This week’s Friday Focus visits with Kristi Keller, a Calgary native who fell in love with Jamaica and has visited the island about twenty times since 2003. Kristi has also spent months at a time in Jamaica.
1. Tell us about yourself.
I was born and raised in Calgary, Canada. As a youth I was a dancer and a country girl, spending most of my time riding my horse. As an adult I spent my time being a single mom and working for a communications company, and then for the municipal government. My corporate time totaled roughly 15 years. Life was pretty normal and uneventful and I just blended in….until I started traveling.
2. What brought you to Jamaica?
In 2003 I won a trip to Jamaica through a local radio station here in Calgary. Before that I had never considered traveling abroad at all. Travel was not on my radar other than visiting family in the USA.
3. What were your first impressions of the country and how did those match up with what you knew or had heard from others?
Since I had never experienced a foreign country or a different culture EVERYTHING about Jamaica struck me from the very first minute on the ground. Landing at a tiny airport (back then), stepping off the plane onto the runway, the amazing greenery and palm trees everywhere I looked, and the heat. In that first week on the island I was part of an organized group and had to stay with them and participate in the excursions they took us on, but I distinctly remember wanting to get the hell off of that bus and go explore! I wanted to know everything and everyone! From that first trip I knew that I hadn’t even seen or learned a fraction of what Jamaica is all about. Staying in resorts and spending time with an organized tour group doesn’t let you learn anything except how to eat, drink and shop a lot.
4. What made you return, how many times have you been back and how long, on average, do you stay?
I returned to Jamaica 2 months after my initial trip and the reason I went back so soon was because I received an offer I couldn’t refuse by a Jamaican police officer I briefly met. He said that if I ever want to come back to Jamaica he would show me what the island was REALLY about. It was a done deal and I went back, stayed at a home in the countryside and toured the entire western half of the island. I went to places that tourists don’t normally go, shared a yard with a family of donkeys, met people I would have never met if I had been staying in a hotel, and just absolutely fell in love with the island.
I’ve been to Jamaica twenty times (and counting) since 2003. My trips evolved from 7 days, to 10, then to 14 and eventually I quit my job and left Canada for months to stay in Jamaica. I’ve done that twice now.
5. What does your family think of your visits?
For that second trip where I flew back to hang out with a complete stranger, my mother thought I was on crack. She was very worried about my safety, knowing that Jamaica has a bad/dangerous reputation. Now, after all these years and trips I think my family just doesn’t care anymore. My mother wonders how I can just keep going back to the same place every single time and wonders why I don’t want to discover something new. But what she doesn’t understand is that every single trip IS new. If you do Jamaica the way I do Jamaica there is no sameness in any trip. I drive around the island solo and discover something new every trip. I stay in local guest houses (not hotels), experience new things to do, meet new people and learn something new every single time.
6. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself since you’ve been here?
I think the most surprising thing I learned about myself, without a doubt, is that I was fearless enough to leave security behind and just do it. I’ve quit two great careers now in exchange for trying to make a life less ordinary. I’m in love with that island and the pull is magnetic so I knew I would regret it so much more if I never took the leap and tried it. Now that I have left corporate life (and stayed away from it for more than 2 years) I know I absolutely CAN live a life that I dictate rather than one that society dictates.
7. Tell us a favorite Jamaica story
I think one of my personal favorite stories in my years of traveling to Jamaica is about a homeless guy I met whose hands were severely disfigured by a car accident. Before being disfigured and becoming homeless he was a tattoo artist by trade. Something drew me to this guy and I left the island but couldn’t stop thinking of him. So I endeavored to raise money through my Jamaica blog for a surgery he needed to fix his hands, even though I had no idea if I would ever see him again. My readers were amazing and I raised close to $1000. The next time I returned to Jamaica I hit the streets asking around if anyone had seen this guy and for days I had no luck, until one day I ran into a guy handing out religious pamphlets in the street. I asked him if he knew of the man I spoke of and indeed he did. He and I exchanged numbers and parted company. It didn’t take long at all to be reunited with the homeless guy and I told him what I had been doing to raise money for him. He was beyond speechless. To make a long story a little shorter, when I returned home after that trip I arranged to send the money to him on blind faith that he would do what he should do with it – the surgery – and then I lost track of him for almost 2 years. I had no way of knowing what ever became of him until again, fate brought us back together and we randomly met up again. I was absolutely amazed to see that his hands were fixed and he was pursuing his tattoo artistry career again. Coincidentally, the big tattoo I have sprawled across my back was done by him in 2011. It is the perfect “full circle” story about how random people can affect the lives of others.
8. Name 5 of your favorite places to go or things to do.
Spanish Town is one of my favorite places to visit. There is so much history there.
A place called Blue Hole in St Ann. It’s a giant hidden waterfall with icy cold waters and an amazing piece of nature to see and swim in.
Port Royal, which used to be known as the wickedest city on earth. ALL the coolest Caribbean pirate history exists there and the ruins are awesome to learn about.
Ocho Rios. That’s the town where my apartment was when I left Canada and I will always hold the town and my neighbors there close to my heart. It is home to me.
My new favorite is Black River, St Elizabeth. It’s such a slow, un-touristy part of the island. I love the pace and the quaintness of that town and I think I would consider living there in the future.
9. What do you miss most about home?
When I’m not home the thing I miss the most is my family. My son in particular. Even though he’s grown up and on his own, he and I are super close and he’s my best friend. So when I’m gone I really miss the in-person connection I have with him.
10.What advice do you have for friends/family who want to visit or stay long-term like you have?
To those who want to visit I recommend going with an open mind and not listening to what “they” say about staying locked inside a resort. Jamaica is not as bad as it is portrayed (for tourists) and you really need to get out there and meet the people and learn something about the country you’re visiting. If you don’t do that, you might as well go to any country because all resorts are the same.
To those who want to stay long term – DO YOUR RESEARCH! Moving to Jamaica isn’t like moving to a tropical paradise. Jamaica is gritty and very real and you are NOT ready to move there after one or two trips, as romantic as the place might feel. Real life there is frustratingly slow and it’s difficult to make money there unless you already have money in the bank. I went as a single female so that in itself was difficult because every man there sees me as some kind of opportunity and can’t believe for a minute that I don’t have a Jamaican boyfriend or don’t want one. Go with an open mind but also with open eyes (especially if you DO have a Jamaican boyfriend). Not all is what it seems and if you’re planning to live in a regular community with the locals be prepared to learn their ways. Even though you’re used to your own ways of living, many of those ways do not apply in Jamaica.
Kristi Keller is from Calgary, Canada and is one of the many who has joined the worldwide movement of people who have left their corporate careers behind to pursue a life of frivolity on the run. She’s been an award winning Jamaica blogger since 2009, a contributing writer for the JHTA’s Our Jamaica magazine, and most recently started her new career as an independent travel agent. Kristi’s blogs at Jamaicamyway.com.
Photos courtesy of Kristi Keller.