Swiss people are big planners when it comes to their future, their old age and financial security. Their whole life, they think about what will be and sometimes forget to live in the moment. With the Papuans, it’s the other way around. Most of them only live in the moment and don’t spend a moment thinking about tomorrow.
They are brought up like this, so it’s hard to blame them. When they come to work for us, we often start by explaining to them why we do the things the way we do them. And what the consequences of our actions are. We show them why our guests come to visit and that we all need to protect the underwater world for them to keep coming back. It’s not always easy to make them understand that our business and their future depend on it. They only see what our resort does for them today – they get a job and a salary and are able to feed their families. But if their families want them to stay in the village for a while because there are things to be done, they’ll do it without thinking of the consequences this might have for their job with us.
This is how we just recently lost one of our employees from the neighboring village Kabui. His family asked him to take a vacation to sort out some things at home. So he did. But after the vacation, he just didn’t show up at the resort anymore and didn’t answer any messages we sent him. When he did come back two days later, he said he had to finish a job back home which was more important than the one with us. As this was not his first time, we had to let him go which didn’t seem to bother him that much. I guess he didn’t fully understand the consequences: that he would not have a paid job anymore, no more regular income, no more support for his family, no more health insurance paid by us and no more pension money, also paid by the company.
Any westerner would say he’s crazy to let such a good job slip through his fingers. But who are we to think we can impose our way of thinking to other cultures? Why should our reasoning be better than theirs? We tend to be rather obstinate with our planning, and struggle when things don’t work out the way we planned. People here, on the other hand, are very flexible and adapt quickly to new situations because they didn’t have a plan in the first place. They just take every day as it comes, and sometimes a new day brings better options than you thought the day before.
Their joy of life also comes from this short-term thinking – live in the moment and don’t think about tomorrow! They seem perfectly happy like this, so why change?
The other day, we had our Christmas picture taken with the entire staff wearing silly hats in the shape of Christmas trees in bright red and green. We all had a blast, as usual when there’s something funny happening on the island. After the official photo session, the locals kept taking pictures of each other and laughing with every single one they took. When our guests arrived at the bar area for our Tuesday ‘Happy Sunset’ event, we were all still wearing the hats and making fun. Our laughter was so contagious, most of the guests immediately got infected and laughed along.
This happens very often here. Our staff’s laughter is very contagious and can be heard all over the island. Most of the times, I have no clue what they are giggling about (and maybe they forgot themselves…), but I just laugh along as their laughter makes me laugh. I feel like I haven’t laughed as much for a long time before coming to Pulau Pef.
Our employees seem to be joking and laughing constantly. When they try to translate a joke, we (the westerners) usually don’t find it funny at all, but they just burst out laughing wildly. And they don’t stop, it keeps on going all day long! They sometimes seem like children to me – so innocent when it comes to having a good time. They live in the moment and enjoy it to the fullest. Something we should do more often in our so-called civilized world. It sounds like a cliché – us being serious and them joyful all the time – but it does change your perspectives.
To step out of the hamster wheel once in a while, crack a joke and laugh out loud – how liberating! I’m sure it would help solve some of our problems. And not taking ourselves so seriously seems like the key to me. We sometimes behave as though the world would stop turning without us “civilized people” taking care of things. It would be wise to trust our instincts a little more often, have a laugh once in a while and not stress out so quickly.
Just yesterday, there was a bunch of men from the neighboring village here to talk to Maya about an issue they were very upset about. She was due back on the island in the afternoon from a short trip to Sorong, so they waited in front of our office for many hours. In the beginning, they seemed very upset and were talking in loud voices. But then, some of our employees started talking to them, making jokes and laughing with them, so the whole atmosphere became more relaxed and peaceful. When they left much later in the day after long talks and much laughter, they seemed to have calmed down – at least for now. I am convinced, the jokes and the laughter contributed considerably.
Don’t worry, I’m not leaving the island yet! But I have to write about saying goodbye as this is what we do here every week.
Our guests stay with us for one, two or sometimes three weeks. “Arrive as a Guest, Feel like a King, Leave as a Friend” is our slogan, and we really mean it. We are very close with our guests during their stay here, have all the meals together at one big table, sing and dance on various occasions, have a drink with them at the bar at night and usually get to know them quite well. With some, the connection remains a friendly, but distant one. But with many others, we develop a friendship and look forward to them coming back – which they often do.
So saying goodbye is not always easy. Especially since our farewell ritual involves singing and dancing, giving it a very emotional touch. Our guests always leave on Fridays, and the first few Fridays I struggled with my emotions. As soon as I spotted a tear in one of our guests’ eyes, I started crying too. I didn’t want them to leave (and neither did they) and would have liked to get to know them better.
But the longer I stay here, the better I become at saying goodbye. I wouldn’t say I became less emotional, but I just got used to the ritual and the rhythm of resort life. It’s the way it goes – some guests come, and others leave. And where else would I have the chance of meeting so many interesting people? I can always decide for myself if I want to keep in touch with them or just wait for them to maybe come back one day.
But occasionally, someone grows on you more than others. That’s when saying goodbye hurts a little more. I think it also has to do with the fact that seeing them leave makes me think of my people back home. I’m not homesick as such, but I do miss my family and friends. Goodbyes remind me of that, as on normal days, I don’t have much time to think of home. My daily routine is quite busy, and the days just seem to fly here.
Saying goodbye in a resort also means I have to get used to new guests the following day, as they always arrive on Saturdays. I mostly look forward to meeting and getting to know them, but whenever there is a good group of people here, I would just like to keep going with these ones and not have to start all over again. Don’t get me wrong, I still love to tell people how I got here and how the resort was built, etc., but just not always.
I have only been here four months now, so I have not had any repeaters come back yet. But I am looking forward to next year, when the first ones return, and I will be able to continue with them where we left off when we said goodbye.
We don’t have Billy Joel on the island, but music and guitars are just as much part of Pulau Pef as its natural wonders below and above the water. There’s not a day without music and singing here. Many of our employees are good guitar players and have a very nice voice. They are always making some kind of music – in front of their rooms after work or after dinner, on the transfer boat from Sorong to Pef and back, on staff trips or sometimes even on the dive boats. It seems like they were born with a guitar in their hands.
I was told guitars were among the first things they brought to the island when they started the construction of the resort. It was very important to them as almost every activity is accompanied by music or singing, be it during or after work.
Four times a week, our Pef band performs at our regular events, such as ‘Happy Sunset’ (cocktail and finger food at the bar) on Tuesdays, the goodbye party for departing guests on Thursdays and at our farewell and welcome ceremonies on Fridays and Saturdays. The band only features singers, guitar players and small drums, but when they are all together, it sounds beautiful.
Most of the songs are very romantic, talking about love and missing home. Some are also just local pop songs that they teach themselves from YouTube. I usually find the Pef version a lot better than the original. Many of the tunes are very similar, but I never seem to get tired of them. Unlike pop or rock music back home, that I quickly dislike after it’s been played up and down by the radios, I can listen to these songs over and over again. It just feels natural to have them here, and I always try to sing along – not an easy task in Indonesian or Papuan language…
There is one song they always sing that goes on for a very long time, because there is a part when they take turns to sing a solo. The bold ones usually start, so the first few rounds of solos are covered. But then, to get the shyer ones to sing, Maya usually goes and drags them to the front from their seat in the back. I sometimes feel a little sorry to see them standing so shyly in front of the other band members and all the guests, but I think they are actually doing fine. And some of them have lovely voices.
Since I got here, I have not listened much to the music I brought with me. And I don’t miss it. The joy of life that our band’s music conveys is fantastic. It makes me feel melancholy on the one hand, but very happy to be here on the other. I’m aware that other places probably have their music as well, we are not the only ones. But just listening to this music gives me a feeling of being part of this island, this resort and its team.
If I showed you a video of our band playing, you'd probably just think 'That's nice, but what's all the fuss about?'. You have to experience it here on the island to actually feel it. I can’t explain, just come and find out for yourself!
I celebrated my birthday on Pulau Pef this week. What an experience! I knew it was probably going to be special as we often celebrate birthdays the 'Pef way'.
It started with our usual staff meeting at 8am. I got a beautiful card signed by the entire management and senior staff with personal wishes, followed by a ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Selamat Ulang Tahun’ (Happy Birthday in Indonesian) performed by the entire team. When the meeting was over, each and everyone came to shake my hand or hug me to wish me a happy birthday, a ceremony we do for every birthday, even though many of our employees feel a little shy to touch, let alone hug a stranger. But nobody is forced to hug anyone, a handshake is fine too. Normally, the birthday girl/guy also gets a bucket of cold water poured on his/her head, which is supposed to bring good luck. But somehow, they spared me the wet part. I guess they thought I was lucky enough to still be alive at such an advanced age…
In the evening, we had our Tuesday event called ‘Happy Sunset’ – cocktail and finger food offered by the resort for everyone, all accompanied by the Pef band’s island tunes. This was the perfect party setting, Including the gorgeous sunset! Instead of the regular glass of fruit cocktail, I was offered an entire coconut full of alcohol – challenge accepted!
Later on, there was cake (chocolate, what else?!), candles and more Happy Birthday singing. And I received a crown, beautifully made of palm leaves by one of our resort assistants (she comes from Bali and is a true artist when it comes to decorations), as well as a palm leaf skirt. I felt like a queen! There was more hugging, singing, laughing and dancing. But there was more – I also got a very sweet gift: a bottle full of little letters with birthday message from the entire staff! I was overwhelmed by so much attention after only being here a little over 3 months.
This is exactly what makes Pulau Pef and Raja4Divers so special – we’re family (thanks for this line, Vin Diesel!). You might say it’s normal to feel close, since we all live on this remote island together. I agree, but it’s much more than that. We care about and take care of each other. Some more than others, and don’t think it’s all harmony and no arguments! But as much effort as we put into detail when it comes to the resort and its decorations, as much attention goes into our “human resources”, our employees. We try to make them feel part of the family and proud to work here. It sometimes feels like having teenagers that think they are very grown up, but still need a lot of guidance. But, just like with children, it pays off to invest time and attention, as they will give it back to you with commitment, joy and hopefully endurance.
I chose to work for Raja4Divers because I immediately felt that this place was different from any other I had worked at before. This feeling of being welcomed, of belonging and of being valued for what you do, was very strong from the first moment I set foot on Pef, when I came as a guest to find out if I could live here. I couldn’t work for any other resort in this area, it simply wouldn't be the Pef family!
It has become a habit for some of our guests to leave old clothes, shoes or other belongings here that they don’t want to take home anymore. Especially guests who come for the second or third time know that we are very happy to accept anything that is still in good shape and can be worn or used again. Sometimes we even get dive equipment, such as fins, masks, snorkels or even wetsuits which of course are extremely valuable to our dive team.
You might ask yourself whether we’ve run out of clothes on our remote little island. Rest assured, we still have enough to wear and are far from running around naked through the jungle! But some of our local staff come from very poor families and don’t have much to wear apart from the uniform we provide them for work. One of our employees, for example, only has one private t-shirt – quite hard to imagine if you come from such a rich country as I do.
But we don’t just distribute the clothes, that would be too boring. And not in the spirit of Raja4Divers. Every two or three months, when the two boxes we collect the clothes in start to overflow, we organize what they call a “tombola” for the employees. It’s THE event for everybody - not one of the employees nor of the guests would want to miss it!
All articles are displayed in a corner of the restaurant after dinner. Many of our staff get in early to inspect everything very thoroughly before it all starts. Usually around 9pm, everybody gets to pick a number from a pot. Then Maya starts to draw numbers from another pot and reads them out aloud. The one with the same number is allowed to choose something at his choice first. Then the next number is drawn and the next employee is allowed to pick an item, and so on. It usually takes two to three rounds, until everything is gone.
But don’t think, this all happens quietly! Everybody comments on the others’ choices, yells advice on what to pick or they all laugh at one of the guys taking a skirt or beauty products for his wife back home. It’s both funny and endearing to see, how happy some of them are about a pair of sneakers they’ve been dreaming of or a nice shirt they would never be able to buy from their own money. For our guests, it’s a lot of fun to watch this and joke around with the staff. But for them, I think it means a lot more – it’s both entertainment and a very welcome addition to their salary. And since they don’t receive these clothes from us as a “donation” but they “win” them in a draw, I guess it doesn’t make them feel bad. It’s a game, but a very helpful one. And I think they don’t take it for granted to receive things for free on a regular basis.
The ”tombola” is just one more piece in the mosaic of things we do to involve the local staff and their families. It seems natural to us, and I’m proud to be part of a company with such an attitude.
Papuans love to eat! At least three times a day. ‘Selamat Makan’ means ‘Enjoy Your Meal!’ and it was one of the first Indonesian sentences I learnt here. They also talk about food a lot and a greeting including “Makan sudah?” (“Have you eaten yet?”) is very common.
As important as a proper meal may be, the locals don’t spend much time at the table though. They help themselves generously from the buffet, sit down, gulp down their plate with a spoon and get up 10 minutes later. Never mind if the person they were talking to while eating hasn’t finished yet. You may suddenly find yourself all alone at the table, even though you were surrounded by 5 people when you started eating. This may seem rude to us, but it doesn’t seem to be like that here. They probably wonder why we spend so much time at the table when we could be chatting, playing the guitar or watching videos on our phones in front of our rooms instead!
A meal is not a meal if it doesn’t contain rice, fish and vegetables - for breakfast, lunch and dinner, often in very similar combinations. Papuans don’t seem to request as much variety as we do. Vegetables are usually cooked (I miss salads!) and often in a broth, but they are generally very nice. Sometimes, they come in a delicious spicy coconut sauce which I really love.
Talking about spicy – the local version of Sambal (a spicy chili paste) is freshly made every day and generously applied on every dish. There’s a separate buffet for the guests with a sort of fusion cuisine of Western and Indonesian dishes, including the fresh Sambal which I also use every day. Only when the resort was closed, and we all ate the same food as the locals, did I find out that there are two versions of Sambal – one from Hell (for the locals) and a weaker one for wimps like us Westerners… The first time I added it generously to my rice and fish only to find out very quickly that this was a different version than the one I was used to from the guest buffet! I was desperately trying not to show how much my throat was burning and to prevent my tears from running down to not make a complete fool of myself in front of the locals. Not an easy task, but I somehow managed! And decided to take it easy on the Sambal until the resort opened again and there was a milder version.
Did I mention that the food is delicious here? Well, it really is! To make things worse, there are homemade cookies available all the time (!) and there is a delicious desert every evening. I quickly decided, I was going to skip desert, unless there was something with chocolate (I’m a chocolate addict!). And leave the cookies to the guests (ok, once in a while, I do allow myself one of the yummy chocolate cookies…). As my job here doesn’t involve a lot of physical activity, I definitely have to be careful not to end up like a puffer fish very soon...
This week, we finally got some rain again! It hadn’t rained properly since I got here, we only had one or two hours now and then and never got big quantities of water. Apart from the drinking water we buy in Sorong in big refillable gallons, we get our water from a well at the back of the island and filter it before using it for washing and showering. With very little rain during the last months, the water was getting a little salty as it tends to mix with sea water. This, on the one hand, is inconvenient for our guests and employees. On the other hand, it also damages our machines, especially the washing machines. So, we were all praying for rain and even considered doing the rain dance (coming from rainy Switzerland, I never imagined one day actually wishing for rain!). Apparently, some of us did dance, as now we finally got a few hours of heavy rain.
Just like the waves, the rain also drowns all other noises, and so the island became strangely quiet with just the sound of the raindrops falling on roofs and palm tree leaves. Even the birds almost stopped singing for a few hours. The horizon was covered by an undefined blur of clouds and the raindrops looked as if they were happily jumping up and down on the surface of the sea. The only colors we saw for a while were the multicolored umbrellas we provide for our guests to prevent them from getting soaking wet between one building and the next. It was funny, however, to see divers and snorkellers return from their boat trips in wet bathing suits, but still holding up umbrellas against the rain so as not to get wet from above as well…
Our guests sometimes ask us what we would do if there was no rain for a very long period of time. Apparently, they were faced with an extremely dry season once on Pulau Pef that lasted many months. There was still water from the well, but everybody had to help save water and it turned rather salty. This reminds me that we live in the jungle. From one moment to another, we may be faced with difficult situations here that back home would never be an issue.
Our bungalows do not have normal showers, but traditional mandis. They consist of a big wash basin made of a massive piece of rock that you fill up with your mix of hot and cold water. You then use a ladle to pour water over your head and body. It seems like an archaic method at first, but after two days, you’re so used to it that you don’t waste another thought on it. It’s very easy to use. And it saves a lot of water! It allows us to continue using the well water instead of having to install an expensive desalination system that uses a lot of energy and produces big amounts of salt we would have to get rid of.
We are not an official eco resort, as there is no such label with reliable standards in Indonesia. But we try to save energy and run our resort eco-friendly whenever possible. They may be little things like switching off the generator at night to save electricity or only offering bungalows without showers nor air-conditioning, but we are convinced this is the way to proceed if we want to preserve this paradise as it is for as long as possible!
Roughly 50% of our employees that work on Pulau Pef are Papuans. We consider it our mission to give local people jobs and allow them to profit from a resort on a remote island like ours. Other than fishing and growing fruit and vegetables, they don’t have many possibilities to make a living in West Papua. So tourism is a welcome source of income, as long as it involves local people.
Very often, these employees have little or no education when they come here. We train them in various areas and they typically get to work in various departments during their stay with us. This sometimes means a lot of work and nerves for our senior staff and management, as the trainees are not used to learning the way we are. I only fully realized this a week ago when Jonas Müller from ChildAidPapua.com visited us, a Swiss who has been teaching local kids for four years in a remote little village about 50 mins by boat from here. He presented his project to our guests after teaching the local kids from our neighboring village Kabui about protecting the reefs and about waste management.
We learned that schools in West Papua theoretically have teachers for every grade. The teachers are on the payroll and get paid by the state, but hardly ever show up, especially in remote villages. This results in one or two teachers having to teach all levels at the same time. Or school simply not taking place! The kids do take national exams at the end of the school year and the majority passes them with good results. But apparently, they receive the correct answers up front from their teachers, so these national results are not representative of their knowledge. On top, their teachers - having had the same “education” - don’t really know the subject matter they teach and are not capable of answering their student’s questions.
The fact that these kids don’t learn how to use their own brain, but merely follow orders and execute them, reflects in their work as adults at our resort. Many of them expect us to simply give them orders without wanting to understand why they should do it. Jonas gave a good example to illustrate this: plastic waste is an important topic in their teaching. The kids know they are not supposed to throw plastic away because “white people don’t like that”. They don’t do it, but only as long as there are “white people” around. As soon as they turn their back, the kids think it doesn’t matter anymore since the “whites” are gone. They don’t understand the consequences of their deeds, and this is exactly what is missing in their education – figure out what the consequences are and therefore try to avoid doing certain things.
It seems so obvious for us to teach our children the reasons behind our actions and why something works the way it does. I feel it would be our priority to teach the kids here what beautiful treasures they have above and below the water and how important it is to protect them, because this is what the tourists come here for. But how can you expect the teachers to know that if nobody told them either?
All children are eager to learn and study. As a matter of fact, the Kabui kids complained to Jonas that he hadn’t come back for too long because they really love his classes! But Jonas and his Indonesian colleague are only 2 people, teaching approximately 600 children and regularly travelling to remote villages without access to their classes. It’s a huge job and it seems almost impossible. But they already have some success and were able to send some of their students to high school in a bigger city. Next year, we will even get an ex-student of Jonas' as intern to work at the resort for 2 months. What a success story!
It’s baby steps, I know, but let’s hope there will be many more!
Waiting is not something Swiss people are very good at. We are often stressed and in a rush to get from A to B. I make no exception. At home, one of my most used sentences was “Let me just quickly do/go…”. Some of my friends would laugh at me as it was so typical for me to “just quickly” do or finish something.
Coming to live and work on a remote island in West Papua was going to be a challenge in many ways, I was well aware of that. And I knew that life would be a lot slower and less stressful. But I couldn’t fully imagine how slow it was really going to be! Soon after arriving, I felt the constant sound of the waves calming me down and putting me in a sort of permanent relax mode. I adjusted my speed, slowing down my usually rather determined style of walking. I learned to take things easier, trying not to get upset so quickly. And I learned to WAIT!
For one, I learned (and am still learning…) to wait for our slow internet to process my commands or even work at all. I admit, I haven’t managed to master this skill very well yet and still want to despair occasionally when our unbelievably slow connection simply won’t allow me to proceed with my work. We sometimes even have to endure entire days without internet at all. At moments like this, I begin to worry about my family back home, wondering if they are just at this very moment trying to reach me for any kind of emergency, even though normally I don’t hear from them or write for days without worrying at all! It is mostly then that I realize how far away from everybody and everything I am here.
For another, I have learned to wait for people to come or an event to start. If there is a delay, I don’t ask for a reason anymore, I just wait. I may get bored or still think about all the things I could have done during the time that I’ve been waiting. But I don’t get upset about “lost time”, because it is usually filled with chatting, joking, laughing and sometimes even singing. Activities that don’t seem useless anymore.
Every time we go to a local village, I am amazed at how many people are just standing around waiting. Waiting for nothing in particular, it seems. They are just waiting and chatting. And their children seem to master this skill already quite well. They don’t seem to get cranky, asking to be entertained or taken somewhere, they just wait or play for themselves.
Time has another meaning in West Papua. People here don’t have much, but they do have a lot of time. Their day also has 24 hours, but they don’t fill it with as many activities as we do, because there isn’t as much happening here. I must admit, it feels good to free myself of the need to constantly do something with my time. I even allow myself to lie in my hammock for a while, listen to the sound of the waves and do nothing. I don’t always manage to banish the to-do list from my mind yet, but I’m working on it…
I never even dreamt of working on a remote island in Indonesia, but life has a way of taking care of itself…