I had the opportunity to study abroad in England during my third year of university, and that opened my eyes to the incredible world of international travel. Upon returning to Canada and finishing my degree, I knew I had to go abroad again; I wanted to volunteer to help make a difference and get a local experience, so it was only a matter of picking a program and some time!
Why did you choose IVHQ?
I have always been interested in Costa Rica. I’ve also always had a fascination with animals, so I figured the turtle conservation project would be a great way to learn more about such a mysterious animal all while being on the beach, which is hard to beat.
What was your favorite part about Costa Rica?
There are so many things that I loved about Costa Rica; it's hard to pick just one. I feel like the Costa Ricans themselves were my favorite part of the country. Everyone was so welcoming, and truly wanted to help me! They were all so encouraging of me trying Spanish as well. It was an incredible environment to be immersed in for my first solo travel experience, because I truly wasn't alone; everyone I encountered made the effort to become a friend.
What made your experience abroad unique?
The people I met while volunteering made the experience one of a kind. Never have I met such passionate individuals dedicated to such a selfless goal. The 6 a.m. census and excavations could have been difficult, but being surrounded by positive and energetic volunteers from all walks of life -- different ages, different cultures, and different backgrounds -- made the work meaningful and worthwhile.
How did local staff support you throughout your program?
Our supervisor (el jefe!) was one of the kindest individuals I have ever met. He went out of his way to try and make our experiences unique and to truly immerse us into the work he was doing with the turtles. The park rangers and our cooks also were incredibly kind and caring, and always were willing to help with our Spanish skills!
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?
I can honestly say I am thrilled with the way my volunteer experience played out. If I had to choose, I would say that I would have liked to stay a bit longer. But, I am happy that I came for the length I did too, because I would rather leave wanting to return than have had a bad experience and not be able to leave fast enough!
Describe a typical day in the life of your program.
Monday's were the busiest, so I will share a typical Monday! First we had the 6 a.m. census. As there were no night patrols over the weekend, we set out to count the tracks we see on the beach from female turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs. We determined if the nest was successful, if it had been robbed or destroyed by an animal, or if she (the turtle) changed her mind and returned to the ocean without laying.
We would return to the station at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. (depending on how much activity there was) for a delicious breakfast of Gallo pinto, fresh fruit, eggs, and handmade juice. After breakfast we would go to the lookout and either stretch or sit and read while listening to and watching the waves crash in front of us. We’d play cards and hang out there until lunch, when we all gather and sit around the huge tables at the station.
After lunch it was always so hot that we would go for a swim and sometimes surf. We’d then come back and get ready for either beach cleanup, where we pick up plastic on a designated stretch of beach, or community cleanup, when we'd wander the community streets and collect garbage and recycling. After that we'd usually swim again (it was so hot!) and watch the sunset while splashing around.
Then we would come back for dinner and, depending on the time of night patrol, we would either get ready and then go or we would all take naps, if we had a later patrol. If we took a nap, we would wake up to get ready to go and then walk the beach in darkness and look for turtle tracks. The leader would follow the tracks and if the turtle was still there, then we'd get to work with her, counting the eggs she lays, timing how long she takes, measuring her, and tagging her. Once the turtle was done, we'd continue to walk to our designated break point. This would continue for four hours, and then we'd return back to the station for a well deserved sleep!
What did you enjoy doing in your free time?
We loved playing cards! One of the volunteers from Italy introduced us to a team game that got extremely competitive! We also enjoyed swimming and surfing as well. There was never a dull moment.
What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?
Our accommodation was dorm/hostel style. There were three bunk beds and two bathrooms, with two showers. What I liked best was being with the other volunteers!
What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?
It's really hot and it's a lot of work! The temperature stayed pretty much around 35 degrees Celsius the entire time I was there, which is hot enough before you add physical activity and hard work under the Costa Rican sun to it! If you are sensible and responsible (i.e. wear a hat, drink TONS of water and wear sunscreen) you will be fine -- just a little sweaty!
Now that you're home, how has your time abroad impacted your life?
I feel like I am a more contentious person now, having seen first hand the garbage that washes up from the beach. I try my best to make conscious decisions when buying and disposing of plastics and garbage.
Would you recommend IVHQ and your program specifically to others? Why?
I would absolutely recommend both. My program coordinator before I left my home country was so diligent in returning my emails and answering any questions or queries I had! And once in country, even though it was no longer her job, she made a point of getting in touch to make sure I was doing alright!
The in country organization was incredible. When my phone was stolen from the station and I returned to San Jose, they accompanied me to get a new phone and negotiate a price so I wasn't blowing my entire budget on an unplanned expense!
Heather is from Canada and has a BFA from York University, where she studied dance. During her third year of university, she studied abroad in England, where she discovered her love for international travel. Heather has worked in outdoor education for five seasons, teaching children recreational and educational nature activities. She loves sharing her knowledge and experiences with others, hoping to inspire them to get out and explore.