05 April 2014

High Cost of Living in Costa Rica

We've had two sudden expenses here that dramatically showed a different side of living in Costa Rica. First we had the air conditioner in our poor old Subaru crash and burn. And then I got a flat tire. We really could live without a car air conditioner here but in the rainy season and on the really hottest days -- it's nice to have.

One day we were driving around with nice cold air blowing out of the vents on our luxury 2003 Subaru Forester. Suddenly, it went warm -- then hot.

Oy. Several days later, we finally drove over to the next big town, Grecia, to have our problem analyzed by Frio Grecia, the local automobile A/C experts.

They hooked up equipment and pronounced our coolant (freon) level to be zero. Then they started taking apart all kinds of piping under the hood. After a couple of hours, I noticed that the shop's "guy that can manufacture parts" was hovering between our car and his blacksmith shop. I asked about that and was told that he was manufacturing a special tool to bolt onto our car's system so that they could isolate the cabin portion of the system from the under-the-hood portion of the system. Cool ... I guess.

After another hour, they announced that the new tool and subsequent testing proved beyond any doubt that there was a major leak inside the passenger compartment of the car -- "probably a total failure of the evaporator." Sounds bad.

But ... they can sure fix it and can sure order the parts and all we have to do is leave the car there for two days.

Yeah, right.

We asked if we could prepay for parts and then bring the car back when the necessary repair stuff arrived.

No. They would order the parts and give us a call when they were ready to do the repair.

Then the really impressive stuff happened. The A/C technician walked out of the office with a fiber optic, real time, video "bore scope" tool, allowing them to snake a little "stick" up inside the dashboard of the Subaru and view/record the part number of the suspect "evaporator" thing-a-ma-jig that was causing the problem. Wow. (This was a full 1/2 day labor and attention to our problem, involving 3 techs and the manufacture of a special testing tool.)

They ordered the part from some Subaru warehouse in Minnesota, USA, and it took a couple of weeks for it to make its way to Costa Rica. (Shipping from MN to some USA port. Shipping from the port to another port in CR. A trip through the CR Customs Agency. Shipping from the tax office to Grecia.) But, it finally made the trip.

Once notified that the parts were in-hand, we dropped off the car for the repair and hunkered down for the expected long wait.

Nope.

Two days later, they told us the car was fixed.

We journeyed to their shop and found our car all fixed. New evaporator. New internal air filter. Fully charged and tested A/C system.

Guess how much for all of this. Oh ... come on ... guess. $800? A $grand? More?

Wrong. This entire odyssey was out the door for $220.

Really?

Yes. And, it is working like a champ, now, weeks later.

Expensive -- not.

Next up was the always aggravating flat tire.

Last week we were about to take a trip into Alajuela when I noticed that a tire on the Subaru was looking a little "poochie". As I watched, it got flatter and flatter. I hooked up our little 12V air compressor and watched as it pumped its little heart out and the tire continued to flatten. Oh well.

I've become really good at this flat tire thing in Costa Rica so the dead tire was replaced by the spare in just a few minutes and we were on our way.

The next day (amazingly quickly for me) we dropped the damaged tire off at the Atenas Coope TBA (tires, batteries, accessories) shop. It looked like the tire repair would take more than a couple of minutes so we left to do some shopping. A half hour later, we returned to find our tire repaired and leak tested, ready for installation on the car. The tech jacked up our car, removed the spare and installed the repaired tire (fancy wheel) back on the car.

O.K., here's your chance. Service that required "drop everything because the gringo wants something done "right now". Take a blown tire, repair it, test it for leaks in the tank, take the spare off of the "victim's" car and install the repaired tire/wheel, put the spare back into the customer's car.

How much?

Oh. $3

Pura Vida, y'all. (I. Am. Amazed.)



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01 April 2014

Goose Goes Shopping

Almost lost The Goose tonight.
HRH Gustavo -- The Goose

We (the people) and the dogs all went for a ride so that I could drop off a flat tire for repair and then go to the grocery store. At the tire repair shop, I opened the rear hatch and helped the repairman lift the tire/wheel out and then followed him to show him the spot where the leak was. Didn't notice that after I'd turned my back, Goose jumped out and ran for it.

Since the repair was going to take a few minutes, I decided to go do the grocery shopping. I got back to the car, closed the hatch, got in, started 'er up and backed out. As we reached the street, Randy, The Jack Russell Terrorist, began barking like a maniac. Pat told him to calm down. I looked in the mirror and saw a small black dog run past the side of the car. "Oh, there's a dog out there. That's why he's barking," I said. I was only partly correct.

We drove down the hill to the grocery, did our business, then drove back up the hill to the tire repair shop.

I parked inside the shop and opened my door to get out. There was Goose jumping up and down with his usual stupid-happy look on his face, probably saying, "Hey Dad -- Hi Dad -- Isn't this fun Dad?" Whereupon he lept over my legs, hit the center console once, made a sharp right turn into the back seat and promptly engaged in a sporty fight with Randy.

Pat and I just looked at each other.

Then it hit me what had happened. The little brat had gone "walk-about" and when he saw us leaving, he wasn't trying to get back to the car to get inside (when he dashed by and Randy was barking). No. He was pulling his usual act where he runs and hides until the car or the "search party" (me) has passed by so that he can come out and frolic some more, out on the loose.

We apparently took long enough with the grocery shopping so that when he saw us come back to the repair shop he figured that there wasn't anything very interesting to be seen among all of those shops and concrete, so, "What the heck, I might as well get back in the car."

We got lucky.

Imagine if we had gotten all the way home and then opened the back car doors to let Da Boyz out in the yard.

"WHERE'S GOOSE?!?" A really interesting scene would have followed.

That danged mutt.

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13 March 2014

Poor ol' Subie

Quite a few years ago, a factory I worked in generated a lot of waste so we had many 55 gallon plastic trash bins stationed around the work areas. These had to be emptied outdoors on a regular basis -- either into the giant recycler's metal shavings hopper or into the industrial-size dumpster. The trash collection company came to empty the dumpster one day. The operator of the collection truck did his dumpster-dumping thing and backed away. He cut his steering wheel too hard and knocked over one of the big plastic drums holding metal scrap. The drum rolled under the trash collectors truck. He kept backing up. He rolled right over the drum and its metal contents. As it was being crushed, the drum let out a really distinctive sound of crushing plastic, blended with a little grinding of metal. I'll never forget that sound. I heard it again today.

Yeah, we were minding our own business, just digging into a fine lunch at La Carreta when "that" sound punched into my consciousness. "Wow", I thought, "Somebody has a big plastic garbage can and it just got run over by a truck. Not quite.

The "big plastic garbage can" was the left front end of my car -- Poor ol' Subie -- and, yes, it was getting run into by a truck.

It seems the driver of a rather imposing full size crew cab pickup truck had mis-judged where the right side of his truck was when he cut his steering wheel to parallel park in front of me, executing one of those "coming from behind and just swing 'er in" maneuvers. He got a little bit of Subie's fender, a big bit of the plastic bumper and the left front headlight assembly.
Subie, however, got revenge because she left a nasty black scrape all the way down the side of the pickup and a melon size dent in the left rear fender panel of that pick-up. Not sure which repair is going to cost more. Not sure I care.

Well, our hot lunch was on the table but I went out to talk things over with the pickup's gringo driver. His Tica lady friend kind of took charge and called INS and Transito. Then we all stood around ... waiting ... in the sun. We talked some.

The pickup driver said he was from a barrio a fair bit outside of town ... and he was leaving the country Saturday ... going back to visit his home, "Arkansas," he said, without a trace of an Arkansas accent. Red flags and lights are going off in my head. (Maybe it's the lack of head-meds -- see my earlier post.)

Pat finished lunch and came out to relieve me so that I could go eat. She stood around ... waiting ... in the sun.

Forty-five minutes was the promised delivery time of an onsite INS agent. Lord knows where the Transito was coming from.

I finished lunch and there were more phone calls going on. The Transito dispatcher was verifying that nobody was hurt and nothing other than the two vehicles had been damaged. I believe the motivation for that questioning might have been that they didn't really have time to make it to our little accident site for a simple fender-bender report. Good. No government involvement.

Up rolled the INS kid, in his own car. He got out with clip boards and note pads and a cute lil' touch-screen-key-in-print-out-yellow-n-black-handheld computer thingy. Once he got the greeting rituals out of the way, he went to work on the pickup driver, who was also an INS client. They filled out paper and punched and tapped on the computer thingy ... in the sun ... for a good half hour. I'm going over into the shade, dammit.

The INS kid took pictures of the scratches and dents. He took pictures of the overall scene -- long shots and short shots. He took pictures of the pickup driver's license and I.D. card. He took pictures of the pickup's license plate and VIN plate. He even took pictures of the interior instrument panel. He took all of these pictures with both a camera built into the computer thingy AND with his personal iPhone. Kodak would have been loving this guy back in the days of film.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

My turn. He went through the same pile of stuff with me but was oh so HAPPY to discover that Patricia is Spanish-fluent so that he could stop talking to me in baby talk. (I gotta believe that these young field agents roll up on an accident site, get out of their cars and when they see a situation like this one, they're thinking, "Oh, god, not another bunch of gringos!")

Anyhow, we got through all of the interrogation and were presented with a nice fancy plastic packet of printouts and forms. What do we do next? Well, inside the packet was a slip of paper -- obviously a copy of a copy of a copy of the original slip of paper, copied by the very first Xerox machine ever shipped to Costa Rica -- and it says that I'm to go onto the INS website to find the locations of authorized repair shops. Thereupon we get to take our wounded soldier to "wherever" and they will prepare an official repair estimate. I guess they also do the repair work. Who knows.

"Do they provide a loaner car while ours is in the shop?" asked Pat. Who knows. The agent didn't know. Maybe that's on the website too. No matter what ... It. Will. All. Be. Another. Pura. Vida. Adventure.

Thank you very much.

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What about Henry?

As most of you know, we set up our little Casita as a vacation rental and have been hosting on Airbnb for almost a year now. So far, all of our guests have been wonderful and we have made many new friends from around the world. Recently, we had a very unique experience with Henry (his name has been changed to protect his identity) and I'd like to share the funny stories with you.

Henry is a senior citizen that came to Costa Rica by himself, leaving his wife behind in the terrible winter weather North America experienced this year. Henry, bless his heart, should not be allowed to travel alone. He needs someone to look after him. Here are just 4 of the funny experiences we had with him.

  • Just a couple of days after Henry arrived, he decided to venture out on his own, on foot. He left the Casita about 4:30 PM and probably didn't realized it always gets dark here between 5:30 and 6:00 PM. Around 7:30 PM, I received a phone call from a young lady asking me, in Spanish, if I knew someone named Henry. I said, "Yes," and explained that Henry was our house guest. She told me that she and her girlfriend found him lost out on the highway after dark, without a flashlight, and they offered him a ride. Henry didn't speak any Spanish, and they couldn't speak any English, so he couldn't tell them where he was staying. Fortunately he did have our phone number with him and they called us, or he'd still be out there wandering the streets of Atenas. Poor Henry... bless his heart. (Note: We gave him a walking map to carry with him in case he got lost again.)
  • We have an outdoor space called a Rancho. It is a covered patio of sorts, with a kitchen counter, microwave, stone oven, tables & chairs, mini-beverage refrigerator with an ice maker, and a 2-person swing. It has a ceiling fan and plenty of lighting so our guests can enjoy this relaxing space in the evenings. On day one, we showed Henry how everything worked, and where the electrical panel is located to turn the lights on, or off. One of the switches is marked in indelible ink "DO NOT TOUCH - ALWAYS ON." One evening, Henry used the Rancho and turned on the lights, but when he retired for the evening, he set all the switches in the electrical panel to the "OFF" position. You guessed it, this turned off all the power in the Rancho, the Rancho bathroom, kitchen appliances, including the refrigerator and the ice maker. We awoke the next day to a river of melted ice running across the Rancho floor, and warm beer. Bless his heart!
  • We have an electric gate with remote controls for our guests to enter the property with a vehicle. Henry did not have a vehicle, so we did not give him a remote control. We just gave him the key to the pedestrian gate, so he could come and go as he pleased. One day he discovered an electrical switch inside our small Casita that opens the vehicle gate when pressed. Of course Henry had to press the button, then he walked out, off the property. He couldn't figure out how to close the gate. Then he discovered a small button switch next to the mailbox. He pressed the button, causing the doorbell to ring in our house, on the other side of our property. Henry continued to hold the button down until I finally ran outside thinking I'd find some mischievous child playing games. I asked him what was wrong and Henry said he was trying to close the gate. He really thought we had a convenient switch on the outside of the property to open & close the gate. I thought to myself, "Why would anyone mount an electric gate opener on the outside of their property? What kind of security would that provide?" Poor Henry... Bless his heart!
  • After Henry checked out, I went to clean the Casita and prepare it for our next guest. Apparently, Henry had done his laundry while he was with us, and I suspect only his wife does the laundry back home. I found Henry had filled the washing machine dispenser marked "LIQUID FABRIC SOFTNER ONLY" with powdered laundry detergent. Needless to say, it created quite a mess in the dispenser and took several cycles of clean water to clear up the mess. Not sure if Henry had ever used a washing machine before, or if he didn’t have his reading glasses on, but clearly he couldn't read the written instructions. Bless his heart!
I know we are going to have lots of stories to share with you about our hosting experiences. Stay tuned for our future adventures as vacation rental hosts.

Disclaimer: If you are ever a guest in our Casita, you could become the subject of one of our adventures. We will change your name, but remember it's all in good fun, and the story is ours.

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09 March 2014

How to quit Effexor without horror side effects

Many of you won't understand why anyone would need to write about quitting a prescription medication. "Hell ... just quit taking it!" or, from most doctors, "We will taper back your dosage over a couple of weeks/months."

Well, there is a class of medications -- and one drug in particular -- for which being able to just quit or to reduce dosage via commercially available pill or capsule sizes WILL lead one directly to hell on Earth.

Generically, the medication is called venlafaxine, or, in the USA, it is most commonly called Effexor. The type most commonly prescribed is the "XR" (slow release) version. That is what I was taking, as one 75 milligram dose capsule per day. Very common dose.

So, what's the big deal about quitting this drug?

Where to begin? Many people have only a few of the following withdrawal symptoms. Some will have them all. Everybody on the "how the hell do I quit this" forums seems to be a little different. All I can relate is what I personally experienced (which is actually pretty typical, from what I see out on those forums.)

The first thing that hits when you miss a single pill is usually a mild "head zap". That is a sensation of an electrical shock zorching through your brain. This occurs upon standing, changing head orientation or maybe even just a sudden shift of your eyes. These would start for me about 8 hours after missing my morning dose. They get worse as time goes on, eventually beginning to include a sensation of sound. Maybe it was "all in my head" but I would begin to hear the sound of an electrical arc to go along with the head zap.

Next up would be a laundry list of symptoms but the most prominent for me would be my jaw and teeth hurting. This isn't toothache or punch in the jaw hurting. This is a dull, deep, profound ache in all of my teeth and the jawbone. My head would just plain hurt. Then there's general dizziness, frequently an overall gastro-intestinal discomfiture and later, other body aches.  All of the preceding is constant.  No breaks.  No relief. Eventually I would have tremors, terrible nightmares, nausea and true vertigo (way beyond "dizziness".) This could go on for many many weeks.

And, then there's the blackness.

Blackness (depression) is what Effexor is all about. I had some causes for depression 30 years ago and that's what got me started on this horrible drug. Yes-sir-ee, you can be in a real dark place and take any of a number of drugs in this SNRI family and suddenly feel bright and happy. Happy pills. The problem upon quitting is that (as in my case) even if there is no longer any reason for depression your body has spent years pumped up on "happy dope" and all of a sudden, the dope is jerked away. Your nervous system and brain go into the tank.

Lastly comes the very worst part for men. {Imma' smack you man if you ever bring this up -- I swear} No matter what method you use, your emotional toughness (manliness?) is going into the shitter for months. Yes, months. You're going to weep like a little girl when watching chick flicks. If somebody posts the tiniest little "Awww, isn't that sweet" crap on Facebook, you're going to "get a little something" in your eye. Sucks. Seems like it's never going to end. Sniff.

Here's where I state I AM NOT A DOCTOR AND YOU SHOULDN'T QUIT TAKING THIS MEDICATION IF YOUR HEALTH CARE PROFESSIONAL SAYS THAT YOU SHOULDN'T STOP. Whew. Sorry for the shouting but some people need drug-help to keep them from going to pieces. Once I was one of them but I knew that I could pull this off with my wonderful marvelous fabulous wife, new lifestyle, and retirement from the corporate rat race.

For most patients, even when the professionals decide that it would be O.K. for a patient to get off of Effexor, the drug companies and doctors do NOT get it because they aren't really taking this crap. Invariably they will state that the withdrawal "can go on for a week or more." Bull-dog-cat-horse shit. Without some chemical (alternate drug) remediation or very long term taper down (which I'm getting around to telling you about) the withdrawal crap will go on for weeks and weeks. And weeks.

BUT THERE IS A WAY! So, pay attention because I've done it and it works flawlessly.

[This is where all of the snake oil salesmen will try to sell you their special vitamins and special hoobis-goobis pills, derived from secret plant extracts known only to the Pordiscapi Indians of the Upper Amazon. Sorry. I got nothing to sell. Now if you want to send me money for the hell of it, I'm sure Doña Patricia would be most appreciative, but I got no magic for ya.]

Here's the method: You take 30 Effexor XR capsules and scrape 10% (by weight of active ingredient) of the little tiny beads of the actual medication out of each one and then put the capsules back together. Then you take that 90% dose for a month, like you always do. Next month you scrape out 20% of the beads, etc., cutting the dosage each month, until the dosage is so small that you've fooled your carcass into not missing the dope at all.

Yes, it is looking like this will take a long time, require some special tools and a lot of effort. Right. Wanna trade that for zero head zaps and no falling down when you get up out of a chair? I thought so.

Here's the full procedure and everything you need:

First, you'll need a good milligram scale and you'll need to know how to use it. In the old days, these were several thousand dollars, they sat inside a walnut and glass enclosure and you needed many days of training to learn how to accurately run the damn things. No more. For $25, Amazon, or your favorite Chinese electronics dealer sells "good enough" battery-powered milligram scales. I selected their "American Weigh Scales GEMINI-20 Portable MilliGram Scale".

AWS Gemini-20 Scale


NOTE: Milligram scales are incredibly delicate and sensitive. Do not put anything heavier than the calibration weights into or onto your scale. Don't bump or bash the scale pan while weighing. Make sure the scale pan is centered on its receiver disc on the top of the scale. Do all of your weighing on a stable, level table, in a still-air room (no breeze -- no fans), with a stable temperature. Treat your scale like it is delicate because it is.

Next, you'll need a very tiny spoon or scraper. I have jewelry manufacturing experience so I forged a little bitty spoon but they're sold commercially. Several types are shown on the same Amazon page as the scale if you scroll down a bit. Something like this: Transfer Scoop. Or, I guess a bent toothpick would work.

The last piece of mandatory hardware isn't really mandatory if you still remember how to do multiplication and percentages. But, hey, a nice electronic calculator always speeds things up and I used one.

Getting into the actual procedure, I found that a little glass pill vial, a very small funnel (I made one out of a disc of parchment and scotch tape,) and a little dish to hold the finished capsules all are helpful.

First, you need to find out the total weight of your capsule contents. For a 75mg Effexor XR it is NOT 75mg. There's a lot of filler/binder/something mixed in with the actual drug. So turn on your scale, calibrate it using the provided test weights and tweezers, then carefully slightly deform the capsule walls with your finger tips while rotating the cap-end of the capsule. The cap will come away. Set it aside.

You will see that the capsule is far from full. Carefully begin tipping the open capsule over the tiny scale pan and as you tip, bring the open end as close to the scale pan as your fingers will allow. Then, using your tiny spoon, start transferring medication beads from the capsule into your scale pan. Eventually you will be able to tip the capsule over so far that all of the remaining beads will fall out into the pan. Write down that reading of milligrams.

For reference, my name-brand Effexor XR 75's came in at 253mg total bead weight. [But, a generic brand of 75's came in at only 195mg, so if you change brands in mid-stream, remember to verify the new net bead weight.]

Now the math.

How many milligrams of filler/binder/drug equals an actual milligram of active ingredient (the Effexor)?

Using your net bead weight, divide that by the published number of mg's of active Effexor and that gives you the number of milligrams of beads that you'll have to pull out of a capsule to remove 1 milligram of Effexor.

Using my numbers as an example, the net weight of beads was 253 milligrams. Divide that by 75 milligrams and you get 3.37333333, which needs to be rounded to something the scale can work with, which is 3.4 -- therefore, to remove 1 milligram of Effexor from these particular capsules, you have to pull out 3.4 milligrams of beads. [That is VERY few beads!]

Now it gets a little more complicated to follow because we want to lower the 75 milligrams by 10%. While this seems like it would be 7.5 milligrams we have to take into account all of the filler so what we really need to remove is 7.5 times 3.4, or 25.5 milligrams (which we have to round up to 26 due to some dumb significant digits lab rule that I forget the name of.) On your scale readout, 26 milligrams will be 0.026

Notice that there is a button on your scale that says "TARE". Because slight vibrations, air currents, passing faeries, etc., can make your scale reading go all over the place, you may have to push that button before each weighing to get the display, with the little scale pan in place, to read 0.000 Just don't push that button in the midst of doing a weighing and once it is pushed, don't dilly-dally. Start spooning beads immediately.

Take your 30 capsules and one at a time, open one, spoon/scrape out the calculated number of milligrams (26 in the case of my example) into the scale's pan then put the top back on the capsule. Dump the "waste" into your tiny funnel and into the little container where you want to keep the excess Effexor (see at the end). At the end of the month, you will have taught your body to live with only 90% of your previous dosage.

[Point of lab procedure: Don't touch any "business" part of your scale or its components with your fingers. Use the tweezers that come with the scale. Getting finger oil and dirt all over the pan, weights or platen will eventually lead to problems. Fingers only go on the front buttons and the plastic body/cover.]

Next month, to do the math, we want to "throw away" 20% of the 75mg dosage; so, 0.2 x 75 = 15 and then 15 x 3.4 = 51. So, the second month you want to scrape out 51 mg, or on the scale readout, 0.051 [Remember, these numbers are ONLY examples, based on the net weight of my particular capsules.]

Because I was very nervous after having a terrible experience trying to quit this drug in the 1990's I backed off at the 3rd through 6th month and only dropped 5% per month -- meaning I was only dumping 25%, 30%, 35%, etc. After 6 months, since I was experiencing no side effects whatsoever, I then went back to 10% per month. Nothing bad happened.

Once I got to the month where I threw away 75% of the drug, I finished out that tiny dosage and quit cold turkey. Once I was totally off the drug, the only side effect that I possibly experienced was a very slight dizziness a couple of times per day, about every 2nd or 3rd day, for about 2 weeks. Then, even that was gone!

Full disclosure: Two times in all of the months I was getting off Effexor, I had a single moment of dizziness. However, both times, it could have been due to a common alcohol hangover because both times, I had been a bad boy the night before. As best I can remember my personality from 30+ years ago (before Effexor) I think that I've reverted to a little harsher/edgier character, much like I think I was pre-drug. Good thing I'm in the Land of Pura Vida with a good strong gal by my side. Finally, I'm several months "off" now and yet I'm still way more susceptible to feeling emotion due to sappy stories, etc. This is very hard on a nasty, vicious old pirate -- arghhh!

Endnote: If you are fortunate enough to live in a low humidity climate or have been storing your "waste" Effexor beads in a sealed container with a desiccant cartridge AND if you are paying for your Effexor (no insurance) AND if you're lucky enough to live where you can get empty gel caps, then in the last months of this odyssey, when the dosage contents are very low percentages, you could start filling empty caps with your saved "waste." Just a thought.

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08 March 2014

An open letter to Atenas and other interested parties:

The little village we live in, Atenas, Costa Rica, is in the Aguacate Mountains and is cut through and surrounded by numerous streams and rivers. Yet, they find themselves in the midst of a water shortage and at the mercy of the national water company, known by the acronym, "AyA".

To fix the water shortage, AyA, for some inscrutable reason, elected to draw additional water from an amazingly active spring, situated inside a public park, in Grecia, a city some 13km (8 miles) to the north as the crow flies. To move that water to Atenas, they chose to build a pipeline, up and down mountainsides, along and through roadways, across rivers, transiting areas of proven soil instability and within highly active seismic zones. The pipeline's length is unknown to me but it must be at least twice the length of the crow's flight line.

To build the pipeline, AyA hired a local construction contractor. The route of the pipeline generally follows along roadways. Due to the narrowness of roadway right-of-ways in Costa Rica, at many points along the route, the pipeline trench had to be dug into the roadway and had to switch from side to side, crossing right through the roadways at many locations. Traffic was quite disrupted, usually with no warning and often with seemingly no regard for any needs of commerce or personal usage of those roadways. (Most of the route's roadways are heavily used and they are the only practical way to get from town to town.)

At what looked like a snail's pace, the roads were torn open, pipeline installed, and dirt pushed back in on top of the pipe. Almost never was the road promptly repaved.

Gigantic potholes developed -- some large enough and deep enough to scrape the bottoms of small or low riding cars. At several locations, the potholes grew into networks of crevasses many meters across and long, causing even buses and big trucks to stop and then tiptoe their way through the "minefield".

As might be expected, the lack of water and the seemingly endless streets mess has stirred up the populace. Last night, there was a town meeting at the Lion's Club building. The word spread around that this was a meeting where the people could come and ask AyA and the Atenas city officials questions about the water shortage and the terrible condition of the unrepaired roadways.

A standing room only crowd showed up ... but not AyA. Immediately, the crowd was unhappy.

A couple of men took over a microphone at the front and spoke as if they were city representatives. They told stories about people in Grecia suing to keep Atenas from taking "their" water; environmental impact lawsuits; disputes over who was responsible (and when) for the roadway repairs and, blah blah blah.

Then, a number of very demonstrative speakers from the citizenry stood and spoke to the assemblage and these "officials".

Finally, a small young lady stood, went to the front and took the microphone. She spoke with total authority and sounded like an accomplished politician. She may have been the mayor of Atenas. She essentially restated what the men had said earlier but in a far more coherent and organized way. Then she thanked the crowd for turning out in a show of support (?) for all of the city's hard work.

We left the meeting because I think the good people of Atenas are missing the point. Settling the "who's water is it" lawsuit, fixing the roads and hooking up the new pipe isn't anywhere near the big issue. The big issue is that their pipeline isn't a good or long term solution.

As kind of an expert in urban water piping systems and the related technologies to keep water flowing at all times to the customers, if anyone had asked -- and they didn't, nor will they -- I would have opined the following:

1. Atenas is in a water shortage crisis now but in the future, should the new pipeline from Grecia fail to deliver, the crisis could be life threatening. Today, the shortage is causing neighborhoods to have their water cut off at different times of the day and night. Next step would be to prohibit non-commercial irrigation, such as lawn watering; and maybe shut down things like swimming pools and car washes. However, in perhaps as little as 10 years, a major disruption of the pipeline from Grecia (a very high probability -- see following) there will be a much larger population suddenly without anything coming from their faucets, for days or weeks, and no infrastructure or distribution system for moving water into the area via alternate sources or even by truck. As people start to get deliriously thirsty, things will get suddenly ugly.

2. The pipeline from Grecia is perhaps the LAST of any viable options they should have chosen. Many individual farms and many newer housing subdivisions within the Atenas Canton have their own water wells, proving that wells are viable. Why then did AyA go with the pipeline option? Probably the public will never know but AyA certainly stomped on a hornet's nest, as shown by angry citizen's meetings and a flock of lawsuits; and, they may have created a monster which could give them nightmares for decades to come.

Rather than drill one or more big, deep water wells right in town, feeding directly into major storage tanks, they chose to tear up the landscape at a terrible cost and bury a fragile pipe in some of the most pipe-inhospitable land possible. Apparently, this was also selected as the "best course of action" without crossing t's and dotting i's since they are now fighting or have fought many legal battles over this project.

3. The type of piping chosen was perhaps the worst they could have chosen. The pipe that AyA chose or allowed to be installed for this project is what we commonly call "push joint" pipe. It is cheap and assembles very quickly in the trench. However, it was designed and is meant for flat lands with excellent trench bedding (support) and zero earth movement.

Push joint means that one end of a section of pipe has an enlarged "bell" on one end and just a straight end ("spigot") on the other. The bell end contains an internal groove. That groove has a soft rubber gasket inserted into it. Then the spigot end of the next piece of pipe is pushed into the bell/gasket assembly a few inches. That's it. Nothing but the weight of the pipe and dirt covering it holds everything in place. If the ground never moves and the pipe is sitting on a carefully prepared bed of engineered sand and gravel and then covered by yet more engineered mixture of sand and gravel there are few enough construction-error leaks and few enough future leaks.

Unfortunately, none of the above-underlined requirements are the case for Atenas and the construction of this pipeline. Pretty much, where I watched this construction, they were ripping a trench through seismically active and mud/rock slide soil, tossing the pipe into that hole, banging the ends together and pushing the native rock/dirt back on top. Good luck with the results.

I also looked and never found any joint lube anywhere. It is well known in the waterworks industry in other countries that every type of pipe joint gasket or seal should be smeared with a proper food grade grease lest the sticky rubber hang up on or get cut by pipe-spigot imperfections, causing leaks.

Without diverging into all kinds of technical stuff, let me just say that there are many pipe joint designs out there which would have been a better choice. The contractor even showed up with an example of the MOST secure joint design at a location where the pipeline climbed a shaky hill and swung around a bend ... and used those joints at that small area. They seem to have known that push joints wouldn't have lasted a month at this particularly problematic spot.

4. The pipeline is constructed and buried but probably not pressure tested. That is a huge problem. I don't have the actual statistics in hand but a properly constructed push joint pipeline, in suitable terrain, will probably only have a construction-caused leak once per mile. To identify these inevitable leaks and fix them before backfilling and paving, at every few hundred meters or between each pair of installed valves, 1st world contractors will fill the pipe with water and pressure it up. That "hydro-test" is specified by the owning utility company or engineer/inspector to be held for several hours.

I may be wrong but in my looking around, I never saw any evidence of any hydro-testing being done. The entire pipeline is now buried and in quite a few locations, the paving is back in place. If this is the case, there will be re-excavations required and leak chasing done on the system for weeks if not months.

(Not to mention that the long delay in some locations between burial and repaving saw literally thousands of buses, 18-wheelers and heavy farm equipment vehicles banging up and down, in and out of potholes, directly over the pipeline. That causes significant earth movement -- especially newly disturbed earth like the pipeline's backfill. That movement can pull apart joints, pound the pipe against pointed rocks and generally stir things up as they shouldn't be stirred.)

5. The pipeline will break. That will cause an interruption of service. If they have an emergency repair plan and emergency repair materials in place, the interruption could be just a few hours. If they have no plan or materials, the interruption could be for weeks. Any pipe can break. Any joint can fail. "Stuff" happens. THIS pipeline WILL break and it WILL pull apart. Whether it happens due to questionable design, less than ideal construction practices or acts of god, it is only a matter of time.

But, remember, this pipeline and its being needed to deliver is very important already and will become critically important to the well being of Atenas in a few years.

A proper utility with proper planning will take this into account. They will have a plan in place to move men, machinery and materials to a break site within a couple of hours and be able to effect even a major repair over a period of several hours or, in the worst of cases, a day or two. Day or night. Holiday or not.

Why do I have an overwhelming feeling that there will be no plan? Why do I think that there won't be a warehouse with spare gaskets, a few spare joints of pipe, repair sleeves, couplings and all related tools?

6. With respect to distribution construction, maintenance and repairs AyA is operating with technology and methods pre-dating the mid to late 1800's. And, finally we reach my area of specialization within the water industry. It is this:

Since the time of the pharaohic-Egyptians (I proved this in court) people have known how to stop and repair leaks blowing out of the sides or the joints of water mains without shutting down those water mains. (Today, those repairs are made and then field-applied additional repair materials can make that weakened area stronger than the original pipeline.)

Since the mid-1800's people all over the world have known how to connect a new branch pipe to an existing water main without shutting down the water main. It is done now thousands of times per day with tools and fittings that a child can use.

Since the late 1800's people all over the world have known how to insert a new control valve directly into an existing water main without shutting down the water main. Today, it is probably done a hundred times a week using tools and fittings any plumber can use.

Knowing this -- and surely they must know this if they can breathe and read -- why does AyA, every day, simply shut the water off, without warning (and seemingly without a care) to effect basic leak repairs, connections and insertions? And why do the Costa Rican people stand for it?

If you REALLY don't know of these technologies, AyA, contact me. I will donate my knowledge to you. For a few good cups of coffee I might even do some training.


Finally, a health warning: I have watched several AyA distribution piping repairs/modifications. In the Atenas area, they seem to take no steps to ensure that materials and practices keep possibly deadly contamination from the water.

At one particularly egregious site, I watched as a repairman worked with the open piping submerged in a soup of muddy water which certainly contained at least horse, cow, dog and cat feces. Then that repair area was closed up, still submerged, with repair piping also full of the same "germ soup." Once they turned the water back on, somebody received a "little gift" that day through their water pipe.

I hope (trust?) such behavior couldn't possibly be AyA policy but would sure like to know how their training system (?) could have let such behavior out onto the streets. How can this be allowed?

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The Sweetest Little Pineapple Ever!

Sometime in late 2012, we bought a delicious pineapple at the local farmers' market. After we enjoyed the fruit, I decided to see if I could actually grow a pineapple, so I stuck the crown in a pot full of good potting soil and set it out on our Terraza just to see what would happen. This past November it bloomed.


We've been carefully watching this little baby because we've been warned that the iguanas love to eat them as soon as they get ripe.
As you can see in the photo, the fruit was really coming along by the end of December.



Today was the day! Our totally organic, homegrown, fully ripened pineapple was picked, measured and consumed.

The fruit topped out at just over 18" with the crown, and a circumference of 14". Once I removed the crown it was slightly over 6" tall.

I trimmed it into 8 wedges and John and I enjoyed one of the sweetest pineapples we have ever eaten.

I think I'm going to plant this little crown too and see what happens next year. Who knows, I may be planting pineapple crowns all over the garden and harvesting our own little crop in the future.

¡Pura Vida!

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11 February 2014

Texas Chili Fuego among the Chili Cook-Off winners


What a great time we had this past weekend! We competed in the 7th Annual Atenas Charity Chili Cook-Off with our good friends Mikey and Joni. We didn't come in 1st, but there is always room for improvement and we can compete again next year.

We are very proud of our participation in this worthwhile event. All of the proceeds go to our next door neighbor, Hogar de Vida (Home of Life.) There are 35 children, age's birth to 10 years old living on the campus founded by Tim and Dena Stromstad back in 1995. These children come from, abandoned, orphaned or abusive situations. Hogar de Vida cares for them in a loving and stable environment, meeting their needs in everything from nutrition, clothing, education, trustworthy authority figures and spiritual guidance.


The Chili Cook-Off was so much fun! In addition to the chili tasting, there was lots of food and beverages for sale, music, dancing, face painting and swimming for the kids. Our team, Texas Chili Fuego, took 2nd place for Showmandhip and 5th place for our wonderful chili. We made a true Texas style chili, with smoked brisket and NO beans, and I made our chili powder from scratch.

The results of this annual fundraiser haven't been announced yet, but rumor has it that it will exceed last year's $20K.

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