Okay, maybe the title for this post is a bit of a stretch, but it’s catchy!
I’ve been trying to keep this blog food focused and talk about my travels as they relate to food and farming, but I can’t keep this story from you. I suppose in a way I was planting and harvesting though, you’ll see…
The family at La Iguana Chocolate rarely takes vacations, but one of the volunteers suggested taking a little two-day trip out to the beach. The Pacific is just an hour away, longer if you go by bus, and it’s a completely different ecosystem to check out. I was invited to go and couldn’t give up the chance to visit another part of this gorgeous country.
We left at 5:30 in the morning to catch the only bus out of Mastatal and ended up getting to Playa Hermosa (beautiful beach) at about 2pm. I had been told that we would be staying at a turtle sanctuary, a place where volunteers exchange 4 or 5 hours of daily work and contribute some food for a free room.
The place was absolutely falling apart. It was constructed in 1995 and because it is right on the beach all the ocean wind and spray have been slowly eating it away. The volunteer lodging was infested with roaches and bats (think about their poop flying overhead). But worse, the kitchen we were to cook in was gross! I’ve been cooking in a lot of different kitchens on this trip, and I’ve gotten used to the fact that bugs are inevitable here, but this was a whole new level of nasty. So there was some cleaning to be done, after that it was acceptable. I ended up cooking most of the meals for the group, which consisted of mostly tico boys, meaning I had to cook tico food. I prepared empanadas, rice and beans, fried eggs, gallo pinto etc… It all turned out great! I love that I’m going to be able to come back home and cook up meals from around the world.
Right, so back to the sea turtles! The turtles that lay on this beach are the Olive Ridley Sea Turtle, or the Parrot Turtle. They are a protected species but this year was a record year for the laying population on this beach. The species is threatened in several ways (pollution, predators, global warming) but the worst problem right now is poaching. Sea turtle eggs are illegal, but at many bars in Costa Rica they are sold as a gourmet aphrodisiac. Each nest can have 100 eggs and they are sold at about 200 colones each, so that’s about $40 per nest. The job of the sanctuary is to get to the nest before poachers do.
This is what they do and what I helped out with at the sea turtle sanctuary I visited:
- Scouting: Every night at about 7 or 8pm, when it’s completely dark out, the crew walks down the entire beach searching for turtle paths. The dark paths heading straight up the beach are pretty easy to spot, even considering we can’t use flashlights to not give away our location or disturb the turtles. They head up the path and find a turtle digging, laying or a completed nest.
- Harvesting: We then dig up all the eggs (they are about an arm’s length under the sand), count them, and head on. Sea turtle eggs smell like a Chinese food restaurant, it’s really curious. They get heavy to carry along the beach too!
- Planting: Once we are finished with our scout we turn around and head back to the sanctuary to bury the eggs in the vivero, an enclosed pen. Each nest has a net secured on top of it so that no predators can dig in to the nest and so that when the turtles hatch we have time to collect them safely.
- Birth: About 45-55 days later the babies hatch. They are so precious! We collect them all in a bucket and keep them there for about an hour so that they start to wake up and exercise.
- Liberation: At dusk we liberate them into the wide open Pacific and their journey begins.
I was lucky enough to get to help through the entire process, my favorite part obviously being the part where we let the babies loose. It is incredible to think about the decades of life many have ahead of them, easily outliving me by two generations, if all goes well.
Apparently, all has been going well for the turtles that lay on this beach. Like I mentioned before, there have never been so many turtles on this beach. We would dig up 4 or 5 nests a night. The original vivero at the sanctuary is completely full and the crew had to build another one. We ran in to some marine biologists on our scout (they are collecting sea turtle DNA to track the population),and they mentioned that the Olive Ridley Sea Turtle may be removed from the protected species list, which is both bad and good news.
When we weren’t helping the sanctuary crew (which has just one full-time employee), we were either hanging out, swimming in the ocean (the waves were huge but the water was surprisingly warm), going on moto rides to town (I had wifi internet for the first time in a month!) or dancing at the local club. This was all such a novelty to us!
I found out last night that the people in Mastatal only got motorcycles a few years ago (they used to walk everywhere), and cell phone connection and internet two years ago. This all came up when the power went out for the night because of a big wind storm. We were sitting there in the dark telling scary stories (it’s almost Halloween after all!) and I found out that the kids in the family remember when they didn’t have electricity. The eldest son (Jorge, he is my age, 22) was 9 when they first got power. Back then the latest anyone over went to sleep was 9pm. The day they got power the electricity company had gone from house to house to make sure it worked. They had yelled to him to plug something in to the outlet. “The what?” he had no idea what an outlet was. “The little holes at the bottom of the wall! Plug something in to them!” responded the man. Not knowing what to plug in exactly Jorge grabbed the first thing he saw that would fit in the hole, a screw. ZZZZZZZAP! He shocked himself pretty good. That was his first experience with electricity! What a change this community has experienced in the past few years!
Nevertheless, we were all happy to come home. Wow. Home. I suppose I’ve been at La Iguana Chocolate for nearly a month now, integrating into the family and making very good friends. It’s going to be harder than I thought to leave.