“To me the Caribbean was a bag of clichés of rasta locked, ganja smoking, reggae listening chillers who live on palm filled islands surrounded by clear blue water whilst swigging rum. I had no idea how right I was.” — Caribbean Paradise: Cuba Libres, coconuts and confirming clichés on Little Corn
I cringe almost every time I read a travel article about the Caribbean. Maybe it’s because my family’s Jamaican, maybe it’s because I lived in Martinique… but every time I see writers waxing lyrical about “exotic foods,” “sun-drenched shores,” and “barefoot Rastafarians” I throw shade at my computer screen. Why do so many articles make it seem like the only thing to do in the Caribbean is go to the beach, smoke ganja, and eat the “hottest jerk ever”? And why is it that people who travel the Caribbean are taken less seriously as ‘travellers’ than people who backpack Europe or rough it in Southeast Asia? There’s more to this diverse and culturally pluralistic region than cruises and packaged vacations.
Before we get started, I have a few reading notes:
1) If it appears in “quotation marks“ then I actually read that exact phrase somewhere. Shame.
2) A bit of reflexivity: I’ve participated in publishing some of these Caribbean travel writing clichés. A girl’s got bills to pay and sometimes you just have to give the public(ation) what they want. That said, I always make a conscious effort to illustrate that the countries I write about are anything but one-dimensional (and never a “playground of the rich and famous” 🙄).
Why are people still using this word? ‘Exotic’ means very different, strange, or unusual; not living or growing naturally in a particular area; from another part of the world. When the word is used to describe a person (especially women), food, events, or costumes it is racist.
To refer to something as exotic is to Other it — that is, to measure it against ‘Western’ and white standards and mark it as marginal. Using it in writing implies there is one ‘normal’ way of being in the world and what you have encountered does not live up to it.
See also: Pristine; Best-Kept Secret
Were you actually in the country you’re writing about? This is just plain lazy writing.
Did you miss the little hints that the ‘white sand, turquoise sea idyll’ you loved so much was formed under regimes of slavery, colonialism, and revolution? Do you know what neocolonialism is? Were you completely unaware of the people living in poverty, the ethnic conflicts, threats of violence, and lack of infrastructure? What about the soil and beach erosion, deforestation, and reef destruction? There is no “unspoiled” Caribbean, so stop looking for it or acting like you found it (see Columbusing for details).
Empty words like these are damaging because they mask some of the very real problems that affect countries in the Caribbean. I’m not plight writing, or trying to say that you should feel sorry for people in the Caribbean. Resistance and resilience abound. What I’m saying is that failing to acknowledge these issues is erasure of historical and current systems of oppression that are hindering development.
Although Grenada is an English-speaking country, I learned a few new terms while living there. The first and most important of these is liming. I’ve asked many people to describe exactly what liming is and I always get a different response. As far as I can tell, the best approximate definition of liming is the art of doing nothing. — The Globe and Mail
It may seem like a harmless stereotype to talk about how laid back everyone (everyone, really?) is in the Caribbean, but this kind of cliché is condescending. On top of that, it perpetuates a particularly limiting stereotype — the lazy, unproductive island dweller — that affects every person of Caribbean heritage.
The “Friendly Rasta” Trope
“Upon our arrival we were welcomed by Clifford, a bare footed, rasta locked, ganja smoking local who walked us to the other side of Little Corn to Grace’s Place. Clifford was hard to miss. His massive smile and big, bright white teeth light up against his dark skin and immediately grabs our attention. To top it all off he was wearing a Bob Marley like knitted cap in the colours of the Jamaican flag. For real? Yes, for real. He is chilled as and the nicest man.” — Caribbean Paradise: Cuba Libres, coconuts and confirming clichés on Little Corn
One of the things that irks me the most with this cliché is that the “Rasta” is often used as a substitute for the Caribbean itself. Writers describe him, or use the character, as though the region is embodied in his dreadlocks, bare feet, ganja, and nonchalance.
And the above description? It strikes me as minstrelsy. It relies on an exaggeration of stereotypical black characteristics (his smile) reminiscent of the ‘happy-go-lucky negro trying to please the white folk’ stereotype from 19th century minstrel shows. Do better.
Finally, dreadlocks do not a Rastafarian make. There’s no one way to be Rasta but many people with locks have little to do with the religious movement centered on black consciousness.
Sun, Sea, and Sand
Come on, you’re sick of reading about the Caribbean’s beautiful beaches too, aren’t you? Why doesn’t anyone ever write about the best museums in the Caribbean? Martinique alone has dozens! How about mountain hikes? What about art shows, plays, and music festivals?
It’s so easy to think of every island as a place for lying on the beach and taking a refreshing dip in the “crystal-clear water” every now and again. But this attitude diminishes the place you’re visiting: why reduce a diverse group of people, practices, foods, and places to three trivial characteristics?
While we’re on the beach, I’m so bored of these lazy qualifiers: “far-flung,” “isolated,” and “picturesque”. And if you must be in the sea why laze around when you can surf some of the world’s best waves in Barbados, explore one of the world’s biggest coral reefs in Belize, or glow underwater in the dark of night in Jamaica?
Why not coincide with the colourful carnival to experience this vibrant Caribbean event? — Take in the Colours of the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival
Is Carnival really the “truest representation of Caribbean culture”? Why of course bacchanal is what the Caribbean is all about — Jamaica has a whole festival named for it!
Look, an event that happens once a year does not a culture make. In Martinique, you’ll find more events enlivened by traditional bèlè dancing than vidés and sound systems. Head to Trinidad & Tobago around Christmas time and you’ll probably hear more parang than soca and calypso. Why not learn more about what people do the other 360 days of the year?
Bani Amor and India Harris wrote a great break down about the word Colourful (and other words in travel writing):
Bani: C for Colorful – this is often used as a coded term that reminds me of the use of ‘soulful’ to mean anything Black-adjacent by whites/non-Blacks. India and the Caribbean and Latin America (north of Argentina) are all ‘colorful.’ See also: vibrant.
India: That coded language is used to otherize folks the world over – whether in their country of origin or abroad. […]
On our bike tour of Blue Mountain in Jamaica, our guide asked our group whether we would believe him if he said he’s never smoked ganja. Our crew was a reserved bunch but I’m sure that a rowdier group would have said “Noooo!” I thought to myself, why wouldn’t we believe you? Is the impossibility of a Jamaican never passing the dutchie implied… or is it ‘common knowledge’ that Jamaicans lie?
Anyways. This is one of the most tired and facile clichés about Jamaica and the Caribbean. Forget the fact that Jamaica only decriminalized possession and cultivation of marijuana in small amounts last February (and it was the first country in the region to do so — well after Colorado, which isn’t globally associated with weed), most Jamaicans find the herb intolerable.
There’s so much wrong with these two words. “Authentic” on its own is a stupid word (and I will explain why). Put it next to ‘Caribbean’ and the idiocy is intensified.
The Caribbean is a very diverse place, the home of a super sexy term known as creolization. I actually read somewhere that the Caribbean is an assemblage: none of the people are from there, none of the food, none of the music… Can you think of something that is ‘of undisputed origin’ (the definition of authentic) and shared among every single nation? I mean, the borders of the Caribbean itself are debatable! Some people include Colombia and Florida as part of the Caribbean; others use it to mean the archipelago alone.
It isn’t just “the Caribbean” as an idea that disputable, the word authentic is too! What makes something authentic? The fundamental issue here is that it’s a word used to measure things against a socially constructed standard. In the context of Caribbean travel, it’s used as a way of stratifying and distancing the Other, usually to illustrate that X thing is as different from what I’m familiar with as possible.
Oh, and while we’re here I’m going to tell you that a “world-class authentic resort” is a contradiction in terms. You get the ‘party line’ about the history and culture; you experience the packaged, advertised version of the place. Simply, it’s a Disney-fied version of whatever country you’re visiting. On top of that, the “smiley, kind, helpful” resort staff are being paid peanuts and often the profits from that resort are exported to another (richer) country, instead of being reinvested in that island. So much for ethical travel.
Out of a travel brochure/Caribbean cliché
The marina almost looks like it’s been taken from a brochure of Caribbean clichés: tucked into a naturally sheltered corner of the huge Simpson Bay Lagoon […] — St Martin: an island like a new world
Meta-clichés are the worst.
Is the Caribbean really all Bob Marley and Usain Bolt?
In no way do I want to trivialize their contributions. Rather, I want to illustrate that the region has bequeathed upon the world some of the greatest leaders, thinkers, and artists in history. Let’s talk about Queen Nanny of the Maroons, one of Jamaica’s National Heroes. How about Derek Walcott, Saint Lucian poet and playwright, or the Trinidadian V.S. Naipaul — both Nobel Laureates? Then there are beautiful writers and brilliant scholars like Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe), Carolyn Cooper (Jamaica), and Edwidge Danticat (Haiti).
And while we’re here, let’s not do the “soothing sounds of reggae music” thing anymore. Calypso and steel pan originated in Trinidad and Tobago; we’ve got zouk from the French Caribbean; dancehall and dub with their roots in Jamaica; and kompa coming out of Haiti. While you may hear it internationally, reggae does not define the musical heritage of every nation.
Jerk Chicken (but you were in the Bahamas)
Jerk chicken is from Jamaica. It’s more than just a spice mix — there’s a whole process of cooking that makes jerk chicken, well, jerk chicken.
Last year, BuzzFeed featured a video of Americans trying Caribbean foods for the first time. The caption actually says “Shout out Rihanna” and some of the participants made comments about her probably eating those foods all the time. None of the dishes were from Barbados 😒.
Sure, there’s lots of overlap in Caribbean countries. And I know that globalization means nothing really “belongs” to anyone or any place (another reason authentic is an inaccurate adjective). My point here is that jerk chicken/reggae/ganja/beaches/rastas ≠ the Caribbean because the region is not monolithic. As I wrote in the intro, the Caribbean is diverse — and that includes its food, people, religion, music, culture, and beyond.