Yo - Bring That Bike Over Here, Mon
By Charles Hansen
Tour Highlights
Country Jamaica
Time of Year November
Tour Hotels
Miles per Day 50-80
Road Conditions Varied
Terrain Flat - Coastal

Moutainous - Interior

Weather Hot & Dry
Riding Days 4 (plus 2 transport days)
Total Miles ~300
Contact email velotrain@peoplepc.com
Donkey Dressed for Tourist Dollars
ne doesn't hear Jamaica mentioned as a prime destination for bicycle touring, but I had been yearning for some 'adventure travel' and thought I'd give it a shot over Thanksgiving week. English, or varying derivations of it, is the native tongue, and the size and geography of the country seemed to offer varied cycling. Sitting in a taxi in the grayish pre-dawn, I wondered what the week ahead might serve me. The driver asked where I was going, and told me he was from Jamaica when I responded. He cautioned me to be careful, saying it was a third world country - which I hadn't fully appreciated.

Monday morning I set out to explore MoBay (Montego Bay to the uninitiated), but quickly realized it would take far less time than I planned. I had been warned about the bad roads and drivers, but I wasn't ready for the urban slums, shantytowns, and mounds of garbage in the streets. Animals wandered free everywhere, from goats browsing in the refuse to young pigs rooting in the grass along the main drag. Horns were used with more abandon than by New York City taxicabs. Street vendors were hawking all sorts of things, and many were insistently trying to get my attention. Emission control is an unknown concept, and the air was thick with exhaust fumes. After a traditional Jamaican breakfast of ackee, salt cod and fried plantain, I set off.

A very narrow road
I opted for a 'B' road to Falmouth, which followed a river up into the hills, hoping to avoid the traffic on the busy coastal route. My reward was almost immediate, with leafy foliage overhead blocking the strong midday sun, and country scenes replacing the urban grime. The only negative was the huge amount of roadside trash, which easily exceeded anything I'd seen in the states. The country people were different too, often greeting me in a friendly manner, or asking where I was from or going to.

I took an unnumbered road that went through Chatham (this area was obviously settled by the same folks who named towns on Cape Cod!), and I became grateful that I had my mountain instead of touring bike. The pavement was very rough, disappearing altogether in some spots, and the need for frequent braking lessened the joy of going downhill. When I joined the coastal route for the last few miles to town, I discovered that there is no such thing as a no-passing zone, and my presence had no effect on cars on the opposite side going around eachother. Even though I'm used to city riding, I've never encountered such a lack of consciousness for cyclists. It was even worse on the narrow, winding mountain roads, where cars and trucks came flying around blind corners.

Shy boy peeking out from fence
The ambitiously named Falmouth Resort was the only place to stay other than a multi-hundred dollar per night all-inclusive real resort, so the choice was obvious. My guide book recommended a seafood restaurant two miles out of town, so after showering I set about looking for a taxi or bus. I had no sooner hit the main road than an insistent young man asked how he could help me. I tried putting him off, and started walking aggressively to the town center. He flagged down some friends in a car, and when I hesitantly asked how much it would be to get to the restaurant, I was quoted $11. When I said that was too much, they started to bargain, but by then I had noticed it was a two-door and I'd have to sit in the back with no easy escape route should I need one. I went back to my room to change to cycling clothes, but was horrified to look up and see this man's face at my (thankfully, barred) bathroom window. He tried to tell me that the manager of the hotel would vouch for him, but by this time I wasn't sure I was willing to leave the relative safety of my room for the rest of the night, even if it meant the second consecutive day without dinner.

Bad Dogs
After waiting ten minutes and imagining all sorts of bad scenarios, I tentatively opened my door, looked around, and hastily made my escape. The bicycle was a definite plus over foot travel, since I could quickly get away from any scene that I didn't like, including all the youths who kept calling on me to "come over here". This became for me the most negative aspect of the trip: the complete lack of respect for privacy and personal rights, the continual attempts to tell me what to do or where to go. Near the end of the trip I was walking through a "crafts market", and one young higgler (hustler) told me to "step on my brakes". Without stopping to consider possible results, I immediately responded, "step on your mouth". Despite the uncertain text of my words, the meaning must have been clear, for I heard his companions laughing at him as I nervously walked away.

The restaurant was outdoors on a pier at a marina, and very relaxing after the tension of getting there. It was called Glistening Waters due to the phosphorescent microbes in the lagoon, which glowed when the water was disturbed. I had an excellent dinner as I watched the sky change from sunset to dusk and then dark. The ride back to my room in the dark felt secure with the "just-in-case" bicycle lights I had brought with me.

Big Sky
Tuesday dawned dry and clear, and I felt anxious to cover the 40+ miles to Ocho Rios. The traffic on the coastal road wasn't so bad here, and the route headed inland from the coast, through some rolling and scenic countryside. Although I generally preferred the country and the mountains to the busyness of the coast and tourist areas, the small enclaves in the hills usually struck me as uglier and more menacing than the cities. Most of the time I was able to cruise through them in a tuck at high speeds, ignoring the obscenities and calls for me to stop. It wasn't until the end of the trip that I felt certain I wouldn't actually be pursued if I didn't stop. Usually I pretended to not understand what was said, wave my hand in a friendly manner and pedal like hell.

"Daisy Chain" at Dunns River Falls in Ocho Rios
I arrived in Ocho Rios at dusk to the sounds of many speakers blaring reggae, crowds of people, and the first traffic jam of the trip. Four to six PM seems to be the busiest time of day, with people going home from work, shopping, or just hanging around the squares and other major public areas. I don't think we're used to people 'hanging around' in Western culture, and I never did quite get used to the mass of humanity at this time of day. It's a little bit like frontier towns in cowboy movies, with all the men hanging out on the main street with nothing to do, but about 20 times more intense. After looking at several hotels, I found a wonderful corner room with wooden louvers serving as windows running all along the external walls. I could see the ocean, especially glorious in the morning and at sunset, and the neighborhood was very quiet compared to the bedlam of the main drag a long block away.

The room had such charm (and I was reluctant to trade the known for the unknown) that I stayed in town for two days instead of the one I had intended. I climbed up the famous Falls of Dunns River, a six-hundred foot stretch of beautiful, climbable rock, with myriad shapes to the falls. This is Jamaica's number one tourist attraction, and it was mobbed from the cruise boats anchored in the harbor for the day. Most people formed huge, slowly-moving daisy chains of from 20-50 people, led by a guide who knew the easiest and dryest way through. I was able to sprint up the other side and avoid them.

A Very British Sign
The bike's handling had felt a bit spongy, especially coming downhill, so I went to a hole-in-the-wall bike shop to get the rear wheel trued. I had checked for a loose quick release or cones, but those seemed in order. The mechanic, Lawrence, immediately spotted what I had missed: the right chainstay had parted from the dropout! I suspected the damage had been done during handling before or after the flight. What really amazed me was that I had been able to ride for two days on rough roads without doing further damage. This reflected well on the strength of the other three tubes holding the rear wheel in place.

I asked if it would still be possible to get it welded that day (it was almost 5 PM), and Lawrence said it would be "no problem", which is a frequent situation in Jamaica. He asked for $50 to get it welded, and I apprehensively asked, "American?" He replied, "No, Jamaican", and my relief was at about the same level as my regret at implying that $50 US was in the realm of feasibility. Since $50J is a bit less than $2 US, I threw in another $10J, requesting that the welder do a good job. He picked up the bike and headed across the street, returned ten minutes later, and said the frame was stronger than new with a bronze weld. He reassembled the derailleur, trued the wheel, and asked for $250J. I thanked him profusely and gave him $300J. I've been the recipient of emergency bike work while on tour several times, but never anything on this scale.

A Man of God
It was Thursday night and I now had a decision to make. I had planned to ride the 40 miles to Spanish Town and then take the bus to Mandeville, a hill town at some 2500' elevation. However, the hotel manager in Ocho Rios said Spanish Town was as dangerous as nearby Kingston, and suggested it might not be a good place to try to get a bus. Folks could tell me to "bring that bike over here", and it might not be so easy to just ride off. I considered staying another night and riding back to MoBay on Saturday. It would mean taking the busy and ugly coastal road all the way, but by now I had the sense that I simply wanted to 'survive' this trip. However, I had come here to see the countryside and in search of adventure, so I somewhat hesitantly committed myself to two long days of mountainous riding.

The steep climb out of Ocho Rios was through Fern Gully, which the guide books praised as a beautiful stretch through a former river bed populated by hundreds of varieties of fern. It did mention that some species had become extinct due to vehicle exhaust. Physically it was lovely, but I had to breath the black exhaust of cars, trucks, and countless tour busses. It reminded me of the Lake District in England, where you're fighting for oxygen on a 20% grade just when the motor vehicles are exhausting the most intense fumes. It would have made a great downhill run - pity that I was headed the other way.

Mountain view on the way to Mandeville
Just before noon I started the second major climb of the day, some 1500' up a winding, narrow road that kept promising false summits. One of them reminded me of the top of Smuggler's Notch in Vermont, with barely a one-lane road and a wonderful sense of isolation. At 2:45, with only 33 miles down on the day and some 40 yet to go, I stopped for food at a small grocery store. I needed something fast, and bought a tin of sardines and inhaled them on the spot. People at the store were amazed that I was headed to Mandeville and said I'd never make it that day. Fueled by the rest, food, and challenge ahead, I almost doubled my MPH from the first half of the day. Before the final gruelling climb to Mandeville, I hit a long, straight downhill where I topped out at 45 MPH. The speed and easy miles were tempered by the knowledge that I would have to regain each of those feet in elevation I was so quickly dropping. The last half hour I rode in complete darkness. I arrived at my hotel and it provided the calm I had been yearning for, as well as the best dinner of the trip.

Bamboo Valley
I had almost as long a ride on Saturday, but this time I would be dropping down to sea level from the mountains. After a few miles of climbing I had 8 fun miles of downhill, bringing me to a wide coastal plain. I rode several delightful miles through Bamboo Avenue, a lovely stretch with bamboo trees arcing gracefully over the road from both sides. In the middle I stopped to drink the "water" of a freshly opened coconut. This isn't the same as the milk of the brown, hairy coconuts we know. Riding on my fat, this and a mango were all I consumed that day except for O.J. and water.

After a long and exhausting afternoon of climbing over the central ridge, I finally came to what I knew had to be the last summit, but the long descent turned out to be slower and far less fun than I expected, with a bumpy, twisting road that mandated almost constant braking. As I narrowly skirted pothole after bump, I was amazed that my bald front tire hadn't had a flat the whole trip. I reached the bottom at dusk and mounted my lights for the final ten miles into MoBay.

Honey Shop
I pulled in at my hotel and semi-consciously laid down on the bed, knowing I was about to miss dinner again (on a lunchless day!) and would probably wake up hungry and restive at midnight, but I let it go. I didn't even take the swim in the pool I had contemplated all day while climbing. Sunday morning I rode around MoBay again, and liked it better, although there are few places I don't prefer on a Sunday morning. I spoke with a Jamaican man about my experiences of the past week, and said I wouldn't return to Jamaica. He told me to just ignore all the people who tried to tell me what to do, but I said it isn't that easy when it seems like all day, every day. However, I did see some wonderful scenery and had two memorable days of hard cycling to take away with me. On the flight home I pondered the extent of my taste for adventure travel, wondering if this one trip would satiate it.

© 2000 Charles River Wheelmen, Inc. All rights reserved. Revised: Monday, August 28, 2000