By: Chloe King
As the clock ticked down towards New Years Eve in 2013, I made a decision that would change my life forever. I had recently been admitted to GW’s Elliott School, my top choice university and the only one I ultimately applied to as an Early Action candidate, and I was thrilled at the prospect of starting the following fall. Yet something else was nagging at me; as my friends eagerly awaited admissions decisions and dreamt of new college campuses to call home, I felt constantly pulled back into my love affair with the ocean. I started diving at 10 years old, and despite a few dives during high school in cool coastal waters of California, I was eager to explore this passion more in-depth—literally and figuratively.
What came next would alter my path in more ways than I could have imagined. I decided to defer my arrival at GW by a year and take a gap year, training as a Divemaster and working my way across Southeast Asia in the scuba diving industry. My dearest friend in high school, Jenny Lundt, was among the few in our graduating class who saw this decision as sound rather than insane: she also took a year off to work in Thailand as an English teacher. In between our various jobs, we boarded buses to Angkor Wat, Cambodia, to reunite under 1,000-year-old temples and watch the sunrise over ancient lands. Eventually, we both began our college journeys, but found our destinies inextricably tied to this magical world we found during that year abroad. I soon returned to spend seven months in Indonesia studying abroad my sophomore year; the following summer, Jenny and I both lived in Indonesia mere hours apart, venturing up volcanos or out to remote islands during weekends off from her internship and my language program. During one of these long bus rides up a winding mountain road, we decided to apply for the Davis Projects for Peace Grant to Timor-Leste, commencing a peace-building project the summer after graduation.
First occupied by the Portuguese and Dutch for nearly three centuries, Timor-Leste declared its independence briefly before it was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and subjected to decades of brutal rule, with nearly a quarter of the Timorese population killed due to violence and starvation and a forced exodus of nearly 550,000 people with 70 percent of the region’s infrastructure being destroyed in the process. Today, the scars of occupation and brutality show themselves throughout Timorese society, especially among vulnerable groups including women and youth. In particular, these groups have among the highest unemployment rates in the country, and women face gender-based violence and discrimination on a daily basis: 59% of Timorese women experience sexual and/or physical violence. As the poorest country in Southeast Asia, Timor-Leste lacks the resources necessary to combat this violence and empower women to be involved in the local economies. While the young nation has made significant progress, many challenges still remain.
With the support of GW’s Nashman Center and the Davis Projects for Peace Grant, Jenny and I set out in May 2019 for Timor-Leste, arming ourselves with what little information we could find in history books and poorly-maintained tourism websites. In our research process, we quickly became passionate about NGO Ba Futuru’s mission to protect children, reduce violence, empower women, and inspire young learners. As our primary project partner, we arrived in the capital of Dili to learn how we could best help further more than two decades of Ba Futuru’s work on the ground.
An increasing focus of both the government and various NGOs in Timor-Leste was the role of tourism in building the country’s economy. The crown jewel of these initiatives was the picturesque island of Ataúro: white sand beaches, cascading waterfalls, sacred mountain peaks, and the most biodiverse reefs in the world. Ba Futuru began the on-the-ground portion of the Ataúro project this June, coinciding with our arrival. Our initial research found that the majority of local employees in the tourism economy are men, with almost all dive companies foreign-owned. There are several small women-run cooperatives working to take advantage of this industry, yet women still lack the necessary support to enable these cooperatives to be both a livelihood and peace-building tool. As tourists on the island ourselves, we saw the multitude of opportunities and challenges for developing tourism on the island and set out to begin our research in earnest.
As with any research project, our methods and objectives changed multiple times over the course of the summer. Writing a lengthy report to simply gather dust in some drawer was exactly what we were trying to avoid. As a result, we were constantly asking, “How can this have the greatest possible impact?” Ultimately, we found a way. We began working remotely for Solimar International, a consulting firm that promotes sustainable tourism as a tool for development in dozens of countries around the world. Funded by USAID’s “Tourism For All” project, Solimar began working with the Atauro Tourism Association to develop necessary infrastructure on the island. This opportunity enabled our unique observations to inform massive changes happening on Ataúro. We mapped trails, interviewed local homestay owners, worked with women’s business cooperatives, brainstormed tour packages, spoke with government officials, and learned about the intricate network of local marine protected areas—tara bandus—that allowed fishing villages to derive alternative incomes from tourism.
Our interest in the island and love for the communities that made it special only grew over those months, even as we faced our own daily challenges. We battled small plagues of rats and cockroaches back from our beach hut. Jenny learned to gut and cook rock cod I brought back from spearfishing, frying it in coconut oil under the cacophony of geckos, chickens, and dogs. We helped our Timorese friends who, despite being in the midst of the most biodiverse reefs in the world, had never learned how to swim. We chatted with anyone and everyone we could over our daily coconut and waited on the shores of the weekly ferry for new friends and interviewees. Every day we could always count on smiles and greetings of “Hello Chloe and Jenny! Di’ak ka lae?” We continue to recommend a visit to Timor-Leste’s Atauro island to any friend or family member who will listen, for an unforgettable and unique experience to a beautiful yet rarely-visited country.
Gradually, through our work with Ba Futuru and Solimar, we came to realize that for Atauro in particular, the untapped power of tourism to be used as a tool in social change is unparalleled. The communities we came to know were eager for this development to begin. Yet with ferry schedules still irregular, visa rules complicated, and flights expensive, there is much still that must be done by the Timorese government if it truly wants to deliver on its promise of “Tourism for All.” Both Jenny and I will continue our work with Solimar into 2020, using our research to build the main promotional page for the island, www.ataurotourism.org, to ensure that both potential tourists and local people have the resources necessary to make this beautiful island a beacon of sustainable tourism development for years to come.
Back in 2014, when Jenny and I made the decision to go to Southeast Asia for the first time, we never could have imagined our lives would wind up so inextricably linked to this region and the sustainable development initiatives we have devoted ourselves towards. As we both set out on Fulbright grants this year—Jenny teaching English in Malaysia while I research tourism development in Indonesia—we feel confident in each decision we made that has taken us along this journey so far. For anyone considering applying for a grant to go abroad or do something totally outside your comfort zone, take it from us: if you make the leap of faith, it will change your life forever—but not in any way you would ever expect.
We are eternally grateful to the Davis Projects for Peace Foundation and the George Washington University for making this project possible. I am the GW Fellowship’s Office #1 fan, and would not have known about any of these opportunities were it not for Paul Hoyt-O’Connor and his amazing team. If you are a student at GW reading this, take advantage of the incredible resources available at your fingertips, and take that leap of faith—we promise you won’t regret it.