I was 28, single, renting a flat and my employer allowed staff a year’s sabbatical to do (not quite) whatever they wanted with the promise of a job waiting on return.
I decided it was time for adventure.
So it was that August 2004 I arrived in Mexico for a three-month stint volunteering on a conservation project protecting Olive Ridley turtles.
I was based at Mismaloya Beach, an hour south of Puerto Vallarta. It was a vision of paradise. I basically spent three months on a tropical beach. A water channel ran down one side of the camp into a lagoon which was separated from the ocean by a thin spit of sand. Coconut trees abounded. Wild horses would wander through the camp.
I swam in the lagoon every day; ocean on one side and verdant vegetation on the other with jagged rocky hills rising up further inland.
I’d wallow in the water thinking: “Life will never be this relaxed again.”
As a counterpoint to paradise there was a complete lack of amenities. Home was a group of tents in patch of scrubland just behind the beach. No power or running water. Snakes and scorpions were a regular feature. The toilet was a ceramic bowl with a pipe running out the back:
After you’d done your business you flushed it using a bucket, having obviously remembered to draw water from the well beforehand. Used toilet paper went into a bin, one of the camp jobs was to deposit the bin contents each morning into a hole in the ground and chuck a lit match in. The privacy afforded to the toilet was courtesy of some hessian sacking.
When it rained, it really poured. And when it poured, going to the toilet was akin to sitting in a shower.
Health and safety wasn’t of much concern but the one thing we were under no illusion about was:
do not go in the ocean. Strong rip tides meant anyone going in wasn’t coming back out. We knew this was serious as the locals didn’t swim in it. Thankfully we had the lagoon for swimming.
The nearest village was a 40 minute walk. 6 days a week, someone collected our daily meal from a woman there who cooked for us, strapping the large containers to the back of a quad bike. On a Sunday we fended for ourselves with leftovers or whatever someone had the foresight to buy from a shop that could be prepared on a camping stove.
99% of the time turtles lay their eggs after dark so most of the work was at night. Each turtle lays around 100 eggs and only one is likely to reach adulthood. There are predators everywhere. Animals would dig up eggs. We’d see crabs and birds trying to pick off new hatchlings as they raced seawards down the beach. Once in the water, there are even more creatures out for a defenceless lunch.
And then there’s humans.
Poaching was a big issue. I had no idea beforehand, but turtle eggs are a delicacy in some parts. Our role was to give the turtles the best possible chance to make it into the ocean, from there it was up to them. We patrolled the 13km long beach each night on quad bikes looking for turtles laying eggs or the tracks of turtles who had just done it. We collected the eggs and brought them to the corral, a fenced off area of the beach, to rebury them. At dawn we collected the nights hatchlings and let them go at the water’s edge.
My first night on patrol was with Kat. She set off turning the quad in the narrow confines of the camp with me on the back. Straightaway I knew she had misjudged the turning circle. We were headed to the edge of a steep slope descending a few metres into the water channel.
Should I jump off, should I shout stop? I knew what was coming but thought surely she knows what she’s doing so I did nothing. As we went over the edge and were thrown off my thought process was a simple; ‘This is really going to hurt’.
I bounced down the slope and felt the quad brush against me as gravity did its job and it bounced past me. The quad, me and Kat landed half caught in a bush and half in the water. Surprised but surprisingly unhurt.
Welcome to Conservation In Action:
Conserving myself was my first thought.
Once the quad had been dragged back up the slope and confirmed to be undamaged too it was straight back on it for turtle patrol.
One task was corral duty. Two of us would wait there for the eggs to be brought back then dig holes in the sand to bury them. Some nights there was little action, other nights you could spend most of the shift digging. The 10pm to 2am shift was preferable, being woken at 2am to get up and dig for 4 hours wasn’t ideal.
When things were quiet we’d gather wood, light a fire and relax. It was warm enough that as long as you had long sleeves to keep the bugs from biting you could stretch out on the sand with a hoodie under your head as a cushion and catch up on sleep. Or just stare up at the stars. I’d never seen skies like it. There was no light pollution, everything was so vivid and the sky so massive. I’d never seen a shooting star before, I saw them every night I was on corral duty gazing up in wonder.
As I said, poachers were a problem. We often saw them, but there was a mutual understanding. We’d even say ‘Hola’ as we passed, they left the corral alone and there was no conflict. We understood that the guys we saw on the beach weren’t collecting eggs for themselves or earning the big bucks, it was organised crime.
One night me and Row were on our hands and knees digging. I heard a noise and looking up a man was stood right in front of us. He started talking loudly and quickly in Spanish which was too much for my befuddled brain to take in. My attention was caught by something else, his gesticulating hand was holding something right in front of my face, it moved back and forward between me and Row.
I focused in the dark.
I surprised myself by not panicking.
My first thought was if I run over to our radio to call back to camp, would he shoot me?
His manner suggested anger. I decided to stay put and work out what he was saying which wasn’t easy. I didn’t think asking him if he’d like to converse in English would do much for his mood.
At which point I heard another noise behind me. Despite the mesmerising lure of the handgun inches from my face, I looked round to see another man holding a bigger gun. He was also wearing a cap that said Policias. Up to this point I thought we were being robbed by poachers, the shouty man was in plain clothes. In my bewilderment I just thought the Policias cap was a cunning disguise.
Until at last I managed to make out a phrase; ‘Nosotros policia‘. We eagerly responded ‘Si, nosotros voluntarios!‘ Despite this being blindingly obvious from the start, just saying it seemed to satisfy him that we weren’t poachers ourselves on a foreign exchange trip. They simply wished us “Buenos Noches” and walked off.
With that me and Row looked at each other, kind of stunned and got straight back on with digging our holes.
Definitely didn’t mention that in the brochure.
It was a trek to the local village. There were a couple of small general stores where we stocked up on snacks and enjoyed the novelty of an ice cold soft drink. Everyone was friendly to us, this group of volunteers from Europe were a curiosity in these parts, it wasn’t exactly on the tourist trail. If ever we were walking to or from the village and a car passed they would always stop, point at the back and we’d jump in. A lifetime of being told not to accept lifts from strangers went out the window but it worked out alright.
The most memorable interaction was Independence Day. We headed to the village to take in their celebrations. There was a no alcohol rule in the camp so we assumed this would be a chance to get a cold beer or two, only to find that the village also had a no alcohol rule that night. Quite what went off to provoke this rule, we never found out. But given what happened when sober – I shudder to think.
At first it was so far, so worthy, we gathered in the square as school children performed traditional dances, a village dignitary read out the proclamation of independence. Lastly, there were fireworks. Just not like any display we were used to.
We watched with curiosity as a large assortment of fireworks were attached to plastic garden chairs. Which were then strapped to people’s backs. The fireworks were lit and the chair carriers set off running straight into the crowded square. We watched open mouthed as people and fireworks set off in all directions.
Despite the imminent danger, the locals were all laughing as they ran. And then one Rocket Man changed course and ran in our direction. There wasn’t really anywhere to hide but we found a small wall and all of us hit the ground flat, as the cackling maniac came past. Our ears were filled with whizzes and bangs flying over our heads.
Amazingly, despite the crowded square no one appeared to be hit by any missiles. Yet another moment that the phrase “this wasn’t in the brochure” came to mind.
Despite being under strict instructions not to go into the ocean there was one occasion I inadvertently ended up in it. I was out with Jorge one night. We had a bucket full of baby turtles to set off on the adventure of their lifetimes. The sea looked calm and still. I stood at the waters edge concentrating on the cute little flipper critters and didn’t notice the wave until it hit me. Jorge had and ran up the beach out of its way.
The water came up to my groin. I struggled to keep my balance as it surged around me. I did keep hold of the bucket, but the turtles got a white knuckle ride as my windmilling arms sent them flying in all directions.
Things got trickier once the wave started receding back past me. It might only have come up to my groin but the force of the water rushing seawards overpowered the anchoring abilities of my feet and I started heading out with it. I didn’t even have time to think, ‘oh shit,’ as Jorge ran in behind the receding wave, grabbed my coat collar and yanked me backwards out of the surf.
Given all the warnings about the riptides and having felt the force of the wave trying to drag me out with it, he may well have saved my life. I was off balance and don’t think I could have stopped the momentum on my own. In line with every other incident in my trip there was no time for dwelling on it. Jorge asked if I was OK and, soaking wet, we got back on the quad and carried on patrol duties.
Another night with Jorge, he spotted movement in the dunes. I was on the back, oblivious. All I knew was that we suddenly accelerated towards the dune. Then Jorge leapt off the quad and set off running. He shouted back to me, but I couldn’t make it out. So thought I best follow; it turns out that what he shouted was ‘wait there‘. Oh well.
It was only when I got to the top of the dune I understood. I saw the backs of three men hightailing it out of there. They may have had the numerical advantage but we had the element of surprise.
They were poachers and in their rush to get away they left behind all of their things; eggs, bags, and yeah:
We collected up their belongings, tied the horse to the back of the quad, and set off for camp, with the horse trotting behind us.
Jorge turned round and delivered the coup de grace:
You’re under arrest, horsey.
It didn’t look too bothered.
Two minutes later and Jorge decided that with a horse at our disposal, he’d make use of it. And rode it back while I drove.
Our actions caused a stir in the camp the village. Confronting the poachers and taking their possessions wasn’t part of our remit. The father of one of the poachers and the actual owner of the horse paid a visit to agree terms and horsey’s release. All their items were returned, minus the eggs.
And everyone went back to business.
I did get time for a whistle stop tour taking in Mexico City, Guadalajara, drank Tequila in Tequila, Taxco, the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacán and the Copper Canyon.
I spent a lot of time trying – and largely failing – to sleep on overnight buses.
There was so much more – but I hope you enjoyed a flavour of my adventures.
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