30 July 2015

Don't chum the waters when swimming with sharks

Gringos -- Swallow your pride and make your cameras, smart phones, tablets and luggage gear look like crap if you want to radically lower the risk of having them stolen.  I might also observe that cargo pants, hiking boots, fishing vests, boonie hats and walking sticks scream RICH GRINGO TOURIST and enhance your likelihood of being a target.  I've learned from some of the best "guys on the street".

Many years ago, I was assistant art director on a very high end P.R. brochure being put together.  At the time, I had been a pretty fair news photographer but knew that the artsy qualities that I wanted for this brochure were beyond my skill set and the capabilities of my equipment.

I made inquiries and arranged for a shoot with a guy who was touted as the "best industrial photographer in Chicago".  His fee was almost as much per day as I made in a month.

On the intense day of the Big Shoot the photographer showed up and unloaded three of the most beat up, falling apart, cheap-ass gear cases that I'd ever seen.  I was thinking, "Uh-oh."

He opened the cases and inside were neatly arranged ranks of equipment that look suspiciously like junk; except, because I had held one every day in years past, I recognized several top of the line Nikon camera bodies by their shape -- but these looked like hell with scratches and worn spots and black electrical tape all over them.

I had to ask.  "What's with all of the tape and how'd those Nikons get so beat up?"  The photographer replied that one of them was brand new and none of the others were more than 2 years old.  "I used to lose a camera or lens about once a month back when everything looked nice.  Now I tape over all brand names and roughen everything so it looks like junk.  Haven't lost a thing since I started doing this."  I then realized that even the man himself was down-dressed.  Nothing about him or his "stuff" would attract anybody's attention.  He could work undisturbed all day and passersby would simply think, "Some guy taking snapshots."

I went home that night and did the same treatment to my equipment.  I now also make sure to always take my crappiest looking travel pack and bag if I'm ever going to have it out of my control or especially if I were traveling to the sketchier parts of the world.  Never lost a camera and only lost one bag -- probably an airline screw up.

Making your bags look like crap also is a big help on airport carousels.  Put tape on them so they look like they're falling apart.  I put dingy straps around mine so that they look like the closures don't work.  When the "all look alike" clean and new bags come rolling around the corner on the carousel it is really hard to tell your bag from any other.  Not my bag.  It's that piece of junk that nobody would steal on a bet.  Now ... that new Louis Vuitton bag over there ...

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30 April 2015

Our Thunbergia Blue and White Sky Vines

In 2008, we finished the construction on our little casita and this became our vacation home until we retired in 2011. For the first couple of years our property was protected from the neighborhood livestock by a barbed wire fence. I made a trip from Texas to Costa Rica to see about building a proper perimeter wall around our property, installing a lawn and sprinkler system, and doing a little landscaping. John joined me for the latter half of this trip and we finished the landscaping together.

While enjoying our frequent mini vacations here, we had noticed the inside of the casita would heat up considerably during the day simply because there was no protection from the sun on our east side.

Looking for a remedy, we went to one of the local nurseries to see what was available for a sun block. One of their employees recommended a fast growing vine with flowers. So we decided to buy 10 starter plants, 5 blue and 5 white. Without a clue as to what we had purchased, John set about planting the vines all along the east side of the casita. The young vines needed something to attach to, so John nailed horizontal strings to the property wall about 12” & 18” above the ground. This was all that was needed for the vines to grab a hold and take off.

Within 5 months the vines had completely taken over the fence, completely covering it with vibrant green leaves and beautiful blue and white flowers.

The best part of all is the temperature in the casita dropped at least 10° F. The fragile little tendrils we planted in 2010 have now grown into the size of tree stumps and the vines throw daily runners so fast you can almost see them growing.

Today we know these vines are actually Thunbergia Blue and White Sky Vines. We have been amazed at how hearty they have been, especially with the dry, windy season we just endured.  They never slowed growing, whereas all of the other plantings around the property went dormant or turned brown.

A couple of weeks ago our housekeeper discovered the ground along side of the casita was very damp and she suspected a leak – right in the middle of those green green vines. John confirmed there was indeed a leak, but he couldn’t get to the leaking spot because it was half buried in concrete. So, he called a local plumber. The plumber came out to determine the cause and find out what parts it would take to fix it. Two days later, the plumber resolved the leak and we expect our water bill will drop substantially.

No telling how long the pipe had been leaking. Clearly our vines certainly enjoyed all the extra moisture. They have been in full bloom throughout the dry season and they are gorgeous. Their extra “water supply” has been cut off now, but the rainy season is just starting, so they will continue to flourish.

Anybody need some cuttings from our Thunbergia Blue and White Sky Vines? They are yours for the taking.

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26 March 2015

I feel like Ralph Kramden's sidekick Ed Norton

I just love doing home maintenance -- NOT!  I get a really special "attitude" toward home ownership when the maintenance involves plumbing problems on the, ummm, odiferous side of the system.  Thus was my situation this week.

We have had a somewhat slow drain in the kitchen sink, forever, and just figured it was some of that there Pura Vida plumbing.  The other day, it got snail-slow and even backed up.  Couldn't figure out the problem.  Tried the nasty acid drain opener chemical.  Nope.  Opened the outside grease trap and cleaned that out (quite full after 4 years.)  Nope.  (Ack!! What a disgusting job.)

Day two.

O.K. -- this is getting to be a headache.  Got a plumber's snake.  Went in from the sink-side and figured that I had hit a 90-bend at about 6-feet in.  (Yes, they put 90's in drain and sewer piping here.  "Those pesky wye's are just too hard to figure out.")

Went outside to the grease-trap side.  Went in with the snake ... waaay in ... hit a kind of soft spot but after spinning the "roto rooter" head of the snake a bit figured it was the same 90.  Still not very good flow.

Using several small batches, I got a whole can of drain opener and boiling water into the pipe.  Over time and with a little addition of hot water, lots of little chunks kept coming down the line and falling into the trap.  Still not much flow.

Filled the sink half way with hot water and let it rip down the pipe.  Better.  More chunks.  Still crappy (pun!) flow.

Three more sink dumps ... and then there was a burping noise, the flow stopped dead and then s-l-o-w-l-y a long brown "something" oozed out of the pipe, dropped into the grease trap sump and disappeared.  Instantly we had full flow.  I put on my long rubber glove and went fishing.  Got it.

The long brown thing was ...

-- wait for it --

... a large wadded up piece of portland cement paper sack (with the cement company logo still intact.)


How?   How did the drain system EVER work with that blockage in there?

My guess that it has been there since the early stages of the house construction, when they put in the drain stubs before pouring the floor.  Normally, those stubs are stuffed with a rag or something to keep animals and concrete splatters out of the piping.  Somebody missed removing one when they did the final hookups.

So the mystery of a slow drain and blockage is solved, only to generate another mystery as to how in the world that drain ever worked.  Wow.

I hope they didn't miss removing another paper pipe plug somewhere else in the "castle."

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07 March 2015

My handcrafted sisal rope bowl

A few months ago I jumped in to participate in a "Pay it Forward" initiative on Facebook. I posted the information about the initiative on my Facebook status, and the first five people who commented were promised a surprise from me during the year.  The whole purpose of the surprise is just to make someone happy and they, in turn, must "Pay it Forward" to five other people, and so on, and so on, forming a web connection of kindness! My dilemma, what could I give as a surprise.

I tossed around a few ideas in my head, did some searching on Pinterest, and finally decided to try my hand at making sisal rope bowls for everyone. Most of the handcraft sites on the web recommended using hot glue guns, but I decided to use nothing but plain old Elmers glue, you know, the stuff we all used in school for all those projects. I bought 50 meters of ¼" sisal rope at the local hardware store and loaded up with lots of glue. After a few trials and errors, I finally mastered a technique that worked very well for me. Here are the materials you need for one bowl:

  • 10 meters, or 11 yard of ¼" sisal rope
  • 8-10 ounces of non-toxic white glue (Elmers or equivalent)
  • box of straight pins
  • scissors
  • needle nose pliers
  • medium sized bowl to use for a mold
  • 2 pieces of ribbon to help release the sisal from the bowl
  • 1" wide paint brush

The first thing you need to do is trim up the starting end of the rope, so that you can start to roll a disk for the bottom of the bowl. The easiest way is to fold the end of the rope back on itself and use straight pins to hold the rope in place. Keep rolling the rope into a flat disk until it is about 2" in diameter. Use the straight pins as needed to prevent any gaps. Then spread a layer of glue on just one side of the disk. Allow it to dry for about 45 minutes.

While the bottom disk it drying, tape a ribbon to the bottom of the bowl you are using as your mold. The ribbon needs to be long enough to reach all the way to the top of both sides of the bowl with about 3" excess on each side. Now, tape the second ribbon on the bottom of the bowl so that it forms a cross with the other ribbon and again make sure it is long enough to reach to top of both sides of the bowl with 3" to spare.

When the disk is dry, use the pliers to remove the straight pins. Turn the bowl upside down and lay the dry side of the disk centered on the bottom of the bowl. Now start to wrap and coil the rope using the bowl as your guide. I found it worked best when I only did 3 wraps (just an inch) at a time, using the straight pins to prevent any gaps. Once I had completed the 3 wraps, I would coat them on the outside with glue, using my fingers to make sure it was well spread. You need to be careful not to get glue on the bowl, or the rope will stick. Let the section dry and the glue will turn clear when it's dry so you'll know when you can continue.

Pull out all of the straight pins with the pliers, and start coiling and pinning the next section. Apply the glue. Let it dry, and remove the pins. Continue this process until you reach the top of the bowl. When you get to the top of the bowl, leave a tail end of rope about 6" long.

Remove any remaining straight pins from the rope. Remove your sisal bowl from the bowl you used as your mold using the ribbons to pull it free. Flip the sisal bowl right side up and generously coat the inside of the bowl with glue. Use the paint brush to evenly spread the glue and let the bowl thoroughly dry.

Now decide how you want to finish off the end piece. I decided to make a loop so that the bowl can actually be hung on a hook. I folded the end piece back on itself, trimmed the frayed end and tucked it under the last wrap. I used lots of glue and pins to lock it place. When the bowl was completely dry, I looked for any sharp strings poking out and trimmed them off with the scissors.

The last part of my "Pay It Forward" initiative was to put something in the bowl, so I made some Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies this morning. One of my Canadian friends received her bowl in January without the cookies, but I'll make it up to her when she returns to Costa Rica. This afternoon John and I went calling to drop off the remaining 4 baskets and put smiles on faces.

If you are looking for a fun family project for a rainy day, or a snow day, this just might be it.

Important Note: The sisal rope bowls are NOT waterproof!

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31 January 2015

Friday afternoons in the barrio

A Friday ritual is becoming very popular with the local expat crowd here in Atenas. It started out with just two or three folks meeting at a local neighborhood bar on Friday afternoons to grab a couple of cold drinks, chat for a bit, and then head home before dark. The place is called German's Bar, and it is located in Barrio Mercedes, just at the Y intersection where you turn off to San Isidro and Morazan.

This is a family run business and German (pronounced "Herman") is a friendly fellow in his 60's. He always makes it a point to stop at every table and greet his patrons. This bar is the same place we went to watch, and cheer on, our amazing Costa Rican fútbol team at the World Cup last year.

Some friends of ours, that live just up the road from German's, love to dance. So, they downloaded all the best dance music you can think of from the 1960's up to the 2010's, onto an iPod. This eclectic mix of music includes selections from Santana, Grateful Dead, Shakira, Michael Jackson, Adele, Eagles, etc. They spoke with German and he agreed to let them plug their iPod into the bar's sound system. This gave our friends a great place to dance and enticed German's other patrons to get up and DANCE with them.

Word started to spread amongst the expat community and this Friday afternoon ritual went from just a few folks unwinding on a Friday afternoon, to a full blown party every week. Yesterday there were almost 40 people in attendance. We've been going there regularly for a couple of months, and it's lots of fun to catch up with everyone. The weekly get togethers somehow got named, "FUF," and we'll just leave it to your imagination to figure out what that means.

One of the regular attendees of our Friday get togethers is German's dad, Don Carlos. Don Carlos is now in his 90's 99 years young, and he loves to get out on the dance floor with the "younger" crowd.

I thought about taking pictures of the packed house yesterday, but decided it might be best to just say, "What happens at German's, stays at German's."

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21 November 2014

My hero fixed my microwave!

I have this wonderful combination convection/microwave oven from Sharp that John gave me a couple of years before we moved to Costa Rica. We use it all the time, for everything from dehydrating fruit to cooking bacon. So yesterday, I went to use the microwave to warm up some leftovers and sparks started flying, and it was making a weird noise. I turned it off as fast as I could, but you could already smell what appeared to be burnt electronics.

My hero John, came running to the kitchen to scope out the problem and found there is a mica plate mounted to the roof of the microwave and it had caught fire. He immediately started to Google microwave parts and found this is mica plate frequently needs to be replaced. Who knew?

The best price he could find for a replacement part was available at Sears for $63 USD. We have a great little domestic appliance repair shop here in Atenas, so I suggested we check with them to see if they carry mica plates. Sure enough, they carry generic mica plates that can be cut to size. Total cost ¢1500 (less than $3 USD.)

Today, John went to cut the new plate, and as luck would have it, he didn't have the right kind of saw to do the job. Off we went to the local hardware store to buy a coping saw for ¢2000 (less than $4 USD.) He was able to use the old plate as a template to cut a new one, and just like that, we are back in business with a working microwave oven.

This repair, would have cost us $63 USD, plus shipping, and my hero fixed it for well under $10. What a country!!!

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26 October 2014

Grounding Gus, the escape artist.

A little over a year ago we installed 2 chain link side gates on both sides of the casa. This gave us the ability to keep the dogs on one side of the yard when we have guests staying in the casita. This past month, Gus (pronounced Goose) has been showing off his leadership skills to his new little sister, Yoli (the newly rescued street dog we adopted.) Gus finally perfected his climbing technique and has managed to escape from the confines of the back yard at will. It appears Gus would take a running leap at the side of the house and then vault over the 1.25 meter gate. Rather clever actually.

Yoli is actually a little taller than Gus, and she has already managed to steal food off the kitchen counter. So, before Gus could teach her how to vault over the gate, we decided to intervene and put up some barriers. First, John installed wires above the gate with iron bar extensions added for strength. This did nothing to discourage him, and now we were concerned he would hang himself on the wires if his vaulting attempt failed. Next, John tied some floppy orange plastic safety fencing to the top of the gate, and this did the trick. No more attempts at escape, but it was a really ugly temporary solution.

So, earlier this week, we contacted our handyman Luis. Luis built the original gates, so he came over Tuesday to discussed a permanent solution. We decided the easiest fix would be to extend the height of the gates from the original 1.25 meters to a full 2 meters high. We ordered all the materials from the local hardware store, and they delivered everything Thursday. This morning, John picked Luis up at his house, with all his tools, and a helper. Four hours later the problem is solved, and Gus' wings have been clipped. Yoli will never learn to fly.
Geeze, Mom, how am I gonna jump that?!?
Yoli and Gus, with Randy in the background looking puzzled at the gate.
Notice the row of brick pavers at the bottom of the fence on the grass? That was to stop Yoli's attempts of going under the fence.

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