From the moment I set foot in Cuba I realized that this was going to be a challenge. From my overestimated Spanish to not being able to get cash, having limited Internet access and paying with double currency: everything seemed to be very complicated.
After spending a few days in Havana I got into a small van heading towards Guanahacabibes National Park with five Cuban university students who like me were embarking on a career in marine science. Talking to them made me realize that I would not only gain scientific experience but also really get to know everything about how Cubans live (or as they say it: sobrevivir which means literally to “survive”) in a country full of contradictions.
The beaches where we monitored the sea turtle nests were not exactly 5-star hotels but this desolate, untouched environment was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. During the day we would check the nests for activity or dig out the ones that had hatched. But most of the activity happened during the night where we would have shifts in teams of two volunteers patrolling the beaches for females or nests that were hatching. I remember the first time I saw a nest hatch, watching all these brave little turtles struggling and crawling, facing this immense challenge of getting to the water. I will admit to shedding a few tears and it made me forget all about the mosquitos or the fastidious jejenes (sandflies).
One of the things that struck me most during my stay was the hospitality of the guardabosques or park rangers, who would bring us food and take us on a ride with their mule and carriage. I cannot say our communication was fluent but I was happy I had a bottle of rum with me I could generously pour as a sign of my gratitude.
It was not until day 18 in Guanahacabibes, when we were patrolling the beach and decided to rest close to our tent and share our non-existing knowledge on constellations when all of a sudden I saw sand flying around. After a few minutes I realized what was happening: there was a female green turtle nesting right next to us. We sat there for more than two hours watching this amazing creature digging with such precision. When she finished digging and got into a trance we knew the eggs were coming. Cool as always, Randy, the University of Havana graduate student who was in charge of our beach who is doing his thesis on the monitoring program, handed me the gloves and said: “cuenta los huevos”. Even thinking about it now gives me goose bumps and I am eternally grateful to him for letting me have this amazing experience of counting eggs as they emerged from this enormous female turtle.
Leaving Guanahacabibes I already knew I wanted to go back soon. Being on the beach for 20 days living in such harmony with nature and being surrounded by wildlife and passionate young people was an experience like I have never had before. I knew this internship in Cuba would change me, but it’s the Cubans that changed me in more ways than I would have expected.