COCKTAILS With — Lebawit Lily GirmaSunday, October 29, 2017
Lebawit Lily Girma, the award-winning travel writer, attorney and photographer who specialises in the Caribbean region, knows how to stop a room — effortlessly! Girma is as accomplished as she is stunning, having contributed to CNN, AFAR, BBC, Delta Sky and Virgin, to drop a few recognisable names. Plus, she's the 2016 recipient of the JTB and CTO Award for excellence in travel journalism. Naturally, we cop a seat at her table. s urely with seven courses ahead complete with pours from Select Brands and Barton & Guestier, there'll be lots more to glean...
When did the travel bug bite you?
I boarded my first plane at nine months of age, when my parents moved our family from our native Ethiopia over to Côte d'Ivoire, West Africa. I think the travel bug bit me even then! But it was reaffirmed as a teen — I had friends from many cultures at my French school, spoke multiple languages, and I loved looking through my parents' albums with photos from their travels to Brazil, Paris, South Korea. I wanted to do exactly that. So when my parents gave me the option to continue my high school studies abroad, I went for it, and signed up for boarding school in Bournemouth, England. I got on the plane and it was this intoxicating feeling to travel far away.
What is it about travel that continues to fascinate you?
Culture. I am completely fascinated by all elements of culture, and tradition. I call myself a “culture-holic.” It's an amazing experience to land in a new place, immerse in a culture different than your own, and learn about its people — their way of life, their food, beliefs, and struggles. That's ultimately what makes me want to travel. To experience the essence of a place, as authentically as possible. The more I discover and experience other cultures, the more I understand myself and the world, and the more I get to also share about my own background with others. The world is a beautiful place, and most people are ultimately good. That's always a fascinating reminder as well.
What are your travel essentials?
I'm a gadget lover — my iPhone, my mirrorless Sony camera, and chargers never leave my bag. I also carry a small notebook and pen, my favourite moisturiser, a scarf, flip flops, and my favourite lip gloss. There's more, but those are a definite.
What were your first impressions of Kingston?
My first visit to Kingston was 10 years ago, and the second came about five years ago. I remember being in awe of the mountain views as you drive through the city — it reminded me immediately of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I was also impressed with the sights and rich history – Devon House, Emancipation Park, Hope Botanical Gardens, the Bob Marley Museum, and so on. Socially, it was a jolt being in Kingston after a longer stay in the country (Westmoreland). On my second visit, I discovered the Blue Mountains and was completely blown away. With each trip, I find a new pulse to Kingston. It's the kind of place that's so layered, always a little unpredictable, unexpected... in a good way.
What would be your five must-do suggestions for a first-time visitor to Jamaica?
1. Take a break from the beach, and go inland to see Jamaica's real beauty. Hike Mayfield Falls, swim at YS Falls, or go all the way east to Reach Falls, the most spectacular of all, in my opinion.
2. Sample roadside food and snacks along the way — whether it's jerk chicken, soup, porridge, pepper shrimp, or patties.
3. Plan your trip around a major reggae festival like Rebel Salute, or a food event like Negril's jerk festival or the Jamaica Food & Drink Festival.
4. Sign up for a half-day community tour experience to get a solid dose of culture — for example, visit the Rastafari Indigenous Village near Montego Bay, or head into rural Manchester with Countrystyle Community Tours to learn how to make bammy from scratch.
5. Go rafting on the Rio Grande, the Blue Lagoon, or the Martha Brae, or cool off in a river Jamaican-style.
What has surprised you the most about Kingston?
This time around, the amount of traffic! But I've also been pleasantly surprised by the increased variety and quality of restaurants, and wine bars. And I had the most delicious brown stew fish for lunch the other day — the best I've had in a long time — and it was from a food truck called Big Mama's.
You've just finished a plated seven-course, wine- paired feast curated by three highly rated chefs. What was the highlight?
I love spice, so the Scotch Bonnet Roasted Lamb Loin was a treat, followed closely by the Pimento Cured Slow Roasted Duck Breast Salad. But the unexpected high note was the dessert duo by Nadine Hoballah-Burie. The pairing of chocolate, hazelnut, pineapple, and passion fruit was outstanding — and surprisingly light.
How important is food when choosing a destination?
It's more important than ever, with travellers getting pickier about their diets and palates, and with a growing desire to immerse into the destination's culture. What we eat is at the crux of everyday experiences. Food is also what makes a destination stand out from the others. For example, Jamaica versus the Dominican Republic, or Trinidad,. And that's just within the Caribbean.
Food is a conversation starter, it links strangers — visitor and local — and it unites families on vacation. It motivates to travel — many folks dream of trying a particular dish or cuisine before they even step foot in the country of choice. They might read about a dish, or see an image on Instagram — it sparks interest. Who doesn't want to try real jerk in Jamaica? And even though there's much more, that's where it starts.
What would your three suggestions be to position Kingston, Jamaica as a culinary hot spot?
I think Jamaica is already blessed with a unique food identity, just like it is known for reggae. There's a disconnect, however, between that and offering more hands-on, *consistent* experiences to the visitor. People want to touch, make, taste the food and the culture. And they want to know where and how.
My suggestions for Kingston would be to:
1. Be consistent in hosting a major food festival every year, such as the current new Jamaica Food + Drink Festival. Add some hands-on experiences to it that would appeal to visitors, perhaps featuring some of the area's most famous cooks or local restaurants. Mix up the gourmet cuisine days with the Jamaican homestyle cooking. The latter is also what visitors also want to see and know.
2. Aside from food, having a coffee festival would bring out the foodies — the Blue Mountains are right there and what better setting is there?
3. Encourage the development of food tours in Kingston and surrounding areas that would be available to visitors weekly. These are incredibly popular with travellers — they can arrive in a destination and immediately immerse in both food and sights.
If you could travel to six countries on a private jet with six personalities (living or dead) who would they be and why?
His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Prince, Barack Obama, and Martin Luther King, Jr. My parents grew up in the days of H.I.M. Haile Selassie, and what they've told me makes me wish I could have had even one conversation with him. On a whole, these are the personalities that inspire me, and who are/were great storytellers in their own ways.
Where's the one place you have yet to visit?
I have many places I have yet to visit. I'd particularly love to explore more of the African continent – Egypt, Morocco, Cape Verde, and even my native Ethiopia, where I have not returned to in 15 years.
Complete this sentence: Travel has taught me...
• To see the magic in my fellow human beings irrespective of religion, age, or race.
• That material things are immaterial.
• That learning multiple languages when you are young is a huge asset.
• That travel is a privilege and a responsibility to give back.
• To build self-confidence and to adapt quickly to my surroundings.