Tortuguero Gone Wrong

Wet Season 2007

Traveling with a backpack, a Lonely Planet guide, and the hopes of city transportation with no concern of timeframe or itinerary was my idea of an adventure. I was traveling with one companion, and our trip had begun. While in Costa Rica we decided to venture to the Caribbean coast to the home of many rare species of sea turtles and birds. Tortuguero was in the northeastern portion of the country and received the greatest amount of rainfall annually. We traveled in the wet season to avoid overcrowding and high seasonal rates.

Our adventure began with a four-hour bus ride to Cairo, where we got off one bus and onto another older bus better described as an antique. Another 3 hours on this bumpy hot ride through flooding that challenged our buses ability to stay grounded and we were to the safety of our docks. This is where it got interesting.

Ticos (the local term for a Costa Rican) use the term “dock” very loosely. First off, there was no wood or cement structure to which to tie a vessel. Instead there were trees along a shoreline and small six to seven foot boats were tied up to a tree keeping them “secured.” The locals explained that the location of these “docks” could be hundreds of feet away depending on the amount of rainfall they had recently had. The international travelers and locals alike disembarked from our antique bus and climbed onboard to our trusty dingy with our confident captain that proclaimed that we could indeed all fit into his boat without sinking. I couldn’t help but notice that there were only a few life vests on the boat, but after all, we were in Costa Rica, “Relax”, I told myself. It took about 30 seconds after we pushed off from our tree to encounter our first major problem.

It seemed that steering wheel was not working. Somehow the connection between the one outboard motor that drove us and the steering column had disconnected. Meanwhile, the front of the boat was drifting into a section of barbed wire (why there was barbed wire in the middle of nowhere in swamp lands I have yet to figure out). Our captain’s trusty deck hand was out on the bow of the boat and noticed the wire just in time to jump over the section and grab hold of a sand bar. Once temporarily secured to the bar I looked over my left shoulder where we had almost drifted. Only to see a raging chocolate river charging the opposite direction of travel, churning with vehemence. “Ok,” I said to myself, “Now it’s time to worry.” I have white water experience and know that if we would have drifted into this raging river at the angle we were going we would have been flipped like a burger at McDonalds. The captain apparently noticed this too, because he went through the small boat and rolled open the plastic windows (which were previously blocking the rain, and would have also blocked our emergency exit in the event it rolled).

The captain also proceeded to place the few life jackets he had onto the children on the vessel. So I recapped to myself, even the captain thinks that we are going to flip. He proceeding to talk to the passengers in Spanish, “I was really wishing I had studied more Spanish right about now.” Just when I thought that I could not be more terrified I remembered that there were caiman and alligators in these waters… Then our leader devised a plan. He commanded his deck hand to hold the throttles, freeing him to climb to the back of the small boat and direct the outboard manually pushing it right or left as needed. When he needed more or less speed he simply shouted to his compadre. The moment of truth was when we shoved off of the sand bar and held our breath as we entered the furious water. The captain skillfully commanded the appropriate entry speeds and angles to keep the vessel upright. Thirty minutes of white water and knuckles later we entered a large throughway, allowing the rest of our two and a half hour journey a more cope static ride. One last hurdle was a tree branch that assaulted and broke the blade of our outboard motor. Fortunately, our captain had one spare blade (this, it seemed, was a common occurrence). He tinkered with the motor until the repair had been completed and we arrived safely in Tortuguero.

Tortuguero was more of a village than a town sitting barely above water between the Caribbean Ocean and the river-ways of the Amazon-esc portion of Costa Rica. The small hostels were inviting with a small town neighborly feel. Tortuguero had no banks or ATMs so some planning ahead was necessary. After one night in our cozy new village a stubborn storm set in that seemed as if it had no plans of ending. We spent much of the second night out in the elements with the hopes of seeing the leatherback turtle make it’s journey to shore and lay her eggs as they often did in this region. Unfortunately, the turtles had more sense than we did staying away from the storm that would have met it at shore.

The village flooded, thankfully our room was on cement blocks, however walking anywhere required rolling up your pant legs and tromping through shin to knee high murky waters of god knows what. We overheard the locals say that this was worse than it was a few years back when they evacuated the gringos; that was our cue, it was time to go. We found a resident who had a boat and offered to pay him for a ride down to Limon (a four hour trek down a canal that paralleled the Caribbean) he accepted stating that he needed to leave in 10 minutes. We made a mad dash to our room; meanwhile six other European travelers took cue and joined us for the ride to our next adventure…

5 Things Every Private Investigator Should Keep Close By

This list does not include the obvious things, like drinks and snacks, wet wipes and a his or hers wee bottle, because as I am sure we all know, the private investigator does not really have a set clock off time, because they can hardly say ‘hold on a minute, just stop your dodgy activity for five minutes, while I go and grab a drink!’ So they can end up getting rather peckish or needing the other, and it can lead to total distraction and then they missing the pertinent action. Preparation is key.

These items are listed in no particular order of preference or importance because they are all equally essential pieces of a surveillance equipment kit.

1. Global Positioning Systems are an important part of the toolkit for several reasons. You need to know where you are going to meet a client. When following a target you can see if the turn the take is a dead end, before you follow them in. You do not need a special piece of equipment these days as most mobile phones have a GPS app that you can use, although be sure to be on an unlimited data plan.

2. Binoculars are essential; however it may be in your best interest to consider having two pairs. A small discreet pair for when you are on an observation in the middle of a town centre, and a larger more powerful pair if your observation point is quite a distance away from the action.

3. Camera and tripod. The camera seems pretty obvious, but have you remembered back up batteries and a spare camera, just in case the first one breaks. You also have to decide what camera to bring, as most video cameras can take stills, it is probably best to have a couple of those to hand. Then you need a tripod. It can get pretty tiring holding a video in position and steady for a half hour at a time. Then you have the need for covert cameras. Bring as many as you have access to or at least 2, because they can be notoriously unreliable and having more than you need reduces the risk of having to explain to your client that unfortunately your covert camera went on the blink just at the pivotal moment.

4. This one is not very technical, but it still needs to be on the essential private investigator’s list of essential surveillance equipment. Sun screens for your vehicle windows serve a multitude of purposes; they do a great job of obscuring you from the view of passersby. They can also aid the quality of any photos you take, because if there is too much sunlight, then the end result might be that the focus of the picture is ill defined.

5. Technical Surveillance Counter Measure (TSCM), this is back to the technical stuff in a big way. There are different devices that you can use to complete an electronic sweep of any location in order to detect any surveillance equipment that has already been placed in your location, especially useful when a company suspects an employee of industrial espionage.

There are many other bits and bobs that would come in handy to keep in your car when you are out on an operation, not least the trusty pen and paper. The list for a complete kit is so extensive and the technology keeps updating so fast, you would need a double decker bus to keep it all in and a book to write about it all, which of course would be out of date by the time it was published!

Thumbs Up For Hitchhiking In China

Honestly, I don’t understand what’s with this prejudice some people have against China. Even telling people that I’m off to innocent Shenzhen for a weekend of cavorting with foot-masseurs and having clothes tailor-made, always elicits the reaction: Be careful!

Not only people who have never been across the border, but an astonishing number of fairly seasoned travellers in this most intriguing of countries seem to harbour an underlying worry that the great red dark Communist landmass of China is actually something to be, if not entirely avoided so at least treated with the greatest trepidation, like some unexploded landmine.
. “China is dangerous!” they wail. “It’s dirty! Everybody is a crook! You’ll get robbed! Or worse!”

Hong Kong people both of the local and beige persuasion, I feel, are strange in that they’d rather spend hours getting to the airport and go through is more and more gruelling security checks only to sit shaking in an awful plane for hours to go to the accepted holiday destinations Phuket, Kotakinabalu and Bali.

To walk dignifiedly or take a leisurely taxi to Hong Hom station and get on a train without any particular to-do with destination Somewhere in China, our closest holiday destination, almost seems like something not quite above board.

Thus, when I announced just before Chinese New Year that I would go hitch-hiking in China, I expected many a rueful warning about darkly hinted-at calamities that would befall me. But it seemed that at that stage my friends had already written me off as lost. A couple of weak quackings of “be careful” was all I got. I was almost disappointed.

As it turned out, and as I fully expected: Hitch-hiking in China beats every other means of transport, including the sacred train, hands down.

It wasn’t the first time I and my trusty fellow China-lover Lee had hitch-hiked in our beloved motherland. Only the year before we had stuck our thumbs out to great success in Inner Mongolia, stuck on the grasslands somewhere outside Hohhot and freezing our arses off waiting for a bus that never came.

We got picked up by the second car passing that day, that of a kind doctor, and driven all the way to our hotel with much exchanging of telephone numbers.

This time we wanted to see the innermost regions of Guangdong province, a province criminally overlooked by the Hong Kong tourist industry. Surely Guangdong is one of the most wondrous provinces of China and without doubt the one with the friendliest and most accommodating people. And believe me, after 18 years of extensive travel in China, that says a lot.

Because we were hitch-hiking, which is in itself a fate-inviting undertaking, we decided to leave everything up to fate. So when the bus to our intended first stop Siu Heng (Zhaoxing) in the west of Guangdong, known as “Little Guilin” due to its scraggy crags and many lakes would only leave the station in Shenzhen two hours later, we decided to get on the first bus that was taking off. It was the bus to Sei wui. (Sihui.)

After a three hour quite harrowing journey (anybody who has ever perused the “bus crashes in China-pages of the SCMP is bound to be a little wary of bus travel in China) we got off in a charming town which, despite its propensity for huge Arc De Triomphe-like structures and a screaming CNY atmosphere, turned out to be the perfect starting point for an adventure. After being told that a room in our hotel was the bar and finding ourselves gate crashing a rather large party, we were soon part and parcel of that town’s party scene and were duly invited to celebrate new year with an accommodating young man’s family the next evening.

After forcing down some wine steeped in the bosom of several snakes for a number of years we fell in with the general merry-making of the family, most of whose members were glued to the television screen throughout. As in every country at new year, China’s national and regional TV channels offer up various kinds of extravaganza during the celebrations, and we were privileged to view the spectacle of the Tibetan people welcoming the influx of Han Chinese carried into the “province” by train after endless train, giving their thanks to the government of China and to the ever protective PLA through the medium of mass dance in their festive national costume.

The next day our adventure started in earnest, in light drizzle and under a huge poster proclaiming in text and pictures that the PLA and the people of China were as one. We stuck our thumbs and chests out, and soon a car with three young guys stopped, wondering what we were doing. Didn’t we know the bus stop was on the other side of town? By this time we had learnt the term “hitch-hiking” in Cantonese, and after much discussion between them they suddenly drove off. But to us even a driving off car, having stopped, was a victory. And when the three guys came back to pick us up after having been gone for twenty minutes, we were away.

Far into the inner hinterland they took us, to meet the driver’s father for breakfast in the guys’ home village, a road with the inevitable tiled monster houses signifying that someone had come into money by foul means or fair. They had been on an adventure/whoring trip to Seiwui to celebrate the new year, and were reasonably sated. With many admonitions from the father (a communist party bigwig) about calling him at government offices at the first sign of trouble, we then bought an umbrella and hitch-hiked on. Children came running out of their houses inviting us for tea, but we had bigger fish to stir-fry.

The further away we got from big towns, the more frequently cars stopped to pick us up. Past the last frontier of Guangling and its hinter-lying charming bamboo forest and dreamy lakes, it was all systems go. We barely had time to get out of one car, forget about sticking out any digits or organs, before another car, sometimes two, stopped.

The road, meanwhile, started to give up all pretense of ever having been covered in tarmac. Only my underwired bra saved me from serious hopping injury as I was thrown about in the steering cabin of the truck that took us from …. to ….. We quickly learnt that saying “Oh, anywhere!” was not the right answer to the question of where we were going, and always picked the closest destination to where we were being picked up, as our answer.

So when on the last stretch from …. to Siu Heng, where we were planning to spend the last night and take a leisurely but scary bus back to Shenzhen on the last day, two guys in the smallest car I’ve ever seen picked us up just as we were getting out of the car of a family of three travelling around Guangdong province of a New Year, I wisely said we were going to ………., 20 kilometers down the road.

Neither Lee nor I are particularly small people and with his rucksack and my wheelie bag we had problems fitting into their car. The driver took it in his stride though but with gritted teeth I couldn’t help but notice.

We wanted to get to Siu Heng, one of the greatest party towns of China, the same day, and I was therefore Happy to glean from the guys’ conversation that they were also going there. Siuheng! That’s where we’re going too! A decidedly morbid atmosphere descended upon the car and its inhabitants. After much prodding I got it out of the driver: Yes they were going to Siu heng but with the additional weight of us on board they wouldn’t be able to drive fast enough to get there in time for work.

Oh, the Chinese penchant for hospitality! We had to beg him to let us off at the next stop so that he could get to his destination on time. They drove off, hesitantly at first and then at great speed, skipping over the many bumps and holes in the road now that 200 kilo of foreigner was got rid of.

Back in Hong Kong many people I know expressed great surprise at seeing me alive. Honestly, what are these people like? I used to swear by train travel in China but from now on, only hitch-hiking will do for me. Everything else is too slow.