For Lebawit Lily Girma, International Upbringing Lead To Life On The Road
Most travel writers fall into the business on the way to somewhere else. That’s certainly the case for attorney-turned travel writer Lebawit Lily Girma. Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, she was nine months old when her parents moved the family to Ivory Coast, a French-speaking West African country. She’s loved travel ever since, eventually learning to speak four languages and studying on continents including Africa, Europe and the Americas.
After graduating from the University of Virginia and working as an attorney for a prestigious U.S. firm, Girma took a “leap of faith” in 2009 and launched a career in travel photography and writing. Along the way she became an expert in Jamaica and Belize, and by 2012 was working with Moon Travel Guides, where she now authors Moon Belize, Moon Belize Cayes and Moon Dominican Republic, scheduled to debut this fall.
Today Girma writes about the “beauty in culture,” from music to food and rituals, and adventure travel. We spoke with her recently about her life traveling the world.
TravelPulse: I’m often asked how I became a travel writer. Now it’s my turn: how did you become a guidebook and travel writer?
Lebawit Lily Girma: When I left the law, I went on my own sabbatical to travel and figure out my next move. Six weeks around the Caribbean turned into five months in Jamaica. I taught myself professional photography during that time, and I started a blog for family and friends, which became popular. After a couple of photo assignments, and articles published from the road, I realized I should look into it more, and see if I could turn travel–which was long a part of my life–into work.
My first big travel writer assignment came in 2011, when I was offered a three-month writing and photography gig with the Belize Tourism Board. I was sent all over the country, to blog, write articles and share photographs about my experiences. A year later, there was an opening to write a Belize guidebook (for Moon Travel Guides). One of my blog readers actually alerted me to the listing.
I applied, submitted a book proposal and was eventually selected. It was an exciting time. I had never written a guidebook before but I loved Belize, knew it inside out from numerous visits, and believed I was the best person for the job. From there, more doors opened for travel writing–from print feature articles to a second book on Belize’s islands, and more recently, authoring a new edition of Moon Dominican Republic.
TP: What do you like most about the profession? What are the drawbacks?
LG: Aside from the beautiful places and unique experiences, I love that it pushes me out of my comfort zone. I have to approach and talk to people on a daily basis, whether in English, Spanish or French. I get to witness the kindness of strangers and make lifelong friends. It teaches me to rely on my faith, and my trust my gut as a solo traveler. And I love the fact that no two days are the same.
The drawback is being away from family and friends for extended periods of time, especially with guidebook writing. You’re always on the go and living out of a suitcase, which can take a toll. Not having access to the convenient shopping or efficiency of the U.S. is another drawback–when your Mac shuts down, for instance, and it’s a six-week turnaround instead of two days.
TP: Besides the money, how does working as a journalist differ from working as an attorney?
LG: It’s more fun! Rather than being hunched over my desk, pouring over a 30-page appellate brief and case law, I get to be outdoors. Whether talking to people, having cultural experiences or climbing a mountain, there’s an unpredictability and serendipity to travel journalism that I love. I also have more autonomy and creativity–in the direction of my books, and the stories I choose to tell. I get to live in interesting, warm places. Oh and I don’t have to wear pumps and a suit!
TP: What has been your favorite assignment to date?
LG: Writing and researching a first edition guidebook on the Dominican Republic. Although I have been there in the past, I spent the past year living in the DR full time for it, and it was a wonderful experience. It’s an amazingly diverse country, with hospitable and passionate people (and funny). I got to dance a lot, and I love to dance!
TP: What was your toughest or most difficult moment as a travel writer – a time you said to yourself “Why am I doing this?”
LG: I think that difficulty is now par for the course in this ever-changing travel publishing landscape. But the roughest moment came while I was on the road in Belize. I was tired after a heavy six months all over the country and felt lonely. When travel is work, especially with guidebook writing, there’s a lack of balance in your life. Even though you meet industry people all the time, and doing fun things, you’re also experiencing life solo for extended periods. Coupled with being based on Caye Caulker at the time–a small island–with few activities other than bar or beach hopping, it took its toll.
TP: How does your personal background factor into your work today?
LG: It’s at the heart of it. My background affects the stories I pursue, the businesses and people I highlight, the way I travel and the way I report on places. I celebrate all things culture–diversity and traditions–because of my own multicultural upbringing.
I was born in Ethiopia, and both my parents are Ethiopian. But my dad’s job offer as an economist for the African Development Bank took our family to Cote d’Ivoire. I went to a French school from kindergarten until age 14. At home, my parents spoke and taught us Amharic, and it was very much an Ethiopian home.
My father then gave me the option to complete the last years of high school in England. He is a firm believer in education being the way to opportunity and independence–just as it had allowed him to go from a humble village to becoming an economist for Emperor Haile Selassie, who subsidized high school and college (in Ethiopia) and post-graduate education (in the U.S.) for a select few studious kids from my dad’s generation.
As a result of my Ethiopian heritage, and my diverse upbringing, I’m always aware of culture, of identity. I’m aware of the added clarity I have and I am attuned to the people and places I visit. I am conscious of the responsibility I bear for the way I write about them, and the way I advise others to experience travel.
I see my personal background as the key to my achievements, and the rationale behind the passion and fearlessness I feel for my work–it’s what allows me to adapt quickly wherever I go, and live in places without difficulty.
TP: What are you working on now?
LG: I am in the final round of manuscript revisions for my first edition of Moon Dominican Republic guidebook for Moon Travel Guides. It will be available in US bookstores (and online) in October. I’m also working on two exciting projects that I will reveal in the coming months.
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