I arrived in Costa Rica from London feeling very nervous about the weeks to come and the people I would meet, and to be honest, never saw myself coming out the other side alive! Safe to say I live to tell the tale.
The journey started in Heredia where I met my group of eight others and our leader Pablo Riba. We had three girls including myself and the rest boys in our group which made for a really fun and chilled dynamic. Everyone was American excluding myself and two boys from France. Firstly we took a bus to the river and then an extremely bumpy hour and a half long boat trip to the village on the Osa Peninsula where we would stay for the next two weeks.
When we arrived the families were there to greet us and help with our luggage- regretted the size of my obscenely large bag after the ten minute walk from the beach to my little wooden hut where I experienced my first case of the jungle sweats. Little did I know this was to be a state of permanence during my whole trip in the 95% humidity. Our group was split into three groups of three for the sleeping arrangements and we stayed with different families in the village, all 5 mins walk from each other. In one case the volunteer dorm was attached to the host family's house but us girls and the boy group were in separate cabins next to the host house. Ours was comfortable enough for the middle of the rainforest but after inspection of everyone else's living quarters we realised that we had drawn the short straw. Above the wooden walls, we were exposed to the elements allowing entry of my worst enemies in the jungle- giant moths and crabs from the beach. In our hut there were two sets of bunk beds, a 'shower' (more like a trickle that didn't much like to work in the rain), toilet, sink and a mirror- luxury!
My host dad was called Elmer and was extremely welcoming, although, like everyone else in the village of the older generation, spoke not a word of English! I really do recommend coming with at least some Spanish. Having said that my Spanish is terrible and I'm now an expert in conversation via facial expressions and eyebrow movements- there are perks either way. We were fed generously throughout the trip although through no fault of my host dad I was extremely ill with an upset stomach. The meals were VERY different with rice and beans being served for breakfast lunch and dinner. The rice and beans were served with a side of fruit and egg for breakfast and for lunch and dinner it was a type of meat and some veg- usually chicken. Make sure you bring lots of stomach neutralising meds because there are no toilets once you get up into the forest!
The first day of work in the forest took my breath away ( literally). It was not only hot but the hiking was extremely physically demanding. We had to walk up the dreaded 'red hill' to collect data in quadrants. This consisted of four or five (depending on where in the jungle you were collecting) extremely steep inclines with uneven terrain. Although this was tough and I discovered that my body can sweat more than I ever thought possible, the view from the top was beautiful. You could see above the forest canopy and then the bluest of seas which I thought only existed on Instagram after hours of editing and saturation boosts. A natural paradise. It was on this first day at this moment that we got our first awkward group photo as we all stood about a mile apart from each other which we looked back on at the end of the trip and found hilarious. I was very thankful for my litre and a half water bottle- essential to have a big bottle on this trip as we were out until the hottest part of the day (around 12) with no way of filling up. The morning work consisted of walking around the forest with our local guide,placing quadrants under trees and counting the seeds. During our time on the Osa we each had two days with Pablo helping him measure the width of some of the biggest trees in the forest which changed up the daily routine a bit- the rest of the group did the usual seed counting with the local guide. This data would be included in a long report that Pablo sends to the government each year comparing growth and monitoring development.
Although this sounds very dull, and it was very slippy/ steep most of the time underfoot, our group became so close that even this was fun. I think everyone just got on with the work thinking of the positive effect it would have on sustaining this beautiful environment. Every day we saw a different type of animal- spider monkeys were the most common but red macaws and toucans were also frequent visitors! We went back to the village for lunch every day and you really did feel like you deserved it . Every day our whole group went to the beach for a swim together during our lunch break before starting afternoon work. This was way more chilled as we just stayed in the village filling up soil bags that we numbered and planted different seeds in that Pablo had collected from the forest. This downtime meant hours of talking and we really got to know each other well. After the days work was finished at about 3.30 and Pablo walked home, we often stayed at 'El Rancho' which was the clubhouse, or went to watch the breathtaking sunsets together until dinner which was at 6. Particularly amusing for me was my re creation of a scene with Jesus and his disciples at sunset. We had one guy with long hair who held a stick whilst everyone else bowed before him. This nickname of 'Jesus' stuck with poor Matt for the rest of the trip. Nonetheless, it was an excellent photo strategically planned by yours truly.
During these two weeks we had two free days the first of which we got a boat to the nearest village called Drake. Us girls attempted to look nice- an impossibility in the jungle. As soon as I stepped out of the hut it started pouring with rain and within minutes my mascara was all over my face leaving me looking like a tragic woman who had attempted tribal war paint with hair resembling Bridget Jones circa 2001. We were all thrilled to get wifi at the village. Although I thought the no drinking policy would annoy me, I wasn't bothered by it at all for the sole reason that there wasn't really anywhere to go to buy drinks! Beware- do not buy pizza. I ordered four cheese and they put nacho cheese on it and charged a bomb. Utter outrage.
On the next free day we went to the beautiful Rio Claro waterfall with out local guide Waneger. It was like something out of the jungle book and I feel very blessed that I have been lucky enough to see mother nature in this way. For lunch, Waneger took us to the beach and a sweet organic looking shop where a local sold necklaces and bracelets made from shells and natural materials for reasonable prices. I got a necklace which I felt was a rite of passage on my way to becoming a woman of the jungle/ edgy traveler. Both the free days were lovely although not that relaxing as everywhere you go you have to walk- and sweat.
Although everyone is on panic alert for Zika virus at the moment, I really didn't get bitten that much. I slept with a fly net around my bed and put fly spray on in the morning but I sweated that off within about 10 mins (gross I know). So all in all protection from flies is not essential as the main problem area (legs and feet) are covered by long socks and rubber boots.
I really can't recommend this project enough. As cliche and ridiculous as it sounds, it has opened my eyes to the world, not just to the beauty of nature but also to what is damaging on a human scale and the many threats of exploitation that fecund countries such as Costa Rica face. I think it is essential for people to be reminded of the joys of simplicity at least once in their lives, and this volunteer project is something that definitely taught me that. Until next time, Costa Rica.