[Written in Costa Rica]
"What is that noise?" Erin looks over at the red metal door, the entrance to our 'Casita', with slight trepidation.
"It's probably Palomo," I reply, and walk over to open it.
Sure enough, there he is, the great white rescue horse, scratching his nose against the door, trying to get in.
Our Casita ('little house') sits above ground, with three big steps to get inside. That is why when I open the door, Palomo's head is level with my knees.
"He just wants a snack probably... or some love," I tell her as I reach down to pat his nose. Erin is my roommate, and the other volunteer here with me.
Palomo (the horse) is one of 14 rescue animals on the 'Planet Costa Rica' farm in a small town called Las Vueltas near Tucurrique, located 2 hours from the capital of San José and 1 hour from Cartago. I wanted to volunteer here to connect more deeply with nature, especially animals. And that is exactly what the experience provided.
Prior to this volunteer trip, I have been spending the last two decades of my life wondering how to 'save the world'. For me, it felt like a completely normal thought to plague one's mind, but it turns out it's not that normal, and it has caused a burden so heavy that some mornings I am already exhausted from thinking about it before I even get out of bed.
I grew up in a household with missionary parents, who were either hosting a refugee family in our home, planning an overseas mission trip to take, or telling us about stories of their 'work' in the past. It was not uncommon to sit down to dinner with 3-4 other children that happened to be living with us and eye each other suspiciously over our bowls of macaroni n' cheese.
I guess 'helping people' and 'saving the planet' was just hammered into my DNA. It's the reason I became a nurse. It's also the reason why I decided to live a vegan lifestyle.
I went vegan about five years ago after educating myself on the devastating effects that an animal based diet has on the human body and on the Earth. I just couldn't consciously contribute to the suffering of another being just for my taste buds when it wasn't necessary at all for my survival, and in fact was incredibly damaging to myself and the planet. I learnt that animal agriculture is the main cause of green house gas emissions (more than all forms of transportation combined) and is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction. Eating animal products (beef, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, and dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt) is directly linked to causing billions of cases of chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes (type 1 and type 2), autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, and cancer (just to name a few), not to mention causing millions of acute cases of deadly illnesses worldwide from the pathogens they carry, and now, very worryingly, contributing to this dangerous era of 'antibiotic resistance' we now face. Not only that, but these animals that we slaughter by the billions each year are all sentient beings that feel pain, are more intelligent than we realise, and want to live, just like the dogs, cats, rabbits, ect that we all keep as pets in our homes. In fact, pigs are more intelligent than dogs, and have the same level of intelligence as a 3 year old human.
I knew all of these things, and I was eating a whole food plant-based diet for these reasons, whilst also riding my bike everywhere, growing my own veggies, composting my food scraps, consuming less plastic, buying only second-hand clothing, and being more mindful of all my choices. But, I wasn't interacting with any animals, and I wanted to feel more connected with the Earth in general. So, I packed my bags and flew half way around the world to do so.
Planet Costa Rica was founded and still operates by an American couple, Patricia and Allan Nobles, who developed a strong passion for helping animals, and the planet, after decades of being vegetarian (and now vegan for the past 9 years) and learning about everything I have already written. They were already rescuing and adopting out dogs from their vegetarian cafe in western New York before buying the property in Costa Rica in 2004. Since then, they have rescued and provided a beautiful home for dozens and dozens of destitute animals who would otherwise experience a life of suffering and eventual death on a Costa Rican roadside.
While I was there, the farm was home to seven dogs (Kendall, Yasira, Indica, Freddie, Dulcita, Lenteja and Lyca), three chickens (Cafecita, Tina, and Magaly), one goat (Goaty), one pig (Gumby), one cat (Sophia), and one horse (Palomo). These animals require a lot of care, and it costs a lot of money to fix them and maintain them. Indica actually required nearly a thousand dollars worth of surgery on her crushed leg, which she eventually lost, but the Nobles did everything they could to make sure she received the care she deserves. She now outruns most of the other dogs with her three good legs and has a never ending supply of energy. I was extremely humbled to see the work that they do day-in and day-out, for every single animal, all from the good will of their hearts.
Everyday, I woke up early (like, it was still dark out kind of early) to the sounds of a rooster wake up call. I would roll over and fall asleep again for about... three minutes... before Gumby the pig started screaming in hunger, 'gently' reminding us to feed him. Then, myself and the other volunteers would get up (at 5:30am) and start all the jobs required for the morning (starting first by feeding the hungry pig of course!).
The jobs were divided and rotated among us: walking the dogs, preparing their food fresh everyday (the dogs ate a vegan diet too), taking Goaty to a spot where he could eat and then cleaning his stable, giving food to Palomo and Gumby, letting the chickens out and cleaning their cages too, and finally preparing breakfast for 'the humans', all before 7am.
Breakfast was always my favourite time of the day: a tropical fruit porridge bowl filled with the most delicious fruit you can imagine, and you can eat until you're stuffed. We always sat and talked with Allan over good Costa Rican coffee for an hour or so (unfortunately Patti was not at the farm when I was working there, as she had commitments elsewhere in Costa Rica). Allan has a dry sense of humour and about a million classic stories to tell from his colourful life. We counted one morning how many different types of jobs he's had over his 50+ years: 36. He's the definition of 'Jack of all Trades.' I also started taking a liking to one of the littlest and oldest dogs there, Freddie, letting him curl up on my lap while we talked.
After breakfast, it was time for farm work. There is so much work to be done, and it's a lot harder than I imagined. Some days, you might have to cut an entire field of weeds with a machete, or build stairs into a steep hillside with a shovel; other days, you could create a string matrix for the organic tomatoes to grow more efficiently or dig out gutters along the walkways to let water flow more effectively. Volunteers are required to work for five hours in the morning for five days straight, and can have the afternoons off and two days off during the week.
Lunch is also provided for the volunteers. Allan made us a variety of delicious and healthy vegan meals during my stay: macaroni and 'cheese', lasagna, curry, burgers.. everything was made from scratch and was so tasty ! Nothing was wasted after. Any leftovers were given to the animals or used in the compost.
When I first arrived, I was scared of the animals, especially the bigger ones, and I also tired easily from the work. But after a few days, I surprised myself, as I was able to approach Palomo and pat him on the nose (when I was running away from him before!) and I could do all the jobs Allan handed to me.
I spent my afternoons walking to town to see how the locals lived, practicing my Spanish, relaxing with a good book and listening to the sounds of the rain pattering on the metal roof above me, or playing music with Allan (an amazing guitarist) and the other volunteer, Erin, who brought her ukulele.
Some days, Allan took us to the markets, where I drooled over all the fresh fruit options, and then complained about how expensive each items was in Australia in comparison. Other days, when I had energy after all the farm work, Erin and I would go for a little run and marvel at the never ending green rolling hills around the farm.
Erin and I also had two really interesting excursions on our days off. The first involved being judges for the English Festival 'Spelling Bee' at the school in Tucurrique, which was as adorable as it sounds. We also got a tour of the local 'sugar mill' factory to see how they make their famous 'Tapa de Dulce' from sugar cane juice (which was something I probably consumed in excess while I was there), followed by a trek to the nearby waterfall!
The whole two weeks were a beautiful blend of cultural immersion and cultivating a deeper connection with the Earth. But most importantly, I was able to connect to the animals. I spoke to them like they were people, and they responded back with curiosity and affection. They knew their names. They were able to take direction. They just wanted to be loved, have food, and live in peace. Being there with them, looking after them, was humbling. I would look in Gumby's eyes, and I could see him looking back at me, and I could feel his personality and his 'being'. He was intelligent, and aware of who I was. I couldn't believe that I used to eat pigs, it made me feel so heartbroken and sick. I couldn't understand how our culture of eating animals had gone down a dark hole so deep that most people don't even question it even when they become mildly aware of what they are actually eating.
Realising this caused a deepening sorrow in my already exhausted and broken heart. How can I stop this needless suffering of billions of animals which in turns causes the suffering of billions of humans ? The irony is astonishing. There are already so many problems in the world: war, crime, corruption, violence, poverty, pain, trauma... what can one person do to make a difference? I have no money, I have no major influence... I often feel like I am merely a speck of dust in the universe.
But Allan gave me the perfect answer: "You do what you can."
You know that famous story, about the man who walks along a beach full of starfish that have washed up on the shore, and he throws them back into the ocean, one by one, even though he alone cannot possibly put all of them back in. Why does he even bother? Because the ones he can help, the ones that he saves, are forever grateful, and it matters to them that he makes the effort.
And that is exactly what the Nobles are doing. They get up every morning, help the animals that have found their way into their home, grow organic food to feed others, teach the volunteers how to do it all too... and by these actions, they are a drop in the pond, creating a ripple that will eventually, hopefully, expand large enough to touch everyone around the world.
They are looking after their little corner of the world. They are a positive example of how to be honourable and caring members of a community. They don't even have to tell me how, they show me how simply by living their life and leading by example.
Maybe that is how I save the world, by not 'saving the world' at all. Maybe, all I need to do is look after my little corner of the world, and perpetuate this ripple of change to reach others, just like they have done for me.
[p.s. what goes around comes around... so let's be kind]
[if you're interested to volunteer with Planet Costa Rica too, you can apply today ! Also, they are still adopting out their dogs which are fully up to date with all their medical needs and are extremely friendly and well loved animals that would be perfect for a loving home; e-mail email@example.com to inquire.]