‘Hey, fatty-fatty bum-bum,’ the Jamaican guy yelled at the American lady walking through his village high up in the Blue Mountains behind Kingston. You couldn’t argue with the description, but, unlike the lady herself, it was a little blunt.
‘Oh no,’ my Jamaican friend Mark said to me, going over to have a word. He then spoke quietly with the woman, and came back. ‘They didn’t mean any harm,’ he said. ‘In Jamaica it’s a compliment to call a woman fatty‑fatty. We like our women big. I explained to them that she’s American and it’s different in America. They were embarrassed. They’d no idea, so asked me to apologise to her. I explained to the woman what it was all about. She was OK about it.’
It was Mark who had fixed up the Bike Ride for me, after I’d seen it mentioned in a guidebook: ‘The tour starts 5060 feet up in the mountains and is all downhill. The exhilarating descent leads through lush rain forest, past coffee plantations and over rickety bridges.’ That’s for me, I’d thought: downhill all the way! I was sharing the descent with about thirty other cyclists, of all shapes and sizes, from kids the size of a bike pump to, yes, fatty-fatties.
The Blue Mountains in eastern Jamaica date back 140 million years, the oldest rocks on the island. Their misty peaks and lush green slopes are watered by the heaviest rainfall in Jamaica, and their forests are home to hummingbirds and butterflies, over 500 flowering plants, 65 species of orchid and the curious trees named Chusquea abietifolia, all of which flower simultaneously once every 33 years: the next one’s due in 2017, if you can bear the wait.
But more than the birds and the bees and the flowering trees, the Blue Mountains produce the world’s best coffee. The Queen has a direct mail order for it from the Old Tavern Estate, considered the best of the best. The Japanese can’t get enough (they take 90% of the crop) and some of the rest finds its way to places like Betty’s in Harrogate, where they serve it with Yorkshire Fat Rascals – or maybe they should rename them Fatty-Fatty Rascals.
Meanwhile, 5000 feet up we’re collecting our bikes from the back of the loader vans. The morning’s damp and misty, but there’s no trouble seeing the bikes, which are bright pink. They’re simple but sturdy affairs, as they have to be to cope with some of the people who are planning to ride them, who have mostly been picked up in vans from Ocho Rios and other northern coastal resorts. Half a dozen young Jamaicans are running round raising and lowering saddles, and when I ask if there’s a spare pannier for my camera, someone fetches one at once. These guys are well-trained, and soon I meet the reason why.
Becky Lemoine is an enthusiastic blonde from New Orleans who set up Blue Mountain Tours in 1990 with her husband Paul. They first came to the Blue Mountains in the 1970s. ‘In New Orleans,’ Becky said, ‘we lived somewhere that was below sea level, so you can imagine the effect these mountains had on us. But we had a family back then, and we couldn’t just move to Jamaica. Paul’s a builder and I had a beauty salon, though we’ve also run a bike shop. But when the time was right, we upped and sold everything and came over here.’
We’re rounded up and given the rules of the road. There’ll be guys on bikes at front and back, and others cycling up and down the group the whole time. If any traffic approaches, they’ll blow a whistle and we’re to get into the side and wait till it’s gone. At first I think this is just excessive American caution, but then I remember that Jamaica has the third worst record in the world for death on the roads, so when the whistle blows, I get into the side.
First official stop is a large clearing on a corner, where the mountains stretch out around us, hauntingly beautiful with a few patches of mist in among the vivid green coffee-covered slopes. ‘This here’s a wild ginger plant,’ our guide tells us, ‘and if I break off one of the flowers and you sniff it, you’ll know it. Now we have a bird on Jamaica called the Doctor Bird, which is a hummingbird and it’s our national bird. They love the wild ginger plant, and if you come up here in the early morning you can see them feeding. We’re going to head right off now, folks, let’s go…. yee-hah!’
I could have done without the yee-hahs, but that was a minor quibble for what was a well-organised ride through some of the most stunning scenery in the Caribbean. And the guides, being young lads from the Blue Mountain villages, knew their stuff. ‘That’s the Blue Mahoe tree on the right, which is the national tree. It’s a hibiscus, and the trunk can grow dead straight up to about 70 feet. OK, let’s go, guys!’
After stops to look at coffee (above) and other plants, and a break in the fatty-fatty village, we pull over to visit the only school in the region, the Cascade Primary and Junior High School. As we arrive the sun is shining and a group of children is lined up outside. They’re immaculately dressed but deadly serious, till they burst into song and swing and clap: Oh when de Saints (Oh when de Saints), go marchin’ in (go marchin’ in)… More folk songs and spirituals follow, and when the performance is over we’re encouraged to take a look inside the school.
I wander into the infants class, where pop-eyes peer at the strange bearded white giant. I squat down and ask shy children their names, their whispered answers inaudible. But soon they relax and want to sit on my knee and pull my beard. They cuddle and climb all over me, and by the time I’ve been round the class and thanked the teacher, I discover I’m the last to leave and everyone else is saddled up and, yee-hah, raring to go.
New Orleans meets the Caribbean for a Jamaican Jambalaya lunch. I ask Becky if we could do something to help the school. ‘You already are,’ she told me. ‘Part of the tour price goes to the school, for pencils and crayons and stuff.’
I also discover that the tours help in another way. One of our yee-hah guides is a local boy, who had been 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 a lot of wealth. He’s been doing the tours with us a few years now, and hasn’t been in trouble since. It’s given him responsibility and self‑respect. He loves it.’
And for that I can forgive them any number of yee-hahs. Biking in the Blue Mountains may not provide an adrenalin rush, but it provides more than a few insights into real Jamaican life. And some exercise for fatty-fatty bum-bums.
Blue Mountain Bike Tours: www.bmtoursja.com