During the beginning of summer break, I spent ten days in Costa Rica for a service trip titled, Turtle Adventure and Service. As I waited in La Guardia airport, I believed I was completely aware of the situation I signed up for. No, this was not a typical vacation, but it would be just as enjoyable and full of new experiences.
My first day in Costa Rica really made me appreciate the slightly cooler climate of living in a place not so close to the equator. Days and nights were scorching, especially when your air conditioner decides to stop working in the middle of the night. I can still remember the sweaty nights filled with the footsteps of ally cats and stray dogs, and the view of the full moon reflecting against the ocean water. As a mosquito flew past my ear, I realized that this is life for other people, while my slight discomforts were only temporary.
After a ferry ride across the sea and an hour of driving in the jungle terrain, I found myself in a small rural town at the coast of a remote island. I remember I truly knew where I was when the sounds of running monkeys became my wake up call.
Other than my residential life, service hours were where the work truly began. There were mornings when we would wake up bright and early for our daily dose of rice and beans, to fuel our 90 minute walks to a distant beach in the scorching heat of the sun. I remember the first time I caught sight of the shore, the entirety of my close to urban lifestyle flashed before my eyes. The amount of plastic on that particular beach I had set foot on, was a predicament our mere 20 person party could not resolve. The heaps of neon in the sand were too many to count. Each and every bottle cap, every shard of plastic, came from what we use in our daily lives.
In the heat and humidity of the tropical climate, I remember collecting all the trash I could find. Small shards of plastic in my straw bag became tires and pieces of machines. In less than an hour, my bag was heavy enough that I had to struggle to drag it to the next location. Sweat dripped from my face as I inched towards the end of the beach. I looked back upon the beach and noticed that after all the work I put into picking up the trash, it seemed as if nothing spectacular had changed. The sand was still sprinkled with plastic bits, and it seemed as if the only reward I had earned from picking up the most trash was the free ice cream the group leader had promised.
For the next couple of days, I would go back to the beach and repeat the same task over and over. My trash bags would fill, and the ice cream would get sweeter and sweeter. Walking along that particular beach in Costa Rica really puts your mind into new perspectives. Even the smallest amount of plastic that is wasted builds up and collectively damages the ecosystem. The reason why I was standing there picking up trash was that the plastic is the main reason for turtle death and habitat destruction. The sheer amount of plastic is what causes a disruption in the ecosystem.
After the daily morning clean-ups, service shifts started. Although the beach got breezier, the work got more strenuous. My group had to find logs along the beach and carry them to create a barricade around the hatchery (which was easily in danger of flooding as it was near the shoreline). No, these logs were not branches of the coconut trees that surrounded the coastline, but the kinds that were heavy enough that multiple people had to carry them. Everyone worked as a team, taking the massive logs across the fine sand. Although it was tedious work, it would all pay off as it was for the good of the turtles. Thinking about what the work really was for, helped me continue despite my physical fatigue.
When we believed that the work could not get any more complicated, we were assigned either one of two night shifts: 6:00-9:00 and 9:00-12:00. We were instructed not to use any flashlights or phones, as the light would disrupt the turtles if we were to encounter any. These night shifts were aimed for us to protect the hatchery from predators like crabs and raccoons. I can remember the pitch-black nights where I would carry a bucket full of crabs as my friend would catch them. No harm was done to the crabs, they were just relocated. For the entirety of the trip, this was how the days were planned. Although I was left with the daunting task of dumping out the crab bucket, I can still remember the sounds of the waves crashing against the land and the reflection of the clear night sky against the sea.
Even though we did not find one turtle on the trip, there was something more special about what I had done. Even if it was just walking down the street as merchants advertised their products, there was a sense of genuine humanity in all the people. Although the area was a rural beach town, there was a sense of contentment common in all the people. So with this being noted, although I had not encountered a turtle, I knew my work was being done for something much more significant than I had imagined. If the world would pick up the same amount of plastic I had done each day, the beaches would collectively be clear of all the pollutants. My sore muscles would remind me of the number of turtles that would be able to survive as a result of the work I had done. So all in all, I learned that sometimes doing good things isn't always easy at the moment, but once you begin to truly understand what you are fighting for, the end result will always be fufillment.
And also we found 100 turtle eggs, but that's another story.