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Published: June 15th 2013
In about 24 hours, my family will be picking me up from Cameronal, which will mark the end of this chapter of my Central American vacation. So, I am writing this entry as a (most likely) final reflection on my time volunteering with the turtles.
This volunteer project has been unlike any other experience of my life. Bits and pieces are recognizable, of course, but I really feel like I have spent the last two weeks transplanted in another world. Unlike some other travel and volunteering, working with the turtles involves a LOT of downtime. The experience of downtime is heightened by being in a remote location, virtually disconnected from the rest of the world. Because of that, the work and the play have both defined my time here.
The work has been a little unlike what I expected. Right now, we are not in turtle season. In a few months, when they are in the height of turtle season, I will be curious to hear about the experiences of the volunteers here because I expect they will have quite a different experience. But for me, much
Crab on the beach.
of the work has been only peripherally connected to turtle conservation. For example, more than half of my daytime work hours have been spent doing landscaping projects at the reserve. I totally get how that helps keep the reserve going, and I’m happy to contribute in that way. But, there are definitely a number of degrees of separation between pulling up irrigation tubes at the reserve and the impact on the sea turtle population. At night, of course, we have the patrols. I have continued to see turtles doing their thing. (Right now, there may be 4-5 turtles that come up to lay eggs. If we get the timing just right, we can see them. During the active season, I think there can be hundreds.) Mostly this is very cool, and I feel lucky to witness it. But it has also been discouraging. Ultimately, during high season, when a turtle lays eggs volunteers/staff will carefully relocate those eggs to the hatchery. In the hatchery they will be protected from predators and poachers, and more of them will survive. Right now, though, there isn’t much we can do other than collect data for long-term research and continue to be a deterrent
Making things easier.
for poachers. The other night, we relocated 88 eggs to another place only to discover (in the morning) that raccoons had eaten them (probably within minutes). Because of all of that, my favorite part of the work I’ve done has been when we are in the hatchery. One of the guys we work with here described the hatchery as “a giant pool of clean sand”. Right now, we have do dig a huge hole in the sand and then sift all of that sand through big sifters. Then we’ll spread the sand out again in the hole. It’s so much work, and it won’t be ready for another month. But, at least I feel like I am making an impact.
The play part has also been unexpected. I have had so much more time to relax than I would have anticipated. I have walked on the beach, taken naps, and read several books. The breaks, coupled with a bunch of people that don’t know each other very well AND the remote location has led to a number of creative ways to pass the time. For example, one night a guy volunteering here agreed
I think that this was a "third time is a charm" round.
(somewhat reluctantly) to let others of us give him a mohawk (with scissors). Other than the bald spot, it looked great! The cats have been endless amounts of entertainment. Four of the kittens have been given away – but we got to keep one. That happened by accident, actually. All five kittens were loaded up in the car to be transported and placed for adoption, but only four made it. One of the kittens, which had been named Scaredy-cat, escaped from the car quiet as a mouse and was found hours later back with her mother. Not everyone loves the cats as much as I do (although, in fairness, none of them have pooped in my bed. Not all volunteers can say that), but everyone is entertained by them. Another fun highlight was when we were snacking on breadsticks and someone wondered, “Can you smoke these?” The answer: yes. Fun times…
For me, while some parts were unexpected, these past two weeks have been really healthy and rejuvenating. There’s plenty of exercise, which contributes to amazing sleep. We eat almost exclusively whole, freshly prepared foods. We drink only coffee in the morning, water
It actually was a lot easier. It was a lot of material to move.
and fresh fruit juice during the day (plus tang every once in a while). If I want a diet coke or a beer or processed food, I have to hike a couple of hours to get it. Plus, I think that people would pay good money to sweat like I have this week. It’s so hot and humid here that I sweat when I am standing still – so add in some hard physical labor and there’s no way I still have toxins left in my body…
Plus, this place is green in every sense of the word. First, it’s gorgeous. I’m totally connected with nature, which is constantly changing. One of my favorite things is how the storms roll in – in one minute you will be in sunshine, then you can feel the air start to change. Before long it’s pouring so hard you can’t hear yourself think – but that rarely last longer than a couple of hours. The people here are also legitimately committed to the environment. Almost everything gets reused or recycled. For example, we built a bridge using wood that was either recycled or found on the
Plus giant rocks.
beach. They are really mindful of water and electric use. One of my favorite moments was when we were collecting twine that had been used in a landscaping project. It was no longer needed, but they were saving it for a future project. One of the volunteers said, “I can’t believe we are collecting this. We could by another spool of twine for like a dollar”. One of the guys that works here responded, “but, why?” He’s right. Why buy new when you can reuse the old? As another example, one of the clipboards that they use to record data during the patrols is (in my opinion) broken. It’s slit long-ways from the bottom almost to the top. I would totally have replaced it, without thinking twice. But, truly, it still works. In big ways and really small ones, this place has expanded my thinking about my relationship to the environment.
Some things were harder than they sounded. For example, one day they told us that we could use the truck because it would be easier to transport materials that way. Awesome, I thought, because pushing the wheelbarrow kicks my butt. Then I
Break time on the hammock, a good breeze, the ocean waves in sight = a good time.
learned that the truck doesn’t start on it’s own. You have to push it down a hill to get it started. Okay, no problem. But, if it doesn’t start, you have to push it back up the hill to try again. Once it took us 4 times to get it going – and that was the easy way! Other things were easier than they sounded. For example, we don’t have hot water and there are bugs everywhere. But, surprisingly, I just adapted to that almost immediately.
If I were a different kind of person – a bird watcher (the birds are vastly diverse and stunning, but outside of that observation it’s lost on me), a surfer (people come from all over just to surf our waves), or just less of a klutz (I stumbled, tripped, or outright fell so often that one of the other volunteers gave me a bracelet that is supposed to help you keep your balance)– I think that I could have gotten even more out of this volunteer project. Fortunately, the other elements really worked for me – hard work, an unlimited appreciation of time to read, etc. As
And then there was one.
it was, I have loved it, learned a lot, and made a difference (I hope).
With all of the down time, I have definitely had ample time to think – which almost always leads to thinking about Emma. It’s almost two years after she died and thinking of her still happens anytime, everywhere. The whole “I think of her everyday” cliché applies to me, for sure. If I hear a new song, I wonder if she would have liked it. If I feel sad or anxious, I compare those feelings to mine of grief. If I experience something new, I wonder if I would have done it if she hadn’t died. If I experience something familiar, I think about how it’s different because she’s not there. Et cetera. Et cetera. But, I don’t often allow myself to sit with how much I still miss her and how I can still be shocked by her sudden absence from my life – it’s just too painful for the day to day. Here, though, I haven’t had so many distractions and have “gone there” a bit. One day, I was reading on the beach, and I
Making do with what you've got. No level? Howe about a glass of water and a camera...
just couldn’t get the memories of us in London out of my brain. In particular, I was haunted by the memories of shopping for a designer dress – one that was meant to help her blossom into adulthood but that ultimately became the dress we chose for her funeral days later. Ouch – it turns out that the edges of the break in my heart are still pretty sharp and jagged. But, later during a turtle patrol walking the beautiful beach at night, watching for turtles that, despite the odds, continue their struggle to survive and thrive, I was able to pull out of the sorrow reminding myself (again) that none of us know how long we have (another cliché, I know). We just have to do the best we can to have a happy life. For Emma, that day, it meant shopping for a designer dress. For me, today, it means this trip, and I’m grateful to be able to make it.
Next up: relaxing with my family!
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