I hesitate to use the word paradise, because what does it really mean? My perfect place won't be the same as yours and even the most idyllic place on Earth will have a downside. But in the heart of Raja Ampat 2 boats away from the nearest airport lies Arborek; an island whose circumference is less than a kilometer, inhabitants number less than a hundred and life is reduced to its simplicities. The waters are crystal clear in the day and flecked with bioluminescence at night in a surreal reflection of the galaxies in the sky above. Where you wake to the sounds of waves feet from your bed and dolphins so close you think you could reach out and touch them; the sun rising on the horizon casting a brilliant orange over the entire scene. I'm sure I can be forgiven in this instance for using such a grandiose term.
After traveling for 7 months, moving constantly, I got the taste in Malaysia for what it was like to stay in one place just a little longer, so when I found a project that lined up with everything I wanted to do in the heart of one of the best Marine parks in the world, I jumped at the opportunity. Barefoot Conservation combines all of my passions in one amazing opportunity; teaching English to local children, helping protect and monitor the reef, working with the local community and being able to dive in one of the last little known gems in the diving world. Literally everything I wanted to do whilst traveling and one of the few times I've found myself thinking “this is why I left”. It's also the first place I wasn't ready to leave, I could have easily stayed another month and was almost gutted I had plans in other countries to stick to.
Before I make you insanely jealous with more descriptions of this paradise, let me tell you more about the project. I'm instinctively averse to anywhere that asks me to pay to volunteer, I wonder where the money goes and how much help the community is actually getting, and here there is a fee, and not a small one at that, but when I factored in close to 50 dives, food, accommodation and transport I was easily able to justify it to myself. Having now also seen the project 1st hand and knowing the work that is done in the community I almost don't think it was enough. Almost.
The teaching drew me in, and as you would expect I was very excited to be in the classroom and a first for me, teaching English. I'm sure you can picture the classroom; a chalk board, wooden desks and not much else. The lesson plan was given to me around 20 minutes before the lesson and the resources were non existent. I'm starting to get used to this way of teaching and it is surprising how quickly you adapt. We teachers are already good at thinking on our feet and I know more than a few games that are good icebreakers and time fillers; I'm always happy when I get to play a bit of countdown and explain some British culture (yes the prize really is just a clock!). Children are children everywhere and I wouldn't say the behaviour was any better or worse than back home, but it's very different when there are 10 children and 3 adults, the lessons involve a lot of songs and we hardly ever taught the same group of children twice. Having said that I did have to break up a fight over who got to sit closest to me. I got the impression their schooling in general was very sporadic, sometimes school wouldn't be on until we arrived on an island and someone ran around shouting “school! School!”. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed teaching the younger students, something I always believed just wasn't for me, but being surrounded by children reading Mulan was one of my favourite moments of the project. It's hard not to overstep your mark when you're volunteering and whilst I really wanted to be more involved in the lesson planning and offered to give a mini talk on teaching strategies it never came to fruition. However, I did talk to a lot of the volunteers in my classes and encouraged them to lead certain exercises. It has definitely cemented my want to be involved with teacher training in the future. The community officer, who leads the teaching has a clear idea of where the teaching will go and I'm a little bit sad I won't be there to see the children's progress and the scheme of work develop. But, as amazing as the teaching was here it was but a small part of my month.
One of the things that is great about staying somewhere for a longer period of time is in seeing the culture rather than the things. For a lot of my trip I felt as if I was ticking off things to see when, looking back, all my best memories are of places I got to really experience the culture. On Arborek the culture is right there, all you have to do is go experience it; which is easier said than done when there's a whole ocean on your doorstep. The volunteers who made the effort to leave the camp and talk to the locals, I believe get the most out of the trip and yet I found myself one of the few people who learned the language, or at least tried. I can understand this when for many people it is a holiday, for me though I really wanted to learn as much as I could. So I took my tiny amount of Indonesian and spoke to whomever I could. Towards the end of the trip I actually felt fairly competent and I'm still learning it even now that I've left, perhaps I'll be a linguist by the time I return home! I was also lucky enough to be on the island for Indonesian Independence day on the 17th of August. We all watched the flag raising ceremony, after a lot of confusion around the practices where they raised an invisible flag. I could understand a few words which made me feel more involved and was able to wish the general a happy Independence day after posing for pictures with him. There was even a wedding while I was there of one of our boat crew, which many volunteers went to. With a project like barefoot though it is usually the little interactions that have the biggest impact, the daily conversations with the children and the locals and it's clear how much better the English on Arborek is compared to the children in schools on other islands. We had movie nights with them, which was mainly an excuse for us to watch Disney films and if we ever put films on or documentaries the locals tended to wander over. Just as I was leaving they were even starting up a project around contraception awareness with the local women. The barefoot Conservation project really does work from the ground up and you definitely get the impression you are in some small way making a difference, even if that difference is 5 bags of plastic collected from a beach clean up (every little helps).
There's more to it than teaching and the community though, I got to indulge my science side in way I haven't been interested in since University. Perhaps absence makes the heart grow fonder or perhaps it was the stunning setting that made me yearn to get involved in scientific research. Either way I can now name a ridiculous number of fish species and give you physiological differences between them, I can tell you how fish surveys are done and how to identify individual manta Ray's (their belly patterns are as unique as a fingerprint). I got to learn about Marine conservation and protection as well as the various research methods used to collect data. The information volunteers have collected over the years has lead to barefoot being referenced in articles, giving me the feeling that the data is being used and is providing genuine help. There are too many voluntourism programmes that either don't really help or even have a negative impact. The problem now is I really liked being back in a scientific role, I could obviously teach science and just have my biases to environmental issues, but it's given me thought for a job as science officer in a place like barefoot, someway I could make a genuine difference. On the other hand I know that at it's heart teaching will also have a large impact, perhaps one and then the other. Too many options is a good position to be in.
Finally, the shiny object drawing you towards this unknown island in the middle of Raja Ampat: the diving. I've got the bug back while traveling and I genuinely believe it's a whole other world under water, with alien species and a calming silence. But this, this was unreal. I've never seen so much in one dive, consistently. I've seen species I didn't even know existed, hunted for nudibranchs, watched a cuttlefish change color and eat another fish, seen walking sharks and reef sharks, seen turtles for days, corals so colourful you'd think they were painted, so surreal I wasn't even sure they were Coral half the time and then there's the Manta Ray's. I could never adequately describe to you the pure bliss of watching 8 Manta playing and breaching above me, courting each other and being cleaned in the current by a multitude of Marine life, sweeping round me time and time again, getting so close I could feel the water rush past me as they beat their wings an inch from my face; how unaffected they were by our presence and yet how curious they were. There is a certain feeling that divers experience when Marine life notices you and takes an interest, you feel like you've connected with that animal in some small way, having 8 majestic Manta take an interest in us was an incredible feeling, one I doubt I'll ever equal. Yet on that very same dive I was reminded why diving is considered a dangerous sport and how nature is always unpredictable. The current was strong and our group got stuck in a down current, I was sucked down to over 18m in seconds, kicking furiously and with a fully inflated BCD I barely managed to get out of it (I was seconds from dropping my weight belt), but then of course shot to the surface causing my dive computer to go crazy. It was the best and worst dive I've ever done, I'm not ashamed to say I was terrified, for a brief moment I honestly thought I might die (my heart was still pending an hour after the dive - no really it was 132 an hour later). Sometimes in the midst of such beauty we forget the dangers, and knowing the dangers I would still do it again. In fact with hindsight I think it made me appreciate the experience all the more.
By far the best part of my month though, was just living on Arborek. All the Western luxuries that we take for granted were gone. The toilet didn't flush, the shower was a bucket of water, the kitchen was the most hilarious thing I've ever seen; four camping stoves and a metal box that goes on top of one called the oven. The food was pretty much cabbage, rice and bananas, which really takes it's toll after a while. But all of that adds to the experience, it's back to nature, the simple life, I didn't wear shoes the entire time, I could jump in the ocean at any point and swim with an array of incredible fish that call our jetty their home, like our resident pepper eels and scorpionfish. I spent one night sleeping under the stars with waves rolling around me, I watched the moon set and the sun rise. I did yoga and mediated looking out over the horizon at the glorious ocean and other islands in the distance, the breeze on my face, the salt air all around me and no sounds of the modern world to interrupt me. Even something as simple as brushing my teeth was beautiful, I could walk out into the ocean and admire the views while I did it. It wasn't all incredible all the time, but it was pretty darn close, even in paradise you can have bad days, but these bad days were still good days there.
So as you can see I've been busy the last month, hence my not posting anything recently, I've had the most incredible experiences, ones I could never have even hoped for. I have met brilliant people from all over the globe, whom I sincerely hope I will stay in touch with and each of them has taught me something. From the younger ones who made me feel there is really not much separating us from our students, age is but a number and they can be so much more mature than we will ever give them credit for; to the ones who showed me it's ok to be affectionate to people you hardly know, cuddles were freely given and eagerly received on the island. The ones who made me feel ok when I had a bad day, who showed me I'm not alone and that we all have our crosses to bear, the ones who made me laugh when I was ready to cry and the ones who opened up a piece of themselves to me. I really can't believe what a great group of people they were, travelling is great for finding new places but it's even better for finding new friends. So to all of you at Barefoot I say a completely inadequate thank you!