Saturday, July 30, 2011


That’s the name of the goofy looking cows.  Rancho da Matinha’s cattle are breeding stock and they are obviously handled a lot.  Most of them act on the quiet side of “normal” for cows but some of them are like great big dirty white puppies.  They come up to the fence to look at us and one even snuggled up to have its head, neck and ears scratched.  I had to be careful I didn’t get a big sloppy cow kiss from that one.  There is a limit to what I’ll do for any employer, including Growsafe.

This project came together remarkably quickly because these people are so obviously eager to have the system working and because they clearly see it as a step forward for the ranch.  Sometimes when I get to a job it is apparent that the working hands resent the new equipment.  They may feel threatened but more often I think they view it as just one more thing that they will have to do and one more damn piece of equipment to break down and be repaired.  That is so obviously not the case here.  I’m sure there will be breakdowns and when they happen there will be a cultural and linguistic divide as wide and deep as the continent that separates us from this place.  But for now its all smiles and eager participation to get the project finished.

On the language front I’m finding that I can just about communicate in Portuguese.  My Spanglish is getting me through and fortunately I’ve got an eager guide who officially works for the Brazilian government but who is unofficially my host, tour guide and translator this week.  Sometimes though there’s still a lot of hand waving (and wringing) on my part.  I like people who do real work and who know their stuff and for some reason I always seem to be able to get along with that type of person.  They’re in abundance in this group and the novelty of meeting a Canadian doesn’t hurt either. 

The cultural/language thing is going to heat up considerably next week though.  I’ve been kind of coddled here at Rancho da Matinha with no need to function in the larger Brazilian society outside the bounds of this admittedly large ranch.  Once I leave here I’ll be on my own so the story may change.  Stay tuned.

Friday, July 29, 2011

We’re a long way from Buchanan Toto

I landed in Sao Paulo yesterday morning after a red eye from Toronto.  Flying in it seemed like the city went on forever.  We’re accustomed to North American cities where the high rises are concentrated in one central area and then the city sprawls out from that centre.  Sao Paulo doubtless has a core but you sure couldn’t tell from the air.  There were high rise buildings clustered in probably 20 or more locations over the space of 10 minutes.  Wikipedia says a Boeing 767-300 cruises at 530 MPH so even allowing some slowdown as we got closer to approach we still covered 60 to 80 miles in that time and we didn’t fly over the whole city by any stretch. 

Air Canada did well on the flight.  There was one “customer service” agent in Regina who fully lived up to their current motto – we’re not happy until you’re not happy – but otherwise their staff were pleasant and efficient.  Her big concern was that my name on my ticket showed as R Evans while my name in my passport shows as Robert Evans.  I pointed out to her that I had typed Robert into her damned website but it had converted that to R because I am Aeroplan member number one.  I’m sure my Aeroplan card is the oldest one still in use.  Its so old it only has 9 digits in my number and they need 10 now.  Her only response was to point out that my ticket said “R” which I already knew.  She thought I should change my information in my Aeroplan account which doubtless would have taken her less than 10 seconds while she had it up on her screen and equally doubtless will take me half an hour if I care to go through the agony on their website.  Since my goal in life is to avoid flying as much as possible and to fly Air Canada only as a last resort it seems like a low return effort to change my name on their webform.

We’re just outside of Uberaba, Minas Gerais, Brazil.  I had to look on a map to see where Brazil was when Growsafe said they were sending me down here.  Maybe its just me but I think us northern hemisphere types tend to forget that there’s actually half of the world where the sun sets in the north.  If you follow that hyperlink you’ll see that Uberaba is fairly centrally located in a BIG freaking country.  They’re three time zones different from real time which makes for some strange mealtimes but they seem to eat a lot so its not that bad.  And they have these awesome cheese buns where the cheese is right inside a tiny little bun with the most wonderful crunchy crust.  And they seem to eat them pretty well non-stop all day, always fresh out of the oven.  And the coffee – oh man do they know how to make coffee.

Its winter here now but winter at 20 degrees of latitude isn’t all that bad for a kid from Saskatchewan.  I’ll post again with some pictures of the goofy looking bulls they raise here.  They’re not Zebu but that’s the only goofy cow name I can think of right now.  Its some name I had never heard of but one thing this trip is hammering into me is that there is a huge big world out there that has nothing to do with North America and is doing just fine anyway thank you very much.

We’re not completely disconnected from North America however.  The doberman – the very heavy set, muscular, vicious doberman – that guards the property at night is named Obama.  I think he has a better chance of getting elected the next president of the US than his more famous namesake but that’s a subject for another post too.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The circus to the south of us

If you or I keep going deeper and deeper into debt every year we’re eventually insolvent.  You might argue about when that becomes evident to the world but constantly increasing debt defines insolvency. 

The U.S. is insolvent.  Until they figure out how to turn that around they are a worse credit risk than they used to be.  Maybe they’ll inflate their way out of the problem.  It seems impossible that they will actually default but maybe they will on some portion of the debt.  Some of the debt is owed within the country to entitlement programs so if they cut the entitlements and don’t pay everything back that’s a de facto default in my opinion.  The bottom line is that they’re not as good a credit risk as they used to be.  They might still be a good bet compared with most countries in the world but they’re also clearly not as good as they used to be.

So it astounds me when I hear people say “we have to make a deal by Tuesday or risk a decline in our credit rating”.  It seems to me that ship has sailed and its already got a lot of miles under its keel.

The sad part of the whole mess is watching Obama being unpresidential.  He seems to think the election campaign is still on.  Rather than using the power and prestige of the office to advance compromise he seems intent on ramping up the rhetoric. 

On the other hand maybe its working for him.  I’ve got a good friend who keeps referring to the radical tea-party members who are being so “unreasonable”.  I guess that’s because they’re saying all sorts of silly things like “the US can’t pay its bills” and “you can’t tax your way to prosperity”. 

Here’s a little tidbit I included in an email to that aforementioned friend last night:

US Total Debt by Year

Sept 30, 1997


Sept 30, 1998


Sept 30, 1999


Sept 30, 2000


Sept 30, 2001


One of the common songsheets that the left likes to sing from is to blame Bush for the US debt and claim that he turned Clinton era surpluses into massive deficits.  Strangely enough those Clinton era “surpluses” still resulted in steadily increasing total federal debt.  As my father used to say, figures don’t lie but liars can figure.  Personally I think Bush was also responsible for the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Broke bus

It doesn’t matter which mode of transport we’re living in, there’s fixing to do.  Coming out of Alberta last Sunday we had a brake lockup.  Initially I blamed it on Prevost’s needlessly complicated system of relays which control the air to the tag axle but it turned out to be much simpler. 

The initial symptom was a vibration so we stopped to have a look, thinking that we had another wheel failure on the micro-truck.  The truck was still intact and we couldn’t see any problem with the bus.  I left my infrared thermometer on the boat so I was using my palm to gauge temperatures but nothing seemed out of line.  Maybe the thermometer would have detected what turned out to the be the problem.  There was a roadside rest area just ahead of where we were and I was already tired so it was easy to convince myself that we should stop for the night.  In the morning I had a good look at everything and couldn’t see any problems so we set out again.

All seemed well for about 50 miles and then the curbside tag locked up solid.  I was pretty quick to flip the switch that lifts the tags but not before we had scrubbed a hole in the bottom of the tag tire.  That’s only one of the many reasons why you don’t run good tires on the tag axle.  We ran with the tag lifted to Regina and then back to Swift Current before I could get a good look at the situation.  After initially blaming Prevost I eventually figured out that the inner bearing had piled up.  I have no idea why.  The bearings were all replaced not that long ago and there was oil in the cap when I took it off – maybe not as much oil as I would have expected but some of that likely ran out when the bearing piled up.  Whatever the cause it wasn’t something that I was going to be able to fix on the road so we sat in the campground in Swift Current with the bus looking very forlorn and then ran all the way to Buchanan yesterday with the tags raised.

Our little shack on the prairies didn’t look as bad as we remembered it – its no prize but its not as bad as it might be.  Last night I got the hub pried off so I could fully survey the damage and today I got the frenchmen working to send me the necessary parts.  They have a bad habit of sending parts to the wrong address so Marilyn is going to hound them while I’m away to try to ensure the parts are actually here when I get back.  I also have to wait until “John” gets back to the local machine shop to get the old bearing cut off the axle.  With a really good collar and a puller I might be able to pull the bearing but it would be a battle.  I’m not a sufficiently skilled torch-surgeon to cut the bearing off but I’ve seen it done enough times to know that such people exist.  Another nice thing about boats --- no tires, brakes or wheel bearings to give problems.

Yesterday I picked up a set of Brazilian Portuguese lessons.  I won’t be fluent or even functional but I would like to be able to say “Hi”, “Bye”, “Thank you” and “Bugger off” before I get on the plane.  Counting would be handy too.  It appears that the language is close enough to Spanish to confuse me and different enough to make my feeble Spanglish largely useless.

Yesterday I had a huge fight with our Hughesnet dish.  It had been offline for about 7 months which shouldn’t matter but clearly does.  Hughes is experiencing a steady loss of satellite internet customers due to the proliferation of 3G/4G cellular based internet services.  In order to keep their satellites loaded they are dropping transponders and moving the remaining customers to new transponders.  If that happens while the customer is online it is supposed to be invisible from the customer’s standpoint.  When it happens while the customer is offline it can create problems and I believe that is what happened to us.  Whatever the cause it took two calls to Galaxy support to get it all straightened out.  That’s not as bad an experience as some calls to support – Galaxy actually answers their phones and they are a small enough outfit that I got the same guy both times so I didn’t have to go through all the bullshit about mother’s maiden name and first cat’s favorite food in order to verify who I was.

Today its down to the wire packing for Brazil and teaching SWMBO how to do all the nasty stuff that I normally do to keep our lives livable. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011


We’ve been busy entertaining nieces and nephews so I haven’t been a very reliable poster.  It seems like a lifetime ago now but it was just Thursday morning when we woke up on Gray Hawk and then headed north to catch the early ferry out of Nanaimo.  I had some Growsafe business to do at the Brazilian consulate in downtown Vancouver and then we pointed the trucklet east.  All went relatively well except for one interminable parking lot around Abbotsford.  I don’t know how people live with that as a part of their daily lives but I certainly can understand how road rage happens.

When we arrived at the storage lot in Chilliwack Leonard wanted to visit.  I’ll miss him so I’ll have to make the effort to get back for the occasional visit.  I found him two years ago when we moved out to Chilliwack and I was looking for a place to store the cube van.  He had a little sign at the edge of his yard on the road up to Cultus Lake.  When I walked into his shop he was modifying a very tired New Holland forage harvester  in order to power it with a Ford 240 cu in 6 cylinder engine.  He eventually took the power harvester to Mexico where his winter landlord uses it to chop palm leaves into silage.  He calls it “feeding the dragon” and apparently two men with forks can’t keep up to the dragon’s appetite for palm leaves. 

When I heard what his plan for the machine was my first question was “how the hell do you plan to get it across the Mexican border?” and apparently I was correct in thinking it would be a challenge.  He gave up on hauling it across himself, hired somebody to haul it across and then they lost it.  It sounds like it took many weeks and threats of legal action to eventually locate what would be worthless scrap iron to pretty well anybody anywhere in North America. 

On Friday Leonard was in a visiting mood so Marilyn got to sit in the truck while he and I went over his and our winters.  He did confirm something that has been bothering me since we started trying to fish in the ocean.  When we fish walleye in northern Saskatchewan we use something called a bottom bouncer which is just a piece of heavy wire with a 90 degree bend roughly in the middle of it.  The line to your fishing rod attaches to the bend, your hook attaches on a long leader to one of the “legs” of the L shape and the other leg is weighted so that it will bounce on the bottom.  You lower it down until it touches bottom which leaves your lure streaming 10 or 12 inches above the bottom either in flowing water or while you are drifting.  Then you bounce it – hence the name.  I’ve asked several so-called salt water fishermen about bottom bouncers and so far nobody has heard of them but Leonard likes to fish in both Mexico and on the northern end of the Island and he uses bottom bouncers.  So now at least I’ve got a plan for whenever we get back out there this fall.

We spent the first part of this week entertaining Marilyn’s sister’s kids on the boat.  They came with us for a day of prawning, spent the night on the boat by Butchart Gardens and then we went crabbing.  They didn’t have licenses so we couldn’t fish but that didn’t much matter because we can’t really catch fish anyway.  The fireworks at Butchart were excellent and free.  We had no idea what to expect but had been told they were worthwhile.  We also had no idea where to tie up but as it turned out I don’t think we could have picked a better spot.  It was tricky anchoring though – the channel was rocky on the bottom so really hard to get a bite on and fairly deep.  By the time we got stern tied we were already closer to the shore than I wanted to be and then the asshole next to us arrived back on his derelict boat and informed me that we were blocking his view.  We had a few words during the course of which I refrained from telling him exactly what he should do with his attitude and eventually I pulled us back even closer to shore until the fireworks were over.  Since the fireworks were in the air (surprisingly!) I don’t think our position made a damn bit of difference which simply confirms my initial impression that he was just a drunken asshole.  But it seemed that advising him of that might not be immediately productive.  After the fireworks finished I slacked the stern lines and took in some anchor chain to move us back forward.  By morning we still ended up closer to the shoreline than I liked but no harm came of it.

Now we’re parked in Alison and Camiel’s yard west of Airdrie.  The frenchy-bus fired right up first try and all the systems appear to be working.  The biggest issue so far was one sticky padlock.  I have Master locks all keyed alike for the bay doors.  They get full of road salt in the winter and they just aren’t meant for that kind of service.  Its OK if you use them regularly and keep them lubed but when they sit for as long as they did this time its always a problem.  I might have been able to free this one up eventually with enough patience and PB50 but it was preventing access to the electrical bay and that meant I couldn’t switch the main power disconnect back on so eventually I resorted to bolt cutters to get into the bay.

As is often the case, we’ve got some busy days ahead of us.  Growsafe wants me to go to Brazil to do some initial installations for their systems in that country.  I’ve got my normal summer stack of Palliser files to pick up in Regina and Marilyn has several Sask. projects on the go.  The Brazil departure date is a moving target based on whenever the Brazilian consulate gets around to issuing a visa so its hard to plan at all.  Fortunately we consider 7 day plans “long term planning”.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Every so often you get REALLY REALLY lucky

When I’m tackling a project that is peripherally or directly related to electricity the good elf on my shoulder often whispers “you need to disconnect that wire/shut off the breaker”.  Pesky bastard that he is, invariably I ignore him.  And about 75% of the time the project completes without incident.  Once in a while I get a shot of 110 volts up my arm or across a knuckle that reminds me why I need to be more careful about where I put a screwdriver.  And I’ve got a few wrenches with brands on them from inadvertent contact with a high DC current.

About a month ago now I replaced an alternator on the port engine.  When I was installing the new alternator it didn’t seem like it was properly aligned but I couldn’t see what I had done wrong.  I keep checking on it and it was working but I still wasn’t happy with the way the belt was running and last week I figured out why.  When I changed the diapers under that engine I found a little bit of pipe cut to act as a spacer and immediately realized that it had fallen when I took off the old alternator and was in fact the reason that the new one wasn’t perfectly aligned.  So today I got busy and removed the alternator so I could install this little bit of pipe on the mounting bracket.  Clearly not a project where a real man would need to disconnect the batteries.

Once I got the alternator free and checked the bracket I decided that it needed some 32 oz. adjustments.  (for those of you not familiar with that particular fine tuning method it is a very precise technique involving a 32 oz. or heavier hammer)  In the course of the adjustments the alternator fell from where I had carefully perched it so that I wouldn’t have to disconnect any of its wires.  On its way into the bilge I saw one teensy tiny little spark as the output touched ground and the field wire pulled out of its connector.  No biggie – I would have been happier if it hadn’t happened but no apparent damage. 

Then SWMBO started screeching from upstairs “THERE’S SMOKE COMING OUT OF THE VOLTAGE THING”.  I learned early in my amateur electronics career that smoke coming out of electrical things is never a good sign.  In fact my experience has been that it is universally terminal for the device in question.  By the time I got upstairs there was still a thread of smoke coming out of the panel so it smoked for a significant length of time.  I unplugged the ribbon connector, cursed my stupidity and returned to the dungeon to finish the alternator install all the while wondering how I was going to figure out exactly which bit of electronics in our extremely complex charging system I might have fried.

When I came back upstairs I reconnected the ribbon connector and everything seems to be working.  I still don’t believe that it is OK but so far I haven’t been able to find a real problem.  I’ve been obsessing about the display voltage – currently it appears to be floating the batteries at between 13.6 and 13.7 volts – but I don’t have a real baseline to compare that with.  The manual says it should float at 13.5 so its not a whole bunch different from that and it may in fact have been this way ever since December – I’ve just never watched it every five minutes.  Time will tell and the next time I have an option to disconnect something electrical I likely will.  The time after that ----- who knows?

We arrived back in Cow Bay the night before last around midnight.  We had dawdled on the dock in front of Anne’s house in Pender Harbour until around noon.  That got us to Nanaimo about 6:00 but slack at Dodd Narrows wasn’t until 8:00.  We ended up going through Dodd against about a 4 knot current around 7:00 and after that there weren’t a whole lot of good anchorages until we got so close to home that it didn’t make any sense to stop. 

We were getting so much entertainment off the VHF radio I didn’t really want to stop anyway.  In mid afternoon a woman called in a MAYDAY from inside a marina.  The coasties must get thoroughly fed up with the crap they have to listen to.  In this case they calmly asked her if maybe she had an anchor or dinghy that she could use to help herself and less than 10 minutes later she called back to say she was tied up at the dock.  They got another one in the early evening from a sailboat just outside of Nanaimo – they were becalmed.  There was a long pause before the coasties responded.  Then they asked “so there wouldn’t actually be anyone whose life is endangered by your situation would there?”

The best entertainment was a guy who called Comox Coast Guard in mid afternoon.  To his credit he didn’t call his problem a MAYDAY.  He was in something called Buccaneer Bay, which I haven’t bothered to find on the charts but which must be up near Comox.  Evidently he went into an anchorage on high tide, went too far up into the mud flats and then didn’t realize what he had done until his sailboat started to tip over on the ebbing tide.  He wanted a tow.  They chase the non-critical situations off to channel 83A and I didn’t bother following this one so I hadn’t heard any more when about an hour later there came another call to Comox Coast Guard.  This call was from another boater in the vicinity who asked the coasties “have you been following the situation here in Buccaneer Bay?”  They made some non-committal response and chased him up to 83A.

I thought this one sounded like it had legs so I followed them up to the new channel. The caller must have been anchored close by and evidently had taken his dinghy over to survey the situation. “You can’t get within 100 yards of this guy.  If anybody tries to tow him there’s going to be damage damage DAMAGE.  The best thing he can do is get busy and clean his bottom and wait for the high tide”.  It was pretty obvious the coasties were amused but they kept it professional and advised the new guy to talk to the stuck guy who was supposed to be monitoring 83A.  Nothing came of that but about 10 minutes later I heard the coasties on 16 telling stuck-guy that he wouldn’t likely get refloated until well after 8:00.  That wasn’t the news he wanted but evidently he had already called Sea-Tow so he was going to wait to see what they had to say.  By the sounds of it when they got there a tow truck would have been more useful than a tow boat.

We will be leaving here in about a week and I won’t miss the crap on the radio any more than I will miss the increasingly crowded waters.  We used to love being in the Shuswaps until about the time the Calgary Stampede wrapped up.  Then all the yahoos moved out to the BC interior and ripped up the peaceful water for the next 4 weeks.  It seems like a few of them also move out here to the left coast and create their particular brand of mayhem on these waters as well.