travel writer

2018 Year in Review by Jessica Lee

Summer 2018, not the sunflower farm that got closed down. Photo: Robbie Lòpez

Summer 2018, not the sunflower farm that got closed down. Photo: Robbie Lòpez

2018 went by in a blur for me. I started the year off, January 1st leaving a new year’s celebration on the joyous streets of Puerto Rico where I had spent the last days of 2017. The old town of San Juan, with its cobblestone streets and old colonial houses was alive with fireworks exploding in the background, the steamy night heat on my skin. I counted down to midnight, and toasted a few shots of whatever we drank that night, then headed off to the airport for a redeye flight back to North America. I spent new year’s day in freezing cold Boston at the famous Maritime Museum with its spirited penguins and sea turtles that swam in the huge aquarium that topped a few stories. Then home.

My year was filled with travels to nine new countries (thirteen in total); mostly by backpacking through Eastern Europe; a lifestyle and work adjustment; and many adventures. I visited my 50th country this year (Romania), read 33 amazing books and feel more in touch with who I am as a person. I have shed the idealism of youth and am more confident in handling novel situations both travelling and at home. I recently came across an article I had saved over five years ago called “Ten trips you need to take in your twenties” and realized I had spent the last couple of years doing most of them.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

The highlight of my year was not the physical places I went to, but the people I met while I was there. I admire the individuals who choose to pursue their own paths; as strange, unpredictable and uncharted as it might be. Usually, you meet these people by going to off-the-beaten path places, like in Macedonia where I met someone from the U.K. who was pursuing a Master’s degree in Albanian Art History. In Lebanon, I met a solo female traveller who had moved to French Guinea to teach math. She was a Parisian girl who traded in city life to move to a jungle where she found a pamphlet in her mailbox one day from the government titled “Living with Jaguars”.

This year brought a lot more commercial photography assignments, which I am grateful for. As I learn more and more about how to make high-quality images, I realized I am just scratching the surface of the nuances of making technically ‘perfect’ images. With commercial assignment work, the client expects perfectly-lit, expertly staged and styled photos, all of which is possible when you can control many elements such as the models you work with, your environment and studio lighting. With documentary or news photojournalism, most of the elements of that make the photo extraordinary are by chance; if the subject steps into the proper place, the lighting conditions that day and if you happen to catch an expression or an action, most of which will likely never be repeated again. Regardless, all of this work makes me a better photographer overall, which is the end goal.

Photographing the mountains at Zakopane, Poland. My friend Kris moved to Krakow in early 2018 and I was visiting him.

Photographing the mountains at Zakopane, Poland. My friend Kris moved to Krakow in early 2018 and I was visiting him.

I’m ending 2018 in great shape mentally, physically and in a good place. I’m typing this up from a beachfront bar on an island in Belize. It is a deserved ending to a hectic year, filled with many blessings but also many new challenges.

For those of you just joining me, every year, I run through a list of key lessons I learned throughout the year as self-reflection with the intent to help others who are reading. 

Experience is the name so many people give their mistakes. - Oscar Wilde

Here is what I learned this year:

Driving a golf cart to get around town in San Pedro, Belize

Driving a golf cart to get around town in San Pedro, Belize

1. Maintenance is a key and important part of life. I spent a significant portion of this year “decluttering” my physical possessions, a project I first started in 2013. I would spend whole days just sorting out old junk I would donate, organizing things that inspired me from high school, sorting through notes I had made during my college days. At the end of those long days, I would wonder how I got myself into this situation with a closet full of odds and ends. The solution is obviously to not create a mess in the first place, which I am working on. In five years, I plan to not have any junk that requires me to spend days of my life to sort through. Life is short, time is precious!

2. Cultivate good habits! At the tail-end of 2017, I went surfing in Puerto Rico and became so tired from paddling to catch the waves, while the locals seemed to have unlimited reserves of arm strength. As someone who has only limited time in warm climates with good surf every year, this was extremely frustrating, as the conditions were perfect but I was physically exhausted. I realized I had let myself become satisfied with easy workouts at home and hadn’t been pushing myself or keeping myself in tiptop surfing shape. I had unconsciously let the status quo of the people I worked with become my lifestyle too. Whenever they ordered take-out, I would do so as well most of the time. One bite of pastry doesn’t hurt. But If you let pastry pass through your lips enough times without going to the gym, soon you will be out of shape.

3. Actively cultivate a good crew who will encourage your good habits. Good habits will become easier when they are modelled by the people around you as “normal”. I am still working on this, but this year I have started surrounding myself with more freelancers who have to support themselves without a steady paycheque. These are some of the hardest-working people you will ever meet and I am grateful to be in their company.

Sailing around Toronto Islands without a crew.

Sailing around Toronto Islands without a crew.

4. Extra effort gets noticed. Earlier this year, I went to a tea shop that had a loyalty program for tea rewards. I went expressly to get my free bag of tea – nothing else.  However the employee working that day had a goal of selling me on anything, he mentioned the special of the day, which was a $1 tea. I didn’t need the extra tea (I had my own tumbler of tea in my car) but I was so impressed by his effort that I bought the tea. A $1 sale is not a lot of money. But from a $0 sale to $1, he increased my spending by 100%. If you upsell 10 customers a day, that is still not very significant, however if you do that every single day, that is $3650 – enough for a round trip to anywhere in the world, or an upgrade in camera gear, or whatever it is that your heart desires for $3650. Another example that really inspired me this year was Ami Vitale’s talk on CreativeLive where she described dressing up as a bush to photograph a panda that would be released into the wild. Amongst dozens of other photographers, she was the only one dressed up as a bush so that the panda wouldn’t realize she was there and wouldn’t be scared of her. The scientist in charge of the release noticed how empathetic she was towards her subject and allowed her access to all of the panda babies, which helped immensely with her photo story. I was so inspired by these two that earlier this year, I went the extra mile for a client, giving them much more photo content than they requested. They ended up buying double the images they initially were interested in because of my efforts.

5. Experience comes with time. This year, on my way home from Lebanon, I had a stopover in Casablanca, Morocco – the confronting place where I had travelled to on my own when I was young and overconfident in handling difficult situations. I learned a lot on that trip about what is accepted behaviour in different cultures, but mostly I learned how to survive in a foreign place where travellers are preyed upon, not just scammed (thank you Indonesia for that lesson). Morocco is a place where men routinely follow tourists around the city and harass them for money, to go to their relative’s shop, to sell their services as a guide, etc. It is quite scary when you are a young woman arriving to this for the first time during the night, which is what happened the first time I ended up in Morocco. Coming back to the same city almost five years later, I now knew what to expect and handled the man who followed me down the street, quite well, despite my frustration with him. Five years ago, a similar experience terrified me and I was able to reflect on how far I’d come.

Kids playing in Casablanca, Morocco

Kids playing in Casablanca, Morocco

6.  Think beyond the “pretty” photo and think about storytelling. I spent a large part of the year devouring classic literature and iconic photojournalism in an effort to learn from those sources. In my “studies”, I came across a photo by Andreas Feinenger, who made a photo of oil derricks. He described his thinking behind the photo and how he went far back to find the perspective that shows all the oil derricks close together. He did that deliberately so that people remember what oil stands for. When I read that, a light bulb clicked in my head. In 2019 and beyond, I will spend more time thinking about the meaning behind what I want to convey in a photo, as opposed to just making “pretty” photos, which I have finally started making consistently in difficult lighting situations.

 7. Spend less time fixing mistakes and more time making sure the mistakes don't happen in the first place. This year, due to recklessness, I ended up with a lot more parking tickets than any other year. In the grand scheme of things (compared to irreversible mistakes), parking tickets are a small issue, but I’d rather not make these mistakes in the first place.

On my first wreck dive in Cyprus, this year.

On my first wreck dive in Cyprus, this year.

8. Slow down. Earlier this year, I had a free coffee voucher that I was really excited to use. The ‘free coffee’ ended up not being free however because I had been so excited to get to the coffee shop, I accidentally scraped the side of a larger car I was not used to driving while backing out.

9. Always travel to learn. I went to many new places I had no preconceptions about previously and it filled in gaps in my knowledge, which is why I think travel and first-hand experiences are so important (if you’re not able to travel because of your circumstances, that is okay as long as you’re learning through second-hand sources such as documentaries or books). Prior to visiting Auschwitz, my understanding of the camp was limited to Viktor Frankel’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, Life is Beautiful, X-Men movies, Schindler’s List, Son of Saul, and the Berlin Holocaust Museum. The Auschwitz museum describes so much more of what the victims went through and I am glad I went even though it took great effort to get there.

Malta, 2018

Malta, 2018

10. Be committed. Tom Seaver, a Hall of Fame pitcher, received the highest percentage of votes to the Hall of Fame. In Angela Duckworth’s Grit, I read that he does not go tanning in Florida on vacation if he thinks he might get a sunburn which would affect his ability to pitch the next day. I love his level of commitment to his sport and have also committed myself to photography in the same way.

Bonus: If something is meant to be, it will happen. – At least, this is what I like to believe. One of the books I read, Marilyn Monroe by Donald Spoto described that as an unknown, Marilyn Monroe worked in a factory during the war when she was married to her first husband. From there, she could have “settled down” and led a quiet and conservative life hidden from the public, but a war photographer found her working at the factory and the photos started her career which eventually led to her to being cast in movies. Her dreams of becoming an actress could have ended when she got married and became a house wife at 16, but it didn’t. It’s almost as if that if someone is meant to be something to the world, it will happen.

The best books I read in 2018 (not in order):
1. The Social Animal – David Brooks
2. How Music Got Free – Stephen Witt
3. In the Skin of a Lion – Michael Odaatje
4. The Magic of Thinking Big – David Schwartz
5. Marilyn Monroe – Donald Spoto
6. Grit – Angela Duckworth
7. Swell – Liz Clark
8. Katerina – James Frey
9. Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut
10. Tender is the Night – Scott. F. Fitzgerald

Thanks for reading, see you all in 2019!

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Larnaka, Cyprus, earlier this summer

Larnaka, Cyprus, earlier this summer

10 things you notice when you start working at a hostel by Jessica Lee

I started working and living at a hostel in Montreal last month as a hostess. It's a perfect place to meet lots of interesting people and enjoy life before diving into a career. In between cooking pancakes and partying with guests, here are a few things I picked up about the lifestyle in general:

10. There is always free stuff everywhere
Take for example my growing shampoo and body wash collection (now 5 bottles more than what I came with- I will never run out of shampoo here in Montreal!). Backpackers and travellers are constantly leaving things behind because they don't have room in their luggage, which is perfectly fine with me because now I don't have to buy shampoo (more money for poutine!).

9. It's not the most healthy lifestyle in the world
When you live at a hostel, part of the job is to party with the guests, which means going out many nights until late hours and drinking much more than you're used to at home. And because you're partying all the time, you don't get a lot of time to cook for yourself, so you end up eating whatever fast food you're able to grab along the way. On top of this, you're usually the first one to get up because you have to make the coffee/breakfast for the guests, which means you don't get a lot of sleep.

8. Quiet time is golden and you will come to crave it
It can get tiring being "on" all the time and because the hostel is your home, you can never have a quiet night "in" because there will usually be something you have to take care of, or because people will want to chat or party. There are times when I just want to sit down in the living room with a book without someone trying to strike up a conversation. That being said, hostels are great for bringing new people into your life because every day, a fresh batch of folks come in.

7. There is a wide variety of people out there 
I have never met a wider range of people than when I have been in hostels. Sure, usually the group is young and curious about the world, but you get to meet people from everywhere who have grown up with different world views and cultures. You get to hear about different perspectives and sometimes, a conversation with a stranger will change your life.

6. The best times to use wifi is 2 am, in the middle of the day when there is no one around, or at 5 am
As a digital professional, I use the Internet all the time to upload photos, check social media, talk to people or publish writing. After sharing wifi with so many people during peak hours, you really get to appreciate wifi at home when you're the only one using it.

5. Food goes missing all the time
There's no use getting upset. People are hungry and sometimes just pull things out of the fridge to eat. Just hide your food better next time.

4. People can be really gross
Honestly, where do all these odours come from?

3. The walls have eyes and ears (and at our hostel, cameras)
Lots of things happen around a hostel and sometimes you get to hear about them. When I first started, it was difficult getting used to the concept that I was never alone. It works the other way around too- when you live with a group of 50+ people in the same small quarters, you get to know much more than you want to about someone and news travels fast. It's difficult to maintain an air of mystery. Sometimes people purposely want you to know who they went home with because they make multiple hints (good for them), but I've come to appreciate discretion and subtlety.

2. You start to learn people really well
If you're a social scientist, people person, writer, or like to people watch, you will love being here. When you are surrounded by people all the time, you really get to start to know them. You get better at predicting what people will do and understanding motivations behind their behaviour. For example, when there are a pile of dirty dishes at the sink and a group of us, I can almost guess with perfect accuracy at who will do them first. 

1. People hook up A LOT
Hostels are pretty much the perfect place to be if you're looking for a series of short hook-ups or one-night-stands because people are always coming and leaving, and it's easy to meet people. If you're travelling alone and just want some company, you're also more likely to be open to advances. Basically, hostels are like a buffet for people looking to pick-up.

I know with some of these points, I sound bitter, but I've come to realize how fun and relaxed my job is compared to other hospitality jobs, or even corporate gigs. I appreciate the community of the hostel and the good people I work with. I know this moment in my life won't go on forever, so I'm going to enjoy all the people and fun times while they last. Would I recommend working at a hostel? This is my account of it and I think you should experience it for yourself if you're really curious. ;)

Camping and climbing in Val David, Quebec by Jessica Lee

I have a feeling this summer's going to rock. On the Canada day weekend, the six of us, packed into a van and drove up to Val David, Quebec, an hour's drive away from Montreal. We kicked off the start of my new life in Montreal with an epic camping and climbing trip.

The camping wasn't too extreme, but it allowed us to fiddle with our tents and fire strikers.

We eventually used a lighter to get the fire started (but you're not supposed to know about that!).

After a night of roasting wieners and marshmallows, we woke up the next day and proceeded to climb.

We headed for a hike afterwards. Here is a photo of the boys looking lost.

And here is the breath-taking view of the top of Val David. We must have sat there for hours.

Afterwards, we grabbed some iced snacks. You will never guess what the dessert below is made out of. Okay, I will tell you, below we have tofu ice cream infused with blueberries and raspberries.

It tasted alright.

We did it all again the next day, then drove off to Montreal for some breakfast. In between all that, we found time to gaze up at the stars until early morning, swim in a gorgeous blue lake and watch dogs shake off water from their fur from a beach.

I would do it all again in a second.

New adventures in Montreal by Jessica Lee

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

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

I need to keep moving.

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

See you all on the other side!

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

A Parisian Cafe, Montmartre and Sacre Coeur by Jessica Lee

Today, I'm bringing you to the Jewish Quarter of Paris, le Marais.

One of the things I love most about Paris is the sophistication of the food and the cafes. I spent the day with fellow traveller Carmen from Australia, sipping hot chocolates and tasting a cheesecake souffle at a cafe that didn't allow computers. It had an old-time charm feel, sort of like that movie A Midnight in Paris. There were several blatant signs around the cafe that said "p'as d'ordinateur portable", and of course there wasn't any wifi.

Sometimes, I feel like I could stay in Paris forever because of the cute little shops and well-taken-care-of buildings, but with that comes a certain feeling of coldness in not quite fitting in with the locals because of a) the language barrier and b) the Parisian snob stereotype is sometimes true.

Despite that, I think anyone can appreciate the many years of history and the culture developed in this old city.

We wandered around the area for a bit, then hopped on our bikes and went north to Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur. They filmed Angels and Demons and also Amelie in this area, so it was strange feeling to be in places where I thought I had been before but hadn't really.

Edmonton: Art Gallery of Alberta, aimless wandering and Muttart Conservatory by Jessica Lee

It was 7 am. I had just stumbled off of the Via Rail in Edmonton, caught a cab to my hotel and was trying to figure out what to do next.

My room wasn't ready to be checked into yet so the possibility of trying to catch some Zs was out. Luckily, I remembered my friend Josh had moved here for law school just a week ago. I pulled out my phone to see if he was up for some breakfast.

He was.

20 minutes later, we were wandering around Old Strathcona, looking for grub.

This is what the bridge from Old Strathcona to downtown looks like:

The river reminded me of Saskatoon. It is the same river after all, as Saskatchewan is right beside Alberta and the river runs through both provinces.

We arrived downtown, and Josh showed me the water fountains. Unlike most water fountains in other cities, the crowd in Edmonton likes to swim in their water fountains during the summer. It looked really fun, so we ran in too.

We were still hungry though, so we asked around for food recommendations. Note to everyone reading this. Don't go to a place called "Alberts". That is where we went and let's just say it wasn't that great.

This is cool though. I love food trucks.

We also wandered into the nearby mall

This is Edmonton's version of Toronto's "Dundas Square". Or if you're from Melbourne, "Federation Square", basically a central gathering location.

As you can see, here's another fountain.

What's really cool is that city hall is nearby too. I love the architecture and its eco-friendly design. There are public tables and I was saying to Josh how it would be a perfect study space, with its high ceilings and relatively quiet atmosphere.

Next, we ventured into another magnificently-designed building, the Alberta Art Gallery.

The insides are pretty cool too.

Here was an art installation that I found interesting. It juxtaposes a bar with a piano.

There's also a cafe on the top floor, which again would be a great study spot, or just a spot to read a book.

I'm constantly looking for places like this in Toronto, somewhere where there isn't a lot of chatter or people, but has a few souls in there to make the place alive, as quiet motivators working off to the side. For me, the perfect empty to full coffee shop patron ratio is about three to four people who are quietly working- they may occasionally start a conversation to keep things interesting.

Here is the roof of the Art Gallery of Alberta. Again, a good reading spot. Notice the patio chairs and tables in the back of this impressive art display.

They had these little ghost-shaped mirror cut-outs. Here's a photo of Josh and I.

Here's some more amazing architecture, shot from the top of the stairs at the gallery.

This is me at one of the installations. Can you spot words?

After the gallery, with no set agenda, we decided to just wander around the city on foot.

This is what the city centre/ main mall looks like. (This isn't the West Edmonton Mall, I'll show you that in a later post)

I thought the ad below looked cool, so I shot a photo of it. This is in the chinatown area.

There's also a gorgeous view of the city and river from Chinatown. This is what it looks like:

We saw a path and decided to explore. It definitely led away from the city, but I theorized that since I had walked through the prairies of Saskatoon for hours at a time earlier this summer, a walk around the neighbourhoods of Edmonton would be small potatoes. Josh was game, so onward we went.

The path led to a nice walk along the river.

You're probably looking at these photos from your computer or mobile device and thinking "oh that looks like a nice walk". Truth be told, this walk took around 2 hours. I just didn't take photos of the boring parts. It was quite nice though, and worth the while if you have a day to spend.

Here is the Saskatchewan River:

We walked by this interesting building that looked like the Louvre from the outside (with the glass pyramids) and decided to see what it was.

It was a nature conservatory.

Since it was half an hour till closing time, the nice lady at the front just let us in for free.

It was absolutely beautiful.

There were four different curations of plants with different themes.

In this particular one, the theme was around the story sword in the stone. It was so calm and peaceful, I wanted to do yoga in there. So we did (no photos, of it sorry!).

The next one was a desert-themed curation.

The below corpse flower wasn't really a flower when we arrived, because it was in its dormancy/ regrowing stage. You can view its full growth here at this link. Even though this flower was just a patch of soil when we were there, I enjoyed the story, especially when it opened on Earth Day. You can read the timeline below. Since the plant is also from Sumatra, it brought me back to my travels last year in Indonesia.

Afterwards, wandered around and stumbled upon a music festival, where we were fortunate enough to meet a lovely Albertan who drove us back near our starting point.

This is Whyte Avenue, which is the main street near University of Alberta.

We ended our day with a Southern-inspired meal at Dadeos.

I loved the retro feel of the place with its checkerboard floor and vinyl booths. They had small details on each table too:

This is what dinner looked like. Blackened catfish with jambalaya rice.

It was a wildly successful first day in Edmonton. I got back to my hotel and got ready for the next day's adventures.

Toronto Underground Market: a foodie's dream event by Jessica Lee

Have you ever had one of those moments where you regret eating so much of one thing because now you're too full to try another thing? It happened to me tonight.

I spent an evening at the Evergreen Brickworks for the Toronto Underground Market. I had been meaning to go to this recurring event for a while now, but unfortunately I always out of town.

Basically the Toronto Underground Market is a place where home cooks or people just entering the food business can get a chance to test out the waters with the Toronto foodie crowd, and the public gets to taste a little bit of everything.

The place had a great vibe to it as everyone was passionate about food (duh) and not only that, there was a community atmosphere to it. Strangers would randomly chat with me about what they were eating/what I was eating/where to get the best [insert type of cuisine here] food in Toronto. It's a great place to meet other like-minded foodies (unlike a business networking event where you're supposed to meet other people but the vibe is weird because it's way too forced!).

The list of vendors was amazing. It really highlights the diversity of Toronto as there was food from all over the world. So while you're eating an Australian meat pie for instance, though there are no Aussies talking to you in their accents while you're eating, it's close enough to bring a tear to your eye because of all the memories evoked from last year's trip to Australia.

Tonight's fare had Korean delicacies, Japanese Onigiri (or Japanese triangles as I like to call them), and food from the Caribbean, Taiwan, Indonesia, Hawaii and of course Canadian.

Here I am with a Taiwanese Rice Sausage:

It's crazy because I have never heard of rice sausage and I was in Taiwan just two years ago! By the way, if you're a foodie, please head to Taiwan, you may gain a few pounds but the happiness will be worth it. Taiwan is like the U.S. in that the food is cheap (cheaper than Canada anyway), but the amount of new things you'll try is overwhelming.

Okay, so let me explain the Taiwanese rice sausage. It is a sausage made of rice which makes up the bun, and then they paired it with an actual sausage which was pork or chicken. I had this early on during the event and it really made me full. It was delicious, but a eating strategy mistake on my part.

I should've known to eat the less filling things first so that I would have enough stomach room for everything else.

Next, I headed to Babi and Co, which is Indonesian food. This is the Mie Udang, which is shrimp and pork noodle soup with pork belly lardons, celery and fried shallots. The flavour combination was just amazing.

It was my favourite dish of the night (I'm slightly biased because I just came back from Indonesia a couple of months ago and also because there aren't many Indonesian restaurants in Toronto).

Here are a group of strangers digging in:

I loved that they just let me take a photo of them, no questions asked. Seriously the group of people at this event are some of the coolest people on this earth.

I also loved that most of the people making food were using their own recipes, or a recipe passed down to them from older generations. Here a lady is making gourmet meringue. I would also like to point out how simple her set up is, no ovens. Amazing.

Moving from a well-stocked kitchen to a warehouse-like environment probably isn't easy.

 Anyway, here are my tips for the Toronto Underground Market newbie:

1. Arrive early because stuff gets sold out and to avoid the line-ups
2. Bring tupperware
3. Bring friends (to split and share stuff)
4. Pace yourself, it's not a race. Food is supposed to be enjoyed slowly!
5. Ask questions. I learned quite a bit of food-related stuff tonight, and it's cool to know all the stories behind where the food came from and how it's made.

Here is grilled cheese:

Mystery strawberry and lime drink:

The meat pie that almost brought me to tears from missing Australia too much: Seriously, Toronto needs a meat pie shop; down the street from where I live, preferably.

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

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

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

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

I did not expect to be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

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

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

Here are some other weird things I was introduced to:

These were some sort of chips.

And some other snack I was introduced to...

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

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

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

Here I am at the beginning of the climb:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Petting kangaroos at Pebbly Beach, New South Wales by Jessica Lee

We almost drove by Pebbly Beach on our way to Melbourne but that would have been a shame.

Where else would I meet a real live wild kangaroos who aren't afraid of humans?

Honestly if you visit Australia, and don't even pet a kangaroo, you have failed.

I was trying to see if kangaroos actually live up to the stereotype that they like to box, but it just looked at me strangely when I held my fists up.

Then I tried to play "paddy cake" with the kangaroo. (see photo below)

Skippy clearly wasn't having any of it by the look on his face.

I then wandered to the actual beach and was greeted by more of Skippy's crew lounging on the grass.

What a life right?

Pebbly Beach is a wild life preserve so it guarantees these kangaroos will not see their homes destroyed in the years to come.

As long as the grass still grows, the kangaroos will have a home and a source of food.

You can actually camp in Pebbly Beach, which is what we were going to do initially but when we arrived, we found that there was a camping fee of $10 per person and on top of that, $7 per vehicle. And why would we pay for camping in our own car when we could camp for free elsewhere, outside of the park?

Which is why we came back the next morning.

I had way too much fun with the kangaroos.

When it was time to go, as we still had a lot of road to travel that day, I was blessed with the icing on the cake when I watched a kangaroo hop across the park.

It was a magical moment.

Kangaroos travel a lot of distance through a couple of hops.

For a Canadian girl who had never seen an animal move in such a way in her home country, this was quite phenomenal. I cannot describe it in any other way except it was like the kangaroo had springs in its legs. Within a couple of seconds (but long enough for me to grab my camera), the 'roo was half way across the park. Being that it was quite heavy-looking, you wouldn't expect it to be able to travel so quickly, but it did. And that's what amazed me.

Kangaroos are definitely a top-ten "must see" in Australia and I would recommend stopping by Pebbly Beach if you're on the way to Melbourne from Sydney. Or at least find somewhere else where you can meet Australia's mascot.

Missing pieces by Jessica Lee

In the next couple of weeks, I will be posting missed entries throughout my travels in Australia and Indonesia. I don't usually like to post things that are from months ago because you can't achieve anything by dwelling on the past (unless you are learning from your mistakes), but I figure reliving the memories and sharing stories will psych me up for my next big trip slated a couple of months from now when I finish school.

Destination? I'm not exactly sure... I'll let you know when I get there!

Until then, enjoy a continuation of Australia. Stunning photos of Clovelly Beach in Sydney will be appearing in the next couple of days.

A bike tour of Montreal by Jessica Lee

Marc and I took an expedition on our bicyclettes yesterday to explore the rest of downtown Montreal.

Biking along the St. Lawrence river had an old romantic feel to it, and it felt incredibly French. All we were missing was the picnic basket filled with gourmet cheeses and a baguette.

Going everywhere by bike was also very efficient as well. We saw three times as much as we would have had we walked on foot.

Here is Marc next to some pretty cool buildings.

There are actually lots of architecturally interesting buildings in downtown Montreal.

I loved how old architecture is mixed with modern styles.

We stopped by the Old Port, which reminded me of Toronto's Distillery District in the way that the floors were cobblestone and the buildings were older.

I had some maple taffy, which is really just maple syrup in thickened form thrown over ice and then rolled onto a stick. Like poutine, it is a very tasty tourist trap/one of the things you should try should you head to Quebec.

It starts out looking like this:

Then you roll it up...

And you put it in your mouth.

A magician's show was just setting up as I started my taffy so we stayed for a while and watched.

Then we headed into the artists corridor to look at some art.

The place was definitely touristy, but I loved the elegant buildings and the feeling one got when walking beside stone walls and on top of cobblestone- like you're in a classy European city.

If you popped into any of the stores you would see something like this: lovely small boutiques.

Or touristy t-shirts.

I loved the cafe scene as well. I was really tempted to stop for a cuppa or a creme de glace but we had a schedule and a lot of things to do.

Before that though, can I show you a few kitschy things that I adored?

Here ya go!

This sign:

And this fabulous t-shirt that was ridiculously priced.

Even though Old Port was incredibly consumerist and tourist-geared, I soaked up every minute of being there.

Soon it was time to head back on the bike trail.

There is this amazing trail that follows the river from Old Port to Atwater Market, which has lovely views of the city. In my mind, I was in a French movie and Le Denicheur was playing while I was biking down these gorgeous trails.

Please open that above link and listen by the way. It really sets the mood for the rest of this blog post and the photos.

We stopped over a bridge and saw these sets of buildings. I have no clue what they are but they look like apartments or dorm rooms. I wonder what the insides look like.

Here is a further away view so you can see the boats.

We took a few photos and then we were off again.

We made it to the Atwater Market, which is a farmer's market filled with yummy goods.

I bought a tin can of maple syrup for $6.50! What a deal considering fake maple syrup in grocery stores costs something like $4.50.

We wandered into a chocolate shop where I wanted to eat everything.

They had ice cream.

Lots of chocolate of course.

And truffles!

Here is a close-up of one of the truffles.

And this was the dessert I really wanted to try but it was really hot and I was thirsty and fleur de sel, which is salted caramel, would have been much too sweet.

We took the metro back downtown and walked into a student protest.

They had pots and pans and were banging away. It was quite loud.

Then a bit further down, we walked into the film festival where they were playing a silent film.

One of the things I love about Montreal is that like Toronto, there is always something happening in the city. Back when I lived in Sydney, we went to the library for entertainment.

I'm kidding obviously.

But most of the nightlife in Sydney revolved around clubs and if you didn't like clubbing, then have a nice life.

I'm not sure where this place is, but we discovered the area by biking near it then seeing it.

It was perfect. There was just the right amount of people in it so that the scene was lively but not too many so that we couldn't bike through.

Montreal is a pretty decent city to bike through.

If you have a free day, I definitely recommend exploring by bike.

Letters from a small town: Boonah by Jessica Lee

I got dropped off in a strange little town in Queensland called Boonah today. The boys wanted to go climbing at the nearby mountains and I just wasn’t up for it.

Growing up in a big metropolitan city such as Toronto, it feels quite different being here. I don't want to be cliche and say that the pace of life is slower in a rural town than in a big city, but it is quite true. People here have time to chat.

It is a little weird to be a stranger in a small town all by yourself. It's obvious I don't live here. 

I stick out from the locals quite easily being that I’m Asian and everyone else is white. Everyone is friendly though, asking me where I’m from and wishing me well on my travels. I get a few long stares from teenagers- maybe they haven’t seen many Asians being that Boonah wouldn’t really be a town Asian tour companies stop at with their huge tour buses; I’m sure you know the kind of tour buses I’m talking about - the ones with the tour guides who hold little flags while talking and explaining sites with flocks of Japanese, Korean or Chinese tourists following behind with cameras.

The fact that not many tourists stop here is great news for me. The people haven't developed a dislike for tourists (some tourists can be quite rude and not fun to serve) and the town isn't commercialized and catered to tourists; thus giving me a more authentic small town experience, which I quite like.

Boonah is a typical small town. The fashions of the men are flannel shirts and jeans and the teenagers wear hoodies. The women wear jumpers with long skirts or jeans. You don’t see sharply dressed business people with their briefcases or stick-thin fashionistas working their heels here when you look out the window. This could be a small town in rural Ontario or anywhere in North America.

It’s a charming little place. The population is just over 2,000 and there is one main street. Right now I am sitting in a cute café writing this and people watching from the window at the same time. I feel a little like a 21st century Kerouac, minus the moleskine but with the addition of a laptop. I had a mocha but now am drinking chai tea.

The coffee shop/ bookstore I am in is called The Story Tree. It is quite artsy with crochet throws, little plants, rustic wooden chairs, cookbooks displayed on the counter and acoustic music softly playing in the back. There is a small play area in the back and a lounge area with a table for new mothers to chat while their kids play. Sometimes I wonder if that is the life I would be living had I been born in a small country town and secondly would I enjoy it because from a glance it doesn’t seem too bad.

On the road (again) by Jessica Lee

Goodbye Sydney, hello road!

I used to think of myself as someone who could travel light. And now I know that is not the case.

I am struggling with packing for what I like to call my “world tour”. It is not really a world tour. Though I am hitting four out of seven continents so I think that qualifies for something.

The first leg of my travels will be a road trip in the eastern part of Australia. The plan is to start at Cairns and drive down along the coastline stopping at major towns and snorkeling along the way. We’ll head back down to Sydney then go on our way to Melbourne and eventually I’ll make it to Adelaide to meet one of my friends. We plan to take a ferry to Kangaroo Island and spend a few days there.

Then I’m getting on a plane to Jakarta, Indonesia. I don’t know where I’m going from there. I could end up in Singapore, Bali, or any of the thousands of islands that make up Indonesia. It’s this aspect of not knowing what is going to happen, but feeling like the possibilities are endless that make travel so exciting.

A few other cities I plan to stop by on my way home include Bangkok, Thailand, London, England and Montreal, Canada. I’m pretty excited.

I think one of the best things about travel is that your limits are pushed, your knowledge about the world grows and also your knowledge about yourself gets expanded.

As I was saying earlier, I used to be able to pack lightly during travels. I have learned that I am definitely not a light packer. The problem is that I just have too many interests. About a quarter of my luggage consists of clothes. An eighth is books (love to read), another eighth is sailing gear, and then another eighth is photography gear (consisting of multiple lenses, a film camera and a DSLR. Thank goodness I didn’t bring my tripod); on the side, I have my sketch books, my ukelele and of course my laptop and toiletries. And now I have souvenirs to bring home to friends and family too!

I really hope I don’t become one of those people who are in those T.V. shows about hoarding.

What are some things you have learned about yourself while on the road?

A walk through Hyde Park and NSW State Library by Jessica Lee

I had my last day of class yesterday so it's officially exam season. Which means an excuse for an hour walk to the NSW state library to get some hardcore studying on! Above photo is me at the library.

This library is intense! It reminds me of the library in the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast. It's got the wood paneling, sunroof, marble floors, fancy marble detailing on the roofs, etc, etc.

This is the Mitchell Room. You're not allowed to bring your camera inside, so I had to take this photo from outside.

It reminds me of the Harvard library. I haven't actually been in the Harvard library but I've seen it from various movies.

Security here is pretty strict. You're not allowed to bring bags in, only laptops and books. You have to rent a locker to put your stuff in.

This is what it looks like from the outside. It's quite impressive.

This is the entrance:

Back home (Toronto), our most impressive library would probably be the Robarts Library, which is shaped like a phoenix, but only the outside looks nice. Inside, the air is stuffy, the lighting is not the best and I feel like I'm in a prison.

They have high ceilings here so I feel fine.

Check out the bookcases! I guess the books are a pretty big deal too. Leather-bound and all.

Here is a photo of Sydney University's nicest library (in my opinion) as a comparison. Take into note Sydney University's libraries are pretty nice (compared to the gross gross gross library at University of Toronto Scarborough). This is the visual arts library. Not many students at the university know about this library.

Libraries like these make me feel like a prestigious academic. I feel "smarter" and somewhat pretentious being in the visual arts library, like I'm doing real work instead of just checking Facebook.

My favourite library at Sydney University would have to be the Law Library because it's clean-looking and has lots of outlet plugs. I do not have a photo of this library though because it's huge and really silent. If I took a photo, everyone would hear the shutter click and look over at me. My favourite library used to be the SciTech Library because of the booths with the cushions but then I got into the security guard's bad books. It's a long story.

To the NSW state library, instead of taking the bus, we decided to go on foot. It was a long walk, but it was also justified because we were going to the library to "study".

Here is Hyde Park, which we passed through to get to the library.

I love how this place is completely surrounded in trees. It's in the downtown core, just across the street from some office buildings. On our walk through, we saw some business men having lunch. If I worked near here, I would definitely have lunch here as well.

Here is another fancy building, as if Sydney doesn't have enough fancy buildings already.

Walk further along and you'll find a gorgeous water fountain.

Before coming to Sydney I never thought there would be so many nice buildings. Apparently they take their architecture seriously here.

Guess what this nice building is? (scroll down for answer)

It's a hospital!

If I were sick, staying in this building would cheer me up.

I'd never think of Sydney as an "architectural city"- those would be European cities, but now my mind is changing.

Readers: What is your favourite building for its architecture? It can be in any city in the world.