what i learned from travel

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

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!


What I really learned from seven months abroad part 1 by Jessica Lee


"What have you learned from your travels abroad?"

I've been pondering this question for the last two months since I got back from Australia and Indonesia and I have a clearer idea now.

When I first got back from my trip, "what did you learn" or "how have you changed" were the most common questions. I think everyone just wanted some sort of life-inspiring tidbit that could be summed up in a few short sentences; something that could help them in their own lives without them having to live through it all.

In truth, I could probably write a book on what I've seen, the people I've met and the life lessons I've learned.

I've come back different of course. Humbled. What I've picked up clarified the truth of "the more you learn, the less you know".

I've come to see how limited staying in Toronto really is. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of opportunities here and there is definitely a lot happening within the city, but I've learned that showing up to a completely different country ie. Australia with a bunch of Canadian credentials really does nothing for you.

If I were to stay in Canada however, I've branded myself pretty well career-wise. I've worked for only big, well-known, mostly national companies which have a great reputation. It all meant nothing in Australia, however, as I soon found out. All the companies are different. And everything you have to know to function as a productive employee is different. There really are somewhat big culture differences between places, which is why travel is so fun but can be emotionally and mentally, not to mention physically demanding.

For example, if I were to try to pick up a job in photography in a new city, already I would have a disadvantage because I don't know the city well and may have the inclination to get lost. This might not seem like a huge deal, but really it is. News happens so fast that in a profession like mine (journalism), if you miss the timeline, then you miss out on the news.

But this is only one of the many things I've picked up abroad- I mean of the fact of how limited my experience in the professional world is. These are the big things.

A smaller skill, that could potentially be an extremely important skill later on is something I learned in the smaller Indonesian markets.

I like to think that I've become a better negotiator.

On the streets of Jakarta, I've talked down prices from $5 a becak ride down to $2.50 CAD. I paid for a 50 cent motorcycle ride around the block, which originally was offered to me at a much higher price. Sure I also paid for a pricey $25 CAD one hour taxi ride (that's a lot of money in Indonesian currency), but I had no other choice as I had way too much luggage at the time (another lesson I've undoubtedly learned).

University teaches you a lot of good theories, but the practical stuff you have to learn for yourself. This is why real life is so important. Where else can you learn good bargaining skills, if not for small informal markets such as these? They don't really exist in Canada (not that I know of anyway) besides on Craigslist where people sell their used goods.

I know I am going to get a lot of flack for writing the next bit because I pretty much just said that I own too much stuff while I travel, yet I am also going to advocate "going shopping" and learning to bargain. Why? Because with low risk items that cost so little, you don't really lose a lot in the process of negotiating, but rather, you gain real world knowledge of how to make a good deal. Now I'm sure they teach this stuff in more formal terms at Harvard Business School, but you can't really be sure of your  deal-making skills unless you put them into practice. Again, I am advocating the "learning to negotiate" part and not the actual "collecting items" part of the shopping experience, please be clear on that (though there is nothing wrong with collecting things either, it just makes it hard to travel around). Also, you can always talk a price down, then not buy it in the end too, but it wouldn't be fair to waste the merchant's time like that.

Another practical or not-so-practical (you be the judge) "skill" I've developed while in Indonesia is the art of J-walking aka walking across several lanes of traffic with no stop lights to help you out.

In Indonesia, pedestrian lights just don't exist. There is a stop sign pictured, but cars don't really stop. Check it out in the photo below:


The first time I tried to cross the road on my own, I had to stop and watch another woman cross first, then it took another ten minutes for me to work up the courage to cross. It doesn't look so terrible in the above photo because there aren't many cars on that street, however Jakarta is fairly busy with traffic all the time. So how do people cross the street? They just step out into the traffic and soon cars will stop for them. It's the "unwritten rule" of how to cross streets in Indonesia. There is no rude honking when pedestrians step out in front of cars. It's well established that that is how people cross streets there.

What this did for me:
1. I learned how to trust other drivers (strangers basically) to preserve my life. Of course people don't want to hit you, they've got places to go too.
2. I conquered something extremely frightening for me. Every time you challenge yourself, you become one step closer to becoming "fearless". This is not to be confused with "reckless" of course, you still have to be careful when stepping out into oncoming traffic.
3. Efficiency. Back in Toronto now, I can cross huge intersections confidently even when it's not my light. I only do this when I'm on foot and when I have a good opportunity so I don't endanger someone else's life. I reckon I save 5-20 seconds each time I don't wait for the light. This does not seem like a lot of time, but let's say I have to cross the street ten times a day, I would save roughly three minutes a day, which adds up to just over 20 minutes a week, an hour and twenty minutes a month, which is almost a whole day each year. I'm not saying you should follow my footsteps and J-walk (please, if you don't know how to do it properly, don't risk your life!), but it is nice to have almost an extra day just because of not waiting for a light to turn white.

There are some other smaller things and bigger issues (and mind-blowing stories) I've learned of during these past few months. I mean, how is it possible to not learn after being thrust into a new culture? I've learned about pickpockets, I conquered my fear of giant cockroaches and relaxed enough to sleep in the same room as a lizard. I've walked through an actual slum by myself, tested the waters of what was "safe" or not (seriously, I thought I was going to get kidnapped, murdered or raped), and learned to trust in the kindness of strangers. I have so many other stories to share, but for now, I feel like this blog post is getting really big. So until next time!

What important real life lessons have you learned while traveling?