and it is better quality, too. One of the few things I don't much care for in this country is the local cheese varieties, which are rather flavorless and don't cook well. So I love it when I can get my hands on some cheddar or gouda, and it is available in abundance up on the Turrialba slopes. I might have to mount an expedition in a few weeks if I can't con a friend into taking me up there for lunch and a volcano view.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Tobosi de El Guarco, Costa Rica 06:51:34 PM

Sun, Dec 06 2009

It's High Time

It has been more than a year since I updated this blog, and I have been thinking about it from time to time, that those few who have followed it faithfully are deserving of an update. And I am thinking also of how it would be worthwhile to also explain how my activism, in the face of encroaching fascism in the United States, and by extension the rest of the world, is affecting my life and the lives of those around me. So with that renewed sense of mission, I am pledging to myself to begin to update my blog a bit more frequently with that mission in mind.

I have been extremely busy getting my house in order this last year. Since having moved in to a typical Tico house, one built but never really finished by its previous Tico owner, I have had my hands full getting the place fixed up to a reasonable standard of comfort and security. This house is at an elevation of five thousand feet, and even in the tropics, that means a chill at night, but particularly a serious chill from time to time in the winter months. I am less than ten degrees north of the equator, but when a strong cold front crosses the United States, it will frequently spill down across the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and into southern Central America, all the way to the Intertropical Convergence Zone. where it will stall and slowly dissipate. Since the ITCZ is typically only a couple of hundred miles south of where I am living, this is where all your old cold fronts come to die. They'll come streaming in from the Gulf of Honduras, sweep down across the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua and end up on the Isthmus of Panamá and come to rest, waiting for the tropical sun to slowly warm the chill air, Normally in a season, we will get between six and ten cold fronts in a winter season, but last year, with its strong La Niña, it was just one after another, two or three a week, beginning November, less than a week after I moved in, and not letting up until late in February. Not much different than living in the southern U.S. Daytime temperatures will drop from 70F to the mid or low 60's, and nighttime temperatures from the upper 60's to the low 50's, and will stay that way for as long as a week. Those who say they would miss the seasons by living in the tropics have clearly never been to Cartago.

Living in this house, as loose and open to the weather as it was then, was miserable to say the least. I was freezing to death, and was so cold and miserable that it greatly aggravated my arthritis and asthma. With no heating, living in a house in temperatures in the low 50's, with drafts so bad that in a high wind, you could literally feel the air moving through the house, last winter was the most miserable of my life. So I set to work, filling and taping up gaps, caulking windows and doors and the like, trying to get the drafts under control. For example, there was a gap at the top of the wall in the back of the master bedroom, between the ceiling and the wall, that was as wide as four inches on the outside end. And one end of it was totally open to the weather on the outside of the house. There is no tar paper under the roof sheets, so the boards in the wooden ceiling were open to allowing in the wind through the small gaps between them. There were windows with gaps as much as half an inch between the window frames and the wall in which the frames were set. No thresholds under the outside doors. The door to one bedroom was hung 3/4 of an inch out of plumb, so it was not possible to even close the door, which is why no lockset had ever been installed in it. Truly appalling construction, though it was nearly all bad finish work - the basic house construction is sound. Typical Tico construction done for Ticos (most gringos here demand and will get better work). It is no surprise that the house inside was rarely more than a degree or two warmer than the outside air.

So I hired a part-time worker to come in and work about five hours a day doing little projects like rehanging crooked doors, filling cracks, and the like. The biggest project was the installation of trim strips on the ceiling boards, to seal up the gaps between them and keep the wind out. I spent nearly $400 on the trim strips, the treatment chemicals for them, and the 5,000 wood screws to screw them all in place. In all, there was more than 3,000 feet of wood trim strip used on the project, and it took three weeks to complete. But it was well worth all the effort and expense; the house is now eight degrees warmer inside than out on average.

The other big project was to build a fireplace so I could have some means of heating the house during very cold weather. An architect friend of mine came in and designed it for me. I spent several months finding a contractor to do it. I spent about $350 on the labor to have it built, but nearly $2,000 on materials, including stainless steel sheets for the chimney, special rockwork for the facing, and some truly beautiful tile for the top, where my television and stereo now reside. The project took three weeks to complete. It wasn't begun until the onset of the rainy season, as I wasn't able to find a contractor to do it until then, but we had a drought and not a drop of rain the whole time, so getting trucks in and out was not a problem. The project went very well, the contractor did a wonderful job, and I am delighted with the result. It warms the house nicely, and keeps it reasonably comfortable in the coldest weather.

Finding firewood is a bit challenging. Even though I live on the edge of the forest, most of the property owners are not doing any real forestry, or are selling their wood to the charcoal makers (rural villagers without electricity still use charcoal for cooking here). So I have my worker doing a lot of hunting around for me. I have found enough firewood for this season, and possibly next, but it is not all that cheap - about $6 per cubic meter. It is usually an odd collection of cuttings from cypress plantations, pine and eucalyptus trees from torn-down fence lines, and the odd native tree here and there.

Making a fire in this constant high humidity is a bit of an art. Wood is always damp enough that it doesn't want to start burning easily, so I have learned some tricks that seem to work. The usual paper and kindling get things started, but that won't generate enough heat to start the logs burning, and so I have to add some diesel fuel to the paper to make it burn hotter. That gets the fire hot enough to melt some plastic, so I keep all my plastic for starting fires - once melted into the kindling, it acts as an accelerant, and will get the fire hot enough to finally start the logs burning. With that system, I am able to get a fire going fairly easily in all but the most damp weather.

My worker has been doing a lot of other projects as well. One of the biggest has been the cleanup of several small mudslides that happened last year between the time I bought the house and the time I moved in. During that period, Costa Rica had the worst tropical storm in 64 years, which caused some 1700 mudslides around the country. One of them closed the road to my house, so I had to secure permission from a neighbor to cross his farm, just to get moved into my house. Once the rainy season ended last winter, I spent $2,000 of my own money on backhoe time. It spent two weeks clearing the slide, and once cleared, putting down some fresh gravel to cover the clay mud and keep the road open during all but the worst weather. So far this winter, that same slide has moved again, but not much more than just filling the drainage ditch, so the road is still open most of the time. The local road committee has been raising some funds to put down some gravel and pave the steepest part with some concrete strips so I can get in and out in any weather at all. That will certainly be welcome, but the rate at which funds are being generated, means it will probably be two or three years before that is done.

I have several big projects lined up for this dry season, which looks to be just beginning (a bit early). One is to build a wall of old tires along side the street in front of the house to retain the hillside that is slowly slumping onto the street. Another wall is going to be built behind the house to retain the hill that has been sliding towards the house and threatening it. It will be about eight feet high. I am also going to be reforesting the property. The terraces from the coffee that used to be on the property have been filled in now for the most part, and I am slowly getting a lawn established. I am planning to plant mostly pinotea pine and a native hardwood, the Andean alder, locally called "jaúl," It is a wonderfully fast growing tree with remarkably hard wood - they'll grow ten feet in a year, and produce wood hard enough that it is commonly used here for furniture. It also fixes nitrogen, so it will help enrich the soil and help the pinotea pines get established. I was hoping to get that done this winter, but it doesn't look like that is going to happen. I haven't been able to find enough tree seedlings for the job, so I am starting my own alders from seed taken from a friend's trees.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Tobosi de El Guarco, Costa Rica 02:32:44 PM
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