Grace and I recently spent our vacation in Singapore over her Spring Break. From the moment that Grace’s parents picked us up at the airport to when they brought us back a week later, our trip was filled with what I’ve now come to expect from Singapore: gatherings with friends and family, often over good and cheap food, various cheap public transit options to get between them, and the continual pursuit of air conditioning to avoid the year-round heat and humidity.
While the flights were super long and the trip felt short, we really appreciated being able to spend that time with friends and family. Even though we didn’t get to see everyone we wanted to see, it was still very refreshing to catch up and have fun together with those that we could.
Growing up, my conception of vacations didn’t include trips like this one. When we went on vacation, it meant one of two things: A trip somewhere with a lot of history, museums, and the general “sightseeing” attractions, or a trip to a beach resort in Mexico or the Caribbean to relax and get away.
Yet despite that motivation, the historic importance of the sights or the luxurious amenities of the resort were never all that important. What mattered most, to me both then and reflecting now, was who we were going with. In my childhood, this meant that the best vacations were those that we went on with our cousins. Some of my warmest memories come from sharing whatever we were doing together with them.
With regards to family vacations, this most came into focus in our 2011 trip to Europe. We planned several segments to this trip: A rendezvous with our cousins in Rome, then a couple stops in Germany where we’d lived 15 years prior, finishing up with more typical sightseeing vacations to Normandy and London.
Out of that whole trip, the two sweetest moments were the Rome portion with our cousins, and visiting a couple that had been close with my parents in Germany. They cooked us a delicious meal and were just so warm and inviting that we really felt at home. It didn’t even have to be friends of mine we were visiting to make it a special vacation.
5) Sightseeing. You want to see some famous historical location or natural wonder? Option 1: Buy a plane ticket, take time off work, navigate a foreign country often in a foreign language, maybe wait in line and pay an additional fee, just to be one of thousands of people taking pictures on their cell phones. Option 2: Look it up online, browse dozens of carefully chosen shots from every angle, maybe walk around on Google Street View, read all the history you want about it, and then get back to whatever else you were doing less than an hour later. Why would anyone ever choose Option 1?
I still believe what I wrote then, even while I take a more positive, less sassy tone in this post. As such, we didn’t go out of our way to see many of the famous sights in Singapore while we were there.
The one exception we made this trip was to see Gardens by the Bay, a botanical exhibition downtown near the spaceship-like hotel Marina Bay Sands. We hadn’t been there before, and I thought it would be an interesting place to walk around with a friend.
Unfortunately, the friend ended up bailing after we got there (we met up with him later), so it was just Grace and me walking around the Gardens. We had bought tickets to the two conservatories, the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest, so after struggling a bit to find somewhere to eat lunch that wasn’t being renovated, we checked them out. Of course, Grace had been many times before, but it was all new to me.
The taller domed conservatory, Cloud Forest, was the more interesting one to me, since it featured a greater variety and we got to go up about 6-8 stories. I like to say that growing up in Colorado has made me like climbing on top of things and looking down, which could also be a metaphor for my competitiveness.
The whole time we were there, I was thinking about how much more my gardener mom would enjoy it. We had started a group text with my family for the course of the trip, sharing about one picture per day with them. We made sure to take plenty of pictures at the Gardens to share:
Sharing those pictures with my family, especially pictures that I knew my mom would appreciate, was just another example of how we were able to turn a standard sightseeing experience into something to interact over with people we know and love.
The other way I squeezed the most out of this vacation came with optimizing the downtime. Along with the ~48 hours on planes or in airports, we also had plenty of downtime on the subway and buses travelling around Singapore.
At the encouragement of a colleague, I signed up for a 10-day free trial of the O’Reilly Online Learning app and downloaded dozens of hours of videos on a variety of topics related to my work. Most of it was uninformative and dry, but one series made it all worth it, the Clean Code videos by Robert “Uncle Bob” Martin. Over the course of the trip, I ended up watching about 30-40 hours of videos in that series on best practices for programming.
If you want a flavor, the first video of the series, Does Clean Code Matter?, is free for anyone to access. It features many of the recurring characters, all played by Martin, interacting in 5-10 second scenes to keep your attention for the full hour.
I completely nerded out, watching these videos on my iPad while at the airport, on the plane, bus, train, even just while we were walking around. It was like drinking from a fire hose, but I loved it.
And when I came back to work, a couple hours after our redeye from California landed, I was excited to apply what I’d learned. Too often, my vacations have just been distracting, pulling me towards other things until I return and begrudgingly get back to work. This time, I came back, physically tired after the redeye, but emotionally energized and with a new vision for what it means to write clean code.
Putting our focus on the people, Grace and I spent as much time as we had energy for with friends and family. We spent the first full day with her parents, visiting her grandmother. Her closest group of high school friends got Friday night with us, as we tried out Singapore’s Sandbox VR location, defending earth from alien attackers:
We’re also nearing the age when more and more friends of ours are becoming parents. Two other evenings, we got to meet the < 1-year-old children of Grace’s friends from college, a rare opportunity given how busy their lives are. One of them was actually celebrating one year that week:
In all, it was a perfect vacation. By focusing on people over tourism and filling downtime with rejuvenating and inspiring content, I was able to both thoroughly enjoy time away and come back refreshed and ready to work, exactly what vacations should do.