I chose GVI, over the many other similar programs out there because they had the most reasonable pricing model, and they had a program semi-close to home (by that I mean on this side of the globe) that fit my needs pretty perfectly. The program I signed up for was 18 weeks long, 10 weeks on the conservation base camp, and another 8 weeks at a dive shop earning my instructor a master scuba instructor certifications. My plan was to gain some research and conservation experience because that is the area that interests me the most, but to also get my instructor certification mostly as a fall back since jobs in marine research are not easy to come by, let alone land.
From the beginning GVI was really great, totally responsive to any inquiries or issues I had. I knew exactly what to expect the entire time. Even while I was home they sent me information on the coral species I would be studying on base. There were about 50 species of hard corals, but I only learned about 10 prior to the trip. I think I may have picked up an additional 20 on the plane from Philly to Cancun, and maybe another 10 during the 3 days I spent in Play del Carmen before meeting up with GVI.
That morning I arrived at Hotel Colorado at 9AM sharp. I was the first to arrive of course, but slowly another 12+ volunteers trickled in. Most of them were gap year students, or students volunteering during their summer break, so anywhere from about 18-24 years old. I was drastically older than everyone there, aside from one older gentleman, about 60ish. That made me feel a bit better :)
Two staff members from the conservation base and the Mexico program director met us and gave us all the run down. I hadn't realized it but about 6 of the volunteers there were bound for a community based volunteer program which was based in Playa del Carmen. They would apparently be spending their time with children, the disabled, and cuddling kittens at an animal shelter. Sounds cool, but I was excited to move on to Pez Maya, where the rest of us would be spending our days scuba diving and conducting research studies on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world. There were 7 in our group, 1 from Scotland, 3 from the UK, 1 from Sweden, 1 from Switzerland, and me, and we would meet another 6 who had started their internships months prior.
It was about 2-2.5 hours from Playa to our new home in Pez Maya. We stopped first in Tulum to pickup any food we wanted over and beyond the basic meals that GVI would provide us. Nothing that needed to be kept cool though, since there was no refrigeration at camp. As we drove on from Tulum, and entered the reserve, the road became bumpy and unpaved. It honestly wasn't too bad considering it only gets maintained once a year, just after the rainy season. I heard that during the rainy season the road can become impassable pretty quickly, making a normal 2 hour ride from Playa much longer. The dirt road part of the journey is only about 12 miles long, but it takes 45 minutes to an hour to pass it. And that's when the roads are still good. Just before Pez Maya we crossed over a small bridge with a few locals fishing off the edge. They told us that that river was home to some pretty large crocs, which is why there was no swimming in the ocean within so many meters of the estuary. Apparently the crocs didn't really come out of the river, but just in case they did we should stay away. You can actually search on Youtube from "Croc chases swimmer mexico" and find a video of a stupid American tourist that almost got himself eaten by jumping off of the bridge.
Our basecamp was nestled right next to that river, wedged quite perfectly with the river to the North, the Ocean to the East and nothing but jungle all around us. Quite beautiful and peaceful. The camp had once been a fishing village, but was abandoned after a strong hurricane. It bounced from owner to owner for a few years until it fell into the hands of GVI somewhere around 2005. The original concrete structures are still used by GVI. There is a main communal building with a kitchen and a few other rooms, an office for staff and an equipment maintenance room. Then there are couple of groupings of small huts, one group by the beach where the staff sleeps and another grouping in the jungle were the volunteers sleep. Any electricity we enjoyed was provided by solar power and generator, usually we would get a few hours of light in the evening. Drinking and cooking water was delivered once or twice a week, but all other water for showering and such was rain water from a well below the communal building. Toilets were bucket flushed, cleaning water for dishes and stuff was pulled from the well and then purified with a bit of bleach, and for showers you would fill your bucket from the well, carry it into designated showering areas in the woods and cup it over your head. We had running water only in the kitchen, and that was from a cisturn on the roof that we had to fill once or twice a week from the well by forming an assembly line of sorts and passing buckets. This system was fine by me for the most part. The only thing that creeped me out was when at some point the well started to smell, and they pulled a dead, bloated iguana carcass from it. Apparently it happens often, but all I could think was how many showers did I take with the dead iguana water!
The huts we slept in were very basic. Just a concrete room with 3 bunks, and screened windows and doors.Each of us also got one of those plastic storage bins to put our stuff in. When it rained, most of the huts flooded, so it was a good ideato keep your stuff in those bins or off he floor. The biggest problem with the accommodation wasn't the uncomfortable mattresses, or the mice and scorpions that would surprise us now and again, it was the location of the huts in general. The volunteer huts were in the middle of the jungle, so there was not a breeze to be had, which was horrible when it came time to sleep. So many nights were hot and sticky. There were nights I tossed and turned all night. I would think about ditching the huts for the hammocks which were hung right out on the beach, but others had done it before me, and you end up getting eaten alive by sand flies. The only solution seemed to be to sleep in the least amount of clothes possible, sprawled so that you didn't have skin touching skin anywhere. Many nights I slept just about naked and just made sure to wake up before everyone else in the room so I could dress :)
I had 3 roommates in my hut. Alex from the UK, Betty from Switzerland and John D from the US. Everyone for the most part got along great. It did take a little while for a few of the old volunteer group to warm up to us, and even some of the staff. I think it was just because the dynamic of the old group was really good, and many of them had just left, so those that were left and even some staff members were bummed out. It actually took about 3 weeks to a month for the whole group to really start coming together. You kind of have to, living in these conditions and working together every day to keep the place running. I'll get more into that in my next post.
I'm realizing that maybe I am making the place seem kinda horrible, but it honestly wasn't. I am mentioning some of the rougher aspects of the camp because that's what made the experience of it so great. It was simple and remote, but also beautiful. It was kinda nice to live without electricity and wifi, and even water. All of these things are just a given at home. Things that we don't even think about. While a nice warm shower was probably the comfort I missed the most, I was amazed that I could actually shower with just a single bucket of water. It really puts into perspective how wasteful I was at home. Also, we found that we could enjoy a warm shower now an then by getting our water from the well earlier in the day and leaving our bucket in the sun for a few hours. So things weren't so bad, and the experience was quite interesting. I'll take a hut on a secluded stretch of beach, and diving on uncrowded reefs any day over wifi and being glued to my smart phone. And, when we were really in need of a real shower, or wifi, we could always travel into the cities on the weekend for some creature comforts.