A walkabout is a rite of passage- a person will go out into the wilderness to discover his or her identity and purpose, and then return home.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Sea Turtle Conservation- Through My Eyes

Alright, here´s all that drama I promised.  I hope you´re sitting down....

The Beginning
So when I arrived at the project {after a pretty cool tropical boat ride, in which we saw many birds, and some capuchin monkeys}, there were only three other volunteers (two of which arrived at the same time as me).  However a group of four "research assistants"- essentially long-term volunteers who had slightly greater responsibilities/freedom than the normal volunteers {and paid slightly less to be there}- were living there as well.  Also present were about four Costa Rican staff members, who came and went as they pleased, but somehow managed the project (? <-- the research assistants were sort of bitter about how much organization the management lacked).

I have to admit that that first week was tough for me.  One of the volunteers left three days after I arrived, so only two others remained; the research assistants had been there together for over a month, so they had a sort of clique that I sometimes felt awkward trying to break into, and I was still getting used to the idea of being away from home for so long.  There were definitely moments where I wished I´d never signed up, but luckily those were relatively brief.  {It helped that the beach was beautiful, untouristed, and clean; the stars were plentiful and bright every night, and chilling in the hammocks was incredibly relaxing.}

The People Make All the Difference
Just at the point where I was getting extremely sick of the work, though, the second wave of volunteers showed up, and I made six great new friends.   Honestly, it is partly the people you´re with that make the experience.  I bonded with the two other volunteers that stayed my first week (a very cool Australian couple who were completing a South American journey before heading to Canada for winter work), but as they were almost 10 years older, and traveling together, I didn´t really have a person to hang out/bond with.  But from the beginning of my second week, volunteers just kept appearing.  They were all youngish {though I was definitely still the youngest}, very friendly, and had great stories.  Plus there were finally enough people to actually do activities with.  I was also being included more in the research assistant "group" becuase I already knew the ropes {it was a weird feeling to be considered "experienced" after just one week, but compared to the newbies I suppose I was}.

I made friends with people from all over the world: Australia, Germany, England, Sweden, France, Spain, the U.S., and, of course, Costa Rica.  And most of them were more than happy to invite me to come drop in for a weekend when they learned I´d be traveling through Europe this next Spring {yes Nina, Ronja, Vicki, and Violetta, I am coming to Germany ;)}.  What was pretty surprising to me was that 1) there weren´t more people from the USA {the girl who was there for my first three days was the only other American while I was there} and 2) English was the most commonly spoken language.

¿Habla Usted Español?
I went into the project expecting to have to speak Spanish from Day 1.  I certainly was thrust into speaking it as soon as I stepped off the plane in San Jose- trying to find a taxi, get to the hostel, buy dinner, set up a ride to the WIDECAST office, buy a bus ticket, etc.  And WOW did I forget how exhausting trying to speak another language is.  When I met the Australian couple at the WIDECAST office Monday morning, it was so relieving to be able to communicate myself articulately without having to consciously think over what I was trying to say.  I actually felt lighter, I was so happy to be able to speak in my native tongue.  But when I arrived at the beach, all the research assistants spoke English, and as the days went on, I realized Spanish was certainly not the most common language heard at the project.  The locals and permanent Costa Rican staff talked to each other in Spanish, but were relatively separate from all the English-speakers {at least for my first week there}.  I had maybe two conversations in Spanish a day, and it certainly wasn´t necessary to do so.  But even so, I believe that small exposure to Spanish did help in the transition to speaking another language.  It was a great way to balance {re}learning/trying to speak another language, while being able to regress to English during downtime.  And funnily enough, while I felt my Spanish was still very rough and basic, most of the Costa Ricans told me I spoke very well- which I suppose may be true in comparison to the majority of the volunteers that they normally get, who don´t speak a lick of the language.

*Funny story: when being picked up by the taxi driver to be taken to catch the boat out to the beach, the person from the project who was supposed to meet with us was late.  It fell to me to communicate with the taxi driver {in Spanish}, and express to him that I and the other volunteers were going to look for something to eat before we left for the dock.  When the project manager did arrive, they asked the taxi driver how he was able to communicate with us, if none of us really spoke Spanish.  The driver replied that no, communication had been fine because luckily I was an "española," a girl from Spain.  Flattering, but so unbelievable.

Now for what I generally did all day.

A Day in the Life {of a Turtle-Saving Volunteer}
8:30am- wake up and grab a plate from the kitchen to go eat at the Rancho (shelter with picnic tables/main gathering spot); chat with everyone
9:30- clean plate and check the daily schedule for when I´m on hatchery duty during the day, as well as which chore (cleaning the bathroom, kitchen, or Rancho, or raking) I´ve got; read in the hammock
10:30- go for a swim with others (after applying sunscreen of course, Mom); read on the beach
12:00-2:00pm- hatchery duty {lunch was brought out by another volunteer}
2:30- run on the beach
3:30- {cold} shower; hammock time for writing in journal/reading; check night schedule; change the rehab center turtle´s water
5:00- gather in Rancho with other volunteers to talk/play cards/kill time until dinner
6:00- dinner; talking time
7:30- get ready for bed, set alarm for {patrol} duty
8:00- sleep
11:15- wake up bleary-eyed; get ready for patrol
11:30- fill up water; meet patrol group in Rancho; head out
12-4:30am- night patrol
5:00- fall into bed; sleep
Day restarts

*Obviously that´s a really generalized schedule.  Some days I wouldn´t have late-night work, and other days I´d be on hatchery from 6pm-12am- it just depended.  Also, I did get one day off (since I stayed more than a week).  Oh, and some days the volunteers would go on adventures, whether it was a walk to the river at one end of the beach, or a canoe ride with some of the local {questionable} men.  We managed to amuse ourselves.  And we even got to cook a few times!  I personally helped in making pasta bake, hummus, and an amazing lime cake.  I guess it was overall a pretty good time.  In a pretty gorgeous location.  With pretty cool people.  Sigh.

The Good...
So I bet you´re wondering if I actually got to see any turtles, or hatchlings, or tracks at least.  The answer is: YES, to all of those.  Which maybe seems like a no-brainer considering I went to a beach specifically to see all of those things, but at the time I was there, seeing an actual large turtle- not to mention one that actually stayed on the beach to lay eggs- was pretty rare.  There were only something like four turtles who came up and laid in my entire 2 1/2 weeks there.

But yeah, I was on hatchery duty twice when a nest hatched (both were green turtle babies- the prettiest hatchlings that appear on Pacuare Beach)- my first and last hatchery shifts ever, actually.  The first time they hatched, I was really not expecting/wanting it to happen.  I had been pinching myself to stay awake (I had the 10pm-2am shift), and I decided to check the nests one last time before calling it a night.  As I entered the hatchery with my red light on, I just got this feeling like "oh shit, something happened."  And sure enough, the first nest I shined my light on illuminated a cage literally overflowing with baby turtles.  I was so freaked out and unsure of what to do, that I left the hatchery unguarded {a no-no} and ran to find someone, anyone, who would be able to help.  Luckily, since I only had 10 minutes left in my shift, the next person on duty was getting ready to head out, so I grabbed them and we hurried back to deal with the nest.  Unfortunately, the turtles had decided to dig up out of the nest on the side of the protective cage, meaning some surfaced outside the cage and were roaming free throughout the hatchery when we arrived.  After rounding up the free turtles {a somewhat freaky experience, as you had to make sure you weren´t about to step on them while searching the pitch-black hatchery.  Plus I was unsure of how much pressure I could apply to the turtles without killing/maiming them...}, we grabbed the rest of the turtles out of the enclosed cage and placed them all in a bucket.  Then we did the measuring and weighing, as well as counting how many there were {something like 93 of them, yeah, TONS}.  Finally, we walked a few feet from the entrance of the hatchery, made sure there wasn´t too much debris around, and took the turtles out of the bucket one by one.  Because it was dark out, the turtles quickly disappeared from view, and they actually made it to the sea much faster than I would have ever expected.  Within 10 minutes, they were all gone.

The second time was essentially the same as the first, except I actually knew what to do.

Now for the really dramatic retelling of the night patrol I saw my first (and last) grown, laying turtle: ´Twas a dark and stormy night...  okay, not that dramatic, but in all honesty the weather was awful.  One of the only times there was a sustained, heavy rain.  And thanks to the storm clouds, it was pitch black on the beach {oh, it´s probably important to point out that when you´re on patrol you don´t actually turn your light on unless you think you´ve seen turtle tracks}.  So I was on patrol with this guy named William, and we were about an hour in, having a stilted conversation {not only was he German, but he was also relatively quiet/antisocial}, when he flicked his light on and gestured for me to be quiet.  He then went up to the edge of where the sand ended and the forest began, and rushed back to me, saying that we´d found a turtle!  We´d come across it when it was in the process of digging it´s nest, so we had to wait until it was done digging to do anything {meaning we got to stand around in the rain getting cold, yay}, but finally it was time for action.  I really did feel like some sort of weird ninja, thanks to my all-black outfit and combat-like boots.  William held the egg bag under the tail, while I recorded where we´d found the turtle, etc.  Once it was done laying (about 15 minutes), we measured its shell (essentially a meter by a meter), and William tagged its flippers.  Though we wanted to rush back to the hatchery right then, we had to wait for the turtle to make its way safely back to the sea.  It took for what felt like forever, but then I remembered she´d just given birth and I was cursing her for not moving very fast... then I felt bad.  But from the time we saw the turtle initially to when it returned to the sea was roughly an hour and 30 minutes.  We then raced back to the hatchery where a nest was dug, and the eggs were put inside.  Then we went back to the cabins an hour earlier than we were supposed to, to shower and sleep- shhh, don´t tell.

And the Not-So-Good...
From the way I´ve described it above, it might sound like exciting things happened all the time, and every time you worked was fun and amazing.  Not true. While overall I greatly enjoyed volunteering with the turtle, I did have four main complaints I can pinpoint about my personal experience with this project: the bugs, the schedule, lack of sleep, and the food.  {Future volunteers, take note.}
   -Bugs: WOW was I attacked by bugs.  Not only mosquitoes (which I knew were going to be bad), but the sand flies as well, seemed intensely attracted to me.  I feel like I was one of the worst off, in terms of the severity and sheer amount of my bug bites.  They itched so bad- especially at night.  And everyone had to comment on how bit up I was....
   -Schedule: The way the project was set up (and its isolated location) meant that during the day you were pretty much left to your own devices- which was really nice once the next wave of volunteers showed up, because it left lots of time to talk and hang out.  But then at night you were either on 4 or 6 hours of hatchery, or 4 (really 5) hours of night patrol.  And that schedule just got really old about 1 1/2 weeks in.  You couldn´t really get away and do anything, so it just felt like the same thing day in and day out (which it was).  In that sense I was more than ready for a change in scenery.
     -Lack of sleep: okay, so it´s not like I was extremely sleep deprived or anything.  And you could certainly make up for a shitty night´s sleep by dozing in a hammock during the day.  But I guess I got sick of more the lack of uninterrupted sleep.  Because, while I´d end up getting between 7 and 9 hours each night, I´d have to go to bed at 7pm, wake up at 9:30pm to go to the hatchery for 4 hours, and then get back in bed around 2:30am, for example.  It was just a really screwy schedule.  Haha, and now I´m so used to it that I´m exhausted by 8pm, but then wake up at 6am feeling completely rested, since I was able to just sleep through the whole night.  I really need to fix that....
    -Food: so unfortunately Costa Rica is not know for its food.  Coffee, yes {and that reputation is definitely deserved- I didn´t drink coffee until I got here, and now it´s a daily necessity}.  And it wasn´t that the food at the project tasted bad or anything; the cook was decent.  I (and everyone else who´d been there for more than three days) was simply sick of the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, the insane amount of carbs, and the lack of variety.  Honestly, we ate the same thing for breakfast every day- gallo pinto (rice and beans), a pancake or two, and a small side of scrambled eggs.  Lunch was the only time rice didn´t show up on the plate (usually then it was either pasta or fried dough with corn in it <-- blech), and dinner was generally rice, some sort of meat, and maybe a canned vegetable.  While the flavors were fine, they were also really bland, so I became best friends with the hot sauce there {it actually ran out the day I left, so perfect timing, right?}.  Oh, and we only saw food at those three meals, so if you got hungry in between, sucked for you.  Or you could beg a local to cut you down a coconut for a snack ;)  But man am I loving my new found access to fruits and veggies.

The End (!)
Haha, so if you´ve actually made it through that extremely long post, congratulations!  You now know the details of my (almost) three weeks as a turtle savior in a {not-so-concise} nutshell.

But I had to get it all out before I can start talking about my life now.

Gotta stay chronological.

xoxo, Cleome

1 comment:

  1. Que fantastico! You're a fabulous writer, Cleome. Can't wait to hear more about your amazing adventures. (And I'm really glad you're using sunscreen.) Coffee? Tu? Whoa, now I know you're going through a transformation! Te quiero mucho, hijita!