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Busy Living and Loving Retirement

March 23rd, 2013 at 11:54 pm

I decided to do a quick update or another month will go by. I am alive and well in the City of Trees. Tomorrow we leave for China, where we will spend almost a month seeing much of the country. We will be on a Road Scholars tour with a small group and an English-speaking guide. We will start in Beijing and will return from Shanghai. I appreciate the educational component of this tour... we will learn much during this adventure.

The best news in a while, is that in early February our grandson was born, about two weeks early but healthy otherwise. He is adorable, but I guess I am just like any grandma when it comes to thinking ours is the cutest. We love being grandparents and spending time with him as much as we can. Fortunately he lives only a few miles away.

We recently finalized plans to have a new house built, just a few miles from our current home. The new house should be ready this summer. We felt it was the time to do it because real estate and building is starting to take off in this area. We looked at several pre-built homes but none of them had everything we wanted, so building seems the best option for us.

My sister and BIL are in the process of downsizing in CA, from their home of 30+ years to a condo in an "over 55"community near our former home. I think they will love their new, simpler and less expensive life.

Well, I need to finish packing, so I'm off. Hope all at SA have a Happy Easter in the company of friends and family.

Retirement Redux

January 3rd, 2013 at 10:10 pm

With the New Year upon us, I've been reflecting on my life in retirement. Before retirement I worked for almost 30 years in education in positions ranging from classroom teacher to program specialist, and culminating for the final 15 years as school principal. On a daily basis there were problems to solve, challenges to face, and goals to meet. My life was fast-paced and intense but I loved my work.

On a personal level, preparing for retirement was an important goal and a challenge I undertook with enthusiasm. Although I once thought I'd retire at 55, I worked until I was 58, still ahead of many who have to work to age 66 or beyond. Planning for eventual retirement took a fair amount of time but setting goals helped keep my eyes on the prize... retirement.

Thanks to long-term planning, we retired with enough resources and income to fund a comfortable standard of living. But in some ways, I miss the challenges that made the days go by quickly and that gave me great satisfaction. So in retirement, I've had to find new challenges and create new goals.

Fast forward to January, 2013... I've been retired for 4 1/2 years. How is it going? In many ways retirement is everything I thought it would be and more. I enjoy mostly stress-free days and manage to keep busy. From spring to fall, gardening keeps me busy. I've joined a gardening club and have a membership at the Botanical Garden that gives me access to classes, events, and volunteer opportunities. We continue to volunteer with a national organization that provides disaster relief to individuals and families.

Dh and I have joined local bird-watching groups and he has taken several short trips out of state for birding festivals. Although I'm always "invited" to go, I prefer to stay home and enjoy some alone time. Bird watching has been a great hobby for dh to get into and he has given several presentations to various groups. An added bonus: it gets him out of the house and gives him a hobby he can do anywhere in the world.

And we travel a lot. Our 121 days of travel in 2012 took us to new and old places around the world: Cayman Islands, Belize, Curacao, Aruba, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Puerto Rico. We explored more of the USA with trips to Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, Arizona, California, Florida, Oregon, Utah, and Nevada. Most of our travel was great fun, except for a 2 week cruise where hundreds of passengers contracted the norovirus. Let’s just say we are putting cruising on hold until we’re (much) older. Add visits to family and bird watching trips for dh, and we were out and about over 5 months total. Whew!

On the financial front... how did we do in 2012?
Life continues to be simpler and less complicated, especially financially. We sold our house in CA in 2011 so now we just have one home to maintain. In 2012 we sold one of our rentals to DS and his wife, so we also have one less investment property to deal with. Two rentals were refinanced, a smart money move resulting in a good cash flow.

Our income is fixed (defined benefit pensions) and direct deposited to the bank, and most bills are on auto-pay. A property manager handles the three remaining rentals. I track our expenses in four basic categories. "Living" is all expenses excluding travel, giving, or saving (i.e., medical, property taxes, food, entertainment, clothes, auto, etc.).

Our net worth grew 8%, excluding real estate. This figure represents the average growth of taxable accounts, tax-deferred accounts (to be tapped at 70 ½), and stocks/mutual funds. The 8% includes a stock portfolio that grew by 24%, mostly due to Apple's strong performance in 2012, so this skews the totals a bit.

We spent our 2012 net income as follows:
~ Living 30%
~ Giving 15%
~ Savings 32%
~ Travel 23%


And that's the recap of 2012 in the life of a very happy retiree. Although I rarely blog anymore, I continue to enjoy visiting SA and keeping up with the lives of my online friends.

The following picture is from our trip to Mt. Rushmore. As much as we travel around the world, the USA is IMHO the greatest country in the world.

Happy New Year everyone!

So what do you do all day?

April 3rd, 2012 at 02:43 am

Yikes! Has it really been 3 months since I last posted? I am alive and well living happily ever after in retirement. 2012 is the first year we've had only one house to deal with, so our life has gotten simpler (and cheaper). It was a good financial move to sell the CA condo last fall. A question that sometimes comes up from family and friends who work: What do you do all day? Well, we manage to keep busy, and at times busier than when we worked.

My volunteer time with the American Red Cross has been a rewarding experience so far. In between travel, I am on-call as a member of the Disaster Assessment Team. Dh is also a volunteer and sometimes goes with me on calls. In the last month I've had 7 calls, all of them in response to house fires in my city and some neighboring cities. I'm getting to know other volunteers and making new friends, another benefit of belonging to this group.

More and more, we're adapting to the colder climate and enjoying spending more time in this beautiful part of the country. But now when the weather gets TOO cold, since we can no longer escape to CA, we plan getaway trips to warmer areas. We're still not ready to be snowbirds in one particular place so we've been migrating all over the globe. January and February took us to Florida and Caribbean for about a month, an experience that was mostly good.

Our trip included a two-week cruise on the Crown Princess, the ship that made the news because over 500 passengers and crew got sick with norovirus. We thought we'd escaped the epidemic but dh and I both got sick the day we disembarked. We were sick enough to visit the ER and we spent the good part of a week recuperating at our timeshare condo. So the last week was not so good, but the other weeks were wonderful. We've taken many cruises and this was the first bad experience, so we're taking a break from cruising for a while but not for good.

The weather at home has been nice enough that I've worked in the garden a few days. I won't plant my annuals until mid-May, but the perennials are starting to sprout and in need of thinning and pruning. We're having the exterior of our house painted and it will happen this week if the weather cooperates. It's been a fairly mild winter but with some strange weather. One day it's in the 70s... the next day it may snow. If the painting doesn't happen this week, it will have to wait until mid-May when we return from our next trip.

Next week we'll leave for Guatemala, where we'll spend about a month. We'll start with a ten-day Caravan.com tour that begins in Guatemala City but we are going a few days in advance. We think Caravan's prices are reasonable and we enjoyed the Costa Rica tour we took with them last year. After the tour we'll be in Antigua with friends and end with a week at a hotel/resort, also in Antigua. We will visit the schools where we used to train our SJSU student teachers and spend time with students we are sponsoring. We have planned a side trip to the Mayan ruins in Copan, Honduras, during the latter part of the trip.

The only thing I can share related to saving money is I got a very good deal on our tickets to Guatemala. We are flying first class for about $100 less than the price of an economy class ticket. I did it by using award miles combined with purchased miles to complete the transaction. Also, we are staying at a lovely resort in Antigua for only $159 a week by booking it through our timeshare exchange program.

I do have one financial goal for 2012 that supports my philosophy of giving. This year I would like to make my contributions through a donor-advised charitable fund. So far, I am leaning toward the Schwab Charitable Fund. My plan is to use appreciated stock to establish the fund and use future contributions to support my non-profits of choice. I want to proceed in the most-cost effective and tax-friendly manner. A charitable fund seems simpler than establishing a foundation that involves lots of paperwork and requires management.

Well, I haven't been blogging much because our financial life is really pretty boring these days. I guess it's better than having drama related to money (or lack of). The years of focused planning and saving have paid off in terms of providing a comfortable and secure retirement, and for that I am grateful. We planned for the future and now we are living it. Life is good.

Happy Easter to all! I took this picture of lilies at our hotel last time we were in Guatemala.

A Year of Splendid Retirement

January 1st, 2012 at 06:20 pm

Yesterday dh and I were discussing how quickly 2011 flew by. After all, we are retired... shouldn't life seem a little slower? So where did the year go? And how are we doing financially... where did our money go?

January - Our "National Geographic Experience"
We started the year on an Amazon River cruise where we spent 4 weeks visiting everything from remote villages to the industrial city of Manaus. Our trip back to the USA took us to Devil's Island and several Caribbean countries. It was amazing and we learned so much about the flora, fauna, people and cultures of the Amazon Basin!

February - Family Time
Spring in Idaho was quiet and restful. We took a road trip to our condo in Silicon Valley, stopping to see family in Oregon along the way.

March - Time for Family and Friends
Went to Newport and Gleneden on the Oregon Coast for a week with dh to enjoy bird watching and the ocean. Later I took a "girls only" trip to Las Vegas to celebrate a friend's 70th birthday. Dh and I ended the month with a week in Cabo San Lucas for our niece's renewal of vows.

April - From NYC to the Rain Forest
The first week was spent with my sister from CA in NYC visiting my grandnephew (her grandson). Later that month, we were in El Salvador to see family for a week, followed by 10 days in Costa Rica on a Caravan.com tour, one of the best travel bargains around.

May - R & R
Had thyroid surgery... prognosis is good despite some unexpected news. Appreciated being home to rest and recuperate, and my daughters and dh were wonderful during this time. Prepared my garden for planting.

June - Home Sweet Home in ID
The garden is starting to bloom, I volunteered for the Red Cross, and took a four-day trip with dh to beautiful Yellowstone. We decided to sell CA condo... we just don't use it enough to justify expense of keeping it.

July - Cutting Ties to CA
The best part was that my sister and BIL from CA came to visit us in ID for a week of fun. We got an offer on the condo... drove back to CA. It was wonderful to spend time with CA family, including dh's family reunion in Soledad. Cleared out CA condo in expectation of closing escrow in August. Rented a storage locker in ID and hired movers to help us with items we are keeping.

August - Summer in the City of Trees
So happy with our beautiful flower garden in ID... annuals and perennials galore! Volunteered some more and enjoyed a relaxing summer in this beautiful city of trees (that is the meaning of Boise), biking on the greenbelt, and going to the fair, museums, parks and the zoo.

September - European Adventure Begins
We FINALLY closed escrow on our CA condo! Left on September 25 to celebrate with newly retired friends in for Barcelona, Spain, the gateway for our next adventure.

October - Wow... what a month!
We were in Europe most of October, exploring 8 different countries... an amazing experience. The best part: four days with my favorite cousin and his delightful family in Switzerland. Did some volunteer work for the Red Cross when we returned to ID.

November - So Much to be Thankful For
My DSS came home from Iraq, safe and sound after one year working as a medic with his National Guard unit in a particularly dangerous area. Thanksgiving in Idaho was lovely, hosted by DD1. After Thanksgiving, dh and I left for Cabo San Lucas, one of our favorite SUNNY and WARM places.

December - Escaping the Cold
Went to Cabo San Lucas for three weeks. Came home in time to celebrate happy holidays with 3 of our 4 adult children. DSS want to relocate to ID. We decorated the house and put up our tree. It was wonderful! I especially love the ornaments we've collected from our world travels.

On the Financial Front... where did our money go?
I spend less time on things financial now that we're retired. It's not that I care any less about personal finance... it's more that we are on autopilot. We have a property manager handling the rentals, so I do not get involved much. The financial planner I've used for 25+ years does a good job with the tax-deferred investments, so I don't worry about those. Our income is fixed and direct deposited to the bank, and most bills are on auto-pay. Life is simpler now.

I track our retirement income in four basic categories. "Living" is everything we spend that is not travel, giving, or saving: medical, property taxes, food, entertainment, clothes, auto, etc. I was surprised our net worth grew 4.87%, excluding real estate (I expected less). This represents the growth (averaged) of taxable accounts, tax-deferred accounts (to be tapped at 70 1/2), and stocks/mutual funds. I adjusted figures to exclude cash generated from the sale of the CA condo.

Distribution of our 2011 net income is as follows:
~ Living 32%
~ Giving 12%
~ Savings 31%
~ Travel 25%

We spend a lot on travel, made possible by diligent pre-retirement planning and saving. Our expenses are low, our income is fixed (~30% goes to taxes), we save almost one-third of our net income, and we are in relatively good health. This is the "go-go" stage of our retirement. The "slow-go" and the "no-go" stages will follow, but for now we are actively crossing items off our bucket list. 2011 was a good year!

Happy New Year to All at SA!

A Snowbird Experiment

November 24th, 2011 at 06:13 am


Now that we permanently live in a colder-in-the-winter part of the country, the snowbird lifestyle is gaining appeal. On Saturday dh and I will leave for three weeks in warm and sunny Cabo San Lucas. We'll stay in a one-bedroom condo at the Hacienda Encantada, a resort that sits on a point with great views of the arch and the Sea of Cortez.

Some snowbirds we know flee the cold for 3-6 months. Our relatively short trip to Cabo is an experiment of sorts... I guess you could call us "semi-snowbirds"... but the point is we're getting away from the Idaho cold to see how we like this area for extended winter getaways. We'll explore future options such as renting an apartment or a house. Cabo is home to large numbers of retired Americans and Canadians, so it must be a good place to spend the winter.

I reserved a "studio suite" with timeshare points from last year, trading a week in Lake Tahoe for three in Cabo. The unit has a full kitchen so we can eat meals in whenever we want and shopping will be easy with a Walmart and a Costco within a 10-minute drive. Resort amenities include laundry facilities, free parking, and free wifi. And although the resort offers an “all inclusive” option for meals/drinks, it is not worth it to us. We tend to eat healthier by cooking our own meals and dining out occasionally. My budget for these 3 weeks is $3,000+-.

So far, the costs are:
RT airfare for two: $1084
$154 per week Exchange Fee: $462
Car rental @$183 a week: $549
Food and gas: ~$500 (est.)
Excursions/misc.: ~$500 (est.)

We've never been to this resort, so I hope it lives up to our expectations based on the website and Trip Advisor. If we like it, we may decide to go back every winter for 3-4 weeks or longer.

Castles and windmills...

November 2nd, 2011 at 03:24 am

...are some of my favorite memories. It's been a week since we returned from our European trip, and our life has fallen back into a comfortable routine. We had an amazing trip visiting 8 countries in 30 days, but it is good to be home. We stayed within our budget, but I did spend on an item I couldn't resist: a carved Black Forest musical cuckoo clock. It hasn't arrived yet but I have the perfect spot for it when it does, and it can be turned off if it drives us crazy.

Life in Europe is very expensive, especially in Switzerland. For example, in most countries, gasoline ranged from a low of ~$6 a gallon to ~$8. Understandably, many Europeans walk extensively, use public transportation, or ride bikes. We certainly can't complain about paying under $3.50 a gallon in Idaho. Food was expensive, both in markets and at restaurants. Of course, if we lived in Europe we wouldn't dine out as often. A meal that is ~$40 in the USA ran ~$70-$75 in Barcelona and even more in Geneva. Two coffees and two pastries at the Starbucks in Basel was $29. (Yeah... dh had to get a Starbuck's fix.)

I loved Amsterdam with its beautiful canals and was fascinated by the Dutch custom of bike-riding everywhere. It seemed there were more bikes than pedestrians. Not surprisingly, the Dutch, in general, seem very fit... I didn't see many overweight bike riders. People of all ages and professions cycle everywhere, often with kids, pets, and packages in tow as you can see in the above link.

What would I do differently? We had to pack for two climate zones (the warm Mediterranean and cool fall weather in Switzerland, Germany and Holland), so next time I would try to avoid this to pack lighter. Instead of taking as much cash in USD, I would just get more Euros from an ATM. Businesses give a lower exchange rate than banks when you pay with USD. It worked well to use my Chase Sapphire card when I could, and the Schwab savings debit card was used at ATMs... neither charge foreign exchange fees.

All in all, it was a great trip. We enjoyed traveling with friends during the first half, then spending time with my Switzerland family, and finally ending with a romantic week-long cruise on the Rhine. People tell us we're "lucky" to travel as much as we do, but in reality it's due more to years of focused planning and saving for retirement rather than luck.

Here are some pictures of the trip:


The view from Erice, a medieval town in Sicily, Italy.


The Parthenon at the Acropolis of Athens, Greece.


The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey.


Montserrat... a monastery near Barcelona, Spain.


The United Nations compound in Geneva, Switzerland.


Old homes in Strasbourg, France.


Marksburg Castle in Braubach, Germany.


One of the many windmills in Kinderdjik, Netherlands, used to pump water to reclaim land from the sea.

Travel $avings

September 24th, 2011 at 06:20 pm



Tomorrow dh and I leave on our next adventure, a month-long trip that will take us to eight European countries. The first leg of the trip will be two days in Barcelona followed by a 12-day Mediterranean cruise to celebrate a friend's retirement. Then we are back in Barcelona for a few days before flying to Geneva to spend time with my cousin. After a few days in Geneva, we'll take a train to Basel to begin a one-week cruise on the Rhine. Our trip will end with three days in Amsterdam before returning to the USA.

While planning the trip I discovered it's sometimes cheaper to buy a round-trip ticket, even though you just need a one-way fare. For example, a one-way flight on Swiss Air from Barcelona to Geneva was $592 (Economy Class). By booking a round trip ticket, I paid $177 (and it is Business Class to Geneva and Economy Class for the "return" trip). Baggage weight limits are lower in Europe and we each have a 50 lb. bag. Business class allows more weight, otherwise I could have spent ~$35 per RT ticket.

Other savings: I booked the first cruise through Costco Travel, and even though the price was exactly the same as through Royal Caribbean, Costco gave us a $500 on-board credit. The river cruise was a 2-for-1 special on Viking. I will use my Chase Sapphire card to pay for hotels in Barcelona, as well as meals and extras, because there is no foreign transaction fee with this card. And at home, I saved ~$150 by putting the garbage, paper, and TV satellite on hold, and by skipping one of our bimonthly house-cleanings.

A Busy April

May 8th, 2011 at 08:26 pm

First of all, Happy Mother's Day to mothers everywhere. May your day be a special one. Dh and I went out for a lovely brunch and we will be having dinner tonight with my daughters. It should be a lot of fun.

April came and went in a whirlwind. Early in the month I was in NYC, spending a quiet week with my sister and grandnephew. We managed to do lots of sightseeing and shopping. I especially enjoyed the annual Macy's Flower Show. When the week was over, I headed back to Idaho and my ds, back to her teaching job in CA.

Mid-April was tax time, and unexpectedly, we got a $713 federal refund. This was due to adequately estimating our withholding, not because we had any write-offs to speak of. As expected, we owed a tidy sum to the state. One good aspect of living in ID: our CPA charged $290 compared to our California CPA who charged $925 to do our taxes last year.

On Friday, April 15, we left for a week in El Salvador. Easter week is seriously celebrated there, and it meant most of my family had the week off (government sector workers) or part of the week off (private business workers). The city, usually a crazy hub of people and cars, was calmer because many people leave the city for the quiet of the mountains or sea shore. We stayed with my cousin and dh enjoyed bird-watching without having to leave the grounds of her home. This is her garden:


Plants we know as house-plants flourish outdoors in the tropical climate of El Salvador:


These cashews grow on a tree outside her kitchen. The fruit is used for a refreshing beverage, and the nut is roasted:


On Good Friday, we left El Salvador for Costa Rica to begin a 10-day excursion. We traveled with a company called Caravan.com and I highly recommend it. The cost is reasonable ($995 per person for 10 days) and includes three excellent meals a day, all excursion fees, baggage handling, and 9 nights at 4 and 5 star hotels. We traveled in a very comfortable bus and although there were 40 in our group, the trip was orderly and well-managed. Caravan uses a seat rotation system that is fair and eliminates competition for the "best" seats.

We loved Costa Rica, a clean and safe country. I've traveled to Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Panama, but Costa Rica is the first Central American country where one can drink the tap water in most places and not get sick. Costa Rica's infrastructure is advanced compared to other Central American countries, largely attributed to the fact Costa Rica has not endured destructive civil wars as have the others.

We expected to see lots of wildlife and were not disappointed. Here our guide, Derek, holds a rhinoceros beetle that is sucking juice from sugar cane:


We traveled to Tortuguero Island, and although not the season for the annual sea turtle migration to the sea, a very worthwhile two-day visit. We saw many howler monkeys, lizards, toucans, egrets, herons, and caimen, and more. We stayed at Laguna Lodge, in the midst of the rain forest. This is the view from the nearby Tortuguero Village:


Then on to Fortuna for two days where we stayed at a comfortable hotel called Magic Mountain, located at the foot of the Arenal Volcano, seen here from the plaza in town:


Our last two-day stop was in Guanacaste on the Pacific Coast, where the weather was warmer and the terrain dryer. We stayed at the Marriott Resort and Spa and had great rooms. Here is the view from the nearby beach:

I'm Still Here

April 7th, 2011 at 12:09 am

It's been a while since I posted, so I guess an update is in order. My dh and I have been busy traveling. In early March, we spent a week on the Oregon coast. The weather was cold and we had some rain, but it didn't dampen our spirits. We enjoyed whale watching right from the condo balcony, walked on the pristine beaches, bird-watched, and dined on fresh seafood. Our favorite restaurant is Mo's which has the BEST clam chowder. A timeshare exchange made this a very affordable trip.

In late March we were in Cabo for a niece's 25th wedding anniversary and their renewal of vows. We stayed at the Dreams resort that is pricey, especially if you choose the all-inclusive option. Through our timeshare exchange company (Interval International Getaway), I reserved a one-bedroom suite with a kitchenette for $759 for the week. We saved on meals, especially breakfast and lunch, by preparing our own. Cabo has a Costco, two Walmarts, a Sam's Club, and every American fast food restaurant you can think of. In fact, it is a Canadian and American vacation and retirement haven.

Currently, I am in NYC, spending a week with my ds who is on spring break from her teaching job in CA. We are having fun with her two-year-old grandson, but are doing lots of sightseeing while he is in pre-school. His parents are taking a vacation to Turks and Caicos while we babysit. I had never been to the annual Macy's Flower Show and it is beautiful. Not to mention that Macy's is the biggest department store I've ever been in.... with nine floors to shop, three Starbucks, a McDonalds, a full restaurant, and more. I love NYC!

Next Friday, we are off to El Salvador (1 week with family) and then flying from there to Costa Rica (two weeks of bird-watching and trekking). I've been so busy I haven't updated my travel blog but will get to it one of these days. In the meantime, another
adventure calls.


American Airlines and Expedia Are No Longer Partners

February 27th, 2011 at 04:31 am

This afternoon, while confirming upcoming travel reservations I learned that as of January 1, 2011 Expedia and American Airlines no longer have a business partnership. An Expedia agent told me the breakup is due to "incompatible computer systems." However, I'm sure there's more to the story. Too bad... I often use Expedia to make reservations, and I frequently travel on American because it's one of the partners connected to my mileage program.

Now when you search flights on Expedia, American is not included in the lineup of airlines offering flights. I tested it out with a hypothetical trip from San Francisco to NYC and found that American had the cheapest flight for my travel dates/times. If I had chosen to fly on one of the airlines from the Expedia search, I would have paid about ~$48 more for the lowest round trip fare.

American Airlines and Expedia should try to patch things up because researching flights will now take longer for consumers who want to use Expedia but who also want to check American's fares. It also complicates matters for those who sometimes schedule different legs of a trip on different carriers. Fortunately, there's Travelocity... it still offers flights on American Airlines.

Amazing Amazon Experience

January 26th, 2011 at 08:16 pm

We're back from our month-long trip to the Amazon Basin. We traveled 1,000 miles on the Amazon River in Brazil to the industrial city of Manaus, then turned around and sailed back to the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way, we stopped at several smaller cities and remote villages. It was a memorable National Geographic-type experience, and definitely worth the time and expense.

Money-wise, it was a pricey trip but we stayed within our budget. We plan big trips about a year in advance and save systematically to our travel account so the trip was almost completely paid for before we started. We budget extra funds for unexpected events and spontaneous activities. Nowadays, we buy very few souvenirs (except for my grandniece and nephews), but we do take lots of pictures. Thank goodness for digital photography!

Health-wise, we did fairly well. Dh caught a stomach bug that lasted about two days. I was bitten by fire ants while visiting Boca da Valeria, a remote village near Parintins... very painful but fortunately, I didn't have an allergic reaction like I do with bees. Our doctor in the USA gave us meds for all possible ailments, including malaria, so we didn't have to see the ship's doctor like some of our fellow-travelers.

A few highlights and pictures from our trip are posted on our travel blog if you are interested.

Tips for Saving Money During a Long Trip

December 13th, 2010 at 07:42 pm

In a few days my dh and I will be taking a trip that will take us away from home for six weeks. In preparation for being gone for an extended period, I have put the following services on "vacation hold:"

~ DISH TV
~ Trash
~ Sewer
~ Newspaper
~ Netflix
~ House cleaning

I calculated we will save at least $255 by placing these services on hold. In addition, I placed our mail on vacation hold, although it can only be done for 30 days at a time.

Before leaving, we will turn off the pilot on the gas fireplace, shut off the water valves to the washer, and turn the water heater to the low setting. The forced air heater will be set to a lower temperature (60) but not so low the pipes will freeze, and the ice maker will be shut off. This will save on the gas bill and protect the house from water line mishaps. (Years ago, after a two-week trip, we came home to a flooded house due to the washer hose breaking).

We will call our credit card companies to alert them we will be traveling out of the USA and give them the names of countries where we will possibly use our cards (i.e., Devil's Island, St. Lucia, Brazil...).

While we are traveling, we will keep our cell phones on "Airplane Mode" to avoid long distance roaming fees but will keep the Wi-Fi option turned on. This will allow us to check our email whenever we are in free Wi-Fi range (e.g., many hotels, cafes, and airports). I will also contact ATT about international data plan options in case I need to use my email from my iPad when we are out of free Wi-Fi range.

Another thing I do when we travel is send family a copy of our itinerary so they know how to contact us in case of an emergency, especially if our cell phones are turned off. I will also email myself an encrypted spreadsheet with our credit card numbers and phone numbers in case we lose the cards, and I will email myself an encrypted pdf of my scanned passport for the same reason.

And lastly, I carry my medical records on a flash drive that was given to me by our HMO. My comprehensive health records are on an encrypted pdf that requires a password to open, just like the documents I email to myself.


Our trip will take us 1,000 miles down the Amazon River to Manaus.

Are Timeshares a Bad Investment?

November 4th, 2010 at 01:32 am

I recently read an article about bad investments and was not surprised to see timeshares on the list. Timeshares frequently get a bum rap, although there is some truth to the notion that timeshares can be a bad investment. If you buy a timeshare as an investment, you will be disappointed if and when you go to sell and see how much it's depreciated. But it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that people actually buy timeshares thinking they will resell them for profit.

Most timeshare owners I know bought for a variety reasons, but investing to make money is usually not one of them. However, I want to make a distinction here between making money and saving money. We think of our timeshare as "pre-paid" vacation time, and so far we are on track to save quite a bit. Read on and I will illustrate how, using our own timeshare as an example. But first let me share the "plan" we had in mind when we bought.

We intend to use our timeshare about 20 years (hopefully more) before we hand it over to an interested family member. Or, if no one in the family is interested, I can guarantee we will find someone willing to take it over. This means we would put the title in their name and they'd be responsible for the annual fee, currently about $400 a year. We're not interested in selling... we'll be happy to give it away when we've had enough. And yes, as the years go by, the fees will go up. No doubt about that, but so will the cost of hotel rooms. So here is how I break down the actual cost of owning our timeshare:

2003: Paid $10,300 (cash... no finance charges or loan fees to include)

Divide $10,300 by 20 years = $515 a year
Add $400 maintenance fees: $515 + $400 = $915
We use our timeshare an average of 10 days* per year: $915 divided by 10 = $92 per day
This is for accommodations that would normally run ~$250 to $300 a day or more. Not bad, even if you add ~$200 a year in lost interest on our original expenditure of $10,300.

*By leveraging our time and/or points, and traveling during off-peak times, we might stretch it to 14-21 days a year, greatly reducing the cost per day. We are also able to split weeks, convert to points, borrow from next year, and carry over for further flexibility. This will be an option now that we're retired and can travel during the off-peak months.

Our timeshare accommodations are typically a modern condo that sleeps 4-6 people. The unit will have a fully stocked kitchen, linens, washer and dryer, several bathrooms, and many other amenities such as swimming pools and workout rooms. We enjoy inviting friends and family to join us, and we can do this at no additional expense.

Some of the places we've been through our timeshare exchange network include:
Wolf Creek, Utah - 7 days
Sonora, Mexico - 7 days
Sedona, Arizona - 4 days
Carmel, California - 3 days
Bear Lake, Utah - 7 days
San Antonio, Texas - 7 days
Payette Lake, Idaho - 3 days
Las Vegas - 2 days
Orlando, Florida - 7 days
Mérida, Mexico - 7 days
Honolulu, Hawaii - 7 days
Brian’s Head, Utah - 7 days
Oregon Coast - 7 days (planned for 2011)

So, the bottom line is that we pay the equivalent of ~$92 per day for accommodations that would cost ~$250 per day minimum, and this approach supports our quest to save money while we enjoy traveling to different states and countries.

Sonora, Mexico:


Sedona, Arizona:


Carmel, California:


Bear Lake, Utah:


San Antonio, Texas:


Payette Lake at McCall, Idaho:


Orlando, Florida:


Merida, Mexico:


Honolulu, Hawaii:


Brian Head, Utah:

How I Saved $4840

October 5th, 2010 at 05:01 pm


Tomorrow morning dh and I leave for three weeks in Peru, flying out of SFO. We usually fly coach unless I can get a great deal like the one I did for this trip.

We are flying first class RT and the tickets for this itinerary would have cost $5,868. I ended up spending "only" $1,028.26 for two RT tickets to Lima by doing the following:

~ Used most of the the miles I had in my account (not enough);
~ Paid to transfer 15,000 miles from dh's account (still not enough);
~ Bought the remaining miles I needed to make the transaction.

If we had flown coach our tickets would have cost around $1,410 for two RT fares. Our first class tickets are still ~$400 cheaper than the coach fares.

I have to admit it takes time, research, and creative thinking, but there are ways to not only save money on air fare but to end up with better seats. In case you're wondering why I didn't use my miles for coach fares, they were not available. Airlines limit the number of fares that can be purchased with miles in each of the seating categories.

Love Our Senior Discounts

September 17th, 2010 at 07:27 pm

For the past week, dh and I have been staying at Brian Head, Utah. Many people have never heard of it but it is in a beautiful corner of the state, high (and I do mean high) in the mountains. With the summer crowds dwindling, we thought this would be a good time to visit nearby Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park.

Two years ago, dh purchased the lifetime senior pass to enter any national park, along with up to three adult guests. The senior pass is a bargain at $10 and is available to anyone 62 or older. The entrance fee to Zion and Bryce Canyon is $25 per car or $12 per person, so we saved quite a bit. We also used it to enter Cedar Breaks National Monument, although the entrance fees there are only $4 per person.

We opted to stay in Brian Head, an hour and a half scenic drive from the national parks because we reserved a comfortable 1-bedroom condo at a beautiful lodge for only $139 for the week. This was done through our timeshare exchange program. The elevation at Brian Head is 10,350 feet, something we were unaware of although it turned out to be a good thing. In about two weeks we will be traveling to Peru and staying at Brian Head gave us an idea of the effect of high elevation on our bodies.

It did take about a day to get acclimated to the high elevation, but we learned some important things: stay hydrated, take it easy for a day or so, eat carbs, and avoid alcohol.

Here are some pics... while they last:

Cedar Breaks National Monument is only 5 miles from Brian Head. Here they get 400 inches of snow annually and close the park in October:


Bryce Canyon visitors can drive right in. It has spectacular vistas... it's like a cross between Sedona and the Grand Canyon:


Zion National Park is open from May 28 until December 1 and is a national treasure. Visitors can go deep into the park by shuttle only, and these run every 6-8 minutes. There are many hiking trails, from moderate to challenging. We went on two hikes, to the Weeping Wall and the River Walk. Here is a shot of some of the interesting Zion hoodoos:


Before/After and More

July 18th, 2010 at 06:58 pm

Hope everyone is having a great summer. Ours has been busy. We are back in Idaho after spending two weeks in Hawaii and then two weeks in our CA condo. The Hawaii trip was planned to help my DS and BIL celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. My dh had never been to Hawaii and he liked it so much he wants to go back... I LOVE Hawaii, especially the weather, so we will go back in 2011.

We spent the first week on a cruise circling the islands of Maui, Hawaii, and Kauai, and the second week we spent in a timeshare condo on Oahu that I exchanged through Interval International. Here is a view from our room:


One of my favorite memories is of the spectacular Naapali cliffs in Kauai:


-----------------------------------------
Back in Idaho, the landscape contractor completed our patio project. I love the low maintenance aspect of our new patio. Our back yard is very small and faces an alley that gets very little traffic. BEFORE all we had was a patch of lawn and a concrete patio:


Now we have pavers and rock planters with excellent soil and an automatic watering system. Dh and I spent the last two days planting. The planters contain perennials and I also have 8 large pots with annuals. Here is a picture AFTER the project was completed:


April Update

April 30th, 2010 at 03:13 am

It's been a while since I last posted to my blog. April has been a busy and expensive month. I say expensive because of all the taxes we paid... Thankfully, we had savings to cover our bigger-than-expected Federal and State tax underpayment. Then there were also property taxes due on our CA home. So glad that's behind us!

In mid-April we spent two weeks in Mexico, mainly to visit the World Heritage archeological sites near Villahermosa and Merida. These are both very safe cities but I especially loved Merida, a beautiful colonial city with a rich history.

Giant Olmec stone head in La Venta Park near Villahermosa. These are as big as a room:


The Museum of Anthropology in Merida is worth a visit:


The archeological site at Uxmal:


One day, we drove to mangrove forests of Celestun on the coast. Dh had a blast bird-watching. Celestun is the feeding ground for thousands of flamingos:


The Yucatan is riddled with sinkholes, called "cenotes." These are usually filled with clean water and are popular as cool, underground pools and for cave diving. These limestone cenotes are connected by a vast underground river system:


About the trip:
~ We didn't get sick;
~ We had great accommodations through our timeshare (Hyatt Regency in both cities);
~ While in Merida, we saved money and had more flexibility by hiring a private driver for the day instead of going on a group tour. We were able to see and do much more for less than $60 a day;
~ We went over on our food budget because we invited our driver to eat with us each day, but he was knowledgeable and helpful;
~ The weather was good... some days actually a little too hot (over 100 degrees) but after Florida, we welcomed it;
~ Speaking Spanish really helped us get around.

One thing that really "gets" to me when we travel in Third World countries is to learn how LOW the minimum wage is in some countries. At ~$5 USD a day Mexico has a minimum wage even lower than EL Salvador, where I was born. I don't know how people live on this, but they do.

It also distresses me to see so many stray dogs that look like they're starving. They wander the streets looking so pathetic, but what can you do? There is no SPCA that I know of and people are mostly indifferent to these poor creatures. If you try to feed them, people look at you as if you are crazy.

At La Venta Park, people do feed the coatimundis... it's the local practice. These raccoon-like animals can be quite aggressive, and even chase you if they think you have food.


And, yeah, they caught me!


In the next few days I will be posting more on the World Heritage sites on my travel blog, in case you are interested.


Taking Stock

March 30th, 2010 at 06:55 pm

Today I decided to analyze my stock portfolio, something I haven't done in over a year. Here is the lowdown:

1. The portfolio has now surpassed the high of October 2007;

2. It's gained 95% since the low of February 2009;

3. Overall gain since inception has averaged ~7% a year;

4. I have not bought or sold any stocks or mutual funds in years;

5. My portfolio consists of 90% individual stocks and 10% mutual funds;

6. My best performing stocks in terms of gain over purchase price are: AAPL, SBUX, PG, WMT, ABT, HPQ, AMZN;

7. I buy stocks based on liking/using a company's product, not on a high-level analysis. (Note: I DO NOT recommend this approach!) For example, I bought AAPL at $6 a share in 1996, because I'd used Mac computers since they first came out in 1985. I was lucky... AAPL has split twice and has had outstanding gain;

8. Most (but not all) stocks I bought outperformed mutual funds I bought (VFINX, SNXFX, SWPPX);

9. When I decide to buy a stock, I will buy between 100-500 shares;

10. As much as I'm interested in personal finance, I just haven't gotten into educating myself about the stock market, but maybe this is an area to explore. I still feel like a rookie.

I've always thought of my stocks as an asset I'd probably leave to my children or a charity and had not counted on these funds for retirement, but it's a good backup option. On the other hand, my retirement accounts (403b, IRAs, 457), some of which are invested in mutual funds, are entrusted to a professional financial manager.

------------------------

In other news, dh and I have been in ID for the last two weeks, enjoying some special time with my daughters and SILs. The weather's been colder than CA, but nothing unbearable. Dh has a new interest: photographing birds and wildlife, so we've spent hours at local parks and wildlife preserves. Idaho has abundant wildlife and beautiful landscapes, so there are endless photo ops. Dh just spent a small fortune upgrading to a better camera (Canon EOS 7D) but saved money on taxes (ID is 6% vs. CA @ 9.25%).

At the end of the week, we'll drive back to CA (with TC the cat) to spend Easter with family and friends. I'm looking forward to seeing my sister, niece, grandniece, and grandnephew. I love how the kids get excited about their Easter egg hunt and we'll all have a wonderful brunch with close friends and family.

Then in mid-April, dh and I are off to Mexico for a few weeks to explore some major archeological ruins in the states of Tabasco and Yucatan. From our base in Villahermosa, we will go to La Venta and Palenque. Then we'll fly to Merida, and will go to Uxmal and Chichen-Itza from there.


Our FL trip: the good, bad, and the ugly

March 9th, 2010 at 10:50 pm

Well, we're back from two weeks in Orlando and overall we had a great time.

The Good
~ A side-trip to the Everglades... awesome! You can read more about the Everglades on my travel blog if you're interested in the flora and fauna of this immense area. I took some great pictures of gators and birds.

~ Disney World... we visited the four parks (Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom) and Magic Kingdom twice. I bought our tickets from a discounter at Denny's at a good savings, paying $418 (including tax) for two adults for 5 days, single park per day option. I researched the best days to attend and we never had to wait more than 5 minutes for any of the rides.

~ Floridays Resort - For Week 1, we had a lovely two-bedroom apartment with all the amenities including free Internet, W/D, and a full kitchen. We got a good deal through Expedia and our accommodations came to ~$105 a night including the surcharge added upon checkout. It was located close to everything, but it was way more space than we needed. Two people do not need a two-bedroom apartment with three TVs but this was the smallest unit available. We probably could have saved a little more by shopping around (maybe ~$85 a day) but it was a last-minute trip. This is a great unit for 4-6 people and the resort is beautiful.

~ St. Augustine - This was an easy day-trip from Orlando. What a great, historic city with so much to see. In retrospect, we should have planned to stay several days. We used dh's senior pass, good at any national park, to get in free to the Castillo de San Marcos. Here I am at the city gates.


~ Our rental car from Alamo was a good deal... the pick up and delivery was easy, and we saved ~25% though Costco plus got a free day. This was a good investment because it gave us flexibility to go to the attractions or anywhere else without having to follow shuttle bus schedules. We were able to go to Tampa Bay, Daytona Beach, Miami, St. Augustine, the Everglades, and more.

~ Arabian Nights... this was a good dinner and an amazing performance featuring beautiful horses. We paid only $13 for the two of us to get in and had great seats. I'll explain more later.

The Bad
~ We went over budget on meals by ~ $9 a day... so not too bad. We just couldn't resist those snacks at Disney World, and they are not cheap. For example, a Haagen Daz bar was $3.75. I also had not budgeted $14 a day for parking at the Disney resorts, but it was well worth it to have the flexibility. But as much as I love to save and always have a budget, our travel account is padded so we can absorb going over budget without causing any distress.

~ The weather was COLD... even colder than back home in Silicon Valley, but we dealt with it by layering and it didn't dampen our spirits. It did mean no swimming or sunning, though.

~ I got sick... a serious sinus infection sidelined me for a day and required going to urgent care, but I was soon on the mend. The visit and 2 prescriptions were only $40, thanks to our good health insurance.

~ Westgate Lakes... Week 2 was at this resort and it was a timeshare exchange that cost only $139 for the week. That being said, I won't get too nit-picky, but let's just say we won't be staying there again if we can help it. Mostly, it has to do with the management and not the facilities which are older. We were given wrong information about basic things such as the location of the laundry facilities, the "free" breakfast, the housekeeping service, etc. At check-in, before giving your room key, they pressure guests into considering a timeshare sales pitch, which leads me to...

The Ugly
~ We decided to sit through their 90-minute timeshare sales pitch in order to get our almost-free tickets to Arabian Nights (normally ~$64 per person). We did not want to buy another timeshare and once they figured that out, they were rude and ugly. But they did "dismiss" us before the 90 minutes was up and we still got our tickets.

~ My dh actually went on two "scary" rides with me. After riding DINOSAUR at Animal Kingdom, I took a photo of the photo they try to sell you when you get off. We are the two on the right in the very back. Yeah... we are a pretty ugly sight, for sure. He also went on Thunder Mountain, so I'm proud of him, but I had to go on Space Mountain by myself.

Change of Plans, Part 2

February 10th, 2010 at 07:56 pm

Our trip to Peru in February was canceled due to torrential rains and ensuing floods that washed away the railroad tracks, but we have rescheduled for October. We've been looking forward to the trip for months and the cancellation was a letdown that left us itching to go somewhere, anywhere. Fortunately, our 2010 travel savings has enough to allow some "unscheduled" travel, so I researched "last minute" deals. Unable to resist the bargains, we decided on two weeks in Orlando, Florida. Our itinerary includes St. Augustine, Miami and the Everglades, and the Disney World parks.

Some things that saved money:

~ The first week was booked through Expedia as a package that included airfare, so we saved over $500 (another condo with a kitchen);

~ The second week was booked through our timeshare (Interval International) and will cost $139 for the entire week (studio condo with kitchen);

~ The day-long excursion to Miami and the Everglades was booked using a discount coupon;

~ The car rental was booked through Costco Travel at a 25% savings plus one free day;

~ We will prepare one or two meals each day at the condo, a healthy option that will save money.

We are set to leave next week. Now, if only I could talk dh into going on the "scary" rides with me at Disney World...

Change of Plans

February 5th, 2010 at 06:13 am

Long before retiring, dh and I saved and planned for a trip to Peru, primarily to see Machu Picchu, the ancient city of the Incas. We've been looking forward to the nearly month-long trip that was scheduled for mid-February. But it is not to be. Yesterday our tour company informed us our excursion was canceled.

Due to the worst torrential rains in 15 years, the railroad that takes visitors to Aguas Calientes, the town closest to the ruins, has been shut down... the tracks were swept away by floods. About 3,000 tourists were evacuated by helicopter and at least 10 lives were lost.

Our "problem" is insignificant compared to what others have suffered. Thousands of Peruvians have lost their homes and businesses, especially around Cusco and Aguas Calientes. From one account, Machu Picchu will be inaccessible for at least three weeks. This is a major disaster that is wreaking havoc on the Peruvian economy. Fortunately, we will adapt and have already rescheduled the trip for early October.

Things I am grateful for:
1. We can still go, it'll just be later in the year (and it's paid for);
2. I paid $64 for the optional travel insurance which means we will get a complete refund for the air fare ($900);
3. The tour company will pay up to $250 each if the air fare is more in October than the cost of the original tickets;
4. I now have more time to continue my conditioning so I can hike in the Andes without getting altitude sickness.

Jam-packed January

January 31st, 2010 at 11:40 pm

It's the last day of January and looking back, the month has flown by. We were in Idaho for the first week then drove back to CA. Since weather conditions were very icy, we opted to break up the trip by spending the night in Reno instead of making the 12-hour drive in one day. We stayed at La Quinta, a "pet friendly" hotel that was clean and reasonable (~$63). The hotel didn't charge extra for TC the cat and provided a free continental breakfast in the morning (with choice of warm oatmeal, cold cereal, juice, coffee, yogurt, toasted bagels/cream cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and more).

A few days after arriving back in CA, dh's colleagues honored him at a brunch at the Dolce Hayes Mansion. My DDs flew out from ID for the event, in honor of his retirement and almost 30 years of distinguished service. The day before the celebration, we took the girls whale watching on the coast. This is something I've always wanted to do, but never had. The excursion was reasonably-priced, very successful and one we'll do again. Some of the best experiences are in our own back yard.

We saw an abundance of migrating gray whales... this one flashing its beautiful tail.


We encountered a school of Risso's dolphins. Here a calf is sheltered between two adults.


These California Sea Lions like to pile up on the jetty.


Mid-January, I took off to NYC with my DS. There are some great fares to be had from SFO to NY, even cheaper than flying to Boise. After spending a week with my sister, I realized how much fun it is to have our "girls only" time. Well, we did have a little man with us... my grandnephew who just turned one. One of the reasons DS and I went to NYC was so my grandnephew's parents could take a much-needed vacation. So DS and I enjoyed being grandma and great-auntie for a week. Fortunately, the baby was happy and easy to care for. We enjoyed decent weather... very little rain, and clear but cold (low 30s and high 20s).

Staying in my nephew's apartment was an interesting experience. Their apartment is one of ~22,000 (not a typo) in an East Side complex known as Stuyvesant Town. The apartment is ~700 square feet and they pay ~$2,500 in rent that includes heat, electricity, water, and garbage. I guess this is average rent for NYC.

It struck me as odd that they cannot regulate the heat in their apartment. For my taste, the apartment was frequently too warm, so much that I'd wake in the middle of the night. When I did, I'd look out the window and see many apartments with the lights on and windows cracked open. What a waste of energy, and especially alarming since Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town are having economic woes.

I stayed well below budget on this trip. We saved money by shopping at Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and in Chinatown for produce, all within walking distance. Dinners were home-cooked gourmet meals but we did eat lunch out several times. The thin-crust NY pizza is yummy but my favorite is Bon-Chon chicken.


In Chinatown, a good place for bargains, I bought dried mushrooms and ginger at reasonable prices for my CA pantry.


On many street corners you can find small "bodegas" that sell groceries and fresh flowers.


One of the most entertaining things to do in NYC is "people watching." This professional dog-walker has her hands full. New Yorkers love dogs.


And for those who want to save time...

This Time It's Real!

December 5th, 2009 at 05:18 pm


The day after I retired in August 2008, I took a part-time job at a local university supervising student teachers. Then my dh decided to retire in July 2009 from the same university. But he went back to work full-time for the Fall 2009 semester under a program allowing retired faculty to work 50% for up to five years.

My part-time work brought me full-circle... I began my career as a teacher and I ended it as a teacher. In between, I spent more than 15 years as an administrator but teaching has always been my passion. The most enjoyable aspect of my "retirement job" was working with my students, a dedicated and passionate group eager to begin their teaching careers. And while the job helped me transition from intense full-time work to retirement, it also prevented me from doing some things I really want to do.

So, when my dh decided to opt-out after just one year in his post-retirement program, it was my cue to bow out too. Now it's official... as of yesterday, we both are completely work-free and 100% retired. Our goal is to take time for some serious traveling so we can decompress, regroup, and reflect about what we want to do for the next 20 years or more.

So now we are free to travel the world without the encumbrance of jobs, and we have made plans. At various times in the next year we will be somewhere else: Panama, New York, Peru, Mexico, Hawaii, Bryce Canyon, Brazil, the Amazon... and maybe other places not yet dreamed of. So far, 120 days are scheduled. Some trips will be on our own, some will be cruises, and the Peru trip will be with Exploritas, a travel program formerly known as Elderhostel. We are also looking into a volunteer trip to Latin America through Habitat for Humanity, if the dates work around other commitments.

Some people don't like to travel at all, but it's always appealed to us on many levels. We learn about other cultures and people, and in the process we learn more about ourselves. And, although it's the perfect escape for some people, we're not the types to spend all our time sipping margaritas under a palapa on a beautiful beach somewhere. Well, maybe I could handle it for a day or two, but that hedonistic life would eventually get old. We especially want to see places that are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

So how will we pay for all of this, especially now that we're retired? We didn't hit the lottery or inherit money. Travel in retirement is NOT as difficult as one might think... it's about choices, planning, saving, and of course, dreaming. We've gotten into the habit of saving something every month, plus any extra money that comes our way in our travel savings, so our 2010 trips are fully funded and then some. Our frugal lifestyle helps... we live comfortably, but below our means and saving is easier because we are debt free (except for a small mortgage).

To keep in touch with family and friends, I've started a blog that focuses on different aspects of travel, including some money-related topics. I'm encouraging dh to blog along with me, and he seems open to the idea. If you're interested in reading our travel blog or if you'd like to write a guest post about one of your trips, share photos or travel tips, please visit Sage Travelers. My last post was about the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

The Cardinal vs Golden Bears and More

November 21st, 2009 at 08:12 pm

Yesterday I met with my student teachers for the last seminar of the semester and led a discussion on interviewing strategies. Over the years as an administrator, I hired about 90-100 teachers, served on countless interview panels for other positions, and recruited for the district teaching pool. It was good to share information from my experience that will hopefully help them land jobs.

In CA, this is possibly one of the worst times to secure a teaching job. Due to state budget woes, school districts are laying off or cutting back their teaching staff. Getting a job in education is extremely competitive and thus it's necessary for candidates to stand out in a sea of applicants. During the last week of November, I will meet with each student to debrief and verify that all program requirements have been satisfied, then they will be ready to apply for jobs.

Work is really winding down for us. After December 4, we are completely and utterly free... me from my part-time job and dh from his full-time position. Then we will begin some serious adventures. I will be posting about our travels on my new blog. I welcome any guest posts if you are inclined to share your travel stories or photos.

As far as the weekend, things look good. Last night was a dismal and drizzly and I was concerned it would continue into the weekend. Today the sun is out and the weather is beautiful. Later today, we are heading to the Stanford stadium (with DS and BIL) for the big game... The Cardinal vs. Golden Bears. Stanford does not have an official mascot which I find odd. They are known as "The Cardinal" as in the color, not the cleric. They used to be the Indians but that is no longer PC and then there's a tree but it's not really a mascot. Strange. Hope it's an exciting game.

Expanding My Horizons

October 30th, 2009 at 07:08 am

Today I bought a domain at GoDaddy.com to use for a travel blog "we" are planning to initiate. I use the term "we" loosely because I haven't informed my dh that he is about to become a blogger. Since he will be 100% retired in December, I figure this will be our hobby and also useful to keep family and friends informed as we travel. In the next few weeks I will be designing our blog and will initiate it with the trip we have planned in December through the Panama Canal.

I suppose I could have gotten a free blog through blogger.com but I wanted to create something unique that I could potentially expand in some manner that might include the possibility of earning $$... not sure what, but the wheels are turning. Actually, I registered two domains, the .com and the .net versions. The two privacy-protected registrations and the web hosting service through Quick Blogcast is only $7 per month... for everything.

I chose Quick Blogcast because I'll be able to create podcasts, and upload videoclips and photos. If we find the need to expand, GoDaddy also offers several site building plans that would enable us to turn our domain into a comprehensive website. I've really been on a learning curve, but it's good exercise for my brain. I'll share the url (thenameofmyblog.com) when it's ready in case anyone is interested in the travel topics we'll be blogging about.

Making Travel a Reality in Retirement

August 3rd, 2009 at 11:53 pm

When I decided to retire a year ago, I knew we could live more frugally in some ways but I also knew that travel would be a bigger expense, given that we'd have more time for it. And, after years of working hard and looking forward to retirement, it would be disappointing to have to limit travel due to lack of funds. So, to what extent would we be able to afford retirement travel? To figure this out, prior to retiring I analyzed our projected monthly expenses in relation to our retirement income. I included "travel" as a monthly expense.

For us, travel planning begins with reviewing our calendar and discussing where we'd like to go in the coming year. We take into account visits with family, work/volunteer schedules, other financial obligations, and timeshare options. In 2009, our travel plans have included Carmel, San Antonio, an Alaskan cruise, and a trip to Payette Lake in McCall, ID. Once we know when and where, I estimate expenses for airfare, hotels, meals, and excursions. That amount is prorated and I deposit a monthly amount to the savings account that holds travel funds.

Then I challenge myself to reduce the cost of our planned travel as much as possible. For example, our hotels in Carmel, San Antonio, and McCall were reserved through our timeshare, so aside from the annual dues, there was no hotel expense. The airfare for San Antonio was purchased with miles, so we paid only the airport taxes (~$20). The airfare to Seattle (departure port for cruise) was 50% off because I used my mileage card rewards.

For the Alaskan cruise, we received a "military discount" available to anyone who has ever served in the military, no matter when. We were eligible for the discount due to dh's service during the Vietnam War and this saved ~$500. A few days before the final payment was due, I called the cruise line and negotiated an additional savings of $240 plus $100 onboard credit. A few days before departure the cruise line called to see if we were interested in upgrading to a suite for a reasonable price and we did.

The effort to systematically save and reduce travel costs pays off because the travel fund is growing. I usually deposit any "windfalls" into this account. In 2010, we want to go to Machu Picchu and take a Hawaiian cruise, so I'm starting to plan and save for those already. Retirement travel is possible because we live a simple life with no debt (except for a small mortgage) and we carefully plan and save for each trip. We've always said travel would be a priority in our retirement and we definitely want to make hay while the sun shines.

R & R in Alaska

June 29th, 2009 at 06:58 am

Five days after returning from ~ a month of intense work in Guatemala, dh and I left on our long-planned cruise to Alaska. It was a wonderful experience, especially because we were joined by my DDs and SILs. It was great to see them every day for a whole week, enjoying meals and some excursions together.

Alaska is beautiful and we had clear but cool weather most days. Juneau was the exception, where it rained as we sailed away through the icy fjord. The wildlife is abundant... we saw seals, whales, dolphins, eagles, bears, and even some reindeer.

I photographed this eagle near the Ketchikan rain forest.


The Glacier Gardens in Juneau are alive with color and texture.


Here is a view of Mendenhall Glacier (Juneau) from the observation area... it is magnificent.


This is Dawes Glacier, seen as we sailed through Endicott Fjord.


We saw some beautiful, rugged country on the train excursion to White Pass in Skagway.


The view from our stateroom was amazing.


We had three adjoining staterooms and had fun visiting from our balconies. My DDs/SILs are enjoying the view as we leave Seattle.


Cheers!


We're Back

June 17th, 2009 at 04:34 pm

The trip to Guatemala was very productive and culminated in success for our 18 students. Everyone completed the course requirements and we made it back safely to the USA. Our journey was not without some "problems," though.

While we were there, we experienced:
~ 3 earthquakes (1 strong, 2 mild)
~ two torrential downpours
~ the closing of one of our schools due to H1N1 flu outbreak
~ my dh sick enough to warrant going to the hospital (he recovered)

The day after we arrived back in the USA, all schools in Guatemala were closed until July 1 due to H1N1 flu. Unlike the USA, the Guatemalan school year is from January to October. Our timing was perfect because we finished the program the Friday before all the schools were closed by the government.

But, we're back, and eager to go again next year. Dh and I will rent an apartment and live there a few months, doing pro bono teacher training and just enjoying the beautiful city of Antigua. The schools want us to return and even went as far as helping us find an apartment we will be able to rent.

It was truly an amazing experience to wake up each day in this beautiful part of the world. The Guatemalan people are welcoming, and the city is a mecca for learning. Language schools abound and people from around the globe come here to learn Spanish or Kakchiquel (the Mayan language).

Apart from the cultural dynamic, the geography is breathtaking. I took the photos of these two volcanoes from the roof of our posada. This one is called "Agua," taken the day after a heavy rain when there was no cloud cover.


On the same day, I took this photo of "Fuego" which actively sputters all day long, sending sheets of lava down the mountain. You can see the lava if you look closely.

At the Marketplace

June 6th, 2009 at 05:19 pm

We arrived at Chichicastenango after breakfast Sunday morning, en route from a night at Lake Atitlan. The volcanoes that surround Lake Atitlan look like a watercolor backdrop at sunset.


We will be here just a couple of hours and there is much to see. The sights, smells, sounds, and colors of the marketplace at Chichicastenango fill the senses. Here in this bustling marketplace, I catch a glimpse of the lives of the locals, so different from my own. This is the area in the market where the locals come to buy and sell their produce.


Artisans proudly display their wares and eagerly tell you about the artist or the weaver and the region where an item was produced. Each village has its own unique weaving style, so it is easy to identify where people are from by the patterns on their huipiles (traditional woven top worn by the women). I wish I could buy a trunk full of items to bring back home, but alas, space is limited. But this visual treat, now digitally preserved, will be enjoyed again and again.


These are Nativity scenes (creches) made of clay and hand painted. Guatemala is predominantly Roman Catholic.


Although a stranger looking in, I am touched by the universal bond of motherhood. Guatemalan mothers, babies snugly strapped in their rebozo slings, are no different than mothers around the globe. They love and protect their children and it is joyful to see. But I cannot be obvious in taking photos... Americans have been warned... NO PHOTOS... because some Guatemalans believe babies might be kidnapped for adoption by foreigners. It is now very difficult to adopt Guatemalan babies, unlike a few years back when adoption was a booming, unregulated business.


"He's not heavy; he's my brother..." for 5 Quetzales (63 cents), though, I am allowed to take this picture.


Dare I try the freshly made blue corn tortillas or the luscious fresh fruit ready to be eaten? In my younger days, I would not hesitate to eat food sold on the street. But now I am more careful, knowing I cannot do my job if I were to get sick... I simply don't bounce back the way I used to. But I can still take in the wonderful aromas of the typical fare while I snack on my Trio bar and banana.



Hiking to Volcan Pacaya

May 29th, 2009 at 09:13 pm

There was no school on Wednesday, so at dawn, the air clean and fresh from the evening rain, our group took the shuttle to the starting point of our climb up the slopes of Pacaya. After more than 100 years of being dormant, Pacaya had a violent eruption in 1965 and has been erupting continuously since then. In fact, Pacaya is one of the most active volcanoes in Central America. In 2000, the activity was such that flights to Guatemala City were suspended for two days.

This is a photo I took of Volcan Pacaya on the way up the trail.


I have to admit being a little apprehensive about the climb... but dh assured me even "old" people make it up the mountain. He does have a way with words! My right ankle has been troubling me after pulling a tendon a few months back, and despite therapy, it still gets sore easily. The perfect solution for me involved spending $25 for a guided horseback ride up and down the slope (more than 7 kilometers), led by Miguel, a young man of about 16. Even some of the more fit and younger members of the group opted for the horseback ride. Dh, an avid hiker, led the others up the steep slope.

I rode Canario up the steep 7 kilometer slope.


What can I say... by hook or by crook, I was going to see the red-hot lava flow close up. On my horse, Canario, the ascent was fast-paced but I was able to chat with my guide... my fluent Spanish coming in very handy. Miguel said he no longer attends school because he has to help support his widowed mother and 3 younger siblings. Despite the obvious challenges in his life, this young man demonstrated a strong work ethic, a positive attitude, and great interpersonal skills. Imagine what he could do with his life if he had access to a good education!

Miguel knew a great deal about the local flora because he told me all about the numerous plants we passed on the way to the volcano. For example, one plant, called "Hoja de Queso" is used to press cheese between two large leaves. It has antibacterial properties and can also be used as emergency TP or to wipe a sweaty brow. Miguel earned a nice big tip for his extra-special guided tour.

"Hoja de Queso" is a versatile plant.


At the summit, from my vantage point I could see the roiling red-hot lava spilling from the caldera... a wizards brew, complete with an occasional pungent whiff of sulfur. A tremendous heat radiated from the flow, and I was happy to observe from a distance. Thankfully, the thick soles of my hiking boots protected me from the sharp lava we stood on. To my surprise, I learned the lava we are standing on is only 5 months old. I am grateful I decided to pack my hiking boots and gloves to protect my hands as I negotiated through the craggy lava flow. As I steadied myself on the sharp, black lava, my walking pole was looking pretty beat up. I took photos with my Flip video and later will convert some footage to still shots. It was fascinating!

One of our students can be seen crossing to the lava flow on horseback.


I took this photo of the lava flow with a 3X zoom.


The ride down was harder than the ride up. Because of the steep grade I had to lean back very far and press tightly into the stirrups. Canario, only seven years old, was a veteran of the trails... not even phased by the poisonous snake he stopped for on the trail.

The poisonous snake on the trail down was more startled by the horse than vice versa.


I had a view of another volcano called Agua on the way down the trail.


By 1:30 we were back at the posada, in time to make lunch and then get to work planning the seminars for the coming week. Later, I paid $12 for a soothing 45-minute reflexology massage... what a treat for my tired feet!


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