Culture

A leatherback turtle at dawn

Pacuare, Costa Rica: The fight of the Leatherback turtles

A baby leatherback climbs a mountain of sand.

The silver light of a waxing moon, ancient and deliberate, highlights the elevated black and white spotted contours and ridges of the leatherback turtle’s giant prehistoric carapace, as the ancient beast makes its nest on the Costa Rican shore off of the island of Pacuare.

She does this just as all that have come before her have done for the last one hundred fifty million years. Dressed in black, speaking in whispers, and armed only with red LED lights, we have only seconds to get to her as she emerges from the sea, collect and relocate the contents of her nest before the hundred or so eggs of this extremely endangered animal will instead fall into the hands of local poachers. These poachers will then take the hundred or so eggs to the local markets where they will be sold for roughly a dollar apiece to insecure men looking for sexual fortification. Turtle eggs, at least according to local lore, are aphrodisiacs.

Through a company called Tropical Adventures, I have teamed up with a volunteer conservation group called WIDECAST. WIDECAST, also known as Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network is a non-profit organization that works in more than 30 Latin American and Caribbean countries and territories to protect all endangered sea turtles.

The organization works closely with governmental and non-governmental scientists, conservationists, research managers, policy makers, and educators to develop various programs designed to rehabilitate the drastically declining number of Green, Hawksbill, and Leatherback turtles.Volunteers working the hatchery where more than a hundred babies emerge daily.

Pacuare, located off the Caribbean Coast is just one of their many projects. These turtles, like so many species of marine life have become endangered because of poaching, commercial fishing, and pollution just to name a few. Leatherback’s primary diet is jellyfish, for which a plastic bag can easily be mistaken. Once  in the turtle’s stomach, it will slowly and painfully starve to death.

To get Pacuare is an adventure in itself.  After arriving in San Jose and a quick night of sleep at the Don Carlos Hotel near San Jose’s Central Market, I make my way to the bus station where, I along with a full bus of Costa Ricans make the incredibly hot four-hour cross country trek over an exquisite rain forest to the town of Bataan.  The beauty of the rain forest covered mountain is diametrically opposed to the misery of my bus seat. There is not enough storage room overhead for my fifty-pound bag so it rests on my lap.

To my dismay, a well-fed woman in the tiny seat next to me oozes into my personal space, shifting constantly to find unattainable comfort. Periodically she engages in a heated debate with her sister across the aisle. My limited Spanish leads me to believe a romance has gone afoul. From her tone, I feel that the man has fared well. Each heated spat between the two ends with the peace offering of some sort of toxic-waste smelling Costa Rican corn chip. She offers me one.“Lo siento. Estoy infermo.” I lie, fearing for my life. In case my Spanish is completely incomprehensible, I also hold my stomach, make a frowny face just to drive the sentiment home. Though in the moment, she accepts my decline, it doesn’t stop her from offering the impossibly orange, repugnant chips at least a dozen more times in five minute intervals until I finally get off in Bataan. Like the turtles that return to Pacuare every three years to give birth as they have for millennia, this woman honors ritual.

The camp at Pacuare.

The camp at Pacuare.

In the breezeless town of Bataan, I exit the bus. Instantly, I am dripping and the sun is scorching. Waiting for me is a wiry man named Eric. He is Pacuare’s project administrator and speaks little English. He waits while I find the only internet café in the small town, check my email one last time and then Eric, two others and myself cram into one of Costa Rica’s notorious red taxis and we make our way down a dusty, high-centered gravely road twenty-five minutes to a small dock on an unnamed canal that ultimately feeds into the Pacuare River.

The chaos of twelve hours on planes and airports, a bus ride and mad taxi ride on Costa Rica’s bumpiest road give way to the peaceful chants, hums, whistles and buzzes of the jungle as water laps against the rusty hull of the boat. This peaceful moment is only temporarily broken by the guttural roar of a troop of Howler monkeys in the canopy above us. First, I am in awe then disgust as one of them, from twenty feet above me, urinates.

The boat to Pacuare.

The boat to Pacuare.

I sit across from Daniela,who sheds light on our mission. She is in charge of environmental education and outreach and explains that the team, which is composed of three research assistants and a handful of volunteers from all over the world, has three duties. The first is, rain or shine, to search for turtles between the hours of 8pm and 4am when they come to shore to lay their eggs. Those eggs are then collected and then re-nested near the base in a controlled environment.  To make matters more complicated, not only are our volunteers searching for turtles, but also locals are looking for them as well with far more nefarious intentions. While there is a mutual understanding between the two turtle enthusiasts that whoever finds the turtle claims the turtle, with each poached nest go roughly one hundred baby turtles, each vital to the survival of the species.

The second responsibility, Daniela explains, is to monitor the re-nested eggs. When tiny turtles begin to emerge from the dirt, fifty to seventy days after they are buried, they are to be weighed, measured, and placed into a sand-filled cooler. While this is happening, other volunteers rake a path in the beach so that the young turtles can make their way safely to the water without being eaten by crabs, stray dogs, or birds. Unlike the potentially emotional gravitas that accompanies the pillaging of a nest in front of my eyes, this process sounds far less daunting.

Newly hatched leatherbacks make their way to the beach while a volunteer rakes the way to keep the path a smooth one.

Lastly, it is the responsibility of the volunteers to keep base camp in working order. This includes building cages for the babies, working on the new hatchery and various other day-to-day chores, all of which are done, of course under the blazing Caribbean sun. The objective becomes immediately clear: Sweat a lot. Sleep little. Save the turtles.

As Daniela finishes going over the objectives and responsibilities, herons and egrets rest on the backs of submerged cattle line the ever-widening river as we snake our way towards the Caribbean Sea, which announces itself with a gentle breeze and the thunderous crash of waves hitting the shore.  We have arrived.

The camp, as promised, is rudimentary and teaming with wildlife. There are six sleeping cabins, each with three bunks, an open-air kitchen, open-air bathroom with two toilets and two showers. While the living conditions are not for the faint of heart, to someone who loves adventure, wildlife, doesn’t mind the occasional bug bite and is willing to forego their smart phone for a few days, there is no finer place. How often, I think to myself, do people say something along the lines of “I wish I could escape to a deserted island…” or “I want to make a difference in the world and see something different,” Look no further. But when you say it… Know you have to mean it.

the local sloth

Within minutes of my arrival, two brilliantly colored toucans feast on bananas left over from lunch earlier in the day. Near the gate to the beach, a sloth, with his long curved nails, hangs from a tree, lazily grooming himself. Electric colored lizards and iguanas occupy every sun-exposed tree and rock.  In the distance cry more howler monkeys. A moving carpet of leaf ants move leaves like a green conveyer belt from a large tree to their nest. Birds and butterflies of every color flash like daytime fireworks and there is a kayak next to the river as communal living will demand some for of solitude. It paradise as designed before the days of the Four Seasons beds, fast food and the smart phones. And all of this beauty set against the backdrop of the Caribbean Sea whose waves pound the sand a hundred yards away.

After a brief introduction to the research assistants and volunteers, the mission to save the turtles becomes instantly clear. Word comes in of a hatch in the hatchery. Like soldiers going to battle, the volunteers leap from their hammocks, abandon their card games and make their way to the beach. Each has an assignment. The goal is to get these neophytes to the sea as quickly and as safely as possible. Within fifteen minutes, in a flurry of scales, measurers, buckets, and rakes, more than twenty tiny turtles make a mad dash toward the sea where they will hopefully spend the next fifty years of their lives, returning to this beach by way of the earth’s magnetism twenty-five years to lay eggs of their own.

After months in the ground, the baby leatherbacks emerge

The reverie lasts only a moment before another hatch and the cycle repeats. This time I put on some rubber gloves to pretend I can help, which I cannot.  By the time the babies have been sent away, it is time for dinner, which is invariably an assortment of rice beans and either plantains or yucca with perhaps a touch of pork. This is not just dinner but breakfast and lunch as well. Conversation over dinner tends to be about how nice it would be to eat something else. While I find the simplicity of the food somehow refreshing, one could see how eating it repeatedly for months at a time like many of these volunteers do, might conjure feelings of madness.

I chat with one of the research assistants, Rachel. She is delicately spoken, intelligent marine biologist from England. Her passion for turtles, like everyone here is infectious. “Every time I see a turtle I have to go into turtle mode,” she tells me, her eyes lighting as she talks.  “There is a process that has to be followed, but I always try to take a moment to appreciate what an amazing animal it is and how lucky I am that it is a part of my life.”

Measuring the newly hatched leatherbacks.

As dinner ends, darkness falls. The only light becomes that of the moon, which on this particular night happens to be full. Lightning flashes are a constant against the backdrop over the sea. Head lanterns become light sources and the evening’s patrol groups are laid out. The seven-kilometer beach is broken up into three sections. Starting at 8pm, each section is assigned to groups of two to three people led by a research assistant. One group watches from 8pm to 12am. The other from 12am to 4am.  Thankfully I am assigned the first watch.

There are few better ways to get to know someone than four hours walking up and down a Costa Rican beachfront in search of endangered sea turtles about to go into labor. My watch partner Amy is from Maine and fell in love with sea turtles after spending a summer in Crete. Since then she has traveled back to Crete several times, adding a stop in Kenya before landing in Costa Rica. It is admirable devotion.

As we walk, I notice the shadows of small men walking in pairs and groups of three, the embers from their cigarettes burning. They are poachers and tonight, they want the same thing we want.  Turtle eggs. Given the broad expanse of beach, often they first spot the turtles, who are more than six feet long and impossibly slow, emerging from the water. They arrive before us and we have no choice but to watch as they collect the poor turtles eggs and vanish to sell them as some crude sort of endangered reptilian Viagra. Unaware of what has happened, the turtle buries the hole anyway. It is heartbreaking. I am determined not to let that happen again. Poaching turtle eggs and killing turtles in Costa Rica is illegal, and while it carries a one to three year sentence, very little is done to stop it. On Pacuare, nothing is done at all.

An hour later, after having mistaken several rocks and logs for turtles, we see something dark and grand emerging from the water. Its slow cumbersome gait is unmistakable. It is a leatherback. She zigzags out of the water, searching for the perfect spot to nest, leaving enormous tracks in the sand behind her. It is as if an ATV came careening from the sea, only compared to a Leatherback an ATV is small.

Tracks of a leatherback

After she has found a proper place, the turtle first “makes its bed” with her front flippers. This explosive process involves the turtle throwing sand all over the place like some kind of a turtle fit. Fine sand hovers above the turtle like smoke after the implosion of an abandoned hotel. Next the turtle shifts her attention from the front to the back. It is almost our time. We are instructed to wait until she is finished making her bed before moving in.

Once the nest has been dug, the turtle goes into a strange birthing trance. We get inches behind the turtle, our eyes inches from its giant George Lucas-esque tail. The slowly wagging giant nub looks like something from Mos Eisley on a mission to kill Luke Skywalker. Using its massive flippers like alien hands, the turtle scoops sand with one flipper then the next, moving its mass from side to side with each dig. This process lasts for about 15-20 minutes depending upon the turtle’s attitude toward perfection. As she digs, we pull sand back from the hole behind her allowing us to put a plastic bag under the turtle when she finally begins to lay her eggs. Finally, the turtle takes a long breath. It is time.

A leatherback moments before it leaves land for the next twenty-five years

I put one hand under each flipper to hold the plastic bag in place. The turtle arches it’s neck and lets out a painful breath and with that, an egg falls. Then another. The tail wriggles and as it does, the Star Wars theme song plays in my head. More eggs fill the heavy bag. Each one a chance that this species may get to stay on this planet a little bit longer. The research assistants take measurements of the shell size and checks for microchips as I sit there, speechless. When all the eggs have been laid, in this case, nearly a hundred, we cover them with sand until we are ready to move them back to the hatchery. The white of the eggs, even though we have claimed them will attract poachers. The turtles are never fully safe.

I walk around to the front of the turtle and notice it’s eyes. She looks like she is crying. Though all that is happening is a salt excretion from the glands located behind the turtle’s eyes, I can’t help but think, that like me, the turtle is thinking that life is precious.  Having survived on the planet for more than 150 million years, I’m sure that somewhere is her genetic coding she understands this with far greater clarity than I could ever conjure.

A leatherback turtle at dawn

A leatherback turtle at dawn

That night, the group will save the eggs of thirteen turtles. The poachers will get the eggs of six. Over the course of my stay, we will save 959 eggs from 13 turtles, and 437 hatchlings will rise from 15 different nests. For every thousand eggs hatched, one will make it to sexual maturity and will be able to reproduce. It is a bitter victory but a victory none-the-less.

Somewhere in Costa Rica, after eating a turtle egg, a man will try to convince himself, according to preposterous myth that his libido has increased exponentially at the expense of a species. I will return, sweaty and sandy, tired and torn to my powerless room and with the company of the moonlight, the buzz of the jungle and the eternal grind of sea meeting sand and as the turtles make their way back into the hazy mysteries of the ocean, I will sleep.

UFO Museum in Roswell

Roswell, New Mexico

UFO Museum in Roswell

UFO Museum in Roswell

With the exception of a McDonald’s billboard boasting to be the “Unofficial crash sight,” Roswell is not unlike any dusty south central New Mexico town.  On it’s perimeter, a smattering of suburbs and trailer parks.  Moving towards its center, friendly people work in locally owned businesses.  What makes this otherwise authentically preserved Main Street unique is its homage to the green-skinned extra terrestrial visitors that may or may not have graced this town with their presence on July 8th, 1947.

While I entered the town a skeptic, by the end of the trip I saw a UFO of my own.  Flying in the sky.

Nearly half of the storefronts on this two-block stretch lure in curious visitors and locals alike with images and statues of UFOs and aliens, each boasting to be the UFO headquarters or the Official UFO store or some other claim of UFO proprietorship.

At the town’s center in an old movie theater once known as the Plains Theater is The UFO Museum and Research Center.  The museum is designed for both the curious and the serious believers, offering a multitude of articles and exhibits covering the not only the crash in 1947 but also discussing numerous incidents of UFO activity across the globe.

A blend of doubt, confusion and wonder wash over me as I read letters written to the museum from people claiming to have been abducted.

Though the exhibits go to great lengths to reinforce the belief that UFOs do exist, no exhibit is more convincing than the Palenque Astronaut. This Mayan artifact dates back to roughly 400-500AD and its carvings tell the tale of an astronaut sitting in control of his spaceship, worshipped by adoring Mayans.

In addition to the museum exhibits, there is an expansive library that offers a variety of books on UFOs and aliens.  The fee to get into the museum is a manageable five dollars.

I make a quick visit to the gift shop where I resist the urge to purchase a Roswell baseball jersey but still manage to drop a mint on alien golf balls, bobbleheads, and sunglasses.  Hungry and certain that there must be someplace in town the sells Alien Burgers or Area 51 fries, I ask for a good place to eat.

“There’s a McDonald’s down the road,” says the lady working in the gift shop.  Reading my disappointment, she continues.  “They got a UFO out front.  You can eat in there too, if you want.”

“You mean I can eat in the UFO?” I ask.

“If you want,” she confirms.

While not typically a fan of the Ronnie Mac Shack, the thought of eating inside a UFO is somehow appealing and with that, I’m off for a quarter pounder. While the museum wasn’t The Getty and I dine on processed, over-salted fast food, I do leave knowing enough about UFOs that when I look at the sky, I’m a bit more curious about what is out there.

My drive takes me over the beautiful conifer mountaintop made famous by Billy the Kid, settling into the small town of Alamogordo.  My temporary reprieve from the otherworldly comes to an abrupt and unexpected halt as I pass a fifty-foot pistachio nut on the side of the road.

The pistachio statue sits in front of McGinn’s Country Store as a memorial to the store’s founder, Tim McGinn.  Now run by Mr. McGinn’s son Tim McGinn Jr., the Country Store is as much a tourist destination as it is a place of commerce.

In addition to a wide variety of pistachio products, including its world famous pistachio brittle, the store also sells wine made from grapes grown on the premise.

McGinn’s boasts 12,500 pistachio trees and 7400 vines to make its wines.  The store is entirely self-contained with 17 employees doing everything from picking the nuts to making the wines.

Visitors can sample a variety of flavored pistachios including lemon lime, cinnamon and habanero. If they are feeling more festive they can participate in free daily wine tastings. I still have a long drive to White Sands National Monument, so I turn down the wine but take advantage of the wide samplings of the nuts that made McGinn’s famous. Tim tells me that I would be remiss if I weren’t also to try the Atomic Hot Chili Pistachio Brittle.

I try it and true to the alien infused landscape around me, it is out of this world.

My last stop is White Sands National Monument located not far from The White Sands Missile Range where the first nuclear bomb was tested.  Part of the National Parks system, White Sands National Monument, located just outside of Las Cruces, is a National Monument like none other.  The park consists entirely of eerily white sand dunes made up of sand called gypsum.

Just beyond the park’s entrance, plants manage to successfully thrive, though sparingly so, but as I drive deeper into the park, almost all life seems to end in exchange for miles and miles of pure white sand.  At a glance, the dunes give the appearance of snow.  Though I am there in winter, in the summer, it gets up to 110 degrees, quickly melting any illusion that you might be in the skiing country.

The park is a popular spot for campers, horseback riders and hikers.  Visitors can rent sleds in the visitor’s center and ride down the often quite high dunes.  So soft is the powdery sand that the more adventurous can simply tuck into a ball and roll down the hill head over tail.

Though most crowded in the summer, in the winter the park is silent, spare the occasional whipping of the wind or the cries of coyotes playing in the desert beyond the perimeters of the park.  It is breathtaking and unlike anything I have ever seen.  I take a walk down one of the park’s four trails and feel like I am in another world.  With no trees or rivers to use as landmarks, to wander off the trail for only a moment would be like getting lost on the moon.

As I continue to walk, I note that while the park is the most unique place I’ve ever been, the further into it I go, the more it all looks the same.  Yet in the parks seemingly eternal uniformity, each step feels completely new.  While it lacks the wildlife of Yellowstone or the vistas of the Grand Canyon, the rolling alabaster of White Sands is nothing short of spectacular and like everything in south central New Mexico, otherworldly.

 

White gypsum sand of White Sands National Monument

At an impossible speed, along the empty desert stretch of Highway 70, I make my way home.  I have the New Mexican highway to myself and I take advantage. The pinks and blues of the southern sunset streak like a pastel aurora across the desert sky casting an otherworldly light on the mountain ranges that encapsulate the otherwise sparse, arid land.

The stillness is as liberating as the land’s history is intriguing and terrifying.

More than sixty years ago, this still countryside was disrupted as the energy inside the nucleus of a radioactive atom was released and nuclear bombs made their fledgling appearance on the planet.  As I pass a coyote loafing hungrily alongside the road, I can’t help but wonder if he has some kind of mutated genes and as a result, is a super coyote.

While it is easy to dismiss the impossibility of an alien encounter, were you to be on the streets of New York or the comfort of your own living room, with the least bit of imagination in this neck of the woods, one can imagine a silver, spherical object emerging from the void of dusk and extracting a lone driver like me into it’s nefarious belly for an uncomfortable session of metallic probing and scientific study.

This is why when I noticed something silver, oblong, and peculiar hovering against the backdrop of the celestial New Mexican sunrise, my heart skipped a beat.

While I know that Hollman Air Force Base is near by, I can’t help but stop to look at the strange dirigible.  While fairly certain it is man made, I ask myself the following questions.

Does it fly?  Yes.

Is it an object? Again, yes.

And is it readily identifiable?  It is not.

By that calculation, as I cruise through the New Mexican desert outside of Roswell, I can attest that I did in fact see an unidentified flying object more commonly known as a UFO.

Satisfied, I take a bite of Atomic Chili Pistachio Brittle and fly home.

Batu Caves, Malaysia

The air is so thick that I feel like I am wearing it as I climb the 272 steps leading to the Batu Caves, a Hindu Temple just outside of Malaysia’s expanding metropolis, Kuala Lumpur.

The temple, which is the largest Hindu Temple outside of India is said to be an impressive one. To my right, standing an impressive one hundred forty feet tall, is a gold statue of the Hindu God Murugan. Mischievous macaque monkeys scurry up and down the steep staircase, eyeing the purses and travel bags of unsuspecting tourists.

At the top of the stairs just outside the massive cave, a swami (monastic Hindu) awaits.  He is barefoot, dressed in an ochre robe.   Even with his perfect posture, he barely comes up to the center of my chest.  He has a soft gaze and pleasant smile despite a boa constrictor that wraps itself around his neck.  He walks in my direction as I avoid eye contact.

In a calm, heavily accented voice, he reminds me that if I want to free myself from my fears, I must face them.  I point out that my journey to Malaysia had little to do with facing fears.  He tersely disagrees, then removes the snake from his neck and holds it in my direction as though it were as benign as a pink bow tie.

Somewhere on the steps below, a woman screams as a duo of monkeys steal something from her purse.  From what I could recall, meditation was a cornerstone of Hinduism, which is about being calm.  Here I am at their largest Hindu monument outside of India and monkeys are committing petty theft and assault and a ripe smelling, sparsely dressed yogi is peer-pressuring me into wearing a deadly snake like a scarf.  All this, not to mention the fact that even getting to the entrance of this “tranquil place” required me to walk up 272 stairs in 100% humidity.

“Face your fears,” the little guy says to me again.  While facing my fears, in a broader sense doesn’t really feel like what I want to be doing on my vacation to Southeast Asia, the guy’s request isn’t really that big of a deal.  He’s dedicated his whole life to religion and all he wants is for me to put a snake around my neck for a second.

I’m in a highly populated tourist spot (though on a Monday, it is less so).  He’s obviously not trying to kill me.  It should be fine.

Yet I don’t want the thing around my neck.  I want to go into the massive cavernous system and look at the temples built to the various gods and then go back to Kuala Lumpur where an evening on the town awaits.

In fact, he has made this entire day- trip a bit of a laugh.  I had hoped, in the caves, for a moment of austerity and insight.  Now I am forced to push past this guy and his pet, both of whom I am certain will be eyeing me the entire time I explore the caves, judging me.

“Well…,” he will say to the snake, as I attempt to not notice him, “that weak individual lacks the courage to face his fears,” he will say to his snake.  And the entire time I will have to pretend that he isn’t there, which will be challenging because he is half naked and will be chatting to a snake around his neck.

“Don’t be afraid,” he says to me, bringing me back to the present.  This time I am annoyed.

“I’m not,” I retort looking around.  Now I feel claustrophobic.  The snake he holds out is inches from my face.  It’s tongue flicking.  Its eyes like round dots of black ink just off its triangle shaped head, taunt me. In fact, the eyes of the thousand kaleidoscopic deities lining all the temples in the caves just beyond where I stand seem to watching me.  “I’m not afraid of a snake.  You want to hear about fear?  Last night I ate a jellyfish!  How’s that Yogi?

I think about turning to leave.  Just as escape begins to feel like my only option, something else occurs to me.

In hindsight, how I would feel about him and his snake and if  they prevented me from enjoying one of the most extra ordinary wonders of Malaysia.   Even from where I stood, I could see that what was beyond would be epic. To miss it would mean that I traveled 8,000 miles only to miss out on something because of a snake.

That would be ridiculous.  More specifically, that would be regret.  Regret is something that I fear. Realizing this, I start to laugh at myself.  The yogi sees the break in my veneer and without asking, he puts the snake around my neck and a dot of red ash on my forehead.  The snake slithers around my neck.  Its dry scaly skin tickles me and as it does.

I ask my tour guide John to take a picture and then ask the ochre-robed yogi to be in the picture with me.  He laughs and says he doesn’t want to.

“Why not?” I ask him.  “Are you afraid?”

With his soft gaze, he looks at me, and with the kind of certainty that comes only with years and years of prayer, devotion, and affirmation of life and self.  “I don’t want to,” he says.  I believe him.

He removes the snake and I head into the infamous Batu Caves.