Tag Archives: new experiences

The Sea Turtles of Costa Rica

When I was invited to Denver with 4R Innovations to showcase our furniture at the Green Festival, I hadn’t anticipated the kinds of contacts I was to make; everything from green building products to eco-tourism were on display, and when I discovered the booth across from us had budget-friendly volunteer opportunities in Central America to help sea turtles, I was on board instantly. I took a volunteer card home with me and it sat on my desk for about three months.

One night I was wondering what to do between my summer and fall semesters at college when I remembered the card. On a whim, I decided I was going to email Brad Nahill, the man in charge of See Turtles and inquire about volunteer opportunities. His speedy response directed me to a few options within my price range of $20 a day. One option – a homestay with three meals a day in a village called Parismina, Costa Rica – really jumped out at me. With little to no money in my bank account, I booked a ticket to San Jose, Costa Rica.

Not including the redeye flight from Salt Lake City to Costa Rica, the ride to Parismina is a four-hour adventure in itself. After a bus ride from San Jose to Siquirres, a ride in a taxi that wasn’t afraid to ford the small rivers to Caño Blanco, and a boat ride in pitch black darkness, my travel partner and I arrived to Parismina – an island still unknown to us. In my best broken Spanish, I explained to the captain of our tiny vessel that we were volunteering for the sea turtle association. He must have understood me, because upon arriving on the island he was gracious enough to walk us directly to the information center in the middle of the village; which is the headquarters of Asociacion Salvemos Las Tortugas De Parismina, or ASTOP for short. ASTOPAfter a long day of traveling, we had finally made it to our destination. We were informed that we would be walking the beach from 8pm until midnight that very night; we were on our way to save some turtles…  or so we thought.

The first two nights were the longest. High expectations of turtle salvation had really gotten our hopes up. Our first shift, from 8 until midnight, proved uneventful. The following night we were told that we were assigned the midnight to 4am, which turned out to be a bit more stimulating. Not because of the turtles, but more because of the torrential downpours and close proximity of lightning strikes that lit up the sky and beach. It was eerily beautiful.

Our hopes of spotting turtles had diminished significantly by the third night. Fortunately for us, we were assigned the 8 until midnight shift again – which we had anticipated to be another long, monotonous walk on the beach. The shift started out as ordinary as the previous two nights. Leatherback ShackWe met our guide at the Leatherback Shack and headed to the beach. Within ten minutes of walking our guide stopped us in our tracks. With our guide only speaking Spanish there was a bit of a language barrier, but with what little Spanish we knew we pieced together that there was a turtle just up ahead and she was laying her eggs. Our time had come. We were told to wait by the turtle while our guide found the other group that was patrolling the beach so they could see the turtle as well. When the other group arrived we quietly walked to where the turtle had decided to lay its eggs, and with our red flashlights, I got my first glimpse of the massive amphibian. Huddled around the turtle with the other volunteers, we watched as the turtle laid its eggs in the meter deep hole that she had dug. When the turtle was finished laying her eggs, she was tagged, measured and all the data of her nesting recorded. We then waited as she covered her hole to protect her future offspring. While in the process of waiting one of our group members, an Italian fellow, went walking to see if more turtles were in the area. He quickly came running back exclaiming: “Tortuga! Tortuga!”  We hurried down the beach to find another turtle making her way back to the sea. She had come to shore, but unfortunately decided not to lay her eggs that night.

Later in the night, following our first two turtle experiences, we were greeted with yet another egg-laying turtle. This time, however, it was time for us to get dirty. We came across her right before she had started laying her eggs.  It was a prime opportunity to gather the eggs and relocate them to the “vivero” in an attempt to hide them from the poachers who would sell them on the streets of Siquirres as a form of natural Viagra. Laying belly first in the sand, we were handed a rubber glove and a bag, and told to gather and count the eggs as she laid them. Baby TurtlesI was to gather 50 and my friend was to gather the rest. I was quite happy to have been given the responsibility of only gathering 50 since the turtle happen to lay 138 eggs that night. I never realized how heavy an egg could be until walking through the sand for two miles carrying a bag of 50. The work was hard and the wait was worth it. Although only 1 out of every 100 hatchlings will grow to be a full size turtle, I feel that we helped do our part that night to help save these incredible animals from extinction.

Even having traveled through Europe and all over the U.S., I had never experienced a place quite like Parismina. The tiny island village off the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica has a population of only 400 people; the roads are made of dirt, the housing is basic, the language is 99% Spanish, and for me, a place “off the beaten path”. The village has come together, with the help of volunteers and donations, to help save the turtles from extinction by poachers and irresponsible human action. I was warned that volunteering was not going to be a walk in the park. In addition to patrolling the beach for four hours a night, we also helped scrape paint, plant trees, and clean up the trash-ridden seashore. For $20 a night and a little hard work, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.

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Two days in La Fortuna

We arrived in La Fortuna after sundown, which in Costa Rica, is fairly early. The bed and breakfast, if that’s what you want to call it, was presumably expecting us. Despite the windy, poor excuses for roads that the Garmin decided to direct us down, we were approaching town right on target. Unfortunately, like in many Latin American countries, establishments don’t always have addresses that we are used to seeing in the States. For example, I live at 453 78nd Street in Brooklyn, NY. That means that my home is located on 78nd Street, and since my house number is in the range of 400-500, that means that it is between 4th and 5th avenues. It’s a pretty good system if you ask me. This particular business, Los Dos Perros B & B, was located 2 blocks north of the school. That’s it – no numbers, no street name, nothing. I encountered addresses like these before while in Nicaragua and my desired location was “izquierda en calle de la Pepsi”, meaning, make a left at the Pepsi sign. But in Nicaragua, I was not visiting a business, I was visiting a person’s home. The bed and breakfast was a business, somebody’s livelihood, and the only directions I had were “2 blocks north of the school”. That being said, when we arrived in La Fortuna, I decided to call Los Dos Perros and find out exactly where this place was.

Having a cell phone overseas makes a world of difference. It can be the deciding factor between having to sleep in the street or your rental car, and finding the place you’re looking for. Once, when I was in the Czech Republic, it was very late and I was having a hard time finding my hostel. After trying to decipher the street system of Prague based on signs I could barely read, I decided to say fuck the roaming fees and call the hostel I was supposed to be sleeping at that night. Luckily, someone answered and was able to give me simple directions that led me to my destination, thus easing the panic built up from being lost in a strange place by myself. I wish that phoning Larry, the owner and operator of Los Dos Perros, would had provided such a simple solution.

“Hello?”

“Hi, my name is John, I’m in La Fortuna and I’m trying to find your place.”

“Oh, hi, where are you?”

“I’m on the corner of via 142 and calle 472 in front of the Alamo car rental.”

“Hmmmmm…” (long silence) “Hey Bob, do you know where the Alamo car rental is? What else is it near?”

“Well it’s a one-way street…”

“Oh ok, well what you need to do is make a U-turn.”

“I can’t make a U-turn, it’s a one-way street.”

“Oh, yeah… (laughs) I guess you’re right.”

“So what else are you near?”

As I described everything around me, I assumed at some point the light bulb in Larry’s head would turn on and he would suddenly know where we were, but as we later found out, the light bulb in Larry’s head had burned out long ago and he had no idea it was in need of replacing. When the frustration settled in, I handed the phone off to my wife, who in most cases is the least patient of the two of us, but somehow managed to refrain from calling him an imbecile for longer than I was capable.

“Do you see a gas station around you?”

“No.”

“Well when you see the gas station, then I can give you directions from there.”

“Well where’s the gas station?”

“It’s… it’s really hard to say…”

“Ok… is there only one gas station?”

“Yeah, there’s only one.”

We start driving. I ask directions in broken Spanish. We find the gas station.

“Ok, we’re at the gas station.”

“Which one?”

“At the only one, you said there’s only one.”

“No, there are two.”

“Ok, so now there are two gas stations?”

It was apparent from the beginning that this guy had no clue where his business was located. In Ocotal, Nicaragua, buildings don’t have addresses because there are no street names, but we were in La Fortuna, Costa Rica, a town whose economy is fueled by tourism, and here, the streets are named and buildings have numbers. This guy simply had no idea what his address was and was too burnt to figure it out. Following the directions he gave my wife, we eventually end up on a dirt road leading out of town.

“Ok, so what kind of road is your place on? Is it paved or unpaved?”

“Well… It’s kind of paved… but it might be unpaved… ”

“Ok, well when you told us to take a right, it took us to an unpaved road.”

“Well, when you made that right, you should’ve made a left. I don’t think our brains connected on that last one.”

It felt like he was giving us clues to a riddle of which he didn’t quite know the answer. Every right and left he suggested was a blind guess at best. After much protest, Larry finally let us get off the phone (he insisted we stay on until we arrived) so I could leverage the Google maps app to locate a hotel he said was near his. This happened to be the one piece of reliable information that Larry communicated to us, and in a few minutes, we arrived at Los Dos Perros.

I’ve stayed in many hotels, hostels, guesthouses, and bed and breakfasts, so I’m accustomed of the conventions of checking-in. Usually, I arrive at a front desk of sorts and tell the person my name. They then look in a computer or book, see that I am scheduled to be there for x amount of nights, and complete the check-in process. When we arrived at Los Dos Perros, I finally meet the man who doesn’t know where he lives, and without surprise, he has no idea that we are supposed to be staying there.

While I was on the phone with him, I assumed Larry was a long-haired 20-something that was escaping life in the States by running a shoddy bed and breakfast in Costa Rica. As it turned out, he was a no-haired 50-something that was escaping life in the States by running a shoddy bed and breakfast in Costa Rica. Los Dos Perros seemed to have not been a functioning bed and breakfast for some time, and the vegetarian restaurant attached to the B & B, of which Barry was also owner and operator, was basically his kitchen with a menu scribbled on the wall of standard vegetarian fare, none of which was orderable.

“Hey! You must be Lily,” he says to my wife, who is actually named Tara. “I owe you a beer! Do you have a reservation?”

“Yes we do, my name is John. We’re staying for three nights.”

This information was met with a blank stare.

“Oh, that’s cool… Where did you book it?”

“On the internet.”

“Oh… Like… On a website?”

He explained that his wife sometimes handles reservations and that he doesn’t always know when people are coming, which I found odd, since he, not his wife, was the one standing behind the counter when we arrived. I later found out that the counter/front desk was also his personal hangout and makeshift bar for him and Bob, his stoner neighbor who made Larry look like a complete genius. I fumbled through the email on my phone until I found a receipt for three nights that we unfortunately already paid for.

“Oh! Looks like you paid for the full package. That means all food is included.”

The reason we picked Los Dos Perros was because my wife has pretty serious dietary restrictions, wherein she cannot eat dairy, eggs, meat, or gluten (wheat). Second only to vegan restaurants, vegetarian places are usually very aware of the ingredients that are in their food, and since there are not many vegan choices (none, actually) in La Fortuna, we decided that a vegetarian bed and breakfast would be our best bet. Some of her restrictions are by choice, particularly the animal products, but there are very serious health consequences if she eats gluten. On a trip to Puerto Rico, she was poisoned by gluten multiple times, which resulted in her being covered in hives for the next several weeks. It was very unsettling knowing that the man that didn’t know his own address would be responsible for preparing gluten-free, vegan food for my wife.

As we stood at the counter waiting for Larry to figure out our accommodations, an overwhelming feeling of “what the fuck are we doing” came over me. I felt like a kid getting dropped off at summer camp for the first time preparing to endure the humiliation of having to shit in an outhouse for the next week. We stood there conversing with stoner Bob for the next 20 minutes while Larry searched for the key to our room. As it turns out, both Bob and Larry grew up near my parents’ house in Pennsylvania, a fact that chipped away at what little pride I had about being from my home town. Finally, we were shown to our room, which he graciously upgraded for us. On the way to our room, he again apologized for the confusion in finding the place, and said, “well, at least it’s not your honeymoon…” As if the situation wasn’t uncomfortable enough, it actually was our honeymoon.

We opened the door to our “upgraded” room to find what looked more like a storage closet for beds. The small room consisted of a king-size bed, a queen-size bed, and a bunk bed, organized so that a small path snaked between them from one end to the other. “Wow” I said, “there’s an awful lot of beds in here.” Judging by the look on Barry’s face, I thought I accidentally said, “Wow, Barry! Your mom is a big whore.” He was obviously offended that his gratuitous upgrade wasn’t what we hoped it would be. He proceeded to show us our originally booked room – a queen-sized bed in a room the exact size as a queen-sized bed – which made our mattress bounce-house look all the more appealing. Honestly, if not for the ant infestation we encountered later that night, it wouldn’t have been so bad.

As mentioned before, the menu for the Flying Potato Vegetarian Restaurant, the sister business to Los Dos Perros, was more for decoration than actual ordering. Larry decided our meals for us, often on the fly. Breakfasts, lunches, and dinners were hit or miss, but mostly miss. Luckily, there is no shortage of coffee and fruit in Costa Rica, which made breakfasts safe and easy. One day, we went on a very wet and rainy hike to see Arenal Volcano, the main attraction in La Fortuna. Unfortunately, the hike itself was a bust since we saw no volcano, but rather an extremely foggy forest due to the massive amount of rain we received. On the bright side, Larry made us a cold salad consisting of fresh veggies, chickpeas, and balsamic vinaigrette, of which he allowed Tara to check the label. This turned out to be the best prepared meal of our stay. Dinners were thankfully safe for Tara, but not very flavorful since Larry couldn’t use his standard Sazón seasoning since it contained hints of wheat. The pumpkin soup was nothing more than pumpkin puree, water, and an excessive amount of pepper. The cauliflower “scrambled eggs” seemed to follow the same recipe – cauliflower puree, water, and a little less pepper than the soup. Needless to say, although the food was secure for my wife and her allergies, it was underwhelming and simply stopped us from being hungry until we left.

On the second day of our three night stay, we made a decision to leave early. To be honest, this decision was made the moment we arrived, but since we had already paid, we decided to stick it out for two of the three nights. I’ve certainly stayed in worse places, but this was our honeymoon, a time where everything should be at least as close to perfect as possible. This wasn’t a standard backpack-around-Costa Rica-and-enjoy-every-experience-because-you’re-young-and-life-is-long kind of trip. Both my wife and I have had those types of trips. Trips where everything goes wrong but you land in the most interesting situations make for captivating stories, but are often nerve-racking while you are experiencing them. This was supposed to be a flawless, relaxing trip to a beautiful B & B in the mountains during our honeymoon. In retrospect, just like my other travel experiences that didn’t go as planned, there are lessons to be learned, and at the very least, great conversations to be had because of people like Larry. The fact that it was our honeymoon didn’t exempt us from the funny things that happen when you go to another country. Things are hardly ever what you imagine they are going to be, regardless of how many pictures you see or how many Trip Advisor reviews you read. Los Dos Perros was given five stars with no mention of the incompetent innkeeper that ran the place, which had me questioning the reliability of the few reviews I read. Either way, it didn’t ruin the rest of our trip. Honeymoon or not, it was full of the standard unexpected surprises and colorful characters that make travel (and life) interesting and worth the trouble.

The names and places mentioned in this post have been changed. Although we had a negative experience at this particular establishment, I don’t feel it is right to publicly bash the proprietor or his business.

 

 

 

 

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