Exclusive: Riding the Rhythms of Jamaica’s High Country
Part 5: Exodus
by Don Stefanovich
As we stumbled off the bus on a mountain-pass near a crumbling military outpost on our sixth and final day, I wasn’t entirely sure I was capable of riding a bike. We had spent two full days shuttling and shredding Jurassic Bike Park, and the second had ended in a rum-soaked reggae concert and dance party. We didn’t pile into the backs of pickups and box trucks for a dusty shuttle ride back to the Scorpio Inn—our Blue Mountain base—until the wee hours of morning. Now, mere hours later, I had a 5,000-foot descent into Kingston in front of me, and my breakfast seemed to be trying its best to start a slam-pit with the vestiges of the previous night in my stomach. But this was my last chance to ride a mountain bike in Jamaica, and I wasn’t about to tap out.
Rocky fireroad was soon distilled into a sublimely steep, sinewy strip through mountain villages. Suddenly, I felt better. Our last back-alley rally was punctuated only by short beer breaks and one extended uphill grind to reach a connecting trailhead. “She riiide in di skyyy!” proclaimed a local when Katie came ripping out of a particularly tight, rocky section that conveniently delivered us to a corner pub. By the time we spilled into Kingston, all but the ride itself had been forgotten. The symphony of freehubs rivaled the sound of traffic as we rolled through the island’s urban center in the red glow of the sinking sun.
Back on the other side of the island in Ocho Rios that night, I walked back to our hotel alone from John Crow’s Tavern, the site of both our welcome and send-off parties. Memories of the week and the warmth of the rum washed over me. I was humbled by the hospitality we had been shown by complete strangers—people who had little to give, but gave it freely. I was going to miss this place. I was going to miss these people. Just as I attempted to grasp the trusting, cordial nature of the culture in which I had spent the week immersed, a deep voice ripped me from my premature nostalgia.
“You ‘ave any illegal substance, mon?” I raised my head to see a police car rolling beside me. There had been no lights or siren. “I’m sorry, can I help you?” I stuttered, unsure I had heard correctly. The officers exchanged nervous glances, seemingly unsure of their own actions. “I’m ‘a need ta search ya person,” came the reply in a mumbled, almost hushed tone. All the horror stories I had heard of corrupt police, bribes, planted evidence and foreign prisons flashed through my mind. I took a quick mental inventory of my wallet and pockets. I had no contraband, nothing of value and little cash.
“You heading back?” asked a confident voice behind me. It was Fuzzy, a member of our group and a festival veteran since the Negril days. “Let’s go.” He didn’t have to tell me twice. I nodded to the officers, bid them a good evening and followed Fuzzy. The patrol car slowly rolled away.
“It is definitely a conundrum. Inside a riddle. Wrapped in a paradox,” Jon had told me that first night at Conscious Corner as he attempted to explain the passionate culture of his country despite seemingly impoverished conditions. “Jamaicans love Jamaica and can’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to live here. But at the same time, they hate the way Jamaica is: corrupt, crime-ridden. Conversely, it routinely rates as one of the happiest countries on the planet. How can that be explained?”
I was glad to have narrowly avoided gaining any further insight on the former, but after spending a week outside the typical tourist bubbles, immersed in the island and its unfiltered culture, interacting with its people, the latter was no mystery to me.
The next morning en route back to the airport in Montego Bay, I was wedged in with peeling, round tourists who at different stops, waddled out of all-inclusive bubbles where they had remained for the duration of their stay and onto the bus. Behind me, a plump woman squawked about the wonderful wedding her daughter had on the sand in their bubble. They had brought their own DJ so that they could party to nothing but country-western music and had gotten sloshed on margaritas. Someone asked if they left the hotel at all. “Oh, heavens no!” she replied, laughing.
I stared out the window at the blur of color that was the ramshackle huts and peeling boats of the beaches and fishing villages dotting the stretches of coast between the monolithic resorts. A small boy with bare feet stood at the end of a dirt road, straddling a bike. He waved as we rolled by. I smiled, proud to be a two-wheeled tourist.