In 2015 I 'volunteered' with GVI in Jalova for 2 months. I want to start off by saying that I have many memories here that I do cherish, and had many wonderful moments, as well as having met some really cool like minded people. But, similar to some other reviews here, I feel a little 'duped' by GVI...
I initially had signed up for a 6 month internship, perhaps in a flurry of wine-fuelled, post undergraduate excitement at the prospect of living life out in the jungle, surrounded by amazing wildlife. I was keen to pick up some conservation volunteering opportunities following my undergrad degree, and felt that this was a strong option. Let me tell you this, it is certainly an option, but it costs a small fortune - not really viable for a struggling undergrad just out of university with little cash! Sobering up to the reality of my finances after realising that it'd take me over a year to save enough money to afford to go on my income then, I reduced my time to 2 months instead of 6. In lieu of the 6 month internship, I opted into one of the lovely GVI 'add-on's', paying a little extra to do the biological survey techniques 'module' (more on that to follow).
After 6 months of scrimping and saving I finally made it to Jalova - jungle paradise. If you're looking for an opportunity to live in basic accommodation in a beautiful national park, this is ideal. My fondest memories come from the personal experiences there, being in the heart of a wilderness was truly special, I feel like these experiences were worth the price tag alone. As part of the deal, volunteers are given a great deal of health and safety and survey training, a lot of which does feel quite corporate, as we're reminded of GVI's mission and aims... All looks great on paper, but soon the cracks begin to show. Staff on the base are paid very poorly for chaperoning volunteers, I'm not sure what development and training opportunities provide their staff to ensure a positive experience, but I found some of the staff to be under a lot of pressure and often not the greatest mentors.
The quality of the science is also debatable. Jungle surveys were brilliant fun - getting to walk through the bush and look for different animals (what's not to like about that?!), but I feel the 'data' collected from these surveys probably isn't that useful, and failed to really see any evidence of the usefulness of the data. Bird surveys are done in a similar fashion, but this time you're on a canoe on the canal... Canoeing through a jungle was great fun, but not quite sure how much 'science' this actually covered. The turtle and the jaguar project are more useful, the turtle project (a draw for many of the volunteers there) sees you triangulating turtle nests, counting eggs and monitoring hatchling success (disclaimer: when booking with GVI, make sure you read up on turtle nesting seasons if you have particular ambitions for working with leatherbacks or green turtles, or indeed hatchlings!) There was ample opportunity for some amazing night time beach adventures, stumbling around the beach in the dead of night looking for turtles was truly an exhilarating experience.
In addition to the 'scientific research', you also have to put in some hours cooking, cleaning and maintaining the camp. Absolutely no problem, I have no issues pulling my weight and doing my bit. I think we were expected to do 2 half days per week, which is not completely unreasonable, and hey, jungle cooking is part of the fun! Where the fun stopped, however, was during a visit to Jalova from the GVI country director and some of the team from the Quepos project. During one of my final weeks there, we received a site visit from 5 or 6 GVI staff members, a great opportunity for the staff to check up on each other and see how the other projects work... This, however, meant more cleaning and cooking duties for the paying volunteers, and less surveys! I found myself in a position where I had 2 full days of cooking and cleaning in a week, and much less time doing the things I had scrimped and saved to do. I found this to be quite unfair, particularly since it was nearing the end of my time at Jalova. My final days on camp were also marred slightly by a lack of permits to undertake some of the jungle surveys. It appears MINAE were taking their time in approving the permits for GVI, so we legally weren't allowed to undertake any jungle surveys. We had a couple of 2 week volunteers with us, who were seriously missing out on what they'd signed up for.
As I mentioned previously, I also undertook the biological survey techniques 'module'. I think I paid around £100 extra for this privilege, but I'm really not sure what I gained from it. The module saw me using textbooks from the library to put together some reports on species (dated textbooks, so the reports were probably a little old school in terms of scientific accuracy...). We also had to identify some species, which granted was a useful experience, and put together a presentation on a conservation topic of our choice. Hardly groundbreaking stuff. A lot of the skills you might already have picked up in university, college or school, so I'm not sure why this cost an extra £100? You got me on that one, GVI!
I know it does sound like I'm being quite negative, but I really do cherish the time I spent on Jalova. I met some wonderful people and got to live alongside some amazing wildlife. I would just do a little more research next time I'm looking for this experience. It really did feel like a summer camp, you're bound by GVI's rules and regulations, and the experiences you have can often feel a little corporate... I'll leave you with this story (which I wrote for the blog, but surprisingly hasn't made it in!)
One night we were on turtle survey, stalking the beach looking for leatherbacks nesting. Against the crash of the waves we could hear a rasping noise. Carefully we scanned the area and came across a huge leatherback turtle. Something wasn't quite right. On investigation we found a huge bite in her neck. The stench of jaguar was ripe in the air. We'd come across a recent attack. We couldn't have been more than 2 minutes behind the attack - you could almost feel the jaguar watching you from the jungle. We moved swiftly on from the site, a little shaken up from the find, and reluctant to get in the way of nature. Later that night, the turtle died.
The next morning, another group was on nest survey (walking up the beach to check the condition of the marked nests). Our nighttime survey group was woken up by an excited staff member who'd found our dead leatherback with jaguars around it - a mother and cubs! The jaguars hadn't been scared off by the group on the beach and were apparently quite content with the humans on the beach. There was an opportunity for everyone on base to go see jaguars in the wild! Buzzing with excitement, everyone was ready to set off until we were stopped by a staff member on base telling us we couldn't go as jaguars were dangerous and we had to leave keep our distance. Thankfully, I think everyone thought screw it and went regardless. Being around a like minded group of wildlife enthusiasts, there was no chance we weren't getting to see this. I'm glad we rebelled against GVI's procedures, if we hadn't, I wouldn't have had this incredible experience.
Take from that what you will, rules are there to keep you safe, but sometimes breaking or bending them can be fun.