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.

New York, New York by Jessica Lee

Ah New York. The place where people go to chase their American dreams.

I landed in New York at the end of my European tour in February. This was my second time visiting, and though I could see why many fall in love with this city, I knew it just wasn't for me.

Maybe New York and I started on a unfavourable terms this time around because it was frigid and I was already thinking of going some place warmer.

Nevertheless, I was drawn back to this big city to see if I felt the same after so many years. I first visited the big city when I was 15 over winter break with my mom. It was mostly a shopping trip. At 15, I was impressed by the big buildings, flashing advertisements and all the bright lights. There were also American and international brands in New York that I saw in magazines which I couldn't buy in Toronto.

When I got back to Toronto with my luggage full of new clothes, friends and classmates would compliment me on my finds. New York was cool simply because it wasn't available in Toronto. Now that I've taken up minimalism, New York isn't as exciting anymore.

Regardless, I still found things to do. Breakfast first of course, at Clinton Street Baking Co.

I had been craving North American-style pancakes since eating nothing but crepes and pastry in Europe and Morocco (I know, what a difficult life), and these blueberry ones were perfect. I added a side of maple bacon and hot maple butter apple cider, and it was exactly what I needed.

Then I had a stroll around Manhattan.

I spent most of my time in New York in museums, but also wandered into some shops. Some of the merchandizing in the stores here is absolutely incredible, comparable to art galleries; and the best part is that it's free to see.

I wandered to Central Park, but it just didn't live up to the hype of what I had been expecting.

Check out this cool, curved building.

And of course, the iconic yellow New York City taxis.

Then, I headed to my first museum of the day, the Guggenheim. I loved the architecture, but the exhibition wasn't really my cup of tea.

Later in the night, I headed over to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa).

In between all of this, I took a few subway rides during rush hour. I have to tell you this story of how I squeezed myself into a packed subway car and my bag was sticking out of the door so the door wouldn't close, but I didn't know it was because of me. And this bloke said "Miss, you're holding all of us up." And I thought this bloke was so rude because of his tone when he told me, but it's probably just what New York is usually like.

I was in Montreal last summer and someone threw away all my unopened food that was labeled in the communal fridge of the hostel I was staying at, and I was pretty ruffled because I didn't get an apology from the front desk staff. Some guy asked if I was from New York because of my attitude.

I've travelled around the world and dealt with some rough situations, but I'm not sure if I would last a month in the harshness of New York City. Growing up in Toronto, people were pleasant and generally nice to me and so I've developed assumptions that people are kind - which is generally true. I imagine the lifestyle to be either like the movie Inside Llewyn Davis, where I'd be shuffling around in the cold in a thin jacket or like the movie Frances Ha, where I'd be constantly worried if I was going to make the astronomically high rent that month. 

I'm visiting New York City again next weekend. This time, I'm hoping to spend time in jazz clubs and visit neighbourhoods such as Greenwich Village, West Village and walk the HighLine. Maybe my opinion of New York City will change. I guess we'll see...

Photos: Quebec City part 2 and Montmorency Falls by Jessica Lee

I will let you in on a little secret. This isn't my first time visiting Quebec City. It's actually my third time.

The first time I was here was on a school field trip in grade 8- 10 years ago. I remember little bits and pieces; but mostly, I enjoy looking back in fondness, walking the same spots I walked 10 years ago and seeing how much I've grown and changed.

My priorities as a 13-year-old and now as a 23-year-old are dramatically different. I didn't get to see most of Quebec City last time because I spent a disproportionate amount of my free time shopping in the stores. 

I still love looking at cool stuff, but these days, I've committed to minimalism (having as little stuff as possible to enjoy my day), and since I've been to so many touristy places, I don't get sucked into the traps anymore.

These days, I like to experience the vibe of a destination, enjoy the food and admire the architecture. Maybe meet a local while I'm at it. I'm all about slow travel. Sometimes, I will sit down at a beautiful view for hours, or spend my day at a cafe reading a book.

We went as slowly as we could through Quebec City, given that we didn't have a lot of time. We wandered the city, headed to the Plains of Abraham, La Citadelle, and the most photographed hotel in the world, Chateau Frontenac. We stopped for ice cream and a beavertail, which is a Canadian fried dough pastry that is absolutely delicious and one of my guilty pleasures. Later, we drove to Montmorency Falls and topped off our trip with a little shopping at Simons, a Quebec department store.

This is me trying to recreate an old photo from the top of the Plains of Abraham where Britain and France fought years ago and ended up creating Canada. Not that they had cameras in 1759, nor that many buildings in the background, or even concrete. But it's really cool to know that you're standing at a place with so much important history.

The view from the top of the hill is also easy on the eyes in an understated way.

Back in the Old City, I tried to capture scenes of the city. This is what Quebec City looks like on a summer's day in 2014. Leisurely, relaxed, but full of bustling tourist energy.

Moving to Montreal: Here is my minimalist packing list by Jessica Lee

One of the things I discovered while I was backpacking is that I can definitely live with less items than I realize. I have so much stuff in Toronto, but actually, I think I only use about 5 percent of all I own once a week. This is because I have a lot of books and movies and CDs that don't get a lot of use. So in true minimalist fashion, I'm moving to Montreal and I'm only bringing these few items with me.

I think I'm under 100 items, which is pretty exciting because for the first time, I'm a true minimalist.

The idea behind having less stuff is so I can spend more time and money on things that matter to me. For example, because I have so little luggage, I can carry all my things with me walking everywhere instead of spending money on a cab to move things if I need to move. Also, it takes less time to pack and to keep track of.

Anyway, here is my list:
1. Shorts x2
2. Long sleeved shirt
3. Tank top
4. Lounge shorts
5. t-shirt for sleeping in x2
6. Dresses x 5
7. Swim suit
8. Hoodie
9. Lounge pants
10. Microfiber towel
11. Sweater that goes with my entire wardrobe (see how functional it is?)

12. $10 sneakers purchased in Australia (these will be discarded when they get old and grungy, making room in my luggage, but absolutely necessary because I need close-toed shoes for swing dancing and also for hiking to climbing sites)
13. Red flats (matches with my entire wardrobe and professional enough for office life)
14. Birkenstocks (comfy and somewhat more polished-looking than flip flops for days when I want my toes to feel the wind)
15. Flip-flops that I will throw away when they get old but essential for gross showers, swimming and camping

I kept make-up simple but only brought things I would use on a daily basis. I don't usually travel with a lot of make-up but since I'm staying in Montreal for a while, I do want to have fun sparkly things to put on my face when I go out and I don't want to buy new things when I have make-up already.

I brought big-sized toiletries since I won't be moving around a lot. What's important though is that everything fits inside a hanging toiletries bag for easy mobility.

Climbing gear: I'm going to be spending a lot of time climbing in Montreal and surrounding areas like Val David, but I'm only going to be bringing one climbing outfit because laundry machines exist and because I want to be as light as possible.

For entertainment and other gear, I have one book, a leather-bound journal, a lap top and charger, cell phone and charger and DSLR and charger. And of course, my wallet and passport.

Everything fits inside these three bags. The knapsack will be handy if I decide to get a bike in Montreal and the black purse will be my day bag. I'm also bringing a sleeping bag because I will be camping for a few days.

I've never had this little stuff before while transitioning to a new city, but I will let you know how it goes. Part of me feels like I don't have enough, but I also hate carrying around too many things.

Also, I know there's lots of cute boutique/vintage shops around Montreal so I'm probably going to shop a little, especially to replace my favourite rainbreaker from Simons which got stolen in Copenhagen that I bought in Montreal last year.

Yogyakarta, Indonesia (and a cockfight) in photos and words by Jessica Lee

I wrote this last summer but never got around to publishing it. I'm currently gearing up for another adventure, so stay tuned!
I’m currently in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. As I wandered the streets today, I worried that I may become infatuated with the town.

It’s a very cultural city. There are stalls of vendors peddling clothes with amazing patterns. I am inspired by the different fabrics and am scared I might end up buying way too much to carry around. Or worse, overspending my budget.

Yogyakarta’s main draw is it’s batik, which are colourful silk paintings done with wax. I was impressed at first, but then the pushy batik sales people kept expecting me to buy the art so it just turned me off to the whole idea of going to different galleries and looking at the batik.

Instead, I spent my time looking at the stalls and picking up little souvenirs. A pair of pants here can be bargained down to $2.50! I picked up three colourful print skirts and a pair of parachute pants. Maybe when I get back to North America, I can start a trend… or not.

I also went to the Kraton, which is the Sultan’s palace. I wasn’t amazed by it, so I’m not going to go to any more kratons in Indonesia. In my opinion, the palaces in China and Japan are much more exquisite. Visit those if you can.

What was really exciting for me however was the cockfight I witnessed when I went to the bird market! The birds really went at each other, pecking and scraping with their feet. At times, wings flapped. There was a small crowd gathered around watching. It's actually illegal, but it still happens anyway.

It is done for entertainment purposes and there was bloodshed.

It’s quite interesting what different cultures do for entertainment. What is allowed and what is not allowed. Put a cockfight in North America and I bet you animal activists would be all over it in a second. However, you should know that roosters sometimes fight on their own, naturally.

The rest of the bird market was quite lovely, though I felt a bit sad for the caged birds. I wanted to take home a bird, but obviously I would go through a lot of trouble getting the bird through customs and taking it with me to the other places I am going. I think I will just get a cat when I get home.

Gunung Lawu: the mountain that pushed me over the edge by Jessica Lee

In life, everyone has metaphorical “mountains” they have to overcome- some sort of man vs. self, man vs. man or man vs. world archetype like they talk about in English lit classes. In Hamlet for example, the protagonist has to face his uncle who is trying to kill him. In Catcher in the Rye, Holden faces the world of "phonies".

I found my mountain yesterday. It is a literal mountain in Indonesia called Gunung Lawu. It is 3265 m above sea level and much much much too steep.

I did not know to expect such a hard climb. Here I was thinking it would be a two hour leisurely hike, at most three hours. I imagined this mountain to be something like one of those hikes in Algonquin Park, Ontario, you know the ones families with young children do together.

I did not expect to be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

The hardest climb I’ve ever done would have to be climbing to the top of the mountain at Lake Louise in Alberta. It was 2744 m and it just seemed to never end. Mount Lawu was much worse. There are six posts in total and I was ready to give up before reaching post number two. Indonesian people are incredibly fit.

We started the climb at 3 pm after lunch. Waiyu, my new Indonesian friend, ordered satay rabbit with rice and I followed his lead. I had never had rabbit before so it was an interesting experience. It's chewy.

Here are some other weird things I was introduced to:

These were some sort of chips.

And some other snack I was introduced to...

Waiyu didn't know the English translation for these foods so I never found out what they were.

The plan was to climb up the mountain, sleep overnight at one of the huts and watch the sunset in the morning.

This is what I pictured: a leisurely two hour stroll up a mountain and then plenty of free time to play cards and read books. He said the climb normally took him three hours and it usually takes beginners six hours.

Here I am at the beginning of the climb:

I didn’t think of myself as a “beginner”. I have a solid hiking history and have been keeping active throughout high school and university. Okay maybe not my entire university career, but I am pretty active during summers.

This is one of the huts people sleep in to camp over night:

We reached post one in a little over an hour. Post two took a little longer as I started taking rest stops to catch my breath. The sun started to set.

We were pretty much climbing boulders which remotely resembled stairs. It was a purely vertical climb. I thought back to when I climbed the C.N. Tower (Toronto’s iconic tower) in high school for charity. It was one of the most painful 30 minutes of my life. I had an aversion to stairs for about a week afterwards. But at least on a C.N. Tower climb, you know there are others struggling as well.

Here on the mountain, I was alone; thinking what a foolish decision it was to want to climb this mountain in the first place. Clearly I did not do enough research. The guidebook said it took roughly six hours to climb this mountain but at the time I read about this mountain, 3265 metres did not mean a thing to me. Being on this mountain, nowhere near the top and about to give up was incredibly humbling. I realized how weak I truly was.

Here is where the doubts and fears began tumbling in. What was I doing struggling on a mountain in Indonesia when I could be at home in Toronto sipping a mocha at a café with soft natural light shining through its windows or at home lying in bed listening to music? I had it pretty good back home.

On this mountain, all my past achievements meant nothing now. How is being able to put together a magazine or playing all the major scales on the piano going to help me climb a mountain?

We eventually made it to the top just before the six-hour mark. It wasn’t really joy that I felt when I reached the top, more like disbelief. I couldn’t believe that I had made it to the top. With the amount of thoughts, doubts and positive self-reassurances going through my head, it felt like I had gone through a lifetime by the time I reached the top.

My favourite part was walking along the mountainside with just the moonlight guiding our way. No flashlights or city lights. It was beautiful, like how I’d imagine people of the past walked at night.

At the top of the mountain, there was a hut that housed an old woman and a younger man. It also had lots of camping space, which is where we slept for the night. We had an early night as we would be waking up early the next day to watch the sunrise.

For food, we ate instant noodles and had a hot malt drink- both were made over a hot fire using a cauldron. It was extremely cold and I was glad I had Waiyu to tell me that I needed to pack a warm quilt. I didn’t expect freezing temperatures being that the day before, it was over 30 degrees in the city.

We woke up at the crack of dawn to the sounds of a rooster the next and I surveyed one of the most spectacular sunrises I’ve ever seen.

The climb down wasn’t much easier. I wished there were ziplines or waterslides built from the top of the mountain. Waiyu echoed my thoughts, saying when he was younger he wished he could fly from the top of the mountain down to the city.

Would I climb Gunung Lawu again, if given the chance?

Probably not. The point of accomplishing something is so that you can enjoy the achievement and move on to other bigger things. Maybe now that I’ve done this, I will add Kilimanjaro to my list. Here’s to a bigger and brighter 2013!

Flying across City Hall by Jessica Lee

This week, I took the opportunity to experience the thrill of screaming my lungs out in front of my city while hanging on by a clip from a wire. It was fun.

Toronto's been a pretty cool city to live in for the most part, but last week, it got a whole lot cooler. Since it's the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup, they set up a whole bunch of festivities, one of them being a zipline from City Hall.

This is what it looks like (you can sort of see two people hanging mid air):

Here is a closer look:

The zipline tower was set in between the two City Hall buildings so that all the office workers could watch you having fun vicariously while they did their work.

Here is what the top of the structure looked like:

A photo of my cousin and I: Notice how we look somewhat tense, well I do at least.

I mean I've done ziplining before, but this was a much longer line, being that it was the length of a football field (which is why it was set up for the Grey Cup).

Below is a photo taken right before we were told to just "walk into the air".

Toronto is actually quite a pretty city at night with all its lit up buildings.

And here we go:

The twenty or so seconds we were in the air whizzing across City Hall felt amazing. The view was great too. It was as if I turned into a bird. The cold air brushed against my face and adrenaline pumped in my veins. I forgot all about my looming exams and emails I had to send and lived in the moment.

Seeing the city from a different perspective is always exciting I suppose.

And in a matter of seconds, it was all over. Below is a photo of the guys at the receiving booth.

Toronto is a lovely that holds random events throughout the year, which is why it's great living here. I've been blessed with many opportunities just by proximity.