Sitting squashed in a tiny lecture hall watching the slides of the Year Abroad PowerPoint flicker before my eyes, I could never have imagined I’d soon be swapping in my white converse for a pair of muddy wellies. The decision of what to do on my year abroad was not an easy one for me. I was bombarded with endless options, countless opportunities and a million places on my bucket list I wanted to explore. Growing up in family constantly in search of different ways to explore the natural world, I decided to trade the bustling London highstreets for the chaos of the jungle.
One year later and I’m here, sat in a hammock writing this article in a small wooden cabin at a biological station at the very heart of the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, one of the most remote areas of the country. I’m volunteering for an organisation called Osa Conservation; an NGO made up of a passionate team of researchers that work tirelessly on various projects to preserve the biodiversity of the Osa Peninsula. Living here, every day is different.
I’ve only been living here two weeks and have already been overwhelmed by the diversity of the wildlife here. Being surrounded by such an extraordinary ecosystem and better understanding how wildlife adapts and survives in such a harsh and, sometimes, unforgiving environment has made me consider what humans can learn from the natural world around us and from these creatures’ fight for survival.
Faced with adversity, stop at nothing to achieve your goals
As a turtle hatchling, your odds are truly stacked against you. If you even manage to claw your way out of your nest half a metre deep in the sand, a whole host of predators await you on the surface. Hawks, crabs, raccoons and poachers are just some of the predators eagerly waiting for the new arrivals to break out of the nest. And that’s before they’ve even made it to the sea. For sea turtles, life is tough. Working with hundreds and thousands of new-born turtles, amongst the thousands of healthy hatchlings, unfortunately, you also see turtles with a range of disabilities when they hatch.
Despite having only one flipper, or being blind, every hatchling is as determined as the next to fulfil their destiny of making it to the open water. Hatchlings have such a strong natural instinct, they know their life purpose and will stop at nothing to achieve it. Like the hatchlings, don’t allow adversity to be an unsurmountable obstacle, stop at nothing to reach the open water.
Be elusive and share life’s special moments with those you love, not the whole world
Jaguars are some of the most elusive creatures of the jungle, but also the most respected. Many local people have never laid eyes on a jaguar, yet it is still considered one of the top predators of the jungle. Like the jaguar, being elusive and keeping to yourself can sometimes bring you out on top. In this social media age, when everyone’s entire lives are published for the world to see, keeping your private life and your most sacred memories for yourself and your loved ones can add value to these special moments.
Posting less online will allow you to concentrate on the moment rather than worrying about how others perceive your memories you share on the internet. Try to distance yourself from social media during life’s happiest moments with your friends and family and, instead, concentrate on enjoying the time with those you love. Just because people don’t always see your day to day activity, doesn’t mean you’ll lose popularity or respect from others. Embrace your more elusive side and hold those special moments tight.
Stop planning your life minute by minute and live in the moment
Recently there was news of a puma spotting not far from the biological station. My friends and I were hiking through the jungle trying to see it for ourselves, when one of them said something to me that really resonated with me: ‘If you’re looking for one you’ll never find it, but it’s when you stop looking you see one.’
I’m a big planner. I love to plan and I know it drives people close to me crazy. I know what I want and I will stop at nothing to make what I want happen, be it good exam results or visiting a dream holiday destination. But some things you can’t plan and I find that infuriating. Relationships, health and variety of other pivotal events in our lives are often spontaneous and unforeseeable. You go searching for the love of your life and you don’t find what you’re looking for, you stop looking and when you least expect it and the most amazing person comes into your life.
Nature teaches you to expect the unexpected, to go with the flow and it’s often when you’re least expecting it that you experience something incredible. You can’t always predict the torrential rain of a tropical storm or a sudden earthquake accurately. So stop planning and embrace what life throws your way and who knows, you might catch a glimpse of a puma after all.
Home is important, you’re allowed to be homesick
When turtles hatch, they undergo a phenomenon called imprinting. Each hatchling scrambles along the sand towards the ocean with help from the Earth’s magnetic field to find the sea. When these turtles reach maturity and mate 20 years later, the females once again use the magnetism of the Earth to return to the same beach where they hatched decades earlier. For sea turtles, home is the beach where they were born. For us, it can be a place, or the people that we love, but for both of us, that idea of belonging remains a constant tie back to a place we call home.
Of course, there are instances where I feel a strong desire to return to my home comforts that are an impossibility here in the rainforest. At home I don’t find scorpions in my bathroom, or almost tread on a toad as big as a kitten en route. At home my clothes don’t all smell of damp, and the shower water doesn’t leave you covered in goose bumps. At home there aren’t earthquakes during the night that leave the bunkbeds shaking around you.
But it’s these instances of discomfort and how you decide to tackle them that defines your year abroad. Like the turtle, recognise the importance of home, but know that even if you are separated from your family, even if it’s for 20 years like the hatchlings, your tie to home will remain as strong as ever and it is somewhere you know you can always return to.