Why working with volunteers is the best

The question that everybody asked me when I decided to move to the Costa Rica Forest Project was ‘How are you going to deal living with the volunteers 24/7?

Being 34, I do enjoy my own company and I am not going to deny that to start with, it was really daunting to think that I would have to spend most of the day surrounded by very young volunteers. However, living and seeing life through the volunteer’s eyes is one of the parts of the job that I enjoy the most, besides doing science. Each volunteer is different, some are really outgoing, some are shy, some have had more sheltered lives than others, whereas others have experienced many things already.

All of them bring a different view to the project and make camp life more interesting. Here, I am a very important part of their life and sharing my knowledge with them is very satisfying. Not only that but as well as serving as a guide and leader for the science, I’m also involved in many other aspects such as cooking, sewing clothes, looking after their wounds and the occasional hug when they are sick. I love to see their faces the first time they see some of the amazing wildlife that surrounds us or how thankful they are when you help them with some task that they thought they would never be able to do.

But they are not the only ones learning, they also teach me many things like how to be a better person, to be more patient and most of all they keep me young! Every single one of them has gained a space in my heart and on my wrist which is so full of bracelets they have made me that I can barely bend my arm! They all help make my experience here in Costa Rica an amazing one and I will forever be grateful to them!

By Beatriz Lopez, Principal Investigator

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Taking a gap year is like making a bracelet

Instructions to Make A Bracelet In the Jungle

Step One: Selecting Colours (or, I Don't Think I'm Ready For University: What the Devil Do I Do On a Gap Year?)

There are a vast array of colours you can choose from. Some are bright- neon shades of yellow and green which shimmer in the light, impossible to focus on. Others appear dull. They hide, blending in until someone comes along, dusts them off, and displays their true colours to the world. There are thousands. Most people stick to the front aisle; they choose the colours that countless before have selected, making patterns that are made seemingly to only blend into the rest. Some, however, elect to go a different route. They find the colours buried in the back, the ones tossed to the side, or the ones which inexplicably are in the clearance rack without ever being allowed to show their worth. They choose to be different.

In my high school graduating class I was one of two who stood up when they asked who was traveling abroad for volunteering. Out of at least a thousand students, only two. I don't know how many high schools in the United States that statistic carries across. I'm willing to bet that at many schools no students would stand at all, to flush red as people turn to look, incredulous, at the freaks who aren't heading straight to university or into the work force. I chose my colours not because I wanted to be different, but simply because I wanted to see as much as I possibly could before getting trapped. Some people go looking for the mustiest shades imaginable, to flaunt them in front of everyone because they want nothing more than to shriek "I exist!" I haven't seen that sort of person here. In this program we're all at different places in our lives, and want different things. We've all selected different colours, and are at different stages in our creation. But in our process we all found one thread in common. It led us here, to begin this experience.

Step Two: The Knot, and How to Begin (or, wow, I'm Actually In Costa Rica)

In order to make a proper knot you can either simply tie the strings or make some sort of loop. My loop was braided, and I fussed over beginning for as long as possible before actually tying it. The fancification is not strictly necessary, and makes the eventual reaching of the knot even more surprising and nerve-wracking.

It actually took a few days of me being on camp before I realised that I was indeed in Costa Rica, and yes, I was stuck here for three months with very little ability to contact home. It took a week for me to cement my "knot" after the dithering which occurred over the creation of my "loop". In that week here, yes I did cry whilst in the showers, and think that I very badly wished to tell my parents that I wanted to go home. I didn't, because I still wanted to see. I still wanted to finish my braclet. So I began my design. I started something a bit crazy, with a rainbow pattern and diamond shaped pieces. I didn't think it would ever end, and even if it did I figured it would look awful.

I don't know how other people felt in their first weeks. Most are older, travelling after or during uni rather than before. Everyone begins their pieces differently around here. Some do loops without braiding them. Others simply leave the strands, or braid the strands. That's not even metaphorical (we make a lot of bracelets in the evenings or when it's raining).

Step Three: First Diamond Done, I'm Ignoring the Issues Thank You Very Much Anal Part of My Brain (or, Finally Settled: This Place is Bloody Amazing, I'm Not Actually Counting, but Did You Know that I Have 116 Insect Bites On My Lower Legs Alone?)

Having to backtrack to fix a knot pulled tight up into the heart of the pattern when it shouldn't exist at all is one of the most aggravating and time-consuming issues one can have whilst making a braclet. On one hand, the finished section looks pretty dang good. To anyone who hadn't actually created it, it would be perfect. But it's still there, and will always be there for the person who created it. In time, the annoyance at it will fade, to be replaced with the memory of the initial stress, and weary acceptance of the blemish.

On the whole, this place is extraordinary. I could spend days describing the shock at hearing a hummingbird fly inches from my ear, the sound of a hundred angry bees passing in less than a second, my eyes taking ages to follow the flight-path, straining to understand what precisely just happened. Or the rain, trapping us on main deck for six hours as it poured, tumultuously creating rivers carved out of sand and mud. Walking through it was like walking through a never-ending shower which happened to have plants throughout its interior. I could carry on, describing, trying desperately to show others what I have seen and heard with words utterly inadequate for the job. Then there's the little things which no one will see or care to have described. Mostly to do with the insect bites received at a local restaurant, and scratching them until they bleed. That's the smallest possible issue in comparison to the whole design, however. And, eventually it will be something which will fade into obscurity in sight and memory.

Step Four: Halfway Done

It's almost as if, once the halfway point has been reached, the pattern is almost done. The climax has been reached, the cake has been baked- the rest is just the falling action and conclusion (or the frosting and sprinkles of finely chopped pieces of dark chocolate, just to suddenly switch metaphors). The point is, it's finished. I'm already feeling it, and I still have a week to my halfway point. It seems like a time to breathe, and think hard about leaving. I'll say this, however: if this experience continues like the creation of a braclet, then it doesn't end halfway, but continues, unabatedly fantastic, and difficult and beautiful to the end. Although I wouldn't say my braclets are particularly special. Nor are they perfect. No experience is.

A Final Note:

Now that this metaphor is drawing to an end at the middle of its story, I would like to encourage the creation of experiences. There will be mistakes and knots in every single one. But in the end the blemishes will seem small and the memories will be there. Everyone should collect their braclets, until they coat both arms and start to move to anklets. Every color is there to sample and use. They are there to have the dust blown off them so that they may cover people with sleeves of such variety that it is impossible to see their skin. It's not important how long you take to begin, just that you DO. The threads are there to be used, not purchased and allowed to gather dust until they rot away and all opportunities to create something have been lost. I don't care what organization it is. This planet is here for us to protect. Otherwise colours which before were vibrant, even if they were hidden, will no longer exist. Halfway isn't the end. The experience goes on until the very end. Already I have been altered by a place so far and alien it brought me to tears. And I have been changed for the better. This may not be everyone's opinion. But you cannot just sit at home with your dull colours and prescribed patterns. I left because I wanted to see. I have created memories, and will continue to do so out of all that I see with as many colours as I can grasp. I encourage-nay-I entreat you: bring colours to light. My eyes are open. Are yours?

By Rowan Ramey-Dixon

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Staff blog: Cooking in the Jungle

When you are told you're going to be cooking for up to 20 people in the middle of the rainforest you might feel a little daunted. Back at home I'm a relatively proficient chef having lived away from home for five years, but most of the time I am beholden to my bibles of recipe books and when I do improvise it normally involves meat pasta and some sort of sauce. So coming up with vegetarian meals from scratch has been a real challenge, especially towards the end of the week when supplies are running low and certain food stuffs are past their best.

At first I was the sort of chuck it all in to the massive wok and see how it goes sort of cook, onions, courgettes, carrots with rice or pastas while someone else does their speciality fried plantains or guacamole. As I have gained more confidence I have managed to transport some of the things I do at home to the jungle; such as my yucca and potato mash (with an amazing refried bean and onion sauce I might add).

The meal everyone looks forward to is when star baker Dan Burgin does his bread, its just a small thing but when you're at home you never think you're going to miss bread and when it is combined with the cheese we all made from scratch (including milking the cows) -  its heaven.

I am writing you this while deciding what to cook for everyone else, it needs to be a hearty meal as they are outworking hard on the farm. I am thinking vegetables in a cheesy sauce with pasta, hope youre mouth is watering. Wish me luck.

By Alex Caldwell, Conservation Apprentice 

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Staff blog: Being in the wild

Zoos are places people can go to appreciate animals that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to see. Everyone can take different things from this experience, however, I was lucky enough to be in the wild. Being in Costa Rica has made me realise how lucky I was to have an opportunity like this. Over the past six months I have learnt a lot and meet so many amazing people. Laying in a hammock to relax after being on a primate or otter survey is just one of the things I would not have done if I hadn’t been here.

Looking from the comfort of the hammock you can see so many species . One of these is the agouti, one of the biggest rodents found in Costa Rica. Central American Squirrel Monkeys are just one of the four primates that are commonly on camp looking for some fruit to eat. Kinkajous are one animal that I haven’t been fortunate to see during my time here but I will be back and will be more determined to see these amazing creatures. Sometimes it is just down to luck whether you see these animals but one thing is for sure, if you don’t make the effort to get to this incredible country then you will miss out on the opportunity of seeing these species in the wild. 

By Kirsty, Assitant Research Officer

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Volunteer blog: Reasons why i volunteer

There are so many reasons why people say that they choose to volunteer abroad. Some want to experience a new country, a new culture, others want to help, whether that's teaching, building, or environmental conservation. Some people want to head somewhere new, meet new people and have a good time. Others couldn't come up with a definitive answer. I thought I knew the reason why I chose this project, a bad experience, an intuitive friend, and a deep concern for environmental issues. I know that these reasons are true, but now that I've arrived, and spent a few weeks here, I understand that there were many other reasons driving the choice to spend eight weeks abroad living in the Costa Rican rainforest.

It made me wonder whether any other volunteers had discovered, or identified ways that volunteering abroad had changed them, or put issues, or even faecets of their character in a much clearer light. Many people believe that volunteers are avoiding real life, or postponing the inevitable, reality. In some cases this may be true, it was definitely an attractive quality for me, having no idea about my future career, but I believe that those doubters need to see the benefits of young people, and in some cases older people 'escaping' from reality. Being here has forced me way outside of my comfort zone. I travelled half way across the world alone, whichI  had never done before. I've been dropped amongst a group of people, who although are like minded are still strangers, who I spend twenty four hours a day, with for sometimes months on end. This situation forces you to learn how to function alone emotionally, dealing with people you may not like, or whose opinions you do not share.

To function independently, cooking cleaning, ensuring you make the most out of your project, lazy people will not gain as much. To deal with uncomfortable, and sometimes painful experiences, being pushed to the limit of your endurance. All without the constant emotional support of family and friends, which can be relied upon in parallel situations at home. The volunteering cliche of 'finding yourself' is a cliche fora reason. If approached with the right attitude and for the right reasons, the experience can be life altering, defining your character and helping to solve the uncertainty that life brings. Whatever the personal reasons behind initially choosing to volunteer abroad, the experience itself will wrought additional changes, to the benefit of each individual.

By Gina Tarantoniom, Research Assistant Volunteer

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Staff blog: The shortest rainforest walk in history

Dan the new Assistant Research Officer and I felt great to be let out on our own in the rainforest for the first time without our experienced guides jess and kirsty. The task was simple, go to the beach and check the temperatures of the hatchery, between us and the beach, a 2 kilometre walk. 

As we set off down the road we saw a glint up ahead, a snake at the side of the road. Managing to squeeze past it on the opposite side we still felt we could complete our task and take a different route back to camp. Having crossed the river swollen by the evenings rain we were surprised by a water buffalo in the road blocking our path at the side of the road.  

Now we had heard that volunteers had ridden it and thought it be tame, but had no idea how it would react without its owner. We radioed back to base and while we were waiting, the beast stubbornly refused to move.

Eventually Kirsty told us that if we did not feel comfortable we should come back, so we turned back tail between our legs, feeling like the most wimpish staff members in history, oh well there's always next time.

By Alex Caldwell

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Volunteer blog: Sam Wilson

Costa Rica is a country blessed with such natural beauty it can evoke the most vehement human emotion. Everyday spent here you are able to witness the bittersweet occurrences that exist in our natural world. From the sheer maternal beauty of an Olive Ridley Sea turtle nesting, to the harsh reality of the struggle her young are placed under in the face if mammalian and avian predation. At moments the picturesque beaches bath in the golden glory of the sun, only to be instantly transformed by torrents of wind and rages of rain. The temperamental nature of this tropical weather itself is a sight to behold.

The forest is rich with life, species thrive as they should, in their natural environment, to witness the ecological systems present is astounding. Trees tower as large as buildings, hundreds upon hundreds of different species of birds inhabit the generous and giving canopy, primates frolic, fight, and feed on the bounty provided by the forest. Reptiles and amphibians surround the forest floor supported by a massive array of invertebrates too vast to comprehend.

I would strongly recommend visiting one of the most bio diverse regions on earth, particularly Corcovado national park with a local guide. Regardless of whether or not you travel with frontier I would definitely recommend a visit to Costa Rica.

By Sam Wilson, Assistant Research Volunteer

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Staff blog: Turtle Hatchery 

Emerging from the sand into the light, I’m getting trampled on by siblings and scrambling around looking for the ocean to begin the long journey into adulthood. There is a mesh in the way but I can see the sunlight from above. After what feels like an eternity a large shape comes amongst us and takes us one by one, we end up in another container but still able to see the light. After a swaying trip we are finally where we belong, back on the blackened sand facing the shiny ocean. It’s a long journey to the ocean, and shorts bursts of energy get us all closer. I can see the others around me and other onlookers beyond, I go on ignoring them. After each resting period I spurt forward ever closer until a wave comes upon me and I am on my way, to live…

On Piro beach, here on the Osa Peninsula we help at a hatchery. There are uncertain and dangerous parts of the beach which have an ever changing landscape which the laying turtles can’t take into account when they come ashore. It is peak Olive Ridley season and the eggs take 46-60 days to hatch from laying. The turtles come shore to lay at night and occasionally in the day, half the beach is often changing due to a river that moves with the rainfall and tides. This can completely take a nest into sea or get salt water on the eggs, which kills them due to the salt taking moisture out of them.

The hatchery program means that we relocate the nests a few hours after they have been laid by the turtle to the hatchery. We measure how deep and wide the egg chamber is, so we can create a new nest to the same specifications, also take some sand from the nest to line the new one. Carefully remove the eggs one by one, keeping them the same orientation that they were placed in and place them in a bucket for easy carrying to the hatchery. We can move up to 145 eggs and several nests can be laid each night in the sectors that are at risk. Once in the hatchery we dig the new nest and place the eggs in, cover the area with a plastic mesh with netting over. The mesh is to keep the turtles in their nest once they have hatched from their eggs, it would not be good to have them crawling all over the hatchery once they emerged and the netting is to keep flies out. A few have thermometers planted inside so we can keep check of the temperatures and we randomly place the nests in the shade on one side of the hatchery and the sun on the other. Turtles sex is determined by temperature and with global warming it is important there is not a population crash due to there being no males, which need the cooler temperatures. 

We monitor the nests three times a day and once they hatch, measure and weigh the first 20 hatchling out of the nest.  Take them back to the same part of the beach they are found and let them walk down to the sea. We never place them at the shoreline as they need the information from the sand to imprint in them so they can possibly come back to the same beach when it is their time to lay.

We have helped them on their way, watching them with hope making it to the water when they may have otherwise perished. We have had some very high tides this year possibly due to climate change, which would have undoubtedly killed these otherwise lucky turtles and it feels good to help these endangered, ancient animals, which through no fault of their own is now facing a troubled future. 

By Jessamy Bridgwater, Conservation Apprentice

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Volunteer Blog: Jessen

There are two BTEC programmes to choose from when you join a Frontier project - the Certificate which is four weeks and the Advanced Diploma which is ten weeks. I am working on the Advanced Diploma which means I get to spend ten weeks on the beautiful Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica. You will receive a BTEC information pack prior to your departure which tells you everything you need to know except the subject of your investigation - that's entirely up to you!

Initially, I expected to research mammals or turtles for mine but once I got here, that plan fell apart! I am now six weeks in and researching the feeding behaviour of Leafcutter Ants. You never know what will interest you the most until you arrive on the project. Leafcutter ants have the largest and most complex societies on earth after humans and just seeing this in real life triggered an immediate interest.

The BTEC itself doesn't take up much of your time so you can still go on plenty of surveys and enjoy the breathtaking country you are in. My advice for anyone interested in undertaking one of the Frontier BTEC programmes is to bring plenty of pens as they are not the easiest things to find. Once I arrive back home having done all of my data collection, I will have six weeks to compile all of my data and research into a written report. After this, my work will be assessed and graded and that concludes the BTEC! I would definitely recommend the BTEC as it keeps you occupied and makes the trip even more meaningful by conducting your own research.

By Jessen, Research Assistant Volunteer

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Staff blog: Enjoying all of Costa Rica

My first impression of Costa Rica was ‘green, hot and humid’. I arrived in Puerto Jimenez after a long journey and was picked up in the airport (‘at the airstrip’) by a Frontier employee, who then showed me the town and explained about the project. PJ is well-stocked and has just about everything you may need for your trip and your work: from brightly coloured hammocks to biodegradable soap and shampoo and even machetes (!) which many buy as souvenirs. There’s also a medical clinic, ‘print and copy centre’ and ATMs. In short, everything you may need.

After a couple of pleasant days in town I headed off for the jungle camp with other Frontier people, staff as well as volunteers. The trip is conducted by the local shuttle service (‘the collectivo’) and it is not for the faint-hearted.

The camp itself is basic but has everything: two ‘normal’ toilets, two outdoor showers (very pleasant), a comfortable main deck and three sleeping decks, as well as a lot of clothing lines which you will soon find are needed. You can hear the rumbling waves on one side, the river on the other side and birds and howler monkeys all over the place. At night fireflies glow in the grass around the camp and people get together on the main deck for dinner, chatting and games. There is a very relaxed atmosphere which is very comfortable to be in, particularly when you are new and still reeling from culture shock.

When the sun comes up, it is immediately evident that you are in the jungle. It is green and lush all over, and teeming with life. In my first five days I saw three species of monkey, several species of birds and butterflies, one snake (beware!) and one Neotropical otter which we accidentally flushed out as we were on break from doing a river survey.  A particular spider has also developed a fondness for my right sandal and sits faithfully by it every night I go to bed. You learn to shrug at these things. I was also lucky enough to see two releases of baby turtles into the sea, which was nothing short of fantastic.

The survey trails are beautiful but can be complicated by obstacles and slippery slopes, so be prepared. Wellies are a most, preferably with good grip. Water is another thing on which you should never restrict yourself when doing work in the jungle, so bring plenty of containers and use them.

All in all, Costa Rica is a paradise of biodiversity that shouldn’t be missed. 

By Alexandra Hyldgaard

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