We were surprised and i was just getting into a really good nap when the ferry from BA docked in Colonia, uruguay after just 1.5 hours (we thought it would be around 4!) and we were transferred to a coach for the remaining few hours to the capital, Montevideo. First impressions of Montevideo were grey grey and more grey. It didn't look like the most attractive city, and as a result, we got a taxi to our hostel, checked in (another brilliant hostel with really lovely bedrooms and chill out area ) and spent the rest of the day lounging around, watching the only English channel we could find, ESPN, and making one journey out to the supermarket to pick up some tea. We planned to catch the lunchtime bus the next day to get to our volunteering base, La Coronilla, which is very close to the border with Brazil
The journey was pretty painless. We knew it took around 5 hours from the instructions we received from the organisation, but other than that we just had to hope the driver took pity on us and called out when we arrived. Thankfully he did, and we were deposited at the side of a random country road in the pitch dark with only a rough idea of what direction to head in. The place was actually pretty easy to find, we just headed for the sea and came across the wooden lodge just off the beach. When we approached we were greeted by two big dogs running at us barking which was pretty terrifying, but they were soon called into the house and a guy came and let us in. Where we are staying is pretty much a large wooden shed. There is a kitchen dining area, makeshift lounge with sofas made of bed frames and old bits of sponge, then a few dorm style "rooms" if you can call them that, with three or four beds in each. We were shown into a room with a double top bunk, dumped our bags and went back into the living area, where there were a few people milling around drinking some strange local spirit. On closer inspection of our room it became clear that we were pretty much living outside, with wooden walls with gaps in and underneath, where sand from the beach was coming in, and a corrugated iron roof which would most definitely leak in a rain shower. The whole house was more of the same, sort of cobbled together from any random materials, by lots of different volunteers at different times so everyone had left their mark in some way. This gave the place a lovely rustic, homely feel, and i liked it immediately. We were introduced to the only other volunteer at the camp due to it being winter season, her name was Fanie much to Snellers amusement, and she was French. Also there that night were two of the coordinators friends, there for the weekend, who spoke minimal english but passed around the sprits and instigated a game of bingo
. The girl laughed hysterically at everything and the guy growled and barked like a dog at regular intervals but they seemed like nice enough people.
The project coordinator was called Alan, he was in charge as the boss who I had been communicating with previously was doing business in Montevideo. Alan was Argentinian, and seemed pretty laid back right from the offset. He cooked us all homemade pizza which was incredible, and we all sat up talking (or everyone else talked in Spanish and we stared around smiling) for a few hours before we went to bed. The other guy staying at the lodge was a guy called Ivan, who we are still not quite sure what he actually does other than bop around making a menace of himself and laughing at his own jokes. I think he is some sort of ranger for the area as it is a protected area, but who knows! He is a very funny guy who loves nothing more than playing dance tunes at full blast and singing the "bad boys" theme song.
Next morning we woke up at 8 as instructed, had breakfast ,cleared up and then headed out for a walk along the beach to a place called Cerro Verde, where there are good spots for turtle sighting. The walk was around an hour and a half each way, it was a gorgeous day and the scenery was beautiful. We had taken two of the three dogs who live there, a massive lab very similar to Nev, called Slash after the guns n roses guitarist, and Kausita, who loved to nibble everything and leap up on everyone's chests. (the other dog, named jasmine despite being male, was the most haggard dog I've ever seen,23 years old, half blind, rotting fur and a back right leg that just dragged along behind him as he stumbled around like a grumpy old man barking angrily at the other two having fun). When we reached Cerro Verde, we were split into twos, which were unfortunately me and Fanie, and Snellers and Alan, and turtle watch began
. We had these data sheets, and had to sit and watch the sea for turtle heads coming up for it, for ten minutes with five minute breaks in between. This went on for THREE HOURS but wasn't too bad despite me being terrible at spotting turtles in amongst the waves. We even saw a clustered three or four dolphins swim past which was amazing. We were also shown how to measure the "parameters" which included sea temperature, cloud coverage, wave frequency etc etc. basically monitoring the number of turtles and comparing against the parameters to see what optimum conditions would be. When all this was done we walked back along the beach to the "casa" , one of the few Spanish words I have actually learnt, had a very late lunch (5pm -- south Americans seem to do everything hours and hours later than we would!) and chilled out the rest of the night. Alan made a massive campfire outside and cooked a BBQ on there. We had a few beers as Fanie was leaving in the morning, and were told not to get used to the great food and beers as it was just a special occasion (this was a lie!).
During the night, a new volunteer unexpectedly arrived, as the boss hadn't let the coordinators know he was coming. Crispin was from Austin, Texas, and he was a really cool guy. That day , after the three of us had had our introductory talks and signed our contracts, we had to go to a beach a short drive away, to remove some whale tail bones that had been washed up on the beach
. This turned out to be a harder task than anticipated as a lot of sand had washed over them, embedding them pretty far into the sand. Snellers, Alan and Crispin scooped out the sand and hacked away at the skin and tendons that joined the vertebrae together in order to separate the pieces of vertebrate to take back with us. I was more logistics, pacing around telling them where to hit next. Snellgrove was chopping away with a saw like a man possessed, eventually separating the pieces, then we had to carry them back with us in crates, two people to a crate they were that big and heavy. They absolutely stunk, and the amount of flies surrounding us as we arrived back at the car with the crates was ridiculous, especially for someone who hates bugs as much as me, haha. That afternoon after (late) lunch we watched Alan dissect a dead turtle, which by the look of it had been dead at least a week.. When he cut it open a pile of maggots fell out and I nearly heaved. The turtle had died from a boat hitting it, but it was necessary to dissect to check nothing unusual was found inside the turtle. Alan cut open the oesophagus, stomach and intestine, took out all the algae the turtle had been feasting on before which was pretty gruesome. We had to put the samples in a jar of alcohol, then we took the turtle down to the beach and buried it in the sand accompanied by a touching ceremony. by this time it was almost dark, so we went back to the house for dinner.
On Tuesday, we had to make the drive to the border town with brazil, Chui, to pick up the other coordinator who spends half of each week at the project, his name was Gustavo. Thinking the three of us would just be coming along for the journey, picking up Gus and going back, me and Snellers brought no money or anything, and were just wearing our scruffy clothes. Then Alan pulled over in the middle of Chui let us out and told us he would pick us up again in two hours
! We wandered aimlessly around the most unremarkable town in the world, looked in some duty free shops (because its a border town, Brazilians can shop there tax free) and had a coffee funded by Crispin before finally the two hours was up and we went back to meet the others. And that was when we were introduced to the legend that is Gustavo. Everything about him was loud, from his booming voice to his bright yellow shirt and his long curly blond hair in a ponytail, we loved him immediately. His English was really good, and he spent the journey home chatting loudly about football and his local team, Corinthians after he first told us brazil was renowned as a cricketing nation. Back at the house there was obviously no settling in period for Gus, as he straight away got to work ordering everyone about, telling us what needs done around the house, when we could go and capture, etc. it turned out his main concern was the big crack in the ground where the fridge was, and as soon as Snellers mentioned he plastered back home, Gus was digging out these ancient tools for him to get started. Crispin was given some other task to do with labelling stuff in the kitchen (Gus created work where no normal person would ever have seen there was anything needing doing!) and I was Snellers labourer, fetching buckets of sand from the beach, searching through junk to find something for him to mix with and most importantly, getting the drinks in! The job was done in no time despite the makeshift materials and poor light, and we pushed a couple of Manx coins into the wet cement to make our mark
. After lunch we went down to the beach with lots of big bags to pick up litter, and were shocked when we managed to fill up around 16 bags full, mainly plastic bottles, in the space of about 400m of beach. Later in the evening, Gustavo's uni friend turned up to spend the next day at the centre, her name was Jasmina and she spoke perfect english due to living in Australia for a year. That night, feeling we had done a good days work, we chilled out and listened to Gus's many stories over dinner, then went to bed as we were supposedly going to "make capture" in the morning.
On wednesday, the weather looked fairly good, so we all helped pack up the car with the net, wetsuits, flippers and supplies and headed to Cerro Verde to see if we could capture. On the way, we stopped off at the local fisherman, Carlito's house, where Gus and Alan sat for a Mate and a chat while we sat around waiting. Visits to Carlito were pretty frequent while we were at the project, they always seemed to be bringing him stuff or giving him money, earning him the nickname Carlito the Freeloader from me Snellers and Crispin. When we finally got down to the shore, the sea looked really grey and rough and when we got out of the car, it just started to spit with rain. Gus told us that we weren't allowed to attempt capture if there was any rain, so we sat in the car and had lunch while we waited for it to clear up before realising it was just getting heavier, and driving to the next town along to see if we had any better luck there
. There, we were still unable to capture, but Gus and Alan were full of errands to run, so drove all around the town visiting fishermen, and the local school where Karumbe were involved in trying to get the children of the area to participate more in activities to raise awareness around the towns. All this time, me, Snellers, Crispin and Jasmina waited in the car in the rain, until eventually we were driving back to the house (via a woodcutters, so Gus could pick up some wood to make a (most probably unnecessary) new bed!). It was pretty annoying that we hadnt been able to capture or do anything really, but it obviously couldn't be helped and we hoped for a better day the next day.
Next day, Jasmina had left after her exciting day spent at the centre, and so the five of us re packed the car and went out for capture take two, via the obligatory stop at Carlito's house. The weather was much better, and the sea actually looked inviting which was an improvement (not to me, but to the guys who wanted to go into the water I'm sure it did). We got started straight away, spreading out the net on the sand ready to bring out to sea, (Gus had already nominated himself and Snellers for this task) and getting into our wetsuits. I had been given the role of "Land Boss" which was probably just a way of making me sound a little bit more useful than "the person who writes stuff down". Basically, Crispin and Alan would hold the ends of the net in the shallows while Gus and Snellers swam out to a buoy and hooked it on
. The swim was around 250m and looked a tough one, with waves breaking right in the middle. I stood up on the rocks with a clipboard to record the time the net went in, was attached and came out, and how many turtles were caught at each point. I think we caught 8 altogether, Snellers would swim back in with the turtle, and hand it to me or Crispin who would take it back to the beach and lie it on its back to prevent it escaping. Then Snellers and Crispin changed and Crispin went out to sea and Snellers carried them back. After a few hours, we brought the net back in as it was getting late and we were supposed to have enough light to work on the turtles before releasing them. Back at the car we got changed and Gus took control of the sampling and tagging, shouting out numbers left right and centre clearly trying to get all 8 done before dark. When it became apparent this wasn't going to happen, we released three turtles on the sand, and all had to cheer and celebrate when they reached the sea while Gus went around hugging and hi fiving everyone! We packed the remaining five turtles in the back of the truck with Slash and drove back to the house, where the turtles were put in containers for the night. Whenever they started thrashing in their boxes we had to hold their flippers tight to calm them down. Snellgrove aka the Turtle Whisperer was particularly good at this surprisingly enough so we left him to it! That night we sat by the fire with the turtles after a pretty tiring day, planning on working with the captures in the morning
. Gus and Snellers watched the Corinthians game, quarter final of the south American cup, and just after half time the power in the whole of the town went out and Gus went mental. The power stayed off the whole second half, with Gus throwing things around and phoning home to get the score. I can only imagine what Snellgrove would be like in the same situation! Luckily, Corinthians won, and Gus told his new football watching buddy that he had to stay at Karumbe until the semi final game to watch that with him too.
The next morning, Gustavo was of course distracted by something else that needed fixing, and me and snellers spent the morning ripping out the kitchen shelves, putting up a big piece of tile-effect wood then replacing the shelves, while Gus and Crispin made the eagerly anticipated new bed outside. In the end, the kitchen looked a lot better, (I think actually the reason we had to do this was because the night before, Before the football catastrophe, I spotted a mouse/R-A-T running up the wall and Gus sprang up, whipped out a machete and staked out the corner of the kitchen to try and get it! We all had to go to various corners of the house to try and scare it into running out into the path of the waiting Brazilian. So next morning the kitchen was to get remodelled to try and thwart the visitor that way!) The new bed didn't look bad either, although it ended up being a new couch in the end!
In the afternoon we worked on the turtles, bringing each one up to the table out the back of the building and measuring things like head, shell, body, weighing it, taking a small skin sample with a knife and tweezers, and tagging the flippers (unless the turtle was a recapture and was already tagged). We each took turns doing a turtle, I was pretty worried to tag them in case it hurt, and Snellers cut a pretty big skin sample off his guy (Gus: bring out the barbecue we're having steak tonight!) but it was really interesting to get to do this stuff and understand why it's important to monitor the turtles to keep up to date with where they go season to season and relationships between seasons and weights etc. When all turtles were done and named, we each took one down to the beach to release them. As soon as they saw the sea they seemed to thrash in your arms, and they aren't the easiest to carry anyway, trying to bite you and flailing around loads! At the shore we put our turtles down on the count of three and watched them race to the sea, shouting encouraging words to them. Wilson was a solid second, Big Dunc was third. Crispins turtle won, which Alan announced meant beers were on him that night. After another great day we settled down for some dinner. A quick word about the food - before we got to Karumbe, we were expecting basic meals of mainly flavourless carbs, along with minimal English spoken, and so thought we would emerge from the project a lot lighter, with some Spanish picked up as a bonus.
Then, everyone speaks amazing English, and the food is some of the best we had ever eaten! Alan was an incredible chef, and although some exotic things like the deep fried eggplant had to be forced down politely, he cooked an amazing fish dish, lots of risotto style things with loads of flavours, homemade calzone, and he always made too much so there was seconds and thirds going begging. Not quite the "I'm a celebrity" style rice and beans we had in mind, although every blog I had read about the place went on about the food being poor, I can only guess that this is because Alan had only joined recently, and in peak season when there are twenty odd volunteers, they eat what's convenient rather than what's nice! Anyway our grand weight loss and bilingual plan was well out the window. That night we went to chui again to pick something up, and having not learned our lesson from last time, expected to go and come straight back. However, we were dropped in the city centre again, left with no option but to go and have some beers and question Crispin about texas. We bought some whiskey for back home later on although Crispin necked his bottle in the back of the truck on the way home and we ended up being too tired and going straight to bed anyway!
On Saturday, Gustavo announced that we would try another capture! The weather didn't look as great as the last time, but we got everything ready and went to the beach, I resumed my role as chief writer, and we got the net out to sea again
. It was immediately obvious that we wouldn't have the same luck as last time, as after thirty or so minute we still hadn't caught a thing. When we caught our first turtle, Gus shouted back that there was a sting ray also caught in the net, so we then had to bring the net back in to untangle it. As it was being dragged back in, we caught two more turtles, so a grand total of three plus one ray! As we were untangling the creatures, a class from the local school came past, still unsure why on a Saturday, but Gustavo loved giving them all a long (long) lecture about turtles and the work of Karumbe, all while Snellers and Crispin were holding up two massive heavy turtles. After 45 minutes we had had enough so went to put the turtles down and sit by the car, snellers complaining that we was going to make them hold up a bag of cement for the first half of a football game and see how they liked it. When Gus had finally finished with his demonstrations we sorted out the turtles we had and released them, then drove home. Back at the house, the three of us were sent to the local shop a short walk away to pick up some beers. Alan and Gus decided two big bottles each was definitely enough, but they hadn't anticipated playing some of the games we has in store for them. It was nowhere near enough, and we had to drive to the local pub to pick up some take out beers and brought them back home. After a few more games we started dropping like flies, first Gustavo fell asleep on the sofa before sneaking off to bed (he had a six a.m bus back to brazil to make), then Alan passes out on the sofa, then I went to bed and left Crispin and Snellers talking shit in the living room finishing off the last remnants of beer. Great night!
Next morning was our morning off, so we surfaced around lunchtime to no sign of Crispin or Alan. When Alan finally comes in he tells us Gustavo missed two buses to brazil before Alan had to take him to the border town to get one there
! Mission to mess up Gustavo, complete! We spent the rest of the day cleaning up the house, then went out to collect some wood for the fire that night.
Later on, we lit a bonfire outside and sat around on logs chatting, it was a perfect way to spend our last night. the stars in la coronilla were the clearest I have ever seen, and just lying there by that fire with great company made me genuinely really happy, and at the same time sad to leave the place the next morning. We played our favourite game, i.e. make slash and kauser play-fight then call jasmine out into the garden where she would go mental yapping and end up getting knocked over hahaha. We had one last incredible meal with Alan and Crispin, missing the booming voice of Gus over the dinner table, (and his signature phrase, "Guys, no worry, okay?") and went to pack up our stuff.
I think some of the places you dont expect to be so good are always the ones that end up surprising you, we were both unsure what to expect about Karumbe but it surprised us in so many ways by being the best ten days we have probably had since being away. We both loved the simplicity of life there.. No tv, wifi was the one luxury, entertainment was chatting around the big log fire or playing cards or listening to the amazing uruguayan music. We collected our own wood for the fire, got eaten alive by bed bugs, made every meal from absolute scratch, lived in a shack that had been built with volunteers bare hands, but it beat living in a hostel dorm any day. The company was fantastic, we couldn't have asked for two better coordinators than Alan and Gus, they got us involved in everything from tagging turtles to washing up, something I don't think would have happened had we been there in summer season where there are five times as many volunteers and I'm sure you have to dish out the fun tasks between you all. Crispin was hilarious, and we made plans to contact him when we are heading for Texas in a couple of months
. If we could've stayed longer we definitely would have, ten days just didn't seem long enough in this gorgeous place but unfortunately we didn't have days to spare.
The next morning we got a lift to chui again with Alan, Crispin, and Ivan who had finally returned to the house, said our farewells and were on a bus to Porto Alegre, the first stop on our long journey to Rio. A massive Thanks to all the guys, plus Slash, Kausita and Jasmine, who made our first volunteering experience so incredible, I have a feeling it will definitely be easier to persuade Snellers to do them in the future!
So we were headed towards Rio de Janeiro, brazil, the most dangerous stop on our trip so far, but not before the mammoth journey up through the country to get there..!
Quote of the trip by Gustavo after Crispin's claim that Brazilian woman are beautiful:
"In Latin America, theres beautiful woman. In united states, maaan they have beautiful woman.In Europe, beautifulllll woman.In India, i mean ive been all these countries they have beautiful woman. In Antarctica, no woman there, but they have beautiful penguins."
So here we are in the middle of nowhere in a Uruguayan village four days into our volunteering, and so far I am keeping up with the s.america blogs pretty well!