I will share with everyone the email I sent directly to GoEco on my return from my Turtle Conservation trip to Costa Rica:
It was in 2010 that I participated in a week volunteer trip at an animal sanctuary in Namibia, it was THE best experience of my life! I vowed to make volunteer trips around the world a part of my life forever, and went back to school to change my career path in order to make this possible. In 2013 I decided that my next volunteer trip would be to Central or South America working on a turtle conservation project, and so began to study Spanish in preparation. Now in 2015 I am happy to say that I am in the position to make yearly volunteer trips of weeks/months, and so was thrilled when I discovered GoEco, the world’s leading Ecotourism Company, whom I could continue to use for my future yearly trips. My first participation in a GoEco project was to be the turtle conservation trip that I had been in preparation for over the past 2 years.
On June 14th I landed in San Jose, Costa Rica, to commence a 3 week volunteer trip organised through your company. The trip, as defined in the 'full details' section of your website (http://www.goeco.org/area/volunteer-in-central-america/costa-rica/sea-t…) was to consist of a mandatory one week orientation and Spanish course followed by 2 weeks at a Turtle Conservation Project on either the Pacific or Caribbean coasts. The exact location of my project would not be chosen until my arrival - this is one thing which I really find disadvantageous, after making payment the options should be given, so that if there is not a project that matches what the payee is hoping for, they are able to change dates to match one that does.
One thing that I read and was told over and over again before arriving at my project; ‘go without expectations and you will have a great time’ I did this (it is actually my life motto) but had an extremely disappointing experience, and wanted to give you an account of my experience and some suggestions as to how it could have been improved.
CRLA - ‘go without expectations and you will have a great time’ my one expectation was to improve my Spanish, even if this was just a slight improvement.
As mentioned above the first 'week' was a mandatory week in a Spanish language school. This was the main reason that I chose this trip over the vast majority of options out there, having been studying Spanish for 2 years I thought that this would be a perfect chance for my abilities to be improved. The first thing that I want to say about this mandatory week is that it is only actually only 4 days. Now I wasn’t expecting it to be a full 7 days, but as it states that this would be a week I was hoping for 6, and expecting at least 5. I would suggest changing the wording for this so as not to mislead participants, also, as it is only 4 days, knowledge of this would enable people to plan an activity for the remainder of the week.
I found the mandatory language week a complete waste of time, and speaking to other volunteers during my trip I was not alone, everyone agreed that they got nothing from this ‘week’. The problem that I had personally was that I was placed in a class way below my level, not only did this not enable me to learn anything new or revisit important subjects, it was also such a low level that I wasn’t even exposed to much speech. Having been studying the language for 2 years, I have full knowledge of the grammatical rules, but my ability in conversation is very low. I understand that this is likely why I was placed in such a low grade, but as a volunteer student with only 4 days of classes, I feel like this could have been handled much better. Students who attend the school as a 4 day course prior to commencement of a volunteer project should either be placed into a separate ‘volunteer’class were they can be taught things that will actually help them during their time volunteering; conversational skills for transport/getting around as well as in areas to do with the work the volunteers will be doing during their stay (conversations about the processes of turtle conservation). Or, be asked what it is they are hoping to gain from their time there, in my case I wanted to be exposed to the language itself, especially in areas associated with tenses, and then placed in a class accordingly. Basically, the school need to look at and therefore treat volunteer students differently to the those who are with them for 1 month+ Another general observation I have for CRLA is making the classes Spanish only, being in an absolute beginner class my fellow classmates spent the entire class speaking in English, apart from the odd sentence coaxed out of them by the teacher. Having attended some Spanish classes in Australia, from the very first lesson there is zero English spoken even if you’ve had no previous Spanish experience, and this is extremely beneficial.
The information given to us from the volunteer coordinator at CRLA regarding the project at Gandoca was incorrect, whether this was a deliberate act or just lack of continual research and up to date information on their part I have no idea. We were told that Gandoca was a turtle conservation project; false, there was a hatchery; false, we would require a mosquito net, which incidentally they sold at CRLA; false, we would eat what the family ate; false, there would be 6-10 hours of work split into shifts throughout the day; false.
Another factor I find peculiar with the aspect of the language school/volunteer program, is the fact that they do not arrange transportation to the project, and that your last night at the project is actually spent back in San Jose with the host family. I was under the impression that signing up for 14 days at the project would mean that I had 14 days at the project, this is actually only 12 days as you do not arrive until the Monday and then leave on the morning of the Saturday so as to return to San Jose. Personally, and again the other volunteers that spoke with agreed, I would rather have the school use the money they spend to place me with a host family for the last night on organising transportation to the project instead. This would also allow for another day at the project which is what volunteers pay for. If I am unable to make a return flight home on the Sunday because I leave the project that morning, than it is on me to arrange accommodation for the Sunday night, which again would mean that I would need to know the location of my project prior to commencement of the trip. Also, I have no idea why arrival at the project is a Monday, if I’ve booked and paid to do 14 days at a turtle conservation project, than my arrival day and departure day should be the same.
Gandoca - ‘go without expectations and you will have a great time’ my only expectation was to be placed in a Turtle Conservation Project.
I chose Gandoca over the only other option because it was closer to what I was wanting from my experience, which was to be in an isolated location surrounded by Spanish, where I could participate in all the experiences of turtle conservation including hatchery work. The other option was located in a town with cafes, bars, restaurants etc, the accommodation was not near the beach that would be monitored, a beach which also had tourists trying to spot turtles, and there was no hatchery. Had these two options been given to me on payment I would have opted for a different date so that I could be in a more rustic setting. However, so long as I was involved in turtle conservation, I would be happy, as that is what I went to Costa Rica to do, and had spent two years preparing for.
This leads me to my biggest disappointment with this trip, and the thing that you must rectify if you only act on one aspect of this letter, Gandoca IS NOT A TURTLE CONSERVATION PROJECT. Whilst this may have been a conservation project in the past, and I’m going to assume it was and that things have changed since then rather than this just being sheer incompetence, it is no longer.
The Gandoca Turtle Conservation Project does not exist, what is there is a fruit farm, ran by a reformed family who once ate turtles and their eggs but are now interest in their conservation, who happen to have a family member whom does not live on site, but whom is a turtle conservationist. There was once a hatchery but this had been washed away during storms several times, and so had not been rebuilt, and so there is no longer any nest monitoring. As this is a fruit farm all members of the family are involved in the running of the farm which is a full time job, there is nobody there during the day to run a turtle conservation project, and therefore how can one exist?
Kendal, the turtle conservationist living off site, also works on his family farm during the day, but comes to the ‘project’ at 8pm to take the volunteers on night patrol. As there is nobody to lead and work with the volunteers during the day there is nothing to do, days consist of waking at 8 for breakfast, sitting around for 12 hours, and then going on a 4 hour night patrol; not what I had signed up for. We were told during our induction that we may be able to join the ranger on patrols during the day, but that this could not be guaranteed as it would be the rangers’ choice, and they had new rangers every 8 days. We did join the ranger one day, and spent 4 hours with him, relocating one nest, had this happened every day then Gandoca could be labeled a Turtle Conservation Project, but this only happened once and from the mouths of the family members, ‘could not be guaranteed’. With no supervisor we were not able to do any work during the day as stated in the document we signed at CRLA, however we still collected rubbish on our own a couple of times just so that we were doing something in the terms of turtle conservation.
Nothing comes close to my disappointment in paying to join a Turtle Conservation Project and being placed on a fruit farm, but my next complaint from Gandoca is the food. I had read and had been told that the food in Costa Rica consisted of a lot of rice and beans, but that the family would try to give us variety where ever possible and would be eating the same as the volunteers they were hosting, this did not happen. During my entire stay in Gandoca a tomato, a couple of broccoli florets, a couple of slices of carrot and probably half a pineapple was the grand total of the fresh food that I ate, with other fresh fruit offered on maybe 3 occasions. Breakfast almost always consisted of about half a scrambled egg each, with a lot of onion and 4 slices of buttered bread (there was so much butter on these slices that it was actually possible to squeeze it out into I’d say at least 2tbs of butter), lunch and dinner was boiled rice, heated black beans, fried plantain and more buttered bread, we also only saw actual meat on a handful of occasions. I was well prepared and had not been expecting much from the food, but what I did expect was to be eating what the locals ate, which was not the case, the family often ate differently to what we were offered. What was particularly irritating was the fact that if we were going to be placed on a fruit farm instead of a Turtle Conservation Project, we would at least be offered a variety of fresh fruit daily!
The strange thing about my time at Gandoca was that every night following a night patrol, I would go to bed happy, but then 8am would come and I had 12 hours of nothing until the next night patrol, if there even was a night patrol. It was these 12 hours of nothing that led to my decision to leave the project 4 days early, if I wasn’t going to be making a difference then I could at least be having fun and seeing more of Costa Rica. Considering I am an experienced volunteer (I’m a weekly volunteer at Taronga zoo and have volunteered at other organisations in the past) and my attitude towards conservation, hard work and doing what needs to be done to make a difference, I’m sure that you can agree that my decision to leave the project several days early speaks volumes of the project. Yes, during my time there I helped relocate 2 nests, a total of 301 eggs, and helped remove several bags of rubbish from the beach, yet I still left early as I could not stand the thought of being stranded in Gandoca longer than my intended time (a possibility due to the weather), I’ve never once considered leaving a volunteer commitment early in the past!
I write this email to give you a full account of my time at the project organised through your company in the hope that improvements can be made and that Gandoca can be removed as a Turtle Conservation Project, so that nobody else has the disappointing experience that I had. There is nothing that can be done to change the experience that I had, one thing that I always said to the other volunteers was that it might not be the experience we were wanting, but it was still an experience, nobody got hurt and I will never forget it, but I have yearly volunteer trips to look forward to, this is not the case for many. That been said, I can only imagine how unforgettable it could have been had I actually been placed in a Turtle Conservation Project, and this is something that you are able to rectify for future volunteers. Unfortunately, there is little you can do to change my feelings of disappointment, and it is highly unlikely that I will be using your company for my future trips when it is so easy to organise them through projects firsthand, once burned twice shy…