Monday, December 31, 2012

Infiltrated volunteers: Matapalo

It’s remarkably inspiring to witness the amount of people who gladly sacrifice their time, and often money, to become part of a cause much larger than themselves. Since arriving in San Isidro in early December, we have had the chance to meet and work with several volunteers. Whether they are committing their efforts entirely selflessly or as a way to expand their knowledge on a specific subject, the result is undeniably constructive.
Volunteering is able to decrease the disparities in society, such as poverty, segregation and exclusion. The pillars of volunteerism; solidarity and commitment are comforting constants upon which we can rely as the driving force for the crucial adjustments we must make to our way of living; both as individuals and as a society. The principles of volunteerism are remarkably pertinent in increasing the competence of those exposed, vulnerable and weak so they can attain a safe and sustainable living situation as well as to improve their physical, financial, spiritual and social well-being. 

Although by many standards we are considered volunteers, we have decided to create a different term for our specific situation to be able to differentiate ourselves from the many charitable people we have crossed during our work at Planet Conservation. We have recently begun calling ourselves “freelance volunteers”. By no means do we intend to emphasize our work with this differentiation. In fact, our work lacks any real, or quantitative, value until we finish the journey and are able to produce substantial and defined conclusions, while ‘regular’ volunteering yields direct results.
In fact, we began calling ourselves this rather pompous name when we attempted to explain the type of work we have been doing and not many people seemed to understand that we have traveled here on our own account. While we have the most sincere respect for genuine eco-volunteering and ‘voluntourism’, we are not in the business of paying to do work. Our trip has different goals.

The benefit of being freelance volunteers is that – so far – we cohabit and collaborate with a broad assortment of people with different perspectives, backgrounds, ideas and knowledge and learn about countless topics. By volunteering with different organizations, we can improve our understanding of the obstacles, the solutions and the issues faced by enterprises intended to promote and improve the global well-being.
We do not intend to limit our work to foundations, NGOs, or government projects. It has been repeatedly but appropriately recognized that small acts can have a huge impact. Groups of organized neighbors, families and even individuals can immensely influence other people’s lives, communities and the habitat that surrounds them. These actions, born out of altruism are perhaps more effective than those of massive, institutionalized, bureaucratic organizations.
After only one week of living in San Isidro we got to discover just how powerful a relatively small act can become. Not only in the purpose of the act itself, but in the economic and moral improvement of a whole community.

Twenty-five years ago, in Matapalo, a small fishing village in the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, a humble, ordinary family dared to confront a shortsighted and selfish tradition and changed the future of a whole town and innumerable creatures. The mother, thoughtful and loving as mothers ought to be, acknowledged a problem where others only saw food and business. Attentive, she had witnessed how year after year, the sea turtle arrivals in the colossal esplanade of Playa Matapalo were no longer counted in the thousands. The locals, who eagerly awaited turtle season to consume and sell the delicious and expensive eggs, had perhaps never considered that those eggs would eventually grow to be the turtles that fed them.
Moved by what she considered a problem of utmost significance, she convinced her family to build a makeshift hatchery in their backyard. Judiciously, they would patrol the beach at night in search of nesting mothers. As the turtles placidly descended towards the ocean after finishing the phenomenal, yet arduous task of laying eggs, they would run in and carefully excavate the camouflaged pits and take the eggs to the hatchery, where they could shelter the hundreds of unborn hatchlings from menacing predators.

The family turned a deaf ear to the complaints, threats and general unhappiness of their fellow citizens and continued with this process for nearly 6 years until, in 1991, a local Costa Rican Organization stepped in and elevated the project to another level. Now, the ASVO Matapalo Turtle Conservation Program is the oldest communal turtle conservation project in the nation's Pacific coast. An area which once suffered a 100% loss of nests is now down to almost zero.
Our placement at Planet Conservation was opportune enough that we were able to spend a weekend visiting the project before turtle season ended. The motive for deploying us at the Matapalo Project was to examine and analyze how a turtle conservation program operates. For three days, we lived and worked as regular volunteers in the ASVO house. We were ecstatic about the prospect of witnessing a turtle (although not an arribada, a communal arrival of hundreds of turtles for a few nights) or perhaps the birth of a nest; but our chances were faint, given that the season was practically over. Our main hope resided on the mere eight nests that remained in the hatchery.
The first night we patrolled the beach in complete darkness for two hours, covering the four kilometers under the auspices of ASVO with the guidance of a young, but experienced volunteer. Robert is one of thousands German high school graduates volunteering abroad. A sign of a progressive country headed in the right direction, the German government subsidizes young men and women who wish to expand their knowledge and gain a bit of expertise in a chosen subject before beginning the next step of their academic career.

It was too much to ask to see a turtle, but we did enjoy the serenity of walking through a misty beach depending only on the stars and a couple of fishing boats for illumination. Patrolling is only one of the many duties of the volunteers and staff. Depending on the month, various teams ranging from one to three people keep their eyes peeled as they march through the sand retrieving nests.

The other important duty is done in three turns of four hours. From dusk till dawn, teams of two must watch over the hatchery in case of births and to keep any predators – human or otherwise – away. The rest of the volunteer responsibilities are domestic, such as cleaning the house and washing the dishes.
On Saturday, our second day at the project, we participated in cleaning duties, played a rough football match on the beach and celebrated an early Christmas with the staff and volunteers, who joined hands to cook a lavish feast of local dishes. In the afternoon, we visited the edge of a natural park; where a river, a beach and a forest have created a peaceful sanctuary. We accompanied a crew of volunteers and staff to this remote location with an honorable purpose, to liberate a young raccoon. A few months back, a local farmer had brought Miko, a cub, and his sister to the ASVO volunteer home, hoping that they could heal their wounds. Miko, unable to bury his instincts, had grown into a young, quarrelsome and rebellious pet. Sadly, the female didn’t survive surgery. After a passionate debate, the staff had decided that the most humane solution was to set him free.

On our second and final night we were appointed to guard the hatchery from midnight until four in the morning. Since we didn’t want to miss the possible, but improbable birth of baby turtles, we asked the volunteers taking the first shift to warn us in case of any hatchings. To their surprise, they encountered a nest full of nervous hatchlings, zealously waiting to flee for the open ocean.

 With the fresh, luscious taste of passion fruit mousse lingering in our palates, we eagerly bequeathed our unfinished plates and sprinted towards the hatchery.
Methodically, but unable to conceal our enthusiasm, we counted the 85 newborns and moved them to the beach in a large container. Our hands were tremulous with excitement, as we set the bucket down six meters from the water and carefully placed every single courageous little creature on the sand. Once the last of the instinctive wanderlusters had departed, the nervous giggle we had uttered throughout the process was suddenly amplified into a triumphant, exuberant laughter to escort the turtles past the breaking waves as it echoed in the dark.
We couldn’t help but compare our lives to those of the valiant young turtles. The adorable, even jocular display is a rather didactic event for us. Yet to taste the sweet tenderness of a mother’s care, they must confront many of nature’s most bitter lessons. The friable pack embarks without any deliberation on a quest towards a most unsure and ambiguous objective; life. Granted, instinct, not reason, is the driving force of their actions. But wouldn’t our lives be more valuable, and worth living if we devoted them to do what we know to be right without fear of the obstacles that may stand in our path?


  1. "Freelance volunteering" -- I love it. It's all about connecting with people, contributing what we can at every frontier we encounter. The result may not be as direct or tangible, but the values and expanded worldview gained -- for both sides -- are immeasurable. What's important is what motivates the action. And I think your bond with the baby sea turtles is more than fitting. Strive for the sea; that's all you can and should do. That, and have fun while doing it. Hope all is well, my dearest nomads. I still hope to cross paths with you somewhere in the southern hemisphere.

    Great writing, by the way!

  2. Querido Diego, querida Julia,
    Que lindos 3 meses!
    Gracias por compartirlos con nosotros.
    Feliz ano nuevo amigos aventureros les deseo mucho amor, mucha paz y mucha felicidad!

  3. Alia, thank you so much for your comment. We too hope to cross paths with you, and not just in the southern hemisphere, anywhere will do! We miss you (Julia specially hehe)

    Helena! muito obrigado! Nosotros también queremos saber acerca de tus viajes! Mándanos un mensaje!