Sitting quietly at a long wooden table, my eyes searched around the open-air room. The table stretched out to either side of me - one end pointing toward the runway, the other toward the lagoon. And I sat, desperately denying tears, in the middle.
Alison was currently the only one in camp and offered me a bowl of porridge leftover from the group’s breakfast. With a touchy gag reflex and low blood sugar, I willed a spoonful of cold oats down my throat.
Alison spoke with a French accent and told me more about the project – an effort to save endangered Olive Ridley turtles which nest on these Costa Rican beaches. Poaching sea turtle nests is a common practice in these villages and the eggs are sold on the black market as aphrodisiacs. Our job, as volunteers, is to protect the nests, tag the adults, and see to the safe delivery of baby turtles to the sea.
Just as I could no longer pretend to eat, two volunteers walked up from the direction of the lagoon joking about their upcoming hot showers.
“There’s hot water here?” I asked, hopeful for a comfort of home.
“No.” Alison replied as she giggled at the inside joke I would soon understand all too well.
The day continued with a full orientation to the project. I learned how to collect the trash and burn it in a metal bin deep in the jungle. I was shown where the meal schedule was kept and audibly panicked about cooking for 8 people in a kitchen with no electricity or running water. I watched as the chore calendar was made for the week and learned which days I would be on morning, night, and hatchery patrol. And I was introduced to my room where my bunkmates taught me how to inspect my bed for scorpions before climbing in for the evening.
The next morning, I awoke, unrested, to a chorus of noise – birds, monkeys, and insects all coordinating in a jungle symphony alarm clock. After checking my shoes, the floor, and every article of clothing for anything that may kill or maim me, I made my way out of the room, across the creek, past the other bunk houses, and back to the long, wooden table. This morning, I would head to the hatchery to work on special a project with the group.
Armed with sunscreen and, for the first time in three days, a full belly, I followed behind the others, down a narrow trail toward the beach. Marching along, I wondered what the hatchery looked like, what the night patrols entailed, and what would happen when I ran out of clean clothes. I followed the team with eager curiosity, unsure of our destination and ready to walk for miles in the hot, heavy air.
To my surprise, our walk ended abruptly only a minute after we set out. The thin trail we were following emptied directly into the lagoon.
Startled, I surveyed the surface of the water and came to understand that this was the only way to the beach. Two plastic canoes bobbed on the small waves, haphazardly bumping each other like two drunk friends attempting to fight.
“Front or back?” I was asked.
The only answer that came to mind was, “Neither.”
I steadied myself against a tree and led the rest of my body into the tempermental canoe one inch at a time, beginning with my big toe and finishing with the reluctant release of my grip on the tree. I sat firmly, grasping the sides of the vessel as we pushed off the bank, rotated wildly, and worked our way toward the ocean.
“You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine,” I silently hyperventilated to myself, “They’ve all been doing this for a long time. You’re fine.” As I soothed my irrational fears of murky water, we sailed toward our destination one paddle-stroke at a time and I began to breathe with excitement - soon, I would be a real sea turtle saver.
And as we met our midway point, wind blowing in from the side, and my curiosity finally defeating my apprehension, my boat mate offered casually, “We have to watch for crocodiles. Sometimes they follow behind the canoes.”