An expat in the true sense, Ethiopian by birth, Lebawit has lived on three continents and currently spends her winters in the Caribbean.


Where were you born and in which countries have you lived?

I was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I’ve lived in: Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire (where I spent half of my life), England (where I graduated high school), the US, Jamaica, Grenada and Belize.


Describe your first trip abroad.

My first trip abroad was actually at age 14. My dad gave me the option of either staying at my French school in Abidjan, or going to boarding school in England. My first thought was, Europe?! Sign me up! And so at 14 I boarded the plane solo and headed to Bournemouth, in the south of England. It was a cute little town by the English Channel.


When did you realize that you had the Expat bug? That you wanted to live abroad?

To tell you the truth, I’ve always known it deep down. I was an expat from the moment I was born – since my parents and the whole family left Ethiopia when I was almost one and I pretty much grew up abroad and have lived abroad since then. I was an Ethiopian expat, and then I became a US expat when I started living abroad half the year in the Caribbean. So I’ve had that expat bug forever. And it’s only getting worse.


What has been your most enlightening experience while living abroad?

That’s a tough question. I have two of them. One is when I first went to Ethiopia as an adult, after having been away from my country since birth. That was the most moving experience of my life. I met family members I had only known by phone or photograph. I saw people that looked just like me all around, everywhere – I was overwhelmed, happy overwhelmed. I realized that no matter where I was raised, I am still Ethiopian at heart. I grew up in an Ethiopian home, speak the language and the only missing piece was not having gone home. So it was full circle for me.

The second most enlightening moment was spending five months in Jamaica in the winter of 2008, after quitting my law firm job. Jamaica is where I became a self-taught photographer and where I discovered my purpose. It was also enlightening because I realized how much I craved a connection to where I grew up – West Africa. And Jamaica very much reminded me of that.


What has been your most disheartening experience while living abroad?

Ah! Well, overall I’ve had nothing dramatic happen, thank God. But I remember being super sick with the flu once in Jamaica, for up to a week or so. I was disappointed with a couple of people I thought were friends because they never came to visit or check on me during that time. At the same time I was pleasantly surprised by another good friend who works as a chef – he made me a big batch of chicken foot soup and would bring it to me every day after a long day at work. I guess people are people everywhere – good or bad.


Did you move with your family?

No, I’m single and I don’t have children yet.


Which customs from home do you miss the most?

I miss the food, mostly – and I mean Ethiopian food. In the US we have access to a lot of Ethiopian ingredients so my mom usually cooks Ethiopian once in a while. When I’m away it’s impossible to find some – there is none in the Caribbean or Central America. I can’t think of anything else I miss from the US.


Have you had any problems with language in your travels through the Caribbean?

Most of the places I’ve traveled, English was the official language. However there was also a local “Creole” spoken by most – in Jamaica, Grenada and Belize. Knowing a few words and phrases always helps to immerse better and meet more locals. I learned quite a bit of patois while living in Jamaica and picked up an accent that I didn’t realize I had until I returned home and friends noticed it or someone would ask me if I was from the Caribbean. It’s funny how quickly you can assimilate. I’ve always had an easy time of picking up on languages, as well.


How have you gone about making friends?

I honestly don’t know that I had a particular strategy. I think in both Jamaica and Grenada it happened from staying at a locally-owned hotel or apartment. The owners were often fellow young entrepreneurs and from there I met their friends. Other times it would happen at events. And in Belize, for instance, it happened just from traveling solo and being open to meeting new folks. I just went about doing the things I love, and from there meet folks with similar interests. It’s really not that different than back home in that respect.


Have you connected with the expat community where you live?

Whenever I live abroad – which is mostly during the winter months from December through April – I do mix with both locals and expats. I tend not to really spend all my time with expats only though. I like to be with people of diverse backgrounds and it’s always good to have contact with different groups.


How do you keep in touch with family and friends from home?

These days it’s pretty easy – with Skype, chat or email. In some countries calling is easy as well – like Jamaica with its 1,000 minutes a month calling plan for Canada and the US, for just US $20. You could never finish those minutes in one month if you tried.


Are you working? Is it difficult to find a job?

Yes, I’m currently in Belize working on the next edition of the travel guidebook “Moon Belize” for Moon Handbooks/Avalon Travel, due out in Fall 2013.  I was recently selected as the new author, so it’s great to be working on what I love to do and travel at the same time.  Before this, I freelanced in writing and photography from abroad and pitched articles and photos to US-based outlets while away. I was also commissioned for photo gigs by Caribbean tourism boards, hotels and attractions. In some cases the money came while I was in the US, post-trip, and in other cases — particularly at the beginning of my travels — I would barter for rent or other perks.


Have you found that you have to live on less income? And if so how have you made the adjustment?

I’ve noticed that I spend a lot less abroad and that my expenses are also a lot lower, so that makes living on less income more bearable. When I’m back in the US it’s tougher having less income, but I’ve also eliminated a lot of extra and unnecessary expense so it makes it easier.


What are the opportunities to buy property?

I’ve never looked into buying property abroad.


Where are the best places in the Caribbean to vacation?

That’s a tough question for either Jamaica or Belize. You really can’t go wrong wherever you visit (outside the capital cities). For singles in Jamaica, I would recommend Negril for beach lovers, or Port Antonio for those seeking peace and relaxation and a more authentic stay, and staying in the Blue Mountains for the outdoor types.


What goals have you achieved while living abroad?

My all time achievement was discovering my passion: travel photography and writing. Being commissioned for major shoots by a Caribbean tourism board is another. And learning new languages.


What has living abroad taught you about yourself?

I’ve lived abroad since I was little, so in a sense, it took time for me to even realize how much that shaped who I am today. Overall, it has taught me to embrace life day-to-day, to make the most of my time, to be confident in who I am and to pursue my passions (photography and writing). It has taught me the value of diversity and to appreciate the beauty in other cultures. Thanks to my experiences living abroad, I also adapt to new places without much difficulty.


What would you say to a friend or relative who is considering moving abroad?

Do it! Life is short and there’s no experience more enriching than living abroad and experiencing other cultures.


Would you consider yourself a permanent expatriate?

I’m definitely a permanent expat. Travel has been a part of my life from the moment I was born, and to this day I’m still an expat – I’ve spent half the year abroad for the past three years. Winters away and summers in the US. I guess I didn’t choose to become an expat when I was that young and my parents moved us, but I’m glad they did.


Now that you live abroad in half a year stretches how do you find the transition back to your home base?

Re-entry is always hard, and there’s no other way to get through it than to reconnect with family and friends, and give yourself time to adjust and accept that you have changed. But yes, it’s not my favorite time at all!


How has your life as an expatriate changed who you are?

It has changed me in so many ways. I’m more independent, more confident and less afraid to try out new things or to pursue what I love. It’s shown me – from a young age – that culture is a wonderful thing. It gave me a diverse group of friends, it allowed me to speak four languages and it gave me a thirst for life. Living as an expat has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me.


Do Blacks (or foreigners in general) in your view have any problems with adjustment or discrimination?

Oh, absolutely. It also depends on where they decide to live. Some places are worse than others, as always, but in parts of the Caribbean or Central America as well, there is discrimination. I noticed it a little in Belize, where in certain parts of the country the darker your skin is, the more skeptical people are about you or the less they try and befriend you. It’s considered more “cool” to have white foreign friends. It’s sad but ignorance is everywhere and for the most part, people are decent wherever you go.


Personally I haven’t had much trouble adjusting – whether in Jamaica or Belize. I’ve had reverse discrimination here and there (staff ignoring me versus the white tourist, for instance) which to me is even worse. But those were rare occasions.


Describe the general composition of expat population?

Business owners, retirees and working expats (in the tourism industry).

Living & Spending

I’ve lived in three countries in the past four years so I’ll just pick Jamaica to answer your question.


Monthly rent:

One bedroom for $300 to $400 if you count all utilities.


Cost for meals:

You can get a really good home cooked meal or “boxed lunch” for about $4, sometimes less!


Transportation costs:

$100 Jamaican dollars or $1.25 for a taxi ride (in the same area)


Compared to your home country are most things cheap/same/expensive?

The living is cheaper but if you own a car and a house, it’s expensive to live in the Caribbean. But again, it depends on what your lifestyle is like. I find I spend way less abroad than I do at home.


Recommended monthly living budget:

I would say about US $1,000 for a single person in Negril, Jamaica. You just have to hunt for the right apartment.


How modern are basic amenities/infrastructure?

Pretty modern, though at times there are water shortage issues and the occasional power outage.


Any legal hurdles all foreigners have to face to live there?

Work permits are super hard to get, from what I understand. Business licenses are expensive as well.


Top 3 things you would recommend someone to bring when they come:

Hair products for the ladies, over the counter medicines and enough outfits because clothes are expensive in the Caribbean.

Photo credit: images courtesy of Lebawit Lily Girma

UPDATE:  Lebawit landed a travel guidebook contract in August, for Moon Handbooks and is the author of Moon Belize. She has been in Belize since October 1 updating and rewriting, and staying until March.

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One Response to “Interview: Lebawit Lily Girma”

  1. Dori says:

    very, very interesting!

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