Off to save the turtles

Weird to think I’ve been here in Sri Lanka for a whole week now, still seems crazy surreal. With the orientation week and my weekend off out of the way it was finally time to begin my volunteer program, the whole point of this trip in the first place: Turtle Conservation.

Day 1 (Monday):

Orientation week is based in the volunteer house in Kandy but the Turtle Conservation project is in a different location: The beach.

Wake up call 3.30 am. I felt dead. Amazingly I got ready in half an hour to catch the taxi with 5 other volunteers to the train station. Despite getting to the station an hour before our train was due to depart (10 past 5am) it was busy. Very busy. And there weren’t a lot of seats. Luckily we found a few in one carriage but had to suffice sitting in pairs. With our bags placed in the hold, our co-ordinator gone leaving us to our journey, we were soon on our way to Ambalangoda. It would only take 5 hours… Despite this I was looking forward to the journey, to view the scenery, to see the sunrise. Unfortunately I fell asleep and by the time I woke up the sun had risen and the train was far more packed then I could ever I imagine. For a good 2 hours I had a man’s overly large stomach right in front of face, his crotch rubbing on against my arm and his hand right behind my head so I couldn’t even rest against the chair. To say the least the close proximity made me feel very uncomfortable. But time went by and we found ourselves met at Ambalangoda station by Ravi, who we’d soon become aware was our cook at our house and taken to our new home by a larger-than-normal tuk-tuk (who knew these existed?!). The house is very different compared to the Green House in Kandy, more like a bungalow villa. It was nice, but I had uncomfortable vibes. Maybe it was the change in scenery or maybe I was starting to get homesick but I just couldn’t shake the feeling. Putting this behind me, I got on with the day and had another meeting, this time with the manager in Ambalangoda, the infamous Captain who went through all the rules. Exciting news: extended curfew until 9.30pm and we can drink alcohol in the house! The day got even better when Isuru (our co-ordinator on the Turtle Conservation project) dropped by and told us we’d be releasing baby turtles. Tonight. Having watched baby turtles be released into the ocean once before in Barbados I was excited, especially as I had actually never done it myself before. Seeing all these baby turtles in a bucket waiting to be released into the wild was amazing. They were so little, and the ocean so big. We got to pick them up and have a little photography session. Its hard to describe the feeling of a baby turtle. They feel as fragile as the look but they’re quite sturdy. So we took them down to the beach to see their new home. The 6 of us were told to line up along the beach, Isuru then gave us a turtle to us each and on signal we would put them down on the sand and watch them go. I felt like a proud mother watching her baby go off in the world. It’s crazy. But it’s so sad to think only a small percentage of them will survive due to the predators in the ocean. I hope they do OK.

Releasing turtle into the ocean
Releasing turtle into the ocean

Baby turtles finding their new home
Baby turtles finding their new home
Day 2 (Tuesday):

Today was my first day volunteering. Very excited. Job of the day: feeding turtles which also meant preparing their food. Sardines. Now speaking as a vegetarian who has never cut a fish in her entire life it was disgusting but I could deal for the turtles and so I did. I cut up a lot of fish. I could’t even look at them whilst doing it, I felt so bad. But sharing the job with 5 other people it got done quite quickly, which meant the next task was feeding them. There’s two sites in which the turtles are located in the project (one of which called the disabled home, and the other one nameless but the main one so I’ll just refer to it as base camp), so after Isuru allocated half of us to work in one site and the other half to work in the other, it was my time to feed. I was placed in base camp. Now all the turtles are in their own allocated tanks (some they share) and then they have two spare smaller tanks “feeding tanks”. To feed the turtles it was required to pick one up (making sure you do this from behind as they would bite off your fingers) and moving it into the feeding tank, in which you were then given a bowl full of fish (27 pieces for every turtle). Depending on the condition of the turtles depends on how much you needed to help them. For example the first turtle I fed was absoluetely fine, it swam around all happily but the next one not so easy. Apparently it ate a plastic bag so now has an air bubble stuck inside it, so it can’t dive, instead just floats on top of the water. With Cumbia’s help (Isuru’s friend/helper) pushing down the turtle underwater guiding it to the fish we sort of got through it. It was a slow experience, every time it had a piece of fish it would spit it out then go back to it. After awhile Chandy-Mal (the other co-ordinator on the project) told us to leave it and go on to the next. By this time the others were on about their 6th turtle and I was only getting on to my 3rd considering the last one was so slow. The next one up had a missing fin which meant it couldn’t dive down either. So while I threw the fish into the tank one piece at a time, Cumbia would guide the turtle again pushing it down under water to make sure it got it. It’s so sad to see the turtles in this condition, especially as the ones with missing fins start to panic as they try to swim to the fish but know they won’t get there in time. After lunch we all went over to the disabled site. The turtle project is home to a lot of turtles probably around 40 or so, all different breeds (Green turtles, Loggerhead turtles, Leatherback turtles, etc) in which all of them are disabled, I didn’t see much of a different between those in base camp and those in the disabled home but it’s so nice seeing so many different turtles all at once (shame their in this condition). After lunch it was time to clean some turtle tanks. Just a piece of advice, turtle shit is very slippery so do not under any circumstances jump into a turtle tank as you might just fall over like I nearly did or like the South African guy actually did. Cleaning tanks isn’t too bad, you just use sand and water. You basically have to scrub all the walls, the floors, clean that out with water, then get all of the waste up so they can fill it back up with water. Last task of the day: shovelling sand. The worst and hardest thing I have done. Sand is very heavy, especially when Cumbia is pilling it up into buckets for you. Worst task of the day. After our day of work was done and we had dinner (for your information the food is so much better in Ambalagoda than in Kandy – thank you Ravi!!) we headed down to the beach for a few drinks before our 9.30 curfew. Today was a good day.

Base Camp (Turtle Conservation project)

Bonding with disabled turtle (missing a front fin)
Bonding with disabled turtle (missing a front fin)

Turtle who has air bubble in body so can't dive under water
Turtle who has air bubble in body so can’t dive under water
Day 3 (Wednesday):

Turtle tank cleaning again. Cleaning one tank isn’t too bad actually, it’s when you have to do 3 in a row it becomes quite tiring. Especially in the heat. After lunch it was time to clean the turtles. This was actually quite fun. To clean a turtle, you grab it out of the water and place it down on the sand. You then rub sand all over it’s back and with a coconut shell scrub the turtles entire shell (being careful on those with damaged shells). Then you have to search it’s face and fins for leeches. Some of them are a bit leech invested, it was disgusting. I mean there were leeches in their eyes, in their mouths. Everywhere. And I guess that’s why it’s so important that they clean them weekly and you do it well. With the co-ordinators help we soon got them all out. Actually I didn’t, I was focused on the shells but Canada, she did a great job of getting all of them leeches out. After work today all 6 of us volunteers headed to a nearby town called Galle (known for it’s fort built by the dutch) as it was South Africa’s last night in Sri Lanka. Galle is quite nice, a major tourist town of Sri Lanka. It was getting quite dark so didn’t see too much but they have a lot of cute looking shops and an excellent burger restaurant (vegetarian option available) which was. Amazing. When you’re having curry twice a day every day for a solid amount of time, I think anything tastes good in comparison. But this burger, and the chips, were just fabulous. On our way back from Galle our tuk-tuk drivers decided to race each other. Probably very unsafe (not probably, I know it is very unsafe) but very funny, unfortunately my tuk-tuk lost despite being ahead the whole time. After we got back, we headed down to the beach once again for some drinks. As I said it being South Africa’s last night we got special permission from the Captain to stay out until midnight and Isuru, along with his wife Hannah and Cumbia made a bonfire for us. I think it was one of the nicest bonfire’s I’ve ever seen. It was so big and just lit the beach up. I can’t get over all these pretty sights in Sri Lanka, it’s just so beautiful. After a few drinks of Arrack (that shit really messes you up, drink with caution), watching Cumbia get attached to South Africa and having a very enjoyable night we headed back home. I’m going to miss South Africa, he was such a decent guy and I have no idea who’s going to protect all of us girls now.

Volunteers loose in Galle
Volunteers loose in Galle

On the edge
On the edge
Day 4 (Thursday):

Feeding day again. Thankfully I got out of preparing the fish, and this time I was placed into the disabled site. I had to feed blind turtles and guide them towards the fish. It’s so sad. Usually I’d be quite put off by this place, I mean the turtles aren’t exactly living in large tanks where they can roam around, but there’s no other place for them except here. Without this organisation, they’d be dead. Plain and simple. None of these turtles would survive in the wild. They’d be attacked, or they’d just starve to death considering none of them would be able to catch their own food or even dive down to get it. I’m so glad this place is here to help them, I really do believe more places like this should exist. After lunch it was time to clear up the beach which I was looking forward to since the day I arrived. There is a lot of shit on the beach: bottles, plastic, shoes. You name it and you can probably find it. That’s why half these turtles are in this position in the first place. But that’s where I come in to help. Once we were done, the beach was looking far better and far safer for the environment. After work, I tanned for a bit. Considering it’s meant to be monsoon season the weather has been absolutely perfect today, maybe just a bit too hot for beach clean up but I prefer anything over the rain. Later in the evening, us 5 girls headed on down to another local town: Hikkaduwa. Again this is another very touristy town of Sri Lanka, and is actually the place where the 2005 Tsunami killed the most amount of people. It doesn’t look as affected as I thought it would be but I guess it was 10 years ago now. Hikkaduwa must be one of the nicest towns I’ve visited in Sri Lanka, lots of shops and restaurant and was the place where we saw the most amount of white people. We’ve now got a game of “spot the white person” as there’s hardly anyone here.

Day 5 (Friday):

Starting to feel more homesick today, and focusing on next Saturday. The day I arrive back to England. I guess I’m just missing my home comforts: My own bed (especially one that you can’t feel the metal bars of the frame underneath the mattress), my own bathroom without a family of mosquitos living in it, clean clothes, dry cloths (why on earth did I bring 1 pair of denim shorts?! They’ll never dry and I don’t have anything else!). food that isn’t curry, my family and my friends. Not that I’m addicted the internet or anything, but having gone without it for a whole week I think it is affecting me. SImply because it’d make everything easier and eliminate my last two problems as I’d actually be able to speak to them.

Being a Friday we only had half a day of working which just included cleaning more tanks. As your not aloud to wear any sunscreen on the job (it’s poisonous to turtles) I’ve become quite burnt on my shoulders, but it’s all good, it’ll eventually turn into a tan right?? After work, our numbers went down one more as Sheema left us (one of my London gals). And just for the evening and weekend Leonie and I were left on our own as Canada and Germany went back to Kandy for their weekend off. Needing to do something, Leonie and I decided to head to the high-street after dinner. Being lazy, we also got a tuk-tuk back to the house (even though it’s only a 10/15 minute walk), who ensured us knew where he was going yet was evidently starting to drive us past the road leading to our house and out of Ambalangoda. Not knowing where he intended on taking us, I got my rape alarm out quick and called the Captain. I don’t think he had bad intentions, but after hearing the horror stories on my first day I wanted to be safe. So we made him stop, and got Captain to talk to him and give him directions. The driver seemed quite apologetic and drove us to our house. Problem averted, but that could’ve been 100x worse.


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