Our current time zone: GMT +8 (We're home in Singapore!)

Monday, March 21, 2011

We Did It!

It has been a long (but seemingly fast) 1 year and 2 months since we returned from our big trip in January 2010. Just as we thought that everyone had forgotten that we were once an energetic, adventure-loving couple (hard to tell judging from how sedentary our lives have become), Simply Her contacted me for an interview and a request to feature us in the April issue. The article was about planning and managing finances while taking a Gap Year from work. The writer had obtained the contact from a TNP journalist, who had interviewed us for a similar newspaper feature almost a year ago - but the story never made it to print. Bah.

Since about 90% of the interview for Simply Her also never made it to print, here is the full interview reproduced for our lovely followers. If you're planning to run away from home (and reality) for a while, this is your financial travel bible.

Simply Her: Please share with me your reasons for going on a sabbatical.

My husband and I have always been avid travelers. In fact, we both met in 2004 while working in the travel industry: him as a sales executive in an airline and myself as a travel consultant. We married in 2005 and decided to embark on efforts to start a family in 2007. But I saw then that family plans would prove a major obstacle to realising my dream of doing a year-long backpacking trip around the world. So we decided to put family plans on hold as it was more logical, practical and less expensive to travel as a couple instead of a family with young children. (I blogged about this for MaybeBaby, you can refer to the full story here: http://www.maybebaby.sg/blog/2010/05/08/the-story-of-us-her-story-part-3/)

SH: How long were you away? What did you do?

We traveled for ten months straight, from end-March 2009 to end-Jan 2010. We visited key cities (e.g. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York City, Boston, Miami, etc.) and National Parks (e.g. Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Everglades, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion & Bryce, Rockies, etc.) in the United States. From the USA, we visited several Caribbean islands such as Puerto Rico, St Lucia, the Bahamas, Barbados, St Kitts & Nevis. In South America, we traveled studied Spanish and traveled through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil. Highlights included (click on links to read the posts):

- River rafting in San Gil (Colombia)

- Photographing hummingbirds in the cloud forest in Mindo (Ecuador)

- Whale watching and seeing blue-footed boobies in Puerto Lopez (Ecuador)

- Viewing the Nazca Lines, exploring Machu Picchu and eating guinea pig (Peru)

- Cruising amongst ice bergs and glaciers in Chile

- Doing a jeep safari amongst salt plains, coloured lagoons and wild flamingos in Uyuni (Bolivia)

- Traveling to the end of the world to Ushuaia; watching street tango; eating the best beef in the world in Argentina

- Experiencing life on the beach in Copacabana and Ipanema; walking amidst the Iguazu Falls and cosying up to exotic birds in Brazil

SH: What were your main financial considerations about being away from your job for so long?

Basically how we were going to fund our trip as well as keep expenses at home going (e.g. car instalment payments, insurance premiums, etc.)

How did you negotiate with your employer to take this time off?

I had been working with my current employer for two years at the time I broached the subject. The organisation I work in has been generally understanding and generous in granting staff no-pay leave to attend to personal matters and to take up opportunities for personal growth development, such as extended maternity leave, study leave, accompanying their spouse on an overseas posting, etc. but no one had ever asked for a year off simply to travel. I was very grateful when they acceded to request. I guess it helped that I promised to return to work for the organisation and not quit in the near future…

SH: How long did planning for this sabbatical take?

It was about 1.5 years from the time we made the decision to go until the time we left Singapore. Planning was done at a gradual pace throughout this time.

SH: What kind of financial arrangements did you have to make before going on this trip? (eg: arrange for your family to help you settle any legal issues, arrange to give your family power of attorney to handle your financial matters, set up GIRO account for monthly bills, set up internet banking, pay your bills in advance, etc)

- Meeting with financial planner to set the budget

- Setting up GIRO accounts for monthly bills such as utilities, car installment payments, club memberships, etc.

- Setting up internet banking so that we could pay credit card bills while overseas

SH: How much did you budget for your sabbatical? How long did you take to save this amount or How did you raise the money?

We budgeted S$60,000 total for two persons for 1 year. This included having to pay for all continuing expenses at home, such as home mortgage, car installments, insurance premiums, club memberships, etc. Over the 1.5 years leading to this trip, we made a very conscious effort to apportion a huge part of our income into a trip fund. We also cut back on small luxuries such as expensive dinners, shopping, etc. We only invested in items that we would use extensively on this trip e.g. a DSLR, a wide-angle camera lens, good-quality traveling bags, portable hard disks, etc. Our good friends also helped us out through their thoughtful farewell gifts, like a GPS unit, fleece jacket, Skype credits, outdoor equipment (e.g. dry sacks, scarves) and even a season pass to the Six Flags theme parks in the US. We tried raising some money by selling calendars featuring photographs we had taken while on the trip but while sales were good, the profit margin wasn’t very high.

Our budgeting for the trip would have been a lot more haphazard if it were not for our financial advisor. She worked out our target savings each month before our trip, and also helped us lay out a whole list of our monthly expenses that we tried very hard to reduce before we left Singapore.

- For example:

- i) My parents-in-law were staying with us in our HDB flat and they rented out theirs flat. We got a share in the rental income that they deposit into the bank for us.

- ii) My sister rented our car, so she has helped us cut our car installments by half with her rental fees.

- iii) We also looked into things like suspending handphone services from for a nominal monthly fee, premium holidays, and anything else that made sense.

SH: What was this money spent on when you were on your sabbatical?

Accommodation, plane/train/bus tickets, car rental and gas, food, entrance/tour fees.

SH: Please share with me about other financial commitments that you had in Singapore – mortgages, bank loans, monthly bills, gym/country club memberships, car payments, insurance payments, etc – how did you honour your commitments? (Please be specific on what kind of financial commitments these were, how much they were, and what you did to honour these commitments eg: iBanking, arrange for family member to pay your bills, etc)

- Home mortage for 5-room HDB flat: completely paid through CPF

- Bank loans: nil

- Monthly bills: suspended all handphone bills; paid for HDB utilities through GIRO

- Country club membership: talked to club to reduce monthly membership to nominal ‘absentee member’ fee for 1 year, paid via GIRO

- Insurance payments: bugeted for and paid via GIRO

- All credit card bills paid via iBanking

- Family members helped us make payments for things like income tax, conservancy charges, etc. through cheques or AXS machines

SH: Did you have an emergency fund (how much?) that you can fall back on in case of an emergency while on sabbatical, or for some reason, you can’t get your job back at the end of your sabbatical?

- We bought travel insurance for a year to cover any medical or other emergencies that may arise while on sabbatical

- We did not have an emergency fund. If we ran out of money earlier than intended, we would have just come home

- While my husband had to quit his job, my employer had held a place for me so we weren’t particularly worried about this aspect

SH: How else did you save money and cut corners?

- Before the trip: see above on how we saved the money

- During the trip:

- In the USA: constantly searched for and flew budget airlines for domestic flights, survived on Subway, fast food and Walmart roast chicken from the deli (cheapest food avail.) We stayed in motels throughout and conscientiously researched on and compared prices across booking websites. No shopping.

- In the Caribbean: we flew budget airlines from the USA and stayed in hostels where possible. We searched around for the less expensive cruises, which turned out to be a good deal as they covered accommodation, meals and transport. But we had to forgo day trips offered to cruise guests as these were very expensive. Instead, we took public transport and made our own way to public beaches or cafes in town to relax while the ship docked. Absolutely no shopping.

- In South America: cost of living in most South American countries is relatively cheap, which was one of the reasons we chose the Americas over Europe for this trip. Still, we constantly searched for cheapest hostels on booking websites and looked for inexpensive meals, often cooking our own in the hostel kitchens such as pasta and instant noodles. We also sourced for tours carefully so as to get the best value for money. As far as possible, we stay in hostels with that offer free WiFi so that we don’t have to pay for internet access. Minimal shopping limited to unique souvenirs such as inexpensive wood carvings from the handicraft market.

- Basically, it helps to invest in good quality equipment right from the start as these are relatively inexpensive and easily obtainable in Singapore (e.g. versatile backpack, smartly-designed outdoor gear that can cater to a range of weather conditions and temperatures, cameras, laptops, iPhone/iPod, etc.) instead of having something breakdown halfway (e.g. camera, laptop) in the wilderness and pay an arm and a leg to get it repaired/replaced. That said, we did have to replace a camera (that drowned) and my laptop barely scraped through the trip. Getting vaccinations beforehand and staying healthy throughout the trip helps cut down medical expenses too.

SH: Estimated expenses during Trip (food, lodging, airfares)?

- Airfare: $5,000

- Accommodation: $30,000

- Car rental, bus/train tickets, tours, food, miscellaneous (e.g. visa fees, toiletries, etc.): $15,000

- Insurance, country club membership fees, car instalments, utilities, etc: $10,000

SH: Mortgage?

Can’t really recall. Say $1,300 per month paid via CPF. We sold our HDB upon returning to Singapore.

SH: Money to parents?

Nil. Our parents kindly waived the need for monthly contributions while we were traveling (Thanks mum! Thanks dad! Thanks parents-in-law! *wave*)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Celebrating Singapore: Of Cream Sauces & Saucy Games

** Warning: this post is rated NC16. Parents - consider yourselves warned **

The week before my birthday, the husband had been raving deliriously on his Facebook status about how much he was looking forward to the "dirty weekend".

And no, he wasn't referring to the lack of showers (think, people, think!)

So much so that our friend Jeremy commented that Dan seemed more excited over the hotel stay than his birthday wife did. Tsk. Down, boy, down!

However, we were definitely both equally excited about one aspect of the weekend celebration - dinner with friends, from what we call our Social Events group. I'm guessing the nomenclature arose because we kinda started going out together when Mandy, Zen and I were working in MAS on the Singapore 2006 IMF-World Bank meetings a few years back. I was part of the team organising the social events for the delegates and their spouses, and we somehow must have agreed to continue coordinating "meetings" and social gatherings amongst ourselves, together with our other halves and friends like Jeremy, Grace and Shirley.

Every week or so, we get together to just Do Stuff. Any Stuff.

The ones with good hand-eye-ball coordination play a round of tennis every Tuesday. But not me and Dan, cos I am terrible in any sport that involves small balls and having my right arm extended by way of a racquet, golf club or pool cue. It makes me feel unbalanced. Plus, I hate bending down to place or pick up ball after ball after ball. Makes me grumpy.

Sometimes we go watch a movie. Sometimes we check out free events in the city. Sometimes, we just hang out over dinner and drinks. Or head over to someone's house for chips, ice-cream and DVD movies. Or play board games like Settlers, Munchkins and Dilbert. Or on the rare occasion, a bout of tone-deaf karaoke where we torture one another with our so-called singing (except for Miss Mandy "MAS Idol" Loh, who sings beautifully.)

The more complicated (and expensive) activities are stuff like wakeboarding and scuba-diving trips.

But we kept things simple for my birthday. Everybody came over to where we were - Changi Village Hotel - to La Cantina de Venezia for Italian rooftop dining. Well, everyone except for Mandy and Tim who were blissfully honeymooning and shopping for gifts for us in Greece. Heee.

So on a sticky, humid night in Changi, I was surrounded by:

Zen & Rob, long-time friends of Dannie and then me, AND fresh out of the wedding chapel in June!

Shirley, Mandy's Senior Best Friend (yes, there really is such a designation) and dedicated teacher (to secondary school kids, not to Mandy. Well, maybe Mandy too - we could all do with some home econs lessons.)

Jeremy and Grace, our future neighbours in Dream Home 2015 (Naked Wing)

Zen again! She gets double mention cos besides being Dannie's friend since forever, she and I were colleagues in MAS and then later again in URA

And of course, the man I'm stuck with for the rest of my life. But I'm not complaining.

And there was one more guy named Evan, who likes salsa, fast cars and Shirley (not necessarily in that order), especially the combination of Shirley and salsa (as in the Latin dance, not the spicy dip.... but then, who knows right? :P) It turned out that I didn't get a sufficiently clear picture of him because HE KEPT MOVING when his picture was being taken! And I didn't want to introduce him in my blog as The Blur Named Evan. That's not the way to treat new friends...

MOVING ON to the food (yes, only I can move, Evan cannot)...

We ordered a whole host of starters (fried calamari, buffalo mozzarella, garlic bread), pizza, pasta and meats. The portions were HUGE. Talk about a hearty Italian meal. The chef turned out to be unmistakably Chinese, but as Jeremy said, she looked like she was capable of frying up zhi char dishes large enough to feed ten people at a pop, thus the big portions.

That said, I realised only after downloading my pictures from my camera that we took only took ONE photo of the food the entire night. Here's the precious photo of me and the first dish served to our table:

Fried calamari and me!

And if you stare hard enough, you can just about make out the remains of my pasta carbonara...

Well, dinner went really well - lots of chitchat, laughter and passing of food around to share. Then Dannie had to spoil it all by REFUSING TO LET ME ORDER DESSERT!

What the....?! Which man actually dares stop his wife from ordering her dessert?! Especially if it's in an Italian restaurant. Especially if it's cake. Especially if it's tiramisu..... Raawwrrrrr!!!

I was just about to stick the dessert menu up his.... oh, wait... a cake? For me? Yaaaaaay! *BEAM*

The waiters brought me a cake! The husband had quietly placed an order for a birthday cake from The Patisserie (read: there goes $70) and Zen and Rob had just as quietly picked it up en route to dinner and asked the restaurant staff to hide it in the kitchen.

I wasn't the only one who got to blow out the candles. It was a surprise belated birthday celebration for Jeremy too - and I gladly shared the candles and birthday wishes with him (as long as he wished for Dream Home 2015... but now I know he wished for a nice new car cos it has been ordered and is arriving in February 2011.... JEM!!!!)

The face of a proud owner of a brand-new-coming-soon VW Tiguan

Half of Dream Home 2015. Applications are still open. Just bring money. Lots of it.

After dinner, we headed back to the hotel room for games. Dan and I had brought Party Scrabble with us, along with a deck of playing cards (designed by FHM, which Dan specially selected amongst all the other decks we had at home because "I think Jeremy would like them". I see. How thoughtful.)

But Jeremy had other plans, it seems. Plans that were worth more fun than a bunch of FHM girls in hand. He and Grace gave me a new party game called Saucy Charades! I suspect Jeremy was thinking of Dannie too when they picked out this game. Their thoughtfulness is immensely touching. Warms the cockles of my heart *wipes tear from eye*

(And for the record, when we met Tim and Mandy a week later, they presented Dannie with another deck of playing cards - this time with naked Greek couples (and more) in very interesting poses.... What kind of vibes has my husband been emitting?! Scary.)

But back to Saucy Charades...

Reading out the game instructions, which nobody ever listens to anyway and we all end up confused halfway through the game

Jeremy listening to the instructions and getting into the mood

Practicing his first charade already!

Saucy Charades is played like normal charades where people basically just have to act out a clue for their team mates to guess. Just that the clues here need a leeeetle more imagination, creativity and courage to act out. It also helps to have a very thick skin and lots of alcohol before you attempt to play the game.

No, putting on spectacles does not help you play any better. And there's no need to look smart for this game either!

That said, Saucy Charades is quite an intellectual game. You need to interpret the clues, figure out the best way to act them out, and think of how to silently prompt your team mates to arrive at the correct answer.

How would you act out phrases like:

- Rhythm method
- An enormous cock-up
- Never mind the quality, feel the width
- Lady Godiva
- A sperm whale count
- Get your hands off my plums
- Naked flames
- Physical jerks
- Getting your juices flowing

We played in teams of three mixed couples. We learned that it really helps to have your husband/wife play the game too. Unless you have absolutely no qualms about running over to your male friend and gesturing frantically with your hands at his crotch in response to the above mentioned sperm whale clue.

We also learned that some of us don't quite think straight. Jeremy spent the longest two minutes ever repeating an incredibly obscene hand gesture in the vicinity of his nether regions, and seemed very antagonised that none of us could understand what he was trying to get at (besides his crotch.)

It turned out that he was acting out the word BANANA.

Whatever happened to the more normal gesture of peeling an imaginary banana?!?! I made a mental note there and then not to let Jem get too near our children. Sicko.

In his defence, Jem claimed that he thought Saucy Charades meant that all his gestures had to be saucy! I told you nobody ever listens when the rules of the game are read out.

We kinda assumed that Dan and I would ace this game, with our lethal combination of our telepathy skills and his dirty thoughts. We were quite appalled when Jem and Grace kept getting winning streaks (not of the naked kind) and pulled right ahead. We finally managed to get our act together (no pun intended) towards the end and eventually tied with them for first place.

As a tie-breaker, we got Robert to act out the final clue for us to guess. After spending most of the precious two minutes guessing time gawking at Robert's unintelligible actions, Jem and Grace deciphered the charade and won the game. Darn!

Zen didn't know whether to laugh or cry or act blur when it was revealed that the strange moves that Robert put on her to act out his charade was "getting your juices flowing".

And so ends My Singapore (yes, I'm very up to date with STB's branding exercises) celebration, as well as my series of birthday posts.

Yes, I know I said in the beginning that there would be five entries. Apparently, I miscounted *blush* My math and in particular, mental sums, is really bad. As in zero-upon-ten type of BAD. Well, that's one thing that hasn't quite seemed to have improved with age!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Celebrating Singapore: The Sun(deck), The Sea(food) & The Spa

Hong Kong
Sri Lanka

That's the list of countries that my family will be traveling to over the next three months to tour, work, study, visit my brother, transit in (or go to simply because someone won an air ticket to Rome by participating in a game on the Zuji Facebook fan page. Heh, heh heh.)

Yes, we're a bunch of six busy people, so much so that we'll be leaving my poor sister behind in Singapore, all alone on her birthday.

That's not the only thing we're leaving behind - the other thing being a giant carbon footprint *gulp* Yes, our big bad footprint. Not the acceptable types referred to in some wisecrack traveler's quote that says "Take nothing but memories; leave nothing but footprints".

So to lessen the load on our conscience, we opted to stay in a hotel - right here at home. It must have been more than three years ago since we did our last staycation at the Meritus Mandarin along Orchard Road because we had a voucher for a free hotel room stay. It turned out that the 2D1N vacation didn't have much of an "escape from the drudgery of daily life" factor - because the hotel was directly across the road from Dan's then-office. Suay.

Which is why I will never ever stay in a hotel in Marina Bay. I just cannot bring myself to do it. Unless it's a free room stay, of course. I'm a sucker for free room stays. Come on, admit it, who wouldn't take advantage of a freebie like that?

But I digress....

The day after my birthday, being a Saturday, saw us checking into Changi Village Hotel (possibly the hotel located furthest away from Marina Bay) for the weekend.

We brought half our room over to Changi.... nah, that isn't our luggage lah!

We love Changi Village Hotel for it's relatively secluded location at, well, Changi Village - which is practically next to the uninhabited (almost), rustic and undeniably wild island of Pulau Ubin right?

Fine. 'Wild' could be an exaggeration. But you get the idea - it's gets us pretty far away from the throngs of people suffocating Orchard Road and all the suburban malls on the weekend.

The husband booked a 2D1N weekend promo from the Zuji website (possibly contributing towards his own bonus) for less than $200 and because it was my birthday weekend, the nice lady behind the counter upgraded us to a Deluxe Room.

The room turned out to be more de-luxed than deluxe, but it was located on the highest floor of the hotel (which is all of seven magnificent storeys high) so we got a pretty nice view of the sea - and the URA carpark right below us. But I tried not to look at that too much in case it reminded me of work (no, I am not a 'parking auntie' who 'kiaps' parking summons under your windshield wiper for a living. And for the upteenth time - no, I cannot help waive your parking fines. I know how you people think.)

Pity we were asked to keep the drapes drawn cos the window cleaners were at work! Ah well, it's for their own safety I guess - in case they are greeted with a sight that burns their eyes and they fall off the ledge.

Well, luxurious or not, we weren't at Changi Village Hotel just for its rooms (although that was what the husband seemed to be most fixated on...) That was a secondary factor in choosing the hotel location.

We were there for THE SPA!


Ta-da (again!)

The Retreat Spa is located on the 8th floor of the hotel. We booked a couple package, which gave us access to the nice big suite on the 9th (and top) floor - and the right to hog it for a good part of the afternoon.

Ours! All ours for the afternoon! Bwahahaha!

The package came with a nice, hot, bubbling, outdoor jacuzzi with a view of the sea (and the URA carpark below, yes, yes...) and a chocolate fondue of bananas, marshmallows (which I don't fancy at all) and green apple cubes (strange ingredient for a chocolate fondue.) We were left to our own devices for twenty minutes in the water... which involved trying out every single jet in the bath, sweating like pigs from the hot water (and back into the hot water...) and well, eating the strange combination of green apples and chocolate. Very romantic. You should all try it sometime.

Ooooh, I spy a strange man in my tub

After twenty minutes, the alarm sounded, signifying the start of the next part - the massage! Yippee! Before that, a nice warm footbath with nice-smelling mineral salts that killed all the foot germs and made all the dead skin on our feet fall off. I told you it was romantic!

The massage was really good. Both masseuse were skilled in technique and exerted the right amount of pressure, alternating between gentle and relaxing, and firm and shiok. The essential oils felt finer than usual and seemed to be more easily absorbed by our skin, leaving a nice non-oily feel throughout - and after - the massage. Plus, they smelt lovely! The beds were the most comfortable massage beds I've ever had - nice and firm, and super wide (so I didn't have to worry about the masseuse kneeing me when she, erm, climbed on top...of...me...)

'Relaxing' was probably lavender oil. Not sure what oil 'Uplifting' was though.

And ooooh, the spa gave me a box of freebies from Phytomer! Yaaaay! Looked like my birthday was far from being over!

Stuff which you really need for birthdays once you're past 30 *sigh*

When the time came for us to leave, we simply transferred our relaxed bodies from the spa, to the room and then to the sundeck. The only programme that a lazy Libra likes is no programme.

Laying under the frangipani tree and staring into the lovely blue sky

All the deck chairs were taken so we embraced nature and shared the wooden deck with the ants and dead leaves...

Eyeing the rooftop restaurant where we had arranged to meet friends and some fried calamari (cos fish are friends) for dinner later

Reading yet another Star Wars book

Love the cleverly placed ledge at one end of the pool, perfect for lounging on and gazing into the sea

In the background: our spa suite on the 9th floor where we were earlier that afternoon

In the foreground: the wonderful guy who orchestrated my lovely birthday weekend

Just the two of us... and his bulging biceps

Act cute woah...

Catching a last glimpse of the pink sunset before we pack up and get ready for fried calamari (or did I mention calamari already?)

Earlier that week, my colleague asked if we would be spending the day at Pulau Ubin since we were staying at Changi Village. I think I choked out a horrified "WHAT?!?! Of course NOT!!!" Cycle up and down hills? Through a tropical jungle? And get all dirty and icky and sticky and sweaty and insect-bitten? Ewww. I. don't. think. so. Not on my birthday!

Don't call me lazy and unadventurous. I was just being practical, sensible and thrifty, and getting good value in return for our money by maximising our time spent in the hotel what!

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