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131 Miles: Liberia to San Jose, Costa Rica

I tried to write about my adventures in Costa Rica in one post. I swear I did. But as I explained here, something extraordinary happened on that trip, and I can’t fit the whole story into 1000 words or less. For those of you just catching up, in December I went on a five-day, 700-mile road-trip across a third-world country. Throughout this month, I’m going to write about each leg of the journey, starting with the first 131 miles. Thanks for reading.

Dec. 7, 131 Miles: Liberia to San Jose

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have angst about my trip to Costa Rica, not stress but a sense of uncertainty. Sure partly, I had the normal anxiety about flying to a foreign country. Did I have enough cash? Would my plane be on time? Would my stuffed bag fit into the overhead? Did I have my passport?

But above all, I was concerned about traveling with women. I know that sounds strange, but I’m not around a lot of girls daily. I live with more dogs than humans and work in an industry with a male to female ratio of five to one. Also, I’m a tomboy who wears cargo shorts instead of yoga pants and board shorts instead of bikini bottoms. I live in my Penn State baseball hat. So, a five-night girl’s trip in a third-world country was a completely new experience for me.

I was traveling with two sisters from North Carolina, Nora Gabriel and Rita Southard. We were headed to the Osa Peninsula, a biodiversity hotspot, to volunteer for a sea turtle conservation group. Nora was the inspiration behind the whole trip. She’s a sea turtle advocate with a mane of black curls and an infectious laugh. I’ve known Nora for years but only met Rita a handful of times. Rita is younger than her sister, thirty something, tall with soft pale skin and brown hair that sways against her waist. Since we were starting our journey in the northern region of Costa Rica, and needed to venture to the southern end, we planned on splitting the first part of our trip into two days.

My first hour in Costa Rica went exactly as planned. I landed in Liberia during the late afternoon. Nora and Rita were waiting for me outside of immigration. We were spending the night in San Jose, 131 miles away, and taking a shuttle van to our hotel. Between the three of us, we knew a few phrases in Spanish, but none of us could have a conversation in it, and our driver didn’t speak a word of English. On the curb outside the airport, Nora pointed out the address of our hotel on her phone. He nodded, and that nod was the only assurance we had that he knew our destination.

About thirty minutes into our ride, my stomach started feeling weak. I’m prone to motion sickness, so in retrospect I should have sat in the front seat. But I didn’t. I sat in the very back because up until I got in that van, my stomach gave no indication it was upset.

Costa Rica doesn’t have many roads, so traveling takes a lot longer than it does at home. If we were driving 131 miles from one major city to another in the Southern United States, it would take two hours. In Costa Rica, it takes double that time. The two-lane roads were paved but winding, weaving back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes, we drove behind public buses or tractors pulling hay, and we moved at a snail’s pace. Sometimes, the road cleared and the driver would pound on the gas for a few manic kilometers before slamming on the brakes. The van had seen better days, faded red interior, chipped paint, windows that didn’t roll down. Plus, it didn’t have any seatbelts, so every time the driver slammed on the brakes, we lurched forward.

About an hour into the trip, my stomach was turning like a carousel. About three hours into the ride, it was spinning. Through sheer willpower, I was able to control it because I wasn’t going to be that girl, the one who causes problems, the one who shows weakness hours into a rugged five-day trip. Unfortunately, my stomach didn’t care about my reputation.

I said, “I’m going to puke.”

Nora and Rita looked at me, then at the driver, then at each other. At the same exact second, we realized nobody knew enough Spanish to ask him to pull over. Nobody knew how to tell him I was going to be sick. And that if he didn’t pull over, it was going to happen all over the van’s floor. It’s an odd feeling not being able to communicate at the height of an emergency. Granted, I had played around on language apps for the past year, but I never took learning Spanish seriously, not really. And I never regretted my apathy more than at that moment.

Since I get motion sickness and travel a lot, I’ve developed a habit. Consciously or not, I identify a puke bag the moment I get on any plane, subway, bus, or shuttle van. Luckily, I had packed a few Ziploc bags in my backpack. I don’t remember thinking about those bags beforehand, but when my stomach rose into my throat, and then into my mouth, I dug for those bags like a dog hunting a mole. As the orange haze of San Jose, the biggest city in Costa Rica, glowed through the van’s windows, I puked into a Ziploc bag, not once but twice.

After my retching concluded, I was embarrassed and humbled. I had been worried about traveling with girls, and I was the one who couldn’t hang. But if Nora and Rita felt that way, they never let it show. Instead, Nora handed me a wet wipe, offered water, medicine. Rita shrugged off my apology. “Please,” she said in a nonchalant way, as though she was totally accustomed to people puking into plastic bags, as though it was no big deal.

Now, almost six week later, I wish I could remember more about my first 131 miles in Costa Rica. But, in retrospect I only learned two things. First, I need to work on my Spanish, no more excuses. Secondly, I learned something about Nora and Rita. Nora’s nurturing and Rita’s feigned indifference had been the perfect remedies for my embarrassment in that van. Within minutes, they had made me feel okay again. That was the first but not the last time I realized that traveling with women, particularly these two women, was going to be a special experience.

Three Girls and a 700-Mile Road-Trip across Costa Rica

Before I left for Costa Rica, I had every intention of coming home and writing a story about my grueling but rewarding volunteer work for LAST, a sea turtle conservation group. But sometimes, the story we expect isn’t always the one we get. And this time, I was way off the mark. Let me be clear, both grueling and rewarding volunteer work was involved in my adventure, and I’ll touch on that. But, a tale focused only on sea turtles in Costa Rica isn’t the one that’s been brewing. Instead, I can’t stop thinking about three gringas who traveled to a third-world country and had the adventure of a lifetime. Let’s start with a teaser.

Three gringas and a 700-mile road-trip across Costa Rica

On a Saturday afternoon in mid-December, I met two sisters Honora Gabriel and Rita Southard at the Liberia airport. From there, we road-tripped for five days and 709 miles along Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. Here are just a few of our experiences: we hiked seven miles in the jungle along the Golfo Dulce, planted mangrove seeds with our hands, crossed an estuary where crocodiles swim, and measured a hawksbill’s shell. On the Osa Peninsula, we slept in concrete cabins with cockroaches, cold showers, and no air conditioning. In Quepos, we heard the howler monkeys’ husky roars before we saw some a day later in Tamarindo. We also saw macaws, toucans, parrots, a sleeping sloth, iguanas, and white-faced capuchin monkeys. We ate rice and beans five times in two days and an empanada at a roadside soda. On snaking, two-lane roads, sometimes in the rain, we passed men cutting brush with machetes, mule-drawn carriages, and people of all ages and genders riding street-legal dirt bikes with one or maybe five passengers.

There were times on that 700-mile trip when we squealed like ecstatic teenage girls. But, there were also times when we were forced to step outside our comfort zones, physically, mentally, and culturally. For me, the remarkable part is that we never melted down or gave up. Not for 700 miles. Not when I threw up in a Ziplock bag, or Nora killed cockroaches, or sand fleas assaulted Rita. Even when an intoxicated tico screamed karaoke at us in Puerto Jiménez, a town straight out of a Wild West movie, we didn’t give up. Looking back, we not only survived that road-trip, but we thrived. Because somewhere along those dusty, winding roads, three women became lifelong friends.

Coming in 2020

Coming soon, I’ll be writing more about our road-trip across Costa Rica. Plus, I’ll share a story about a vicious dog who attacked Floyd over Thanksgiving in Kentucky, and another about CBD oil and our sixteen-year-old cat’s remarkable comeback. This spring we’ll be visiting the Gentle Barn, a farm sanctuary in a neighboring county, and this summer we’re returning to the Puget Sound Goat Rescue to check in on Rosebud, our favorite three-legged goat.

Happy Holidays y’all!

A Prelude to Sea Turtle Adventures in Costa Rica

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the hardest part of loving my freaks is leaving them. And soon, I’ll be leaving them for ten days. There are two things that make being away worth it. One, I’ll be visiting a magical place, a.k.a. the Golfo Dulce in Costa Rica. I’ve heard rumors that creatures like sloths, macaws, and monkeys live in those emerald green forests, and I’m as excited as a twelve year old to see them. I wasn’t able to sleep last night just thinking about it.

Secondly, I’m going for a good cause. The Osa Penisula is one of 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world. A biodiversity hotspot is a place rich in nature but threatened by human development and pollution. Conservation International reports, “Today, species are going extinct at the fastest rate since the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.” And sea turtles are quickly become one of these casualties. So, for three days, marine-life advocate Honora Gabriel and I will be volunteering for the Osa Project, a conservation group running a rehabilitation center for sick or injured turtles.

I traveled to Cuba earlier this year to learn about the dog overpopulation problem, and ironically, I’m going to Costa Rica to find out about the withering number of sea turtles. The ocean’s problems have made front-page news on this blog before. Click here for a post about the starfish on the Oregon Coast and here for an interview with a badass lionfish hunter trying to save the Florida Keys.

For me, the ocean means life. If the ocean is dying, then it means that Conservation International is right, and everything else is dying too. Because I love nature so much, and because I’m able, I want to help. I want to witness and write about the Osa Project because if we don’t raise a clatter, then who will?  It’s not like the sea turtles are going to start yelling about the insane amount of plastic littering their home.

I’ll miss my freaks so much that I’ve already devised a way to keep them “with” me. I’m going to drape my beach towel on their dog bed the day before I leave. That way, I’ll smell them every time I dry off. I’m sure I’ll find a few dog hairs too. 🙂

I’m not taking my computer into the jungle, but I will be keeping a diary the old school way. So check back at the end of the month for an update about our sea turtle adventures in Costa Rica.

And as always, thanks so much for reading.

Why Sea Turtles Need People Like Honora Gabriel

Mason and I swam with sea turtles three years ago. It was (by far) the closest I’d ever been to the reptiles, so I was unprepared for both their grace and their friendliness. The turtles glided through the clear blue Caribbean with an elegance that hinted at their longevity. Their family tree branches back to prehistoric times. It was an amazing experience, the rare kind where I entered a foreign land yet felt completely welcome.

This memory resurfaced a few months ago when Honora Gabriel told me she was spending two weeks saving sea turtles in Costa Rica. The turtles need help because six out of seven species are endangered, and we are the primary reason for their withering numbers. Think trash, fishing nets, and pollution. Multiple sources claim only one in 1000 sea turtles live to maturity.

Like every member in a well-run household, sea turtles have chores. In essence, they are the gardeners of the oceans because they mow the sea grass. Untended sea grass is like a weed. It kills everything. Turtles also keep the jellyfish population under control because they eat them. Plus, their hatched eggs leave nutrients in the sand that help combat erosion. Because of the turtle’s shrinking numbers, these chores aren’t getting done, and that affects the whole marine ecosystem. The Sea Turtle Conservancy put it like this, “All parts of an ecosystem are important, if you lose one, the rest will eventually follow.”

Honora is in her late thirties, petite with a mane of black curls. She’s a pharmaceutical consultant who designs programs that help patients get access to life-saving medications. She also blasts through every glass ceiling she encounters. The Charlotte Business Journal named her one of the “Top 25 Women in Business” in 2015. The following year the Mecklenburg Times gave her a “Woman of the Year” award. And in 2019, she’ll take over as Board President of Susan G. Komen Charlotte Chapter.

I’ve known Honora for over a decade, and I’d be proud to call her a friend even if she didn’t care about animals, but she does. And she does something about it. In December, Honora volunteered with Costa Rica Volunteer Now on the Playa Camaronal Wildlife Refuge. She slept under a mosquito net, chopped trails through the jungle, and lived on rice and beans for two weeks. And she did it so that we all get an opportunity to swim with sea turtles.

If you’ve been reading this site for a while, then you know the Farnival likes to pay tribute to everyday badasses who help animals. People that prove anyone can make a difference. Recent additions to our list include Gus Sims and Barbara Jamison. Now it also includes Honora Gabriel. Two weeks ago, I caught up with Honora and asked her about her trip to Costa Rica.

So….why sea turtles? 

I’ve always felt a connection to the ocean. When I was a little kid I wanted to be a marine biologist. Then when I went to Ithaca College, I met [my husband] Jason and we would meet everyday at this sea turtle fountain. It’s the place where our relationship grew. It’s also the first place he told me he loved me, and Jason ended up getting that same turtle tattooed on his arm.

I can’t say why, but I feel like turtles are my spirit animals. So when I decided to leave corporate America, and I did leave corporate America, I wanted to mark it with something important to me. And I decided to save turtles.

Coolest thing you learned about sea turtles?

They return to the place they were born to lay their eggs. The turtles can be thousands of miles away, but they still come back to the place where they hatched. This boggles my mind. For instance, say they are in Australia and they are coming to Costa Rica, how do they know when they have to leave? It really boggles my mind that they know when to leave, and that they make it back to where they were hatched. And turtles hatch from all over the globe. They are everywhere except the Polar Regions.

Can you describe where you stayed?

I’m going to liken it to a dorm at a scout camp because most people can relate to that. It’s a long building with concrete floors and walls. The ceiling is tin. You can hear the iguanas crawling on top of it at night. You can hear their tails. The windows are four-feet wide and kept open all the time because it’s hot, so we were totally exposed. We slept in bunk beds with mosquito nets. You are basically living out of your book bag.

I shared a bathroom with 15 other girls. There was another bathroom for the ten guys at our dorm. And because of the plumbing you couldn’t flush toilet paper. We had three toilets. Right across from the toilets are three showers. One didn’t work, water dribbled out of the other two, and it’s all cold water. Now, keep in mind, between the 25 people in our dormitory, we could only run water one at time. So sink, shower, toilet, one a time between 25 people. So, you had to warn people, “Hey, I’m showering,” or “I’m going to flush” or “I’m going to brush my teeth.” These are the conversations that occur.

What was a normal day of volunteering like? 

We had dayshifts from 9 -11 am and then between 3-5 pm. The night shifts were three hours sometime between 7:30 PM -1:30 am.

At night we patrolled the shoreline to find turtles heading to the beach or already laying their eggs. Raccoons are a natural predator, so we’d fend off the raccoons so the turtle could lay her eggs. Then, as she’s laying her eggs, we dug, stroke for stroke, behind her to make a parallel tunnel so that we could collect the eggs. Once we collected the eggs we took them back to the hatchery, dug a hole, and buried them. We also did hatchery patrol. If I was on this shift, I was chilling at the beach fort and every 30 minutes I checked the hatcheries. When the baby turtles hatched, we took them to the ocean.

The day shifts were manual, sweaty labor. We built trails at a nature preserve where people can pay to hike and see the hatcheries. If people come at night, they can see the hatchlings go into the water. It’s kind of like a National Park in the United States. The lead biologist was very focused on improving the trail system, and he wanted to make new trails. Well, talk about sweating your butt off. So, the people in the front go through with machetes, then we went through with shovels to dig the plants out or with rakes to rake the leaves, and there are a lot of leaves in the jungle. Ultimately, better trails mean more people will come to the sanctuary and that means more money for the turtles.

Another task was picking up trash and sticks off the beach. There was an amazing amount of driftwood on the beach, and that’s important to move because the baby turtles can’t crawl over it. We called that natural trash.

What made you angriest about the human trash?

The trash is so disappointing because it can get lodged anywhere in the sea turtle. It gets lodged in the their nose, in their throat. And there is so much of it.

There are so many straws on the beach. One day I was like I’m going to count how many straws I pick up in two hours because that will be impactful. I lost count after thirty minutes.

Number two is plastic bottle caps. I didn’t think about this before, but now I notice how many things have plastic caps. Think about it for a minute next time you’re in the grocery store. Everything we buy has a cap.

And number three is shoes.

Shoes?

 I’m not making this up.

Do you feel like you made a difference?

In my heart, I want to feel like I made a difference. But when I think about those two weeks in the grand scheme of things, I’ll say no. For example, one of my tour guides told me that he traveled from the Philippines to Costa Rica. He said what registered on his navigation system was an island and that was an island of plastic that resides in the Pacific. It’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That kills me.

What I can do is focus on spreading a message, a message that makes people change their ways because it’s the small things that help. You go to the grocery store and get plastic bags. Where do those bag go? It’s floating around in the ocean and it looks like a jellyfish. The turtle eats it. It ends up in his stomach, and then the turtle is dead. Everything in our life is plastic. I find myself refusing bags at the store or bringing my own bags. I refuse straws, which sounds like such a small thing but it’s important and anybody can do it. Just refuse a straw.

I bought every member of my family a book about turtles, so that they understand that everybody can help. For instance, something else people can easily do is shut off their lights. If you live on the coast, shut off the lights because all of those hatching turtles are going to gravitate towards the light instead of the ocean. And then they’ll die. So, my point is I hope I can make a difference by educating people about the simple ways everybody can help.