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Beach Babies: Raising Kids On A Remote Pacific Atoll

By Celeste Brash


Raising a child on a remote South Pacific island is no easy task, especially when there are no other women nearby to give advice. And there are just some things we Western mothers take for granted that simply don’t work in the tropics.

For five years, my husband and I lived on a black pearl farm on an isolated South Pacific island, Ahe Atoll.

When I returned to the farm from the States with my one month-old baby girl (I was not adventurous enough to have an island birth), I quickly discovered that I was going to have to reevaluate everything I thought I knew about baby rearing.

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The biggest hurdle during the first year was what to do about diapers.

The farm was distant even from Ahe’s one small village, and provisioned only by boat, we had to order everything we needed two to three weeks in advance by radio from my husband’s uncle in Tahiti. Uncle Jean graciously did our shopping and sent it off on the supply ship. Was I really going to order all of those diapers?

Moreover, we burned our own garbage, and the thought of all those plastic-covered, synthetic-filled diapers rising into the atmosphere was not a pleasing one. I also knew that if ever the boats went on strike or broke down (both regular occurrences), I might be stuck without diapers for a long period of time.

Limited Fresh Water

Washing cloth diapers was another less than satisfactory option. We had a limited supply of fresh water (we collected rainwater), and I would have to use up considerable amounts of propane to heat the washing water each day.

But, with the idealism and determination of a new mother, I decided to give cloth diapers a try. I would wash them in ocean water, give them a quick fresh water rinse, then pack several at a time in a pressure cooker to sterilize them. This way, I would limit both my use of fresh water and propane.

This solution lasted about two months. I was the only woman living on the farm and all the men, including my husband, worked ten-hour days.

Motherhood, especially when diaper washing is involved, was never meant to be taken on single-handedly. My nights consisted of little sleep, and my days became a never-ending blur of nursing, diaper washing and cooking lunch for six hungry men. I turned into a lumbering zombie, tripping on things and often unable to hold an ordinary conversation.

On top of this, there were periods when it wouldn’t rain for several weeks, and one of the farm workers had started to tie shut the water containers to stop me from using so much of our shared, precious water. Under the circumstances, the environment was becoming less and less an issue; Uncle Jean got an enthusiastic order for all the plastic diapers he could buy.

Back to the Fire Pit

About two weeks and several good naps later, my attention went back to the fire pit. Even when the garbage pile was burned, much of the plastic covering on the diapers remained. There was clearly an impending problem, and my environmental concerns were too ingrained to slip away so easily. I was out of options. Well, all but one.

Bare-bottomed babies are the norm in much of the developing world, and even on the island, I realized that the infants I saw wore nothing on their browned bottoms. I had let my daughter go bare-bottomed before, but realized it was time to seriously explore this option.

At first, it was odd. My Puritanical leanings and concern over mess were difficult to overcome. But as time went on, I could zero in on when she was going to pee and strategically hold her over the water or, at worst, the wooden floor, and then just clean it up. By the time she was crawling, I was using diapers only for nights and naps and couldn’t understand why more people didn’t use this bare-bottom, strategic timing technique.

No Diaper Rash

Cleaning the floor is much easier than cleaning a bottom; diaper rash isn’t an issue; and my daughter commendably potty trained herself by the time she was one and a half.

Disposable diapers are expensive and hard to come by for people who don’t have an Uncle Jean and a checking account. Surprisingly, they are also unnecessary in warmer climates where children are much more comfortable being naked.

My second child, a boy, threw a few vertical variables into the equation, but I still found cleaning floors and walls better than wet or poopy diapers.

A friend from the States who visited us during the high maintenance period when I had a toddler and a small baby, found my technique intensely amusing. He decided that, from what he could see, baby rearing in the tropics is just a question of waste management.

He was mostly right. But then again, when raising children in paradise, what else is there to worry about?

Where is Ahe Atoll?

Ahe Atoll, in the Tuamotu Archipeligo of French Polynesia, lies approximately 450 km North East of Tahiti. Until recently, the atoll was unheard of even by many inhabitants of Tahiti.

Now, it has gained fame and a rapid population increase due to beautiful black pearls that are cultivated in the unpolluted lagoon. Once poor, the inhabitants now have jet skis, Dior perfume, cable TV… and disposable diapers.

Connected by air service since 1997, there are now four flights per week direct from Papeete. These flights are often full, not with tourists, but with newly wealthy pearl farmers heading to the city to do their shopping. There are still no hotels or pensions on the atoll but there has been talk of a luxury resort to be built near the airport.


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