I had decided to stay in Costa Rica until March to catch the Atlantic Leatherback nesting season, and had selected the project run by ASTOP in Parismina. Aside from the imposing, monolithic eco-machine known as Tortuguero National Park, the majority of the turtle conservation projects on the Caribbean were now expensive to volunteer at. ASTOP, by contrast, was a community-based project (upon which my program in Drake Bay had been extensively modelled) and offered competitive prices to volunteers living in homestays in the village.
I headed East once again on the road from San José to Limón, winding out of the Central Valley through mountain terrain and dropping back down into the steamy jungle. In a chaotic scene at the terminal in Siquirres I changed onto a local bus that was to introduce me to a part of Costa Rica integral to the national identity, but one which I had never seen before - the banana plantations. The bus zipped down long tree-lined roads that formed shady corridors flanked by huge plantations. Row after row of banana plants flickered past, permeated by what looked like some kind of antiquated monorail network. The entire production process could be appreciated from the bus. Hundreds of barefoot workers pushed around trains full of bananas hanging from the monorail like clothes in a mechanised laundry. Occasionally the long arm of a gate would fall and halt traffic, momentarily uniting the plantations from either side of the road and allowing a train of bananas to skim seamlessly from one side to the other before lifting again. Bananas could then be seen being drawn through massive tanks of water and then hauled into an enormous packing house, at the rear of which stood articulated trucks being filled with the fresh produce under a huge logo on the factory wall - Del Monte. Totally fascinating.
I had arrived at the very beginning of the season, before the project had officially started, and the first few patrols were just led by me and a couple of long-time volunteers; one foreign, one local. We set off for the beach - a wild black sand strip littered with trees (and more plastic than I had ever seen) and battered by brutal surf. The first rain to touch my skin in three months poured from the sky. I had never patrolled in the Caribbean before and so many things were different here. I kept double-taking the Southern Cross in the sky which confusingly now stood at the end of the beach with the sea to the left instead of the right. Jupiter was nowhere to be seen, obscured by the shadows of the jungle instead of hovering out at sea. My brain was having trouble adjusting to being on the other side of country. Despite this, it dawned on me that no-one had said a word about protocol - we had just arrived at the beach each kitted out in black, headlamps switched off, and set out to walk 10km or so in the dark. We were three people from three disparate backgrounds, but all three assimilated with the unspoken culture of patrolling. I reflected on how weird my very first patrol felt three years ago, and how utterly natural it felt now.
On the first few patrols we saw nothing, but then without warning the Leatherbacks started to come out and there was at least one nesting on the beach every night. By the time I left I had seen six or seven, the novelty slowly eroding into familiarity. Some big groups of volunteers arrived, and so we trained them up and cleaned all the plastic off the beaches. I learned all about the specific local issues and crises that the project was enduring and reflected upon the differences with our program in Drake Bay. It was clear that the issues we had were minor by comparison, and totally resolvable. I realised that I should treasure the golden relationship that we enjoy with the Ministry for the Environment (MINAET), and the fact that they just leave us alone to do our job. ASTOP, by contrast, was finding out the hard way the importance of not pissing them off.
The village of Parismina is really unique, I think. A beautiful and compact little pueblo filled with lots of different coloured houses and shops, a couple of schools and churches, and the obligatory football and volleyball pitches. People were poor and there was a massive unemployment problem, but I noticed that some houses were finished to an absurdly high standard, and that some villagers were in possession of expensive quad bikes and the like. I was reliably informed that these people had had the good fortune to find a huge bag of coke washed up on the beach, discarded from one of the myriad smuggling vessels plying the Caribbean. One bag would transform a person's life here. I later heard how the coast of Nicaragua and Honduras is swept every night by the eyes of poor local kids, scouring the beach for that lucky find that would change everything for their families. It is an example of yet another horrendous consequence of cocaine trafficking.
I stayed in Parismina for about 10 days, after which I felt I had done my bit. I really had to get moving and get out of Costa Rica; I was supposed to be travelling after all. After a few days in San José I got my s*** together and left for the border of Nicaragua and a trip down memory lane. The last time I crossed here was with Sarah in in July 2009.