I can’t explain how nervous I was to board the coach to Heathrow and leave my parents behind for the first time, but as soon as I boarded my flight I met another volunteer who was equally as nervous and excited as me, and we kept each other company through the long flights and layovers. After landing in Guadalajara and meeting the other volunteers, I discovered that friendliness was a common trait of all the volunteers, and all 13 of us became as close as family, despite the 7 different nationalities and array of language barriers present.
The Projects Abroad staff were all really helpful and approachable as well, ensuring that we always had someone to contact and that we were happy and comfortable, while giving us enough space to explore on our own and create our own experiences.
Before leaving for Tecoman, we were given a walking tour of Guadalajara by one of the Projects Abroad staff. He was incredibly knowledgeable and fun to talk to, and in fact this day ended up being one of my favourites overall. I fell in love with the city’s bold art, vivid colours, friendly locals and highly energetic atmosphere. I feel that it was an experience that not many English visitors to Mexico get.
Volunteering was hard work, and the salt-water showers were certainly a shock to the system, as well as the extreme (sometimes overwhelming) heat. However, while the accommodation was basic, it added so much character to the trip. The local Mexican staff were incredibly accommodating, and always had a smile and a helping hand ready for us.
Every day at the camp gave an opportunity to learn something new. Even before breakfast, there is the task to complete of burying the eggs from the previous night’s patrol. On a stormy night, the turtles get busy and I have fond memories of us all being woken up as the sun rose to dig sometimes over 100 nests. Or, you may help place camera traps in the mangroves (beware mosquitos) or embark on an early morning bird watching trip. That being said, our wellbeing was certainly looked after and we always had the afternoon off to relax in the hammocks or swim in the lagoon.
One of my fondest memories is sitting at the local beach bar with the other volunteers. One of those afternoons, we even rescued a baby armadillo from being eaten by dogs, yet another experience that most definitely could not be replicated at home.
My experience volunteering
My favourite activities by far were bird watching and the patrols. The main focus of the camp is of course turtle conservation on the beach, but Projects Abroad aids the preservation of many other ecosystems and wildlife. As an aspiring biology student, I found the sheer biodiversity of the mangrove swamps incredible. During bird watching sessions we would ride on a boat to one of the bigger swamps, where we would stop for an hour to identify and count all the bird species around us. Some sessions, we recorded over 300 birds just in that one area.
I am a person who loves sleep, but somehow never minded being woken up at crazy hours such as 5am to go on patrol. Watching the massive turtles quietly lay their precious eggs in the sand, knowing that you will play a role in their species’ survival, is something special that can’t fully be put into words. What can be expressed is ultimately how essential it is that Projects Abroad volunteers return to the turtle camp every year to collect and protect these eggs from predators and poachers.
While it feels like a small task individually, it all adds up and makes a big difference. Without the camp and its volunteers, thousands of sea turtle hatchlings would die before even beginning their life in the ocean. These turtles are already under threat due to man-made pressures on their survival, so every small action helps.
Another activity was mangrove digging. This is exactly what the name describes-in the afternoon one a week we would grab water and some shovels and head out the mangrove swamp, spending the next few hours in the scorching sun and ruthless clouds of mosquitos. Despite the far from comfortable work, a sense of companionship developed between all the volunteers, and we sang our way through it. If you didn’t already know, mangrove trees are under serious threat from deforestation globally, yet have one of the highest levels of biodiversity of any habitat. The hard work we did was again incredibly important, and made every mosquito bite completely worth it.
On the weekend, we traveled to the seaside town of Melaque. This in itself was a unique opportunity to see yet another place which most Western tourists in Mexico do not. The town had all the Mexican charm and liveliness that can’t be found in a tourist resort run by a big company. The hotel was minutes to the beach and had its own pool as well. Having air conditioning and a fresh water shower had never been so welcome. After going swimming, we rented banana boats, which was a lot of fun. Most of the weekend was spent relaxing on the beach with the other volunteers.
Overall, volunteering gave me a whole range of new useful skills. I now have a practical insight into the field of biology, and have experienced first-hand the importance of conservation efforts. I have come away with a newfound sense of confidence, and an assurance that I am able to comfortably and safely travel on my own. This has proven invaluable when traveling solo since, and will again in my upcoming gap year.