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There and Back Again: Travel Notes

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Jun '13

Agile Planning for Language Learning

I’m returning to French after a long break.  I lost my momentum last summer bit by bit. The less new material I learned, the staler the old material got.  After a while there were so many overdue flashcards I couldn’t dig my way out.
But I missed it.  I’ve made more progress with French than any other language, and I hate to let it go. So, back to the planning board.
Mastering a language is the work of years. I needed to carve out human-sized goals. First, I’m taking an evening class at a language school this summer. As a second incentive, I’m planning a trip to France in the fall. These give me both goals and deadlines:  brush up enough to be ready for class, and practice talking enough to enjoy vacation.


My first study guide read like a semester syllabus, and my renewed enthusiasm began to dwindle. Then I decided to use an agile approach. “Agile” is a style of software planning that breaks a big project into mini-projects. Each round ends with a retrospective to evaluate progress and next steps. The short sprints make it easy to change direction as needed.


Esther Derby’s presentation  on  Agile Retrospectives   gave me the last nudge.  She says, “Ask what the team has energy for [next], not what is ‘most important’”.   It struck a chord. This is a hobby – you know, for fun!  I tossed the syllabus and started fresh.


My 1-week iterations end with a retrospective on Sunday. Trello tracks the pool of things to learn,  what’s in progress, and what’s done. The weekly plan is much less daunting, and the work gets done.

On y va!

Jun '12

Adventures in Neuroplasticity: Driving in Ireland

Mom and I wanted to visit Clonmel, where my great-grandparents were married. After researching train schedules I chose to rent a car. Driving on the wrong side of the road was challenging but worthwhile.

One school of thought says to rent an automatic to keep things simple. The automatics that were available were four times the price and tended toward larger models. I preferred to drive something small that would leave a wider margin on narrow streets and would be easier to park. That meant a manual. The thing that felt most wrong about driving on the left was having my left hand radio in the gearshift signals I usually get from my right hand. Once the weirdness wore off, driving a manual was fine. In fact, I did one of the best hill starts of my life in Wexford.

Contrary to expectation, highway driving was easier than local roads. The lanes are wide with rumble strips on both sides. I tended to overcorrect to the left, and the sound helped me calibrate the width of the car. I found a nice slow truck to follow. We felt confident enough to take a smaller highway that offered a view of the coast. It didn’t – or so mom told me; I couldn’t look away from the narrow road. Tip: hedgerows can double as rumblestrips. Speaking hypothetically, of course.

My friend Bill gave me some pointers after his own recent Ireland trip. He said it would take three days to adjust. That was right on the mark. On day one I had to concentrate as hard as when I had a learner’s permit. On day two, I could occasionally look up at the landscape. ( I’m told it was beautiful.) Day three wasn’t natural, but it was normal. When I got home, I had to remind myself to stay to the right.

Thanks to Bill’s hints I was well prepared. I’ll pay it forward with some resources and tips for the next traveler.

  • Reserve ahead of time if you want an automatic.
  • Your credit card renters insurance almost certainly doesn’t include Ireland. Call them ahead of time to check. One guidebook cautioned that the rental company may require you to show the printed brochure of cardholder benefits as proof of coverage. The benefits statement takes a few days to arrive from the credit card company.
  • AAA helped me find a good rental rate. I did the calculations for insurance and navigation system too – I hate figuring that out at a rental desk.
  • Rick Steves on driving in ireland:
  • It’s worth splurging on the navigation system. It’ll take the pressure off your passenger. I couldn’t look up from the road to read street names, and we found it hard to read street signs when we were walking.
  • The Republic of Ireland’s official rules of the road are online.

Some favorite selections:

Zebra (pedestrian) crossing
This is marked by yellow flashing beacons. The actual crossing area is marked by black and white ‘zebra’ stripes.

Not to be confused with a Yellow Box Junction, which has criss-cross yellow stripes.

Pelican crossing
At this crossing, an amber light will flash for a short period after the red light for drivers goes out. Similarly, the ‘green man’ light for pedestrians will flash for a short time before changing to the ‘red man’ light. A flashing amber light at a pelican crossing gives priority to pedestrians.

(But why pelican?)

Ghost island: A marked area on the road that shows where a motorway and a slip road meet.

Keep a safe headway by ensuring you are at least two seconds behind the vehicle in front. This is known as the two-second rule.
You can use the following steps to check if you are obeying the rule:
On a dry road, choose a point like a lamp post or road sign.
When the vehicle in front passes that point, say out loud “Only a fool breaks the two-second rule.”
Check your position in relation to your chosen point as you finish saying this. If you have already passed the point, you are driving too close to the vehicle in front and need to pull back.

( Optional: say it in the voice of Mr. T.)

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May '12

The Debt Crisis in Ireland

Dublin was plastered with posters about the austerity vote.

Almost every lamppost in Dublin had a poster about Ireland’s May 31 election about adopting the EU austerity measures. Most had two signs, pro and con, referring to it either as the “financial stability treaty” (YES) or the “banker’s treaty” (NO). What’s it all about?

For your convenience, here are overviews in a variety of lengths.

Shortest, a couple quotes from Planet Money’s guest episode on This American Life. Ira Glass asks narrator Alex Bloomberg, “I think I speak for all Americans when I ask you this question, and that is: Do I have to care about this?” Bloomberg assures him yes, and quite a lot if the European economy collapses. Planet Money explains the background of the crisis. Certain EU banks made unwise loans to governments and consumers, in the expectation that the EU would cover their losses in the worst case. Bloomberg uses the metaphor of getting a rich uncle to co-sign a mortgage for his broke nephew. Now the nephew has flaked out, and the uncle is stuck with a big bill.

Still awake? Ok, try this: the European Debt Crisis Explained With Legos. .
(Click through for the explanation. It’s not simple, but it’s entertaining. Hint: “I’m not paying for that! YOU pay for it!”)

Of moderate length, the CS Monitor’s five slide explanation, and Europe’s Financial Crisis in Plain English.

If you have time, you can listen to the whole Planet Money series, starting with the guest episode on This American Life.

The debt and deficit limits already passed in the European Union, but Ireland’s constitution requires a public vote on major legislation. Ireland voted to be bound by the measures. Stay tuned to Planet Money to see how it plays out.

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May '12

Ravens on the Hill of Tara

We climbed the Hill of Tara, old seat of the kings of Ireland.

There’s not much left of it but steep concentric rings…

… and the Stone of Destiny.

The Stone of Destiny on the Hill of Tara

We passed through a church yard en route from the parking lot. I recorded a snippet of the raucous ravens. (Click for MP3.) They had a lot to say.

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May '12

Snapshots from Ireland

My mom and I spent a week exploring Ireland and tracking down family. Stay tuned for some highlights.

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Mar '12

Travel Planning Links

Mom and have started trip planning. I wish I’d known about these last time.

Membership Has Its Privileges

Member freebies from AAA

My to-dos include renewing my passport. AAA give members a free set of passport photos, which cost between $10 and $15. The clerk snapped a great photo, one I won’t mind having for the next ten years.

In addition, AAA provides free maps and guidebooks. Did I mention I’m going to drive in Ireland? ( Attention, Ireland: best to stay off the street for a while. And possibly the sidewalks.) AAA can also help make car reservations.

Passport Paperwork Online

The State Department passport pages guided me to the correct renewal form to use. It will walk you through the application and create a printable PDF with your information. Total time at the post office: 2 minutes. ( I had to borrow their stapler.)

You can check the status of your passport online.

Bargain Hunting

Would tickets be cheaper if we went at a different time? Here are some updated tools to check. I didn’t discover any amazing deals, but they confirmed I’d found a good price.

Hear From Them That’s Been There

Meet, Plan, Go has free local meetups throughout the year. The Boston meetup is tonight! Last month I spoke with someone who’s been to Ireland several times to visit family. She gave me some pointers for where to go off the beaten path.

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Dec '11

Next Year in Ireland

Mom’s bucket list includes visting Ireland. Thanks to the Travel Hacking Cartel’s advice, I accumulated enough frequent flier miles for a ticket. We’ll go in the spring when it’s warm.

Any recommendations from your own travels? Our only plan is to visit Tipperary, where my great-grandmother was married.

Oct '11

On the Way Home: Rwanda

I’ll be back in Boston this time tomorrow after a too-short visit to Cambodia.

On the way I stopped at the OpenMRS Implementers conference in Kigali, Rwanda. OpenMRS is the open-source medical record framework that I’ve been using at the children’s hospital in Cambodia. They host an annual conference for everyone who’s using or developing the software.

The morning of day 3 was devoted to show and tell. I joined the field trip to a clinic in Rwinkwavu, about two and a half hours outside of the capitol.

Rwanda is nicknamed the Land of 1000 Hills. The landscape reminded me of Vermont – rolling hills with farms and cows, mountains in the distance.

At the clinic we were treated to a clinic tour, and then a more detailed explanation of how they’ve customized the software to match the site’s needs.

The conference has been an amazing introduction to both people and ideas. I’m almost looking forward to the long flight home just to turn off the computer and give my brain a rest.

There wasn’t much chance for sightseeing until today. I visited the Genocide Memorial Museum with some other attendees. It’s strange to talk about that as a tourist activity, because it commemorates a solemn event. The museum is very well done. The last room was the most difficult. It begins with a plaque that says “these are our beautiful and beloved children, who should have been our bright future.” The room is filled with hundreds of snapshots donated by their families – kids mugging for the camera, toddlers playing, round-cheeked babies startled by the flash. This is what the news called “ethnic strife”.

As the exhibits show, we can’t attribute this kind of violence to the circumstances of a unique time or place. It’s important to bear witness, that we may never forget and never repeat it. Go to the museum if you have an opportunity. It’s not an easy visit, but it’s worth it.

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Sep '11

More September Floods

I spoke much too soon about water levels dropping. Cambodia is suffering from floods, for the second time in a month. The river has overflowed its banks. Near the Old Market and Wat Bo the water ranges from calf- to hip-deep. Several dozen people have drowned across the country. Customers can’t get to restaurants or stores, and I suspect it will be very hard on local businesses.

Someone staying at my guesthouse was at Banteay Srey temple when the bridge was washed out. As another guest remarked, “When I saw that helicopter parked at the airport, I said ‘That’s an old Russian transport helicopter! I wonder if it still works?’ I guess it does!”

I’ve been holed up at the guesthouse during the Pchum Ben holiday. The hospital is closed until Thursday. In my area we’re out of reach of the river, though the roads flood after rain. It’s been difficult to get around by bike, but there hasn’t been much disruption. We’re waiting to see what the tail end of Typhoon Nesat brings on Saturday.

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Sep '11

Frog Songs

It rained all night and day yesterday, which was enough to bring back flooding. It’s amazing how quickly it recedes when the ground is still saturated. On Wednesday night the road was hidden under calf-deep water. On Thursday it was down to large puddles.

The frogs are pleased with the situation.
Frog songs

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