Canada150: Ten Best National Parks to Photograph, published in Outdoor Photography Canada Magazine by Jessica Lee


I'm really excited that my first cover feature is for Outdoor Photography Canada Magazine. You can buy this magazine in most bookstores, grocery stores and convenience stores around Canada. For this article, I researched the best national parks to go photograph in Canada this summer, just in time for Canada150, when access to all national parks are free. I learned a lot about how beautiful our vast land is, where to go if you want to photograph a specific animal/northern lights/landscape and a few tidbits of knowledge on outdoor survival skills. Here's a preview.

Favourite Stories - South East Asia by Jessica Lee

A traveller walks along the beach at Tonsai Beach, Krabi, Thailand.

A traveller walks along the beach at Tonsai Beach, Krabi, Thailand.

Since I’ve gotten back from my four-month backpacking trip around South East Asia, friends and strangers have asked to hear about my travel stories. Male friends want to hear about long, dangerous adventures, female friends want to hear about romantic encounters; fellow travellers want to hear about how places they’ve been to have changed. Over the years of travelling and coming back home, I’ve come to realize that people like to hear stories in relation to where they are in their lives.

Depending on whom I’m talking to and the mood of the conversation, I usually start with a few light-hearted stories to get laughs. Then the topic either changes, or I’m asked to recount more of my life on the road – to which I usually tell them about the interesting people I meet, my favourite stories; the stories I’m about to tell you right now.

A fisherman rows her boat in Halong Bay, Vietnam.

A fisherman rows her boat in Halong Bay, Vietnam.

On the second week of my trip, I was sitting at one of the long communal tables at Mama’s Chicken, one of the popular restaurants in the community of Tonsai, Thailand, about to order dinner. One thing you have to know about Tonsai is that it’s off the beaten path, not a typical destination for travellers unless you happen to be at nearby Railay Beach already, or if you happen to be a rock climber who planned to visit specifically. I was one of the latter. Among the group of people who were seated at the table, I met a woman from Germany who was 35 and had been travelling for the last three years. In her previous life, she had been a lawyer, but after a break-up from her partner, she realized she had nothing holding her back and started travelling all over the world. She told me she was on the end of her trip and was heading back to Germany to look for new challenges, as travelling to different destinations had become “easy” to her now. She had spent months volunteering at an orphanage in Africa, then backpacking around Central America and now she was in Asia. In our hours-long conversation, she told me she was excited for me and for the adventures I would go on and the people I would meet. Her chapter on travel was ending while mine was just beginning, so it was serendipitous that we met that night. We were so engaged in the conversation of travel and experiencing that we did not even pause to learn each other’s names until we parted at the end. Her belief and optimism in me set the tone for the next four months. She left the following day and I did not keep in touch with her, but I wish with all of my heart that she got what she wanted back in Germany.

Tonsai Beach, in the Krabi province, is a popular climbing destination. The local community is small and has one main street. Electricity only runs from 6 pm to 6 am. At any time, the community can accommodate up to hundreds of visitors in their resorts, guest houses and hostels.

Tonsai Beach, in the Krabi province, is a popular climbing destination. The local community is small and has one main street. Electricity only runs from 6 pm to 6 am. At any time, the community can accommodate up to hundreds of visitors in their resorts, guest houses and hostels.

The next week, I was focused on getting my PADI open water certification, so I relocated to nearby Ao Nang, where I met my diving instructors; two Americans who had met and married while working on a research base in Alaska; who had now gone the extreme opposite by living in tropical weather and teaching diving to tourists. They were in their late thirties and I marveled at their ability to change lives so quickly while many people do the same things their entire lives, while living in the same city and having the same friends. I don’t mean to say that having a consistent group of friends and a steady lifestyle is bad, but meeting James and Catherine opened up my eyes to new possibilities. Even though we are in 2017, not everyone gets to choose where they live or who they spend their lives with, but for us, the lucky ones born in first-world countries, we do get to make our own choices – and it’s satisfying and reassuring to see it in action. I hope one day everyone will get the freedom to choose where they want to live, what they do with their lives, and whom they want to love. What many take as a right is an unreachable privilege for others.

Many climbers from all over the world come to Tonsai to climb outdoors. Massimo from Finland initially came to climb in 2014 and has now spent two years living and climbing on the beach. During nights, he works as a DJ at one of the bars on the beach. He is on his seventh tourist visa.

Many climbers from all over the world come to Tonsai to climb outdoors. Massimo from Finland initially came to climb in 2014 and has now spent two years living and climbing on the beach. During nights, he works as a DJ at one of the bars on the beach. He is on his seventh tourist visa.

In the remaining three months of my trip, I met a few more people whose company I really enjoyed, with stories that moved me and gave me fresh takes on life. But what storyteller gives away all of her best stories in one blog post? I will reveal more another time…

My favourite travel stories to tell are always about people I’ve met. I’ve always wondered why I tend to meet more interesting people while travelling compared to in my hometown Toronto. Do I find people who travel more interesting than someone who does not? Perhaps. I know I definitely find people with different cultural backgrounds more interesting than someone from the same place as me, or living in the same place as I am. And hence why I think I meet more interesting people abroad. But maybe it’s also something else. Perhaps it’s the way I meet people in general and my openness to strangers in different places. Perhaps I’ve been changed by these four months of travel and now I’ve come back more open to others.

The sun sets on a rice paddy in Cambodia near Siem Reap.

The sun sets on a rice paddy in Cambodia near Siem Reap.

Recently, in Toronto, I met a ravishing woman whose personality drew me to her immediately. She was helping to settle a group of refugees to Canada. I asked her how she ended up helping to settle refugees and she told me how in her previous life, she was working for the U.N. back in Lebanon, where she was from. I asked why she would leave her prestigious job to move to a new country. She told me she married a Palestinian man in Lebanon and wanted to have a child. In Lebanon, the child takes citizenship of the father and would not be automatically a Lebanese citizen by being born on Lebanese soil. As Palestine is currently stateless, if she had her child in Lebanon, her baby would be stateless. Thus, she applied for an immigration visa to Canada.

I met Ralph and Yves from Switzerland at a hostel in Hanoi, Vietnam. They bought nerf guns while travelling and started a nerf battle in the dorm. When I met them, I was recovering from a recent motorcycle accident and was bedridden due to not being able to walk. The playful battle brought a smile to my face.

I met Ralph and Yves from Switzerland at a hostel in Hanoi, Vietnam. They bought nerf guns while travelling and started a nerf battle in the dorm. When I met them, I was recovering from a recent motorcycle accident and was bedridden due to not being able to walk. The playful battle brought a smile to my face.

I’ve always wondered why strangers feel comfortable opening up to me on their deepest secrets, past struggles or dark histories. Maybe all it takes is to just ask. Perhaps everyone just wants his or her story to be heard, to be acknowledged. I challenge you to start a conversation with a stranger today. What you learn could surprise you, inspire you or change your life.

A couple observes the view from the top of Cat Ba Island, Vietnam.

A couple observes the view from the top of Cat Ba Island, Vietnam.

Related: Read one of my favourite interviews I’ve ever done with a fellow traveller, Jack in Montreal.

2016 My Year in Review by Jessica Lee

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap Cambodia. Photo: Najeer Yusof

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap Cambodia. Photo: Najeer Yusof

2016, for me, was a year that could only be described as “FULL”. I spent a record (in a year) total of 110 days (30% of the year) travelling locally and also to other eight countries, five of which were new to me; had a full-time job; on top of another full-time job (freelance photography); on top of helping my best friend get married (almost a full-time job); and also managed to accomplish some personal goals like reading 52 books this year, getting my motorcycle license, finally paying off all of my student loans (phew!) and getting my Open Water Diving Scuba certification. I also finally went on my South East Asia backpacking trip which I had been planning for since 2012 but something always came in the way. 

I spent this year climbing, swimming to the depths of the ocean, tanning on exotic beaches, exploring new careers (I spent ten days as a bartender on a Thai island), going on motorcycle trips around Vietnam; and subsequently also spending some time at the hospital getting minor surgery because of the aforementioned motorcycle trip. It’s been a fantastic journey and though it was exhausting at times, there’s no way I would stop living so fully.

Exploring Koh Chang, Thailand by motorcycle

Exploring Koh Chang, Thailand by motorcycle

While I didn’t get everything I wanted handed to me this year (bummer), I am truly satisfied with where I am in this moment in my life. I am grateful for the richness of experiences I’ve been fortunate to have, for old friends, new friends and beautiful moments I’ve been able to share with people this year.

Here is what I learned from 2016:

Ngapali Beach, Myanmar

Ngapali Beach, Myanmar

1. Don’t take for granted where you are now and have insurance for the future, or at least an exit strategy or escape plan. Earlier this year, I was photographing a news event with a bunch of photographers. There was one photographer who caught my eye because though he was in his late 40s or early 50s, he had sense of style that belonged to someone in their teens or late thirties. It was really cool. I later found out that he used to be the editor in chief of this niche national magazine I loved back in high school. Back then, in my teenage eyes, he had the dream job. Now, ten years later, he was reporting for a publication that no one reads. I do not know his entire story (and also everyone knows print journalism is declining) but was sad to see how his career and situation changed so drastically. What I’ve learned from this is that careers don’t always advance, sometimes they go the other way – have a good back-up plan for ten/twenty/thirty years from now.

They're married! Photo: Dave and Jen Stark

They're married! Photo: Dave and Jen Stark

2. Spend more time with people you love. Life is short! This year, my best friend of 20 years got married to the love of her life. Her and I had been dreaming of this day since we were six, and how we agreed we would be maid of honour for each other. The wedding was a major milestone – we were waiting our whole lives for this moment and now it was finally here. While standing at the altar, supporting her, I realized how quickly 20 years had passed, and how quickly the next 20 years will pass. Make sure you make time for the people important to you before life passes you by.

Giving my Maid of Honour speech, notice how everyone is laughing but the groom appears worried. :) Photo: Dave and Jen Stark

Giving my Maid of Honour speech, notice how everyone is laughing but the groom appears worried. :) Photo: Dave and Jen Stark

Photo: Dave and Jen Stark

Photo: Dave and Jen Stark

3. Follow your own plans, don’t get swayed by other people’s projections on you. Earlier this year, I worked in a fancy corporate office where most of the people had mortgages, multiple cars, and cottages. They had comfortable lives in the same job for several years and were planning to retire in the same state. It wasn’t the life I wanted for myself – at least not yet; but in conversations, I was made to feel like I wasn’t a complete person just because I didn’t own a car like everyone else. In the end, I stuck to my guns and chose not to buy a car (I walked 20 minutes to the office each day) because I knew that if I had to make car payments, I wouldn’t be able to do other things I wanted to do more. Like right now, I’m writing this from a sunny, pristine beach in Myanmar while sipping a pina colada. I can afford this lifestyle because I chose to follow my own dreams and not be swayed by other people’s opinions.

Ngapali Beach, Myanmar

Ngapali Beach, Myanmar

4. Know your own value. This is what I had to deal with earlier this year while quoting rates for photography: “Are you even that good?” “You’re not even a wedding photographer, why are you so expensive?” “The real photographer will be here on Wednesday”. The truth of it is, photography seems like it’s easy to do, but it’s more complicated than that. Behind the scenes, photographers are constantly testing new lighting techniques, reading about new equipment and researching locations. There is so much work that goes into things a non-photographer doesn’t even think about, like photography permits or post-processing. Anyway, I’m not bitter if people don’t understand this all at first. I keep getting photography jobs at rates I’m happy with so I must be doing something right.

Exploring the 'Tomb Raider' temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Exploring the 'Tomb Raider' temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia

5. Great things take time. I think when you’re young and you have the fortune of meeting extraordinary people who have done amazing things, you tend to get overwhelmed by their stories. But over the years, I’ve learned that you can’t do everything (well) in a short period of time. Many significant projects take years. When I was 21, I met so many older, well-travelled people who seemed so knowledgeable and cultured. But throughout the years I’ve been slowly accumulating experience and going to far-flung places myself. Now, I am the one getting asked for advice from 18 year olds. Just be patient, keep working hard, enjoy your life and great things will come.  

6. Slow down and do things right the first time. I wish someone had whispered this into my ear several times this year. Once, when I was trying to claim something from my health insurance and got denied because I didn’t read the instructions thoroughly – this led to so much wasted time trying to wrap up loose ends. And second, before I got on the motorbike and drove 182 km on dirt roads during the night time in northern Vietnam. We swerved off an indent in the road I didn’t see until it was too late (it had been a nice smooth road until that point). We were just an hour from our destination before we hit the indent, flew off the bike and I had to go to the hospital to get minor surgery to clean my wound. Three stitches, some morphine and acetaminophen, a tetanus shot and a prescription for eight antibiotic pills a day later, I hobbled out of the hospital and continued my travels around South East Asia, but with much more difficulty, inconvenience and pain. (My friend was fine, except for one cut.) We were rushing back from Halong Bay to Hanoi to catch my friend’s flight that next morning, but I keep thinking that if we gave ourselves more time or if I drove just a little slower, we wouldn’t have had this accident. Of course, at worst, this accident is just an inconvenience in a minor part of my life. There were some things I couldn’t do because of my injury, some days I had to stay at the guest house and rest; and I had to constantly clean my wounds when I would rather be doing other things. Yet, the important thing is I haven’t permanently ruined any lives or done anything that is irreversible; so I think if flying off the bike and suffering the week after while recovering was meant to be a lesson, it was a good one.

E.R. in Hanoi, Vietnam. One of the worst days of 2016

E.R. in Hanoi, Vietnam. One of the worst days of 2016

Chicago in September

Chicago in September

7. Be bold and ask for what you want – because sometimes you will get it. This one keeps surprising me: all the times I got yeses when I thought I would be met with a no. Earlier this Fall, I received a photo assignment in Singapore where I had to find someone to model in a product shoot – keeping in mind I know no one in Singapore – I somehow met a girl at a lounge who was willing to let me photograph her and also several people who were just curious and volunteered to help. They became my set assistants for the morning. If there is one piece of good advice I leave you for 2017, it’s this: be direct and ask for what you need/want. You never know what might happen.

Koh Chang, Thailand

Koh Chang, Thailand

My favourite books I read this year:

Fifteen Dogs - André Alexis
What I was Doing While You Were Breeding - Kristen Newman
Catherine the Great - Robert K. Massie
A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway
How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia - Mohsin Hamid
The Song Machine - John Seabrook

Favourite places I went to:

Chicago, Illinois
Koh Chang, Thailand
Koh Phi Phi, Thailand
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Singapore, Singapore
Cat Ba Island, Vietnam
Ngapali Beach, Myanmar

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Watching fire dancers on the beach on Koh Chang, Thailand. One of my favourite days of 2016.

Watching fire dancers on the beach on Koh Chang, Thailand. One of my favourite days of 2016.

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

See ya in 2017! Stay adventurous!

See ya in 2017! Stay adventurous!

Koh Phi Phi - An Island Paradise in Thailand by Jessica Lee

Of all of the lives I've led so far, currently, this is the strangest one.

Three weeks ago, I landed in Bangkok to backpack around South East Asia and to see first-hand what it's like to be here. After travelling around the island of Koh Chang, then Tonsai, and Ao Nang; I took a ferry to where I am now: the island of Koh Phi Phi. Originally, I was led here based on the good things I've heard about this island; it being on many of the "most beautiful island" lists of travel publications around the world and also being mentioned in glowing terms in casual conversations with other travellers. Yet initially, the charm of this island escaped me as I had seen so many stunning beaches in the last couple of days that one more picturesque beach didn't quite knock me over the way I see it affects some of the tourists who freshly disembark from the daily ferry boat to this island. But that was all about to change. Something else would grab me.

Three nights ago, I went out to the bars with a bunch of other travellers and I ended up chatting with the expat owner of one the bars on the island and he offered me a job at the bar, which I happily accepted because: why not? I've always wanted to be a bartender.

Now, my days consist of waking up to a beach view, going for tea and breakfast, doing some reading, writing and photography, taking lunch and dinner; then getting ready for work.

The work is not overwhelmingly good or bad, just vastly different. I went from doing public relations for the government to bar relations with my customers.

The secret of a good bartender, as I have learned, not only involves creating tasty and presentable drinks, but also involves making it look effortless while creating said drinks and chatting with the bar patrons. To get to "exceptional level", one must make creating drinks look fun and entertaining; and also innovate new drinks at the bar.

It's a good and fun life here on Koh Phi Phi. My biggest problem here so far was when my favourite breakfast place ran out of ripe bananas so I couldn't eat the Thai Nutella Banana pancake I usually ordered. I spend the day tanning at the beach while reading or going scuba diving. And because the island is fairly small, I've started bumping into friends and acquaintances when I make my way around town. It's nice to be able to say hi to familiar faces, even if I barely know them. I've also started "visiting" friends. This is a new habit for me because when I was in Toronto, I lived so far from everyone I know, that a visit can take up to half an hour to drive. And most times, friends are out. Here, everyone more or less has a predictable schedule and I can drop by in a ten minute walk for a quick chat or a long sunset watching session.

It's very easy to get swept up into the lifestyle and never leave. Most of the bar staff I work with, initially started off as travellers like me. Now, some of them have been living on this island for two years, tanning away their days. In a way, Koh Phi Phi is a small town paradise. Almost everything you need for a happy existence can be found here. There is a good community, plenty of sunshine, a good work/life balance, cheap living, and love, if you look for it. The challenge is giving yourself the push to drop out of this easy comfort and eventually adventure off the island. Because there is so much more out there in the world.

South East Asia: New adventures! by Jessica Lee

Biking around Koh Chang, Thailand

Biking around Koh Chang, Thailand

They say with every closed door, a new one opens. And to be honest, I couldn't wait for this aforementioned door to shut fast enough. I've been wanting to do this South East Asia trip since 2012 and each time, something was in the way. But now it's finally happening. I've been in Thailand for the last couple of days and can't wait to see more of the world and take some photos too.

I've been updating Instagram the most often, and you can follow along on my adventures from there.

A wedding (and roadtrip) in Madison, Maine by Jessica Lee

In mid-June, just as Summer was starting to bubble to its boiling point, I drove East for a week to photograph my friend Flora's Maine wedding. Along the way, I stopped in to say hi to my friends in Montreal (I lived there for a year in 2015), had the best pho in my life, enjoyed poutine in the park, made an awkward rest-stop and had a run-in (literally) with some wildlife. While in Maine, I also managed to stop at Bar Harbor and eat lobster three times before leaving.

Self-portrait on the outskirts of Sherbrooke, QC

Self-portrait on the outskirts of Sherbrooke, QC

The drive from Toronto to Montreal on Friday was uneventful. When I arrived, I caught up with my friend Greg, who was talking about wanting to do some beekeeping when I left Montreal last year. He updated me on his life and I was glad to hear that he had taken up beekeeping with a Montreal non-profit and also now runs guided tours for beekeepers in Nicaragua. Incredibly random, but so awesome at the same time. I spent the rest of my short time in Montreal catching up with friends and stocking up on goodies. The day after, I drove to Maine.

My friend Greg, holding a hive frame at the Insectarium in Montreal.

My friend Greg, holding a hive frame at the Insectarium in Montreal.

I arrived at the U.S. border around 9:30 pm at night and drove as the sun was fading on a country road for another hour or so. The U.S. board official wished me a fun wedding and warned me about moose on the road (foreshadowing?).

Sure enough, on the way in, I almost hit a deer before it scampered off into the woods. I arrived to the wedding grounds, Lakewood Golf Course, said hi to the bride and groom and headed to bed.

The next day was the wedding. Here are a few highlights:

The wedding came and went without a hitch. I was happy to make some beautiful photos and touched to be included in the special day. I left Lakewood Golf Course in high spirits and headed to Bar Harbor, Maine, which had intense, but charming Dawson's Creek vibes. I had a lunch of lobster with a view of the harbour (fantastic), then stopped for a lobster roll on the way back for dinner (also fantastic). The lobster roll place (on the side of a country road) was also known for winning a couple of ice-cream competitions, so I sampled some delicious ice-cream too.

But of course, the story isn't complete without some mishap along the way. While driving on another country road at night on the way back to Toronto, I came across two moose standing in the middle of the road. I slammed the brakes but still ended up rear-ending one of the moose with my car. The moose ran off into the woods and no one was hurt. The only damages were my shattered windshield, and a dashed perfect driving record.

Things I learned in 2015 by Jessica Lee

San Diego, U.S.A.

San Diego, U.S.A.

I began January 2015 in San Diego, California, a place where I realized I was at the happiest in my 20’s. It was a big gamble to go to California for a month at this time because though I knew I needed a break from the Winter in Canada, I still wanted and needed to hold on to my job in Montreal and also I needed to watch my budget. However, the sunshine, break and change of lifestyle was exactly what I needed to refresh myself to get ready for the rest of 2015.

San Diego also taught me a lot about myself and my resiliency, as the second day of my stay there, my wallet mysteriously disappeared. 2015 was a year of great breakthroughs, adventure and double-takes. I got published for the first time in the Toronto Star and made it to Canadian Press’ freelance photographer’s list. I spent a grand total of 59 days this year on the road when I wasn’t in Toronto or Montreal. There were so many good times and laughter, but also a few tough moments, which is where the learning comes in.

This is what I learned in 2015:

1. How to say no to things
Learning to say ‘no’ to multiple projects or people was one of the most difficult things I learned to do this year. It felt odd and there was a tension within myself. But to make room for bigger and better things, sometimes you just have to say no to projects that don’t pay enough or people who don’t respect your time or situations that drain you emotionally. Because I said no to some projects and contracts, I was able to say yes to spontaneous road trips, shooting for McDonald's Canada and shooting for Frito-Lay.

Road trip through the States!

Road trip through the States!

2. Take things slow.
This is your life, enjoy it. As much as you’re supposed to work hard and constantly better yourself (growing up in hyper-competitive Toronto, working hard is ingrained into you), sometimes you just need to relax. After living for a year in Montreal (I moved back to Toronto this summer), I learned to adopt the carefree French attitude of enjoying life’s pleasures. Every weekend, my routine included a leisurely brunch with friends followed by tanning and reading in the park. What is the point of life if you don’t get to enjoy the beautiful moments? I once knew a guy who was hardworking and had a great job and a great salary and a great apartment, but he spent so much of his youth working, he didn't have time to develop his relationships or even go out and now in his late 20's he doesn't have anyone to enjoy his life with and even worse, his social skills are so rusty, he is having trouble finding people to spend time with him. Anyway, the point of this message is: you don't have to be working hard all the time and you should keep a balance in your life.

San Diego living :)

San Diego living :)

3. Visualize the bigger picture.
Early on in my photography/writing career I did work for free and I also devoted a large amount of time developing my own blog (which was a labour of love) but with every photo I took and every blog post I wrote, I slowly got better at what I was doing and all my work became my portfolio and ended up getting me into the door of some bigger companies. I made huge strides (Toronto Star, Canadian Press) in my freelance career this year because of all that experience. You give some away, and you get some more. Don’t get discouraged if early on in your career you have to give away some (or all) of your work for free; all of it is coming back to you in experience, just remember to look at the bigger picture.

Crete, Greece

Crete, Greece

4. How to tell the client they are wrong (respectfully and politely).
Sometimes you can do all the work the client asked for, the way they asked for it, sometimes doing it several times over and still the client isn’t happy for whatever reason. This is not your fault. Early on in our lives, we learn to make people happy, whether it is our teachers or parents; by meeting their expectations in whatever way they expect from you; or at your first job where you’re told the customer is always right. Yet as you get more life experience, you realize that some people just can't be pleased, and sometimes the customer is just an unhappy person and that has nothing to do with you. The solution to this is to surround yourself with a network of other freelancers who will give you support and encouragement. 

Tanning in Montreal with fellow photographer, Dale.

Tanning in Montreal with fellow photographer, Dale.

5. How to live with little to none (this is especially useful for a freelancer)
As I mentioned earlier, this year in January, my wallet went missing on my second day in San Diego and I had to live with no money for a whole four days before my credit card, which was express-shipped, arrived in California. Through this experience (literally one of my worst fears while travelling), I learned just how little I could live with and still survive and have fun - sort of like how Evey in V For Vendetta, toughens up at the end when V put her through all that crap. The truth is, many of us have all of these built-up fears of “what if”s, but when things actually happen, we cope better than we think we can. Through the experience, I ate a lot of bread, and grumbled about being hungry, but a lot of people live with much worse. Also, a majority of people think they need a lot of money to have a great life (according to a study, after a certain point, money won't make you happier), but really it’s all about attitude, which brings me to the next point.

Friend owned the boat, so free ride :)

Friend owned the boat, so free ride :)

6. Money is just something that can be made again (spend on people you love). Earlier this year, after making a transition from working at a full-time job to being a freelance photojournalist, I lived minimally for a while – rarely going out or having dinners at restaurants. Then in March, someone I met started taking me out a bunch, spending a lot of cash on food and drinks. When I asked him why he was doing all of this, he said "money is something you can make again", which I understand more now. At the end of your life, it's much better to have memories made with people, facilitated by money, than to die with a pile of money and no fond memories.

Sailing in the Bosphorus in Istanbul with my friend Dave!

Sailing in the Bosphorus in Istanbul with my friend Dave!

7. Be patient, and wait for your moment. Earlier this year, as a newly hired contractor for a project, things at the company shifted and suddenly there was a lot more than the team could handle. It was brought up in a team meeting that there was a need for a writer who could take on a couple more assignments each week. As the new person, I wanted to jump in and show initiative, yet somehow I knew this wasn’t the right opportunity for me as I knew I wanted to focus more on my photography. There was a tension in my chest as I held my tongue and didn't volunteer - they had to hire someone else, but in the end I was glad I didn't jump in as a few weeks later, there was a need for someone with video skills, which is much closer to photography than writing. The lesson to come away with is to wait for your moment. This is true for everything else in life, if something doesn't feel right don’t feel pressured to jump into a business opportunity, buying a property or a marriage, because if it’s truly right for you, it will come again. You just need to have faith!

Old Port Montreal office space

Old Port Montreal office space

8. You don’t get anywhere if you don’t ask. Earlier this Fall, I missed my flight home from Istanbul to Toronto because there was this thing called Passport Control where before you even enter security to board your flight, you have to get in this big line where it’s a pre-screen. In my entire life of catching planes and travelling, I’ve only ever missed one flight, so I didn’t accommodate for this extra two hours of waiting before boarding. In Toronto (and other airports around the world), if you’re about to miss your flight, there are airport employees who can push you through the lines so that you don’t miss your flight, but no such thing existed in Turkey. You are on your own in this country. Anyway, as I was about to miss my flight because I was in this line, I started asking people if I could skip ahead of them. I found that many people are surprisingly accommodating if you tell them you’re about to miss your flight and will let you go ahead of them, no questions asked. Unfortunately, I did this near the end of my wait, and still ended up missing last boarding call by 10 minutes. But now I’m less hesitant about asking for things, even from strangers.

Nashville, earlier this August.

Nashville, earlier this August.

9. Photography is not real. I knew this before, but I understand more of the depth of it now. I don't mean obvious things like photoshopping pigs in the sky, but rather things like how lighting can make a picture dramatically different. Through a lot of varied photography jobs this year, where I had to make products or people look good, I learned just how much work goes into lighting or waiting for that one key moment to get a frame. There was this local politician I saw quite often day-to-day professionally, who wasn’t the best looking guy out there in the world – but that’s okay, not everyone needs to be Brad Pitt. But in a photo I saw of him, this photographer managed to make him look attractive, even slightly appealing (with no photo alterations, just good use of lighting!). This is the power of photography. Hire the best photographers you can, it's worth it! :)

Tijuana, Mexico, in January

Tijuana, Mexico, in January

10. The gifts you receive aren’t really because you deserve them but because the people you know are AWESOME, big-hearted and generous. This year, I’ve been blessed by so many delicious treats, great meals and fantastic experiences. A lot of it was the plain luck of having the right people in my life or meeting the right people (like when I met my friend Alek who gave me an unforgettable motorcycle ride through San Francisco up to Hawk Hill, with sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge), but then there are the times when you try to give back to people who gave to you first and they end up giving you even more. And then there are things you receive which you just can't ever repay (like photography advice that ends with you getting published in Rock and Ice), so you just learn to be grateful and try to give back to the world in some other way. What I am trying to say here is that I'm really grateful for everyone who has contributed in some way to my life this year, so thank you.

Dave and I in Istanbul, Turkey

Dave and I in Istanbul, Turkey

*Bonus*: Always consider opportunity cost! This year, I found a cheap flight from Oslo, Norway to Crete, Greece. It was $53, what a steal! But what I didn't consider was that the flight time, 6 am, meant that I wouldn't sleep all night and would arrive to Greece sleep-deprived and cranky. It also cost $53 for the bus to the further airport in Oslo that this flight operated from. So if you see something that looks like a good deal, always consider the other factors.

Here's to an even more awesome 2016! Stay adventurous!

Alek and I on Hawk Hill, San Francisco

Alek and I on Hawk Hill, San Francisco

Toronto Engagement session with Jess and Matt by Jessica Lee


I recently photographed a young couple close to my heart. Jess has been my best friend since we were five years old. We played with dolls when we were young and always re-enacted wedding ceremonies with them. When I got a call one night with her excitedly telling me she was now engaged to her long-time boyfriend Matt, I was ecstatic with joy - the moment had come. We quickly organized a photo shoot.

Jess and Matt asked for a vintage look to their photos, so we decided to shoot in the Distillery District of Toronto which has an old-world feel to it with its cobblestone floor and heritage buildings. We also wanted to catch one of the last summer sunsets of the year so we drove to nearby Cherry Beach for a second round of shooting. The couple wasn't camera-shy at all and what you see in the photos is the real emotion of being in love coming through.

I am so happy to be a part of this couple's life and honoured that they asked me to do their engagement photos and to be their maid of honour. I'm looking forward to the wedding in 2016!

Gear: Canon 5D Mark III, 24-70 mm f/2.8 lens.

New Orleans: 10 years after Katrina by Jessica Lee

Imagine having a home one day and then the next day not having anything.

While in New Orleans, Louisiana, after tiring of the infamous but touristy Bourbon Street, we went to the Lower Ninth Ward, the area hit hardest after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We were curious to see what the area looked like now, 10 years after the disaster. What we saw opened our eyes to the realities of what the locals went through after the flood.

Sometimes when you're seeing images or hearing stories about tragedies that happen in places miles away, it all seems so surreal. You know it's happening out there somewhere, but when you switch the T.V. off or stop reading the article, it just isn't in the forefront of your mind anymore - at least that's the way it is for me.

When we were in New Orleans, it was as if there was a strange divide to the city. The first place we arrived to was just outside of the French Quarter. While we were elated to see the colonial French architecture of the houses, on some streets, there were broken windows and some shady characters hanging out. My friend did not feel safe leaving his car parked in that area, so we found a garage. 

In the touristy French Quarter, buildings were freshly painted, neon signs were sparkling and enticing. There were plenty of tourist gift shops and fancy restaurants. 

The Lower Ninth Ward was a stark contrast to what we had been used to seeing in the French Quarter. Many houses were left abandoned, just held up by beams; shells of what used to be family homes.

The doors to the abandoned homes were left open and with my curiosity piqued, I went in. Being in those homes was eerie. I was worried I would find a dead body somewhere, or stumble onto a violent drug addict. In some houses with greenery growing through, I was afraid a critter or snake would fall from above onto me. 

Scattered around the floors of these houses were left over children's toys; a lot of scrap wood and junk. Anything valuable had been pillaged. People had since moved on. I don't know anything about the people who lived in these houses but I can only hope their situations have improved if only so slightly.

I post these photos as a reminder of the history, a tribute to the lives that were lost and the humanity that stepped in to help after the hurricane.

Cincinnati, Ohio: an unexpected "hidden gem by Jessica Lee

On our first day driving towards the Deep South, we weren't planning on making a stop in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was supposed to be a straight plow towards Nashville, Tennessee. But we saw the tall buildings and the cityscape and couldn't resist our curiousness so we took the next exit and went in.

It was right about dinner time and the sun was setting. Locals were taking their evening strolls with their dogs and families. We went for our own walk to see the city as well and along the way, we found the most amazing park at the riverfront.

Cincinnati recently developed new infrastructure around the water area and it was so exciting to be there, enjoying the "newness".

Much of the area around hadn't been commercialized yet, but I'm sure this will change in the next few years as more businesses open near the gardens and attractions on the riverfront.

There was a beautifully curated maze garden, swings facing the river (and bridge) and a brand new water park and a very fun-looking playground for children. If I had this kind of playground when I was young, it would have been one of my favourites for sure. (I am still "young" if we are talking about life expectancy - even John F. Kennedy, who was 46, was considered a "young president", but unfortunately much too old to be running around with five year olds on a playground.)

Sometimes I wish I could have toddlers to babysit on particularly amazing playgrounds so I could experience the playground myself without being judged by parents - because no one wants to be the strange overgrown person running around on playgrounds with little kids. If you clicked the link, yes it's a completely different context since the guy was a sex offender and also the movie was a fictional scenario, but you get the idea - parents are overprotective and can sometimes be a little frosty.

Regardless, I was incredibly impressed by the riverfront area and snapped a few photos of the new playground, swings and water park. We did not have time to see the rest of the city before moving on, but if you're ever around the Cincinnati area, definitely stop in for a walk around the water. Maybe you will discover more than we did.

Au revoir Montreal, hello new adventures! by Jessica Lee

I recently came across a journal entry from two years ago. In 2013, I had been travelling in and out of Montreal for work when I was in public relations and communications.

During those weeklong trips, I spent time on St. Denis and St. Laurent street, and St. Catherine of course, but time seemed so fleeting. My dream back then was to live in Montreal for six months to get the "wake-up and casually walk down to the coffee shop/patisserie" experience.

I want to wake up, stroll down to a local bakery/patisserie, order a fresh, hot croissant, sip my coffee and read the news in French. Then I would call up my French boyfriend and we would have lunch together. After that, he would go back to work and I would go back to my coffee shop work. We would cook a nice meal at home over wine and call it a night.

It's done. I've been in Montreal for over a year now and I found out Montreal is more than just stereotypical French lovers and cafes. 

I am trying to synthesize my collective experience of a year and a little bit more in Montreal into a blog post, but it's difficult, so I'll just share my favourite memories.

I lived in cafes for the year, no doubt. Cafe-life is a part of me which will never change. I will continually enjoy the smell of coffee, the stillness of a relaxed work-space and the carefully curated design of cafes. Montreal did cafes well. As a freelancer, I spent a majority of my time in Montreal with the other freelancers, busily typing into a laptop and occasionally looking up at life.

But if you were to ask about Montreal outside of coffee, I would tell you about the times I biked down that big hill on rue Berri on my way to rock climbing at Allez Up in the Fall, seeing the faces of the sweating, struggling cyclists going uphill, knowing that would be me on the way back. And on that bike ride down, if I could catch all the green lights on the way, I knew it was going to be a good day. 

As I got along further, while biking on Canal Lachine in the middle of the day on Wednesday at 2 pm, there would be impeccably-dressed hipster-chic office folk, sitting with a picnic spread out on the grass facing the water like there they were done work for the day or as if there were better things to in life than to spend it all working - they were probably right.

There were the times biking to lesser-frequented parts of the city in search for new work space, and discovering gems. Verdun. St. Henri. Wellington. That time I spent a weekend on the balcony reading at a friend's apartment on a quiet residential street and listening to the sounds of a French child's birthday party down below. Little joyous moments like these characterize my stay in Montreal. The experience was much more though, these are just fragments.

I remember endless afternoons lying in the sun in Park Lafontaine or Mount Royal, sometimes with friends and sometimes with a book. Many times, with both. Afterwards, we would all cook together and enjoy each other's company.

Then there were the "barely-surviving but glad to be alive" days. Cold Winter nights shivering back to my apartment on Bishop street after a movie at the Forum. Trying to cross the street in the Winter but finding the snowbanks are too high. 3 am poutines after a night out dancing. Quiet nights in the summer on balconies with friends, pondering about our futures while sipping wine. Terribly awkward French parties when you find you're the only Anglophone there.

I never got to visit all of the breakfast restaurants I wanted to go to. There was also a 90's music dance club I never managed to drag friends too. And maybe the next time I step into Montreal, the businesses will be gone, the rising rent driving out tenants, or things would have changed so dramatically they wouldn't be the same.

But nothing ever is. The very last week of my time in Montreal, I discovered a cute, little tea shop just a five minute walk from my apartment. I met a new group of people I knew I could be close friends with, but there never was enough time to let those friendships blossom. C'est la vie. Life is full of goodbyes and hello agains. There will be other times. There will be other people. Always. But this is what I have, these are the memories of Montreal which I hold in my heart.

If you ever visit Montreal and walk down the same streets I did, frequent the same cafes and bars I did -  please know, I lived here. I had some of the best times of my life here. It was fantastic. But I had to leave because there is so much more of the world out there, more memories to make, more strangers who might become close friends. I just have to go out and open myself to the world. I know if I do, it will give back to me.

Photos of me by Dale Tidy

Photos: Toronto IFSC World Bouldering Cup by Jessica Lee

I shot the IFSC World Bouldering Cup in Toronto recently, the same event I shot last year in Hamilton. I think the key difference between this year's shoot and last year's is this year I wanted to document exactly what was happening in a photojournalism perspective, whereas last year, I focused on the event from a climber's point of view; shooting climbers in strange positions that I knew were hard to do.

As a result, I focused more on angles and thinking ahead to where climbers would be, rather than relying on "luck" aka being in the right place at the right time. Also, I trusted myself more on judgement. Previously, I would gather around where all the other photographers were because I thought maybe they knew something that I didn't, but honestly, everyone's shooting with a different lens, so they wouldn't be thinking the same way I would in terms of frames anyway.

I won't caption the photos because they are strong enough images where you can figure out what's going on, but I will explain a little about how the competition works: basically, the climbers get four minutes each to climb each "problem", which is from the bottom of the wall to the top, so it's an intense situation where the climber has to perform in an efficient manner, while under the gaze of two judges and the crowd. The winner of the competition is the one who climbs most of the problems in the final round. Many climbers don't even make it up to the top of most problems because the moves you need to make to get to the top are tough and require great skill, which is what separates the champions from just good climbers. But isn't that just like life? 

Goat Rock and Highway #1, California, baby! by Jessica Lee

Ever since hearing the catchy Phantom Planet song "California" in middle school at the height of when the T.V. show The O.C. was popular, I've always wanted to drive down highway #1 while playing that song.

I finally got to do that when I visited Sonoma County and went climbing at Goat Rock, about an hour away from San Francisco. Highway #1 stretches all along the shore and makes you wonder why Californians are so lucky to witness this beauty regularly.

The drive reminded me of when I drove along Great Ocean Road in Australia. I realize I've been lucky to experience so many adventures already at my age and I've seen so much first-hand. But really, check out that link. It shows how my photography skills and my eye has only gotten better since these last three years. Go on, here is another one.

Nothing's ever absolutely perfect as you can always improve your craft, but over the years, I've definitely developed a greater personal style and the confidence to try new things, such as purposely shooting into the light, or experimenting with light flares, because who says there's only one way to do photography? And sometimes overexposure looks good. And maybe once in a while, I actually want my photos to look blurred or grainy. Check out one of my first travel photo essays...

Of course a lot of it is subjective. But here are photos from that day I went to Sonoma County and drove along the Pacific Coast highway. We stopped for food at a Mexican market, then continued on to Goat Hill, where allegedly the large rocks there are smooth from mammoths rubbing their itches on their backs against the surfaces. There, we went bouldering for a good couple of hours, until magic hour hit, then we took a few snaps, and watched a sun set from the rock; which by the way, sunsets will never get old for me. Neither will singing California obviously, which we did on the way back before hitting a favourite French restaurant, tucked into a corner of slanted street.

Photos: San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and Hawk Hill by Jessica Lee

If there’s one thing you should do in San Francisco, California, I would recommend speeding up and down the hills of the city on a motorcycle, then going by the same way to see the Golden Gate Bridge. 

That’s exactly what my friend Alek and I did when I was there earlier this year. Alek took me on a journey across the Golden Gate bridge to Hawk Hill where we observed the view from above. 

The sensation of wind brushing past you as your adrenaline races, combined with blue skies, vast green hills and the change in scenery, and not least, the putter and hum of the motor engine underneath you; is more than enough to produce a wide grin from ear to ear underneath your motorcycle helmet; while you wonder what good thing you did in your life to deserve this amazing experience.

Photos: Climbing in Mont Orford, Magog and Sherbrooke ...and Washington D.C. by Jessica Lee

Now that it's pretty much summer, I felt it would be appropriate to finally put these photos up from last fall.

My friend Olivier who lives in Washington D.C. got a few days off work and drove home to visit his family in Magog, Quebec, for Canadian Thanksgiving. Along the way, he picked me up from Montreal.

Upon hiking into the forest, we came upon a French family with small children, pointing at a tree. They had spotted a porcupine.

I've never come across a porcupine in person before, but from this experience, I can tell you that they are very slow-moving, and relatively easy to photograph because of this. You just have to make sure to get them to face the camera.

We spent the rest of the day bouldering in the area, then packed up and headed to explore Magog.

We did a quick walk-through of Magog, then headed in for the night.

To be honest, I don't think I would ever visit Magog or Sherbrooke on my own if not for Olivier.

Both are charming little towns great for raising families, and if you'd like slower pace of life. What really struck me though, was meeting and being welcomed in by Olivier's family, and listening to their stories of living on a farm, being in the country and harvesting maple syrup (they own a few acres of sugar bushes). We ate turkey with all the trimmings, and I listened to the struggles of living on a farm from Olivier's brother and sister-in-law. This is stuff people pay for when they go on cabane a sucre tours, but here I was, getting to experience all of this just because I was a friend.

I think the most endearing thing to me was how Olivier's brother explained to his young children (under five) where the turkey came from. It was one of the turkeys on the farm and the children noticed the day before that one of the turkeys had gone missing. The children were the cutest things in the world when they played and it broke my heart that Olivier was working away in another city while his niece and nephew were growing up.

I should explain how I first met Olivier. We met when I couchsurfed in his home in Washington D.C. with another friend in the summer.

Many people are averse to welcoming strangers into their home and also staying in a stranger's house, but by being open, I got to experience this weekend in Magog and Sherbrooke; and also gained a new friend.

The next day, we woke up early to go canoeing, a popular outdoor Canadian pastime.

We spotted more wild life including a crane, which we followed around the lake while I took photos.

The weekend ended and Olivier had to go back to work in Washington. He offered to host me again in Washington D.C., and because I can't seem to turn down road trip offers, I went along for the 9 hour drive.

This brief trip gave me sunshine and the opportunity to finish browsing museums I didn't have enough time for the first time around.

San Diego: Unexpectedly, my vacation takes a turn for the worse by Jessica Lee

I was recently published in the Toronto Star, the paper I grew up reading.

SAN DIEGO — Mom, if you’re reading this, don’t worry! I’m fine. I’m in a new city, know absolutely no one, just lost my wallet, but it’s going to be okay. I landed in San Diego, in search of sunny relief from the grey Toronto winters. I’d arranged with my employer I would work remotely for a few weeks and even found someone to sublet my room. I thought I had it all figured out.
My wallet went missing the first day. All my identification, credit cards, $300 in cash and gift cards. Gone! I had no money to live on, no access to cash, and, as a young solo traveller, visiting California against my family’s wishes, the last thing I wanted was to have my mom bail me out of trouble, all the while saying: “I told you so.”
I needed to prove, myself. Almost half the world lives on less than $2 a day, according to the U.N., and so could I.
I had half a burrito leftover from lunch, so that took care of dinner that night. I also had a place to stay. I had paid for a night’s stay at a youth backpacker’s hostel the day before and arranged with the hostel to continue to live there in exchange for doing light chores every day.
But what was I going to do with no money in San Diego?
“At least the beach and sunshine are still free, right?” said my friend Kris from back home.
The next morning, I ate a free hostel breakfast of pancakes, fruit and bread; then stashed more bread from the buffet in my backpack for lunch. I spent my day in touristy Embarcadero, walking past enticing aromas of pizzas, bakeries and waffle cones, and staring glumly at tourists inside museums I couldn’t visit. It’s one thing to travel frugally and to decide not to visit an attraction, but it’s entirely different when you have no choice. I kept hoping my wallet would magically reappear.
That night, the hostel held a “Free Spaghetti and Salad Night.” I had survived two days with no money.The next day, I grew restless. The weather was perfect for the beach. The problem was distance. I didn’t mind walking, but two hours and a half of sweating on a dusty highway to get there would be pushing it. Wasn’t a beach day for relaxing?
I dug up all my loose change and had $2.30, enough for a one-way bus to Coronado Island. I wasn’t sure how I would return, but being stranded on a beach was better than feeling sorry for myself. Besides, you need money to enjoy bars and cafés downtown.
Once again, I packed bread from breakfast for later and got on the bus. The ride on the bridge above the ocean was incredible. White ships glided over a huge expanse of water, and mountains loomed in the distant background. But I was worried. I had three more weeks in San Diego.
I thought about dumpster-diving, busking for change, and asking restaurants for their surplus food. The night before, I scoured Craigslist for odd cash-paying jobs and posted an ad for freelance photography. I was irritable from hunger and wasn’t sure I could continue much longer.
We got to the beach and I leapt with joy; palm trees, sand, and a stretch of blue horizon greeted me. I tanned away my anxieties.
At lunch, I accidentally ate more bread than I intended and now had no more food for the rest of the day. It wasn’t even 4 p.m.! I wasn’t very good at rationing. But I had other worries; I had to get back to the hostel.
I thought about hitchhiking, but walked to the bus stop. Desperate, I asked a stranger for change. He had a dollar, which wasn’t enough, but I explained my lost wallet to the driver and was allowed on the bus.
That night was horrible. I was starving and surrounded by smells of food made by guests at the hostel, but I hadn’t made friends and didn’t want to impose on anyone. I brought up my wallet went missing ,but no one understood I literally had no money for groceries.
The next morning, I knew I had to make moves to improve my circumstances. I called my consulate, but the office wasn’t open until 10 a.m., and it was in Los Angeles.
Reluctantly, I packed another lunch and dinner of bread.
Then a miracle happened.
A package arrived for me at the front desk. It was my new credit card, express-shipped from Canada! Never has plastic looked so good. Everything would be fine.

I met Holden Caulfield in Montreal by Jessica Lee

I met Jack, 17, in Montreal, at a hostel party. He's originally from England, but left home at 15 and has been travelling around for a while. He had such an interesting story, I had to ask him for an interview. He is an idealistic, young Holden Caulfield-type who actually did what most of us wanted to do, but were too scared to do - and he's doing fine at it. 

Keep reading to see why he amazes me.


You left home when you were 15. Why and what have you been doing?

Well the reason why is kind of strange I think. I never wanted to travel my entire life but when I was 13 or 14, my mom told me we were going to live in California with my adoptive grandparents and we were really excited. I told all my friends ‘I’m going to live in California, it’s going to be amazing.’ And then one day she was like ‘Actually, it’s really hard to move to that country, let’s just move to Scotland instead.’ And I hated Scotland. So she moved my entire life, you know, I left all my friends behind. I didn’t know anybody. And she moved me to the shittiest place in the world. The second I was free I was like ‘I have to get out of here.’ I looked at the cheapest flights I could find and Cyprus was only 45 pounds, leaving in a week’s time. So I bought the ticket without telling my mom or dad and I started packing my things. And then two days before, I sat at the kitchen table and was like ‘Hey, can someone give me a lift to the airport tomorrow?’ ‘What? Why?’ ‘I just booked a flight to Cyprus.’ And then I told them what my plan was. And then I got to Cyprus, found a job at a meditation centre. I would assist classes and was a receptionist for a while and I did a lot of design work for them too. And after working there, that gave me enough money to travel the rest of Europe. I did all of Turkey with a girl – that’s a whole other story – we travelled together, and then I went to Bulgaria but didn’t like it, so we caught a flight from Istanbul to Portugal and we lived in Lagos for a bit, and then Spain. And then came back to England. Yeah, I came back to England for a month and she came back home to Canada and I did all of France, then I came here.

So that all happened when you were 15.

Yeah. I turned 16 in Cyprus, and when I turned 17, I was in Seville, Spain. And when I turn 18, I’ll be in Mexico.

How do your parents feel about all of this?

I think at first they were a bit confused. They were like ‘why is he going there on his own? Why isn’t he looking to do college courses?’ And they thought I was throwing away my life, you know? I always had aspirations to become a lawyer, in my mom’s footsteps. I had always been a perfect kid, like my entire life. I was exactly what they wanted and then one day I was just like ‘fuck that, I’m leaving now.’ And that really surprised them and my dad didn’t talk to me for a long time. My sister used to bitch about me to my grandparents. The whole family just sort of kicked me out, other than my mother. But I came back, I was living there for a month and everything seemed to be alright. They seemed to know I was going through some stuff at the moment and this is how I’m dealing with it. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. There’s this whole back story to it and I feel like I’m saying the front of it, if you know what I mean. …they don’t like it, is what I’m trying to say. They don’t like it.

But you’re supporting yourself and you’re managing.

I think also they had a massive problem with me being with somebody older than me for most of my trip because they felt that she was taking advantage of me the entire time, just cause she was older. But it was a mutual relationship. But my mother worried because of that. She was like ‘what’s this weird 24 year old woman doing, taking my son around Europe?’

And you met your girlfriend at the time in Cyprus?

Yeah, a little town called Latchi, just outside of Cyprus. We worked in the same place and she got arrested accidentally. You know what Workaway is? She was over there on Workaway and she was volunteering. And someone saw a Canadian was working there without a VISA so they called immigration up and they arrested every single American, every single Australian in that place and took them to jail. And from that point on, they weren’t allowed to volunteer in Cyprus anymore. So she was like ‘I’ve nowhere to go’, but I was like ‘I’ve got an apartment, I’ve got a car, I’ve got food. I’ve got everything.’ So she just moved in with me. And we all lived in this apartment building and it was a crazy experience. Everything fell into place, you know? It was perfect.

Most kids your age, at 17, they’re just about to enter college, and they haven’t quite figured out how the world works yet, or how to take care of themselves but you’ve been on your own all this time. You seem to have everything figured out.

Maybe. Well I think a lot more than having a career or going to college is happiness, and that was probably one of the main reasons I left in the first place. In Scotland, I could have gotten a great uni[versity] degree and carried on with my life, but I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to throw this away just so I can have money’. ‘Cause I look at my dad and he has a lot of money and I look at my mom and she has a lot of money but constantly they’re stressed out and never happy; so I figured by travelling, it’ll give me some time to think, you know? ‘What do I really want?’ Instead of living up to society’s expectations, and that’s when I started getting into yoga, and that sort of opened up my mind to ‘you can live on the beach with no money and be ten times happier than somebody who owns half the world'. A lot of people will sort of hold a lot of negativity over life in general. They wake up in the morning and [will] be like ‘Oh, it’s freezing cold, I hate my job’, and all that kind of stuff. But none of it matters. I know this sounds weird to say, but we’re all going to dead soon right? And in the short time, why would you waste it doing something that you don’t want just so you can brag to your friends that you have a house and a kid and a wife who’s good looking? I think in a sense I’ve given up on life.

Like you’ve given up on that sort of life?

I’ve given up chasing something that other people are telling me I should want and chasing what I want personally instead. Like a relationship with a 24 year old woman seemed like the best thing in the entire world to me at the moment and I couldn’t stand England so I came here, which is insane. I had barely any money. It didn’t work out and I knew coming here it wouldn’t work out, but I still knew even if it doesn’t, it’s what I want right now.

You followed a woman to Edmonton but you knew it wouldn’t work out?

Yeah I had a sort of feeling. You know when you’re travelling with someone, you’re in a new city every day. Every person you meet is new to both of you, but when you go to a hometown, that’s her family, her friends who have known her her whole life, and here comes me, I’m an outsider. And I have this thing where I’m not old enough to be drinking with her friends. It was like she was looking after me more than I was looking after her. When we were travelling, I was responsible for her safety, I feel. I figured out where we were going, what we were doing. When she was at home, she didn’t need any of that and there just wasn’t anything between us when that was taken away, which was sad, but there are a lot of differences between a 24 year old and a 17 year old right? So what did I expect?

Going back to the idea of happiness, what are you going to chase in the future? What is your idea of a perfect day or a perfect lifestyle?

I think about it a lot. I believe- although I said earlier that career achievements don’t mean anything, I do believe you can gain some sense of happiness from that happiness. But I prefer to be content instead of short periods of happiness. You know whereas my dad, he might make much money and that will make him happy for a week and then he’ll be miserable again. Like I’d rather just live on a beach in Ecuador with my house I bought for $15,000 and surf every single day and host couchsurfers. I love people, that’s my favourite thing in the world, meeting, talking, getting a sense of their mentality, where they come from, how they were raised, their background. You know it’s like reading a new book every single time, coming across someone new. So I just want to have that new experience. Keep myself busy, with new experiences, new people, with just things I enjoy.

What are you planning to do after Montreal?

On the 24th of February, I fly to Denver, Colorado, and my adoptive Auntie lives there, so I’m going to stay there for a week and a half, and then I’m flying to Los Angeles. And then I’m going to meet my mom and we’re going to hang out for two weeks. And I have plans to go to Mexico with a girl from New York.

I have one last question for you. What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned since leaving home?

Just to be humble. That’s the best thing you can possibly do in your entire life. Coming from a rich English background, my entire life is constantly comparing your life to other people’s like ‘my friend Reese got an iPad and iPhone for Christmas and my mom only got me a shitty car’ or something like this. When you let go of all of that, you know what you have and appreciate it. Don’t brag.

"Roaring twenties" - My San Diego existence by Jessica Lee

My existence in San Diego is the closest I've come to what I would like my ideal life to be like in my "roaring twenties".

I start my mornings waking up leisurely at 7:00 am. A switch to west coast time means I'm actually waking up around 10:00 am back home. During this time, I'll send off a few emails and read the daily news while sipping my cup of tea, and take care of whatever tasks that need to be done back home for work. Then I start my job at the hostel around 8:30 am. Replenishing breakfast supplies, saying hi to management, greeting guests, light cleaning. It finishes at noon, and then the day's adventure will start.

A sample of an adventure can be anything from a day trip to La Jolla shores, surfing at Ocean Beach, hiking at Mission Trails or a motorcycle ride up north. One thing in common however, is that the days always end in a beautiful pink sunset, whether on top of a mountain, from a restaurant patio or on a sail boat. I'm greedy about sunsets. I've enjoyed many before, but I can never get enough. I always have to be sitting somewhere with a good view when the time is 5:15 pm.

I guard my time well, but I always make sure to leave room for spontaneous outings. One night we ended up at Pacific Beach, sharing tacos with a Mexican girl and listening to the stories of her huge 500+ family. Another night ended being escorted onto a military base and watching movies in the ridiculously high-end barracks the American Navy lives in (honestly, the apartment I was in was comparable to many of the King West apartments in Toronto - impressive).

Most nights are spent at bars in the Gaslamp District or the hot tub of a neighbouring hotel. On exceptionally good nights, they end in movies at the theatre or dessert at the Cheesecake Factory.

The thing I love about America is its excess. Food here is cheap, so the living is easy. The days are leisurely and the constant sunlight keeps me warm.

I'm not saying the people here don't struggle. But I keep my needs low and find I can get on by quite easily. The taxes are lower and the food portions at restaurants are huge. One meal usually equals three for me. I don't shop (stopped that habit long ago), rarely drink and my only vice is probably eating tacos all the time since the Mexican food here is much better than on the east coast due to the proximity to Mexico.

Regardless, when I look back at San Diego, I know I'll remember it with a smile. I'll think of all the characters I've met, all the moments I've lived and remember it with gratitude. The universe can be quite generous when you open yourself to the world.

San Diego, California: a first look by Jessica Lee

California: where do I even begin?

San Diego is the heaven of my dreams. At least that's the way it seems in January; coming from cold, windy, grey, sometimes snowing Toronto. The only warmth I feel there in the Winter comes from family and friends.

When the cold gets too strong for me, I get on a plane.

"Welcome to beautiful, sunny California," says the pilot as we land. We're off to a good beginning, as I can see bright sunshine from my seat inside the plane.

I feel my first burst of joy as I step into the arrivals gate. Sunlight streams through glass windows and I see blue skies and palm trees. With my luggage on my back, my pants rolled up and sunglasses on, I wait in a spot of sun for the bus that will take me into the city.

I had forgotten what summer felt like.

The bus to from the airport to downtown San Diego is the best introduction to the city possible. Along the coast, it is a sprawling sea of catamarans, boardwalks and beaches, endless ocean blue, until we reach Broadway Avenue. Then it is sidewalks, bars and restaurants in the shining, flashy Gaslamp Quarter, but with an old-time, almost Mexican feel where almost every bar is a cowboy-themed and every restaurant with Hispanic influences.

The people here are real characters, not your usual suburban soccer moms or typical office workers; there are trench-coated, middle-aged folk, leathery-tanned skin, drinking from a patio, or shuffling along the sidewalk. The women wear muted shades of pink or beige and the men are in black. Young California city slickers walk the streets in dark blazers with jeans, everyone wearing sunglasses. A few of the catatonics occasionally wander up to you on the streets and give you a fright.

San Diego is a strange city; but a warm and inviting one. It's easy to stroll along the street in the Gaslamp Quarter and walk up to the harbour, look at all the boats and take in the bustle of the people, the tourists taking photos, the business meetings, afterwork drinks and young nightlife. I would move here in a heart beat, if they would let me.

Hola from San Diego, California! by Jessica Lee

I woke up this morning and frankly I was a little stressed. I couldn't find my cash and I was running late meeting my friend for surfing. I borrowed some money, then headed to Ocean Beach. I caught a few waves, dried off in the sun and now I'm here on Ocean Beach Pier enjoying the view and a lobster taco. It's a Monday.

More on San Diego soon... Stay loose!