Pimsleur Spanish Lessons

On December 1, I finished Duolingo Spanish, getting all lessons to gold. I was expecting a bit more payoff from the “gamification” in the app, but when I finished that last lesson, all it did was add a trophy to the bottom of the lesson list. No “Congratulations!” or special announcement at the end of the lesson. It treated it just like the end of any other lesson, returning to the lesson list with a little trophy at the bottom.

Duolingo helped me with vocab and grammar, and I can certainly read, write and speak slowly. But Duolingo does nothing to help you understand a native speaker. And that makes sense, since Duolingo’s business model is training people translate written documents.

My language teacher friends Curt and Bonnie told me about Pimsleur, which they said is the best audio-based language program they’ve seen. So when I finished Duolingo, I decided to try Pimsleur’s free lesson. I was hooked. The lesson begins with a short, full-speed native conversation, then spends a total of 30 minutes with the lesson. It is incredibly well done, using spaced repetition and recall to help you learn the language naturally.

It’s also really expensive—over $550 for all 5 levels, each with 30 lessons.

After doing some research, I discovered that Audible.com has all 5 levels, and are available for 5 membership credits for each level. So I just needed 25 credits to buy the whole set. Typically, a membership provides 1 credit per month for $14.95 a month, which would take a little over 2 years for a total cost of $373.75. That’s a good start, but I was ready to get started and a little impatient. I’m already an Audible member, and had 1 credit in my account. I found I could upgrade to an annual Platinum membership, which gives you 24 credits all at once, for just $229.50. When I did that, I was able to download all 5 levels, paying a total of $244.45—55% off Pimsleur’s discounted price.

Before I pulled the trigger, I did email Pimsleur directly and offer to pay $250 directly to them for the course, bypassing the middleman. But they declined, sending me the same coupon to buy it for $550. They did offer a “Flexi-Pay” option, which is basically free financing. I declined and bought it from Audible.com.

I’ve been studying almost every day with Pimsleur, and it’s really helped. I set aside 30 minutes right after breakfast, before I start my work day, and push through it. I’m already understanding more after just a few weeks.

Mexican Water System

Here in Chapala, I’m told the public water system doesn’t pump water 24 hours. So how is water pressure maintained in the house all day? A tinaco, or roof tank.

Often the tinaco just sits on the flat roof, but sometimes it is set on a little platform above the roof. The higher it is, the more water pressure there is in the home.

In our casa, municipal water flows into a small cistern in the ground, with a floater valve in it like a toilet tank. This cistern looks to be about 15 gallons or so. When the water gets low, it turns on a valve to the public water until the cistern is full again.

On our roof is a tinaco, a big 50-gallon water tank, with a similar valve.

There’s an electric pump in the wall that pulls water from the cistern into the tank on the roof.

When a faucet is turned on in the house, it simply uses gravity to push water through the faucet. That means that water pressure is higher in the first floor than the second. The higher the tinaco from the faucet, the higher the water pressure.

Varying Water Pressure

There’s an interesting phenomenon that first noticed within a few days of our arrival. Because the roof tank is fully enclosed, when the pump is pushing water into it the water pressure in the house increases dramatically. For some reason, the pump doesn’t run in the early morning, so showers before 8 am don’t have a lot of pressure. After that, it can be quite strong. I can’t find a timer on the pump, or see any other reason why it doesn’t pump sometimes. But I’ve just come to accept that a 6:30 am shower will be a little wimpy.

I also noticed that when you turn on the faucet, it starts with a bit of water pressure, which decays for a second or two, then jumps considerably when the pump kicks in to start refilling the tinaco.

When a Tinaco Drains Empty…

One morning, Angela got up to find no water pressure at all in our bathroom. She went downstairs to shower, but even there it was just a trickle. I checked the tank on the roof, and found it nearly empty. Apparently one of the toilet tank valves didn’t completely shut off, and the slow leak drained the roof tank. The pump apparently has an auto shut off, to prevent leaks from wasting water.

I flipped the electrical breaker to the pump, and it came back on. It only took a few minutes to fill the tank, and our water was back.

Ajijic Balloon Festival

Last weekend we went to watch some balloons launch. The Regatta de Globos, or Balloon Sailing Festival, opens fiesta season in Ajijic that lasts through Easter. It’s a popular event that draws large crowds, held on a football pitch in town.


Each of the several hundred balloons is made from tissue paper and white glue. It is filled with hot air to blow them up, then a rag torch is placed at the bottom of the balloon to keep it heated in flight.

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It’s a pretty impressive operation to watch, especially for the larger balloons.

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Occasionally, a balloon goes sideways and catches file. Most pieces burn up before they hit the ground.

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Sometimes, the fragile paper gets punctured and has to be repaired. Notice the gaping hole just above the guy with the red hat. He’s sitting on someone’s shoulders to patch it.

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When several balloons are in the air together, it can look impressive.

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The balloons can travel for miles. As for safety? There is one story told about a farmer’s corn field getting burned up by a balloon. I read it on the Internet, so it must be true.

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They’ve been doing this a while, so there’s plenty of creativity.

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This sign says, “From the earth to the sky.”


The event runs 3:00-10:00 every year on the Saturday before Independence Day (Sept. 16).

We only stayed for a couple of hours, but we went up on our roof after sunset and saw several balloons float by. That was pretty spectacular itself, but I couldn’t get any good shots.

More about the Regatta de Globos:

This site has a great story about a farmer’s field getting burned up:



Not great video, but caught a balloon fail at 2:21:


Short video of a successful launch:


Our first power outage

A couple of days ago, at around 5:00, we had three power brownouts back to back as a thunderstorm hit with some wind. I immediately quit work early and started unplugging electronics, just as the power went completely out.

Chapala lightningThe storm was spectacular, and as the sun set at 8:30 I went up on the terraza to try photographing the lightning. With the neighborhood completely dark, I figured I could get some great shots. But I didn’t have a clear view, and no experience, so my efforts were mediocre. Besides, there were only 5 or 6 bolts clearly articulated in the sky during that time, so I didn’t have much of a chance anyway.

Chapala lightning(I could have climbed all the way on the roof of the stairwell, which would have given an unobstructed view. But I figured being the highest point on the building during a lightning storm wasn’t the best idea.)

The kids were able to fall asleep without trouble, as did my wife and I. But when the power wasn’t on by morning, we started wondering how widespread it was and whether there would be school. (There was nothing on the power company website that I could see. I also checked the Twitter, but there were only a handful of tweets about power outages in Chapala over the last 3 years, with the most recent from months before, so that didn’t tell us anything.)

Sunrise wasn’t until just a few minutes before school started. So we got the kids ready in the dark and left for school, just in case it wasn’t cancelled.

Three things I learned that day:

1. Power company workers only work 8:00-5:00. So when the power went off at 5:00, it wasn’t going to come back on until 9:00 at the earliest. Which is when it actually came back on.

2. City water only pumps for a few hours a day. Every house has water storage, in our case on the roof. A pump—with requires power—pushes it up to the tank. So with no power, you need to conserve water, because once the tank is empty, you’ve got no water till the power comes back on. So thankfully the pitch black bathrooms kept us out of the showers, or that might not have gone well for the toilets.

3. We’re connected to a substation in a neighborhood with tons of trees, which loses power more often than the next neighborhood over. That’s where the school is, and they didn’t lose power. So even with no power, kids gotta get to school.

So, the kids went to school without showers. I’m sure their classmates didn’t mind.

Now we gotta get some more flashlights.

I Like Duolingo

Me gusta Duolingo!

About a month ago, I realized that I’m not immersed enough in Spanish to actually achieve even minimal fluency by the time we leave a year from now. I only had two days over the weekend with any significant immersion for more than a few minutes, but during the workweek I’m in a strictly English environment. Eso es no bueno.

I had a choice to make. Either continue drifting with Spanish, or get serious. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn Spanish while practicing with nearly every person I interact with outside the house, so I chose to kick it into gear.

I went back to Duolingo, and started over. My goal was to get caught back up to where I stopped a year ago, getting all the lessons back to the gold completed state.

With this program, when you complete a set of lessons on a subject, the icon turns gold. After a while (days or weeks?) it loses its gold status, which indicates that you need to review the material, because memory decays over time. You go through one or more refresher lessons, depending on how long it’s been, to get it back to gold.

Even when I was studying regularly, I actually never practiced enough to keep everything gold. I would review one lesson, only to have two revert back. It got rather discouraging, especially when I hit new lessons that were more challenging.

Duolingo-in-iPhoneWell, I’m now on a 33 day streak, the longest I’ve ever had. And last night, I got the last of my previous lessons back to gold. Today, I actually started new material. Nice.

At the same time, when I kicked it into gear I decided to form relationships with more fluent speakers around me, so I would be doing more serious practice 7 days a week. I’ve got the guy at the corner market and a couple of neighbor boys, and every time I talk to them I try out a new word or phrase so they can correct me.

But my best teacher has turned out to be Eliseo, the cocinero at the little restaurant where I’ve been getting lunch during the workweek. Because of my schedule I’m often the only one in there, so we talk a lot. Man, he is so patient. I’ll try to say something, and he’ll correct my grammar, then make me repeat it several times until he’s satisfied. He’s got a little notebook that he’ll write words or sentences in if I can’t understand.

The end result of all this is a burst of improvement that I’ve seen in just the last couple of weeks. The proof came last week, when I talked with some native speakers back in the U.S. that I’ve never been able to understand, and could actually hear what they were saying.

It’s still a long journey ahead. According to Duolingo I’m 22% fluent, though it doesn’t feel like that much. But as Eliseo tells me every day, “Poco a poco.”

Volkswagen Van

In our neighborhood, there’s been a guy working on an old Volkswagen van since we arrived 5 weeks ago. Today, he brought in an artist to paint it. It was an all-day affair, and became quite the community event.

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As I took pictures, one of the spectators asked me, “¿Bonita o fea?” I pointed to the yet-to-be-painted roof and said, “No bueno.”

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At the end of the day, we’ve got one proud van owner…Photo Aug 14, 8 00 54 PM

Bumps in the Road

In Ajijic, there is only one asphalt-paved road in town. That’s the main Chapala-Jocotepec highway that runs through communities north of Lake Chapala. Asphalt is used for other purposes, too, like the Walmart parking lot and pavement at gas stations, but street surfacing is not one of them. What do they use instead? Guijarro, or cobblestone.

I’m amazed at the variety of guijarro in town. The base cobblestone is river rock, held in place with dirt:

Cobblestone in Ajijic

The through-roads with more traffic will have bricks laid in the tire tracks, with river rock for the rest:

Cobblestone with bricks in Ajijic

Nicer neighborhoods have cement poured between the stones, rather than dirt:

Cement cobblestone in Ajijic

Often they’ll have larger stones laid out in the tire tracks, giving it a more intentional look:

Cobblestone road in Ajijic

Some intersections use what we would call “pavers” back in the States:

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Nicer homes use slate for the driveway:

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I told someone last week that we’ve had a few bumps in the road settling in. Then I realized, bumps in the road is pretty normal for Ajijic. After all, “bumpy road” is redundant when your roads are paved with cobblestone.

Rainy Season

The rainy season at Lake Chapala runs from mid-June to mid-October each year. Las lluvias almost always come overnight, bringing a tropical downpour, pounding on the roof.

Over the last eight days, there have been five storms that woke me up at some point during the night. The one this morning was brief, getting me up at 6:45 am. As I write this at 7:10, the rain has slowed to a Pacific Northwest-style drizzle, and the only sounds I hear are drips outside the front door and a cacophony of roosters in the neighborhood. But during those 25 minutes, it dropped over an inch of rain, according to Weather Underground.

Flooded roadThe storms can be spectacular. Last Thursday morning there was a thunderstorm. It wasn’t the rain or thunder that woke me up at 2:00, but the flashes of lightning filling the room. (Angela told me she is amazed at how the bursts of light push their way into the room, even with the blinds closed.)

As the storm got closer, the thunder began to roll in. Then the full downpour arrived, which lasted three hours. As the rain ended, the lightning strikes drew closer, until BAM! there was a strike just a block away. At that point, I thought I should go check on the kids, and yes, they were both awake. J was shaking, laying with his blanket over his head, so I stayed with him for a few minutes. But in the morning, he had a big grin on his face, telling Mom about the storm.
13631460_10153888530848163_7162831107659330851_nThat night it rained nearly four inches. When they got up, the kids noticed that the pool was almost completely full. I found myself surprised at how well the water drained, with no pools or puddles on the road in our community.

Later on, though, as Angela walked the kids to Spanish tutoring, they did find a puddle on the road that they couldn’t get around. They finally gave up and just walked through it.

(Here’s a great article about the rainy season in Ajijic, from our friends at Access Chapala: The Rainy Season in Ajijic.)

Telecommuting Challenges

On Monday, I went back to work after a week of vacation during our move to México. Man, that was hard. After two hours I was ready to pack up and move home.

IMG_5717It wasn’t just getting back into the swing of things after a week off, or overcoming the slower pace of life here to be productive. I like going into the office for work every day. Being around people helps give me energy to be productive, and I share an emotional connection with my co-workers. I’m giving up much of that for the next year.

The big issue, though, is my participation in making decisions. There are 10 of us who work together, and much of our decision-making process is organic and spontaneous. We have very few meetings, and little structure to how we make and document decisions. When something comes up, we quickly review the options, make a decision, and move forward with little interruption. It’s fast and efficient, and while we know it won’t scale for us long-term, it’s a method that has worked for us over the last 10 years. I believe it’s one of the secrets to our exceptional growth over the last 3 years.

But this system requires people to work in close physical proximity. And I’m now 2,500 miles away.

During my telecommuting tests last year, I skyped into the computer in our conference room when I got in each day, and left it on all day. Hearing conversations in the office, even if I can’t completely understand what people are saying, helps give me that energy of working with others. That’s helpful.

In our new office, that computer monitor is in a central area, right outside my office. So if someone needs to ask me a question, instead of popping their head in my door, they step up to the monitor. It’s an attempt to maintain that organic connection. And it works, sort of.

There are problems. One is a 2-3 second delay. Humor is a part of my personality, much of it based on speed and timing. Yeah, that’s not going to work with a 3 second delay.

Another problem is intermittent Internet issues. The “high-speed” Internet where we are staying has upstream bandwidth that peaks at 500kbps. And sometimes it drops out altogether. Once we move into a more permanent home I’ll be able to do something about it, but for now I’m a poor man’s Max Headroom part of the day.

That leads to poor audio and video quality caused by the low bandwidth. It makes it hard for people to understand me when I talk, which makes me more reticent to actually try to talk. It’s a spiral that leads me to be less participatory and more disengaged, which I have to actively fight.

I was on a conference call with about a dozen people, mostly from one of our major clients. At one point I jumped in to make a point, and when I was done someone said, um, we only got about 5% of that. Groan. For the rest of the call I just listened, occasionally messaging my colleague to say something on my behalf. That was painful.

Monday morning, after two hours of work, I was at a serious emotional crossroads. Pack up and move home, or stay and figure it out.

I chose to push through, and by the end of the week I felt like I was getting my sea legs. Thursday and Friday were especially good in helping me build productive momentum, and I felt like I ended the week at about 80% personal productivity. I don’t think I’ll ever get to 100% efficiency, but I’ll be happy with 95% personal productivity.

My participation in decision-making, however, will continue to be a challenge. We’ll need to experiment with more formal processes to allow me to be involved. That will slow down the process—bad—but if we get it right, the new system will scale better as we grow—good. It’s going to force me to step back from actually making decisions, and move toward coaching my staff so they can make the right decisions. It will require extra time to share historical context and provide specific information that only I have. But that will help grow the corporate memory and deepen the team’s overall understanding of the environment in which we work.

The best part of this experience has been my co-workers. I have sensed how much they want my family to have a positive experience, and I know several of them are taking on additional burdens to make this work.

Any leadership role I’ve had with the team will be on hold while I work remotely. There are just too many obstacles. But I trust my team, and know they will try their best to do the right thing every day. I’ll participate and support them where I can.

In some ways, my work won’t be as personally enjoyable, as I miss out on the interpersonal dynamics of the office. Will it be hard? Por supuesto. But that’s a sacrifice I’ll make for my family.

I expect that over the coming weeks this will all get easier as I get into a daily and weekly routine. I’ll work hard and contribute where I can. And for now, that’s good enough.