Why is this interesting? - The Monday Media Diet with Lebawit "Lily" Girma

On reporting, Ethiopia, and the Carribean

Lebawit “Lily” Girma (LG) is a reporter covering global tourism for the global travel and business site Skift. She’s a former Skadden Arps energy lawyer who moved full-time to writing and journalism, living a nomadic life. We’re pleased to have her on the page this morning. Oh, and don’t miss the WITI gift guide edition if you missed it on Friday, it is awesome. -Colin (CJN)

Tell us about yourself.

I am currently Global tourism reporter for Skift, where I started a few weeks ago. I’m a third culture, Ethiopian-born, and award-winning writer, photographer, and recent founder of See the Caribbean, a first-ever traveler resource and platform promoting sustainable travel to the region. Ten years ago I ditched my legal career for the road and discovered my passion for storytelling, combined with travel. I launched a blog, Sunshine and Stilettos, and got my first gig with the Belize Tourism Board as an in-house blogger and photographer, and that launched my consumer-facing travel writing career. I went on to write for multiple publications over the years as well as guidebooks for US publishers, and producing content for tourism boards as well as leading visitor magazines. 

Issues of identity and culture are my deep loves. I was born in Ethiopia but raised in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. So growing up, it was French at school and all things Ethiopian at home. My dad would always tease me, asking “so where are you really from, Lily?” because I wasn’t the typical Ethiopian and because I preferred eating rice with a fork than eating “injera” and spicy “wot” with my fingers (that has since changed, thank goodness). By the way, that was actually the topic of my law school entry essay for UVA, how I struggled with my third culture identity yet realized it was my strength. My parents grew up in the times of Emperor Haile Selassie — so I grew up listening to incredible stories — and they were also major global travelers so I’m sure that’s where I got my wanderlust. That and studying abroad — England for the last years of high school and from there onto the United States for college and law school. 

I was a practicing lawyer for seven years, in the Energy department of Skadden– the kicker is that I started my first job as a lawyer right after September 11, when economies and travel also tanked. So yeah, it takes a lot to make me feel defeated or make me give up. I moved to the Caribbean region as a digital nomad starting in late 2008, and haven’t left since — I’ve lived in Jamaica, Belize, Grenada, and then the Dominican Republic, where I met my partner and settled. I should have warned you that it’s a long one when people ask me this question — where are you from and tell us about yourself!  

Describe your media diet. 

It’s quite varied — from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal (I prefer the latter), BBC for World News and Africa News, TIME and NPR, for starters. I have my Google alerts set up for topics that interest me and I go through those without fail; they often point me to all types of media sources I might not have immediately checked. Lately, I’ve also added LinkedIn’s Daily Rundown, a nifty list of the most important news of the day.  I also read local news a lot – the local specific destination online outlets – because I find that a lot of times those stories don’t make the mainstream media as much. I save long reads that interest me for the evening or for weekends; I love to bookmark a ton of stuff that catches my eye, even if I don’t have time to read it right away.

What’s the last great book you read?

The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod. It was right after borders had begun shutting down around the world, and I ended up being stuck in the US – though at my parents’ house – as I was making my way back from Ethiopia to the Dominican Republic. I had three months with my parents, and during that time a colleague and dear friend of mine recommended The Miracle Morning because I was feeling a bit lost like most of us, and looking to redirect my next steps until I could get home to my partner and my life in DR. The book dives into Elrod’s life and challenges and then sets forth a formula for establishing self-care and success through a morning routine with 6 clear steps: Silence or prayer, Affirmations, Visualization, Exercise, Reading, and Scribing/Journaling.  Sounds very woo woo but I’ll tell you: it’s 100 percent transformative. It also says you should get up at 5 am in the morning. So it was a transition but when I stuck to it, after about a month even, I started seeing the shift and it was incredible. I had some of my most innovative ideas during this time, when the whole world was shut down, doing my miracle morning routines. I highly recommend it.

What are you reading now?

I’m actually in between books – I just finished “La Presencia Negra en Santo Domingo” by Carlos Andujar or “The Black presence in Santo Domingo” by a well known Dominican author. A fascinating book on the history of slavery and sugar cane mills established by Spanish colonialists in the Dominican Republic, as well as a look at rebellions and other interesting facts. I read it for a piece I was working on, but I wish I’d read it much sooner. My goal is to start “Think like a Monk” by Jay Shetty this week. 

What’s your reading strategy when you pick up a print copy of your favorite publication?

I immediately find the table of contents, then I flip to the pieces that I’m interested in. I’m not one to flip page by page from start to finish. Also, I can’t remember the last time I held a print copy of a magazine; where I am in the Caribbean we don’t have easy access to that sort of thing, and I tend to grab publications when I’m passing through airports in the US (pre-Covid).

Who should everyone be reading that they’re not?

I was a double language and literature major, so I feel there are a lot of authors from the Americas or moved to the USA but come from immigrant families, that people should be reading. One of them is Maryse Condé, who is from the Guadeloupe Islands and whose novels focus on the African Diaspora, with insights into their colonialism and slavery past. Her novel Ségou, while not new, is a must-read. Another I absolutely love is Jumpha Lahiri. Interpreter of Maladies never gets old, nor does The Namesake.

What is the best non-famous app you love on your phone? 

It’s famous among influencers and Instagrammers, but I’m not sure it is with “regular” folks: InShot. I can resize or get creative with images for IG – stories or posts – and create videos quickly on my iPhone, with lots of effects, music, and formatting options. Another is ThinkUp, where you can record your daily affirmations (if you’re into that; works for me) and then listen to them every morning or anytime to get motivated and stay on goal.

Plane or train?

Pre-Covid, I loved both. There’s something about taking the train that’s so much more relaxing. I’ve taken the train between Washington DC and New York numerous times over the years, and also between Brussels and Paris, and the Eurostar from Paris to London, which was an incredible experience. The service was better on those European trains – hello, free champagne, and wine – than on the American ones. Still, there’s also this amazing feeling when you’re boarding a plane, knowing you’re heading somewhere. I really miss that.

What is one place everyone should visit? 

The Simien Mountains in Ethiopia. Ethiopia itself is a place everyone should visit, just because you won’t find any other place remotely like it, and the culture is so vivid, so traditional still. If you love the kind of travel that shakes every one of your five senses, Ethiopia is it. The Simien Mountains is where you’ll feel like you’ve reached the roof of Africa, they call it that too I think. This mountain range, which is part of the highlands of Ethiopia, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, over 10,000 feet above sea level and ranks among the highest mountain ranges in Africa. I was able to hike there and camp overnight in March, just before the global Covid shutdown. I’ll never forget the sunset I got to see and the moon rising – within 30 minutes one from the other. It’s just incredible being up there, hiking along the escarpments and seeing waterfalls and breathtaking deep gorges, as well as wildlife like the Gelada baboons, which are endemic to Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian wolf which I wasn't lucky enough to see. What I remember the most – the air was so incredibly fresh and pure. I did get dizzy and short of breath at times but it was all worth it. Next time I hope to stay several nights to hike deeper into the mountains, where they say it gets even more spectacular.

Tell us the story of a rabbit hole you fell deep into. 

I feel like that happens with every story I research and write for work! I’m big on researching and making sure I’ve analyzed a topic from various angles, which can lead me into deep rabbit holes. Recently I wrote two stories about cruise tourism and boy, that was one big eye-opener. I started reading a book about how cruises operate in the Caribbean, about their flags of convenience, and how they’re exempt from any specific labor laws. From there it was finding out about their waste dumping practices and recent cases against cruise lines, and then talking to conservationists and activists about some of the myths surrounding cruise lines about how they contribute to local economies… it just went on and on! A topic that will leave you wondering how on earth some things never change and are just allowed to go on despite the fact that it’s terrible for the environment and for locals in tourism destinations. Those kinds of topics that involve looking at social impact, and learning about the abusive side of tourism when unchecked – I’m happy to go down that rabbit hole every time. I guess once a lawyer, always a lawyer.

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Lily (LG)

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