Monday, January 31, 2011

Word spreads...

   We live in a town small enough to have no local newspaper or radio station. The way you know what's going on is to talk to people and a whole lot of information sharing goes on. (Most of it is just gossip and one had best be very careful about what one says, because what goes around comes around.) Occasionally there is an actual newsworthy event. This past Friday, Prince Akishino, the second son of Emperor Akihito, and his wife Princess Kiko arrived in our little town by helicopter. It made an interesting case study in how we find out what's going on.
   My first hint that something was up was that 4 policemen were stationed on the road in front of the fanciest hotel in the area. I make a habit of not taking photos of heavily armed men, so I have no photo of them, but they were evenly spaced along the main road. This made us think someone very important was staying there. (When the president of Costa Rica came here several years ago, he was only attended by a few policemen and wandered freely in the crowd.) Next stop was the mini-super where someone said it was the Prince of China. China being a Communist country, that seemed a little unlikely. Getting news purely by word of mouth doesn't guarantee accuracy.
   The next day I was downtown and saw a huge entourage of motorcycle police and cars blocking the main street. I saw a group of Asian people going into my friend Angel's Fauna Glass gift shop. There was a lot of horn honking by people wanting to get down the main street and again talk of the "Prince of China". The prince was accompanied by a fire truck. Seeing a fire truck here is odd since the nearest fire station is an hour and a half drive away; they only come up here to douse the embers of really big fires. Still, it added a certain official festiveness to the scene. Or maybe the prince has a morbid fear of fire?
Next stop was the Chunches book store, where Deb agreed with me that the prince was probably someone from Japan. Or maybe Korea. She told me she had heard a helicopter and had taken her son over to the plaza to check it out. I think they were more interested in seeing the helicopter than seeing important personages.
  At home I searched the internet and found out who it was. Later that afternoon I saw an escort of police motorcycles, many honking cars, and the fire truck blaring its siren as they all went down the main road. That's how I knew the prince and princess only stayed with us one night. Talking to another friend the next day, I learned that her husband, a guard at the hotel, spoke with the Japanese ambassador to Costa Rica and he passed along the news that due to jet lag, the prince awoke and bathed at 4 a.m. and breakfasted at 5. Almost everyone I talk to commented that it would be a drag to be a prince and not have any privacy or be able to go anyplace alone.
  I can't wait to invade the prince's privacy further by talking to Angel and finding out what happened in his shop.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Leaping squirrels!

   Anyone with a bird feeder has squirrel problems—and that includes fruit feeders in Costa Rica because tropical squirrels love bananas as much as northern squirrels love sunflower seeds and are just as gluttonous. Bananas are quite inexpensive close to the source so we put out as many as 8 in one day if we are home all day. The birds come in droves. We've had 16 different species come to the feeder. Now that the trees I planted nearby are large, birds feel much safer hanging out nearby. Here's a big flock of Blue-gray tanagers.
 The Güitite trees (Acnistus arborescens) themselves provide a lot of fruit during part of the year. They are in the Solanaceae family and their fruits look like tiny tomatoes. They provide nectar to hummingbirds and attract many insects, also eaten by the birds.  The squirrels see their branches as convenient super highways to run along the branches so they leap onto the bird feeder.
  Here's a Palm tanager and a Blue-gray tanager at the feeder.
  The squirrels here are a tropical species called the Variegated Squirrel (Sciurus variegatoides) which means they come in different color combinations in different parts of Costa Rica. Our local variety is very handsome. Our tactics to defend the bananas against the squirrels include running out on the balcony waving a broom and yelling. I like to yell "Jump!" and see them perform like trained monkeys...I mean trained squirrels.
 Unfortunately they still require some training: sometimes I have to push the squirrel with the broom. Mr. Rududu's preferred weapon is a pea shooter. I was worried it would hurt the squirrels but even when he makes a direct hit they don't really seem to care that much and only retreat for a few seconds. And truth be told, Mr. Rududu needs more practice with the pea shooter.  The sling shot was a total bust due to problems with accuracy.
  All this jumping makes a squirrel very tired. Sometimes he just needs to lay on a branch and take a siesta.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

I feel a saga coming on

   The first morning back in our house in Costa Rica, we were savoring the warm weather out on the balcony, eating breakfast outside, a miraculous sensation after leaving Wisconsin in January.
Suddenly the peaceful scene was ruptured by a loud whooshing sound and a cloud of steam coming out of our kitchen cabinets. Under our sink there is a 6 gallon/ 22 liter electric water heater and Mr. Rududu turned it off without getting burnt by steam.
   The water heater's pressure release valve had done it's thing and released excess pressure that had built up after the water heater had been on for about 20 minutes. (Our house sitter had opted to turn if off to save the electricity; most Costa Ricans wash their dishes in cold water. Brrrr.) So there we were standing in a large puddle of water on our kitchen floor wondering why so much pressure had built up.
  The water heater is actually very simple. The only parts besides the tank itself are a heating element, a  thermostat to turn the element on and off, a pressure valve in case it gets too hot, and a sacrificial anode. The sacrificial anode was the main player in our water heater saga last year while we tried for months to get a new one. We know more than most people do about sacrificial anodes and now another learning experience is upon us. Darn.

  In our little town it's really good if you can fix things yourself because it's really hard to find people who know how to do it for you. Here's what we know so far:

The themostat is not shutting off, so the water gets hotter and hotter. We could make the valve release again if we wanted to fill our cabinets with water again. But if held against a pan of hot water, the thermostat does shut off. That suggest the thermostat is OK. Here was an early set up for testing a thermostat. (Holding it up to the outside of a pan of boiling water is a better test.)
The hardware store doesn't have a thermostat and nor does their distributor and the time estimate for one to come in is 2 weeks. That could mean months.

Costa Rican friends are great. One sold us an extra thermostat he had on hand. But we can't get the water heater to work with the new thermostat either. Something we don't understand is going on.

Perhaps because of excessively hot water, our pipes connected to the heater have started springing leaks. Slow ones, but when you have 5 different leaks, it starts to add up. It adds a bit to the frustration level.

The final thing I know and have known for ages is that Mr. Rududu is very persistant about fixing things and for the most part enjoys it. Thank goodness.

Meanwhile, we can turn the water heater on for a few minutes at a time and have hot water for dishes. Our guest bathroom has an electric shower head and we can take warm showers. Could be worse. Meanwhile, we have a new hobby.

Update, January 23:
After a mere 5 days of working on it, Mr. Rududu triumphed and the water heater is fixed. It turns out that hidden behind a second access door and covered by plastic and insulation that needed to be cut away was a second thermostat that was failing. Now he just needs to fix all those leaks...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Random travel fun

  With security checks and crowded planes, flying isn't as much fun as it used to be. One can appreciate having no problems with security and not having knitting needles confiscated as terrorist weapons. We did have a banana taken away at the San Jose airport; we had forgotten to eat it before arrival and the authorities rightly do not want to risk a banana disease entering the country. I always wondered why they X-rayed all the bags coming into Costa Rica. Maybe there are other reasons besides bananas.
   No missed connections is good, and so is finding something decent to eat at the airport. But really, my idea of fun isn't just the absence of negatives. For example, I love it when they have interesting exhibits in airports. In Atlanta I enjoyed an exhibit of puppets from around the world, especially Petruk and Gareng, two clowns from Java.
    In San Jose,  our friend and taxista Juan was waiting for us right outside the airport doors. It was really fun to catch up with news during the drive to Monteverde which took about 4 hours including a lunch stop. We also stopped at a big ropa americana store to pick up a 100 pound/45 kilo bale of used clothes for Marcela's small store in Monteverde.  Lots of used clothes gets shipped from the US to Central America and many other parts of the world. I wonder if wealthy countries in Europe also export used clothes or is it just Americans that buy so many things that we need to get rid of them like that? The store we stopped had the clothes beautifully arranged. Things were looking cheerier already.

    I would love to hear what little travel experiences en route have tickled your fancy.
   The best part of traveling, however, is arriving. Seeing friends again. Hearing parrots flying over the house in the morning. Eating breakfast including local coffee on the balcony and being warm. Pura vida. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Traveling heavy

   In an earlier post I've waxed poetic about the joys of traveling light. It's an ideal that falls by the wayside when we head to Costa Rica for several months. For that, we travel heavy. The first few years we wintered in Costa Rica, we took along 4 large duffel bags and our carry-ons. Now that we have our little home there stocked with essentials including clothes, we are "only" taking one large duffel plus one carry-one each. And, oh yes, our "personal items" of a computer case and a so-called purse. We see many fellow travelers going for short trips that have bigger luggage and maybe a surf board. But our almost 50 pound (23 kilo) duffel is enough to nearly immobilize us in the airport since it's very difficult for us to carry all our bags at once.
   Why do we take so much stuff? Some things are hard or impossible to get in Costa Rica and many are a lot more expensive. One of my favorite conversational gambits in Costa Rica is to ask people who live there for a good chunk of the year the strangest thing they have imported in their luggage. Answers—and I am not making this up— have included a sink. I think it was a bathroom sink, not the proverbial "everything including the kitchen sink." I'm not confessing to which of the following items were mine:
    a living room chair (disassembled)
    a microwave oven
    a toilet plunger (They have toilet plungers but they don't work very well. OK, it was me.)
    an American style sponge mop head
    specialized kitchen tools such as thermometer or salad spinner
    chocolate and other other special foods
   This year there was a burning question of Tums. I've started to take it daily to prevent heartburn and as a calcium supplement. Yesterday I called people and stores in Costa Rica and determined that Tums are simply not available there, nor are any other chewable calcium carbonate tablets. So my bag includes a shockingly large quantity of Tums.  And chocolate. Balance in all things.
   What's the silliest thing you ever took on a trip?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

My secret decoder ring came!

Has every child ordered something off a cereal box  and then expected it to come very quickly? A friend said his 4 year old daughter was asking where her toy was about 15 minutes after she put the order form in the mailbox. I've outgrown the desire to order a flying beanie hat or secret decoder ring, but I worked myself up into an absolute dither of anticipation this month after I ordered some prepared, ready-to-embroider temari balls on Etsy. (Temari are an ancient Japanese craft in which thread wrapped balls are embroidered.) I had lots of embroidery thread.
I had some temari balls to inspire me. I had books from the library with directions and lots of pretty pictures.
   I waited more and more impatiently. In due time, the seller agreed that even taking into account massive blizzards and holiday mail snafus, my order had been lost in transit. She started preparing another order and I waited some more. Every time I saw the mailman come I got in touch with my inner 5 year-old. Are they here yet? Are they here? Yesterday they came and they are beautiful.
They are wonderful colors and squishy and very round. They are carefully divided so that I don't have to learn how to do any measuring until I feel a little more confident. They have little rattles inside so they make a delightful noise when you shake them. Once I learn how to embroider them I think they will be even more beautiful. I have begun.
Details: I purchased my balls from TemariKai's Etsy shop. To see lots of beautiful finished temari balls on Etsy, just do a search.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

String theory — I try not to fall into the black hole of knitting

I think I've discovered a new part of the theory of relativity.  The closer I get to finishing the elaborate sweater I started almost a year ago, the slower it goes. I last blogged about my Mayan Dreams sweater close to two months ago when I cut the steeks.
I've now finished the sleeves, so that's progress. It didn't happen as fast as I hoped and the second sleeve took longer than the first, proving that it just gets slower and slower. I'm worried that if it continues decelerating at this rate, I shall fall into some hole in the space time continuum in which I can neither finish this sweater nor knit on anything else because I'm still knitting this sweater. Is this part of string theory? String is certainly involved.
  After the sleeves, which I think are quite pretty—especially the cuffs pattern and little picot detail—I knit the neck and bottom bands. I love the way two color ribbing looks. After trying on the sweater and gnashing my teeth, I decided I needed to redo the collar because it was too small. Even going backwards by ripping out the neckband was slow. 
Now I am knitting the new version of the collar with a bigger needle and more stitches picked up in front. I might decide I need to redo the bottom as well and if so a therapist experienced in knitting issues might need to be called in. Next step will be to pick up the stitches for the front, the most fiddly part of the entire sweater project. The front bands need to be quite wide and have a facing, so it's going to be a lot of knitting even if I get it right the first time. Past experience with front bands shows that might not happen. If I ever finish this sweater I know what I want to knit next...and mostly I want to finish this sweater because I can't wait to wear it.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

One tiny secret of light travel

We've traveled a lot by bike over the years. We've propelled ourselves in a non-straight line across the United States (4500 miles/7200km.) and wandered for months at a time in France, Portugal and Italy. As we have struggled up hills and mountains—because neither of us is a super athlete or a masochist—it has become deeply impressed into us how freeing it is to travel as lightly as possible. This style has crossed over to our other travel and without bicycling tools our luggage is very light indeed. On our recent trip to Italy, our luggage weighed 12 pounds (5.4 kilograms) each. Including the suitcase. And my purse. Yet we had everything we needed.
  Traveling this light depends on drastic choices about clothes. It also depends on minimizing weight whenever possible. (How much toothpaste do you really need and can't you buy a new little tube along the way?) To take few clothes, one needs to wash clothes often and choose things that dry quickly. To dry clothes, clothespins and a clothesline are essential.
Before our cross country bike trip I found some tiny plastic clothes pins, which we used with parachute cord. They look silly but we could even hang blue jeans with them. (We've learned that blue jeans are very heavy and take forever to dry. There are much lighter alternatives.) Over decades, the little clips began to break and became very fragile.
We searched in vain for new small clothespins. Kind friends gave us what they hoped were replacements but most mini-clips are too small to work. Then this December, I found replacements.
 One of life's little triumphs.