For the past 15 years, Belgian Mie Cornoedus has helped open people’s hearts and minds to greater cultural awareness.
Nestled in between the small hotels, shops and cafés lining Jl. Prawirotaman in Yogyakarta’s tourist area is the ViaVia Café and Restaurant.
The friendly atmosphere, regular art and music events, tours and classes, tasty dishes from a world menu, and a great place to visit with friends make it a popular destination for local residents, both Indonesian and foreign, and travelers alike.
Beyond the café’s outward appearance, though, a deeper philosophy guides the business.
Chatting over a coffee after the lunch crowd has thinned out, Mie explains the restaurant is their way of attracting people before introducing them to different Indonesian experiences.
“It’s also about getting local people here and bringing them into contact with Western culture,” she says of the business she co-founded, “about making it a nice mélange for everyone”.
When asked what prompted her to start ViaVia in 1995, Mie paints a picture of a late-night talk around a campfire in Belgium. She was training tour leaders in sustainable tourism with a group now called Karavaan.
“In the beginning of the 90s, we had these ideas about traveling in small groups, getting to know the locals and giving back to the communities we visited,” she says.
“But contacting local people is pretty hard to do when you have just arrived in a country. So we starting thinking: What if we created places all around the world that allowed to be in the middle of it, to pre-organize the travel? Then it would be possible to learn so much more about this other culture.
That’s how ViaVia was born.”
It has since grown into an independently run worldwide network of 14 ViaVias in 12 countries, with a base in Belgium.
On that night beneath the stars, Mie had no plans to move to Indonesia. In fact, she says, “I was willing to help them think about it, but I wasn’t going to do this. I wanted to be a free bird.”
Her “free bird” traveling spirit was instilled at the early age of two when she, her brother, nearly three, and four-month-old sister were piled into the back of the family Citroën for the first of their annual summer adventures.
Memories of those trips bring a smile to her face.
“My parents were both teachers with two-month holidays,” Mie explains.
“We camped and traveled for seven weeks, never longer than three days in one place. I think I’ve seen every old building in France and Spain, every church, every castle and every museum.”
When the opportunity came to develop ViaVia, Mie was already a world traveler, having lived in India, journeyed to Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, and made several trips to Indonesia where she picked up the language fairly quickly.
Her trips back to Belgium were spent “trying to figure out a way to go abroad again. I felt that I had learned so much more by traveling than I got from my bachelor’s in social and cultural sciences”.
Having recently quit her training job in the social sector, Mie was finally convinced to start the first ViaVia outside Belgium.
Her petite frame belies her dynamic powerhouse personality, which she put to good use setting up the new venture.
“From the beginning I wanted to have alternative tours and courses developed so that right away people could meet and go off on tours that other places weren’t offering, like a culinary tour or a bicycle trip to villages to plant rice,” she says.
“It also had to support the local community — the arts, music and communities where we traveled.”
A separate team, ViaVia Travel, handles the tours and courses. They also conduct, sponsor and participate in a variety of social, educational and cultural projects.
“Building real relationships over many years is what community-based tourism is all about,” Mie says.
“We call people by their name when we go to the villages. It’s genuine. In that spirit we’ve created many projects such as using games and role playing to teach school kids about the effects of garbage on their environment.”
Each year, around 20 young people are trained to become freelance guides for some of the alternative tours. Many continue to volunteer for projects like the alternative gallery.
Holding court on the artwork that covers the café’s walls, Mie says, “This is all about giving young artists, curators and musicians a space where they can take their first steps in public. It’s not too formal. They’re still allowed to fail, to make mistakes and learn from them.”
Besides her family’s legacy of travel, photography is something that was passed down like an heirloom.
“My father was a hobby photographer with a darkroom in the house,” Mie explains.
No wonder, then, that Mie can often be seen with a camera in hand, capturing life with her keen eye.
Her works are steeped in human interest.
“Here I’m always forced to rediscover, to keep being surprised, to change my ideas because they simply don’t fit into this culture,” she says.
“It really enriches a person.”