Tortuga Feliz, Costa Rica


If Belize City taught me that it was possible to go above my nerve, the lesson I should have taken from Belize City airport was be selective when to listening to well meaning advice. 

I experienced a few 'advisors' on my journey, they happened to mostly be women and I happened mostly to need them to say precisely the opposite of what they actually said. I didn't yet know that I could and should take what they said with a huge pinch of salt. Later, I decided that I could benefit hugely from becoming impermeable to the ideas, opinions and advice of others. I realise that my inability to close my ears and heart to the thoughts of others has thrown me before and still continues to blindside me if I'm not careful...

The suggestion that my next destination; San José was full of drug lords and gun crime, women were categorically not safe alone there and that I should change my flight immediately and go somewhere 'more female friendly', dissolved my newly grown fear-proof armour and I began to get that dread feeling in my knees and bowel again...

My spirits had been wildly elevated when I first arrived at the airport: I was sure I had conquered my terror of the unknown, had some dollars left and was in good time to smoothly transit from Belize to San José. I was excited to be going to volunteer at a Turtle Conservation project, breezy and carefree able to DO THIS travel THING. In the mint green and beige sprawl of the airport lounge, I struck up conversation with an American woman with savage mosquito bites speckling her legs. Together we sat with two other women, and talked while we waited for our flights. Inadvertently flanked by these three concerned mother hens, the process of confidence erosion began.

I sat heavy-legged in fear, part trembling, part self-soothing about my impending death by gunfire for the entire flight. I arrived in San José wobbly, insecure and exhausted. I retreated into my familiar shell of safety anxiety. The journey from airport to hostel and then to bed went smoothly. I awoke late the following morning and ate well, taking things slowly. The main event for the day was finding the bus station and buying a ticket for my departure the next day. From the bus window I silently toured the city on my way out. Not so scary...

When you come from privilege* Its easy to confuse a lack of material wealth with danger. Fiscal poverty IS a heavy shackle, interferes with education and limits choices. Financial wealth* can limit in a different manner and can take away our ability to see other ways of existing as possible or enjoyable. Material wealth holds us to it and makes us overly anxious about it ever leaving us. Perhaps it is to push beyond our understanding, to see that life can be rich and lived well with barely any possessions. Simple food can be nourishing. Existence can be stripped back to the bare bones of basic and still allow for joy, love, connection, kindness, laughter and fulfilment. The Conservation project was a place where all of these values dwelt. There also, was the most incredible chance to see real turtle eggs crack open to release avatars of hope which would scuttle in tiny persistence to the sea.

If you Google the conservation project 'Tortuga Feliz', you'll find it. It has evolved much in 10 years. I am delighted to see it looking a little more sponsored and supported. Ten years ago it was smaller, more 'rustic' and still run as closely as possible to the ideological aims of its founder, Paul Lepoutre, Who I believe was Dutch. I believe he was a Zen Buddhist and I believe he really struggled to get the project going. When I was there, the uncertainty of the future of the project was a recurring subject of conversation and the lack of long term funding a real concern. Paul Lepoutre had died four months before my arrival, unexpectedly and suddenly. Organisationally the project was grieving his loss, in flux and needing to make some difficult decisions.

The golden kernel of this project was paying local Poachers to become Trackers: replacing the paid work of taking** eggs from the ground, with paid work finding turtle eggs and carefully moving them to the 'hatchery' - a rectangular bit of sand that was guarded by volunteers. The volunteers took turns to keep a vigil, protecting the eggs from hungry crabs, ants and seabirds. Eventually the delicate eggs would hatch all at once and send hoards of 'tortugitas' to the sea. Together the volunteers and residents worked to protect the turtle eggs, feed the various other animals about the place, build new shelters and work in the garden. We ate together and played cards and dominoes together by torch and candle light in the evenings. There was atmospheric magic there in that transient gentle community, a quiet but glittering-warm peace.

There was no electricity (no lighting, heating, TV, email or phone) It sounds really challenging but in fact it was glorious. Time spent speaking to the people I worked with nourished my time spent alone. Each soul had a beautiful back story and a reason for being there. All of us had in common a tired restlessness. All sought to temper that and teach ourselves to be still and present in our own lives. This was a place to retreat and reframe. Much like me, many of the volunteers had several rational reasons for travel and then the undefinable persisting urge to travel that eventually caused them to take the leap.

Many of the resident Trackers were ex-cons and recovering from dependency problems, or both. Men whose past lives had been hard and had shattered - sometimes at their own hands. They had found this place as a last hope and were gently rebuilding their lives, finding routine and kinship. I had many conversations with one of the residents in particular. A Colombian in his 60s Kiko, was a human book of stories. He was bow-legged and potbellied with leathery brown skin and sinewy branch like arms. One front tooth was chipped in half and his arms bore scars. He often wore a baseball cap and always wore a neckerchief. In the evenings he would arrive post ablution in his dazzling pressed white jeans. How he kept them so white and clean in such a muddy, dusty environment was a mystery to us all. If ever you asked him, he just smiled with pride and looked slightly distant. He had had many incarnations in employment, among them he had been a gardener for the super-rich in Miami. He had travelled the seas and returned to Colombia.

Kiko talked of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a reverential whisper and was fond of F Scott Fitzgerald's work. He also liked The Cosby Show and cheese flavoured Tortilla chips. He had seen a Black Jaguar not far from the volunteer accommodation, could identify local plants and tell you which bits of the sea were ok to swim in, where to find river turtles and how to make a palatable hooch. He was a friend to the animals mostly, but despised Molocoton (which means 'Peach') a mongrel with a permanent snarl affected by a deep whip scar wrapped about his muzzle. Peach was generally docile with an unashamed tendency to growl menacingly from time to time. He hung about the camp and had been known to nip volunteers. Kiko also disliked all Americans, claiming that they had crop sprayed his village in Colombia. He believed in the supernatural power of the wildlife realm: 'Bad magic, Soosan' was how he responded when another tracker collected the skeleton of a dead coral snake in order to make himself a creepy necklace. I loved our conversations and replayed his stories in my head during my lone walks. 

I realised I sort of wanted to be Kiko. The quantity of regenerations he had stretched himself into, each time leaving everything behind to begin again, fascinated me. Peach would accompany me on my walks as far as the creak and then he would stop and bark at me before turning back, periodically barking back at me if I did n't go with him. I thought him a great dog. He seemed to know, in the way that only dogs can, that there could be nothing more perfect for me on a lone walk than canine company. He would simply appear and walk along with me.

These two left an impression upon me that I cherish. Both flawed and scarred. Both walking through life comfortably alone, knowing their own limitations, strengths and will. Willing to take risks and explore the unknown. For now this was their home. I felt a resiliency about these two, more so than with any of the other residents. If you picked either one up and moved them to a completely new location, they would find the quickest way to survive and thrive and in the case of Kiko, show up to Dinner in beautifully pressed white jeans and a killer neckerchief.

A note on privilege and wealth
*If you are reading this I call you privileged and wealthy, because you have an email account, you have a device of some kind to look at that email on, you have a change of clothes and aren't hungry without the means to do something about it immediately and I'm pretty sure you live inside a solid building. I don't view having wealth as a problem, I know some folks struggle with financial wealth, I really don't. In fact I am usually in a state of wanting to have more money than I currently have and wondering how to make that happen. I don't despise wealth. I like money and find it extremely useful for buying things but also for the choice it provides me with. I also see myself as incredibly wealthy and privileged already. If we compare ourselves to someone who has absolutely nothing in this world - and that lack hasn't been a personal choice, then we are all rich beyond all imaginings. And if we talk about our individual inner wealth of potential as humans, then we are all crazy-rich beyond all imaginings...

A note on turtles and human activity
** Hunting and gathering turtles and eggs on this little island had a significant negative impact upon turtle populations. Hopefully the project work will make a countering positive impact. There is also a very great impact made by tourism, in the broader region, building developments for wealthy tourists and backpackers. One of the many incredible things about turtles is that they circle, just after they hatch before going down to the sea. The turtle is taking a mental photograph of the coastline. This is where the turtle will return in about 30 years to lay its eggs. The tiny turtle, no bigger than a regular bar of soap chops its way down to the sea. 1 in 1000 will make it to the Gulf Stream, 48 hours away. Each turtle also has an inbuilt compass of sorts. With these tools for navigation, when the time comes to lay its eggs, the turtle will head for its place of birth. It will swim the 48 hour journey (hassled by keen-to-fertilise males) from the Gulf Stream and exhausted peep out of the water when it thinks it is almost at the shore. When the coast line is different the confused animal will sink back into the sea and return to the Gulf Stream dispersing her eggs into the water. There is a painful irony in all of we backpacking volunteers contributing to efforts to save turtles, whilst simultaneously contributing to the industry building on coast lines everywhere in the region...