So this is it.I am back in San Jose again for the last time, sitting out the last two days before my return flight back to 'Old Blighty'.When I take off on Monday morning, it will be the first time I have left the 'New World' in fourteen months, marking the end of mine (and Sarah's) Latin American travelling extravaganza, and the end of this blog, incidentally.But things don't stop here; when I take off from London again on the 7th October, after a month of debauchery no doubt, I will be embarking on part two of my travels, with a new blog located here: http://www.offexploring.com/callingdoctorjames.
Since the end of June I have been living in a tiny community, called El Progreso, tucked away in the jungle behind Drake Bay, Peninsula de Osa, on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.Sarah and I came here last year to visit the nearby national parks and ended up volunteering at a turtle project for a few weeks.This year I went back to work as a research assistant for just over two months - hence the excusably long blog - but the experience could not have been more different.Last year, the project was based in a rustic eco-lodge perched on the edge of the lagoon by the beach, whereas this year the camp was built from scratch onto the side of a house in the village, belonging to a local called Max, and his family, complete with a massive thatched roof, kitchen, dining table and tool shed.In Max's house we were using the rooms inside to sleep in, and we also rented another house across the street for the volunteers, from an ex-poacher called Venero, who had become a major asset to the project.Apart from having electricity, a major positive difference was the immersion within the community that we were working with, and whom were destined to inherit the project from us.
The situation had changed dramatically since last year, as we now had more than ten locals working regularly with us; and, at the beginning when we were reconstructing the hatchery building, it seemed that we had the whole village helping us out.The atmosphere was buzzing with enthusiasm.What's more, this year the volunteers were paying significantly more than last year, which provided us with the budget to contract and pay the locals a regular wage for any shifts they did with us.Those from the community that had been fully capacitated could lead patrols on the beach, or work a paid shift in the hatchery, and we also contracted a cook to prepare lunch and dinner for us each day.All of these locals were able to earn a substantial sum of money from the project - a conservation project.The message was clear: without the turtles, there is no project; without the project, there would be no access to this money - do not tolerate the poaching of turtle eggs.It is only possible to gauge the impact of this regular source of income if you consider the fact that the majority of people in the village do not have jobs.Some own farmland and can make a subsistence living this way; others make limited money from transport or tourism.But many make money from extractive use of local natural resources - illegal logging and the like, or poaching.The project was simply offering a legal and, more often than not, better-paid alternative to these practices.
The real key to the future sustainability of the project though is through the association, now named ACOTPRO.The association existed last year, but this year it had, in theory, equal responsibility with us for the management of the project, although in practice the entire volunteer project and the plan of work was coordinated by me, Irene and David.This will change though, and perhaps as early as next year ACOTPRO will take full responsibility for the project, and the volunteers, and it will need to continue to develop new ways of making money through conservation.One promising method is to run tours (tourist patrols) of the beach during the nesting season, the proceeds from which the association could then use to employ more people from the village, set up an office and develop the program to tap the eco-tourism money pot in other ways. It should be straight-forward.Tourists are more than happy to pay with 25 bucks to walk up and down the beach, learn a bit about turtles, and maybe even find a nest or two; this system covers the cost for turtle conservation projects all around the world.It hasn't worked yet in El Progreso because no-one has exactly gotten around to publicising the tours with the hotels in nearby Drake Bay (Agujitas), where all of the money-laden tourists are staying - pura vida*.It doesn't help, however, that the peak turtle-nesting months exactly coincide with the low tourist season - October and November - during which time the heavy rainfall and storms tear the infrastructure of the peninsula apart.With a bit of luck though, and with the enthusiasm of the younger generations slowly enriching the project, there is a bright future ahead of the conservation effort in Drake Bay, which may just save the population of nesting Olive Ridley turtles, and maybe other critically-endangered species like the Hawksbill and Black turtles, that have been so devastated by decades of systematic poaching and intensive fishing.
As for the turtles on the beach, this year started worryingly slowly, but then the season burst into action and the numbers of nests on the beach has been steady, with a higher number found in the first two months than in those of the last five years.By the time I left there were around two per night on average, and often a turtle or two on Drake Beach; there were fewer on Ganado Beach, although David and Greivin did find a Hawksbill turtle laying eggs - the first time one has been found in the history of the five-year-old project.
A little about the process: I wrote more about it before in my blog from last year (http://www.offexploring.com/robandsarah/blog/costa-rica/proyecto-de-conservacion-de-las-tortugas-marinas), so I won't go into detail, but in essence the mission is to locate all of the nests left on the beach before the poachers do.This is achieved by patrolling the beach using several groups over a twelve-hour period, from 8pm to 8am the next morning. Whenever we are lucky enough to encounter a nesting turtle, we tag her with a unique identification number, record biometric data, and recover the eggs she leaves on the beach.If we just find tracks and a nest, we have to locate the eggs beneath the sand and relocate them to the secure hatchery building, where the new nests we dig are protected from predators and, in theory, poachers too.Whilst it would be straight-forward enough for a poacher to break into the hatchery, for example by simply jumping over one of the walls, the idea is that there is always someone there in the adjacent lookout building (the 'chante'), keeping watch over the hatchery and acting as a deterrent for any would-be poacher.
Every year, the River Drake breaks through the beach to form a new mouth in front of the lagoon.Normally this happens in the peak of the rainy season in October, but this year it broke through in May, so the beach had already been split into two by the time we arrived.The only way to reach the 'South' beach was to take a boat across the lagoon, and even this was only possible during high tide when there was actually water in the lagoon, otherwise we were walking through the shingle dragging the boat across - soul destroying at 4am in the morning after a four-hour patrol in the rain.The one advantage, though, was that we were nearly always able to send out two groups on every patrol - one to the South; one to the North - and so the probability of coming across a turtle still 'in action' was much higher.And we did find them, lots of them!I was especially lucky and held the record of 'most turtles seen' until I left, having worked with ten since the season kicked off at the end of July. The efficiency of the patrols this year was enhanced by the use of radios: one at the camp; one on the beach; one in the chante.After removing the eggs from the nest, one person could stay with the turtle, wave her goodbye and camouflage her work; another could run back with the eggs in a bag, whilst the person staying in the chante could be busy digging a new nest in the hatchery; they could then re-bury the eggs and record the data alone, whilst the rest of the group continued to patrol on the beach.The whole process could be wrapped up in thirty minutes, leaving more time available for finding nests.The last patrol I led was especially nice in this respect, as we found three nests and a new turtle, whom I tagged, and we all left on time with all of the eggs safely tucked to bed in the hatchery - a hugely satisfying end to the project, and it didn't even rain (much) either.
The rain was something else this year.Whilst we did have two notable periods of clemency, these now seem like somewhat unreal moments that nobody is quite sure ever really happened.Most days were characterised by dense black clouds emerging over the mountains, full of heavy rain and electrical storms.The rain would always complicate things on the beach, and make patrolling uncomfortable, but this was compounded by the long distances involved this year since we weren't located next to the beach anymore.There was a 4km walk just to get to and from the beach each night, with a 12km patrol on the sand in between.We had bikes, but despite our best efforts to maintain them the tough conditions really tore them up, and we rarely had more than two in operation.Just before I left, the weather took a turn for the worst, and during one particularly fierce storm the rain and the sea took away a huge section of the beach in front of the lagoon.The night before we had left our two boats moored to a substantial concrete post that we had sunk into the beach just weeks earlier, but by the morning the post and the boats were gone.The mouth of the lagoon had become so broad that there was next to no water left in it, and the landscape was barely recognisable from the night before.The beach was wild and changing daily, and we had to re-adjust our working practices accordingly in the face of the daily onslaught of the forces of nature.
The work was tough, and some of our volunteers could not handle it.We had a great group to begin with, and good people throughout, but we had others who were essentially tourists who had come to visit the local sights and experience the nature.Mariela, a girl I met in Buenos Aires, decided that she didn't like anyone and left, and we were on the brink of asking others to leave as their attitude was not commensurate with the project.It all seemed inexplicably messy at times, but finally, at the end, we had an epic group who were a total joy to live and work with.It was so reassuring for us to receive volunteers of the type we were accustomed to from last year: flexible, easy-going, hard-working and passionate about turtles.Also, for Edu (a volunteer) and I, it seemed like a dream, as all of the other volunteers that arrived were girls, and all drop-dead gorgeous.I don't think the local boys from El Progreso quite knew what had hit them either.
Living with the community was one of the best things about the project this year.Max's family were especially inspiring.It sounds like a cliché of course, but, like most families in rural Costa Rica, they have very little, yet the family live in apparent harmony with one another and seem to want for nothing.They kids were always happy and smiling and never seemed to argue, despite the basic living conditions, the daily diet of rice and beans, the long distances to get to school each day, and the sporadic isolation from the rest of the country brought about by the extreme weather.They put those of us who complain about how hard our lives are in the developed world to shame, and demonstrate how we simply do not need the possessions and technology with which we adourn ourselves and to which we attach such importance. And more fool us, for they live in a rustic paradise amongst some of the most extraordinary natural beauty, whilst we trudge around in the rain and the pollution, paying obscene amounts of money just to exist.I'm not sure how I can really go back to living my life quite the way I did before, but we will see.The one thing that I am certain of is that I have no intention of returning to the world of work that I was accustomed to before, at least for the time being. I am going to continue to travel and work abroad, engage with communities that need help and perhaps even pursue a career in wildlife conservation.One such idea would be to establish a similar volunteer-maintained turtle conservation project elsewhere in the world; and where better to start searching than the luscious beaches of Australia, where many endangered species of turtle come to nest.The next phase of my life is beginning to unfold, and I'm not quite sure where it is going to take me; but I'm very happy that I am beginning to shrug off the heavy burden of expectation that I used to feel about my working life.It is automatic for many of us from the developed world to feel a necessity to follow a particular path: to buy a house; to get married; to be measured by conventional benchmarks of career 'success'.The realisation that I am already starting to discard these accepted dogmas, and in doing so enriching my life with experiences that so many others deny themselves, is probably the most exciting aspect of all.
* Pura Vida is a saying in Costa Rica that can be used simply to convey well-being and tranquillity.It can also mean that anything is possible, or that nature is beautiful; but it is essentially a phrase that encapsulates the manifestations of the happy-go-lucky opportunism of the people of Costa Rica.