Monday, January 30, 2006

Pop quiz

We spent the afternoon at my friend Rita's house yesterday. When it was time to go we all piled in the car and Rita came out to see us off. I was in the process of backing out when Rita asked if "that thing" was supposed to be hanging down under the vehicle.

We have some old rubber floor mats (actually they're not old. But they're cheap) and I figured one of them was splitting and that a piece was hanging out the passenger door. But when I went around to look, there was indeed something hanging down under the car. A wire. Half a wire, actually, all shredded and stripped at the hanging-down end. And farther back under there was, of course, the complementary shredded other end.

We checked the headlights and brake lights and turn signals and everything seemed to work - and the car had started up with no problem - so we pretty much said "oh well" and were on our way. Dad offered the most likely theory: back when we lived in NC we had rented U-Haul trailers a time or two, and he suggested that this was the wire that took the juice back to the place where you plug in the trailer lights there by the hitch.

Today we stopped by the mechanic and it turns out we weren't quite as thorough as we thought in our was the reverse-light cable. I dunno why THAT particular cable runs loose under the car while the rest are apparently safely routed through some more sheltered part of the vehicle, but there you have it. The mechanic spliced the wires and routed it up over some under-car part to keep it a little more sheltered.

So how did it get shredded? I had a theory and the mechanic agreed with me. If you are a regular reader of this blog and have been paying attention, then you have sufficient information to reach the same conclusion. Anybody?

Saturday, January 28, 2006

And what are YOU doing?

Julia: What are you doing, Mommy?
Me: I'm going to make some raisin scones for breakfast.
Julia: Can I help??
Me: No, I think I'll just do it myself this time.
Julia: Okay, then I'll just hop on one foot. [Commences hopping]

* * * * * * * * * * *

Julia: What are you doing, Grandpa?
Dad: I'm looking for my passport. I think I left it in the [Pauses briefly]
Julia: In the United States?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Dog digs hole

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Parks and ponies and presidents, oh my

So we went to the park. It was José's idea, and it was a good one.

The girls have been begging to go to this particular park for ages because it is right across the street from the airport and they see it every time we pick someone up there and/or go to Rita's house. And if it's a weekend, which it so often is, they can see children, so very much more fortunate than they, getting pony rides.

This morning the grandparents pointed out that it would be a good day to go there, and so we did.

So here's something different about Costa Rica (different from the United States, I mean). You go to a park. It's a good sized park and not at all crowded. There are, I don't know, maybe 15 families there? Maybe 20? Total? I'm sitting here with my eyes closed, trying to count people I wasn't paying the slightest attention to when I was there. It's hard.

Anyway, a semi-popular park on a Sunday. Pony rides over here, playground over there.

Costa Rica's presidential election is in two weeks (Dad! History in the making! And you'll be a part of it!)

No, I'm not changing the subject. Half an hour after we got there, presidential candidate Ottón Solís showed up with a very tiny entourage (one giant flag in his party's colors, one guy with a video camera and, oh, 20 people kind of tagging along) and proceeded to make his way around the park, kissing hands and shaking babies, as it were.

(Reminds me that in 1994 I saw José María Figueres--who went on to win that year's election--ride by on an open campaign vehicle, waving to passerby while I was sitting in a restaurant in a not-very-major town outside of San José.)

Canya picture this in the United States? Granted, this year's elections are largely considered to be a foregone conclusion (Oscar Arias back again). But still, Solís is a serious candidate who won 26% of the vote in 2002, forcing Costa Rica's first runoff election ever. And here he is in the park two weeks before the election, proving to one smallish video camera that he's a regular guy.

He never actually got to us because, by finishing our lunch and moving over to the ponies, we cut across the circuit he was making of the park.

I don't know much about this particular candidate, because I try hard to avoid political discussions with Costa Ricans. (No. Wait. It's not just Costa Ricans.) But I have noticed, when the topic is raised within earshot, that most of the Costa Ricans I associate with (who may or may not represent the population at large, but who do at least make up a pretty decent spectrum of society) will preface any discussion with "well, of course they're all corrupt."

Now, I'm pretty news-averse. I don't take a newspaper, I don't watch local TV at all, and most particularly not the news. [Aside: This is a very small country. A very, very small country. Anything terrible that happens to anyone anywhere in the country...hey presto, it's national news. Car crashes and drug busts and fires, oh my.] I'm usually not even close enough to the radio to hear the once-hourly pre-recorded news and weather clips on the radio station I listen to. I do actually get a bit of news through Boing Boing, but it's intensely filtered by the predilections of the five contributors to that blog, and it's not a political blog, per se.

My theory is, if it's really important, I'll hear about it. And of course I do. I heard about Katrina. And (getting back to my point) I heard about the fact that two of Cost Rica's three most recent past Presidents (1990-1994 and 1998-2002) have been arrested and charged with corruption (currently awaiting trial) and that the third (1994-1998) is under investigation. (See the last three paragraphs of "Political Conditions" here.)

So I guess in this case "they're all corrupt anyway" may hold a little more water than your usual political griping. (And yes, to perhaps a lesser extent, they do include Arias in that blanket statement.)

Anyway, that's not what I came here to talk about. I didn't even take a picture of Solís because I figured if I went over with my camera, they'd probably waste valuable flesh-pressing time on my apparent interest, when of course I'm not even eligible to vote.

Getting back to the matter at hand, then:

Kites! Pony Rides! Trampolines! Car Crashes! (Oh yeah. Quick aside before we return to the sunshine and horsey rides...there was a car accident on the highway that runs alongside the park, so traffic was backed up for a half hour or so. I didn't actually see or hear it happen, so I don't have anything to say about it. But I bet it was on the news.)

Onward, once again. Horsey rides!

As usual, a plug for the Costa Rican economy: 300 colones a ride = $0.60. Interestingly, 10 minutes on the trampoline (which an enterprising soul carted in and set up himself, quite independently of any park regulations or anything) cost 400 colones ($0.80). Sure, the pony ride was a bit shorter, but still it was a good 5 minutes. At least. And. Horses! Real, live horses!

And then, Kites!

There was a guy there selling these little kites--made of fabric, not paper--for 1500 colones ($3). The day was perfect for them and they flew really well.

I originally tried buying just one. In order to forestall the argument about who got to choose it, I went over alone and picked out a purple and yellow one, which both girls know to be MY favorite colors. (In my household you are legally required to have one or more favorite colors. Hey, don't look at me, I don't make the rules. Not the inane ones anyway. Er, I mean...Moving right along...).

But as soon as I let Robin fly the kite (Julia had the first pony ride), Yolanda scrambled to get one for Julia. And really, once I saw how nicely they flew, I was glad to have them both. But still.

And finally, what park is complete without: Large statues for climbing!

Coffee is a major part of Costa Rica's economy and this setup is in honor of the coffee farmers. The statue is made of metal, and the big concrete thing behind it represents a coffee bean. (Which is not a bean at all. Did you know...ah, forget it.) The child in the statue, by the way? Is a boy. Yep.

Well, it's nearly past my bedtime, but what say we end with a pop quiz:

How many Basic Rules of Kite Flying (not to say, you know, federal laws) are being violated in the picture below?

Answer: The individual pictured is in violation of 55 percent of the Basic Rules of Kite Flying, as enumerated by Multiple Kite World Champion Ray Bethell (Rules 3, 4, 5, 7 and 9...out of nine)

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Socking it to her

Julia is playing a Blues Clues computer game. She has to choose one of four items, each of which will accomplish the task in a different way.

J: Which one should I choose?
R: Whichever one you want.
R: [Mutters] The sock. The sock.
J: What?
R: Whichever.
J: [Clicks the sock]

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Having a blast (a story aged to perfection)

On Monday of last week, when I posted about the mechanic and Alex' beard, there was something else to tell about, but I decided to save it for next time, not realizing it would have to keep for over a week.

Lucky for you, it aged very well. It's a much better story now.

At the time, I was just going to follow up on this post to say that the neighbors directly behind us were finishing up their house - they were pouring the driveway that day - just as the neighbors to our west (to the left as you look in from the street) broke ground for their first house. That lot is a double-wide (well, you know what I mean) owned by a family with three grown children, and will eventually have a house on it for each of them.

That was pretty much it. I took a picture of one poor guy out there all alone, digging a hole with a pick, but then they brought in a backhoe later that day. Turns out the guy was just digging the latrine for the builders' bunkhouse/storage shed.

The backhoe quickly opened up access from the road. The land rises significantly at the front of their lot, making kind of a wide ridge that they had to cut through in order to open the way for, you know, everybody who's going to need access over the next five months.

Guy with a pick:

Construction shed/bunkhouse (with attached latrine):

Can you see those rocks? It's not a real clear picture, but those are some big rocks. Like three, four, five feet on a side.

There is a vein of rock that comes through these properties and everyone who has built around here has had to deal with it. I think our own house is just slightly to the south of it so they didn't have so much trouble, but it angles in and pretty much hits all the other lots.

Down the street a ways, the vein of rock comes out to the road. Rather than cut through it, they built the road up and over, with the result that you can't see oncoming cars in either direction until you get to the top of the hill. I always slow down and hug my side of the road, but people who don't live on the street apparently don't get that and sometimes have to scramble to get over to their side because the road is (only just) two lanes wide, with no center line. Surprisingly, only once in the two years I've lived here have I seen the crest of that hill littered with headlight fragments.

Anyway, this Monday the head of construction for the new project showed up at my gate with the owner of the next house over (which he also built). They said they had come to an area of rock that wasn't just "a rock" but pretty much part of the Earth, and that they were going to bring somebody in to blow it up. See? Much better story.

I asked them to let me know when they would be doing it so I could have Yolanda keep the girls, not because I thought there would be any danger to them, but so that they wouldn't be around to see it if there were an accident with the explosives.

Yesterday they drilled all the holes in the rock and today the demolition guy is here. I went down to watch the first couple of blasts. They put the charge in (dynamite really does come in red sticks!!), pour some dirt into the hole, then cover it up with a sack of dirt and stack a bunch of old tires on top. Everyone goes into the construction shed and they press the button (or throw the switch or whatever it takes to send a current through the wires...I guess I didn't think to look at that end of it.)

You hear a big, but muffled, thump. The tires jump up a little, the ground shakes a little and, at least once, a couple of bits of rock rain down. Then they go and check the damage, set up the next one, and do it again. I stayed for the first three or four, and they've done 14 more over the hour and a half since then. Actually, they've been very regular, with a blast every five minutes, but there was nothing from 9:00 to break, probably.

I don't know if they started slow for some reason or if it has to do with the section of rock they're working on, but the shocks seem stronger now than when they started. With earthquakes, they say most damage is done by longer events with sustained shaking, so I can't see that this would do any harm, especially to this particular house, which has a structure of steel beams (they're steel, right?) covered with drywall, rather than being made entirely of cinder blocks like most constructions around here. We have cinder block in the bathrooms because of the dampness, and those walls do have cracks in from the occasional tremor or small earthquake. There are a couple of hairline cracks in floor tiles and at some of the seams between the sheets of drywall in the ceilings. But the walls, both inside and out, show no signs of anything.

And here are the pictures. That's my house, of course. In fact, that triangular window is my office and I keep looking out it to see how it's going. The triple window with the knotted curtains is on the landing of the stairs.

But enough about me. Both the guy in charge of construction and the demolition guy were very friendly, giving me their cards and suggesting different things to photograph. The demolition guy is self-employed. I've got nothing against that, of course. I'm self-employed, and so is Alex. But I have to say I'd be more inclined to go with a company if I were planning to blow something up. Not sure why.

So here is a general shot of the worksite. The rocks don't look that big, do they?

Until you see some guys beside them (for scale) and realize those aren't regular automobile tires.

Here's one with the sandbags...

And Freddy the demolition guy, showing how they lower the charge into the pre-drilled hole. (See? Red sticks!)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Your turn

This is Official Delurking Week.

That means that if by chance anyone has been reading this blog and not commenting, now's your chance! Step up and say hi!

I, on the other hand, have a few days off because of a translation. See you on Monday or so...

Monday, January 09, 2006

I Heart Carburetor

I also heart our new mechanic.

As I'd mentioned, I took the car to a guy before Alex came and when he brought it back he had a long list of things he wanted to work on, including the carburetor, brakes, suspension and transmission. He said, straight up, "you're going to have to invest some money in this car."

When I asked him if there was anything that did work the way it should, he paused for quite a while and then allowed as how the oil changes were up to date.

We have taken this vehicle to a couple of different mechanics - this guy was the third (Alex had gone to him when he was here last September) - and I wasn't feeling too good about bouncing it around like that. None of them had a chance to get a feel for the history of the vehicle or to try more than one or two things in our continuing effort to fix a nagging brake problem.

We didn't have problems with any of them - all came recommended by friends or family and all did what they said they'd do and charged reasonable prices. But none of them were able to get the car to brake the way it should. It wasn't bad enough to keep us off the road, but I never felt certain that, in an emergency situation, I would be able to stop the car quite as quickly as you should be able to. And it was starting to get worse, especially after the last guy tried a couple of things.

I intended to take the car back (to the same guy) after Alex's visit, but while he was here he got two new recommendations for two new (to us) mechanics and he couldn't resist. He went with his friend to talk to one of the mechanics and came home all enamored.

So we went to him and I must say, I approve. For one thing, it's within walking distance to Yolanda's house, which will make things easier when we have work done in the future. Also:

  • They actually checked us in, filling out a written description of the work to be done and providing a receipt for the car.
  • The place has at least six bays for working on cars, three different kinds of industrial-sized jacks, an office and reception area and a whole inner garage area that I didn't even see very far into.
  • There was always a line of cars waiting, which made us feel good in the same way that you might pick a restaurant based on the fact that there are always people eating there.
  • Both the owner/master mechanic and the guy who I think did most of the work on the car took me (not just Alex) seriously when we described our experiences with the car. They were perfectly happy to show us what they had found, what they wanted to fix and why.
  • They also explained why a particular part did not need to be replaced when Alex offered his pet explanation of the problem.
  • They even put a little shower cap thingy on the steering wheel so the mechanics wouldn't get grease on it from their hands when they took it out for test drives. (God in the details and all that)
The place is a bit more expensive than, say, our second mechanic, who worked alone in a rented garage space that turned out to be too expensive and now works on the street in front of his house. And doesn't have a phone.

But I seem to remember, in North Carolina, spending the better part of a thousand dollars (seven hundred something) to replace a boot & axle on our Honda at one point, and yeah, yeah it's important and has to be done, yadda yadda yadda, but it hurt to spend that much when all I was experiencing was a clicking sound when I turned. (I may be mixing that up with some other repair, or we may have had more work done at the same time so if that's outrageously expensive don't worry that we got ripped was a reputable place.)

This car, on the other hand, hasn't braked satisfactorily for over a year and was getting so sluggish that trucks were passing me on the way up the hill to my house.

So I was willing to go with "a bit more expensive" (especially in the Costa Rican economy) when it meant they fixed my car.

So. We now have a new (not repaired) carburetor, fuel filter, master cylinder, front brake pads (we changed the rear ones in September), four brake booster hoses and sixteen assorted rubber washers and gaskets (which solved the suspension problem).

We paid a total of $360 for parts and $210 for labor. I have no idea how that compares to US prices, but I suspect it's favorable.

Eye of the beholder

Alex's facial hair (like Alex himself??) comes and goes. He usually has at least a moustache, but sometimes he gets rid of that as well. He'll let the beard grow in for a while, then tire of it and shave it off or change its shape. The more unusual styles, like a goatee or redneck sideburns may only last for a day or two...or even just a couple of minutes as he plays and then shaves them off.

Anyway, I always vote for at least a moustache, but if he's been gone for a while you never know what he'll be sporting when he arrives.

This time it was a full beard that was unusual (for him) in that he had not trimmed it, so it was more squared off than usual. (Other times he has tended to trim it more to the contours of his face.)

The interesting thing, though, were peoples' reactions. Almost everyone he saw during his time here had something to say when they first saw the beard. Everyone compared him to someone.

What soon became apparent was that the comparisons spoke volumes, not about Alex or his beard, but about the people who made them. For example, when his mother caught a glimpse of him through two layers of glass at the airport, her first reaction was "He looks just like [television preacher] Salvador Gomez!"

[Aside: I thought "Salvador," which means Savior, was the man's profession, but it turns out it's simply his first name. I guess you name your kid Savior, you get a TV evangelist.]

Others included:

  • Charlton Heston
  • A revolutionary
  • Osama
  • Moses
  • A mountain man
I don't think I said anything myself, but it made me think of Mr. Edwards from Little House on the Prairie.

Interestingly, Sanda Claus was never mentioned.

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