jessica lee

In Photos: India, Sri Lanka and more... by Jessica Lee

The Taj Mahal in Agra, as captured at 6 am. I went early to avoid tourists, but it turns out everyone had the same idea.

The Taj Mahal in Agra, as captured at 6 am. I went early to avoid tourists, but it turns out everyone had the same idea.

India was not an easy, every moment photo-worthy trip to make – it was a long-awaited journey, finally fulfilled. I had put off travelling to India on my own for years, thinking that eventually one day, everything would fall into place; that friends who also wanted to travel to India would also be able to go at the same time and that by travelling together and sticking to a pack, India would be less confronting. I had heard stories of India being unsafe for solo women travellers, but also many stories that countered that narrative. In the end, I decided that if I didn’t go now, I may never go.

The hustle and bustle of Elephanta Island, off of Mumbai, India

The hustle and bustle of Elephanta Island, off of Mumbai, India

In my youth, I met many who were only a few decades older than me who said to me ‘I wish I had travelled more when I was younger’; thus I am only following the hidden advice in the trail of their regretful longings while I still have the energy, time and freedom.

There were two sides of India – the India portrayed on blogs as alluring, exotic, with bold colours… and the India that was dirty, polluted, hot and humid; filled with plastic garbage and dusty air.

Delhi/ Agra / Jaipur / Mumbai
I spent the first five days in Delhi in a haze of sleepiness, still on North American time, waking up at 5 pm and faithfully navigating to Rajiv Chowk every day to take in the crowds, the markets and the night life. I watched young couples sit together after a night out at the cinema, families at leisure, and the peddlers at the market stalls eager for a sale. I ate as many different Indian dishes as I could: paneer curries, tikkas, daals, samosas; enjoying all the bold flavours in a wide-eyed enthusiasm. During this time, I also learned to put up higher walls than usual as I unintentionally picked up unexpected and unwanted companions on the way.

JP, from Lebanon, at the W Hotel in Northern Goa and a hut in Southern Goa

JP, from Lebanon, at the W Hotel in Northern Goa and a hut in Southern Goa

Goa
Filled with palm trees and the soft ambience in the brushing of ocean waves in the background, Goa was a welcome break from the rush of city life. The beaches had a laidback, hippie vibe. Dreadlocks, hemp clothing and tie-dye all made an appearance. I felt more space around me than I had the previous three weeks spent in the large cities and I could finally breathe, literally and metaphorically. The air was better near the beaches and there were less crowds. My favourite days were spent on motorcycles, exploring the nearby areas on open roads, looking up to open skies, discovering lakes or hidden beaches – impromptu road trips where I didn’t know where I would end up.

I spent my first night in South Goa at a bar talking to a well-travelled stranger who had been to a few of the same places I had been to. We compared experiences and found that we had a strikingly similar experience while tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos. At this point, we had been chatting for over an hour and had moved on to dinner on the beach. It turns out we had met before – I met Liam from England (the stranger) two years ago and we had spent an entire day tubing down a river together. Two years had changed his appearance dramatically and I no longer recognized him – and he did not recognize me as he was inebriated the entire day that we had been tubing. The world is large but small at the same time. It is random and full of wonder.

Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo

Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo

Colombo/Pinawalla
I arrived by plane in the middle of the night in Colombo. This was two weeks after the terrorism attacks on the country that left the country in a fragile state in morale and finances as many tourists cancelled their trips fearing for their safety.

I have a theory that destinations off of the usual tourist radar attracts the most compelling people and it was in this way I met Marina, a seal trainer (and former Miss California) working in Dubai. She invited me to see elephants with her at the elephant orphanage in Pinawalla and off we went the next day. Our hotel overlooked a bay where the orphanage would take their elephants to bathe twice every day. Watching baby elephants playfully splash themselves in water was not something I thought I would enjoy as much as I did, but it was truthfully one of the highlights of my trip.

Marina at Pinawalla

Marina at Pinawalla

Locals in Kandy

Locals in Kandy

Kandy
After blissful days of elephant watching, Marina and I parted ways in Kandy and I met a traveller who was polite and well-meaning but unfortunately tightly-strung and distressed. He had spent his entire day in the guest house, fearing for his life, not daring to leave. He counted down the days until his flight out of Sri Lanka. He had been on a bus where allegedly, a bomb was found. When he had left his room to finally get dinner that night, he said police had found dynamite in a truck. He had been profoundly affected by his experiences and his hysteria got to me. I spent the remainder of the night editing all my photos quickly so that if something were to happen to me the next day, my work would still live on. It was a terrifying and panic-stricken night.

The train ride from Kandy to Ella passed through mountains, tea plantations and small villages

The train ride from Kandy to Ella passed through mountains, tea plantations and small villages

Ella/Arugam Bay
On the train the next day to Ella, tensions were high, but just in my head. As we waited for the train, every little movement by the other passengers caused alarms in my head – would this be the moment someone would pull out a bomb? But the train arrived and we all boarded without incident. Where the train would have been full or close to full just a few weeks ago, now there was plenty of room to stretch out because of all the missing tourists. As the train rolled forward, little by little, as we passed the peaceful backgrounds of quaint villages, lush forests, tea plantations and mountains, I slowly began to relax. On the train, I met Robin from Switzerland who had travelled through Sri Lanka the last several weeks by himself. His ease in the environment calmed me down. We sat in between the railway cars, our legs dangling out the open doors, our gaze ahead to where the ever-changing scenic landscape appeared and disappeared in seconds as our train passed by. I was looking for a spot to go surfing after Ella and had planned to go to Weligama, when he told me about Arugam Bay, where he had been before and was heading back himself.

Robin from Switzerland in Ella. It had started to rain but the light was beautiful so we got in a few frames.

Robin from Switzerland in Ella. It had started to rain but the light was beautiful so we got in a few frames.

And this was how I found myself in surfer’s paradise – a long stretch of sandy beach filled with ramshackle beach huts, restaurants and surf shops. It was a low-key place for an acquired taste. The entire town was like existing in a bit of a dream. Besides the locals, everywhere I looked was filled with young, tanned, toned and beautiful surfers with the goal of catching the best waves. These twenty and thirty-somethings had been travelling back and forth between India and Sri Lanka for months and had devoted weeks to the ocean – a rebellion from the normalcy of western society’s workaholism and structure. At dinner, we exchanged stories of long-term travel, where we were going and where we had been. Stomachs full and satisfied with the night’s festivities, we stumbled off to bed, ready to do it all again the next day. I was sad to finally leave but made a mental note to come back again one day.

Ananuri Mountains, Georgia

Ananuri Mountains, Georgia

Georgia/ Ukraine

At this point of my trip, I had been gone for over a month. I was ready to head back home, but wanted to make a pit stop in Europe first. I had first heard of Georgia from a girl who loved it when I was staying at a hostel in Macedonia. Georgia exceeded my expectations. I had expected a cookie-cutter Eastern-European city with stark brutalist architecture and unmemorable food. I received a fresh, mostly tourist-free city and a delicious smattering of local cuisines. One day, I rented a four-wheel drive and drove to the mountains. Along the way, sheep and cattle and their herders ran across the road and I got out to take some pictures. An older couple saw me and invited me to join their picnic lunch. I took their portrait too. In Kiev, I met up with Marta, a photographer and videographer who I knew from Toronto but had moved to Kiev to reconnect with her roots. After a weekend of beers, chats and folk dancing, it was time to go home.

Georgian woman at Ananuri Fortress

Georgian woman at Ananuri Fortress

Sheep herding outside of Tbilisi, Georgia

Sheep herding outside of Tbilisi, Georgia

Canadian National Barista Championship in Globe and Mail by Jessica Lee

Jill Hoff from Calgary presents the coffee she made at the National Barista Championship in Toronto.

Jill Hoff from Calgary presents the coffee she made at the National Barista Championship in Toronto.

Last week, I got to photograph the best baristas in the country at the Canadian National Barista Championships for The Globe and Mail. It was a dream assignment for me because I love coffee culture and also geeking out to delicious coffee. It was also interesting to chat with people who love coffee so much that they devoted a significant amount of their lives to perfecting the skill of making coffee. What drives them? Why are they spending so many hours preparing for a competition?

Here are a few photos from the event, but also check out the interactive feature the Globe put out here.

TORONTO - (March 17, 2019) The twenty-two best baristas in Canada gathered at The Artist Factory to battle it out for the title of best barista at the 2019 Canadian Barista Championships. The event was held to select a Canadian representative to compete in the World Barista Championships in Boston next month.

To earn their spot to compete with the best of the best in Canada, the baristas spend months taste-testing and selecting the coffee bean they will use, rehearsing their routine and practicing to make the perfect cup of coffee. At the competition, each competitor has fifteen minutes to present to four judges their coffee creations. The baristas are judged by the taste and presentation of the cup they brew (latte art), their preparing technique, how accurately they describe the flavour profiles in the coffee they present, their efficiency and cleanliness of their coffee station and also the creativity of a signature drink they create. The event is a fun celebration bringing together fans of the steadily-growing third-wave craft coffee culture in Canada, which uses high-quality Arabica beans, usually sourced directly from a farm in a coffee-growing region, with many cafés roasting their own beans in-house.

Cole Torode, 27, from Calgary, presents his coffee creations to the judges at the 2019 National Barista Championship in Toronto. He was the 2018 and 2019 winner and will go on to represent Canada in the World Barista Championship in Boston later this year.

Cole Torode, 27, from Calgary, presents his coffee creations to the judges at the 2019 National Barista Championship in Toronto. He was the 2018 and 2019 winner and will go on to represent Canada in the World Barista Championship in Boston later this year.

A judge marks down flavour notes of the coffee he is tasting at the 2019 National Barista Championships in Toronto.

A judge marks down flavour notes of the coffee he is tasting at the 2019 National Barista Championships in Toronto.

Nelson Phu, 29, from Calgary, grinds coffee beans while judges look on.

Nelson Phu, 29, from Calgary, grinds coffee beans while judges look on.

Derek Hamers, 37, Toronto Independent  “I’m originally from Regina, Saskatchewan, so there’s not really a specialty coffee scene there, at the time. I think it’s now starting to happen but before there was nothing really for me so I moved to Toronto. It broke my mother’s heart. I had to tell her, it was like ‘Mom, I’m moving to Toronto to become a barista, she’s like ‘Oh my god, Dewey’ [laughs]. But it was the right decision and I met an amazing community here and we’re all good friends and I’ve worked at many places here since and it’s been an awesome journey.”

Derek Hamers, 37, Toronto Independent

“I’m originally from Regina, Saskatchewan, so there’s not really a specialty coffee scene there, at the time. I think it’s now starting to happen but before there was nothing really for me so I moved to Toronto. It broke my mother’s heart. I had to tell her, it was like ‘Mom, I’m moving to Toronto to become a barista, she’s like ‘Oh my god, Dewey’ [laughs]. But it was the right decision and I met an amazing community here and we’re all good friends and I’ve worked at many places here since and it’s been an awesome journey.”

Jann Meneses, 23, Toronto, Independent  “I’m really looking into finding myself a mentor. It takes some time to find the right one for me and I really need someone to look up to who’s going to guide me through my path and so it will just take some time. I want to meet someone that is very knowledgeable about the craft, knows the craft as much as I do and will teach me his ways.”

Jann Meneses, 23, Toronto, Independent

“I’m really looking into finding myself a mentor. It takes some time to find the right one for me and I really need someone to look up to who’s going to guide me through my path and so it will just take some time. I want to meet someone that is very knowledgeable about the craft, knows the craft as much as I do and will teach me his ways.”

Meaghan Biddle, 31, London, ON Locomotive Espresso  “I have a degree in anthropology and a degree in classical civilizations and also in fashion design. I started working in coffee at a Starbucks about ten years ago, I worked there and worked my way up the company in a couple of years, but then I moved into just coffee so I started working at a small café in Toronto.”

Meaghan Biddle, 31, London, ON Locomotive Espresso

“I have a degree in anthropology and a degree in classical civilizations and also in fashion design. I started working in coffee at a Starbucks about ten years ago, I worked there and worked my way up the company in a couple of years, but then I moved into just coffee so I started working at a small café in Toronto.”

Nelson Phu, 29, Calgary, Rosso Coffee Roasters  What makes a good cup of coffee?  “You need some acidity, ‘cause it’s interesting, definitely some sweetness and a couple notes, distinct flavor notes, make it amazing. A super long finish is also super nice.”  What does that mean? ‘Super long finish’?  “So imagine eating a caramel, and when you’re done the caramel, you’re still tasting the caramel. That’s the super long finish. It’s really rare to find that in coffee so it’s really nice if you do get one.”

Nelson Phu, 29, Calgary, Rosso Coffee Roasters

What makes a good cup of coffee?

“You need some acidity, ‘cause it’s interesting, definitely some sweetness and a couple notes, distinct flavor notes, make it amazing. A super long finish is also super nice.”

What does that mean? ‘Super long finish’?

“So imagine eating a caramel, and when you’re done the caramel, you’re still tasting the caramel. That’s the super long finish. It’s really rare to find that in coffee so it’s really nice if you do get one.”

Sameer Mohamed, 37, Toronto, Fahrenheit Coffee  “I competed about 15 years ago, that was my first competition, since then rules have changed, methods have changed and so there’s been a lot of adaptation, a lot of, I guess the industry as a whole has been steadied.”

Sameer Mohamed, 37, Toronto, Fahrenheit Coffee

“I competed about 15 years ago, that was my first competition, since then rules have changed, methods have changed and so there’s been a lot of adaptation, a lot of, I guess the industry as a whole has been steadied.”

Cole Torode, 27, Calgary, Rosso Coffee Roasters  2018 and 2019 National Barista Championship Winner  “We live in a very fortunate place in the world and coffee is not grown here but we appreciate coffee and I think the more, from a specialty coffee side, the more people we can bring into specialty coffee, the more we can pay premiums backward toward the supply chain to developing nations and to people who are just less fortunate than us, based on where they were born.”

Cole Torode, 27, Calgary, Rosso Coffee Roasters

2018 and 2019 National Barista Championship Winner

“We live in a very fortunate place in the world and coffee is not grown here but we appreciate coffee and I think the more, from a specialty coffee side, the more people we can bring into specialty coffee, the more we can pay premiums backward toward the supply chain to developing nations and to people who are just less fortunate than us, based on where they were born.”

Karine Ng, 32, Calgary, Phil and Sebastian Coffee Roasters  Describe how you trained for this competition:  “It’s almost like choreography. Kind of like if you’re a dancer you know exactly what moves you’re making at what time, at what point in time so it’s kind of like that, so repeating those movements a lot so you get to be very automatic about it. …all my spare time goes towards preparation for competition.”

Karine Ng, 32, Calgary, Phil and Sebastian Coffee Roasters

Describe how you trained for this competition:

“It’s almost like choreography. Kind of like if you’re a dancer you know exactly what moves you’re making at what time, at what point in time so it’s kind of like that, so repeating those movements a lot so you get to be very automatic about it. …all my spare time goes towards preparation for competition.”

Judges taste test coffee at the Canadian Barista Championships in Toronto.

Judges taste test coffee at the Canadian Barista Championships in Toronto.

Toronto Women's March in the Globe and Mail by Jessica Lee

GLB-MON-21012019-A010-C-GTA-001_x_DTL.jpg

I recently photographed the Women’s March in Toronto for The Globe and Mail. The assignment ended up being featured in the Folio section for the print edition, and I was really excited when my photos were given a double spread. I am very grateful I got to photograph such a meaningful event as the Women’s March and document it historically. While there has been so much work done in the past to further women’s issues, there is still so much more work to be done.

50 countries and my favourite highlights in all my travels by Jessica Lee

Budapest, Hungary - one of the stops on my Eastern Europe tour 2018

Budapest, Hungary - one of the stops on my Eastern Europe tour 2018

I recently visited my 50th country (Romania) during my recent trip to Eastern Europe. 

When I first started solo travelling roughly six years ago), I didn't imagine it would take so long to get to 50 countries. That is roughly eight countries a year, which doesn't seem like a lot but sometimes you get to a place and you love it so much you need to visit it thoroughly, from North to South, because usually every region is very different.

Do I plan to visit all 195 countries now that I've been to over a quarter of them? Maybe. Certainly a few people have done it. But most people will live their lives not even seeing 25% of the impressively awe-inspiring world we are on.

Transylvania, Romania, my 50th country

Transylvania, Romania, my 50th country

It's true. Travelling is not always easy. You have to plan where you want to go, take time off from work, save up some money, book tickets and accommodation and plan out an itinerary.

However, I've found that as I've been to more places with more miles under my feet, that like most skills, travelling does get easier. In 2014 when I first went to Morocco by myself, I was overwhelmed by their aggressive culture that preyed on tourists. I was not used to having a local follow me around (for hours) and ask for money. This time, four years later, the locals didn't stop following me around, but I was more confident. After four years of travelling experience, I was better at asserting myself and telling people to leave me alone when I felt uncomfortable. I sought out interactions with locals where I felt safe - authentic experiences which didn't involve any monetary exchange. I am better at reading situations now and this helps as a photographer carrying thousands of dollars in camera gear (and as a regular traveller) - being able to spot danger and when you need to leave a situation.

I've also gotten better at packing light through the years. On the left is all the luggage I brought with me for a month to Eastern Europe. On the right is all the luggage I brought with me to Indonesia in 2012.

I've also gotten better at packing light through the years. On the left is all the luggage I brought with me for a month to Eastern Europe. On the right is all the luggage I brought with me to Indonesia in 2012.

I'm not done with my travels though, here's to the next 50 countries. Thanks for joining me on this journey. :)

Here's a compilation of the highlights of my travelling so far:

Living aboard an 83 feet vessel in Airlie Beach, Australia, for three days and seeing the Whitsunday Islands to this day is one of my most treasured memories. My Australia abroad trip was a pivotal moment for me because it was the first time I ever really travelled by myself to such a far away place. I had worked three jobs concurrently to save up for the trip the summer before, and it was satisfying to set off on a self-planned and self-funded adventure so far away from where I was raised.

Living aboard an 83 feet vessel in Airlie Beach, Australia, for three days and seeing the Whitsunday Islands to this day is one of my most treasured memories. My Australia abroad trip was a pivotal moment for me because it was the first time I ever really travelled by myself to such a far away place. I had worked three jobs concurrently to save up for the trip the summer before, and it was satisfying to set off on a self-planned and self-funded adventure so far away from where I was raised.

In 2012, I rented a camper van with some friends and made a road trip down the eastern coast of Australia from Cairns to Adelaide. It was thrilling to live day-to-day not knowing what we would be doing the next night or where we would park - the possibilities were open and endless.

In 2012, I rented a camper van with some friends and made a road trip down the eastern coast of Australia from Cairns to Adelaide. It was thrilling to live day-to-day not knowing what we would be doing the next night or where we would park - the possibilities were open and endless.

Snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef was a life-changing for me. Being underwater is completely different to what I've known and grown up in - something clicked in my mind that day, that there are entire worlds unexplored, and entire worlds that are also sadly fading away. This experience was just the beginning in a lifetime of diving that would later lead to me getting PADI-certified and swimming with sharks in Thailand, also another memorable highlight while travelling.

Snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef was a life-changing for me. Being underwater is completely different to what I've known and grown up in - something clicked in my mind that day, that there are entire worlds unexplored, and entire worlds that are also sadly fading away. This experience was just the beginning in a lifetime of diving that would later lead to me getting PADI-certified and swimming with sharks in Thailand, also another memorable highlight while travelling.

Seeing the Northern Lights in Reykjavik, Iceland, was one of my most memorable experiences. This natural phenomenon is absolutely stunning and awe-inspiring. It is also free to see (if you don't count cost of gas and car).

Seeing the Northern Lights in Reykjavik, Iceland, was one of my most memorable experiences. This natural phenomenon is absolutely stunning and awe-inspiring. It is also free to see (if you don't count cost of gas and car).

Finally, the first time I climbed outdoors (and it was in the Blue Mountains in Australia too!) was a top highlight because I had never studied rocks so intimately and it was gratifying to see your progress as you climbed your way to the top. The novel/thrill aspect was also a huge draw - there was one point where I fell and thought that was the end, luckily I was clipped on and my partner "caught" me. The view at the end of the climb was absolutely stunning as well and also different from what someone who didn't climb the route would see (just from the look-out point).

Finally, the first time I climbed outdoors (and it was in the Blue Mountains in Australia too!) was a top highlight because I had never studied rocks so intimately and it was gratifying to see your progress as you climbed your way to the top. The novel/thrill aspect was also a huge draw - there was one point where I fell and thought that was the end, luckily I was clipped on and my partner "caught" me. The view at the end of the climb was absolutely stunning as well and also different from what someone who didn't climb the route would see (just from the look-out point).

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.

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

Toronto-engagement

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.

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.













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.

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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.

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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.



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!

What I learned in 2014 by Jessica Lee


It seems like just yesterday I was writing What I Learned in 2013. Time is a slippery and fleeting creature that you just cannot stop or slow.

I started January 2014 in Paris, France, in the middle of my European backpacking trip. After counting down and watching the Eiffel Tower shimmer for a few minutes with thousands of people at Trocadero, I walked home to my rented apartment on Magenta Blvd., amidst joyous French wishing me "Bonne Année!"

2014 was a year filled with adventure, wrong turns, mishaps and bliss. And lots and lots of learning. I was given many fantastic opportunities, got to see spectacular sights in new countries, and I met the most wonderful people in over 25 cities. There were definitely more good moments than bad, and for that I am grateful. Here are some of the most important things I picked up in 2014:


1. There is a lot of beauty in life.
I saw this in landscapes, cityscapes; in every mountain of every train ride I passed through, in all the lakes I've taken in, in the vast desert silence which made me understand how small I am in this world. There is beauty in every heart-stopping piece of literature and I've read, every sunset and patio I enjoyed, in all the beautiful, heart-wrenching goodbyes, free gifts from life, fireworks in the sky, in drunken dance halls and bars where I've shared a pitcher of beer with the awe-inspiring people I've encountered, chance meetings in unexpected places and music that makes your heart swell. Enjoy life, it's marvellous. Be open and let it surprise you.



2. There are many inspiring and big-hearted people with overwhelmingly attractive souls out there. Their energy will pull you towards them. Keep these people close, make them your friends, don't take these people for granted, appreciate them at every moment, draw inspiration from them and give them your time and energy. These people are rare to find, but once you meet one, they multiply because good people tend to hang out with other good people. It might not be entirely obvious at first if you've found someone awesome, but slowly through different situations and time you've spent together, you'll see their character come through, and that's when you know that they are quality and deserve a place in your life.

3. You cannot control what other people do, only how you react to them. Yes there are lovely people out there, but there are also others who will disappoint you, steal from you and lead you into bad situations. There's nothing you can do to change other people if they're not willing to change, you can only alter your attitude and decide to not let them ruin your day. In Rome, a lady attempted to steal from me in a crowded subway, I was shocked initially, but I took it as a learning experience. Later this year, someone whom I initially thought would be a fantastic person, whom I invested time in turned out to be a dud so I put less energy towards that relationship. Ideally, it would be great to know if someone is worth your energy and resources before you give your time to them, but life rarely comes with labels - you win some, you lose some.

4. Be strategic in your professional life and understand timing. One of my work contracts which kept getting renewed previously ended earlier this year due to budget cuts and my poor gauging of the situation. It wasn't my fault the budget was gone, I was doing great work and felt I deserved a more competitive rate, so I asked for it. Unfortunately, I asked at a completely inappropriate time because of a government budget cut and as a result, I lost one part of the contract. The silver lining of this story is that I learned quickly from this- later in the year at another company, I asked for a raise at an appropriate time and got it.



5. Be precise and careful in moments which require it. In January, I bought a cheap plane ticket with RyanAir from Barcelona to Malaga. It was something ridiculous like 25 euros, which is roughly $35, or a night's stay at a hostel in Paris. There were a couple of catches though- they required you to check-in online 24 hours beforehand and print out your ticket. I neglected to do these things and had to pay a 150 euro fine or forfeit my ticket. It was a tough lesson to learn, but I paid the fine to board the plane. It was the worst travel day I have ever had because I also had to spend my night on a cold aluminium bench at the airport, but that is another story. Now I'm more careful about fine print and boarding times; and have since missed only one ride share, which I had no control over because they overbooked.



6. Allow serendipity to play a part in your life, look out for cool opportunities. In Barcelona, I was walking to a café one day and stumbled into a firefighter's protest, which made for some awesome photos, one of which is short-listed in a photo contest. In Quebec City, chance allowed me to attend a free jazz concert. Earlier this summer, I ended up moving to Montreal and having some of the best days of my life because of an acquaintance I met in a tiny bar in Toronto. Most times, the unexpected moments in life are the best, you just have to be open and go with the flow.



7. Spread your joy. I met one of the most lovely people to be around earlier this Spring in Toronto. My friend Dale is a photographer like me and as a result, we spent a lot of time together in coffee shops editing photos. Every time I'm with this guy, he leaves me immensely happier, but it doesn't stop there; he is abundant and genuine in compliments for the baristas as well. It doesn't take a lot of effort to be kind, but it's such a nice thing to have and improves the atmosphere considerably.



8. This world is vast. I've met so many people this year who are different from me, and it amazes me how big some differences are, such as culture and upbringing; yet other things are the same. We all desire connection to other people, we all want our stories to be heard and we all have goals we strive for. 2014 was the year I met desert-dwellers, a bunch of crazy (in a good way) Europeans, unlikely folks in cities you would never expect them to be in; people in all stages of life.



9. Sometimes partying is more "productive" than "work" work. This was a strange lesson for me to learn this year, growing up in business-oriented Toronto, at a study-at-all-hours university, in a competitive swim-or-sink journalism program where no one really had a social life for a few semesters. I started working in the hospitality industry this year, and the way hiring goes here is whether or not someone fits in with the culture of the company influences if they'll be hired more than what they'll say in an interview, or a cover letter. Hospitality is about taking care of people, so naturally it goes that if you're the life of the party and your guests are having a good time, then you are doing a good job. Basically, it's easier to party your way into a job in this industry than interview your way in. The partying is the interview. Of course, it all depends on the industry and the circumstance.

10. There are unlikely heroes everywhere. This is a story I don't like to tell because it shows vulnerability and poor decisions, but it is life and a good lesson because tells me my intuition is all wrong sometimes. One night in Belgium at the beginning of this year, I went out with a group of people I had just met at a hostel. We went drinking at the infamous Delirium Tremens. I got excited at all the fruity beer options and had a little too much to drink too soon. As I fell to the bar floor, I felt one of them supporting me on their shoulders. Because I hadn't recognized their voices yet, I thought it was the guy I had been talking to all night who was really friendly, but as I gained consciousness, I realized it was the quiet guy in the group who I barely talked to, who I initially perceived as closed-off because he gave short answers when we spoke. Nevertheless sometimes your heroes will surprise you. I definitely needed help getting back to my bed that night and two almost-strangers made sure I got there, supported me on their shoulders the entire way, paid for a taxi ride because I couldn't walk, didn't take advantage of me and personally made sure I made it to my bed. It totally could have gone in a different direction and maybe I wouldn't be here writing this now. I am grateful for their kindness, and pay it forward whenever I can. Also, I am now much more responsible with my alcohol and have accepted I cannot match drinks with Europeans.


BONUS: Life is unpredictable, embrace the randomness. A year ago, when I visited the lovely city of Montreal on a work trip and wished to be living here, I didn't know I would be living that dream so soon. The story of how I ended up here began at the end of April in Toronto when I met a dashing gentleman in a dark basement bar (isn't that how all the best stories start?). Many stars had to align for me to move to here, then later on in July, I was going on a camping trip to Quebec and on the way back, I stopped in Montreal for a job interview and didn't even go back to Toronto. I'm glad it happened the way it did. I've lived some of the most turbulent, passion-filled and exciting days of my life this summer in Montreal. I have learned a lot and really appreciate everything this city has to offer. I discovered new interests (mostly 80's music and balcony tanning), developed new skills (coding), learned more about myself and met a lot of people who have opened my mind and taught me so much. I don't know what's in store for me next year, or if I will even be in the same city, but I am open to all possibility. SEE YOU IN 2015! Stay adventurous!


New York City round two! by Jessica Lee


This story starts way back in May of this year. Or if you want to be even more specific, it starts in the year 2007, when I was in high school and had just discovered one of my favourite musicians of all time, Butch Walker. You may know his name from his production work with some of the biggest pop musicians of today such as Pink, Taylor Swift, Avril Lavigne, Fall Out Boy, etc.

Anyway, he had a few shows with Ryan Adams in New York City and I was thinking of going.

I had never been the type to travel from city to city just to catch my favourite musicians - the furthest I had travelled for music was from Toronto to London, Ontario. But alas, they weren't playing a show in Montreal and so it was between Toronto (my hometown, at Massey Hall, a venue I had been to countless times) or the more exciting option, New York City.

Sometime between late Summer and Fall, I must have have mentioned to my friend Olivier that I wanted to go to New York City for the concert because he booked a hotel for the weekend and suddenly it was set.



New York City was kind to me this time around. I spent the weekend walking around Manhattan, jetting around the city in taxis (the way locals do it), taking in the Christmas spirit and eating a lot of gourmet food. I recently moved in with two serious rock climbers and everyone's always watching what they're eating, so I decided to take a break weekend in New York.


Our first day in New York, we walked around Lower Manhattan, visiting neighbourhoods the neighbourhoods of Little Italy, Chinatown and NoHo.


We stumbled into a New York rollerblading group called I Roll NY and watched a competition for a while.


Then, we found a Christmas Market and all these European Christmas Market memories came flooding back.


Of course, there were key differences between the New York City Christmas market and the European Christmas markets - the main one being the food focus of European markets and the artisan focus of this one.






We ended our first night at the Village Vanguard, enjoying jazz music in a basement and knocking back some brandy. It seemed like the appropriate thing to do in New York.


The next morning, we started our hunt for breakfast and by chance came upon Eataly, a gourmet Italian food market by Madison Square Park.


I first heard about this market by its recent cookbook being featured in all the bookstores in Canada. To all the marketers out there: writing a book with beautiful pictures is an awesome way for self-promotion.







We consumed all the pastries with our eyes, but eventually settled for a sit-down meal of fresh pasta.



I enjoyed my meal of tagliatelle with short rib ragout very much.


Next, we headed to Chelsea Market, which might be my favourite place in New York City.




There's an incredible contemporary artisan vibe at Chelsea Market. The place is made up of exposed brick walls and beams, but finished with crisp glass windows and design-driven typography. It seems like an ideal place to spend a morning with friends, eating your way around the different stalls and restaurants.








After a quick tour around the market, we made our way to the High Line, a pedestrian-only structure above the city that allows visitors to view the city without traffic or bike interruption.


The High Line used to be a means of transport for goods throughout New York, but when the trucking industry gained popularity in 1980, they shut it down and turned it into a walking path instead. While they were redeveloping the neighbourhood, it became trendy and new apartments were built along the way.




There are park benches, picnic tables and a million different places to view the sunset - which is exactly what we did.











As night settled in, we rushed to Hammerstein Ballroom to see the concert which had brought us to New York. If you squint, you can see me in the second row of the floor on the left side of this photo taken from Ryan Adams' twitter.


It was a good concert, but both Butch and Ryan didn't play my favourite songs! I suppose it doesn't matter too much. The concert was a fantastic and fairly legitimate reason to visit New York and I'm glad I finally caved.

Off a post-concert high, we went to Shake Shack and had our first Shack burgers, then disappeared into the night in the city that never sleeps.