31 August 2010

sometimes you simply need a coffee, sports bar, sunset and a smile

Chances were slim I was going to go on Friday night’s 9 p.m. – 2 a.m. turtle patrol. Especially with a 1:42 p.m. flight out of Puerto Vallarta the following day, which would first require a one hour car drive to Las Varas then a two hour bus ride to Puerto Vallarta and a brief taxi ride before ever stepping foot in the airport. I thought maybe I’d meander down the coast on Friday and check out something new instead of stressing myself out with overly complicated travel logistics on Saturday. Then the thought occurred to me to end this sea turtle conservation adventure at the source of its inspiration – CasaMagna Marriott Resort Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa.

Last December, I was one of nine journalists selected to partake in the first annual Blog Paradise, a three-day blog fest sponsored by Marriott. I was assigned to play social media goddess from CasaMagna Marriott Resort Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa, where I’d give friends, online followers and anyone craving a mid-winter dose of Vitamin D the play-by-play of my oceanfront antics.

There, General Manager Dennis Whitelaw filled me in on CasaMagna’s charitable involvement with the local community, including the Youth Career Initiative for disadvantage youth and an onsite turtle conservation program. This was way back when The Global Citizen Project was in its first month of fundraising and actual project logistics were still being worked out.

One night during my stay, hotel guests got to release hatchlings at sunset. As I held a teeny tiny, barely a day old turtle in my hands, I was hooked. I’d witnessed my fair share of nesting Loggerhead turtles while summering in South Carolina as a child, but this was an entirely different level of science nerd cool. I made a mental note to return to this stretch of Mexico to work with some sort of sea turtle conservation effort, and eight months later, it came to fruition volunteering with Campamento Tortuguero Platanitos.

When I put the idea of coming back down the coast a night early to the powers that be, CasaMagna kindly offered to host me for the evening. Thank you, Lourdes and Dennis 100 times for extending such gracious hospitality (once again). Sure, the thought of air-conditioning and a bug-free environment sounded heavenly, but I’m all about significant moments of time, place and personal meaning and it seemed too perfect to end my Mexican adventures at CasaMagna. Plus, I still had 25 postcards to purchase, write and mail to The Global Citizen Project donor recipients. Thankfully, I was able to make all of that happen without stepping foot off the property.

Despite an all too short stay, I was able to decompress and reflect upon what I’d experienced over the previous 10 days in the comfortable, quiet digs of room #6030. I’d never been so grateful for a cappuccino (Deli Los Mangos operates an espresso bar), to watch some NFL preseason, a picture-perfect sunset and to fall asleep in one of the comfiest beds known to (wo)man. I still had flights to Denver, then home to Seattle ahead of me, but checking in to CasaMagna Marriott Resort Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa, even for one night was exactly what this wearly volunteer needed. It felt a lot like coming home.

Full disclosure: CasaMagna Marriott Resort Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa hosted my one night stay.

turtle patrol: (night) life on the beach

Officially, turtle patrol shift at Campamento Tortuguero Platanitos (CTP) would run from roughly 9 a.m. – 2 a.m. But the giggle-like-a-schoolgirl excitement starts nightly at 7 p.m. when we would release hatchings (or barely day old baby turtles). Hermilo, the onsite biologist, would go to the incubation casita and put out all of the baby turtles that had hatched that morning. Can you imagine a world in which you were set free to fend for yourself less than 24 hours after birth? These days, some parents are lucky to get their offspring out of the house by their 35th birthday.

As the sun set on Playa Las Tortugas, Hermilo would drag a stick across the sand to make a line. On some nights, it was just me, Hermilo and Gerardo, the CTP volunteer coordinator. Other nights, nearly two dozen guests, homeowners or rental visitors of next door residential property would crowd to release their very own handful of hatchlings. One night, I named several of the hatchings in honor of Chelsea, Sabrina, Robin Jean International Sex Symbol, Teri, and Peter, and silently, willed them to swim and survive.

When the sun would finally dip below the Pacific, in a lazy, mesmerizing way flashing vivid hues of pink, purple and peach, we’d head back to camp. Gerardo would pop out to check the tides and when the time was right, we’d cover every inch of our bodies possible in bug-barrier attire and layer on eco-friendly repellant. I’m not generally a fan of unnatural products (read: chemical), but I call B.S. on the efficacy of eco-friendly bug spray (and I have countless insect bites, or picaduras, to prove it.).

Armed with a rain coat, water bottle, and survival knife, Gerardo and I would head out to the beach to patrol a designated stretch, usually spanning 2km (or about 1.3 miles), to search for Olive Ridley turtles. Campamento Tortuguera Platanitos patrols a 10-mile stretch (16 km) of beach, seven nights a week, both on-foot and via ATV. And night after night, several members of nearby Otates community show up to help patrol. It is not easy work, especially during summer’s rainy season, when intense thunder and lightning storms reign supreme on a seemingly nightly basis.

Walking at steady pace, but not so fast as to tire quickly, we’d walk from one end of our patrol “zone” to the other, scanning the sand for turtles emerging from the ocean or for tracks. If we didn’t find anything, we’d wait approximately 20-30 minutes, then circle back in the opposite direction. We’d repeat this process as many times as the shift would allow, often walking close to 10 miles per night. At first, I needed a flashlight, but your eyes adjust rapidly to the night sky and tracks can be spotting from several paces away. If we found a turtle making her way from the sea, we’d step back and let her find a place to nest in peace.

Once she located the perfect place to lay her eggs, she’d dig a nest, more than a foot deep, cupping her rear flippers like hands, scooping out piles of sand. She’d then lay 80-150 eggs. During this time, I’d crouch on down on my knees, reaching my hand under the backside of the turtle pulling out eggs, two or three at a time. They resembled ping pong balls, but slimier and squishier in texture. I’d count the eggs as Gerardo would measure the turtle’s length and width and note any remarkable features. A form was filled out for each and every nest documenting details of the find.

If we found tracks, we’d follow them. Sometimes we’d find a turtle nesting; other times we’d have to suss out where the turtle had nested to find the eggs. In any case, we always tried to find the nest before the poachers did; we weren’t always successful. We’d mark the tracks with criss-cross lines (or whatever mark we were using that night). Surprisingly, the round-trip timeline for an Olive Ridley turtle to emerge from the sea, build a nest, and lay eggs is roughly 30-45 minutes. These incredible creatures repeat this journey three times during each nesting season.

Poachers, or people who illegally collect turtle eggs despite conservation and wildlife management laws, are a big problem around Playa Las Tortugas and we encountered them on an almost nightly basis. They mostly kept to themselves, probably because what they are doing is, umm, illegal. Sometimes, they’d create fake turtle tracks or try to gauge our distance by sending false flashlight signals (we had our own flashing systems, which indicated various things, including “We need back up”). Some wielded machetes. Some hid in the bushes, thinking they had outsmarted us (they didn’t). Others reeked of alcohol. One of the main problems with the poachers is that they are generally un-policed. Sure, there are police in the Mexican state of Nayarit, but they did not have a presence once on Playa Las Tortugas during the nights I patrolled. From what I understand, they have bigger gang-related issues to deal with the state’s capital of Tepic.

Poachers can sell a turtle egg for 3 pesos (or about .25 cents USD), so finding a nest with 80-150 eggs could net someone $20USD or more. Multiply that by several nests over the course of a night and you’ve got yourself a potentially a lucrative, albeit illegal business. To put it in perspective, there were nights when CTP found 40+ nests, while the poachers staked claim to as many as ten. That is why several dedicated souls pace methodically up and down the beach at all hours of the night, in all kinds of weather, getting bit by the peskiest of mosquitoes and no-see-ums. These are the people who make a difference in the Olive Ridley population of Playa Las Tortugas.

Night after night, as we beat poachers to the nests (more times than not), I felt like I was playing some small part in making a difference (superhero cape not included). I love that I was to jump right in to the CTP volunteer program and help out with absolutely no sea turtle conservation knowledge. If there is any question about how great this program is, witness the release of 1200 hatchings into the ocean, all while silently rooting them on, “Swim, swim, swim!” It’s a pretty fantastic feeling.

If you go:

It’s a bit of a transportation adventure to get to Campomentos Tortuguero Platanitos. I flew into Puerto Vallarta International Airport. From there, I took a taxi to Central Bus Station (about a 5 minute drive, 60 pesos – or about $5USD). At the bus terminal, I went to the Pacifico Bus Line counter and bought a ticket to Las Varas (about a two hour drive, 105 pesos – or about $10USD). Busses leave every 20-30 minutes. There, I’d coordinated a pick up from the CTP people (a 45 minute drive to camp); otherwise, expect to pay about $30USD to take a taxi to camp.

Need to know:

Campomentos Tortuguero Platanitos does not recycle, which is a big red flag considering the eco-conscious nature of the program. Recycling programs are in place in nearby Las Varas, so it doesn’t seem impossible.

A woman’s dormitory is currently under construction. For the time being, housing is co-ed in a poorly ventilated sleeping/living space which doubles as the kitchen. Much of the time, this room is hotter than a Bikram Yoga Studio.

CTP advertises internet availability, but from camp, it’s a very weak signal with spotty accessibility.

CTP is a dry camp, meaning no alcohol is allowed on the premises. This “rule” was not made known to me until I arrived at Turtle Camp. Mexico + intense heat + beach + sunsets + adult who can imbibe responsibly + no occasional cold cerveza = no bueno in my book.

If you bring fruit or vegetables to camp, expect a very short shelf life. The heat wrecks havoc causing produce to start rotting almost immediately.

Do not pack purified water. It is provided for you.

The heat and humidity are intense; I strongly recommend bringing Gatorade and some salty snacks (or “Survival Chips” as my significant other likes to call them). When I got to camp, I was drinking close to two gallons of water a day and peed maybe once a day for the first five days. I was in much better shape once I incorporated electrolytes and increased salt into my diet.

Only eco-friendly bug repellant is allowed (in the best interest of the hatchings and eggs). Expect to get bitten. A lot. The mosquitos and no-see-ums are merciless.

Ocean currents at Playa Las Tortugas are extremely strong and volunteers are advised not to swim solo. The ocean was too rough for me to swim during my 10-day stay at CTP. There is an estuary at the end of the beach where people can and do swim, but crocodiles have been spotted here during turtle patrol.

30 August 2010

blog profile: north by motorbike

Traveling is what sustains me. You can strip me of my every last material possession, but please keep your paws off my passport. As much as I love exploring new places (and revisiting much loved places), meeting new people is just as important to me.

Mid-way through my volunteer project at Campamento Tortuguero Platanitos, I had the serendipitous luck of meeting another West Coast wanderluster named Jason. He arrived in a nasty downpour on his motorbike, two days shy of the six month mark since he set out from Buenos Aires. From Argentina, he wound his way through South America, crossing into Central America, eventually taking a "time out" in Sayulita, a surfing town/fishing village 35 miles north of Puerto Vallarta. Feeling feeling a little down about Mexico, he thought a quick stay at Turtle Camp would turn things around.

Similarly to me, Jason decided to take on a major travel adventure after 11 years at his finance job (I took on The Global Citizen Project a few months after my 12-year anniversary of freelancing fulltime). It was his first time in South America and I reveled in his stories about experiencing these countries and cultures from the unique vantage point of a motorbike. Sure, I’d been to many of the same destinations, but I’d experienced them as a luxury traveler (for work) or as a backpacker (for play) and always got around via planes, trains, busses and automobiles. Obviously, traveling solo via motorbike affords greater flexibility and advantages, but it also presents a set challenges typically unbeknownst to us backpacker travelers – from bribery at border crossings and hot-as-hell heat to vicious summer storms and batshit crazy Latin American drivers.

Swapping spirited travel tales over five hours of turtle patrol in the late hours of the night was just the dose of inspiration I needed after spending five intensely meditative nights inside my head. (My thoughts tend to go inward and deep when patrolling the beach in the late night hours.) It makes my travel lovin’ heart so happy to see people hatch ambitious travel plans (well, any travel plans, really) and make them happen. It makes me even happier when they say, “This was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

As travelers we collect all sorts of things – experiences, memories, photos, passport stamps and souvenirs – but it’s the conversations with other travelers that stick with me the most. Here’s wishing Jason safe travels and continued adventures as he makes his way north through Mexico and heads home to Los Angeles after more than six months south of the Border on his bike and on the road.

You can read all about Jason's motorbike travels on his blog, North by Motorbike.

So fess up. How many of you fantasize about packing it all up and taking a six-month or one year hiatus from your job and everyday responsibilities? If you had the time, flexibility and freedom, where would you go and what would you do? We’re talking wish list scenarios here, so nothing is too outlandish or over-the-top.

september project preview | sumak kawsay yachay | salasaca, ecuador

Where: Salasaca is located in the Tungurahua Province in the center of Ecuador, halfway along the road from Ambato to Baños.

What: Sumak Kawsay Yachay (SKY) is a privately-funded Ecuadorian foundation committed to assisting and supporting educational programs throughout the country.

Currently SKY is heavily involved with Katitawa School, a bilingual Kitchwa- and Spanish-speaking school for children aged between two and 12 in Tungurahua province. They also run a library in Salasaca, where young people can read, be read to, learn computer skills, and participate in arts projects and summer schools.

Significance: I’ve wanted to go to Ecuador since I met a couple honeymooning in Puno, Peru with a home there. SKY’s program seems like very well-rounded program set up to create lifelong success for its students.

volunteer travel - do you get what you pay for?

After volunteering in Peru with Karikuy, I started writing a post about how you get what you pay for when it comes to volunteer experiences. Project #3 of The Global Citizen Project with Campamento Tortugeuro Platanitos in Nayarit, Mexico quickly changed my mind.

The more I process my volunteer experience with Karikuy, the less inclined I am to recommend it. I love what founder, Julio Tello is doing to promote responsible tourism within Peru and give back to its impoverished communities, but his volunteer program did not live up to expectations.

My bed at Karikuy
The price seemed right – free accommodations in exchange for 8 hours of volunteer work per day, Monday through Friday. Accommodations are touted as a “Bed and Breakfast,” a term I’d use loosely. Very loosely. Add one cat and a cute, but untrained puppy and Karikuy “B&B” felt a bit like shacking up in a litter box. When American Airlines lost my luggage (they found it the next day), my biggest concern was not having flip flops because there was no way my feet were going to make contact with the bathroom floor. It was nasty, only made nastier by piles of puppy poo. At one point, I sat down on the toilet to pee, and Pisco, the shih tzu puppy sidled up next to me on the floor and squatted. I love puppies as much as the next gal, but that crosses all lines of cuteness. The dorm-style bedroom was the best thing going for the house – a bunk bed, a twin bed and few cabinets for storage. I knew that Lima in July (the dead of winter in Peru) would be cold, but had I known how cold an unheated house would be, I would’ve packed a sleeping bag. Sheets, pillow and a wool blanket were provided, but I still slept in Smart Wool head-to-toe and shivered. (That’s no fault of Karikuy – homes in Peru aren’t heated.)

Puppy poo on the bathroom floor

Volunteers are charged $50 a week for Monday through Saturday meals. The food was simple, sometimes tasty; more often than not, monotonous. Breakfast was typically a roll with fresh cheese and avocado and tea. Lunch and dinner involved a broth based noodle soup with a smattering of vegetables and a mystery chicken part, followed by a mountain of rice, more chicken (sometimes beef), and usually a boiled potato. A gal can only handle so much chicken, rice and potatoes before crying Uncle. Given the option (and if the “B&B” kitchen were functioning and not just a catch-all for trash and recycling), I would’ve been happy to prepare some of my own meals or at least have the option to eat some meals from the abundance of nearby street food vendors. We ended up eating out a few times during the week instead of at the house, which I was more than happy to do, but should be noted, was on the volunteers’ dime and not part of the $50 per week budget. Knowing how well one can eat for cheap in Peru and far a sole stretches, $50 for food costs seems a bit steep. But, can you really complain when housing is free? Still, the soup, rice dish, repeat menu got old pretty quickly.

Pisco, the cute, but very untrained puppy

If you go with Julio on out-of-the-city excursions or take him up on deeply discounted Karikuy tours (like hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu), you do have the opportunity to explore and learn more about Peru. However, such excursions increase the bottom line cost of volunteering and cross into vacation territory. It seems as though these experiences are strongly encouraged, in an effort to create fodder for the Karikuy blog. Personally, if I’m going to explore Peru, I’d prefer to fly solo or in the company of friends, call it what it is (a vacation) and post about it on my own blog. It’s not like it’s all that difficult to explore Peru on the cheap. I did learn quite a bit what day-to-day life is like in a lower income neighborhood in Lima and was able to blog about that for both myself and Karikuy. I also completed a fair bit of research on Peru, its cultural, recent news and responsible tourism, but was it worth the time and price of admission? I’m not so sure.

Work space at Karikuy

A little bit of cleanliness and a whole lot of direction and the Karikuy volunteer program could be a success. As it is now, I don’t think Julio has a clear vision of what he wants to accomplish, and if he does, he doesn’t know how to articulate it and delegate volunteer tasks. I chalked the whole experience up to “You get what you pay for” and nervously awaited my next project, another low budget project.

Campamento Tortuguero Platanitos
Project #3 of The Global Citizen Project at Campamento Tortuguero Platanitos cost $10 a day for housing (with a 10-day minimum). Round-trip airfare from Seattle to Puerto Vallarta ran about $400; bus fare from Puerto Vallarta to Las Varas another $10. Volunteers are also responsible for buying their own food and preparing their own meals. I spent $13 when I arrived in Las Varas, the closest town to Turtle Camp reachable via bus. Thirteen dollars got me rice, cooking oil, vegetables, some spices, cereal, milk, cheese, Fanta and some eggs. I brought peanut butter, jelly and English Muffins along. I dropped another $20 on Day 5 of the project on more edible essentials, including a whole grilled chicken with rice, salad and homemade salsa (about $4.50). Accommodations are rustic – volunteers sleep in one big room, and the guys (Gerardo, the volunteer coordinator, and Hermilo, the biologist) kindly hung a shower curtain to give female volunteers some privacy. The bathroom and shower are in an outhouse a few steps away. We had an ample sized kitchen and a big table to eat at or do work. It’s no Four Seasons Resort, but my bunk bed was actually semi-comfy, the place was swept multiple times daily (and kept relatively sand free) and the kitchen area well-maintained. The best part? I could roll out of bed and dip my toes in the ocean in exactly 73 steps.

Me with an Olive Ridley turtle hatchling
As for the program, it was pretty amazing. My job was to patrol a designated stretch of beach from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. nightly. As a gal, there was always a male presence with me for safety’s sake. We’d sleep late then perform whatever cleaning/maintenance duties are necessary. One afternoon, we cleaned out all the turtle egg collecting bags. In the ocean. That doesn’t suck. Another day, we helped expand the turtle egg incubation/hatchery in the beating mid-day sun. That did suck. Roving the beach in pitch blackness, within steps of the sea, searching for turtle tracks has a meditative quality. I like lots of quiet time for introspection (and get it thanks to my work-at-home, freelancer lifestyle). Plus, I learned a lot about turtles and conservation. I saw countless Olive Ridley turtles emerge from the ocean, make their way up the beach, dig a nest, then lay anywhere from 80 to 150 eggs. The bugs were a bit of a nuisance (okay, they’re a beastly pain in the ass and wherever else they bite you), especially since DEET is not allowed anywhere near the turtle eggs or hatchlings. I managed to hang tough with my eco-friendly bug repellant, although it didn’t really do a damn thing much to deter the mosquitoes (the hundreds of bites all over my body are evidence).

Turtle Camp was my fave project so far – and it’s not prohibitively expensive. It’s a bit of an adventure to get to Campamento Tortuguera Platanitos, but its remoteness is what adds to its beauty and the experience. I volunteered for 10 days – probably three days too long (the heat and bugs became intolerable), but felt like I was able to jump right in and help out with a limited amount of knowledge and absolutely no sea turtle conservation skills. Gerardo and Hermilo, my Turtle Masters were incredible resources for learning and took my safety seriously (much appreciated). The world of sea turtle conservation is lucky to have two such passionate, dedicated and savvy people on its team. And I am grateful that I got to work alongside these men (and a rotating line-up of volunteers) for 10 nights and days. Truly an awesome experience.

29 August 2010

when god is not your co-pilot

God is not my co-pilot. I intentionally left him off The Global Citizen Project guest list, and like a White House party crasher, he weaseled his way into my humanitarian efforts in Honduras.

I've spent enough time in Latin America to be well versed in its largely Roman Catholic ways. As a 37-year old woman, atheist and lifer "señorita" I've learned that the vaguer the details, the better when explaining why I live in so-called sin with my long-term partner and have avoided the mommy track. I am respectful of others' beliefs and decisions, but wholeheartedly reject the notion of God with a capital "G." Gimme science, gimme nature, but thanks, no thanks, please keep your crucifixes and guilt-geared scriptures to yourself. Deal?

Read more of my article "When God is Not Your Co-Pilot" on National Geographic Traveler Intelligent Traveler Blog here.

ain't too proud to beg. vote. vote. vote.

I’m a big believer in last ditch, Hail Mary efforts, so here’s mine. (When I say “Hail Mary,” I’m talking football, not the prayer.) You have three days left to vote for me in WEtv’s WE Do Good Awards. In case you haven’t received the 3,946 prior APBs, I’m one of five finalists in the whole U.S. of A. to win a $5,000 voluntourism grant from Travelocity’s Travel for Good Program. If you wanted to, you could vote for me every 24 hours between now and 11:59 EST on August 31, 2010, but really, I’d be happy with just one well-intentioned vote. Please and thank you in advance. There’s a very long list of reasons why I want to win this prestigious award – a once-in-a-lifetime voluntourism opportunity, a feature in Ladies Home Journal, a trip to N.Y.C. to accept said award at a swanky gala, a spot on WEtv, and one personal one I’d prefer not to disclose in the blogosphere. But more than anything, winning this award would be a huge honor and a humbling achievement.

Thank you to everyone who voted while I was volunteering in Mexico, posted voting links to Facebook and Twitter and retweeted my admittedly, not-so-personal (but friendly!) scheduled reminders. I really appreciate everyone’s continued support for The Global Citizen Project more than 12 point type can tell you. Three projects into this year-long tour de force and my eyes, mind and heart are already busting at the seams. Thanks for being part such an important part of the journey and for letting me share the play-by-play with you.


17 August 2010

hasta mañana: the global citizen project goes to mexico

Blech. Bright and early this morning, I must face my airline nemesis, United Airlines. UAL and I do not have the best traveling track record and most of my airline mishaps stem from their (lack of) reliability and service. At 6:00 a.m., hopefully after a quick French press of La Colombe coffee, I’ll fly from Seattle to San Francisco, then onto Puerto Vallarta. There, I will catch a quick cab ride to the Central Bus Station, then hop on Pacific Bus Line to Las Varas, a roughly two hour journey to the north. In Las Varas, I will pick up some basic essentials, then head 30 minutes to Turtle Camp at Playa Las Tortugas.

I’ve received several emails from Gordon Godfrey, Director of Development at Turtle Camp at Playa Las Tortugas and here are some quick insights into my next 10 days:

  • The living conditions are a bit rustic. Compare it to camping out with a few added comforts. The sleeping area is a one room dorm upstairs in the main building under a thatched roof. There is a divider to give the ladies some privacy, but it is a very communal living space. There is a separate building with bathroom and shower facilities. We have a classroom that is also used as the kitchen and dining area. There is a gas stove, refrigerator, and purified drinking water. You are responsible for your own food and cooking. We make runs 2 to 3 times a week to nearby villages for supplies

  • Summer is rainy season in Mexico. You will have warm and humid days with rain storms in the afternoon and evenings. Probably the hardest adjustment is to the heat (90 F/ 32 C) and the humidity (90%). Watch the amount of sun you get the first few days and drink plenty of water. This is also mosquito season and because we are near an estuary we also have jejenes or no-see-ums. Everyone reacts differently, but it is good to have natural bug sprays (the turtles remember) and an anti-inflammatory like Benadryl and cortisone cream. There isn’t any danger of disease carried by these insects so no shots are necessary, though it has been said that vitamin B-12 reduces the reaction to the bites. Be aware that utilities (i.e., running water and electricity) are unreliable and may be temporarily lost due to weather or mechanical failure.

  • Expect to work long hours most nights, even in stormy weather to search for eggs in the nests recently made by the turtles. Volunteers are expected to walk or possibly ride on the four-wheelers along the 9 km of beach trying to reach the eggs before the hueveros (egg dealers) get them.

  • Volunteers should come with an open mind in order to benefit from their time in Mexico. The camp is located on one of the greatest beaches in all of Mexico. There is also a salt water estuary where you can take a relaxing swim or explore by kayak. There is a nearby beach village with numerous restaurants that cook great seafood and it’s fun to visit the local towns when buying supplies.

  • The Platanitos Sea Turtle Camp is regulated and directed by Mexico’s National Commission of Protected Areas (CONANP), which is part of the Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources. Located on the Playa Las Tortugas property, the camp is supported by the homeowner association. The HOA provides infrastructure support as well as maintenance and capital improvements for the camp.

  • Our primary goal is to increase the number of turtle nests collected each year, maintain a high rate of incubation and help replenish the sea turtle population. For the past 12 years the turtle camp has had a positive influence on the sea turtle population with the number of baby turtles increasing every year. The rate of incubation from 1995 to 2005 is 78%, a significantly higher number in comparison to natural incubation. In 2009 we collected 2,457 nests and released over 225,000 baby turtles into the wild. Our goal for 2010 is to collect over 3,000 nests for the first time and release over 300,000 hatchlings.

  • Volunteers are an integral part of the success of the Platanitos Sea Turtle Camp. You will be directly involved with camp staff in patrolling the adjoining beach, collecting eggs, incubating eggs, and releasing the hatchlings back into the ocean. Other volunteer duties include the monitoring of tides, weather and moon phases, the monitoring of nests and data collection such as number recording, and comparison measurements. The work is primarily carried out at night when the sea turtles leave the ocean to lay their eggs. You will also help maintain the turtle camp so it can function more effectively and provide a comfortable atmosphere for all who are living at the camp.

  • Veterinarian Miguel Angel Flores Peregrina is the director of the six turtle camps in the state of Nayarit. He visits the camp on a regular basis and is in charge of the program at the turtle camp. The lead coordinator this summer season is Biologist Hermilo Esparza Venegas. He has been the on-site director of the Platanitos Turtle Camp for the past four years and is in charge of the daily operation of the camp.

I have been told that I should have cell service in certain areas of the beach at my volunteer project; also that there will be internet service. I take all international tech promises with a grain of salt until I see all five trusty bars on my BlackBerry in action. If you don’t hear from me, it’s not because I don’t love you – it’s because the cyber gods are causing connectivity hell and havoc. I promise to blog and post pictures as soon as possible. I don’t want to keep all the sea turtle conservation super nerdy science stuff to myself.

14 August 2010

my volunteer style is definitely not a vacation

Lately, a lot of companies have been trying to sell me on outrageously priced volunteer vacations or voluntourism opportunities. Let me be loud and clear: The Global Citizen Project (in its current limited budgetary glory) is in no way a luxe vacation. It does not even remotely resemble how I travel on my own time and dime. So when I get pitched packages that run into the high hundreds of dollars per week and raise a dubious eyebrow, I’m in no way consoled when they come back with, “But we throw in a two day trip to Machu Picchu, a weekly Spanish lesson or four star accommodations.” That’s all sounds mighty swell, but it’s so not what my project is about.

Everyone is entitled to travel and volunteer however their heart (and budget) desires. I tend to be more of a DIY girl, who doesn’t require a whole lot of handholding, nor, do I subscribe to spending lots of dough to do good. Especially when I’ve taken on the task of participating in 12 volunteer projects over the course of a year; it’s just not financially feasible. Besides, I want to work. As hard as I can. If I had copious amounts of cash to burn, would I like to see how the other half gives back? Absolutely. I’ve seen some pretty slick voluntourism catalogs filled with feel good eye-candy and it all looks so very civilized compared to my current volunteering style. Warm water? Hot meals? Six hour work schedules? Oh my! These experiences seem a bit luxury laden for what The Global Citizen Project aims to accomplish, but if I were embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and wanted to tie-in a volunteer component, these trips seem to strike the perfect balance between service, exploration and amenities.

If I win Travelocity’s Travel for Good Program’s $5,000 Voluntourism Grant through WEtv’s WE Do Good Awards Contest, I’d be over-the-moon ecstatic to participate in any one of Travelocity’s official voluntourism partners’ programs: Cross-Cultural Solutions, Earthwatch Institute, Globe Aware, or American Hiking Society. Any one of these programs would be like a Porsche 918 Spyder to my current Pontiac Bonneville shoestring budget projects, plus I could share the voluntourism experience with someone else. (More give back power, yay!)  Even if these programs don't exactly fit my volunteer travel style, it would provide an interesting first-person perspective in the big picture voluntourism puzzle. (I mean, I am trying to convey as many varied volunteer options as possible to my friends, readers and followers, afterall.)  As added bonuses, it would be a huge honor to be featured in a future issue of Ladies' Home Journal magazine and also featured on WEVolunteer.TV. It’s like the holy trinity of voluntourism wish list winnings.

Please vote daily here. Ballots close at 11:59pm on August 31, 2010. It’s quick and easy to vote and you don’t have to fork over your email address or any personal information. Many, many thanks in advance for your continued love and support. And get out there and volunteer - it really doesn't take much to make a difference. Even just a few hours in your own community goes a long way in provinding comfort and making you a hero to someone else. I pinky swear promise.

11 August 2010

one of these volunteers is not like the others

I’m quickly learning that volunteers tend to fall into four main catgeories: the missionary worker, the retiree voluntourist, long-term Peace Corps and NGO workers, and 20-something shoestring budget backpackers. And then there’s late 30-something me.

As a travel writer, I’ve been on my fair share of press trips* and have learned how to get along with (or at least, bite my lip and tolerate) people from all walks of life. I figured volunteering abroad with any well-intentioned person maybe not exactly in my demographic had to be easier than traveling anywhere with a high maintenance travel writer with 101 demands. Surprise, surprise; both scenarios present their own complications and require sacrifices, compromise and some extra effort.

In the volunteer world as I know it, finding short-term, non-faith based volunteer work that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg has been a real challenge. Different people are steered down the path of volunteering for different reasons, and I don’t believe that one path is more righteous than another when good deeds are being done. I also don’t believe it should be prohibitively expensive to volunteer, but that is a discussion best saved until after I’ve experienced a few more opportunities in a wider range of budgets.

I’m living a pretty rough and tumble lifestyle this year and things like outbreaks of Dengue Fever and Bubonic Plague (project #1 and #2 realities, respectively) are beyond my control. I do, however, have a say when it comes to the cleanliness of accommodations, volunteer work expectations or having running water, and will always require reasonable safety, respect and some privacy on occasion. I’ve dropped the “gourmet” from my usual global gourmet existence (also my Twitter handle) and have been living on simple volunteer meals, street food and the occasional cerveza. Accomodations have ranged from a comfortable private room in a home stay to a roach infested basilica to a shared dorm-style room without heat in the dead of winter and a twin bed in a barrio where gun shots lulled me to sleep at night. There’s nothing glamorous about what I'm doing this year, but The Global Citizen Project is not all about me; it’s about giving back. But, there’s a small part of me that wishes I could do just that with a (preferably) female peer coming from a similar place, instead of feeling like the odd woman out.

Whether you volunteer or not, I think we all feel and need a lot of the same things, and hope for a world without so much hardship. At least my ever optimistic self would like to think so. I just wish there were more accessible and appropriate opportunities for women like me, who aren’t afraid to live a scaled back existence, but would appreciate working with people with similar life experience. There are 10 projects to go, so there’s still hope for me to find the perfect fit volunteer project. Fingers crossed.

One objective of The Global Citizen Project is to participate in a variety of volunteer opportunities and report back with honest, firsthand feedback. That is why my project involves me in 12 different areas and styles of service. Although I’m only in the throes of Project #2, there are already many comparisons to be made between my experiences in Peru and Honduras. I’m sure when all 12 projects are said and done, the big picture perspective will be very insightful (and hopefully, helpful) for other service-minded folks, especially 30-something women like myself.

If you’re a 30-something gal who has had a fantastic volunteer experience, I’d love to hear from you. Nancy Drew here is on the detail to see if such scenarios exist. In the meantime, I’ll keep plugging away at my save the world efforts with an open mind, my bottles of bug spray and SPF and a smile.

* For those not in the know, a press trip, also known as a FAM – Familiarization Trip, is basically an all expenses paid travel tour de force sponsored by hotels and tourism boards who woo and pamper travel writers, vying for a few inches of ink (or 12 point type, in these print media world gone to hell days) in one of our published musings.

09 August 2010

if i'm going to commit a cultural faux pas, at least it was over wine

Try as I might to be a polite-as-can-be traveler, I am not perfect. In fact, I committed a cultural faux pas during my recent volunteer stint in Peru. I bought Chilean wine – on the eve of Peru’s Independence Day. The purchase was intentional, although the resulting insult most definitely was not.

I make every attempt to eat and drink locally when I travel (and at home, too). But after sampling dozens of Peruvian wines, from splurge to steal price tags on previous trips, Peru’s winemaking seems a little elementary compared to some of South America’s great wine producing nations (specifically Chile, Argentina and up-and-comer Uruguay). Peru’s wines aren’t necessarily bad, as the majority of bottles are blends (versus single vineyard designates); they’re just not all that remarkable. If I didn’t know better, I’d say maybe their wine style just isn’t geared toward the American palette (which is perfectly fine), but I haven’t found any other wine in South America, umm, quite like what’s being produced in Peru.

So, on the eve of Peru’s Independence Day, I found myself scanning the wine aisle at a Plaza de Armas grocery store, absolutely tickled by the selection of super cheap South American wines. Like a kid in a liquor-stocked candy store, I picked out a Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina and a Carmenère from Colchagua Valley, Chile – mindful of the recent earthquake and its devastating effects on the latter wine region. My train of thought deduced that the latter purchase would surely wrack up some good retail karma. The total came to 24 soles or about $8.50 USD for both bottles. Deal!

Pleased with my selections, I grabbed the bag and headed with the two other volunteers to meet Karikuy founder and volunteer coordinator, Julio. Realizing that we didn’t have a means to open the bottles (which we fully planned on drinking in the Plaza), we took them to customer service to do the deed. Happy to oblige, the service lady pulled the Carmenère from the bag, scrunched up her face and spouted off something in warp speed Spanish to Julio. His expression was abhorrent as he quickly informed me that it was “sacrilege” to buy wine from Chile. Had it not been within hours of his country’s day of independence, I would’ve gone to bat and argued the virtues of Chilean wine.

As we made our way to the Plaza, Julio started to explain the political tensions between Peru and Chile to one of the volunteers. As far as I’m concerned, a good glass of wine is a good glass of wine (made even better when it’s also a good value) and I don’t care where it comes from. He refused to drink the Chilean wine and eventually ventured off to buy a Peruvian bottle. I gave my host country's grapes another chance, and while it was perfectly approachable and palatable, like alcohol spiked Kool Aid, its didn’t begin compare in quality with the two South American selections. I fully admit in defense of Peru and its grapes that the country has it all over Chile when it comes to Pisco production.

Wine is such a subjective thing. If I didn’t love Peru, its people, culture and cuisine so much, I probably would’ve felt worse about this wine buying offense. When it comes to local beverages though, I play my part in supporting Peru’s economy with Pisco, Fanta (with real azucar!) and cerveza consumption. That counts for something, right? Would I commit this heinous crime again? In a heartbeat. Only this time, I’d check my calendar first, and then buy two extra bottles to bag check and take home. There’s a time and place for everything, and although I try to be as culturally aware as possible in my travels, not much is going to get between me and a great tasting, good value wine. South America's got 'em in spades, but Peru, no hard feelings; I'm afraid you still have a lot of learn.

Postscript: The Karikuy volunteer crew took a five hour bus/road-trip to Ica, Peru’s wine-producing region late last week. There, we visited Viña Tacama, Bodega Lazo La Portada and Tres Generaciones (the latter two for Pisco). We sampled more than 10 locally grown wines, mostly of the super sweet, fruit bomb variety. The majority of the high-octane, 44% proof Piscos were superb.

The verdict: If I was nonplussed about Peruvian wine before, I’m even more so now, especially since I’ve seen the growing climate. It’s next to impossible to grow decent wine grapes in a desert and just because you can make wine doesn’t mean you should. End of story. If Peruvian palates demand sweet wine, so be it, but it doesn’t do much for me. I’ll stick to Pisco.

07 August 2010

recipe: pacific halibut ceviche

It's my last day in Lima, Peru. Since it's all about ceviche here (and countless other tasty culinary delights), I thought I'd share my Pacific Northwest version, made with sustainable Pacific halibut. It's quick and easy to make and packs a kick of heat from the jalapeno. Buen provecho!
2 lbs. Pacific halibut, cut into ½” pieces
½ cup fresh squeezed lime juice
½ cup fresh squeezed grapefruit juice
1 small jalapeno, seeded and finely diced
2 teaspoons of sea salt
½ red onion, finely diced
1 grapefruit, cut into segments and halved, the long way
4 small tomatillos, finely diced
¼ cup cilantro, finely chopped

  • In a glass bowl, combine fish and lime and grapefruit juices.
  • Cover and let sit in the refrigerator for one hour.
  • When ready to serve, add red onion, jalapeno, tomatillos and grapefruit segments. Toss gently and season with sea salt. Garnish with chopped cilantro.
  • Serve immediately with tortilla chips.
Optional: Can use farmed bay scallops as a substitute for some of the fish as a substitute for some of the fish.


06 August 2010

media mention: the everywhereist

I'm back from Ica and a bit shell-shocked by the 168 emails that filled my inbox over the past 36 hours. Yikes. So it was a mighty nice surprise find that Seattle travel writer Geraldine of The Everywhereist gave my WE Do Good TV nomination a shout-out in "The Week In Travel." Check it out here and if you're not following her blog, you really ought to be. Geraldine is smart-as-a-whip and dishes snark like few can.

While I have you here, I'd like to remind you that you can VOTE FOR ME DAILY for the WE Do Good Award and help me win a $5,000 Voluntourism Grant from Travelocity’s Travel for Good Program. I'm one of only five finalists for this presitigious award and voting is open through August 31. Thank you in advance for your vote!

01 August 2010

peru is possible on a shoestring budget

When I embarked on a river voyage down the Amazon two years ago, nothing could have prepared me for the otherwordly beauty of Peru and its people. I was on assignment at the time, and the fine folks at International Expeditions picked up the tab for my adventure (thank you 100 times for a trip of lifetime). I’ve since returned to Peru twice in a work slash play capacity and have had to fend for myself financially. Since I like to make my travel adventures last as long as possible, when flying solo, I subscribe to a budget travel style.

Peru is perfect for travelers on a shoestring budget, and not just the backpacker hordes. Its currency is the nuevo sol (S/) and compared to other South American countries, traveling costs are low – it’s easy to survive on $20-25 USD a day. Here are seven tips to help stretch your soles.

Photo courtesy of kudumomo

Timing is Everything
Depending upon when you decide visit Peru, prices can make or break a budget. The dry winter months of June and July are peak season in Machu Picchu and prices rise accordingly (and Inca Trail reservations are scarce for last-minute planners) Tourists flock to the sun-soaked coastal regions during the summer months of December and January. The best bargains can be found during the fringe months of April and May or September and October.

Photo courtesy of Zug55

Take a Tour
Although I tend to be a DIY solo traveler, there are some sights in Peru which require a tour operator – like hiking the Inca Trail or flights over the Nazca Lines. It is, however possible to explore Peru without paying inflated prices. Karikuy, the organization I’m currently volunteering with in Lima, for example, offers a wide variety of tours throughout Peru at budget-friendly price points. They also work to promote responsible tourism, social development and give back to the people and communities of Peru. Do your homework and ask questions and you're more likely to find the perfect fit tour operator.

Photo courtesy of Ivoinperu

Get Out of Town
Lima, Cusco and Puno are Peru’s top tourist hot spots, but venture beyond these towns and prices drop significantly for budget travelers. Think about exploring Ica, Peru’s top wine-producing region on its southern coast, the colonial city of Trujillo and its sunny beaches or hiking in the highland town of Huaraz, near the Cordillera Blanca Mountains.

Cheap Sleeps
Prices for accommodations in Peru vary from dirt-cheap, backpacker hostels to luxury boutique hotels. My head has hit the pillow at every price range in Peru, but when I’m traveling on my own dime (a.k.a. not on assignment), I’ve found several decent mid-range hotel deals. In Cusco, I highly recommend Hotel Rumi Punku (around $50 a night during peak season). It’s a family run, 2-star hostel within three (steep) blocks of Plaza de Armas. Hotel Rumi Punku is safe for the solo female traveler, clean and has free Wi-Fi and continental breakfast daily. Another Cusco property I’m excited about is the just opened, Yamanyá Backpackers Hostel. They had me at heated stone swimming pool and poolside bar, but more practical travelers will probably like their free breakfast, Wi-Fi, airport or bus-stop pickup, TV room with high-definition LCD, huge guest kitchen, comfortable beds and hot, hot water.

Photo courtesy of Muy Yum

Eat Like a Local
As a rule, I try to steer clear of restaurantes turistica. They’re easily identified by oversized menus or chalkboards posted by the entryway with English translations and seats filled with folks who don’t quite look like the locals. Sure, there’s comforting about pointing to a menu item and knowing roughly what you’re getting in a land of language barriers. But I pinky swear promise that if you put the tiniest bit of effort into dining at a non-touristy destination, nine times out of ten, you’ll reap the benefits of lower prices and far superior food.

The name brand liquors you know and love at home are pricey in Peru. For example, a pour of Johnny Walker will run 20 soles – or about $7 USD. That may not seem outrageous by US standards, but if you’re imbibing on a budget in Peru, you can make your bar-hopping dollars stretch much further with a few smart choice. If you insist on drinking cocktails, swap your spirit of choice for a pisco-based beverage. Pisco is a South American liquor distilled from grapes, and cocktails tend run about half the price of American cocktail counterparts. Plus, Pisco packs quite a high octane punch. If you’re really cash-strapped, stick to local beer brands like Cristal, Pilsen Callao or Cusqueña, which rarely cost more than the equivalent of $2 USD.

Photo courtesy of ChrissyJ

It’s hard to travel pretty much anywhere and not want to take some tsotchkes home, especially in Peru. There are a few basic rules of the retail road that will help you get the best deal. Avoid buying souvenirs near bus stops, where prices tend to be higher. Be sure to bargain – the price on the tag is rarely the final price. Have a maximum price you’re willing to pay in mind and don't be tricked by discounts for multiple purchases. Also, keep in mind that souvenir prices at the airport can triple, so if you see something you can’t live without, grab it. Last minute buyer’s remorse is no fun.

There are a lot of great goodies to take home from Peru, but it’s best known for:

  • Baby alpaca woven goods, not just sweaters, but rugs and wall hangings (be sure to check the label – many products incorporate acrylic)
  • Silver jewelry with enamel and gemstones, many with Incan and Peruvian imagery
  • Pisco, the national drink of Peru
  • Small embroidered purses made out of manta cloth
  • Chullos (woolen hats with the earflaps)
  • Huayruru seed jewelry and keychains – this seed is found in the Amazon and is red with a black spot
Since I’ve helped save you all sorts of money in your travels to Peru with this nifty blog post, be sure to pick up a little something for me. Or send a postcard. I swoon for handwritten mail.

voting is live

Woo hoo! I'm one of five finalists in the Travel For Good Award Category of WE tv’s WE Do Good Awards Contest, in partnership with Ladies Home Journal.  From August 1 through August 31, 2010 my nomination will be posted on WE Tv's website and the public can vote.

Here’s what's at stake:
The winner in each category will be notified on or about September 7, 2010. If I am voted the winner, a guest and I will travel to New York City for three days and two nights for the WE Do Good Awards Gala in November 2010. I will also receive a $5,000 Voluntourism Grant from Travelocity’s Travel for Good® Program and will be featured in a future issue of Ladies' Home Journal magazine and on WEVolunteer.TV. (You can see why I want to win so badly, right?!)

PLEASE VOTE HERE and if you feel so inclined, please pass along the link via your Facebook networks, Twitter, blogs, and whatever other all points bulletin methods you prefer. One million thanks in advance.

Photo courtesy of Theresa Thompson.