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).

2017 Year in Review by Jessica Lee

I spent a month this summer living in Riomaggiore, a small village of 2000 people on the Ligurian coast of Italy.

I spent a month this summer living in Riomaggiore, a small village of 2000 people on the Ligurian coast of Italy.

2017 was a busy year.

I checked a couple of things off my bucket list and lived many vastly different lifestyles during the year – from spending a month living in the Cinque Terre; waking up leisurely to the sound of waves; to spending hours of my life commuting in rush hour traffic in the sprawling Canadian metropolis known as Toronto; something I once thought I would never do.

But what’s fascinating about people in general is our capacity for change, and how each experience in our lives shapes who we become.

I make a year-end review each year, where I recount my biggest mistakes or discoveries aka “learning opportunities”, and figure out how I can live better next year based off of what I learned. What I realize now, after thinking about it for weeks, is that my so-called "biggest mistakes" from this year are actually not so significant in the long run. I missed a couple of flights because of not double-checking details, and had to buy expensive tickets last minute. And made some mistakes with who I thought I could let into my life. But all these mishaps are relatively easy to get over. The most important thing I learned in 2017 is that there are limitations to what one can achieve in a year.

The top of Erice, Sicily, where I experienced one of the most stunning sunsets in May

The top of Erice, Sicily, where I experienced one of the most stunning sunsets in May

A theme of this year was accepting where my limitations were, in terms of time and resources, as well as my physical and mental capabilities. I was commissioned to do more commercial photography gigs this year than any other year in the past and as a result, I did not have enough time to achieve all I set out to do at the beginning of the year. But I learned to be more forgiving of myself for not crossing everything off the list. That is important too.

January started off haphazardly in Bangkok as I was recovering from an injured knee from my December motorcycle accident in Vietnam. I was in the middle of my South East Asia backpacking trip which I started in October 2016 and was about to go to Laos for the first time. I would like to say I started the year off strong, but the honest truth is I couldn’t walk far from the pain in my leg, and I was drugged up on four different types of antibiotics. I spent the end of 2016 listening to the fireworks from the place I was staying at, then heading to bed almost immediately. Through this experience, I realized how much I valued my independence and health and being able to walk everywhere by myself without assistance. It was humbling to ask for help and to connect with people through their own stories of accidents/adventure. I learned to slow down because I literally couldn't go at my regular speed anymore. For someone who is very driven, sometimes forced relaxation is necessary. 

Vang Vieng, Laos in January

Vang Vieng, Laos in January

Dubrovnik, Croatia, in May

Dubrovnik, Croatia, in May

This year, I made a resolution to read 40 books and to visit ten new countries. I failed both, reading only 30 books and visiting only five new countries (Laos, Malta, Croatia, and soon Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico). More and more, as I’m getting older, I’m realizing there are limits to what one person can do in a year, or in a life even. When I was young, I used to have huge ambitions that I have since focused to just one or two big goals. There is just too much to experience in life and to try to do too many things risks not doing each thing fully and in depth. I would rather have a higher quality of experience rather than a quantity. I am grateful I’ve been able to do so many fun and eye-opening things in my twenties so far. 

The Pacific Northwest, more specifically, Vance Creek Bridge, Washington. My friend Eric took me here and challenged me to walk across. I took one look at the drop below and said "no". 

The Pacific Northwest, more specifically, Vance Creek Bridge, Washington. My friend Eric took me here and challenged me to walk across. I took one look at the drop below and said "no". 

I saw some truly beautiful and stunning sights this year on four continents. I also got to see some old friends I hadn’t seen in years because they moved, which reminded me how lucky I am to have made such idyllic memories with them in different parts of the world throughout my years of travelling and living in various cities. It’s bittersweet and sometimes odd to go through life without the physical presence of friends whom you used to see frequently each week but have since moved away and continued their own lives in different cities. I know this is something I will struggle with for years to come, but I have quietly accepted it as one of the solitary pains of being friends with globetrotters, adventurers and people unwilling to accept the immediate situation they were born into.

The top of Victoria Peak, Hong Kong with longtime friend Darian (who was with me during my motorcycle crash in Vietnam) and new friend Cheuk-Yin (also a photographer).

The top of Victoria Peak, Hong Kong with longtime friend Darian (who was with me during my motorcycle crash in Vietnam) and new friend Cheuk-Yin (also a photographer).

Fresh pizza on the streets of Rome with Julia, whom I met in Saskatoon in 2013. She now lives in Philadelphia with her fiance.

Fresh pizza on the streets of Rome with Julia, whom I met in Saskatoon in 2013. She now lives in Philadelphia with her fiance.

In June after a month of living in Italy and travelling around Eastern Europe, I ended up back in Toronto. I was there primarily to photograph the wedding season, but I also ended up experimenting with a new direction in my career by making a transition to work in the entertainment industry. To be clear, I am still a photojournalist and travel writer, but I also wanted to see the world of showbiz for myself because of my intense interest but also because I believe I have a lot to learn from such a tough industry. Growing up in Canada where we are known for our politeness, I used to take for granted how nice and helpful everyone was. Through working with difficult people this year, I learned how underrated niceness is. I spend every day handling many big personalities and big egos. The directness of these people who are used to getting their way was hard to handle at first but the harshness makes me appreciate all the love heaped on me by friends and family. I realize I am extremely lucky and I try to be nice to every single person I interact with.

Sailing around Toronto Harbour

Sailing around Toronto Harbour

Sicilian countryside in May

Sicilian countryside in May

2017 also brought new faces to my life and I experienced some of the most heart-breaking stories; and made some phenomenal memories. I got back into recreational sailing and made a journey on a small dinghy this summer around the Toronto Island. I tubed down a river in Vang Vieng, Laos, and almost met an unfortunate end, if not for someone who came back to stay with me (I’m not ready to tell this story yet, but one day I will be). I met some people who told me some heart-wrenching stories about their pasts and how they were trying to change their lives and move on beyond what life had dealt them. It amazed me how they were able to be so strong and turn so much bitterness into vulnerability and kindness. Life is not always easy, but we struggle and hope and pull through most of the time.

A new situation I encountered in Vang Vieng, Laos, - roosters in my dining area.

A new situation I encountered in Vang Vieng, Laos, - roosters in my dining area.

I like that 2018 is a new start. A new year to prioritize goals, spend time with people I enjoy, and to explore new passions. A new year full of travel, learning and creating. 

Erice, Sicily, 2017

Erice, Sicily, 2017

Read 2016, 2015, 2014

2016 My Year in Review by Jessica Lee

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap Cambodia. Photo: Najeer Yusof

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap Cambodia. Photo: Najeer Yusof

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

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

Exploring Koh Chang, Thailand by motorcycle

Exploring Koh Chang, Thailand by motorcycle

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

Here is what I learned from 2016:

Ngapali Beach, Myanmar

Ngapali Beach, Myanmar

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

They're married! Photo: Dave and Jen Stark

They're married! Photo: Dave and Jen Stark

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

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

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

Photo: Dave and Jen Stark

Photo: Dave and Jen Stark

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

Ngapali Beach, Myanmar

Ngapali Beach, Myanmar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicago in September

Chicago in September

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

Koh Chang, Thailand

Koh Chang, Thailand

My favourite books I read this year:

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

Favourite places I went to:

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

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

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

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

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

See ya in 2017! Stay adventurous!

See ya in 2017! Stay adventurous!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South East Asia: New adventures! by Jessica Lee

Biking around Koh Chang, Thailand

Biking around Koh Chang, Thailand

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

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

Things I learned in 2015 by Jessica Lee

San Diego, U.S.A.

San Diego, U.S.A.

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

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

This is what I learned in 2015:

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

Road trip through the States!

Road trip through the States!

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

San Diego living :)

San Diego living :)

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

Crete, Greece

Crete, Greece

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

Tanning in Montreal with fellow photographer, Dale.

Tanning in Montreal with fellow photographer, Dale.

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

Friend owned the boat, so free ride :)

Friend owned the boat, so free ride :)

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

Sailing in the Bosphorus in Istanbul with my friend Dave!

Sailing in the Bosphorus in Istanbul with my friend Dave!

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

Old Port Montreal office space

Old Port Montreal office space

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

Nashville, earlier this August.

Nashville, earlier this August.

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

Tijuana, Mexico, in January

Tijuana, Mexico, in January

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

Dave and I in Istanbul, Turkey

Dave and I in Istanbul, Turkey

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

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

Alek and I on Hawk Hill, San Francisco

Alek and I on Hawk Hill, San Francisco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I met Holden Caulfield in Montreal by Jessica Lee

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

Keep reading to see why he amazes me.


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

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

So that all happened when you were 15.

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

How do your parents feel about all of this?

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

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

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

And you met your girlfriend at the time in Cyprus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you planning to do after Montreal?

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

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

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

San Diego, California: a first look by Jessica Lee

California: where do I even begin?

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

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

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

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

I had forgotten what summer felt like.

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

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

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

Hola from San Diego, California! by Jessica Lee

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

More on San Diego soon... Stay loose!

What I learned in 2014 by Jessica Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York City round two! by Jessica Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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...

Washington D.C. Part 2: scenes from the city by Jessica Lee

We started day two in Washington with... you guessed it! Brunch.

Here we are at Founding Farmers, enjoying maple smoked bacon with a side of eggs benny.

We look ecstatic about our food because after waiting for almost two hours, we finally got to eat. Apparently, there's always a line-up at Founding Farmers.

Afterward our brunch which ended at around 2 pm, we walked through the National Mall and the Air and Space Museum.

It's always exciting walking through new places because you get to see everything with a fresh eye. We hit the Air and Space Museum, Newseum, and National Portrait Gallery. There are also two photos of Starbucks in unusually beautiful buildings, which is a contrast to the Starbucks I'm used to seeing at home. Anyway, enjoy the photos.

My best ride share experience and visiting a kennel in Quebec City by Jessica Lee

Last night was one of the luckiest nights of my life. 

My day started in a rush, as I had to quickly get myself ready for a day trip from Montreal to Quebec City. My friend Carole had this idea of living this winter in Northern Quebec, working as a husky sledding guide and I became intrigued. I went along for the job interview to satiate my curiosity.

After a lunch of poutine, the owner, Pascal, picked us up from Laurier Mall. We got into his pick-up truck which had an awful, muggy stench of dogs. Our noses soon acclimatized and I tried to follow the conversation while Carole and Pascal chatted in French.

We drove for about 15 minutes, then arrived at the kennel. We were greeted by the loud barking of 250+  dogs who were also jumping up and down, excited at seeing us. They were tied up to their posts row by row on a wide stretch of land.

After a brief tour, we were led into the staff's quarters where I experienced my first job interview almost entirely in French. While I had some trouble understanding some parts of the interview, I had no trouble understanding how hard we would be working if we decided to do the job.

Basically, you wake up each morning, chop up several pig or chicken carcasses with an axe to feed to the dogs, then you prepare the sleds by attaching the dogs to their places. It's a lot of physical work. You also do this job in subzero temperatures, in a smelly area, at minimal pay. But it's a cool experience, and would be perfect for dog lovers. 

I decided that it was more of Carole's dream and not quite mine, but I am glad I went to scope it out. I wasn't feeling very Chris McCandless that day.

After the kennel, we were driven back to Quebec City by one of the employees. It was almost 5 pm at that point. Carole had arranged a rideshare that left Quebec City at 7 pm, while I arranged mine for 11 pm because I wanted to spend some more time in Quebec City.

We had been driven to the proposed rideshare point, which is on Laurier Boulevard, but if you know Quebec City, you will know that Laurier Boulevard is just a strip of commercialized malls. There really isn't anything "cultural" or Quebec City-specific. The picturesque attractions of Quebec City are about a 18 minute car ride away, or an hour and a half walk away.

Here is where I made the best decision I made that day. Originally, since I was already in the rideshare meeting place (Laurier), I was going to spend the rest of my 6 hours in Quebec City on Laurier Boulevard, at a La Presse cafe, reading. It was cold and I wasn't going to be bothered walking an hour and a half and then back to the Old City (where the tourist attractions and beautiful buildings were). I had already been there this past summer with friends, and many times before. I had convinced myself I would be perfectly happy being in a coffee shop.

But then a bus drove right to where I was standing, and I just got on with everyone else. $2.60 later, and I was in the Old City, wandering around the old buildings and cute streets.

I found a cute diner and had my dinner in a booth, looking out into the street and remembering how just a few months earlier, I was here with friends and we were doing completely different things.

I was completely content at that point, walking to the Chateau Frontenac on quiet streets, street lamps glowing, gazing out to the water where a passenger ship was taking a party down the river. 

Then I got a text from my rideshare and the night got even better. 

Like most people from Quebec, my rideshare, Alex, was French, so he texted me in French. I thought I understood what he was saying, but actually it was an even better surprise.

Alex wrote that he was "en concert" at "petit champlain", so that he might be late to our agreed meeting location, which was Laurier Boulevard. I thought he was attending a rock concert with his friends, so I said "Ok, no problem." 

Earlier that day, my first rideshare told me his favourite part of Quebec City was Le Petit Champlain, so I was hoping to visit Le Petit Champain anyway. I asked Alex if I could meet him in Le Petit Champlain instead of heading back to Laurier since we were both here. He said yes, and that it would be even better if I could meet him at the concert place. I said why not and started walking. 

Here I was expecting some sort of crappy rock concert in a half-filled bar where the musicians aren't that great (I've experienced plenty of those in my music journalist days). But half way there, he texted me again and told me to tell the people at the door that I was with "le saxophonist" and to mention his name.

Using a rideshare is a mixed bag. You don't know who you're going to get! I didn't know my rideshare was playing at the concert or that he was a musician! I did a giddy jump right there on the steps down to Le Petit Champlain and almost lost my camera. Then, imagine my surprise when I walked to the address he gave me and it was the Le Theatre Petit Champlain! I had stumbled right into the International Quebec Jazz Festival and I was right on time.

I walked into the venue sat down at a table in a full theatre of 200. The lights dimmed and I listened to the singer deliver Billie Holiday tunes right on pitch to a five-piece band. Then Alex came on and stunned the audience with his saxophone solos. I think I fell in love right there- this amazing, handsome musician who was going to drive me home to Montreal later that night, and who was the reason why I was enjoying a free concert and free glass of white wine at the moment. I let the happy feeling linger and disappeared into the music. At the end, I stood up for a standing ovation and the band came on again.

Here is a photo to prove that this night really happened:

But of course, before this story sounds too much like a romance comedy, you have to know that offstage, even the coolest jazz musicians are sometimes boring just like everybody else. We ran out of things to talk about and the attraction died off after the first half hour we spent driving back to Montreal. Oh well. It was still an excellent night.

Here is a photo of the dinosaurs at Madrid 2.0 at around 1 am:

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.

Chemin du Roy/Quebec City Part 1 by Jessica Lee

I took a little road trip from Montreal to Quebec City with Mike and Anik, two friends I met last summer in Saskatoon. Together, our stories are weaved throughout Canada. Mike is originally from Winnipeg, but now both of them live in Toronto. They drove down for a weekend to come visit me in Montreal and to tour the province. All of us would not have met if not for the fates that brought us all to Saskatoon. Mike was finishing his Masters degree at University of Saskatoon, and Anik and I were part of a Canadian Heritage program (aka government-funded French exchange), which happened to give both of us our last choice in destination. Luckily, we both still decided to do the program.

Lately, I've been thinking about how small the world seems when you know a bunch of people from different places. I found out recently that a friend from Europe whom I met in Toronto met this girl in Asia whom I was about to meet in another city in Canada. It's not like I know a large portion of the world's population- it's just likely coincidences (we're all travellers, we're all social and we're all in the same age demographic; we were bound to bump into each other on the road at some point). Anyway, I digress, back to the trip.

We drove to Quebec City from Montreal on Chemin du Roy, which is a beautiful winding country road that leads to beaches like this:

And views like this:

We arrived in Quebec City after a few hours, just before the sun set.

It gave the boys time to wander around the old Quebec City before dinner, while I enjoyed a gypsy jazz busker band we stumbled upon.

I've always loved jazz music. Every summer in Toronto, I would go to the jazz festivals, some summers, I attended every night. When I first moved to Montreal, the jazz festival was taking place and I went as often as I could. But of course, the jazz festival stopped after two weeks, so I love random treats like this!

Here is a snapshot of what the touristy part of Quebec City looks like:

The architecture and small streets are gorgeous aren't they?

It definitely takes me back to Paris or even Bruges. One day I would like to live in a city like this with a balcony overlooking one of the busy streets, but instead of clothing stores, it would be a residential neighbourhood. On the street I would live on, there would be a cheese shop, a small grocery store, cafe and also a bakery. Further along the road, there would be a cinema and some restaurants. I would own a bike with a basket, and not much else. I'm going to stop here. I'm starting to realize this city I'm describing sounds a lot like Lund, Sweden.

We had dinner at Le Lapin Sauté because rabbit is a French delicacy and you just can't eat hamburgers and salad everywhere you go. To really experience a place, you have to experience their food too, even if it sometimes makes you queasy. I ordered the rabbit with rosemary and honey sauce, which actually tasted like chicken, but at least now I know. The only other time I've had rabbit was in Indonesia two years ago, where it was grilled with satay sauce.

After dinner, it started to rain heavily, which sounds terrible, but actually, it's perfect for photography because when people leave and duck to find shelter, you end up with empty streets without anyone jumping into your shots. I stuck around and grabbed a few photos, then we turned in for the night.