After a chilly, restless night, I am awoken by a most horrific sound. It can only be Howler monkeys as they are the ones who lead the dawn chorus. Eventually these noisy animals quieten and the birds begin their melodies as the day shift moves in. It is still dark and feels incredibly early. I crawl out from under my mosquito net and as I step down into the bathroom I feel a large splash on my back; something cold and damp has landed on me…… I don’t flinch believing it to be a drip of water from somewhere but instead it is the little frog who lives on the window ledge. Attracted by my warmth he is coming to bid me good morning. ‘Hello little frog, you really made me jump…..’
It is only 5am, wide awake I am sat back under my net away from the squillions of mosquitoes that are humming around my room. I am writing this sat on my bed with my head torch perched on my head and bent over so as not to get caught up in the slack mosquito net around me. Just listening to the life outside my cabin. I can’t wait to explore. This is heaven…….
After a delicious breakfast cooked by the family who own the research station, we set off along the track to the beach to plant mangroves and coconut palms two miles down shore. Our journey takes us past a pond where a Cayman sits sunning himself in the sun and a little blue heron stalks the shores. There are plenty of butterflies and birds to be seen and something to marvel at around every bend.
Pablo, our host for the day and the son of the owner, explains how in 2013, a shift in the tectonic plates caused the ocean to rise causing 150m of the shore to be washed away. Clearing of trees and mangrove beyond the shoreline meant there was no protection from the encroaching waves. This beach, however, is the nesting site of hawks-bill and green turtles; both endangered species and therefore there is local endeavour to try and replant the mangroves to restore the beach structure; sadly, I can’t help feeling it is a bit late.
Achilles is the patriarch of the family whose lodge we are staying in. At 67 he looks older than his years and displays a wisdom that comes from watching his people at the hands of the ‘gringos’ (rich white people). Ecotourism has been good for his family but that is only because they have kept their land and they own their own lodge. As myself, Anita and Archilles walk along the beach, Anita translates his story.
Traditionally Costa Ricans had their own land which was given over to inter cropping and small subsistence farming but in the 1990s as tourism began to grow, the children of the landowners did not want the hard agricultural work of their forefathers, and sold their land to Anglo American entrepreneurs who built tourism lodges and profited from the national parks, or sold it to banana plantation companies. Being in a remote part of Costa Rica, this was the last area to be targeted and the villagers had seen what had happened elsewhere. Selling their land meant they had no resources to build with (i.e. wood) and no means of income other than working for a minimum wage on large plantations. Achilles considered himself fortunate.
I am astonished to learn about the banana plantations. I always believed that fair trade bananas were OK. But earlier from the bus we noticed how each fruit is adorned with blue plastic bags. Apparently this is to protect them from small bees who make the fruit deformed. The bags also ensure that they ripen evenly and provide the European consumer with the perfect looking yellow fruits that they desire. The bags, however, are an eyesore and litter the coastline, creating untold damage to the marine life and unsightly blue splodges on the sand. It makes us angry and alarmed that these are the bananas we buy. The local bananas are smaller, more varied in colour, are more natural and sweeter. What madness has the world come to? Some of the plantations are extensive, are mechanised and the labour is poorly paid. Thank goodness that people like Achilles exist and that large scale plantations have not colonised this part of the country.
Unbeknown by us, the beach that needs planting is reached by wading through waist deep river water. I take off my shoes and roll up my trousers. Here we go; this is what adventures are about. A great egret sits elegantly on a floating log and two sandpipers watch us from the safety of the shoreline. Planting is pretty uneventful. There are not enough plants or tools for us all so we take it in turns; one to dig and the other to place the plant in-situ. There is something very satisfying about this as each plant is placed with a prayer of hope that we can turn the tide of destruction…I force the cynicism away…..
Later, it is back along the coast to the lodge for lunch and then out again, this time for a beach clean; picking up the plastic that litters this beautiful beach. It is a depressing task and yet we are lifted with intrigue as to the origins of the bottles, containers and debris that we find. Anita and I take a walk back towards where we planted the palms and mangroves to look for a lost bag. We scour the beach and chat about the joys and challenges of teaching students, and the trials and tribulations of life. Every now and then we look up and marvel at where we are: the ocean and the miles of beach that stretch out in front of us towards Panama. The smell of the ocean and a warm sun provides a peaceful backdrop to our conversation.
As we head homewards a line of pelicans glide overhead and a hawk sits calmly surveying the ground beneath him. The sky is turning a beautiful pink as we walk down the lanes towards base-camp. The colourful land crabs of reds and blues skulk back into their dens as our footsteps get closer. We are met with dinner, followed by a beer or two, a quick, uneventful night hike, apart from a boat billed heron skulking by the Cayman pool, and the usual insects and crabs. Then it is off to bed for another cold and restless night.