2011 in Review

This time last year, I thought 2010 was awesome. That was when Mo and Faisal visited me from Toronto for New Year's last year. When I was writing last year's journal entry, I thought there was no way that this year, 2011, could actually be better even though I had a clairvoyant feeling in the back of my head that it might. But I was so wrong! Each year just seems to be getting better and better than the previous one. So much change, so much growth, so much learning, and most importantly, so much perspective. Without doubt, 2011 ended up being phenomenal. But in different ways of course compared to 2010.

Let's take a whirlwind tour of the year, shall we?

2011 has certainly been the year of travel. I visited a total of seventeen cities in total this year! That's right, seventeen. A lot of cities, but spanning only 3 countries: Canada, USA and Kenya. For posterity, here are the cities I visited in 2011 listed in the order I visited them in:

  1. Phoenix, AZ
  2. Grand Canyon
  3. Sedona, AZ
  4. Napa Valley
  5. Los Angeles
  6. Dallas
  7. Austin
  8. Boston
  9. New York
  10. Toronto
  11. Waterloo
  12. Niagara Falls
  13. Yosemite
  14. Houston
  15. Squaw Valley @ Lake Tahoe
  16. Las Vegas
  17. Nairobi, Kenya

This time last year, I was on my way back from my Asia vacation in Dubai, Bangalore, Chennai and Kerala. I was heavily jet lagged and was too tired from the trip to even worry about writing a journal entry that week. This time around, I've decided to stay at home all holiday and take my vacation in January instead. So I have all the time and energy to write up my journal entry. And here you are.

The year 2011 started off on a positive note. Fortunately, it didn't just remain there because positive isn't good enough. DongNi, an old Waterloo friend, came to visit me from Boston for a conference in February. Shortly after she left, Steffan, my roommate, and I mounted a segway for the first time and toured the city on it. It was intensely fun, but we just kept wishing they would let us go faster!

Later that month, I tried out Parkour for the first time on a lovely Saturday morning with the SF Parkour Club. It was hard stuff, and also had a very steep learning curve. I went for practice again once more that year, but that was it. I'm not sure yet if it's for me. But I do love jumping over stuff, that's for sure. I'll probably give it a few more tries next year and see what comes off it. It's something you need to be very deeply invested in to see any progress. Casual, occasional practice doesn't get you very far at all.

The following month, in March, Steffan and I went on a city-wide Scavenger Hunt looking for clues all over the city by foot. We found an internet cafe nearby the start point to decode all the clues first and mapped them out on Google Maps to find the shortest path between each destination. It rained all day, but that didn't stop us! I'm glad we made it to the finish line and didn't give up in the middle.

At the start of the year, I had set myself a new multi-month goal. The goal was to legally drive a zipcar in San Francisco. Everything was working well until I made a minor lane mistake on my first road test in February causing me to fail instantly. It took me a week to get over my failure, but then I passed on the 2nd try and was successfully granted my California license. Nonetheless, dealing with the DMV was not pretty at all. In the end, I obtained my zipcar membership in March and drove my very first zipcar on Mar 24. I was pretty happy about it. I was now mobile!

I think the most challenging part, in the beginning at least, was alternating between both driving and biking. While biking, I'd easily blow through stop signs by simply scanning the intersection. However, I'd have these tendencies even when driving which was super dangerous. I don't know what percentage of the population face this problem since car owners seldom bike, but the ability to compartmentalize in my head the two modes of transport took a few months. I think I'm fine now though.

Towards the end of April, I visited Napa Valley for the first time with co-workers from Zynga. It was a studio-wide offsite and we even spent the night there. We had dinner in an underground man-made cave filled with candles and barrels and barrels of aging wine. It was certainly quite the enthralling experience.

May 2011 saw the beginning of what I hope will be a long career in long-distance running. I ran my first quarter-marathon, roughly 7 miles or 11.3 kilometers, on May 15 at the San Francisco annual Bay to Breakers event. I had never run that far in my life before. But Steffan and I finished strong. My knees were out of commission for a week after that run however. Oops.

Summer had officially begun and it was time to kick off the travel spirit. I made a day trip to Napa Valley again the weekend after Bay to Breakers with Rez (my roommate at the time), Marina and an old ping-pong friend of mine from Waterloo named Rohit. The Robert Mondavi winery was especially interesting since we got to go inside the winery and check out all the different processes in the production of fine tasting wine. Very complex stuff, and a lot different from the way software is built :)

The following weekend, Rez, an old-time friend William and 2 others headed to LA on a road trip. I had already been to LA before with William 2 years ago, but that didn't stop me from going again. We did a lot of random sight seeing there, but the trip was pretty successful for the most part. I think my favorite part was checking out Venice Beach, again. I can never get over how active and happening that place is! I don't think I'll ever forget this trip: too many random things went down here. Especially when some people start getting themselves under the influence of alcohol, haha.

Me posing in front off the Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles.

The weekend after, a bunch of us including Kyle and Steffan hopped on a plane to Phoenix, Arizona, hiked down to the bottom of the world-famous Grand Canyon, camped overnight at the bottom, hiked back up in the 40 degree sweltering heat the next morning, and caught a plane back to SF. This was perhaps the most hard-core hike/expedition I had ever undertaken. The hike back up took us 10 full hours. We were more tired and exhausted than words can describe when we got back to the top. I don't think Coke had ever tasted so good before. I'd even hurt my knee on the way down, so climbing all those stairs up was a big pain in the, well, knee. The views were insanely good, and the trip was totally worth it, despite the cost and temporary pain/swelling.

The following day after our hike back, we toured the neighboring city of Sedona where I did my first bi-plane ride there with Kyle! It was immensely fascinating to see all the various geographical structures above Sedona from an aerial view. We both thought it was totally worth the money we spent for that short 30-min ride. While in Sedona, we also ate at the only McDonalds in the world with a green logo, as opposed to their classic red.

Towards the end of June, things really changed for me at work. I was asked to be part of a 6-person Tiger Team to parachute into our Dallas office and help accelerate the release of one of our newest titles: CastleVille. I started flying to Dallas from SF every week and coming back to SF on the weekends. That was a whole lot of flying, even for me. I was basically a modern-time nomad living in a different hotel every week and driving a different car every week. It was one of the craziest and busiest two months of my life. I certainly miss all the Pinkberry frozen yogurt from Terminal 2 at SFO airport every week while waiting to board my plane. I even got a hand-written boarding pass once due to system failure. How cool is that?

Not only was it my first time flying Virgin America, but it was also my first time flying first class. I realized that the difference between flying economy/coach and first class is HUGE.

Kyle and I got pretty tight during the whole Dallas episode since we were already friends before. Our mornings would start at 8:30AM sharp at the gym of whatever hotel we were staying at that week. We would then run for about half an hour everyday, Monday through Friday, preparing for the many physical challenges that lay in store for us that summer.

If you'd like hotel recommendations in Dallas, I would really recommend Palomar, A-loft and Le Meridian. The Meridian was my favorite overall owing to their over-sized suites and superior treadmills.

The Dallas office was pretty spiffy with a huge aquarium at the bottom floor of the office building. Being in Texas, I also got to drive around quite a bit, in addition to in between work and "home". I was therefore able to hone my driving skills thanks to all the added experience and the constant switching of cars. I made road trips to Austin and Houston from Dallas, both of which were really pretty cities, but Austin more so than Houston.

On July 13th, I realized I hadn't traveled alone in a while. Solo travel can be really refreshing. So I packed up my bags and caught a flight to Boston, New York City, and Toronto on a 2 week vacation. I made the first flight to Boston roughly 5 seconds before they were about to shut the plane door. I promised myself I would never cut it so close. Ever. But promises are meant to be broken, right?

As expected, the trip was a total eye opener. I got to catch up with so many old friends (like DongNi, Truc and Meenu) and so many cool places. I absolutely loved it! I got to visit the city of Cambridge and the beautiful MIT and Harvard campuses there. What were the odds of running into Ryan and Sarvesh from my nano class over there? In Downtown Boston, I got to do the Freedom Trail 15km walk on my own and ended up meeting a few very interesting student travelers on the way.

NYC was even more exciting to say the least. I got to visit the Bloomberg office thanks to my friend Neil, the Rockfeller Tower, the Empire State building, Central Park, Times Square, the Flatiron Building, 9/11 Memorial, Liberty Statue, Wall St., NYU, the Grand Central Terminal, and the United Nations building. I met up with some really really old school friends from Dubai like Prashant and Ratheepan. And I even had some Timmies for the first time in the States in Korea Town. Truly fantastic experience together with a warm weather that was just beyond expectations.

My last destination, Toronto, was most interesting. If you're reading this, you know why. Apparently I landed on the hottest day of the year. While there, I got to meet up with even more friends from Waterloo like Jon, Shams, Jun, Sowmya, Bhuvana, Abhishek, Lily, Sharath, Aareet, Seliske, Arjun and Devashish. It was fantastic catching up with everyone! They were also having this Summerlicious food thing going on around that time. I'm glad I got to try out 2 resturants while I could: one Italian and another French. Maybe one day I'll get an invite to Winterlicious!

After my vacation, I kept myself rather busy for the next 9 consecutive weekends. It was an amazing summer weather-wise, and I was determined to make the most out of it. I was surrounded by all these cool people like Kyle, Steffan and Rez who were all also determined to make the best of the summer as well. By now, I had gotten used to living in hotels in Dallas and working at a remote office. We were having maximum temperatures everyday of at least a 100 degrees Fahrenheit. One evening after work, Kyle and I decided to go bungee jumping for the first time at Zero Gravity in Dallas. I'd never been before, so I was quite a bit tense. But it wasn't as bad since I had already sky dived twice before that. Besides, adrenaline is my best friend.

The first weekend after returning from my east-coast trip in July, I went paintballing for the first time with Steffan, Rez, and Marina. The game definitely lived up to its hype and I returned home with 3 big war bruises, all of which were from this 12 year old Asian kid who kept crawling up on me from nowhere.

The same weekend, Steffan and I ran our first half-marathon on July 31 in and around Golden Gate Park. It was an eye opening experience and I finished it in about 2.5 hours. Not amazing, but not shabby either. In November, we ran another half-marathon again, this time with Kyle as well, and I finished it 15 minutes sooner even though it was a harder course. They were both tough runs, but I'm glad I finished both of them. The satisfaction obtained from each marathon is unparalleled! No injuries during either run, just a lot of soreness which is expected.

The second weekend after returning from Toronto, Rez and I, along with 5 other friends, made a road trip to Yosemite National Park: my first time there! We negotiated some pretty hard core hikes and lived out of a B&B cottage. The cottage was rather beautiful inside. That weekend was incredibly exciting, especially since I knew I was going to come back in 2 weeks for the Grand FinalÚ: scaling the Half Dome.

August was just a fantastic month. This year's August kept reminding me of my blog post from 6 years ago and how bored I was that year. This year's August had 4 weekends in total and I went to exactly two places twice each weekend: Yosemite, Vegas, Yosemite, and then Vegas again. Crazy, I know. I don't know how all of that came about. But it was the only schedule that worked out for everyone.

So the weekend after Yosemite Part 1, Rez and I, along with 2 other friends (Mark and Tilo) caught a plane to Las Vegas. It was my first time up there, so I was naturally excited! I met up with the 3 of them at the McCarran Airport since I was flying in after work from Dallas on Southwest. It was my first time flying Southwest, and people had been right about it. There was no pretense at all: it was literally a flying bus! I loved it!

When I woke up that morning in Dallas at 8:40AM, I had no idea I was going to lose $150 at a decent-odds Blackjack table that evening. All I could think of was that I was late for gym and that Kyle was waiting for me as his trusted treadmill buddy.

When I got to the Vegas airport with a short stop over in Albuquerque, I wasn't surprised at all the slot machines in the airport. The trip was massively successful and we had an incredible amount of fun. The weather, too, was perfect and sultry, just the way I liked it. We stayed at Caesar's and the location was just fantastic. We checked out the K└ Cirque du Soleil show (my first time!) at the MGM and were thrilled beyond expectation. We did a bunch of other stuff too that we're not allowed to talk about haha, but check out the photos on Facebook for the rest of the speakable story. That Monday morning, everyone headed back to SF to resume work, while I flew back to Dallas on Southwest, i.e. the flying bus.

The next weekend was Mission Impossible. Steffan, Kyle, James and myself drove down to Yosemite again and scaled the famed Half Dome, California's most strenuous, toughest, and most scenic day hike! It was certainly the scariest project I had ever undertaken. But it paid off! The views from top were breath-taking, to say the least. I'm definitely incredibly excited to go back again! I'm just glad I didn't scale the peak with a harness! I would've totally regretted it.

On the way back from having negotiated the Half Dome successfully back to the car, I faceplanted myself against a rock by slipping on a moving log of wood. This was the end result. I was also awarded a colorful purple bruise the size of a baseball on my left thigh and a severely sprained index finger. Fun times. I think it took me a month and a half to fully heal from all the battle wounds. It was a good reminder of how a single small mistake can cost you a lot. But whatevs, it's not a hike without a few wounds right?

The next week, Shams had come to visit us from Toronto. He was doing my East-coast trip, except in reverse. It was good hanging out with him and Waseem that week. One evening, we went to go watch Midnight in Paris at the AMC theatre. Quite the entertaining movie. It reminded us of all our awesome times in Paris back in the summer of 2010.

The weekend after, I headed to Vegas again, but this time with the same dorky engineers from the Europe trip 1.5 years ago. Naturally, this trip was more of a gambling trip than anything else. This time around, we stayed at the luxurious Venetian and went to the Cirque du Soleil show at the Mirage which was a lot more entertaining than the one at K└. We did the 5 buffets thing and so ended up eating a lot of food, maybe a bit too much. This Vegas trip too was a major success! If you ignore all the lost money on the tables, that is, haha. At least this time, we were smart enough to go gamble at the Blackjack tables in Downtown, and not on the Strip which prescribe you horrible odds.

The following weekend, my last weekend in Texas, I made a road trip to Houston from Dallas in my Mazda 3 rental. The drive itself was kind of boring, but the stopovers not so much. I made small talk with a few Texans at the various Starbucks and gas stations I stopped at to stretch or pee, usually both. While I was in Houston for the Labor Day long weekend, I got to visit and stay with really old-time family friends Lynn & family. It was definitely super catching up again with her and the kids who are super adorable.

On Monday, September 5 2011, I flew back to SF from Houston after navigating crazy traffic at both airports. I was a bit sad that Texas was now over, but was happy to be permanently home. That weekend, Steffan, Max, Craig, Neshay and I drove to Davis, CA in a Wolks Golf Zipcar and jumped out of a plane, yet again. First time for Craig and Neshay, second time for Steffan and Max, but the third time for me. This time we jumped from a record 18,000 ft., the maximum possible for a legal tandem jump anywhere. And it was just so delirious. I could never get tired of doing this again and again. If only it were free.

The following weekend, Steffan, Yizhi, Kyle and I drove up to Squaw Valley at Lake Tahoe in Yizhi's brand-new Audi and participated in the SF annual Tough Mudder obstacle race competition. Steffan and I had spent 2 entire weeks training for this event running up and down the famous steep hills of Dolores and Guerrero St. I think the scariest obstacle of Tough Mudder was running through lose wires carrying up to 10,000 volts worth of current through them. Fortunately we were slim enough to slip through the wires.

There were a total of 14 obstacles, some of them easier than the others. The hardest obstacle was crossing an artificial pond filled with ice water to get to the other side and another one where you had to cross a pond by clinging onto monkey bars up top, some of them even buttered up. One slip and you fell right into the ice-cold water. In the end, this Bad Mudder certificate was totally worth the sweat and pain!

On October 14, Kyle, his girlfriend Rachel, James and I caught a flight and ended up half-way across the world in Nairobi, Kenya. Yea, that's right, Kenya! We were looking to leave the comfort of North America for a bit, and Africa seemed like the perfect destination. We were all big into wildlife anyways, and what better place to kick off our African wildlife safari but in the famous savannahs of Kenya?

Michael, a friend of James', joined us from LA and met us at the Nairobi airport, nearby the baggage carousels. He was smiling and looked like he had taken a 20-minute auto rickshaw to get to Nairobi from home, when in fact he had really taken a 24 hour flight across the Atlantic with a lay over in Dubai for a couple of hours.

We booked our flight tickets online, booked a week-long safari package also online, wired the money, got our yellow fever vaccinations and malaria pills, and off we were on our 8-day journey across 5 National Parks around the country in our pop-up roof equipped van.

The trip itself was a massive success with absolutely zero hitches. Everything went according to plan and we were all extremely happy about the whole trip. We visited 5 national parks in total: Amboselli, Aberdare, Lake Nokuru, Samburu, and Maasai Mara. On our very last day, we were fortunate enough to finally catch a glimpse of a kill: a lioness holding a fresh piece of dead baby zebra in her mouth, dragging the zebra's neck across the barren floor to her hide-out. It was an amazing and once in a lifetime experience, just seeing the rawness of it all. Check out my photos on Facebook to get the full Kenyan story.

On our way back to Nairobi, we stopped by the Equator which I thought was very cool. We also made a brief stop by the Nairobi giraffe center where we got to pet and feed giraffes. Very cool indeed!

On Sat, Dec 3rd, I went away and bought myself a new DSLR camera, the exquisite Canon 60D, after a nearly 1.5 year hiatus of just shooting with my iPhone 4. It was terrific holding my own DSLR again after so long. It made me feel alive again! This would be my 4th, but hopefully not the last, digital camera.

I've been experimenting with this piece of a gem a lot in the last month or so I've owned it, but haven't had a chance to actually make a trip with it. I will soon though, first thing in January 2012. My latest experiments can be viewed over on my Flickr profile. Go take a gander, while I wait for you!

On Fri, Dec 16 2011, the company I work for, Zynga, went public with an IPO on the NASDAQ for $10/share. We had a celebratory party at work at 6AM (9AM Eastern) to commemorate this monumental event, for which I woke up at 4:30AM. It was truly a great experience. I wonder when I'll get to experience my next IPO event, if ever.

On the evening of the IPO, my good friend Brittney back from high school visited me from Vancouver. Brittney was my first friend back in IB 8 years ago in Sep 2003. We hung out in SF for a few days checking out the various sights of the city, consuming copius gelato, and just generally relaxing. It was a ton of fun! I was really glad she came to visit and more than that, I'm glad that we've kept in touch, even after 6 years since graduating high school.

In 2011, I wrote five seminal essays. This was a sharp decline from the twelve I had written the previous year. I guess inspiration never struck all that much this year. But at least none of the posts I wrote this year were forced upon myself. All of them were motivated by pure internal inspiration. My favorite post? This piece on constructive procrastination, without doubt.

I don't think I've ever been so physically active before in my life. I maintained my weight at a steady 150 lbs and definitely got a lot stronger and a lot tougher from all the hiking, marathoning and Mudder training. Let's hope I get to keep it that way in 2012!

By the end of this year, I got really good at 3 things: ping pong, biking and traveling in planes. A ton of first times as well, although maybe not as many as last year. It's always good to make sure your list of doing things for the first time is kept at a high count each year because that will tell you that you're constantly pushing yourself, trying out new things, and expanding your comfort zone.

In addition to getting really good at a few things, I think I've made significant progress as well in a few other domains this year: cardio, walking super long distances (15+ kms a day), driving, parking (both reverse and parallel), and swimming. Yes, you read that right, swimming! I kind of dropped the ball on that the last 20 years. So I've been taking swimming lessons at a pool beside my house starting November ever since my near-drowning experience at Tough Mudder back in September. I can now do a front crawl quite well, but just need to work on my breathing before I hit up the deep end. Pretty good progress in just 6 hours of training I think.

Thanks to Zynga moving to a new building which came equipped with not just one ping pong table but two, Kyle, CVR and I began playing ping pong a lot more frequently. This made all 3 of us better at the game over time. We stopped playing real point-based games and instead worked on refining our skills and strengthening our weaker shots. This paid off big-time in the long run.

I think I remember falling off my bike 3 times this year. And every time I fall, I learn a significant lesson which I feel makes me a better biker. I now don't have to think while biking in much the same way I don't think about it when I'm coding in PHP or speaking in English: they've all become second nature to me.

Like George Clooney in Up in the Air, I understood how airports work. I understood what delays were acceptable and what weren't. I understood which xray lines would move fast and which one's wouldn't. I understood the true pros and cons of flying with and without checked-in baggage. I understood how to zoom through security with the least bit of hassle. I understood when to start running and when it wasn't necessary. And finally, I understood how to not miss planes.

After my east-coast trip, I started using, on Ratheepan's recommendation, the iPhone FlightTrack pro app that gets reminders and real-time updates from flightstats.com on flight delays and other random notifications like last minute gate changes. This app has smoothened my travel experience quite a bit!

Speaking of flying around, 2012's travel goals couldn't get any loftier (in no particular order)!

  1. Canc˙n, Mexico
  2. Machu Pichu, Peru
  3. Grand Canyon Rim to Rim
  4. Prague, Vienna, Lisbon, Brussels, Budapest
  5. Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama
  6. Chicago, Washington D.C.
  7. Seattle
  8. Banff
  9. Istanbul
  10. Mt. Everest Basecamp
  11. Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa
  12. Miami
  13. Alaska
  14. Hawaii
  15. Thailand
  16. Yellowstone National Park

If you'd like to visit any of these places yourself, and one or more of these places were on your travel goals prior to seeing it here, and are willing to do some actual research and planning, and not just tag along, please ping me and we'll figure out a good time to go! I know I can't cover all destinations, but like every year, I'll try to cover whatever I can! And if a place you'd like to really visit isn't on my list above, then please let me know anyways: I will most likely be interested as well.

Here's to a great 2012! The year of killing it! The leap year to take a giant leap forward! I'm going to be kicking it off on Jan 4th with a week in Canc˙n, Mexico, chillaxing in a resort with Steffan and Rez, practicing my photography with my new 60D DSLR camera, and possibly playing cards by the pool. Time to knock off item numÚro uno on the travel goal checklist in a country I've never been to before.

Before we close the curtains for the awesome year that was 2011, let us once again remind ourselves of Shakespeare's inspiring words like we did last year, two and six years ago.

All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. At first the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms. And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel And shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school. And then the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon's mouth. ... — Jaques, As You Like It (Act II, Scene VII)


Wish me more luck for 2012! I can't seem to have enough. I get the clairvoyant feeling that next year is going to be an even better year!

-- Rajesh Kumar
24 December 2011
Christmas Eve


rajesh@meetrajesh.com
Last modified: Fri Dec 30 2011 07:41 PM