It’s safe to say volunteering abroad was not at all what I was expecting.
After returning home from teaching English in Spain, I fell back into the same ruts pretty quickly. Bartending, bored, searching for a real job, but unexcited by everything I found. I’d gotten pretty jazzed when I found a place you could volunteer with elephants in Sri Lanka, but the excitement was zapped when the price to live in a hut and shovel massive elephant poo was the cost of a used car. I’d been naïve in thinking volunteering would be free or next to it.
My friend Lance was bored post-Spain too, so we hit the library looking for travel ideas. It was mid-November and with winter on the horizon; our only thought was somewhere warm. Lance found the website for a company that organizes volunteering and language courses. The warmest country they worked with was Costa Rica; the volunteer program there was a Sea Turtle Rescue. Perfect! The prices were cheap – almost surprisingly so, and within a few minutes we’d decided this was the perfect plan and we should book immediately. Yes, this was the extent of our research. No, the low prices didn’t raise any red flags. Hah!
Within two weeks we had booked our trip and were set to leave on January 1st.
Expectations are a funny thing. I didn’t have a lot of info about the Turtle Rescue, but whatever I thought it would be – it wasn’t. Access to the camp was across a waist deep river in the crocodile zone. In the States, a river like this has a bridge, but in Costa Rica you wing it. First impression: safety is like a 5 out of 10 on the things they are worried about scale.
ORIENTATION – WEEK 1
I had pictured the camp building to be like a cabin – the kind you stayed at in middle school when you did a camp week. I had pictured walls, and a real ceiling,and a kitchen, and electricity, and running water. Incorrect on all counts.
It’s not that I minded – it’s that I’d packed things like a laptop which would obviously be completely useless. This was more camping then the “forest house” that had been described to us by the travel adviser, and I was woefully unprepared.
The camp was overseen by a skeevy local and a young German woman lacking the ability to smile or recognize humor in any form. I got the feeling she was under the impression the camp was a punishment for misbehaved youth and social deviants, and may not have known that people were electing to go here for fun. Luckily, the other campers were made up of fun and friendly people from all over the world and completely made up for the German cloud of sadness.
In the night we took shifts watching the turtle nests, as the babies hatch during the night Once the turtles made their exit into the world they were taken to the ocean and released. In the morning we replaced the dirty sand in the hatchery with clean sand from the water’s edge. The daytime work was backbreaking in the sweltering heat, the night work kept us awake, as every time someone exited their bunk to take over a shift the entire structure swayed under their footsteps.
The work for the turtles only took a few hours each day, which left us all to find ways to entertain ourselves around the deserted area of beach the camp was on. Every evening after dinner we let the cows lick out our food bowls, watched the sunset , and then played a round of cards by the light of a candle until the flame burned out. One night we were allowed to have a campfire, and we took turns singing the national anthems from our home countries, which was of course painfully terrible but a lot of fun.
Food left a lot to be desired, and I felt myself becoming weaker by the day. Rice and beans made up most of our diet. One evening, I went into the room where our meals were cooked and saw the behind the scenes, and I started to lose my appetite even more – the pot of beans was thick with congealed beans, bugs, and it was clear this pot was constantly topped off and moderately scraped out.
In the second week a few of the guys went with the locals at the camp to pump more water for our drinking supply. They returned with their heads low, and Lance informed me that there had been a dead raccoon in the drinking water. News of this spread around camp pretty quickly as we were all sure that whatever killed the raccoon would soon kill us – and we discussed which vaccinations we had gotten before coming. I hadn’t gotten any, so assumed that I would most likely be the first to go, and started rationing the Gatorade I had remaining. We all sat at the table and decided that even showering in the most likely disease ridden water was risky, and that we would just shower in the ocean. A pact of being disgusting humans made it seem better since we would all be in the same boat. The camp local said it was nothing to worry about – but he wasn’t someone we were keen on taking hygiene advice from.
One night while watching over the turtles in the wee hours of the morning, I found that the camp dog was eating baby turtles and I was outraged. How could they keep this dog running loose around the camp if it’s actually harming the creatures we’re all here to protect? The camp counselors were apathetic at best, and said there was no solution or problem. WHAT?! Solution: Tie up dog. But no. I was pretty frustrated that this was considered ok. Things like this made our efforts seem futile and ridiculous. Not to mention the camp should be focused on the best interest of the Sea Turtles… right? Didn’t we all travel from all over the world, and spend money, to come to this place that helps turtles?
In the next week we were given the treat of walking to the neighboring beach. It too was deserted, but the change of scenery was exciting. A friend from Denmark found clothes washed ashore and wore them as a prize. These types of things are completely normal at turtle camp. One assumes that abandoned clothes are cleaner then the camp conditions.
Whenever a new camper arrived, it was amusing to see them assimilate into our simple world. One girl announced on arrival she wanted to wash the sheets she had brought before using them because they were new. We all looked at her confused and sympathetically before leading her to the vat of deep amber water which was to be conserved, but also would be counterproductive to cleaning anything – especially brand new sheets.
A middle-aged French woman arrived after another week and was indignant to the methods used for the turtles and wanted to argue how they should be cared for. Everyone else had long since learned that of course what we were doing wasn’t the best of anything. But we had learned that the German and the Local were not open to new, thought out ideas, and plodding along was the best approach.
Around week four the camp had run out of money for food and campers had to scrounge together pocket-money to send out for a sack of rice. The once a week treat of a piece of fruit was discontinued. This was bad timing, as a handful of new campers arrived – and there were now more campers then beds. Some campers were now sleeping on the wooden deck slats. The two bunks downstairs had also become over run by fire ants. The campers downstairs had come to the main camp area while their clothes and mattresses were left in the sun for days in the hopes of eradicating the ants.
Spirits were low.
This was also the time where the Local at the camp decided we should dig a massive 4 foot deep trench in the sand. Why? No one really knew. He had his reasons. Something about the turtles – but as you can imagine sand is heavy – and we would be removing it all by hand – then carrying the heavy sacks of scalding sand. I would have felt that tying up the dog would have solved a bigger problem – but that would still happen as we all melted in pools of sadness and heat stroke.
The time I spent at turtle camp is an awesome, special, memory and I am so glad that I have it to look back on. Would I want to go again? Well, not really. Not just because of the meager food rations and potentially hazardous water, but more because I can’t really imagine that the work there is extremely helpful. The same dog is probably attacking turtles by night, and the people in charge probably still don’t care.
I met a lot of interesting people during this time, and this experience was something truly unique to share with them.
Volunteering abroad is often met with mixed attitudes. This program isn’t one where I think the volunteers are hurting the community, but I also don’t think it’s helping the cause too much either.
Overall review : Unforgettable (in the good and bad ways)
Want more Sea Turtle pictures? Check out the album!
If you’re looking for a more in depth and insightful outlook on Turtle Camp, check out Lance’s book : The Shell of a Person