Those Pristine Empty Beaches

For those in the northern hemisphere, it is summer, and hence vacation time—time to think about heading to the beach. But many of our beaches are cold, or polluted, or filled with sharp rocks or slimy algae. Not at all the picture of “beach” that many of us hold in our minds. Many people long for the beaches of the Caribbean, or perhaps Hawaii, imagining pristine, empty beaches shaded by the occasional coconut palm.

A typical tourist vision of a Caribbean beach–photograph by Bob Friel.

But this image of the beach is a false (or at least misleading) one, and ultimately dangerous. It perpetuates myths that go back to the Age of Exploration and the Age of Empire, that describe the world as empty and just waiting for Europeans (and Americans) to come and use it up. The flora and fauna of these islands, under this mindset, is merely decoration; and the people who live there are part of the scenery at best and completely invisible at worst. For years, children in Europe and America were taught these myths in school textbooks. M. Synge’s The Story of the World, a popular geography text from the early 20th century, describes the exploration of the Caribbean by Columbus and his crew in these words: “From island to island they cruised, discovering many things of which no man had dreamt before” (volume II: 158, emphasis mine). This passage comes after Columbus’s initial encounter with the “natives” who, based on the logic of the quotation, are non-human.

This kind of logic allows Europeans and Americans to continue to think it is acceptable to ignore the humans and the environment of the tropical world. But this can lead to a perpetuation of racist attitudes, to poverty for the residents and to the ultimate destruction of the very environment that Europeans and Americans come to see. Many people have written about the impact of tourism on the tropical world (just put “tourism and colonialism” into your search engine), and generally, it’s a negative impact.

However, some studies indicate that knowledge about a place—its people, its place in the economic system, and its environment—can make a huge difference in changing the negative to a positive. One World Bank study by John Dixon et al, argues that “The severity of the impact of environmental problems on the tourism sector depends crucially on what potential visitors know about the extent and nature of these problems” (you can read this study here: http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2001/03/1570699/tourism-environment-caribbean-economic-framework). If this is true, then it is important that we change the attitudes about tropical beaches. Two important ideas should be taught to all children: beaches are not empty, and your enjoyment of those beaches depends on the people who live near them.

If you pay attention, no beach is empty.

If you pay attention, no beach is empty.

And Caribbean children have knowledge to share. Did you know what a zandoli is?

And Caribbean children have knowledge to share. Did you know what a zandoli is?

A good book to teach children that beaches are not empty is Dawn Allette’s Caribbean Animals (Tamarind, 2004). This is an alphabet book listing animals found in the Caribbean, illustrated by Alan Baker. The pictures show beautiful beaches, but they aren’t empty: they are alive with plants, trees, people and animals, both in and out of the sea. The book uses a young Caribbean boy as guide through the animal alphabet; he is not a tourist out to escape the world, but a junior scientist examining the world through binoculars and quiet observation. By presenting the book through his eyes, the authors give value to both the environment and the human residents, requiring the reader to see more than just an empty beach.

The sun, sand, and sea aren't as nice when you are sitting on a tin roof waiting for you economic migrant mother.

The sun, sand, and sea aren’t as nice when you are sitting on a tin roof waiting for you economic migrant mother.

It is much more difficult to find children’s books that discuss the ways that people who live on islands support and are impacted by the tourist industry. Picture geographies often do not discuss poverty, or the ways that the tourism industry can perpetuate it. Even when the difference between the tourist and the native is hinted at, the reference is often oblique, as in John and Penny Hubley’s A Family in Jamaica (Lerner, 1985). This book shows the poverty of Dorothy’s family in the photographic illustrations, but refrains from directly alluding to the lopsided relationship between tourists and natives: “Many people from other countries come to Jamaica on vacation. They like the sunshine, the beautiful beaches, and the mountains. Most tourists stay in the big hotels near the Caribbean Sea. Many Jamaicans work in the offices, kitchens, and restaurants of these hotels” (24-25). The passage, although making visible the people who work for the benefit of tourists, leaves the impression that the sunshine, beautiful beaches, and mountains—not to mention the big hotels—exist for the benefit of foreigners only. Perhaps a better way to teach children the continuing impact of economic colonialism on the tropical world is by looking at picture books where the child character loses his parent due to lack of economic opportunity outside of Europe and America. Both Regina Hanson’s The Tangerine Tree (Clarion, 1995) and Alex Godard’s Mama, Across the Sea (Henry Holt, 2000) depict children whose parents have left their island for greater economic opportunities. The beach in these books is still as beautiful, but it is a place to watch in physical discomfort for the return of a parent: “The tin roof Cecile sat on was burning hot, but she didn’t care. She was waiting for her mother” (Mama, Across the Sea n.p.). The sights and sounds of the Caribbean are not relaxing for Ida in The Tangerine Tree either: “Tears stung Ida’s eyes as she thought about losing Papa. . . . Today the songs of insects did not comfort her. Nor did the scent of the tangerine leaves she had bruised, nor the bright fruit that seemed to set the tree ablaze. She pressed her cheek to the scratchy bark and sobbed” (n.p.). Europeans and Americans have helped create a world where people in other places—generally people of color—remain in poverty or struggle to survive while tourists “relax” in their homelands without ever truly seeing or understanding. Changing this paradigm has to start with showing child readers what “empty” beaches truly contain.

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