I have always known I wanted to do something with the environment, but I was never sure exactly what that might be. Growing up near the coast, I always joked that water was my life source so it made sense to do something with the ocean and aquatic life. When I heard that our local aquarium was taking a group to Costa Rica for leatherback sea turtle research and conservation, I knew it was my chance to explore fieldwork and decide if this was actually what I wanted to dedicate my life to. My mom went to the information session on my behalf and told me that it did not sound like I would enjoy the experience. Former students described life with huge insects, no electricity, no hot water and no air conditioning. I will admit, it was a little intimidating at first but I knew that it would be an important stepping stone on my journey. I viewed the trip as a “make me or break me” situation; I would either fall in love or give up the conservationist dream.
My high school best friend and I defied all prior logic and packed up for Costa Rica. I am from North Carolina, so I thought I knew humidity but I was in for a rude awakening. I lost ten pounds just sweating and my hair never left a bun because it was so frizzy. Walking towards our living quarters, I saw a snake in a tree. That’s when things really started to feel real for me. “Um … mayhaps I have made a terrible mistake.”
We got to our room and started settling into where we would be living for the next week. My friend took the lower bunk and I took the top bunk since there were no bars and I felt confident that I would not roll off in the night. While we were sitting, cockroaches started running across Brooke’s bed. I, somewhat jokingly, asked if she wanted to share my twin bunk. To my surprise, she climbed right up into my bed. We sacrificed the lower bunk to the cockroaches and both slept curled up in the fetal position in a twin bed for a week. One night I realized that my feet felt really hot and I was not immediately sure why. I realized it was because I had my feet pushed up against her back! Thank goodness I did not try to stretch out my legs or I would have pushed her right off the bed.
That room was an adventure itself. A major component of the program was nightly beach patrols to look for nesting leatherbacks. We would hike about 4 miles at 2 in the morning so we always tried to get a few hours of sleep before. The first night, we were trying to rest when something near the door caught my eye. It was the biggest spider I had ever seen. He was the size of my hand and it looked like he was missing some legs, so we knew that he was tough and would not be intimidated by us. We named him Chad and we decided we would try to coexist with him, honestly because we had no other options. He won. We were prepared to hand him all of our valuables in exchange for our lives. He was eye level on the door, so we were worried when we tried to leave he would jump on our faces. He allowed us to exit and we just left him in the room. I repeat. WE LEFT HIM IN THE ROOM UNSUPERVISED. What is wrong with us? When we returned later in the night, he was no longer on the door and we have no idea where he went. I was just praying that he had not crawled in my bag because I knew if he ever crawled out of my bag, I would just die. They would have to helicopter me out of there.
Even though the thought of Chad weighed heavily on my mind, I was determined to get some sleep in that room. One night, something started flying around the room. It was not something tiny and cute like a mosquito. No, it was a bat! One of the adults responsible for our lives came in and said there was nothing they could do. So now we lived with Chad and a bat. Brooke and the other girl sharing our room were not able to go back to sleep, but I was tired and fell asleep. They told me the next morning that at one point in the night I flipped over and put my face against the wall. Well, our bat friend came back out and also wanted to share that wall, so I slept face-to-face with a bat. All I can say is that I am so grateful that I did not wake up. If I had opened my eyes and seen a bat staring at me … helicopter me out of there.
The nightly sea turtle patrols made me feel sweaty and gross (and after Chad and the bat I was not sleeping well as you can imagine) so I started taking my shower when I finished my patrol around 3 or 4 in the morning. The showers were outside and there was no hot water (you are never really prepared for a cold shower). I went to shower the first night and there were two giant frogs in one of the stalls. “Oh my goodness. I can’t go in there with those frogs.” By the last night, a frog hopped in the shower with me and I just said “what’s up” and offered it some shampoo.
Something else interesting happened every time I showered (I am sure my mother knows exactly what is coming next). We had to be able to hike with our bag, so my mom wanted to make sure it was light enough for me to carry. Well, some of the items she thought I should cut for weight purposes were a couple of extra pairs of shorts and underwear (never sacrifice underwear). There were two hooks in the shower so I would try to strategically place my camping towel, underwear, shirt and shorts. Since I was going to have to rewear shorts, this was crucial. Every single night, my clothes would fall in the mud and I would have to put on muddy underwear and shorts. EVERY SINGLE NIGHT. I never mastered the strategic placement of my clothes so that I could put on a clean pair of underwear. Muddy underwear really takes its toll on a person. I am sure you can imagine me in an outdoor shower, with my frog buddy, looking down at my underwear in the mud and crying, “WHY??”
Later in the trip, we moved away from the coast and deeper into the rainforest. This was our chance to do some fun activities. Fun. They decided we would go white water rafting in class 4 rapids. At one point, my group’s boat got wedged in a rock. Water was filling the boat and it was about to capsize. All of the rafting guides had to make a human chain through the river and get us to some rocks in the middle of the river while they tried to unlodge our boat. We got a pretty cool selfie out of it, but I have never been white water rafting again.
Then we took a hike through the rainforest. I had somehow been labeled the bird girl, so all the guides made sure I got to see all the cool birds (hey, I am not complaining and I saw some pretty cool birds because of it). One of the teacher chaperones let me carry her binoculars on the hike in case there was a chance to see some birds (I think she just did not want to carry them herself). I had her binoculars, my water bottle and was trying to hold up my pants (because as I mentioned, I had lost 10 pounds sweating and my pants were falling down). It was not an issue until we came to a bridge. The bridge was swinging in the wind and only one person could cross at a time. I was not prepared to fall to my death, so I had to make some decisions while waiting to cross. I wanted to hold onto that bridge and decided the pants would have to go. I pulled them up as high as they would go and started walking. By the time I got across, my pants were dangerously low but I managed to make it without showing anyone my muddy underwear.
Me crossing the bridge (if you look closely you can see me clutching the bridge) and my hiking outfit featuring the pants that kept falling down
I felt like I had made it through the most treacherous part of the hike. I was wrong. I was walking along when I slipped and fell near a pile of bullet ants (they get their name because if they bite you, it feels like you’ve been shot). I have never jumped up so fast in my life and I managed to not touch anything. I escaped without any ants in my pants, but I definitely saw my life flash before my eyes.
It was an incredibly challenging experience, but I would not change any of it for the world. I realized on the late-night patrols looking for nesting leatherback sea turtles and the early morning field research that I was willing to dedicate my career to conservation. While I was recounting all my tales, I fell in love with storytelling and knew that I wanted to tell conservation stories for a living. That is still the goal and I am forever grateful for my time in Costa Rica for helping me realize my passion.
In honor of the pile of ants that I fell into, please enjoy this recipe for “ants on a log.” This is not the “ants on a log” you may be familiar with, but I do not like raisins and I do not like celery with peanut butter so please enjoy my own interpretation (this totally has nothing to do with the fact that we didn’t go to the grocery store this week and these were the things we had left in the refrigerator)!
I want to hear from you! Do you have any crazy adventure stories? Drop me a note in the comments section!
Ants on a Log
1 Piece of bread
Garden vegetable cream cheese spread
Toast bread to desired crunchiness
Spread cream cheese on toast
Top with chopped pepperoncini