Tico Nights

Costa Rica, my first foreign country. For that reason alone, it will always have a place in my heart. Some of my fondest memories from my month there in 2013 all happened after dark. Thus, I present to you Tico Nights.

Somehow it was already 7:50 P.M. I hit send on an obligatory "I have safely arrived" email to my parents. Smacking a mosquito on my arm, I grabbed a headlamp and my water bottle.  Swinging them in my hand, I trudged along the dirt path leading to the turtle shack. Light was pouring out of the cement one-room shelter, temporarily blinding me. Inside I found two of many patrol guides from the village employed by my host organization, and one other volunteer. She introduced herself as Anna from London, and along with our guide, Pedro, we set off into the night. Our assignment was to patrol the middle of three 'sectors' of the local volcanic beach for the next four hours: one hour to cross the sand one to return, repeat. If we encountered poachers, we were to suggest that they stop poaching. If we encountered a nesting turtle, we were to take her eggs to the safety of the nursery. If the nesting turtle was a green sea turtle, we had to stay with her until she went back into the sea to ensure she retained her life. Apparently green sea turtles, being herbivores, taste like a rare marine steak. 

Walking the sand at night was a little bit challenging, especially on a beach full of debris and driftwood. After exchanging a bit of small talk with each other and our guide, Anna and I were mostly silent. Too much talking on the beach would potentially scare away nesting turtles. Despite that, it wasn't hard to stay entertained because of the vivid milky way sparkling above us. After just a half hour, I began to lose count of shooting stars and was soon delightfully surprised by the flash and fizz of a meteor entering the atmosphere. I didn't want to be anywhere else - this was the perfect place for me. We didn't spot any nesting sea turtles that night but I had hope that it was only a matter of time.

Sector two in the bright daylight.

Sector two in the bright daylight.

Three nights later, I was attempting to nap through a raucous thunderstorm before a scheduled 12-4 AM beach patrol. Heavy rain came through the gap in the top of the wall near the ceiling, drowning out the usual late-night chorus of gecko chirps. After some fantastic lightning displays, I began to drift off... just in time for my watch to beep at 11:45. Passing the boisterous outdoor bar where the party was still going strong, I nearly tripped over the giant cane toads reveling in the mud puddles that dotted the path. I desperately hoped that night's patrol would bring my first adult sea turtle sighting.

On patrol, I walked with a guide who preferred listening to faint music from his necklace-radio to talking. I hung back from the tin tunes, absentmindedly listening to the roar of the Caribbean. Contentedly lost in my own head, I was soon surprised when we encountered the group who'd been patrolling the second sector. In hand, their guide had a grocery bag full of freshly laid leatherback turtle eggs. He handed them off to my guide, who was to take them to the nursery before the narrow period when the eggs could still be moved ended. The two volunteers in the second group mentioned that the turtle was probably still on her nest, as they'd only just left her. Somehow word had gotten 'round that I was the only volunteer who had yet to see a turtle, so my guide took pity on me and let me go see if the mama turtle was still around.

After about ten minutes of eager walking through dampened post-storm sand, an otherworldly exhalation of air broke the still darkness: the breath of a tired turtle mother, nearly done with her work. Breathless ourselves, we approached her shadowy figure and viewed her under the beam of our red-filtered flashlights. Like some kind of majestic dinosaur, she was enormous (over five feet long) and covered in slate blue leathery skin. Slowly, she scooped sand with her elephantine hind flippers, covering the nest. She continued to exhale heavily out of her nostrils and paid no attention to the humans surrounding her, so strong was her trance-like motherly duty. The guide allowed me to gently touch one of her warm, wrinkly flippers with a gloved hand. A single tear of awe slid down my cheek as we watched her finish digging. The only thought in my head at that moment was that she was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen.

Meredith and I walked briskly down the moonlit beach, just behind our elderly guide. Suddenly the great, hulking figure of a nesting turtle loomed into view. Our guide asked if I wanted to catch the eggs this time and I instantly said si. Nervously, I laid down in the sand and positioned myself underneath the leatherback. Two eggs at a time, I caught and transferred her warm ping pong ball eggs into a pink grocery bag while sending grateful thoughts to the mother leatherback. Thank you for letting me be a part of this. I am so glad to be here, witnessing this majestic & ancient ritual.  I'm not sure if words can actually describe the ecstasy I felt in that moment. 

The three of us walked to the nursery as I carried the bag full of 80+ turtle eggs as carefully as I could. Despite my joy, a few anxious thoughts crept into my head: Don't trip, don't drop the bags, don't jostle them. CON CUIDADO. It was a relief to finally arrive at the quiet nursery at 4 AM. After greeting the hatchling monitor, I passed the bag off to Meredith and lay down in the sand once again. I did my best at digging a boot-shaped hole to resemble the original nest. I then placed all eighty tortugitas-to-be into their sandy brood, my inner turtle mama swelling with pride.

Our turtle nursery.

Our turtle nursery.

Sundown on the beach. Red sky faded into orange, which faded into grey. Paper lanterns lit the path to a couple in white, emotionally declaring their vows. When they'd kissed, we clapped along with the rest of the five hundred villagers. When a village is that small, there's no real guest list; it's a community event. Later at the casona, Nikki and Marijke arrived while I got ready for the post-nuptial party. In my dark purple cotton dress, I brushed mascara onto my eyelashes for only the third time since I'd been in Central America. In the low light of my room, I found it difficult to apply makeup - especially because my only mirror was clouded and just six inches wide. Finally, my lashes were black and I felt somewhat dressed up. I slipped on sandals and the three of us left. Giddily, we walked to El Cariblanco, the local watering hole. We joined a smaller portion of villagers in the crowd looking in on the newlyweds. They were dancing slowly as they looked into each other's eyes just before the music overhead increased in tempo and the floor became flooded with locals dancing merengue. Each fluid movement looked effortless, filling me with envy. Dancing well seemed to be a mandatory part of life there. Waiters came by with platters of paper cups filled with food. We ate cupfuls of casado and then washed them down with choke-inducing guaro. We tried dancing a bit on the crowd's fringe, but after some laughter-filled attempts, chose not to embarrass our turista selves. Though I wanted to stay longer, at 7:40 I ran back to the casona to get patrol-ready. There, I found only one guide because the other two were out sick with festivity.