Chandigarh-born mother of two Shalini Abrol would not let the serious spinal injury she suffered nearly three years ago get her down. At the Costa Rhu condo she shares with husband Amir and their two teenagers, she treated Verne Maree to fresh cauliflower parathas and told her about her work with Volunteering Solutions.
Where did you grow up?
As my dad was with the State Bank of India, we moved regularly all around India, and I went to a whole string of schools in Kashmir, Shimla, Chandigarh and more. I think that made expat life easier for me.
What brought you to Singapore?
My husband Amar’s job with Amex; he’s no longer with them, though. This is our second Singapore stint; the first was from 2001 to 2004. Our kids – Devika (now 16) and Ishaan (13) – were born during our first posting to Hong Kong. After a second, two-year posting to Hong Kong, we came back to Singapore in 2006. The kids attend school at the Dover campus of UWC (United World College Southeast Asia), where I also work as a relief teacher.
You’re lucky to have such an idyllic outlook from your ground-floor condo – a swathe of grass, a wide stretch of the Kallang River, and barely a building in sight. How did you find it?
When we decided to buy our own place last year, we’d been renting an apartment in a different block in Costa Rhu, so we knew we liked both the condo and the area. This is an excellent location: it’s a 10km cycle from here, past the Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Barrage all the way to Bayfront Avenue. Amir uses the gym, and I used to play tennis twice a week before I injured my neck; I used to be very sporty and I hope to be so again.
What did you like most about this apartment?
We loved the high ceilings from the moment we walked in; they make it feel like a house. I wasn’t sure about being on the ground floor, but having a garden has been great. It’s perfect for growing herbs – mint, coriander, tulsi, curry leaves, basil and oregano. I also have red and yellow chilli plants, jasmine and a miniature pomegranate tree in pots. Far East Flora in Thomson Road is where I buy my plants.
What did you change?
We extended the deck into the front garden and installed bi-fold doors with mosquito screens that slide away out of sight.
Indoors, we kept the original floors, but remodelled the kitchen and some of the bathrooms. By borrowing the rear part of a storage cupboard in the bedroom corridor, we were able to extend the kitchen and reconfigure the helper’s accommodation to include an ensuite shower room.
Our contractors, Exquisite, advised us to have the toilets redone, because the pipes were “old and leaky”, so we did that and updated the bathrooms at the same time. Amar redesigned our master bathroom, getting rid of the tub to open up the space. I miss having a tub, but I do like the extra storage space he’s included.
Where are your gorgeous soft furnishings from?
Mainly picked up during trips to India, but the master bedroom curtaining is from China. I admit that I went a bit overboard with the layers, thinking we’d have to protect our privacy here on the ground floor; but in fact we have no direct neighbours and no one passes this window. It’s very private.
We’ve acquired our furniture over the years from various places in the region, including Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore. One of my favourites is the standing mirror, which I found at a shop in Furniture Mall. Only the outdoor furniture was specially bought for here: it’s from Resort Living, in MacPherson Road.
Having a fourth bedroom is useful. Ours serves as a study and piano room, with a sofa that can be pulled out into a spare bed.
What is your working background, and how has being an expat mother affected your career?
It has made for a lot of diversity! Back in India, I did a Bachelor of Science degree, and followed that with a Masters in English Literature and a Bachelor’s degree in Education.
After meeting and marrying Amar, I moved with him to Hong Kong. There, I did programme management work for Star Television until after my daughter was born: she wasn’t a very well baby, though, and the job was too demanding to be juggled with motherhood.
During our first Singapore stint, I fitted in maths and science relief-teaching projects where I could – at Tanglin Trust, UWC, Chatsworth International School and others; and when we found ourselves back in Hong Kong, I taught full-time at King George V High School.
By then, I was ready for a change from teaching, and I joined an executive search company in Hong Kong. Being a head-hunter took me all over Asia and was so interesting, but before long Amar was transferred back to Singapore again and that came to an end. Sometime, I’d dearly love to return to that field.
Tell us about your serious spinal injury two years ago.
It happened while I was doing floor exercises with a personal trainer in a gym, and wiped me out completely. Orthopaedic surgeon Dr Ravi Pillay ordered six months’ total bed-rest. It took more than a year of slow rehabilitation before I could even sit up properly.
When I had some mobility, I started a full-time, two-year MBA course through Anglia Ruskin University of Cambridge, UK. Classes were held every weeknight from 6pm to 11pm at Raffles Place. Sitting upright to type my 20,000-word dissertation on Singapore Airlines Customer Satisfaction was a bit of a challenge, but I managed somehow!
Tell us about your involvement with Volunteering Solutions.
About a year ago in India, I met the founder, Saurabh Sabarwal, who asked me if I’d like to help him promote the concept in Singapore. I love travelling, and I also love the idea of helping others, so it was a very appealing concept.
The company was set up in 2006 and has already sent more than 7,500 people on volunteering experiences, mostly from its bases in the US, the UK, Europe and Australia. The available opportunities include childcare, wildlife conservation, animal welfare and sports coaching projects all over the world. We also facilitate volunteer internships for new medical graduates in the places that need them the most.
How much progress have you made here in Singapore?
Until now, Singapore has had relatively little involvement in travel volunteering – apart from the annual international school volunteering trips, many of which are mandatory for the International Baccalaureate. Singaporeans tend to be cautious about volunteering abroad, and we’re still in the early stages of developing general interest and enthusiasm for the idea.
So far, we’ve sent about 50 volunteers from here. My first was a real challenge – a 17-year-old IB student from the Overseas Family School who volunteered for a week at an orphanage in Palampur, in the Himalayas. His extremely protective South Indian parents were worried sick about how he’d find his way through Delhi Airport – which is actually fantastic now – and whether his hosts would feed him proper vegetarian food. It all worked out perfectly, of course.
Other examples include a lawyer who, between jobs, did legal work in an NGO in Vietnam for about six weeks; a Google employee on her December break, who went to Valencia in Spain; and a number of Singaporeans who have volunteered in Kathmandu, Nepal.
What other opportunities are there?
So many! You could spend two weeks in India helping out at an orphanage or at a women’s shelter, and on the weekends you’d be taken to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. If you’re interested in Thailand, you could help out at an elephant shelter in Chiang Mai, or help with the building a community centre in Surin.
Farther afield, you could volunteer in Peru and visit Machu Picchu. And in South Africa, you could visit Cape Town to help with a teaching project, look after horses in a stable, get involved with a surfing project for disadvantaged children or do sports coaching for disabled people.
You’ve explained that Volunteering Solutions is a business, not a charity. What does it charge and what does it provide for your fee?
As a volunteer, you pay for your own vaccinations, airfare, visa and so on. After picking you up at the airport, we provide your accommodation, food and 24-hour service support, plus weekend tours to places of interest.
The fee is variable, depending on your destination and the programme you choose. In Ghana, for example, you’ll see from the website that there’s a Teaching English programme for which the fee is US$395 a week, $495 for two weeks, and so on.
For another example, the three-week 2014 Summer Volunteer programme in Kathmandu, where you work with disadvantaged and disabled children during the week and do sightseeing on the weekends, charges a total fee of $899.
What good does Volunteering Solutions do?
Your fee goes towards developing the people and communities we work with, and it benefits local communities by providing them with volunteer support. For the participant, it provides meaningful volunteer programmes abroad, and enhances your travel experience by incorporating cross-cultural interactions.
One of our most meaningful projects, to my mind, is an education programme in Ghana where we are educating about 300 girls and have already been able to add ten classrooms to the local schools. Many schools from the US and the UK have sent groups to Ghana in support of this wonderful project. I can’t wait to go there myself – when my own children don’t need me so much.
Exquisite Renovation Works
Far East Flora
50 MacPherson Road
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