First impressions of "La Projecta de las Tortugas" in Cameronal

Published: June 8th 2013
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The blob in the middle is a monkey.
Even though I have no access to the internet, I am writing a blog entry about my first 40(ish) hours at my volunteer project with the turtles. I know how quickly the strange becomes familiar, and I want to capture some of my thoughts before I completely adapt to a routine here.

My journey to Cameronal Wildlife Reserve started out pretty normally. I was driving to the bus stop by someone from the language school. Within minutes of getting dropped off at the bus station, another international traveler going to Playa Samara (a 20-something blond woman from Copenhagen) and I found each other. We were practically like magnets as we navigated the bus station – figuring out which bus was ours, how to check our luggage, and the other mores of the Costa Rican bus system. Through my limited Spanish, and our combined deductive reasoning, we ended up on a bus that we were fairly certain was correct.

The bus lasted about 5 hours and was relatively uneventful. I had a brief moment of panic when I departed the bus in Samara (which was the location burned

The cabin for the volunteers...
into my brain). I gathered my luggage and then checked my information. Fortunately I did that with enough time to realize that I was actually supposed to depart at Estrada – a small town that was also the end of the bus line. Back onto the bus I rushed, just in time. When I arrived in Estrada, I was the only person still on the bus that was once standing room only. According to my instructions, I was supposed to wait outside the soda (a small shop) for someone to pick me up and drive me to Cameronal. Shortly after the bus left, a man named Santiago pulled up in a beat-up pick-up truck. He asked, “Cameronal?” I said, “Si.” and off we went. Santiago had no English, but we managed ok, and we even made some small talk until I became completely absorbed into the terrain. We traveled along mountainous dirt paths, with few people or buildings to be seen. At one point, he stopped and pointed out monkeys swinging on the branches overhead. He laughed good-naturedly and nodded when I asked “Una fotographia, por favor?”

At last, we arrived at our

My first glimpse of the kittens. <3
final destination. There are a few buildings at our sight: a main house for the bosses (I haven’t been in that yet), a common area with a wide open, covered space for eating and relaxing, with a kitchen and bathrooms (no hot water), a small cabin for the 2 more junior, local, full-time workers, and the cabin for the volunteers. Our cabin is a wooden cabin with a tin roof. Outside, the wood is decorated with colorful, informal paintings. Inside is one big room with 6 sets of bunkbeds, some cabinets, and a refrigerator. Although there are 4 walls, there is definitely an open feeling. There is space between the walls and the ceiling, much of the walls are made of with lattice. This is great because, along with 2 ceiling fans, we get a good breeze going and the bugs are free to come and go at they wish. It also means that we get to fall asleep and awaken to the sounds of waves crashing over the beach.

At first, I felt a little bit nervous. I didn’t know what to do. There was only 1 other volunteer at the time

The beach!
(two more were away for the weekend), Jonathan a young student on a gap year from Belgium. He seemed a little shy (and I later learned, a little hungover). Everyone else worked there and were primarily speaking in Spanish. Since then, I have come to learn that the atmosphere here is very relaxed and informal. It’s not that there was not some unknown thing I was “supposed to do”, but instead there wasn’t anything that they needed me to do so they didn’t really care what I did. Now that I know how to interpret the lack of structure and direction, I feel much more relaxed.

I got settled in and discovered that we are sharing our bunk with 5 kittens that were recently born to the project cat. They are adorable and hilarious. As domestic (or kinda domestic) animals tend to do, they bring the volunteers together, make us feel more like a family, and sooth our homesickness. I love them. I can’t stop taking pictures of them and snuggling with them. Plus, they eat bugs.

I thought that we were going to patrol on

A praying mantis on my water bottle. NBD.
my first night, but we didn’t end up going out (I’m still not really sure why). So, the real work started on Monday (yesterday at the time that I’m writing this). There is a lose structure to the workday here. We have meals at 8, noon, and 6. We work for a couple of hours in the morning and a couple of hours in the afternoon, trying to avoid the peak hours of sun and heat. Then, in the nighttime, we patrol for the turtles. On the first day, our daytime work was to make a gravel path from the main area to the cabin for the rangers. Right now, there is an unused gravel and stone path that leads to the old volunteer house. That house was damaged in a hurricane some years ago and is abandoned. As such, the gravel path is no longer needed, but a path to the ranger cabin is because when it rains it can be difficult to get there in the mud and grass. So, we basically are moving the gravel path. It’s about as fun (not much) and as hard (very) as you might imagine. It’s basically using a pickax to break up the path, shovel it into wheel-barrows, wheel those heavy loads to another area and dump it. Even avoiding the peak heat hours, it’s extremely hot. Within 5 minutes sweat was dripping down my face and body, and the progress feels very slow.

However, during the downtimes, before and after each meal and before the patrol, we are free to do what we like. For me, that included reading at the beach (which I can essentially see from my bed), dozing on a hammock in the common area, and swimming in the ocean after the 2nd shift. The water here is the perfect temperature and safe for swimming, and I know that dreaming of cooling off in it will get me through more than one of my afternoons shoveling. It’s also amazing to be on a beach that it is protected and relatively unknown. There is nobody around, no garbage, and no noise other than the ocean. It’s magical. Most of the people who work with me here also like to surf, for them (and for me) this is a kind of paradise.

I also, during my downtime, was able to be one with the wildlife here. Bugs and insects are simply something that is a part of the experience, pretty much all the time. Of course we have ants (fire and sugar), mosquitoes, tics and flies. But, we also have preying mantises (on my waterbottle my first morning), scorpions (fortunately, I’ve only seen 1 so far), beetles the size of a child’s fist, and other unidentifiable (by me) creatures. There are bulltoads that gather, as if in a townhall meeting, every night in our common area. The biggest I’ve seen is probably twice the size of my fist. There’s an iguana whose body is the bigger than my shoe that lives in the rafters of our common area. And, there are colorful crabs everywhere, including the shower drain in the girl’s bathroom. It’s not hard to remember that I am in a wilderness refuge.

At the end of the day yesterday, we had a patrol. There are 4 of the 7 species of sea turtle that come to our beach to lay eggs. They are either officially endangered or nearly there, and there are a number of natural

Fun with my translating app
(raccoons) and human (poachers) predators of the turtle eggs. That, coupled with the elements, means that only 1 in 1000 (or something) laid eggs survives. Basically, we are trying to increase the odds as well as do research. So, we patrol the beaches. If we find tracks, we see if the turtle is still there. If she is, then we stay with her to observe her behavior, take samples of the sand, check to see if she is tagged, and count the eggs. Otherwise, we examine the tracks and check for eggs. During high season, the staff and volunteers then move the eggs to a protected hatchery (that we are building right now). That’s basically all I knew before actually doing a patrol.

Since it’s not high season right now, they can’t guarantee turtle sightings. I knew that coming in, and my only hope was that over my 2 weeks here I would see one turtle. I figured that would be a reasonable hope, but one of the volunteers whose been here for 5 weeks has only seen 2 or 3. Although I know that all the work that we do here helps,

sleeping in a pile is the best
the patrols are the most obviously relevant to turtle conservation. So, there was an excitement in the air, not just for me, when it was time to patrol.

Before coming to Costa Rica, I had very little information about what to expect. All I was really told was that I would need dark clothes, long pants and long sleeves, and hiking boots for the patrol. In fact, a few days before I left, I was on a mission going to different sporting goods stores trying to find something that was both lightweight and black. Let’s just say that I took the directions very seriously, and when I arrived about 15 minutes before 9pm (the start of the patrol) I practically looked like a ninja. I was in head-to-toe black – long sleeves, long pants, and hiking boots – and ready to go. That’s when the others started to arrive wearing pretty much what they had been wearing during the day. One person wore a loose white long sleeved shirt. One person wore flip-flops. One person was even wearing his pajamas. Haha. Good to know I have options moving forward.


The hatchery in progress

Walking on the beach, at night, in the complete darkness, takes some getting used to. We were lucky because it was a clear night. We had an unbelievable number of stars to guide our path. Also there’s luminescent plankton in the water. When there is movement in the water, they glow. An effect of this is that when the waves crash, it looks like the crest of the wave is sparkling and glowing in the night. Breathtaking. But, let’s be real. It’s still pretty freaking dark. You are allowed to use red flashlights, but only when it’s completely necessary. There’s driftwood everywhere, practically waiting to trip me. It’s hot and humid (although that could be partly an effect of my ninja outfit). I just had to put one foot in front of the other, hoping not to fall. Several times, I had experiences similar to that feeling when you think that there’s one more step when you are going down stairs and awkwardly discover only the floor. But, I made it through unscathed. We walked for 3 hours – and we saw our first turtle! It was an olive ridley. She dug 4 holes before deciding it wasn’t right. So, no eggs, but it was amazing just the same.

When I finally fell into bed, at about 1am, I was happy and satisfied. I awoke to the sound of the kittens running laps around our room, ready to start another day. So far, this morning has been much the same as yesterday – we worked on the hatchery (more on that later) and there was a film crew here. But, it was still mostly shoveling and sweating. I think I have a few minutes to sneak a nap in before my next shift, so I’m going to sign off here.

Additional photos below
Photos: 19, Displayed: 19



Door stops.

Digging is hard.

A new path!

I stole this from google. We aren't really allowed to take pictures... But, the turtle pretty much looked like this.

10th June 2013

Thanks so much for the blogs. You are a fabulous writer like your Mother. You help us feel like we are there too although I am not sure I would survive. Love you.

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