As the waves crashed over the bow of the boat soaking us again and again, I huddled over my camera gear desperately hoping that it would survive the storm. A quick google of Raja Ampat returns stunning pictures of heavily forested limestone stacks bursting out of blue skies and sparkling seas: we’re drifting in a sea of fog with no land in sight, the rain is torrential and I’m shivering in my wet clothes. I look up as the outboard motor on our boat fails again. This is not what I had been expecting.
Blue Ventures’ volunteers will now get to spend part of their expedition with a homestay family.
I’m in Raja Ampat, a remote province of West Papua, Indonesia, to document a community exchange between Ataúro Island, Timor-Leste, and the Raja Ampat Homestay Association (RAHA). We’ve been helping set up a new homestay association on Ataúro where our volunteers will spend part of their expedition time. Homestays are an important part of our strategy to diversify and strengthen alternative livelihoods for coastal communities, ensuring the economic benefits of tourism go directly to community families, rather than resorts or international investors. For volunteers and tourists it provides a richer cultural experience, and the chance to really understand the lived experience of their host community. We’ve worked with the Sarteneja Homestay Group in Belize for 6 years and are delighted to be building this model into our expeditions in both Madagascar and Timor-Leste this year.
So, why visit Raja Ampat? Well RAHA are renowned leaders in the homestay game. Running since 2008 they now have over 70 homestay members covering many of the remote islands in this incredible region. The waters of Raja Ampat are part of the coral triangle and offer some of the very best diving and snorkelling to be found in the world. The people here are subsistence fishers and share many similarities to the communities we work with on Ataúro. The homestay association has offered a way to access the international tourist market, and over the past few years they have learnt a great deal about what works and what doesn’t. They were eager to share those lessons with their Timorese soon-to-be friends.
Finally the motor was fixed, the fog lifted and we arrived at Yenbesar village to the sound of traditional drums beating. As the rain continued to pour down we were greeted on the jetty by Pak Makusi – a community elder and homestay owner – who welcomed our group with wonderful enthusiasm and warmth. We were presented with beautifully crafted gifts and processed down the jetty towards the village with the drums beating behind us – a quite incredible experience despite our bedraggled state. After some quick welcome speeches and with some food and drink to warm us up, we headed to our homestays to get changed before the first workshop session began that evening.
Over the next 3 days the Timorese exchange participants partnered with the Papuan homestay owners through a mixture of personal reflection sessions, group learning activities and even participatory theatre! The majority of the time though they just spent together in their homestays, learning from each other and building genuine friendships. It was amazing to see the cohesiveness of the group grow so quickly – the Timorese were quick to articulate their hopes and expectations, RAHA were incredibly open, welcoming and generous.
I think the biggest success of this trip is seeing the Timorese participants learn and be inspired to create a better life for themselves, their families and their communities. We are excited to continue this journey together.
Blue Ventures’ Community Conservation Coordinator
While rain clouds were never far away, thankfully the sun managed to make the odd appearance too. I took advantage of these moments to snorkel on the beautiful coral reefs just off the shore and even managed to squeeze in a dive organised by one of the homestays – a truly magical experience as I had my first encounter with oceanic manta rays. The waters here are teeming with life, and homestays provide a clear and measurable link for the communities here between protecting the environment and the economic benefits that tourism can bring.
As I make my long way back home I’m proud of the work my colleagues Greg and Ollie have done to build the Ataúro Homestay. As they start to welcome our volunteers into their homes I think they have a real chance of success – not only for the individual homestay families but also collectively. By taking the lessons learned from Raja Ampat and joining together they can become a political force, securing land tenure rights and driving tourism policy, empowering a previously disenfranchised community. Homestays might seem like a small first step on this journey, but the key messages the participants articulated this week were about transformation, possibility and hope for the future – first for an individual and a family, then a community and finally a whole island.