In the summer of 2010 I was a recent college graduate working in the West Cascades of Oregon at a long term ecological research station. I was hiking around old growth forests and measuring Douglas Firs as part of a study on forest dynamics. This job was paradise, but it only lasted till September, so I started looking for my next gig as soon as I arrived. It wasn’t long before I came across a volunteer job working on remote beaches of a tropical, Spanish speaking island off the coast of Cameroon. The advertisement stated accepted applicants would be primitively camping without phone or internet access for months on end. We would be living on the beach, at the base of a waterfall studying the nest success of leather back turtles, and occasionally 3 of the other 6 species of sea turtles left in the world.
This sounded like the adventure of a lifetime! I quickly applied, interviewed, and was accepted. Holy smokes! Now I really had to think carefully about my choice.
Did I really want to go?
I had the hiring researcher put me in touch with former volunteers. I wanted to get a sense of how they spent their time, what they struggled with how they prepared themselves, and how they felt about it now. Everyone said it was hard living without creature comforts, but it was transformation in ways they’d never imagined, and they’d do it again in a heartbeat. I was sold.
Could I afford it?
Yes. My only expenses for 5 months would be a pricey two way ticket, travel insurance, and a series of immunizations.
Could I handle it?
I wasn’t sure– but I wanted to find out. I was young, single,, unencumbered, and had very low operating costs. When else would I have the opportunity to disappear from the world and live a day’s hike away from roads and electricity? Experience life without clutter: no traffic, no grocery stores, no new creature comforts than those i arrived with (3 Snickers bars, a vibrator, lots of batteries, 4 books, travel size shampoo)? Would it be more “Lord if the Flies” or “Swiss Family Robinson”. I had to find out for myself.
After a day’s hike down from the nearest village the researcher and we 6 volunteers set up camp and began work patrolling the beach at night, looking for female leather backs ashore to build a nest and lay their eggs. We would PIT tag each new turtle and record details about her nesting process. We were working on a study measuring the nesting success of the species, so we’d stick our heads under her body to count and weigh eggs as they were expelled, and measure the dimensions of the sand nest. We’d come back during the day to measure rates of gas exchange in the nest, and again, at the end of the season to excavate the nest and determine how many turtles didn’t hatch, and what caused their death. Leather backs are critically endangered, and this work was meant to help improve our understanding of their reproductive biology, and hopefully direct future conservation actions to where they would be most effective.
We cooked by fire, gathering driftwood from the nearby beaches. Our food arrived in two shipments by Cayuga, and consisted mainly of rice, powdered baby food, canned vegetables, canned milk, and instant coffee. Sweets, spices, and flour were prized commodities. Their prudent use was monitored, debated, and contested by the group. I thought I would miss hot showers and running water, but we lived at the base of a beautiful punch bowl waterfall. Plus it was a steady 90 degrees F at all times.
This unique work opportunity in a little known but incredibly bio diverse country helped me grow gratitude for things I’d taken for granted in life. Things I may never have to forgo for longer than a backpacking trip, like a diversity of crunchy and fresh food, new books, and replacements for blown out flip-flops. That gratitude has endured for the 5 years since I lived in temporary depravity, and I hope I hope it endures for the rest of my life.