Raleigh: Phase 3 - Sloth time

Trip Start Feb 03, 2013
Trip End Jan 25, 2014

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Flag of Costa Rica  , Province of Cartago,
Thursday, September 5, 2013

The third and final phase of expedition was a time to finish the projects we'd started and also reflect on what we'd achieved, both as individuals and as a group. It was with a spring in our step that we ventured forward to complete the tasks in hand.

I think I was the only PM to request another environment phase for our final outing, so unsurprisingly I was given the project I'd asked for. This would mean spending a whole phase in basha beds, but with lessons learnt from my second phase experience on San Lucas, I felt pretty good about the prospect. I would be heading to Guayabo National Park, where we'd continue the work of Alpha and X-Ray 4, planting trees and maintaining the trails in the park. Guayabo is Costa Ricas most important archaeological site and though dwarfed by the Mayan ruins in other Latin American countries, it is nonetheless an interesting site. The National Monument opened in 1973 and would be celebrating it's 40th anniversay whilst we were there.

I'd been lucky to spend every phase with a host country PM, both to get a richer flavour of the country I was living in and for their invaluable language skills; this phase was no different and I was joined by Tico Eduardo and Scottish Andrew (aka Sweets). Our last phase venturer allocations were announced by finger painting spots on foreheads in a range of colours. We soon had our small troupe of yellow-dotted Zulu 4, with the group size being lower as the first batch of seven weekers were departing; after such big groups in phase two, it seemed very strange to have only have eight venturers. We were lucky to have the diverse range of nationalities of Belgian, British, Costa Rican, Hong Kongese and Nicaraguan and more than half speaking Spanish to a lesser or greater degree. Once obligatory intros and games were completed and no-on suffered permanent damage from a rather energetic game of group tag, we were ready to start prepping for the phase ahead.

We were all old hands by now at changeover and made quick work of the food counting and tool pack up. Everything went smoothly and after the rounds of presentations, Turi time, one last big group shot and the highly anticipated X-Ray Factor evening, everyone went on their way; onwards to phase three or homewards and back to reality. As Zulu 4, we had the shortest journey to our destination with just an hour in a bus, before we reached Guayabo. After waving everyone else off, it seemed like no time at all, before we were greeted by our friendly ranger and volunteer co-ordinator at 7.30am.

We were shown the camping area where the bamboo for our bashas was languishing on the muddy ground and we were invited to join in the park anniversary celebrations later in the day. We soon set about configuring our basha camp and selecting the best of the damp bamboo, in the hope that it would serve us well for the next nineteen days. Once our camp was up, we brought out a cake for one of our venturers who was celebrating his birthday in a very different way to usual. We sung happy birthday and chowed down on cake (or plums) before joining the parks slightly kooky anniversary celebrations. There were some posters, entertainment and food vendors too, feeding the handful of tourists present. Part of the show was a rather hyeractive girl making an impassioned speech about various environmental issues, including the demise of the endangered green macaw, whilst joined by another girl dressed as the bird in question.

There was also an acrobat who, using cloth tied up to a high branch of a tree, performed some acrobatics in front of us. After an impressive show we got in on the act and some of Zulu 4 tried to emulate his moves, with differing degrees of success; I for one only managed a pretty pathetic attempt at getting off the ground, clearly needing to head back to the gym to increase my upper body strength! We also made a tour of the achaeological site, we would have the chance to be guided on a tour later in our phase, but this was our first opportunity to see the park and where we'd be working. The park itself is relatively small and centres on an archaeological site, which was inhabited from 1000 BC until 1400 AD. Our first Sunday finished with dinner under our newly erected kitchen and dining area and the first days review.

Our first day of work started with the promise of planting trees, but as the truck that would take us to the site could only hold four passengers, we sent two loads up and I joined the two assigned housekeepers, as an extra helper for the day. We set about sorting the food into meal barrels and getting the camp in order. The following day we were unable to plant trees and we had the rather dull task of raking the whole site of leaves; it has to be done to keep the paths clear and slip free, but is never the most inspiring task! When the rain pelted down in the afternoon, we were finished for the day and we set about playing Scrabble in the shelter by our bodega. Our next few days then passed with a mixture of raking and taking turns to plant trees.

When I finally got the chance to plant trees, it was a fulfilling experience. We dug holes, cleared the ground around the holes to give the small plants their best chance of survival and planted the little saplings. It was great to be doing something that would have a direct impact on the environment and I got quite proficient in popping tree sized holes with a trench spade. That day we also planted, what I named, magic trees; I was more than a little skeptical at first, but soon bought into the concept. There was a large pile of what I would have termed as large sticks or small dead branches, we were however instructed to plant these along the fence line, to fill in the gaps. Even though they looked dead, we were however advised that they would eventually start sprouting leaves again and we saw evidence of this, with other older sticks, now showing bright green shoots at their tops.

Our first weekend arrived before we knew it and the prospect of what we decided to call Fat Sunday. Before we reached that point however, we lost two of our party; one venturer left to return home, due to a leg injury picked up in the previous phase; and Sweets volunteered to head to Carara, as they had been reduced to just one PM, due to family bereavement. We were just nine people then on our first day off of the phase. Fat Sunday was created, as we were all keen to learn to make traditional local empañadas and our resident Costa Rican volunteered to be our teacher. I purchased maize flour and some squeaky cheese from the local shop and we collected spare black beans and tuna. We were soon all quite proficient and frying up our variously shaped creations, as we were such a small group however we were able to cook up three each and soon everyone was stuffed full!

We also had a visit from Eduardo's friendly parents and sibling, as they lived close by and were intrigued by our living conditions. It was just after that weekend that some of our bashas started to show signs of the weather and one of the beds bamboo snapped early in the morning. Luckily the structure itself held together, so it's occupant was merely awoken early, not dumped on the ground! My basha also looked a little sketchy, with one tripod severely bowed. With the departure of Sweets however and his attached bed only used occasionally (as my comfy day bed), my bed happily managed to last the duration.

On our second week, there was a large delivery of gravel which was dumped in a big pile, by the rangers reception area. We soon found out that we'd have the pleasure of lugging this along the various trails, to layer gravel on the existing gravel, to improve the drainage of the paths. We first spent some days repairing the wooden edges and the many steps to the paths. I became a dab hand at wood sawing, to create the required stakes to secure the wood in its new position. It felt a little like déjà vous, as I was once again, carrying hessian sacks full of gravel along winding paths in a national park. This time though the rangers were involved too, some were quite sexist however and highly competitive, so there was an interesting dynamic to work with; ensuring everyone worked effectively and without any injuries.

Midway through the phase we had the pleasure of a guided tour from one of the on-site guides, who spoke English. She took us along the trail and explained the history of the site, which was at its height around 800 AD. There are a large number of mounds, which were foundations of houses; three aqueducts; tombs, which house the remains of people clearly short in stature; stone walkways and squares; plus an impressive stone paved road, which leads into the site. The civilisation that was based at the site had no domesticated animals, so impressively all of the stones laid were carried by human hand. She pointed out some of the flora and fauna too and whilst not as extensive as Carara, it was nonetheless interesting and the highlight was seeing the brightly coloured toucans swooping overhead.

As on the other phases, we were soon into a structured rhythm of work and resting in the evenings. As we were a small group, everyone got to be day leader, comms person and housekeeper multiple times and improve on each attempt. I settled into a habit too, of heading to bed extremely early. I found that by heading to bed soon after dinner and review time, I was well rested and able to be at my during the day time. Most nights I was therefore in bed by 6.30pm, but as it was pitch black by then it didn't feel odd; some days I was shattered and slept straight away; while other times I'd read until I dozed off, taking the recommendation of many of the venturers and reading the Hunger Games trilogy on phase.

During our time we were also joined for a night by the road trip; as we were only an hour from field base we weren't as isolated as I'd been on previous phases, nonetheless it was nice to see friendly faces and chat about the expedition as a whole. They took a mini tour of the archaeological site and then we went to the local shop and chatted over ice-cream. They stayed overnight, pitching their tent in the middle of our camp and lending extra hands the following morning, putting in a day of work. As a group we were very much homebodies and we didn't stray far from camp. On our final day off on phase, we decided to instead have an even fatter Sumday and perfect our empañada making skills. We were all impressed with our improved results and then topped it off with a vat of rice pudding; most being so full we skipped dinner.

Our last week on phase passed in a similar way to those before it, we planted more trees and laid more gravel; there were still more trees to be planted though and more gravel to lay, the maintenance of a National Park never ending. We were into a routine and were pretty slick, a couple of days before the end however I had pains in my left ankle, which was diagnosed by our medic as tendonitis of the achilles and would plague me for months more after. Whilst I'd relished the exercise, my ankle hadn't appreciated the added weight of big bags of gravel and I was restricted to housekeeping duties for the last couple of days.

On the up side it did mean I got to see a fair bit of one our neighbours...an oso perezoso (my favourite Spanish word), literally translating as lazy bear. We nicknamed our resident sloth Barry and he lived in trees near to our camp for a full five days. The first day he was spotted there was a lot of excitement and at the call of "Sloth sloth sloth" we ran down, soon realising however that he wasn't going anywhere fast. Sloths live in the branches for a week at a time, only descending to ground level for their weekly poop. Barry was therefore our neighbour for some days, culminating in when he'd come down to head height and unwittingly participated in a selfie session! Barry was a three clawed sloth and looked like he had a permanent smile on his face; his long claws looked rather dangerous but his cute face would melt any heart and was the icing on the cake of a lovely final phase.

I thoroughly enjoyed phase three, as whilst busy with work, it was also a very relaxed and contemplative experience in lush surroundings. Eduardo and I held final one to ones with each of the venturers, bringing to a close their participation on phase. A particularly reflective Raleigh website blog entry, penned by a member of X-Ray 4, pondered whether we'd been in a Raleigh bubble during the course of our expedition or whether our lives at home were the real bubbles. With that in mind we were soon heading back to Fieldbase, this time not for changeover but for wash up and farewells.

We finished our phase with the obligatory skit and this time we sung about our experience, with the song words written by one of our party. Once more we were not the winners of the ice cream prize, but as the saying goes, it's the taking part that counts.
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