It was a wintry Saturday morning. I was at my office desk. Trying to catch-up with the oozing slime of my in-tray, I felt supremely disenchanted with the rat-race, the big smoke and in the midst of a minor but tangible quarter-life crisis. Half an hour later, I put the phone down having spontaneously booked to spend three months in central America working as a conservation volunteer. Sometimes no one can surprise you like yourself.
Twelve weeks, one letter of resignation and several bemused conversations with family and friends later I found myself boarding a plane bound for San Jose, Costa Rica. Not long before, I hadn’t even known where Costa Rica was (it’s the second country up from the bottom in the central American isthmus). Did they speak Spanish or Portuguese? What was the food like? Was the place safe or was it in the throes of a communist uprising, full of hoards of cigar-chomping revolucionarios hiding in the jungle with supplies of Kalashnikovs and rum? Soon I would find out…
During my time in Costa Rica I worked in five national parks mending trails, building bridges and going on patrol with the rangers. My first project was in Reserva Biológica Carara near the Pacific coast. We built a bridge over a dry riverbed running through the forest. I’d never built anything more involved than Ikea furniture before. With the arrival of the rainy season the bridge would be invaluable. We worked each day with David, one of the Tico rangers (Ticos are what Costa Ricans call themselves). David couldn’t speak English and our Spanish was at a par with a toddler’s yet he somehow told us about Carara’s wildlife, pointing out green and black poison dart frogs, big crocodiles (although to be fair, we did spot those ourselves – you couldn’t really miss them), deadly coral snakes, howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys, hovering humming birds and fat, opulent orchids. After sunset he got us salsa dancing with the locals and drunk on guaro – the Tico tipple of choice. Hung-over, we took it in turns to spend time on “lapa duty”. Lapas are scarlet macaws, a bird whose startling beauty and fragile presence in their natural habitat is in direct contrast to their strangled shriek of a call. Lapa duty meant sitting under a tree on the edge of the forest watching a nest from six am. Collecting data on the parent’s visiting habits for a scientific study, we also acted as a deterrent to any would-be poachers eager to steal the chicks for sale on the black-market. With the early morning sun slowly seeping through the trees I would watch, stunned at my luck, as the parents flew in. They were vibrant tricolours of red, yellow and blue and sat proudly preening and murmuring to each other. Having been told macaws fall in love, mate for life and spend virtually all their time with their partner I would always feel a little upset if odd numbers flew over. Was one of them an elderly widow? Or perhaps a young male who just hadn’t met the right bird yet?
Then there were the leatherback turtles. The tiny hamlet of Gandoca is way down south on the border with Panama and its slender eight-kilometre beach is the third most important nesting site in the world. Big as a mini, leatherbacks’ size belies the tenuous grasp they have on this planet. Under attack from pollution, the fishing industry and poaching, in addition to natural predators, they’ve been coming to Gandoca for thousands of years. They’ll be lucky to do so for another fifty. We would trot up Gandoca beach in the dark, wading through creeks, falling over driftwood and looking for turtles. If we found one the patrol leader would decide on correct action but generally we would retrieve the eggs as they were being laid, collect data on her size and check for electronic tags. The eggs would then be relocated to a guarded hatchery where they stood a much better chance of survival, away from poachers, dogs, crabs, and beach erosion.
My time as a turtle’s mid-wife started at 3am. Back in London, my former colleagues were probably struggling to work on the tube. I was laying face-down and silent in the damp sand. Supporting a strong bag in the deep hole she had dug, I carefully caught the 80-odd precious eggs, feeling a stab of guilt at intruding on such a personal moment unasked. Nearly two metres in front of me she wept salty tears from a head the size of my own. This was to expel salt she’d swallowed whilst feeding but I couldn’t help thinking she was as moved as I was. The following evening I watched as some recent hatchlings were released into the ocean. Slate-grey, and with comically oversize front flippers the tiny things struggle down the sand like wind-up toys, instinct and willpower driving them on. Pulled into the ocean – they have a 1 in 10,000 chance of survival to adulthood. But if they do the females will return to the same spot over a decade later to nest themselves.
The people we met were as fascinating as the wildlife – the rangers being a particularly crazy bunch. One, Alfredo, would arrive back from rainforest night patrol as we were having breakfast of rice & beans. He was a gnarled grizzly-bear of a man who looked as if he ate poachers for breakfast. When he came back one morning with a cage of small parrots and more scratches and mud on him than usual, we thought he had. Another, Reynaldo (but Ronnie to us voluntarios), told us about wrestling huge snakes, being shot at by poachers and the time he met his new girlfriend’s parents for the first time. He discovered her father had an endangered Jaguar skin on the wall and had reported him to the police before the evening was over. That relationship didn’t last long!
Of course things can be tough; your time is not your own, the heat melts the brain, the work is hard and you probably can’t speak the language. There are dangerous snakes, interesting bathrooms, scorpions, sandflies and mosquitoes. Lots of mosquitoes. This is Costa Rica and any other country will clearly have its own set of challenges. But these are all positives. I’ve learnt what my limits are and what I need to be comfortable. Surprisingly, not least to me, all I apparently need is unlimited water and I’m as content as a macaw in an avocado tree. I like luxury as much as the next man but no five-star hotel has come close to the experience of washing outside from an old bucket with flocks of scarlet macaws flying high overhead and small aracari toucans nattering and squabbling in nearby trees. It sure beats sitting at my desk.