Saturday, September 13, 2008

Diez Dias en Bahia Ballena

Hi everybody!

I´m sorry it´s been quite some time. We didn´t have internet in the little town we´ve been in for the past week plus, or at least, I heard a rumor about an internet cafe the day before yesterday but I never found it. I promise when I´m settled in my Ecuadorian homestay I´ll work out internet at least once a week.

As far as formalities go, I´m alive, just a tad sunburned, a lot bug bitten (picked up some Off Deep Woods in una farmacia today on the way back to San Jose so we´ll see how that goes) and having an amazing time so far. We´re supposed to write in our journal for at least five minutes a day and I´ve been reasonably good...When I write it´s more like forty five minutes...but then I skip some days. I´ll work on it. The journal keeping is good for you all, though, because I have some prerecorded awesome experiences to share. So, on the the details!

After my last post, we got up the next morning and took what was supposed to be a four hour bus ride (a charter bus, not public) to Bahia Ballena (there´s an accent over the "i" but I´m not good at this computer...I think that will become a common refrain over the next few months). Bahia Ballena is near Playa Uvita if you feel the need to mapquest it. The ride turned into more like 6 hours because we ran into some construction and were stopped dead for about thirty minutes...and we stopped for lunch at this beautiful little restaurant on the side of the road. As a side note, the food here has been consistently good. Breakfast is always yesterday´s rice mixed with yesterday´s black beans and some cilantro and then some scrambled eggs. Lunch and dinner is usually rice, beans, salad, some kind of fresh juice and either chicken, steak, pork or fish. The fish at Bahia Ballena was top notch...really fresh, obviously.

Anyway, we arrived at our hotel and organized three to a room. There were three little cabin looking things with four rooms in each. We were the only people staying at the hotel. The rooms were nice with tile floors and bathrooms in each. Only cold water, but that wasn´t really an issue. We at about three quarters of our meals at the hotel (called Canto de las Ballenas if you want to google it) and, as I said before, very good. The hotel is, I believe, run by a coop of people that live in the town. They were all really nice. Nice is a word I would consistently use to describe people I´ve met thus far. ¨Pura Vida,¨ which translates at ¨pure life¨but really means something like easy going and hang loose, is a Costa Rican motto and outside of San Jose at least, it definitely applies. This results in what I like to call ¨Costa Rican Time¨which results in taxis coming about 30 minutes late and estimates of distance to be between 5 and 30 minutes short, but it doesn´t seem to matter. I´ve got to get to some concrete details, like I promised though, or I never will. Let me grab the journal and start at the beginning with choice exerpts and paraphrases.

Day 2 in BB: Rainforest Hike and Group Constitution
After breakfast and some group bonding exercises that I won´t go into we drove a ways to a specific section of the rainforest (with an impromptu safari on the way...¨look! a monkey! look! a sloth! and a toucan! let´s pull over and look!¨) where we hiked down a steep hill with some wooden logs made into rough stairs for about twenty minutes. At the bottom was a little waterfall in part of a river that quite literally looked fake it was so picturesque. We climbed up above the waterfall where there was a little pool and some rocks to jump off of. I did jump, but my ears popped and hurt for the rest of the day. Still, I jumped and I so don´t regret it. I just may never do it again. We had lunch and explored the river and the area for a few hours, then hiked back up. It was quite the hike...very steep. I´m freaking out a little about Macchu Pichu...I´m going to try to find time to go running in Bua (the village we´ll be in in Ecuador). Later that day, back at the hotel, we had one of our typical orientation conversations. This was aobut expectations, both of ourselves and each other. Out of an exercise we did came a group constitution which served to make me and I think all of us feel better about the group. Everyone seemed to share values of being supportive, inclusive, respectful and responsible as well as seeing the importance of keeping a sense of humor. It´s a good group we´ve got here.

Day 3: Reflections, Goals and Bahia Ballena
We had a conversation about why we´re each individually here doing TBB. Everyone´s reasons were different, but we each identified with a lot of them. We then set 9 personal goals in the following categories: Personal Challenge, Intellectual Challenge, Service Challenge, Vocational slash Employment Challenge, Spiritual Challenge, Adventure Challenge, Interpersonal Challenge, Creative Challenge and Personal Challenge of Your Choice. My vocational challenge, to use it as an example, is to find some theatre or storytelling in each community and explore it´s value in the culture.
After lunch we hung out in the pool for a few hours (I didn´t mention this, but we went to the beach the first day and it was beautiful but a good thirty minute muddy walk away). Then we were met by a Peace Corps volunteer named Travis who was originally from San Diego and his Tica (Costa Rican) girlfriend Pilar. He lived and worked in Bahia Ballena for two years and is now taking a third Peace Corps year organizing the Costa Rican contingent from San Jose where he now lives. He plans to stay in Costa Rica when his peace corps time is up. He told us some basic facts about the country that we could easily find on wikipedia and then we all got up and went on a walk through Bahia Ballena. I´ll list some of the things about that afternoon that struck me:
1) Travis may be from San Diego, but his English is now accented. He is, in fact, more comfortable speaking in Spanish and occasionally would say a word in Spanish when he couldn´t find the English.
2) The national government is not working particularly well on a local level in Costa Rica. At one point we walked across a long grass strip that is an abandoned or at the very least very rarely used airstripd that the community proposed to turn into housing for the homeless of Bahia Ballena. The government apparently vetoed this idea without much explanation. They seem to have some future plans for the strip, but didn´t disclose them. The Pura Vida attitude means that no is one really fought for it. Another example is the local marine park. It was owned by the community and the revenue went back into them and to the maintenance of the park. Recently the government took over and the income from the park is pooled into a national fund for marine preserves. The locals were furious and burned down the cabin at one entrance to the park, but it seems that the only result was that the cabin was rebuilt. Finally, the government will propose a construction project and get the community to agree by promising something like 500 jobs. Then they bring in 450 workers. But hey, Pura Vida.

Also on day 3 we wrote ourselves letters about what we hope to gain from TBB to be read when we arrive in Virginia in March. Along the same lines, we videotaped ourselves answering six questions posed to us by Robin. We turned on the camera and then read each question off the screen of a lap top and answered it immediately. They were along the lines of ¨Why is there poverty?¨and ¨Will there be world peace in your lifetime?¨Heavy, big picture questions. It will be interesting to see how my opinions change over the course of this year.

As you might be gathering from the descriptions, a day here so far has felt like a week. But, on to Days 4 and 5.

On day four our main discussion was ¨How do we define ourselves?¨As you can imagine, it was a sprawling two hour discussion. The kids on this program are ridiculously smart, opinionated and have strong personalities. It was a little intimidating, but very interesting, as all our big picture conversations are. I think as we get into different core countries our discussions will become a little more specific, but this is orientation and it´s been all big picture all the time (when not discussing safety or logistical program details, of course).

On the morning of the 9th we went kayaking in a mangrove forest. It was pretty chill. We saw a lot of river crabs, some tree snakes and apparently some iguanas, birds and a racoon but even when the guide stopped next to our kayak and pointed them out I couldn´t see them. Talk about good camoflage. I have NO idea how Michael (our guide) spotted them while paddling along. We went back to the hotel, had some lunch, and then we decide to walk back into ¨downtown¨Bahia during our free hour. There was a shop with some sarongs hanging outside that looked interesting. I ended up picked a charm out of a glass case that looked like a semi cylindrical piece of petrified wood wrapped in some metal wire and asking the man working at (and who I think owned) the store if he could put it on a chain. He said he didn´t have one, but he had some string and he made a nifty necklace out of it. I can even adjust the length. He explained how to work it twice because he thought I didn´t get it the first time. It was sweet. He was very patient. Then again, I´m pretty sure that after I left he was thinking "inept americans." While I was looking around, I heard him talking to someone about how he loves chess. He has a teacher and also reads about strategy in books. I think Zack actually played a few games with him, in fact. (Zack is one of the TBBers). As I was walking back, Alexandra (a TBBer...let´s just assume that from now on unless I say otherwise, ok?) asked if I´d noticed the Spanish language Nietzche books stacked in the corner that he´d clearly been reading. I had not, but I was very impressed. I can´t even spell Nietzche. He seemed like a fascinating guy.

After the afternoon discussion, one of the guys working at our hotel grabbed a bunch of the young coconuts off one of the trees on the property and chopped the tops off with a machete so that we could try the milk. It was delicious! Apparently it´s best when the coconuts are still green, and green they were. Mmm.

Two quick side notes here, while I´m thinking of them: 1) I have not yet posted pictures, but a few kids from TBB have put some on facebook so I know it´s possible. I have pictures of most of the stuff I´ve mentioned so I´ll work on it and try and get some up soon...or in a few weeks...pura vida, right? 2) The first book we´ve been assigned in its entirely is Confessions of an Economic Hit Man which several people recommended to me before I left. I must say, I´m about 230 pages in of about 280 and it´s really fascinating. I highly recommend it. It´s a pretty quick read and relatively well written, too.

And now for TURTLEING. Oh no, that is not a typo, you read that correctly. I´m going to borrow heavily from my journal entry for this. If you´re even still reading. Sorry this entry is becoming absolutely epic. Perhaps I should have composed a poem. Anyway:

OK, so last night was awesome. No one knew exactly what we were doing or where we were going, but after a short educational session about turtles while we were waiting for the cabs we hadn´t called ahead because we hadn´t known we´d need them, we endedup driving about fifteen minutes (on Costa Rica´s crazy potholed roads you rarely hit thirty mph so fifteen minutes is not particularly far) to a different beach with our turtleing ¨guide¨Mauricio. I put guide in quotes because he´s a volunteer turtler and what we were really doing was tagging along with him. So we started walking along the dark beach. (We had been told to wear dark clothes, not to bring flashlights or to wear bugspray so I had on long pants, but risked getting my arms bitten up because it was too hot to wear the jacket I´d brought along, even after dark. It remained too hot for the remainder of the night and I woke up with 32 new bites as a result, but as you´ll soon see, it was worth it.)

Anyway, we started walking pretty quickly, but Mauricio told us to slow down because it was only a thirty minute walk down the beach and we didn´t want to miss any turtle tracks. It was about 8:30 when we started walking and, as it turns out, ¨thirty minutes¨was a prime example of Costa Rica Time, but walk more slowly we did. I stuck with Mauricio and Emily and listened to their conversation, piping in sometimes if I had a question. About thirty actual minutes later, we stopped at the hatchery. It was a rectangle about 20ft by 10ft that Mauricio had built over the past two months with the help of some locals. The rectangle was defined by big wooden treetrunk poles connected by a strong plastic netting. He said the netting extended a meter into the sand to keep out predators. The sand inside the hatchery was crisscrossed with strings dividing the area into square plots for nests. A stick poked out of each, ready to be used as a marker when eggs were buried beneath. Next to the hatchery was a makeshift shelter, or rather, a shelter in progress. Mauricio said sometimes he´d be woken up in the middle of the night by smelly wild pigs. Still, it seemed kind of nice. Very peaceful and in nature.

The reason we´d stopped was so that Mauricio could quickly build a door for the hatchery (or, hinge on the door he´d already built--wood frame, mesh center--and attach a lock). Just, you know, casually pause to put up a door. In the dark. A few of us offered to help hand him nails from the bucket he´d brought or whatever, and so he kept talking. Below is a condensed version of all I learned talking with him that night:

Mauricio was from a northern suburb of San Jose. He had attende the national university and studied marine biology. At one point he studied in England (he spoke pretty good English and was already working on French) and he wanted to become a doctor--specifically, a pediatrician, because he loves kids. (Cue: Awwwww). His day job involves whale and dolphin research that he conducts mainly on behalf of whale watching companies or maybe the government with a group of a few other guys. He sleeps, he said, about 4 hours a night, but doesn´t seem to mind much. He was about 25, with a huge heart and a passion for life. He lit up telling me about the work he´s doing to prove that two different populations of humpback whales interbreed during a specific period of time--something rare, but something that would be very good for the genetic diversity of both populations and thus be important for whale conservationists. He talked about reaching out to the community because so few people appreciate the beauty and biodiversity in their own backyard. He hated the turtle egg poachers whom, he said, condescendingly, still believe turtle eggs are aphrodesiacs and endanger the species as a result. He implored us not to purchase anything made from turtle. When asking us about ourselves, I mentioned that I wanted to study acting in college and he said he had ¨the opposeite of a niece¨(nephew) studying that. After talking for a while, he invited us (those of us helping with the door...or watching him build the door, at least) to live in the shelter next summer as a turtleing volunteer. Next summer I´m working at Green Cove, but rigth then I was about ready to sign up for summer 2010. He was an amazing guy and his spirit was contagious.

Anyway, we continued our walk down the beach. We found a poached nest and an intact one. Mauricio took some measure ments of the poached nest, located it with a portable GPS he´d been carrying, and said we´d return for the eggs from the intact nest on our way back. By the time we reached the end of the beach it was 11:00. Half hour walk, right? And in the sand...after a busy day...We were all tired. Robin (one of the TBB founders) hadn´t realized we would also be walking back. He´d thought the taxis would pick us up at this end. Ooops. The group opted to head back and started walking...but the turtleing wasn´t done and Katie R, Isabel and I decided to stick it out along with Sandy, Nina and Chris (TBB founder, first staff member, and TBB founder and parent liason, respectively). Mauricio went a ways back down the beach and we sat together in the dark on a tropical Costa Rican beach recounting memories of ordinary but perfect days. Finally, he signaled to us to walk back to him by flashing his red headlamp a few times. he hadn´t found anything, so we continued on. Five minutes later, we found fresh turtle tracks and followed them up the beach to a turtle in the process of digging her nest. We watched from ten feet back, silent. When they´re about to lay eggs, tutles go into a trance-like state. We crept closer. Mauricio took the turtle´s measurements, then set Katie up with a plastic bag and had her hold it open under the tutle to catch the eggs as they fell into the nest. It was one of those moments that felt almost sacred.

The turtle finished and, bag in hand, we continued back down the beach, leaving her to cover up her empty nest. We left Isabel, Chris and Sandy to dig up the nest we´d passed by earlier and kept heading to the hatchery. there I put on a rubber glove, kneeled in the sand and slowly, carefully, laid each soft, thing shelled pin pong ball egg into the makeshif nest Mauricio had dug second from teh right on the far side of the hatchery enclosure. It must have taken ten minutes. At its deepest, the nest fit my arm to halfway between my elbow and my shoulder. (The depth affects the temperature which in turn affects teh gender of the babies so Mauricio is careful to honor the size of the mother´s nest). My only focus while placing the eggs in the nest was to count. 91. The bag that had held them for the walk back probably weighed 10 pounds. That is a LOT of eggs.

Isabel returned with the eggs from the other nest (87) and Nina renested them in the hatchery. by this point it was about 1am. We´d gotten up that morning at 5 to go kayaking so we were understandably exhausted (and very thirsty). We walked back to the entrance to the beach and said goodbye and thank you to Mauricio, but he ended up hopping in the cab with us. He said had we not come, he wouldn´t have had gas to get to the beach that evening and may have been too tired to walk or bike. I was especially glad we´d come turtleing that particular night. We finally got back to the hotel at 1:50. In bed at 2:08. It was totally worth it.

On Thursday the 11th our main event other than discussions was to attend a local soccer game. It was a small turf field covered by a shell roof. They played a few games of 5 on 5. We grabbed some dinner and hung out. Not a ton to report. It was fun though.

I´m pretty sick of typing...It´s been nearly a hour and 45 minutes since I´ve started, but I felt guilty for keeping you all waiting for so long. Tomorrow we´re off to Quito and then two days later to Bua for our first homestay. We´ll be staying in pairs because the homes are pretty remote and working in schools to bring them clean water. This involves something about building toilets, but I can´t say exactly what. I´ll let you know when I know.

I mentioned pictures before. I know for a fact that there are some on facebook and I´m tagged in a couple. I´ll work on pictures in the future.

Say Hi to the States for Me,


Staci said...

Hi, Becca -

Good to hear you've arrived safely and are enjoying it so far. thanks for the great post! I wrote about you on my blog and told people to check out yours:) Have fun in Ecuador!


Kelsey said...

hi becca! i am a college student at Texas A&M university and my club is raising money to help fund a sustainable development project in bahia ballena! since you've been, if you can share any information about the locals and the hardships they face i'd love to know about it!