toronto

Helly Hansen Sailing Day by Jessica Lee

Team Helly Hansen and Atlas Ocean Racing in Lake Ontario in Toronto on July 23, 2019.

Team Helly Hansen and Atlas Ocean Racing in Lake Ontario in Toronto on July 23, 2019.

I had a great time photographing Helly Hansen’s sailing day in Toronto featuring Atlas Ocean Racing. We sailed a VO60 which is a 60-foot racing-class yacht built specifically for the Whitbread/Volvo Round the World Race and requires a crew of at least eight to run. It was a beautiful sunny day with the perfect amount of wind, which made for a relaxed day at sea.

20190823 Helly Hansen - Toronto-5.jpg
20190823 Helly Hansen - Toronto-6.jpg

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.

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.

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.

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.



New adventures in Montreal by Jessica Lee


My bags are packed, I'm heading on a camping trip to Val David, Quebec, tomorrow, and then staying in Montreal indefinitely.

I'm hoping to improve my French, take in the Jazz Fest, and get involved in the communities in Montreal, in particular, the swing dancing scene, coffee shops and the rock climbing scene. I'm sad to say goodbye to my friends in Toronto and all the new people I've met these past few months. It feels like every time I get settled into a city and really get to know some people, I am moving again. But I mean, it's self-imposed, so I can't really complain too much. I have itchy, traveller's feet. I need to change my environment every once in a while. One day, I will pick a nice city, marry a charming man, buy a house and settle down, but right now is not the time.

I need to keep moving.

Right now, it feels exactly like how it felt when I graduated high school, like the possibilities are endless. It's a peaceful, liberating feeling. I am not quite sure how my summer will turn out, but I will keep you posted.

See you all on the other side!

Oh, and if you're curious about the photo, I took it a few years ago in Indonesia. You can read about it here.

IFSC World Cup Bouldering in Hamilton by Jessica Lee


I had the opportunity to shoot photos this weekend for the World Bouldering Cup in Hamilton. Best part of the weekend? Definitely being part of the excitement. The crowd was WILD! Other than that, it was cool to watch so many top-level athletes working on the problems. There were so many different ways to climb a route, this was especially evident in men's problem #3 where Guillaume held the last hold facing the crowd, whereas everyone else faced the wall. Jan Hojer used his upper body strength to pull up from the problem, while others used their legs and hung upside down.

Anyway, without further ado, here are a few photos:






















































Paris: la vie en rose by Jessica Lee


I have so many photos to share from Paris. There's no way I could share them all in one post, so I'll go slow. Maybe a couple for each day.

When I flew into Paris, it was night. I landed at Charles de Gaulle airport and took the RER (train) to Gare du Nord (major train station).


I remember walking to my hostel, which was expensive for a hostel ($30/night), but also really fancy. I got lost somewhere along the way, but it brought me to so many beautiful scenes. I realize I spend a lot of my time lost when I travel. It's frustrating most of the time, but there are some moments when I discover something really cool that's off the beaten path.


I've pretty much accepted that I am not good with directions in a new city unless the city is like New York, where the streets are all numbered and the city is laid out like a grid.

In Europe, many times, streets are laid out like Pentagons (Paris, Barcelona), and it's slightly difficult for someone used to grids (like North Americans) to navigate. Anyway, I digress.


One of the main things I love about Paris is that everywhere you go, it's picturesque. You don't even have to be at the touristy areas such as Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, or Champ de Mars, to get a good photo. Everything is just designed elegantly. The whole city is photography-friendly with cobblestone streets, old majestic buildings and beautifully-dressed locals. And when you enter the cafes, the pastries are aesthetic as well.


My first day in Paris, I had to tell myself to calm down with all the photos I was taking. You know when you get too excited about something and sometimes stop breathing? That was me. But I love that feeling of excitement. It's one of the reasons I love travel so much. I love seeing new things and feeling that sense of wonder and joy. It's a feeling of realizing how lucky you are to be standing where you are, and wanting to share that joy with the whole world. I don't think you can ever get that kind of feeling sitting in a cubicle. This is why I travel.

Wash and coffee: Why you need to travel at least once a year by Jessica Lee



I took the above photo in Munich earlier this February. I was on a walk around the neighbourhood with no particular agenda- just seeing new things and exploring. In fact, I was definitely lost when I took this photo, but I'm glad I was lost because it led me to discover this fantastic laundry and coffee shop business.

What a brilliant concept! While you wait for your clothes to dry/wash, you can enjoy a cup of coffee! The business makes money from the customer doing their laundry, then makes more money when the customer buys coffee!

I took a peak inside the store, and some people were clearly having a business meeting so I didn't take more photos. Perhaps another way this business makes money is by renting out their space (which was in a great location close to the centre of Munich) to organizations.

We don't have anything close to this in my neighbourhood in Toronto and the routes I take to get around don't have one of these businesses either. It's such a great business idea and I wouldn't have come across it (and it wouldn't have been shared with you, readers) if I didn't do something new like travelling across the Atlantic to Europe and stumbling upon it in Munich. And this is why you need to travel: to get inspired, to see new things and to expand your mind.

What's the coolest thing you've seen on your travels? Links welcome!

Coffee, trust and thieves: Saturday photo editing by Jessica Lee


I was in a coffeeshop in Barcelona, Spain, editing photos like I am now.

I always like to go to coffee shops to edit photos because I like sitting around other people who are working, it's a motivating atmosphere and I like tasty drinks that I can't always make by myself at home.


I'm quite relaxed in coffee shops. I pick a big space, spread my stuff around and get to work. Inevitably, after the second coffee or so, I need to use the facilities. I usually have no problem leaving my things (even my computer) lying around for the two minutes I'll be gone because I rationalize that usually, other people who go to coffee shops are well off enough to spend $3-5 on a coffee, they probably aren't the type of people who would be interested in a computer. Besides, there are usually other people around who will notice if someone is stealing your things.

Anyway, during this particular session in Barcelona, when I came back, the barista approached me.

"Where are you from?", he asked.

"Canada."

"That's great, but around here, you can't leave your computer by itself! You're lucky it isn't stolen."

I thanked the guy and continued working.


I've haven't had anything stolen from me yet while travelling, but I am more aware these days. I still go off on my intuition, but I realize now maybe I am more lucky than intuitive.

I once left for a five minute bathroom break on a bus from Essaouria, Morocco to Casablanca, Morocco, and came back to find a local woman had boarded the bus and was staring at my things. I think the only reasons why she didn't make off with my stuff was because 1. I had two bags, so it would have been difficult for her to carry both 2. It wouldn't have looked like her things, and thus obvious that she was stealing (I had a new backpack that you can't buy in Morocco. It definitely looked foreign) 3. There were other passengers who were watching her. She asked me for money when I got back, possibly because she felt I owed her something since she didn't take anything. I said no. I don't like to be guilted into anything.

It's a difficult dilemma for solo travellers. When you leave for a bathroom break, do you carry all 10 kilos of your things? It seems silly, doesn't it?

I still leave my things lying around in Canada at coffee shops. Perhaps I am too open and trusting for someone who has experienced so many close calls with theft, but I genuinely believe people here are good. I'm not naive either. I choose to live as an open person rather than a person full of fear and distrust. I think there's more opportunities to experience by living this way and more people to meet. There's also less stress in your life.

I don't do stupid things like leave all of my possessions to someone I just met for an hour (that is creating more stress), but I take reasonable risks like leaving a library book I don't want to carry to a job interview with a retail worker, whom I know will probably still be in the same spot after an hour. It feels good when you trust someone and they turn out to be a trustworthy person. You can usually reverse situations early on when you don't feel comfortable anyway. I was in Indonesia once, and a local I had just met said he would carry my wallet for me (because I took really long fumbling for change), but I didn't feel good about that, so I asked for it back (after much awkwardness of course, but very rarely do you get an ideal situation in real life, you just have to do the best you can).

Readers: How much do you trust the strangers around you? Share some stories!

Winding down post-trip by Jessica Lee


Sometimes I am in disbelief that I was in the desert. But there are photos to prove it, and so I smile and try to put myself back in that place again.

I'm currently going through all of my photos and trying to figure out how to tell this story in a compelling and personal way.

Here are the places I went to on this trip (in chronological order):

1. Reykjavik, Iceland
2. Copenhagen, Denmark
3. Lund, Sweden
4. Malmo, Sweden
5. Berlin, Germany
6. Paris, France
7. Brussels, Belgium
8. Lille, France
9. Barcelona, Spain
10. Malaga, Spain
11. Tangier, Morocco
12. Chefchaouen, Morocco
13. Fes, Morocco
14. Sahara Desert, Morocco
15. Ouarzazate, Morocco
16. Marrakech, Morocco
17. Essaouria, Morocco
18. Casablanca, Morocco
19. Rome, Italy
20. Florence, Italy
21. Pisa, Italy
22. Milan, Italy
23. Munich, Germany
24. Luxembourg, Luxembourg
25. Paris, France (again)
26. Amsterdam, Netherlands
27. Zurich, Switzerland
28. Paris, France (again)
29. London, England
30. Dublin, Ireland
31. New York, United States

16 countries and 29 different cities/towns. While there were some cities I enjoyed more than others, I cannot deny that the other cities weren't good learning experiences.

Some cities can be brought back by a certain song. I'll be out with friends or in the car, when a song plays and all of a sudden, I'm reminded of a city I was in and all the kind people I met there.

I didn't exchange contact information with everyone I would have liked to and it breaks my heart, but I hope that we meet again some day. The world is a lot smaller than it seemed to me a couple of months ago.

I remember before I booked the plane tickets and gave leave of notice at my full-time job that I had doubts about this trip. I worried about the repercussions it would have on my professional career and my finances. But the thing is, looking back, I don't regret anything at all. I got to see so many things people would have killed to see. I got to experience new food, new smells and new perspectives on life and work. 

I'm still the same person I was before I left the trip. I still have the same drive to accomplish my personal and professional goals, and I still like to complain about Canadian winters. I still enjoy maple syrup, and I still try to eat as healthy as I can. But on the other hand, I have experienced so many new things. I know so much more than I would have had I decided to stay in Toronto these past few months. For example, I now know that Amsterdam is one of my favourite cities in Europe, that German people are friendlier than they initially seem, and that I love Barcelona even though there's not much to do in that city. I know I want to move to Paris at some point in my life, but I also know I wouldn't want to live there for too long.

I discovered some things about myself as well. I realized I'm more shy than I care to admit. In new cities where I knew no one at all, I usually waited for other people to talk to me first. This sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. Sometimes you meet an interesting person to learn from and to share with, but sometimes, you get bad company (which thankfully ends in a day or two). In Toronto, where I live, I don't have to meet new people because I have friends already (why make effort when it's not needed?), but being on the road, you quickly learn these things about yourself.

There are some other odd things I learned from this trip as well. For example, in undeveloped places like most of Morocco, if you ask women for directions, they usually can't help you. For a while, because I felt unsafe asking men for help, I only asked women. But I found that they really didn't know anything (in general). It was frustrating, but it also made me realize how fortunate I was to grow up in a country that encourages equal access education.

I'm still going over everything in my head and trying to process it all. I want to write all the stories down in one go while they're fresh in my mind- but I've also discovered how enjoyable it is to slowly savour each and every experience, to take it day by day, and to prolong recounting tales of my trip- just so I can live through it again.

Homeward Bound by Jessica Lee


It's been a long journey, but I'm finally on my way home. I went to 14 countries in a little less than three months. I bathed in a geothermal spring with mountains in the background and also travelled by camel in the Sahara Desert. It's been a great three months of meeting new and interesting people, learning from them and expanding my viewpoints. I've also been extremely blessed to see so many beautiful sights and experience so many new things. On the flipside, I realized I also miss home a lot. I miss things usually taken for granted like a home-cooked meal or being able to sleep in your own bed without having to pack everything up again the next day.

Don't get me wrong, I loved seeing new towns and cities these past couple of months but it's also taught me the simple joys of knowing you have a place to sleep at night and it's definitely made me appreciate small things like being able to walk around my bathroom with bare feet because my bathroom at home has clean floors, unlike some of the hostels I stayed at. Another thing I used to take for granted was being able to make tea at home and at work so easily. Hot water is not always available at hostels because sometimes the kitchen is closed.

Maybe in the next few weeks I will get wanderlust again but for now I'm quite happy to be somewhere familiar, as cold as Toronto is. I have all my friends around and I know the city better than the back of my hand. I am relieved to be back home because it means I can rest and recuperate, and get ready for the next chapter of my life, wherever it may lead.

Thank you for following my adventures here and on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. I will be updating with more photos in the next few weeks!

Chefchaouen, the blue maze town in Morocco by Jessica Lee


 I spent most of my time in Chefchaouen, Morocco, being lost.

Of course, being lost is not the worst thing that could possibly happen while travelling, as my friend Myra pointed out to me. Food poisoning and being robbed are definitely worse.


Chefchaouen, to me, is a blue maze, disguised as a town. I am usually lost in a new city/town, but the structure of Chefchaouen really threw me off and amplified my state of "lostness". I took a walk after arriving at my hostel the first night and tried to find the bus station for travel the next day, based on the street signs and asking locals. No such luck. I never found the bus station, so I wandered the town.


After wandering for a while, I was ready to go back to the hotel and settle in for a nice cup of hot tea.

It was an hour of walking around the same corridor five times in the dark before I would admit to myself that I was lost. I asked a local for help and tried to follow their directions. I was still lost after another 10 minutes.


I asked another local for help. I showed them my map and to the giant X (my hotel) marked on it.

The problem with Chefchaouen is that there aren't many street signs on the streets, so most of the time, you don't actually know which street you're on.

The kind stranger whom I asked for help offered to walk me to my hotel and so I followed him. Unfortunately, it was the wrong hotel.

Back to square one.

What was frustrating was the fact that I remembered initially walking by the same street when I first found my hotel. I knew I was close by, but just out of reach.


I asked another local for help, while showing my map and the older woman (who did not speak English) walked me to another hotel. Again, it was not the right hotel.

It's a funny story now that I tell it, with locals bringing me to all different sorts of hotels and hostels, but at the time, I was close to panic. Where was this mysterious corridor to my hotel and why couldn't I find it?


Finally, of course, third time's the charm and I asked a store keeper for directions, and one of his workers, a teenage boy, led me down a path. On the way, he said hi to one of his friends, and they chatted in Arabic. I could only hope that they weren't plotting to lead me to some alleyway and rob me.

Thankfully, this time, it was the right hotel (hidden in some corridor, of course), and I didn't come to any harm. I went to bed slightly hungry. I was afraid if I stepped out again for a snack, I wouldn't be able to find my way back again- not an ideal way to live, but there was no way I was going to go through an hour of trying to find my way back again!

More photos:







She travels by train: VIA Rail, thoughts from aboard by Jessica Lee



I got on a train full of students yesterday. It’s been absolutely crazy.

I’ve been on this train for a full day and have two more days to go and I’m not quite sure I’m going to survive. The students are loud, I haven’t had much sleep and I may be catching a cold from being around so many different people. My biggest regret is not bringing a pair of pants or a thicker blanket. I always overestimate the Canadian climate and the air conditioning of trains.

We’re slowly traveling across Canada. I got on in Toronto and am going to Edmonton, Alberta where I will be following around some forest wardens for work.

I blogged about traveling through Canada by Greyhound a few months back when I went to Saskatoon, and being on this train is a reminder of how big Canada really is. We haven’t even reached Manitoba yet after a full day. This train is like being in limbo or in prison. I can’t leave because I need to get to Edmonton, but at the same time, it’s a nice escape from email and other demands of every day life.

I do hate not being able to communicate with the outside world though. There hasn’t been reception since early this morning and we haven’t had wifi since ever.

I don’t know how I feel about Edmonton. I have half a mind to get off the train in Saskatoon and finish where I left off there. But of course almost everyone I knew from there has gone back to their original homes so things would be different even if I did stop off there. The familiarity of walking across University bridge would be nice though. We used to go to movies late at night and would walk back across the Saskatchewan river in the dark and the stillness of a small town was amazing.

We’ve been passing through a lot of forest in Ontario and it’s mind-blowing to just think about all the different places I haven’t explored in my home country. It would be fun to go camping in a different spot every weekend as opposed to visiting familiar hiking trails every now and then no?

There are also a million other things I would like to do and go see, so of course this is just a dream. Life is only so short, so you have to pick and choose your experiences. And I’d rather have quality than quantity.

Can't wait to get to my destination!

My favourite memories of Toronto by Jessica Lee


In honour of TBEX (travel blogger conference) happening this weekend (May 31st- June 2nd) in Toronto, I decided to write an entry about my hometown and my favourite memories there.

I was extremely privileged to grow up in a city where there were always big cultural events happening and lots of different niche groups where I could explore my interests with a supportive community.

My favourite things about Toronto would be:

1. We have a diverse and impressive food scene. There are literally dozens of cafes and eateries littered around the city. You can have your choice of any culture of food here.

My ideal day would consist of breakfast (caramelized banana pancakes) at Saving Grace in the west end, then a pho lunch in Chinatown, a coffee break Merchants of Green Coffee (great atmosphere) and I would finish off with either pasta at La Bruschetta near St. Clair or most of the entrees at Glow Restaurant (Don Mills) or pretty much any of the restaurants run by Mark McEwan and Oliver and Bonacini (Luma at the top of the TIFF building is fancy and great for desserts).

Here are said pancakes from Saving Grace:


The atmosphere at Merchants of Green Coffee:


Desserts at Luma:


For a comprehensive list and photographs of dining places I recommend in Toronto, follow my Twitpic account here. Or alternatively, feel free to message me at @jessicaology for specialized recommendations.

2. My second favourite thing about Toronto is its festivals.

Since I love jazz music, the Beaches Jazz Festival which takes place around July is my favourite.

It's a lovely atmosphere where bands play on the street and you go and dance with your friends. It's completely free.

This is what it looks like, but the lead photo represents the feeling.


This is Buskerfest, which happens at the end of summer.

It's a gathering of international buskers (singers, street performers, acrobats) and it's a free event.



This is Nuit Blanche, which is also free and takes place at the beginning of October. It's an all-night arts festival which aims to promote artists and to stimulate the minds of attenders. But really, it's fun to just hang out with your friends and do novel activities such as watching these performances and wandering into random buildings which are usually closed off.



One of my favourite instalments took place in the film building beside OCAD where they played an old silent Max Weber film and had a live pianist accompany it. It was like the 1930s! Isn't it strange how surround sound is supposedly an improvement to film but watching a retro film is now a treat for me?

3. Neighbourhoods

Toronto has many diverse and fun neighbourhoods to explore.

Here are my favourites:

Harbourfront


Harbourfront is a lovely place to hang out with friends or with a date. During the summer they hold free swing dances with a live band down by the Harbourfront Centre and during winter, there is free skating. It is a great place to watch the sun set or to go for a walk.

Here is another photo:


Other neighbourhoods you should check out that I don't have photos of include:

A) Kensington Market/Chinatown
This is a hip neighbourhood with great patios for the summer. Back in high school, I used to love Kensington Market because I was going through a hippie stage and I loved the vintage t-shirts I could pick up in one of the many vintage stores there. Nowadays, I hang out in Kensington during Pedestrian Sundays, where they close off the road in the summer. It's a great place for cheap food, meeting artsy people, eating on a patio and of course, vintage shopping. Wear: a flower in your hair and dreadlocks.

B) Yorkville
Back in high school, I used to love Kensington Market because I was going through a hippie stage and I loved the vintage t-shirts I could pick up in one of the many vintage stores there. Nowadays, I hang out in Kensington during Pedestrian Sundays, where they close off the road in the summer. It's a great place for cheap food, meeting artsy people, eating on a patio and of course, vintage shopping. Wear: a flower in your hair and dreadlocks.

C) Queen Street West (for edgy shopping and fashion)

D) Distillery District
The Distillery District is a really nice, classy place, great for romantic walks at night (they have cobblestone roads), or ice cream breaks during the day.

I lied, I actually have a photo of the Distillery District. Here I am with my friend Josh and his sister during the Christmas Market festival in December.


I also feel like I should mention Roncesvalles (little Poland) and Little Italy because both of these neighbourhoods are fun to walk through and explore. There are many little cafes and eateries to discover and lots of boutiques to shop at.


While you're in town, you should also see which bands are playing shows. Since Toronto is one of the larger cities in North America, pretty much every band that makes a Canadian tour will stop in Toronto. I've been lucky to attend the shows of many of my favourite bands because of this.

Also, the MuchMusic Awards take place every year in late June, it's a riot. You should definitely check it out if you're still here by then. It's free. Teenyboppers flood the streets and there is a red carpet, paparazzi and celebrities. And free music of course. Even if Top 40 isn't your cup of tea, the whole spirit of it is fun.


There are literally lists upon lists of places to explore in Toronto.

I have decided to pick my top three tourist attractions (outside of the neighbourhoods I just described to you). I am a bit of an artsy person.

1. Royal Ontario Museum (go see the T-Rex)
2. Casa Loma (For architecture fans)
3. Art Gallery of Ontario

Also, if you have time, bring a group of friends to Snakes and Lattes, which is a board game cafe. They close at 2 am, which is ridiculous! It makes for a fun and inexpensive night of bonding with buddies. It's just $5 for admittance.

I know this list just seems to go on and on, but while you're in town, don't forget to check out some Toronto theatre. Many nights, you can get rush tickets for as littles as $5, or pay-what-you-can. Theatres that have this include Tarragon Theatre, Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Factory Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille- to name a few.

Readers: What do you think of this list? Did I miss any of your favourite places in Toronto?

Cue cards and the end of an era by Jessica Lee



I finished my last exam of my undergrad year yesterday (fingers crossed I didn’t fail!).

Pictured above is the physical evidence of my past year; a stack of cue cards in which I used to study the course material. I’m not quite sure what I should do with all these cue cards as it’s quite unlikely I’ll need to brush up my knowledge on cultural psychology or random law facts in my day-to-day life outside of university.

In my head, I picture a fantasy where I’ll head to the C.N. tower (Toronto’s landmark for those of you unfamiliar) and release all these cue cards into the air where they’ll float down into the city and find themselves into the hands of random Torontonians who may want to learn about obscure music cognition studies, or know about French grammar. This physical release of dropping cue cards from a high place would be cathartic as heck for me. And symbolic in that I’m letting go of the past and ready to move on to the next stage of my life.

These past couple of years have been absolutely eye-opening, humbling, confidence-building and brutal all at the same time. I’ve experienced many rites of passages, lots of all-nighters, a couple of heartbreaks and made some friends to last a lifetime.

If I could do it again, I would tell 17-year-old me to make better life choices by getting as much information as possible before any silly decisions (i.e. my poor class scheduling of first year) and to not get too discouraged when things don’t turn out the way they do. Life is unpredictable. I didn’t think I would be so into traveling the way I am now.

I am glad I turned into the person that I did and I know after this significant milestone, there will be so much more out there for me in the world, beyond the beautiful stone walls of the University of Toronto. This is only the beginning.

Now what to do with these cue cards?