Sunday, January 27, 2019

Spanish Lessons: I Study, and Doug Learns

I have a new admiration for our Colombian friend, Luis, who was Doug's college roommate. Just three months before starting classes at Michigan Tech University, he took intensive training to learn English. Not only did he have to master a new language while pursing an engineering degree, but he had to hang out with a roommate who in Luis' words, "seemed to learn things by osmosis ... there was no studying involved". During the past two weeks we have begun our formal Spanish lessons, and I too, have come to the conclusion that ...

I Study, and Doug Learns!

I have read through a few "Spanish For Dummies"  books, taken lengthy notes, and religiously completed at least three Duolingo lessons a day for the past three years in the hopes of at least being able get through the basics here in Colombia. Doug's best "study" mode is depicted in the picture below.  The Colombian music video channel is giving him the listening practice that he needs.

Our goal for this extended stay in Colombia is to become more proficient at listening to and speaking Spanish. While our Spanish is bound to improve just by doing some of the usual "tourist" activities, we are putting a emphasis on taking classes while we are in Medellin. We tried out two educational methods ... formal classes and a private tutor ... during the last two weeks to see what would be the best fit for us. Here is our review of both methods.

Formal Classes at Toucan Spanish School

Toucan Spanish School claims to be Colombia's leader in immersive Spanish lessons. "You Can At Toucan" is their motto. They offer daily four hour classes from beginner to advanced levels as well as private tutor sessions. In addition to the classes, they offer cultural activities to help students practice their Spanish skills. Activities such as a welcome luncheon with traditional Colombian food, salsa dance lessons, cultural talks, and language exchanges help students practice what they have learned while meeting new friends.

The welcome luncheon featured a variation of "Bandeja Paisa",
a traditional Medellin dish. This one consisted of chicken, rice, beans,
plantains, and an arepa (Colombian bread that is all the rage here).

The Toucan staff determines your placement level based on a computer test. On the first day of classes, we found ourselves in separate classrooms. No problem until I discovered that my ability to read Spanish (and make good guesses) had put me in a level that was way over my head. At Toucan, as with most Spanish programs, classes are conducted totally in Spanish ... No. English. Allowed. I quickly figured out that my ability to understand and speak Spanish was not going to allow me to get past the polite introductions. It was a loooong first hour, but I was able to get into a more appropriate level during the class break time.

This change took me from the level 7 class into Doug's level 4 class. I quickly knew that our instructor, Vanessa possessed the right amount of clarity, patience, and enthusiasm to get her point across. Her organized sentence structures when teaching us about direct and indirect objects reminded me of my favorite eighth grade English teacher. Our class consisted of four students, but because of some more shifting around, we ended up with just Doug and me on the last day of class.

Toucan also hosts a language exchange three evenings a week from 6 to 8 pm in their coffee house. During this time we rotate between speaking Spanish and English with whomever may be sitting at our table. We dropped in a couple of times and found ourselves "conversing" with a mix of native Spanish speakers as well as visitors from around the world. It surprised me how many Medellin "locals" come regularly to the language exchange in order to practice their English with visitors to their town.

Our group one evening represented
Colombia, England, Poland, and the United States!

Private Spanish Lessons

Some friends that we met here in Medellin talked highly about the private Spanish tutors that they were working with through Easy Spanish. We decided to give that program a try the following week. 

Even though he has done about half the studying that I had done over the past few years, Doug and I are pretty much at the same Spanish level. The "couples" lessons with our tutor, Lucas, worked well for us. He met us at our apartment for two hours a day and went through the lesson plans that were sent to us via email. Once again, total Spanish was spoken during the session, but with our Google Translate apps, we could figure out new words and phrases when we had questions.

One of the days we had a "conversational" lesson in which we just talked about everyday happenings ... in Spanish. From the picture card shown above (somehow I know we were at an "elementary" level in our lessons), we talked about waking up (me despierto), taking a shower (me ducho) and making coffee (Doug hace el cafe ... and oh, what wonderful Colombian coffee it is). We talked about simple but important stuff ... like ordering food in a restaurant ... and learned about some of the local nuances that we may experience while eating out.

Two weeks of lessons ... Two different styles
The Pros and Cons

While it was evident that ...
I study,

... and Doug learns,

... we decided that each program had its pros and cons, and we would like to share our thoughts with you.

Toucan Spanish School:


  • A well-defined program and course progression
  • Many opportunities to meet other people
  • More time to cover more material with the four hour classes
  • A more traditional classroom setting with worksheets, homework, and oral exercises


  • Less flexibility with class times
  • Work at the pace that is set by the whole class
  • Four hours of listening, speaking, and learning Spanish can be very taxing on these old brains of ours

Private Lessons


  • More time to practice conversational topics of interest to us
  • Flexible scheduling
  • Lessons can be directed to address skills that we want to work on
  • The "conversation" lesson seemed very helpful and gave us more confidence to get out and explore our surroundings


  • Less defined program and natural progression
  • The power-points didn't seem to explain topics as clearly as the classroom handouts and lectures at Toucan
  • The class was just us, so we don't get the opportunity to meet new people

And then there is one of the most important considerations ...

The Cost of the Classes

Toucan Spanish School's weekly tuition is 575,000 Colombian pesos a week for 20 hours of instruction which translates to $182 USD or $9.10/hour per person or $18.20/hour for the two of us. The 20 hours has to be done over a week ... Monday - Friday

Private Lesson prices can vary, but ours came out to be 525,000 Colombian pesos for 10 hours of instruction (the "couples" rate) which translates to $166 USD or $16.60/hour for the two of us. The 10 hours can be used in a week or spread out over a period of time of your choosing.

About the same amount of money ...
Decisions, decisions

While sitting at a lovely cafe overlooking the quaint town square of Sabaneta, we discussed our Spanish lesson experiences. It was helpful to experience both methods of learning over the past two weeks. Over a glass of Club Colombia Negra (my new favorite Colombian craft beer), we discussed and formulated a plan would provide the best learning opportunities for us while still giving us some flexibility to explore this beautiful area around us.

We have decided to take classes at Toucan every other week in order to really solidify the "basics" of Spanish. During our "off" week, we will have a couple of private "conversational" lessons with our Easy Spanish private tutor in order to improve on our listening and speaking skills while exploring some of Medellin's parks, restaurants, and museums.

 We enjoyed our tour last week of
El Castillo Museo y Jardines, but understanding what
the guide was saying in Spanish ... not so good!

I will continue to study ... and we both will continue to learn about all the beauty that surrounds us in the language and the culture of Medellin.

Until next time ... study just a little and always learn a lot ... while you enjoy the adventures in your life!

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Our Colombian Adventures: First Impressions

This fragrant white gardenia (thanks to my friend, Mary who helped me identify it) greeted us from our patio garden as we arrived at our apartment in Medellin, Colombia last week. The "City of Eternal Spring" will be our home for the next four months as we work to improve our Spanish while getting comfortable spending time in a foreign country. With twelve hours of sunlight year round and an average daily high temp of 80 degrees, Medellin is a pretty comfortable place to hang out for the winter. We spent our first week learning the basics of our surroundings. Our first impressions reassure us that while we have a lot to learn, Medellin is going to be a great place to figure it out!

We rented a small apartment through Airbnb in one of the nicest areas of Medellin, the commune of El Poblado. With tall apartment complexes everywhere we look, it appears to us that this is the way that the locals live. Our secure complex has a pool, sauna, and exercise room. It is walking distance to a grocery store, two major shopping malls, many restaurants, and the Metro station that can get us easily to most other parts of the city. Our apartment is not much bigger than the Wildebeest was, but it has all the comforts of "home".

I have to admit that I was just a little bit apprehensive when we arrived here week and a half ago.

I had (and still have) plenty of "What if" and "How do we" questions. 

What if our minimal Spanish isn't enough to get us by?
How do we learn the basic things that we need to know in order live and get around in a foreign country?
What if we really don't like this new and different lifestyle?

Successfully finding, ordering, and paying for dinner the evening that we arrived and finding a comforting cup of Colombian coffee the following morning provided the initial reassurance that I needed. And Doug's constant reassurance that "we can do this" helps also! While I am sure that we will have lots to learn, here are some of our first impressions that reassure me that ... at this moment ... we have made the right decision.

We were welcomed by the neighborhood "dog-squad" as they
patiently waited for their hired human "walker" to take them out.

The neighborhood "art" promotes an active
lifestyle and provides a daily reminder
of our skate-board loving sons!

A trip to the market provided the fresh ingredients to
create a delicious chicken salad complete
with locally grown avocado, mango, papaya, and greens.

Our new healthier "snacks" ...
platano, papaya, granadilla, mango, mangostino and murrapo.
All this for under $5!

The Medellin Metro system ...
We can get just about anywhere once Doug figures out how to get
the Metro Civica passes that will help us avoid long ticket lines.

Many great "people watching" opportunities
at the Malls. We loved the excitement of the 
children playing in the Colombian "snow"!

Lunch at an outdoor cafe along with Doug's favorite
guanabana juice came to only $23 including tip.
Restaurants are very reasonably priced, so eating out
is becoming the norm as we try all the local specialties.

During our first Sunday Mass at the local church we 
realized that Colombians speak very fast.
It's going to take some practice to understand the priest's sermon,
but not surprisingly, Mass only lasted 40 minutes.

Embracing "Ciclovia" as we walk amongst the joggers and bicyclists
on one of the main roads, Avenido Poblado which is
closed to vehicular traffic every Sunday from 7 am to 1 pm.

It was good to try to figure out our new hometown by ourselves
for the first few days. But we are always happy to meet up with
friends, Luis and Piedad when they are in town. They introduced
us to local shops, restaurants, and brews this past weekend.

After some initial apprehension, we have experienced great first impressions of our new home for the next four months. Medellin is a large city that offers an engaging environment in which we can improve our Spanish while immersing ourselves in the local culture. Yes, we have a lot to learn ... and we are in a beautiful locale for the lessons to begin. Thanks for following along. As always, we look forward to your comments.

Until next time ... Be impressed by all the beauty that surrounds you ... and enjoy the adventures in your life!

Next up: Formal Spanish lessons begin! Why didn't I pay better attention during Spanish class in high school??!!

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Family Time and Trip Preparations From Our Parent's Porch

After we sold the Wildebeest in mid December, we needed a place to hang out for a few weeks. Now, what could have been a parent's worst nightmare ... that their kids are moving back in again ... turned out to be a win-win situation for all as we enjoyed family time during the Holidays. We were able to get our Colombian trip preparation done, and Doug's parents made use of Doug's "fix it" skills and my obsessive nature to ...

... straighten out cupboards and closets and cabinets! My mother-in-law just smiled and promised to keep the Tupperware stacked neatly until I left the country ;-) 

A leaky drain pipe ...

... turned out to be ONLY a
"two trips to the hardware store" project!

Their front porch became the "sales floor" as Doug put numerous ads out on Craigslist in order to sell some of the RV items that we will not need or have room for when we downsize next spring. We said a bittersweet "good-bye" to our folding bikes. They have served us well during the last four years, but we look forward to hopefully replacing them with smaller Bromptons next summer.

We also said "good-bye" to our Honda CRV after finalizing that sale a few days before we left for Colombia. Although we appear to be smiling, it felt quite strange to suddenly find ourselves without any "wheels" of our own. And from our parent's prospective, not only had the kids moved back in, but they were also asking to borrow the car again!

But as is their kind nature, Mom and Dad are just happy to hang out with us and discuss our current plans (and sometimes the current events of our country ... oh, help us) over a good cup of coffee.

Three weeks of unpacking, selling, donating, storing, and repacking brought us to this exciting moment. All the "stuff" that we will need for four months in Colombia packed away in these four bags ... a very good test to see how little we will need when in our future Class B camper van.

And speaking of camper vans, one of our last "projects" before leaving for Colombia was to check out General RV Center located about ten miles away in Ocala. After talking to the dealer, we took the plunge and ordered our Aktiv 1.0 to be ready for us to pick up when we get back at the beginning of May.

I have the feeling that everyone ... Mom and Dad included ... will "Bee Happy" that we will have a home once again!

Until next time ... Appreciate those "Ma and Pa" moments and memories ... and enjoy the adventures in your life!

Friday, January 4, 2019

That's Just the Kind of Friend Dave Is!

We love it when Doug's friend Dave plans a vacation in the area where we happen to be. In the past few years, we have enjoyed exploring the Florida Keys, Tampa, Destin, and San Diego with him. Following his motto of "at least three activities a day", our days are filled with fun times while exploring interesting parks, beaches, and local attractions. That's just the kind of friend Dave is!

Bring on the sun and the fun!

A visit from Dave means that we need to be ready for anything. Little did Dave realize that during his December trip to Ormond Beach, Florida, that he needed to also be ready for anything ... as he became a valuable part of our "moving crew".

It had been a stressful couple of weeks for us ... as we made the decision to sell the Wildebeest. Ads were placed on Craigslist and RVTrader resulted in various inquires. Unfortunately the majority of these inquires came from "questionable" parties trying to make a quick buck.

Arriving at Gamble Rogers State Park, we were looking forward to taking a short break from the hassles associated with selling an RV and were ready to enjoy Dave's visit which would certainly include lots of beach time. But three days before his arrival, we got our first "legit" inquiry from a possible buyer. Donny and Doug had been in communication a few times previously, and now he wanted to fly down to check our RV out at the end of the week.

At that point we probably should have been more optimistic that
the sale would go through and started packing up our belongings ...
but we just said a quick prayer and decided to take a beach walk instead.

 Dave arrived Thursday, and we quickly got into the "three activities a day" vacation mode, because that's just the kind of friend Dave is! First stop ... Blue Springs State Park, the winter home of the manatees.

Activity #1 - A walk along the board walk ...

... that gave us some spectacular views of hundreds of
manatees hanging out near the warm spring.

Activity #2 - A canoe ride ...
... that brought us up close and personal
with these beautiful creatures!

Activity #3 - A stop at the World's Most Famous Beach ...

... and a walk on the Daytona Beach pier.

Our prospective buyer was scheduled to arrive on Friday. With rain in the forecast, we got going early.

Activity #1 - A walk in the woods ...
happy that the native gods were smiling on us
by keeping the rain away so far.

Activity #2 - A beach walk along Flagler Beach.

Little did Dave know that Activity #3 would involve "not so typical" vacation fun. The prospective buyers, Donny and his daughter, Karen arrived a little after 1 pm just as it started raining. Tours commenced of the inside and outside of the RV. A test drive (in the now steady rain) resulted in an agreement of a sale price and a trip to the local DMV to sign the title over.

Which brings us to Dave's Activity #3 ...

The Wildebeest's new owners were excited about their purchase, and wanted to get on the road ASAP to start back home. By this time the sun was setting and the rain was pelting down ... and true to form, Dave sprung into action helping Donny return their rental car as Doug and I frantically packed up all our belongings.

No time to think about renting a U-Haul ... all our worldly belongings would have to fit into our two cars and be transported to the hotel on Ormond Beach where Dave was staying. What followed is 

The greatest packing feat ever accomplished by two engineers! 

Doug and Dave managed to fit all our worldly possessions into Dave's rental car and our Honda CRV. Donny, a truck driver who is used to driving at night and in heavy rain, drove off shortly after 6 pm. I had mixed emotions of sadness and relief as the Wildebeest headed north towards her new home in Maryland. It's been fun, but I know in my heart that we are ready for something new.
Meanwhile, my heroes were drenched, exhausted and starving. Time reward them with ...

Activity #4 - Dinner, a Dew for Dave, and a craft beer for Doug
while planning for the remaining days of Dave's visit.

We found a room at the hotel where Dave was staying and were prepared to unload the stash from both cars into our room. Our plan was to rent a U-Haul to get our belongings back to Doug's parents after Dave's vacation was done. But our plan was not going to hold with Dave. He insisted that we leave the cars packed and drive them both to Ocala the next morning, unload them at Doug's parent's home, drive back to Ormond Beach, and continue with our "vacation" ... that's just the kind of friend Dave is.

Sunrise on the beach before more rain moved in.

Since Saturday started out on the rainy side, we felt a little less guilty about taking away from Dave's "sunshine time" by driving to Ocala ... not that he would have even cared ... that's just the kind of friend Dave is! 

After unloading the cars (Activity #1),
the boys took a golf cart tour of the
On Top Of The World Communities ...
... while I tried to figure out how we still had
So. Much. Stuff.

On our way back to Ormond Beach, we stopped at Silver Spring State Park to get in Dave's other required daily activities.

Viewing the springs from a glass-bottom boat,
followed by a walk through the park
made even longer by having to retrace our steps
back when we found that the loop trail had flooded.

Grateful for all Dave's help, we hoped to make sure that his last three days in Florida were jam-packed full of fun exploring. I think that we succeeded.

Daytona Beach and Ponce Inlet Lighthouse

Activity # 1 - Tour of the Daytona Speedway

Ready to race your Porsche
around the track, Dave?

Fun Fact: Dave's home state of Michigan has the
most lighthouses ... we are glad that he
chose to explore one in Florida as Activity #2.

203 steps to the top ...
Doug wants extra credit for this activity!

A walk to the Ponce Inlet Jetty and back along the beach
rounded up our three activity day.

St Augustine Lighthouse, The City of St Augustine, and Anastasia State Park

A road trip north to St Augustine
brought us to Florida Lighthouse #2.
Climbing its 219 steps to the top
was a fun Activity #1 for the day.

St Augustine lays claim to being the oldest city in the U.S.
A walk around Castillo de San Marcos ...

... and through the cobblestone streets to the oldest house
in St Augustine gave us a historical Activity #2.

A beach walk on Anastasia State Park
nicely finished up our three activity day!

Canaveral National Seashore and New Smyrna Beach

Up early to catch the sunrise over Canaveral National Seashore ...

... and hopefully catch a scheduled NASA launch.
Fingers crossed for this perfectly timed Activity #1!

Alas ... the launch was scrapped at the last minute.
The hundreds of spectators, like these gulls, quickly scattered,
so we had the beach all to ourselves for Activity #2 ...
a beach walk and search for seashells.

Knowing that his beach time was coming to an end,
we went to New Smyrna Beach for Activity #3 ...

... enjoying another view of Ponce Inlet Lighthouse
across the channel.

Seeming to know that it was Dave's last beach day,
the dolphins gave him a farewell performance.

We are so grateful for the ways that Dave used his "vacation" to help us out with the stress of moving out of the Wildebeest ... and renew our spirits with a few days of fun at the beach!

But ... That's Just the Kind of Friend Dave Is! 

Until next time ... Make it a fun Three Activity Day ... and enjoy the adventures in your life!