The Ride of Your Life
"Hey, fatty-fatty," the Jamaican men shout at the American woman walking through their village in the Blue Mountains behind Kingston. You can't argue with their description, she's a bit on the plump side, but it sounds, well, a little forthright. They are lounging on the street corner, watching the parade of tourists preparing for a bike ride. The village is no more than a cluster of wooden shacks, built where the switch-backing mountain road levels for a few hundred yards.
"Oh no," my Jamaican friend, Mark, says before joining the men for a word. Then he says something to the woman and comes back."They don't mean any harm," he explains. "In Jamaica fatty fatty's a compliment. We like our women big. When they hear the American woman don't take it the same, they ask me to apologize."
It was Mark who arranged the bike ride, after I'd seen it mentioned in a guidebook. The description read: "The tour starts 5,060 feet up in the mountains and is all downhill. The exhilarating descent leads through lush rain forest, past coffee plantations and over rickety bridges." It sounded like an amusement ride, and I signed on for the adrenaline rush, but I didn't realize I'd be sharing the descent with about thirty other cyclists, of all shapes and sizes. There were small children and, well, fatty-fattys even before starting I knew it would be a much tamer ride than I'd envisioned.
The Blue Mountains stand in eastern Jamaica and date back 140 million years. Their misty peaks and lush green slopes are watered by the heaviest rainfall in Jamaica, and their forests are home to hummingbirds, butterflies, over 500 flowering plants, 65 species of orchid and a curious trees named Chusquea abietifolia which flowers, simultaneously, only once every 33 years. The next bloom is 2017, if you care to wait.
But more than the birds and the bees and the flowering trees, the Blue Mountains produce the world's finest coffee. Introduced to the island in 1728 by the English Governor, who brought seedlings from Martinique, these hills still supply the Queen of England with her preferred brew through mail order. The Japanese can't get enough of the most expensive coffee in the world. Over 90 percent of the crop is exported to them, and some of the plantations are Japanese-owned. But there is still more than enough to go around in Jamaica, and it doesn't cost a kings ransom.
Meanwhile, 5000 feet up we're collecting our bikes from the back of loader vans. The morning is damp and misty, but there's no trouble seeing the bikes they are bright pink. They're simple but sturdy affairs, as they must be to cope with the primitive roads and the diversity of passengers. Half a dozen young Jamaicans are running around raising and lowering seats, and when I ask if there's a spare pannier for my camera, they find one immediately. These guys believe in service, and soon I meet the reason why.
Becky Lemoine is an demonstrative blonde from New Orleans, and since setting up Blue Mountain Tours five years ago with her husband Paul, they've taken over 20,000 people on their downhill bike rides. "Apart from the occasional scraped knee," she tells me with her gorgeous southern drawl, "we've had no accidents."
Becky and Paul first came to the Blue Mountains twenty years ago. "In New Orleans we lived below sea level, so you can imagine the effect these mountains had on us. We had a family back then, and couldn't just move to Jamaica. But about seven years ago the time was right we sold everything and came over."
My fellow riders and I are rounded up and given the rules of the road. There'll be guides on bikes in front and back, and others cycling up and down the group during the descent. If traffic approaches, they'll blow a whistle and we're to move immediately to the side until it passes. At first I take this as excessive American caution, but Becky explains that Jamaica has the third-worst driving fatality rate in the world, behind India and Ethiopia, and I resolve that when the whistle blows, I'll move aside.
We set off en masse, but before I've worked up a sweat the group has already come to a halt. We pull off at a large clearing where we can see the mountains rising in front of us, hauntingly beautiful with a patches of mist clinging to the vivid greens of coffee-covered slopes. "This here's a wild ginger plant," our guide tells us, pointing. "We have a bird on Jamaica called the Doctor Bird, a hummingbird, and they love the wild ginger plant. If you come here in the morning you'll see them feed."
The guides are young men from Blue Mountain villages who know the landscape and aren't shy about sharing their insights. "If you see something cross the road, it might be a mongoose. They were introduced to the island to kill off the snakes. We still have snakes, and now mongeese are killing our chickens too"
"That's the Blue Mahoe tree on the right, the national tree. It can grow straight up to about 70 feet."
After frequent stops to observe other flora, we dismount to visit the only school in the area, the Cascade Primary and Junior High School. When we arrive the sun is shining and a group of children line up outside. They're immaculately dressed and deadly serious, until suddenly they burst into song swinging and clapping:
"Oh when de Saints (Oh when de Saints), go marchin' in (go marchin' in)..."
When the performance is over we're invited into the school. I wander into the nursery school class, where amazed children gape at the bearded white giant. I squat down and ask their names, but the whispered answers are inaudible. Soon they relax, though, and want to sit on my knee and pull my beard. By the time I've been around the class and thanked the teacher, everyone in my group is back on their bikes and raring to go.
Our lunch is a medley of New Orleans meets Caribbean: Jamaican Jambalaya. Sitting beside Becky, I ask if there's anything I can do to help the school. "You already have," she assures me. "Part of our fee goes to the school for pencils and crayons."
I discover that the tours have helped in another way, too. Before joining the Blue Mountain, one of our gung-ho guides was in trouble with the police for petty thieving. "It's not surprising," said Becky, "there's high unemployment, no social security, a lot of poverty living alongside so much wealth. But he's been doing the tours with us for a couple years now, and hasn't been in trouble since. It's given him responsibility and self-respect, and he loves it"
As we set off for the final leg of the journey I can't help but realize that I love it too. Though hardly the adrenaline rush I expected, the ride has offered a glimpse of the island I wouldn't otherwise have seen. It's was a rewarding ride, and proof, once again, that getting on a bike is the best way to experience a new culture.
Blue Mountain Tours are located at 152 Main Street, Ocho Rios, Jamaica, tel: (809) 974-7075. One-day tours including all transport and lunch cost about US$80, depending on the pick-up point.
Mike Gerrard is a British free-lance writer and regular contributor to GORP. His last story, A Moveable Seat, is about touring Paris by bicycle.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication