travel photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo

Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo

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

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

Marina at Pinawalla

Marina at Pinawalla

Locals in Kandy

Locals in Kandy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ananuri Mountains, Georgia

Ananuri Mountains, Georgia

Georgia/ Ukraine

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

Georgian woman at Ananuri Fortress

Georgian woman at Ananuri Fortress

Sheep herding outside of Tbilisi, Georgia

Sheep herding outside of Tbilisi, Georgia

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

Great Ocean Road, Victoria by Jessica Lee


I woke up on a beach this morning. There was dew in the grass and mist on the outside of our van. The waves rose and crashed in gentle caresses and the sun shone brightly, beckoning us to get out and explore. And so we did.

It was night time when we drove into the humble town of Port Fairy, Victoria. We saw signs pointing to the beach and decided to park there for the night.

When we woke, it was to this spectacular sight:


Port Fairy is a quiet, coastal town. There was only one person waking his dog when we got up. It was the kind of serenely peaceful quiet people hope for in their retirement.

I wanted to stay for longer but we hurried on and got back into the car as we would have a lot of driving to do that day.


As we drove, there were many fields. I asked to stop by this one to take a photo of some cows.

What was interesting is that when we stopped the cows were all lying on their front, but when I got closer to them, they must have felt threatened as all of them "mooed" at me and stood up.


Then they all faced me and tried to stare me down.


And finally when I still stood there taking photos, they moved in as a group.


I thought this was awesome because I had never seen anything like that. Though cattle aren't really "wildlife", when you go to the fair and meet the cows, they don't do this sort of behaviour. In petting farms and fairs, all they do is eat off your hand, which is cool as well, but I sort of felt like a National Geographic photographer watching the cows protect themselves.

We drove for a bit and got to our first lookout point.


Australia used to be used as a colony for criminals because it was so far away from the rest of the world. Honestly though, whoever made that decision clearly didn't realize Australia was paradise.

This place is not jail-like at all!

It was quite lovely.


This is somewhere near the 12 Apostles.


This was called Thunder Cave because every time a wave crashed into the cave, it's supposed to sound like thunder. I think it would be a good rafting spot.


If you walk further down the trail, it will take you to a beach.

It was too cold to swim that day, but I bet this is a popular spot during the summer.


Below is a photo of me. We tried to get one of those photos where the waves are crashing behind me but the timing was a bit off.


That's okay. The photo will forever capture the moment where I stood on a rock and got spritzed by the mist and saw rainbows in the light. The air was cold and refreshing and I could look out into the distance and see miles of the endless turquoise sea.




Later, we arrived at Gibson Steps.


As we had started our traveling early, the beaches were still pretty empty as people were probably eating breakfast at that time. (We eat breakfast too, we just eat things on the go and straight out of the box.)

Secluded beaches are my favourite kind of beaches. It felt like I owned the land for miles around.


Below was a photo I took while the wave was curling in. It looks like snow on the ground but really the water was just super foamy.


The Great Ocean Road was definitely one of my favourite moments in Australia and you should definitely give it a go if you're ever in the area, or if you've never done it before.