Learning a Language

There are a variety of ways to learn a language which include taking classes, using websites, using learning software, or getting a pen pal to practice writing or speaking with. Despite these options, they say that the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it by spending some time in a place that only speaks that language. This would force you to learn the language or perish.

Asa, Matt and I all took Spanish classes during high school which taught us some basic vocabulary and how to conjugate verbs. As these experiences were about 10 years ago, we quickly found that we had forgotten a substantial amount of what we learned. Really learning a language requires constant exposure to it.

When we decided to move to Uruguay, the first thing I did was start working on learning Spanish again. The first place I turned was the internet. There are several free “learn Spanish” websites of varying degrees of helpfulness. My favorite is: http://www.spanishdict.com/learn. It has a variety of really cool learning tools including: flashcards, matching, spelling, and speaking exercises, and videos describing language concepts and vocabulary. The website also tracks your progress through four different levels and you always have access to their dictionary and phrasebooks. I really enjoy the website, but it’s a bit difficult to watch the videos and do the exercises when the internet connection is slow.

A very new website (set to go public June 19) designed to help people learn languages is http://duolingo.com. It is designed by the same group that created the reCAPTCHA system that helps digitize old books by having consumers decipher text that computers cannot. Duolingo is an internet program that helps people learn languages (just Spanish and German currently) through exercises and translations. The text available for translation is actually real snippets of text taken from the internet. One goal of the inventors is to make the internet more accessible to the world-wide population via translation into a variety of languages. Studies have shown that their design is equally effective in teaching language as other well-tested software products (like Rosetta Stone). Another highlight of Duolingo is that they have gamified their product, allowing people to gain points and compete against their friends while they learn. Here is a TED talk describing the creation and purpose of Duolingo and reCAPTCHAs. I really like Duolingo. It is fun and I feel like I am doing something good while I am learning!

The second place I turned was more traditional language learning software, specifically, Rosetta Stone. My mother had purchased level 1 Spanish years ago which I promptly borrowed. Rosetta stone uses a visual recognition system to help people learn languages. For example it will show you a picture of an apple and tell you what the word for apple is in Spanish. The program then builds on your knowledge of the word for apple to teach other words. For example it will show a photo of 5 apples and 3 oranges. In this way a person can also learn the number 5 because they already know the word for apple. The program uses a variety of exercises including matching photos to written words, matching spoken words to photos, practicing pronunciation, practicing spelling, and requiring participants to verbally describe photos. Rosetta does a great job with its voice processing software. I really like using Rosetta stone for its work on verbal skills which are often ignored in other beginner classes. It also does a good job with reinforcing concepts and vocabulary by requiring review and learning concepts through a variety of the exercises.

The biggest downside to using Rosetta Stone is the cost. The company does not allow consumers to purchase individual levels besides level 1 (there are 5 levels available). Rosetta Stone offers packages that include the first three levels or all five levels. The cost for all 5 levels is normally $500 US (P.S. they are having a Father’s Day special right now and all 5 levels only cost $400 US). The first level by itself costs an insane $179 US. Sometimes these packages are a little cheaper from Amazon, but not all the time.

There are other language learning software programs that are much cheaper and claim to have the same results as Rosetta Stone. One such program is called Instant Immersion and I haven’t tried it. The only reason I know about it is that they sell it at Costco and online in a yellow box deceptively similar to Rosetta Stone.

The third place I turned to explore Spanish learning was by utilizing a pen pal. I started writing letters in Spanish to a friend who speaks Spanish fluently. It was wonderful until I got busy and stopped writing. There are numerous websites that specialize in connecting people that want to practice their language skills. One such website can be found here. One of the benefits of these websites is that they can connect you with a native speaker in the language you want to learn, where that native speaker reciprocally wants to learn your native language. During verbal practice, they recommend splitting the time speaking in each language so that each person gets practice. Some websites/services will even provide speaking prompts so that you don’t even have to think of topics to talk about. Other services such as SKYPE can be used as a free way to contact people once you have found them. You can even video chat if you have the equipment. I haven’t actually used any of these internet services (besides Skype), but I really like the idea!

The last thing to do was to actually move to a Spanish speaking country. Check!

I currently go to an hour long spanish lesson once a week. It is a one-on-one session with a native speaker and it costs me $10US an hour. The whole lesson is in spanish unless I have specific questions about vocabulary translations. The lessons are arranged such that we spend about half the time chatting about life and practice using specific words, tenses, or grammar. The rest of the time is spent doing exercises that practice vocabulary, verb conjugation, or speaking skills. I am thoroughly enjoying myself!

Stay tuned later in the week for our spanish speaking experiences here in Uruguay.

Preparing to Live in Uruguay

Getting rid of your stuff is hard.

It takes a lot more time to go pretty close to minimalist than you might think. Once I made the decision to move and started to learn more about mnimalism, I had four main realizations:

  1. I had a lot of stuff (just look at about half of the books I own above)
  2. I had to get rid of 90% of it
  3. I didn’t want to get rid of it
  4.  I had to fit it all in 2 suitcases and 1 backpack

Having way more stuff than needed

At a quick glance, I had: three closets worth of clothes, sports equipment, multiple computers, monitors, a ton of books, random trinkets, and more “stuff” that just took up space. A few girls were even jealous that I had three closets of clothes. What can I say? I liked them.

There was no way I was going to bring even half of it with me. I had to sell, donate, or trash a bunch of stuff so I decided to learn minimalism.

It was quite easy to make the decision to go minimalist, but it was a lot harder to figure out what to get rid of and what to keep. My biggest struggles were figuring out what clothes I was going to bring.

I had to bring enough clothes for:

  • Ultimate Frisbee
  • Summer
  • Winter
  • The beach (ultimate clothes)
  • Learning to dance (business casual)
  • Networking (business casual?)

Minimalism doesn’t mean bringing it all.

As much as I wanted to bring a shipping container down with me, I needed to maximize the use of every item in my wardrobe. Asa wrote a post about his preparation and how he tries to maximize his wardrobe here.

I’m not a hoarder by any means, but I liked the stuff that I had. I wanted to keep everything!

Just in Case

Luckily, as I was trying to figure out what to bring, a good friend told me that Joshua and Ryan from The Minimalists were touring around and having a meetup in Atlanta. I checked out their site and really liked the essays that I read so I decided to check it out with him and some friends.

Over drinks and dinner, the group talked about different ways to pair down items, what they have learned, and various questions asked by people there.

I asked them about what to do about bringing just in case items. Just in case items are things like bringing a suit just in case I can network and possibly do some work for companies down here. They basically said that whatever just in case items I might need, I could find withing 20 minutes for $20. You can read their excellent post about it here.

Make it a Game

I decided I needed to start making decisions and deciding what to bring and what not to bring. I turned it into a game to try and only own 50 items including laptop, video and point-and-shoot camera, and Ultimate Frisbee stuff. I knew I wouldn’t make it that low, but I aimed for it.

I love playing games, so it helped me get rid of stuff.

I wanted to fit everything I owned in only a backpack and 2 suitcases. In order to replace a few things at once, I started buying more things that would replace 2 or more items. For example, I bought a patagonia backpack to replace my Ultimate Frisbee bag and computer backpack. This saved a bunch of room. I bought a pair of Patagonia Maui Air loafers to replace a few different pairs of shoes that I wanted to bring. It also doesn’t hurt that they are the most comfortable shoes I’ve owned.

After all the time spent getting rid of the car, truck, sports gear, and clothes, I actually had a little extra room in my suitcase.

Giving Away More

I was able to bring a bunch of Spin Ultimate gear thanks to the amazing people at Spin for Asa, Randi, and myself to give away to people down here who might not have jerseys or to include in tournament prizes as long as we take pictures of the stuff and people wearing it. I weighed my bags, had to move a few things around to get both bags under 50 lbs, and was good to go.

A Helping Hand

I’m extremely thankful of my roommate, friends, and family for helping me get rid of stuff and deal with a few more items that I left behind and didn’t get rid of. As my usual self, I waited until pretty close to the last minute and had a lot more stuff than I initially thought.

Looking at what I have now, I would be comfortable in any scenario and feel like the shackles have been removed from me by getting rid of stuff.

It’s a pretty awesome feeling!

If you ever feel like you have too much or you keep acquiring stuff, I recommend spending an hour or two and cleaning out your closet or a room in your house. Aim to donate or sell one giant trash bag worth of clothes or items that are sitting around. It’s a freeing experience!

Pets Adjust To Their New Home

I know a lot of pet lovers out there that worry about their pets. Sometimes pets seem like children. We worry about them; we want them to be well taken care of. We don’t want them to be sad or to miss us while we’re gone regardless of the time-span. So traveling for long periods of time can be stressful for pet owners.

The first thing to think about is who you trust with your pets and who would want to keep your pets for the length of your traveling. For us there was only one option: parents! I mean really, what other suckers will take in a dog (Cattle Dog) and cat (Crazy Cat) for 6 months and love them as they would their own. Luckily, we have been able to stay with my parents for more than a month to help with the adjustment.

This brings me to the zoo. My parents already have a dog (Big White Dog) and a cat (Old Man Cat). Bringing our pets into the mix has resulted in quite a few changes around the house.

1. The house erupts in barking whenever anyone thinks about walking near the house, a dog hears a strange noise, or someone knocks on the door. Cattle Dog isn’t used to barking at people outside windows, but she very willingly joins in the ruckus.

2. The cat food can no longer be kept on the floor. The Big White Dog is terrified of clanking sounds that dishes make, so it was safe to keep the Old Man Cat food in a little bowl on the tile floor. Big White Dog wouldn’t go within 5 feet of it. Cattle Dog, the newcomer, doesn’t have any qualms about noise so the food had to be moved.

3. Exercise needs to be coordinated. People cannot be outnumbered by dogs, especially not these dogs. Cattle Dog is a born herding dog. She will herd other dogs, people, bicycles, horses, cats, and really anything else that moves in an effort to exhibit how good her genetics are. She needs to be watched with at least two eyes.

4. Food no longer flows from the table into the Big White Dog’s mouth (much to her disappointment). Cattle Dog doesn’t get much human food and the small scraps she does get come from the kitchen. This has been the hardest adjustment for the parents. We keep telling them that those big brown eyes are lying.

5. Big White Dog has become much more active (although part of this might be the 20+ glucosamine pills she found on the floor, care of Crazy Cat knocking them off the shelf). The two dogs have become playmates; they may even become besties while we’re gone.

6. Old Man Cat is angry. He is set in his ways and doesn’t appreciate Cattle Dog’s herding efforts. He has taken up residence under the parents’ bed and sneaks outside under the cover of darkness. Hopefully he’ll join the rest of the family soon.

Here are some pictures to sum up the dogs’ behavior. Big White Dog sits and watches while Cattle Dog wants to play (always!).

Preparation: A Whole New Beast

The longest trip away from home that I ever took lasted about 2 months. I don’t remember doing anything special. I stuffed all my clothes in a backpack and went. I didn’t have trip insurance, I didn’t look into special health care options, I didn’t cancel my mail or sell my car, I didn’t worry about how to get money, and I certainly didn’t try to learn any new languages. This trip is a whole new beast.

Below is an account of only some of the organizational things we have thought of in preparation for our trip:

Permanent residence: We do not own a house and I imagine there are very few reasons why someone would be compelled to maintain two rentals simultaneously. So we moved out of our rental house. Our nearest family lives in an adjacent state. Graciously, we were allowed to store the aftermath of our minimalist endeavors in their garage. We changed our permanent residence to match the location of our stuff. Some things we had to consider were: Change of addresses (U.S. Postal Service can be done online for a $1 fee and they will forward your mail for up to a year), driver’s licenses (A note from a family member confirming that we were actually moving in and two bills in their name seemed to be sufficient), voter registration (can be done at the DMV), and car registration (we decided that selling our cars would be a better option).

Health Insurance: It turns out that health insurance must match the state in which you are a permanent resident, so we had to make some changes. We enlisted the help of a health insurance agent who was certified through a variety of agencies. He was able to put together various quotes for different policies and look into policies that specialize in international travel (without any success). European health care is familiar with insurance companies in the United States, but we were told all bets were off in other areas of the world (i.e. the ones we’ll be visiting). We will probably have to pay up front for any medical care and file claims with our insurance later. We are currently looking into additional trip insurance with a medical evacuation rider in case we need to get back to the states in an emergency.

Money: ATM fees, international credit card fees, international bank fees? We are currently undecided as to the best and cheapest way to get our money abroad. We have been told from other reliable world travelers that getting as much cash out of an ATM at a time and doing this as infrequently as possible is a good way to keep a handle on fees. Also we’ve been told to avoid using credit cards because the fees are really high, although at this point it’s just hearsay. Also, if you are going to order currency prior to your trip you can do so through your local bank, but it could take up to two weeks for “unpopular” countries.

Again, these are just a few of the things that we’ve thought of before our trip. There are numerous other things that we have either thought of and dismissed, or haven’t thought of and will come back to haunt us in one way or another.

A step towards Minimalism

This trip has really gotten all of us thinking about our possessions. Mostly about how we have so many of them. The separation of us from our possessions was a necessary part of our trip, but we’ve met the task with varying levels of enthusiasm. Miranda and I downsized from a three bedroom place to a one bedroom place. Along the way the reality is that there are plenty of family treasures and prized items, everything from trophies to stuffed animals to high school yearbooks, that have been sold, donated or discarded. Almost everything we decided to keep is now in storage and we’re living out of our car. (As an aside, pets take up a lot of space in a car.)

For me, the whole experience has been cathartic. It was hard identifying the cruft from items we really did need. We got more than a few cock-eyed looks as we sold and eventually junked tools that were perfectly good. When it comes down to it we don’t need 6 wrenches or pliers or screwdrivers that are all the same size. I found myself saying, on more than one occasion, “I know they’re good and I’m selling them anyway. Go ahead and take them if you really need them! Please!” I hate junking things but if no one needs them we’re wasting resources by carting them around.

I’m really enjoying having only a few possessions and, at least for the time being, not having a house. The only part I don’t like is that I don’t get to see much of the fruits of our labors because we’ve moved in with Miranda’s parents for a bit until we leave for Uruguay, so I can’t see the fruits (or lack of fruits) of our labor.

The next step in the process is probably the hardest and really the key to making the reduction worthwhile. That is not refilling our coffers with junk. Focussing on the closet for starters, there was a timely ad on patagonia.com‘s front page (related blog post). The cliff notes are: strive to reduce, repair, reuse and recycle in that order. First step, don’t buy stuff you don’t really need. Second, don’t buy stuff when you can repair the old item. Third, if you really want to get rid of it let someone else use it (eBay, donate, garage sale). Fourth and finally, recycle the old stuff and keep it out of the landfill. The take away for me is, now that I’ve downsized my wardrobe I want to make sure that I don’t grow it again for no reason. I get a lot of teasing for my attempts to perfect my wardrobe but at least any time I buy something I get rid of something else. In this way, I don’t tend to accumulate a whole lot of junk in a dresser or in a box stashed away for the one day I might want to use it (that day doesn’t tend to come anyway). I suppose, that puts me somewhere in the middle of reuse and recycle. I could do a little better there, but it’s a start.

Until next time, keep it simple.

TL;DR – Find and get rid of cruft. Don’t replace it. Rinse and Repeat with every facet of your life.

Our Journey Begins

Our journey really started early one Saturday morning. We had already moved out of our house, secured our furniture and belongings in my mother-in-law’s garage, and dealt with all the associated paperwork. We loaded our car while it drizzled. The dog came willingly; the cat was probably saying F you. Luckily they are both fairly good travelers. The dog usually observes… everything! When she gets tired she lays her head on one of the front seats and observes. The cat just stays quiet. Whether this behavior is the result of complete terror or apathy is unknown, and frankly, it doesn’t matter.

Asa drove. We managed to avoid the pothole on the freeway in town that claimed my hub cap last week, but after that I don’t remember much until I woke up in Alabama thinking I must be going crazy because the clock only said 9:15 AM. Oh time changes. Asa and I fortified ourselves with a stop for Hardee’s breakfast, switched drivers, and soldiered on. We had a good laugh when we passed Chunky, Mississippi and had a good time trying to guess the equipment being hauled by big rigs. We crossed the Mississippi River in the late afternoon with the sky as blue as the river. At the day’s close we found ourselves 100 miles into Texas at a La Quinta and walking to a nearby mexican restaurant for dinner.

Day two started by scraping a thin layer of ice off the windows of the car and trying to figure out the most efficient way to put things back in the trunk. Our only goal for the day was to make it out of Texas; a formidable task when one starts the day at mile marker 556 and there’s still 200 miles on another highway to make it out of the state. Luckily, the speed limit was 80 mph. It’s not surprising, considering that there’s nothing there. We passed through Dallas and Fort Worth which were pretty much the end of civilization as we know it and the beginning of small run down towns with cars on poles advertising long defunct garages. Just outside El Paso and Ciudad Juarez we began to see Border Patrol everywhere. Going the opposite direction they stopped and searched every vehicle. Our day ended with a half hour of meowing from the cat (we didn’t blame her; being stuck in a car carrier for 12 + hours can’t be a fun experience) and a sign saying “Welcome to New Mexico”.

By day three we had no desire to get in the car again, let alone drive the entire day. Also, the weather threw us a curveball, or should I say some snow flurries and 35 mph winds. As luck and planning would have it, we managed to avoid traveling on Highway 40 through Flagstaff and Albuquerque, which received enough snow to close down parts of the highway. Asa managed to keep the car going in a straight line at a good clip, although passing some of those 18 wheelers was a bit hairy. We made it to Tuscon in time for lunch and continued on. We saw more cops on the road this day than we had seen in the last two, most of them in Arizona. Asa drove for most of the day in an effort to conquer some demons from his past. Two of his friends died in a car accident on Highway 10 between Pheonix and Indio a couple years ago. They will always be missed.

Day three ended at the only place (or what felt like the only place) in the Indio/Palm Desert/Palm Springs area that allows pets without charging an arm and a leg. We walked to get Italian food and then crashed in our hotel room watching “The Blind Side”.

Day four started unexpectedly early (4 AM early) with the cat knocking change off the table, jumping on and off the bed, and being generally annoying. We tried various ways of silencing her until we decided that it might just be a good idea to get up and get on the road before we went crazy. Unfortunately, no matter how early in the morning one tries to get through Los Angeles and it’s associated suburbs, one always gets stuck in traffic. We played a little freeway hopscotch with the help of Asa’s IPhone and the carpool lane and made it out of the chaos before 8 AM. We made it to our destination a bit earlier than expected; safe and sound, and very tired.