Written by: Madeline Klaver
If I was the protagonist of some sort of weird, hyper realistic novel, I can safely say that it would not be of the action-adventure genre. It wouldn’t be fantasy or science fiction, or romance or mystery. My life is really not novel-writing material, not because I don’t do interesting things sometimes, but because I am definitely not the kind of person who ends up as a protagonist.
As I am a giant nerd, reading is one of my favourite pastimes. I like to read about people going on crazy journeys, exploring the wilderness, discovering new things and not showering for weeks, probably. But even through all of that excitement, I never see myself as one of those protagonists. I’d most likely be the bookish side-character, or the childhood friend that stays back home.
That’s why it was a little strange that, when I learned about YCI’s Costa Rica project, I was completely hooked. Environmentalism is my weakness, I suppose, and to be fair I’ve always wanted to try my hand at some genuine fieldwork. And sea turtles are some of the coolest animals on the planet. Aside from all that, I’d just spent two years learning about Spanish culture and the Spanish language in school. I couldn’t sign myself up fast enough.
And that’s how I found myself on a plane to San Jose on December 26th. I had never travelled alone, or much out of Canada, and I had to be coached every step of the way by a pleasant southern stewardess who kept calling me “sweetheart”. Getting off the plane into San Jose was kind of like jumping into the deep end of a pool. After some confusion, I miraculously managed to find my bag and make it outside into a hoard of people trying to get me to take their specific taxi. I walked slowly, and just kind of glanced around blankly until, mercifully, I was found by Berny, our project leader with RJI.
I remember the taxi ride to the hostel really vividly. San Jose was a blur of colours, narrow sidewalks, and Spanish advertisements. I hungrily took in all of the sights, and arrived at the hostel before I knew it.
There, I was greeted by my group. Everyone was in a sort of giddy pre-adventure mood. We had some quick conversation before turning in for what would be the first of many shortened nights’ sleeps.
We piled into a taxi at 3 AM the next morning, then a bus, then another, dustier bus, then a pickup truck, and then arrived at camp at Playa Caletas. We were greeted by an overenthusiastic puppy (who turned out to be quite the kleptomaniac, but that’s another story), and a group of people who were also working on the project. We did a quick tour of the camp, then unpacked for our two-week stay.
On that very first night, we had a nest of hatchlings to release before dinner. It was so amazing, getting to pick up these tiny squirmy babies and help them find their way safely to the ocean. They were really funny little things. You put them in the bucket and they beat each other down like “RELEASE ME FROM THIS PLASTIC PRISON.” And then you put them on the sand and it’s “Wait, hold up, what is this? Where is this? How do flippers work again? I am going to sit here for at least a full minute.”
Eventually they do get on their way, though, and it’s a really pretty sight.
Life at camp was very structured and well-put-together, so I was quickly able to settle into rhythm with the other people working there. That being said, I was really far out of my comfort zone (remember, not a protagonist here), and I had some trouble learning how to live outside of my regular routine. The shower was two buckets of well water, on a raised tile platform. If you’re strategic about time of day, you might not even have an audience of eight million hermit crabs. The bathroom is always full of hermit crabs, though. And always smells kind of like… well, a bathroom in a rustic camp on the beach. It was a big challenge for me to cope without running water and electricity and clean feet, but I had gone to Costa Rica expecting to challenge myself, and I focussed on the turtles and the experience instead.
As I adjusted to my surroundings, I had an incredible support network of wonderful people from all around the world. The people in my group were really nice to me, and helped me out when I needed it. I shared stories with people from England, Germany, Costa Rica and all over the United States and Canada. Learning about all of their cultures was really interesting, and one of my favourite memories of my time at camp was New Years’ Eve, when we participated in traditions from everyone’s homes.
At the stroke of midnight, all of us jumped off of logs (into a good new year), ate twelve grapes, hugged everyone, sang “auld lang sine”, then ran around camp with backpacks to guarantee future travels. All the while we talked and laughed and enjoyed the beautiful place we were all sharing.
For reference, here is a panorama of the camp and its structures:
And, right across from that is the vast blue ocean:
You can also see a rift in the space-time continuum to the right. Or I’m just bad at taking panoramas. Nah, it’s the first thing.
As for the typical structure of our days, it usually went something like this:
1: Breakfast. I was delighted to discover that sacrificing refrigeration didn’t mean sacrificing milk. I had my sleepy, stare-into-space-and-contemplate-life-over-a-bowl-of-cereal every morning, just like at home. Now with at least 200% more iguanas!
2: Morning routine, including bucket showers, teeth brushing with no running water, and shaking out your clothes because scorpions are a horrifying possibility. (Actually, though, there weren’t that many bugs. Hooray for the dry season!) (Well, technically every bug at camp just flocked to Steph, one of the people in our group.) (Moral of the story: bring Steph) (I’m sorry Steph, if you’re reading this.)
3: It’s definitely better to get chores done earlier in the day. All of the chores are arranged into a handy little chart, and you just find your name and then begin. Chores ranged from everyday things like cooking meals and washing dishes (made more challenging by lack of running water and electricity), to things such as washing the bags used to collect eggs, or burning the toilet paper from the bathroom. I learned how to use a lighter, which is a skill I somehow avoided picking up until this trip. I would die in about five seconds in any intense survival situation.
4: If the whole group had some free time, we could do some exploring! The walk into town was a bit too long (two and a half hours), so we only went there if someone could drive us. However, there was a beach just an hour away that was really beautiful and didn’t have waves that could possibly murder you in the cold blood, like at our beach. We also got to explore Playa Caletas a little bit. There are lots of tide pools with really cool ocean life in them, and there’s also a river down at the end of the beach with some spectacular birds to see. I also collected a lot of rocks on these expeditions. I added them to the collection I started when I was four and thought I finished when I was six.
5: I really have to applaud everyone who ever cooked lunch and dinner. People were able to get really creative with the few foods we had, and everything was delicious. Dinner was usually eaten by the light of a headlamp, as it gets dark really fast when you only have one overhead light to speak of. As a side note: with a headlamp, racoons just look like a pair of glowing eyes. That was an experience.
6: Night time is when the real work began. Turtles prefer to operate by cloak of night, like tiny shelled ninjas or something. Our duties at night were split into two main jobs: patrol and hatchery duty.
7: Good morning traveller, it’s 2 AM! Time for a patrol of the beach. I would meet a few others in the kitchen and then sleepily set off North or South in search of turtle tracks. The stars are really beautiful away from civilization, and the sound of the ocean is something I really miss walking alongside. Either using moonlight or red headlamp light, we walked and searched for tracks and talked a bit amongst ourselves. I myself saw four adult turtles during my three weeks, and we found a whole lot more nests. If a nest was found, we would dig it up, and if a turtle was found, we got to sit and watch her for a while. Adult turtles are the kind of beauty that takes your breath away. They seem to carry the wisdom of the world with them, and the first time I saw one I felt some sort of life-changing feeling wash over me. I saw three in one night, and even got to catch the eggs for one as she laid them. They were warm and kind of squishy and covered in slime. It was awesome. The fourth turtle I saw was a freak turtle that decided to come up during the day, right near our camp.
I will call her Gloria. Gloria the turtle.
8: Annnnd yes, that is the sound of your alarm. It’s the middle of the night, and it’s time for hatchery duty! The hatchery is a tented area arranged into squares like so:
A section is marked by an orange tag when there are eggs in it, and when it’s almost time for the eggs to hatch, a green fence is put around the nest to prevent the turtles from escaping everywhere. Lying in the hammock and looking at the stars from the hatchery is one of the most peaceful feelings ever. That is, until I’d hear a noise from outside and became hyper-aware of the impending threat of predators. I didn’t actually see any predators, though, in any of my hatchery shifts. I did, however, have a nest of turtles hatch on me.
When turtles first hatch, they just kind of hang out above the sand, looking really displeased with the world. I thought it would take a bit of time for them to really start moving around, but it was only about a minute until I had 70 scrambling babies on my hands, and had to quickly put them into a bucket. Not today, friends. Not today.
My time at Playa Caletas was a life-changing experience. I will never forget the things I learned, about nature and about myself, and I will never forget the people who helped me along the way.
Easing myself back into civilisation was even weirder than trying to get a hold of life at camp. Suddenly my feet were clean, and I had light during night-time, and dear lord, that 15 degree Celsius weather in San Jose was like a death sentence. I felt really weird going into my room on my first night back. There were way too many colours. Like, posters-taking-up-all-my-wall-space amount of colours. My eyes were confused, if that makes any sense. It has also remained steadily around –20 degrees Celsius for the past week. I wear a lot of big sweaters.
I’ve told the story of my trip many times since I got home. People always seem to be really happy for me, saying how proud they are or how jealous they are, or just expressing how much they love turtles. Maybe I’ll never quite be the protagonist of an adventure novel, but my travels are definitely interesting enough to impress those around me, and stick with me forever. If my life is a book, it’s probably still really boring to read. I mean, I just spent like an hour typing. I’m getting off-track. If my life is a book, this trip was a really exciting chapter. I’m looking forward to what the next page will bring.