Sunday, 21 April 2013

Pura Vida!

"Pure Life" on the Nicoya Peninsula

I was very reluctant to get out of bed. And it wasn´t so much because it was 5am and I was exhausted from 7 days of cycle touring. But rather because it was the beginning of the end of our overseas adventure, and that for the next 5 weeks I would be without my trusted travelling companion and wife (same person). But I still had things to look forward to on my journey home, and it was the thought of this that overcame my sleepiness and got me on the bus to the airport.

Lily shares the Stewart family appetite
My first stop was Sydney, where I was to spend the weekend with my brother Mark, his partner Jude, and my neice Lily. I had last seen them all 18 months ago, when Lily was just a baby. Now she was a walking, talking little girl, with bags of personality. Lily was shy and silent at first, but soon found her voice, and I felt very much part of the family. Although I only spent 2 days with them, it was a typical family weekend, spending time both at home and down the beach, and I will remember my visit fondly.

No time for dawdling, I then flew NE over the Pacific, to spend the next two days of my journey home at my Uncle Fred´s and Aunty Joyce´s home in Orange County, California. We had visited them last summer whilst we were in the states, and it was funny how much it felt that I had come home - everything was familar. But these two days were a little more hectic, as I had already lost half a day having had to fly unexpectedly via San Francisco, and the remaining time was mostly spent shopping for essentials for my next destination. But it was never-the-less nice to see them both again.

Thus began a rather extended journey that took me from Los Angeles to the surf town of Tamarindo, on the Nicoya Penisula of Costa Rica. In an effort to get the cheapest possible air fare (are you really surprised), my flight to Costa Rica took me first to Las Vegas, then to Dallas, then to Fort Lauderdale before finally landing in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. My first few hours were spent in the airport, catching up on sleep and wasting time, until my tourist shuttle was due to depart. I arrived in Tamarindo in the late afternoon, somewhat dazed and confused after a 36 hour journey.

Sunset in Tamarindo
Tamarindo is considered the surf capital of Costa Rica, and a snesible base from which to start my surf adventure. My first sight of the waves of Costa Rica was a bit of a disappointment, as a sea breeze was blowing on shore with full force, obliterating the normally reliable surf. So I spent my fist afternoon shopping for a surf board. Tamerindo is chock-a-block with surf shops, so I didn´t have trouble picking up a half decent short board for a reasonable price of $220.

Although considered the surf capital of Coast Rica, this is perhaps from a beginners point of view. The water just out from the town is blessed by a mellow learners wave, but consequently the water is packed with kooks (trainee surf dude), and the waves lack the spunk that more advanced surfer such as myself are seeking. However, 20 minutes walk south of town, or 40 minutes walk north, there are more advanced surf breaks, and it is here that I spent most of my time in the water. The walk north along the beach to Playa Grande is a bit of a hike, but the waves there are much bigger than those close to town, and they look like they have been made by a machine. Perfect A-frames peel onto the beach, time after time after time. I had been warned about the localism at this popular spot, but was still taken aback when on my first visit there I saw a full on first fight, first in the water, then in the shallows, as some local goon tried to drown a fellow surfer. Once the poor victim had stopped fighting back, the goon then set about smashing the guys board to pieces on the beach. It was such a shameful thing to witness.
Helps me get traction!

My routine whilst in Tamarindo was to rise with the sun at around 5am, and wolf down a quick breakfast. If I could be in the water by 6am, then that gave me a good 3 hours before any sign of a sea breeze would be likely. I would return to the hostel for a second breakfast, and then probably chill by the pool until around lunchtime. If I had any jobs to do then I would pop out after lunch, before a bit more pool time. I would plan to be back in the water around 4pm, which gave me 2 hours of surfing before the sun went down, which i witnessed whilst out on the water on many a memorable occasion.
I ended up spending 10 days in Tamarindo, which was much longer than I had anticipated. This was in the most part due to the unfortunate timing of Samana Santa (Easter), during which the entire country heads to the beach before the public transport system shuts down for the long weekend.

Typical dry scrub landscape of the Nicoya Peninsula

Once the weekend was over however, I left Tamarindo for a surf spot enthusiastically reccommended by the hostel owner, who himself had just returned from there. He raved abut the surf at Playa Maderas in southern Nicaragua, where the wind blows offshore all day, due to the close proximity of the massive Lake Nicaragua. The consequence of this offshore wind however, is that the sun warmed surface water is blown out to sea, and replaced by chilled water from the deep. I had experienced the dramatic temperature change when the wind blew offshore for a couple of days whilst I was in Tamarindo. Overnight, the sea temperature went from bath water to pond water, and I struggled to spend more than 30 minutes in the water at any time. I had prepared for this Nicaraguan temperature change by picking up a cheap (and badly fitting) wetsuit, which made the surf bearable if a little less enjoyable.

Hostel Clandestino

Playa Maderas is wonderfully undeveloped, and most people who surf there prefer to stay 12km away in  tourist friendly San Juan del Sur, and catch the surf shuttle out to the waves each day. But I was keen to surf the waves at dawn and dusk, and was not put of by the lack of facilities. There are two basic hostel-restaurants on the beach, but I opted to stay slightly up the hill, in beautiful tree house Hostel Clasdestino. The waves at Maderas were very different from those in Tamarindo. Here, the beach is quite narrow (making the water feel more crowded) and the waves aren´t so clean. It took me a couple of days to get a feel for the place, but once I had, the waves proved to be a bit more meaty than those in Tamarindo. After 4 days here my body had got used to the water temperature sufficiently to allow me to go out without a wetsuit, but I still craved the bath time of further south, so set off to find some waves down there.

Hollow waves at Playa Maderas

My destination from Playa Maderas was back into Costa Rica, and further down the Nicoya peninsula, to the area known as Nosara. The further down the Nicoya Peninsula you travel, the worse the roads become, and the last two hours of the journey to Nosara was on bumpy unsealed roads that filled the bus with chocking dust. I arrived in the dark in a battered state, having missed my stop and requiring me to hitch a ride with a rucksack and board bag of a guy on a motorbike with no headlights. Oh what fun!

Wild beach of Playa Giones

I was staying at a hostel next to Playa Giones, the beach with the most consistant surf in the area. There are always waves here. But that is not to say they are any good. My first impressions of the surf at Giones was not great. A massive beach with peaks breaking all the way along, apparently at random. The bigger cleaner sets would break maybe 100m out back, and this made for a punishing 5 minute paddle marathon to get out there. And  a constant set of rip tides would either pull you along the beach or further out back. However, after a few days I started to figure where the waves were better (follow the crowds!), and one particular morning session where I caught 5 long rights back to back, I was in love with the place. It was here that I caught perhaps my biggest wave ever, a short left at possibly double overhead (i.e. a twelve foot face), and all captured on my GoPro adventure camera.

Another highlight of my time in Nosara was the rodeo. The Nicoya peninsula is traditionally an area of cattle ranches, so the rodeo offers a chance to see the real Costa Rica, undiluted with tourist trash. And what a great experience it was. Health and safety dpeartments in the UK would have a heart attack, but by far the best seats in the house are those actually on the fence of the main enclosure, up close and personal to the action. The main activity at the rodeo is the riding of the bulls as they are released into the enclosure, bucking and kicking as they go. The riders risk snapped necks from the voilent bucking they encounter, but perhaps of greater danger comes at the moment of dismount, which must be done cleanly and quickly. But it´s at this point the real fun begins as those spectators brave (read drunk) enough run into the enclosure and attempt a game of tig with the bull. With so many spectators in the ring, the bull struggles to lock onto a particular target, but occasionally he picks his man out and charges. The spectators scatter, so heading for strategically placed narrow doors in the enclosure, others taking running jumps up the wooden slats. The bull will often run round the edge of the enclosure, requiring everyone to lift their legs clear of his horns. But one time as a bull approached us on is tour of the ring, he decided to start bucking again, with his hinbd legs reaching 10 foot in the air. At this point lifting our legs wasn´t enough, as we quickly struggle to stand on the top woodne slat of the fence, a difficult manouver with a beer in one hand and a camera in the other. So close was this encounter that the girl next to me got swatted in the face by the bulls tail as he went. On hand in the enclosure are two cowboys, who expertly ride their horses around ready to come to the rescue. The skill with which they throw their lassoos has to be witnesses to be believed, with backhand throwns behing their heads whilst galloping at full pace past the bull.
Myself and friends quite literally sitting on the fence!

I moved on from Giones with one week of my adventure left, heading further down the peninsula still, to the surf village of Santa Teresa. Originally just a simple fishing village, surfers discovered this place over 20 years ago, and surfing is now the be all and end all of the town. Spread out along a dusty road parallel to the beach, Santa Teresa is blessed with atleast 4km of quality beach breaks. This place is as close to surfers paradise as I think you could find. The dry brown landscape encountered in all of my previous stops finally gives way to lush green palm trees lining wonderfully clean sand. Morning surf sessions here are amazing. With no widn the water takes on an oily texture, and its the most beautiful sight to look up and down the beach and see peak after peak of waves barrelling in.

On our first day here the waves were too big to be surfed, closing out in 10 foot dumpers. I watched a guy paddle for a full 20 minutes trying to cover the mear 50 meters to get out back. He never made it, but did end up half a mile further north along the beach for his troubles. With the surf too big for most mortals, I opted to rent a quad bike, and along with 3 friends from the hostel, we explored the rough dirt roads along the coast. The quads allowed us to reach a popular attraction in the area, a series of three swimming holes, each connected by a waterfall. A ten meter jump from the top to the middle pool provides the adrelaline rush missing from the day.

Me in freefall!

I´m writing this blog on the afternoon of my last full day in Costa Rica. I will be getting up at 5am tomrrow to have my last surf (the forecast suggests it should be a good one), before I have to sell my board and catch a shuttle back to the airport in San Jose. I´ve got a full day in the States on the way home, where I hope to make it to the Kennedy Space Centre, but all being well (or not, depending how you view things), I´ll be back in the UK on the morning of Wednesday 24th April. I hope you´ve enjoyed reading about our adventures as much as we´ve enjoyed having them, although perhaps that´s a bit much to ask.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Surgery in flip flops

A month as a Cook Islands vet at the Esther Honey Foundation

I was apprehensive as I left Auckland for the island of Rarotonga, one of the Cook Islands in the midst of the bright blue South Pacific. It wasn't because I was on my own or because I was heading to a new country- it was because I was about to be a vet again. I tried to reassure myself that all the veterinary knowledge and skills I'd left behind when I gave up my job in small animal practice 18 months ago must still be there...somewhere. I hoped that they were just very dusty, and that I'd be able to brush them off and feel like a vet again, but there was a real fear that I had genuinely forgotten it all.

In Rarotonga airport a man with a floral shirt and straw hat was playing a Ukelele and singing to welcome the newcomers to the island. It made for a nice chilled out arrival to a country, and Rebecca, a vet nurse and fellow volunteer, was waiting to meet me. Even at midnight it felt very hot and sticky as we drove the short trip in the dog-hair covered car, and I wondered how I'd cope with working in this humid 32 degrees.

Ginger kittens- my favourite!
Arriving at the clinic immediately brought back that long forgotten but distinctive smell of all vet practices, a mixture of medical cleanliness and animals. It was a messy little bungalow situated in a garden full of barking dogs attached to trees. This would be where I would live and work for the next month. 
There may have been palm trees, but this was no tropical haven. Next to the island road, close to the runway, and surrounded by a yard full of barking dogs and crowing cockerels with no sense of dawn timing. I asked Rebecca, 'How do you sleep?'. The answer came 'You don't'. I was at least relieved to be able to hear the waves on the reef- a welcome addition to the cacophony. Having the sea so close would prove to be a real blessing!

Posing with some of our patients
The Esther Honey Foundation is a charity animal clinic, the only veterinary practice in the Cook Islands. Treatment is provided free and the place is run by a constantly changing group of volunteer animal lovers, mainly vets and vet nurses. Most of the fund raising is carried out overseas, and volunteers come primarily from Australia, New Zealand, and particularly the UK. I was taking up a 'Senior Vet' position, which felt a bit of a joke given how long it was since I'd held a scalpel blade, and added to my first day nerves. 

The current set of volunteers were Michelle, an Australian vet of my age, here for 6 months, a Danish vet student Julie, and 4 vet nurses- Kiwi Tracey, and British Rebecca, Angela and Rachel. All girls apart from Gregg, the clinic director, and all working hard together in the heat to care for, feed, clean and treat the large collection of dogs and cats.

The outdoor hospital
The patients lived in the yard- in a set of hospital pens under the shade of a corrugated iron roof, a few kennels and cages scattered around the garden, and on a number of chains attached to palm trees. 
Among the animals here were two dogs with gunshot wounds, RTAs hit by cars and scooters, anaemic little kittens mewing mournfully, and three cases of fish poisoning. 
Then there were all the strays- adult cats with one eye (always hard to rehome), gangs of kittens, and dogs dumped here when their owners left the island for overseas. They were all desperate for attention, wagging tails and whining hopefully if it looked like you might be coming their way.

Are you quite sure you want to castrate me?
It was clear from my first rounds, talking through the cases in the clinic, that there was plenty of work to be done here. I tried to imagine what would happen without Esther Honey, and I knew a lot of these animals would be dead or dying painfully in some corner of the island. 
I may have been nervous about my own role here, but I was really glad to be part of this team, doing the good work we were doing. It was also fantastic to be back working with animals! The reason I'm a vet in the first place of course, but I've hardly even handled a dog or cat for months. Without exception the animals were gorgeous and deserving of all the help we could give them. Unlike some pets back home, they were incredibly accepting of anything we needed to do. It was like Mr Miagi the dog was saying 'Pick pellets out of the massive gunshot wound that's blown away half my neck? Okay then, if that's how you want to play with me, go right ahead'.

Lucy, a suspected fish poisoning case
Fish poisoning dominated the medical cases, and was something I'd never heard of before I applied to come here. I had been helpfully educated about it and given information and protocols for treatment before I arrived. Properly called Cigatuera toxicosis, this is a poisoning caused by eating certain fish from the coral reef that surrounds the island. It can happen to people too and is found in various tropical regions of the world, but dogs and cats are particularly susceptible. The effects are horrible, and can include a paralysis of the whole body. It isn't fatal and almost all cases will eventually recover, but only with weeks and even months of treatment and dedicated nursing. If we weren't here, without doubt many of these animals would die. At the moment we had Jango the dog, and the badly affected cats Vicky and Shrek.

Vicky having hydrotherapy
These three patients took a lot of time, requiring syringe feeding, regular turning, washing and grooming, physio and hydrotherapy. They were sorry sights, but despite being unable to move more than their heads, the cats would still purr quietly as you handled them. Jango the dog wasn't quite as badly affected, and he would attempt to get up, wobbling and bashing himself against something before he tried to rise again. It was hard to see animals like this but I kept the words that I had been sent in my head; 'Try not to give up on these cases, even if they seem to be going nowhere, as almost all will eventually turn the corner and start to improve'. I just hoped that would happen during my month here.

Hydrotherapy, South Pacific style

Tracey and I took Jango down to the sea for his first session of hydrotherapy. He was a dead weight in Tracey's arms and his heart was beating fast as we lowered him into the water, his eyes showing his trust in us, but tinged with apprehension. I worried he might think we'd taken him down there to drown him, and we gently reassured him. Carefully supporting his body we immersed him in the water, gently swaying his legs. There was no movement at all. We flexed and extended his limbs for him, willing life back into his muscles, but to no avail. It was much the same for Vicky the cat- we gently held her in a bowl of water, swishing the water over her skinny little legs.

Kisses from the 3 legged pup Boston
But as the days went by, things started to change with these fish poisoning cases. The cats raced each other to lap at food rather than have it syringed, then eat mush while their heads were supported, and then hold their own heads up for proper meals. They began to turn their necks and try pathetic attempts at grooming. Yesterday Vicky overtook Shrek's recover, and walked for the first time. Her forelimbs are slower to improve than her hindlimbs which gives her a comical Bambi like stance on rigid splayed legs. She falls over a lot, but she has quite clearly turned the corner, and sits in her cage looking almost like a normal cat. Meanwhile Shrek has started to use his forelimbs to pull himself up the cage bars. I think he's doing his own pull ups to speed the returning strength and function of his limbs, and to avoid the hydrotherapy pool.

Jango starts to swim for himself

On Jango's second hydrotherapy session in the sea he started to kick his legs, and then all of a sudden, over just a couple of days, he was walking, swimming, barking, wagging his tail. His owners came to pick him up and his excitement at seeing them, yapping like a puppy and tail wagging at full speed as he ran to the car, was ample reward for our time caring for him. In these cases it's not medicine that saves the animals, but TLC, and we have plentiful supplies of that!

Getting back into surgery
As for my own role, I needn't have worried so much. It helped enormously with my initial confidence crisis to have such patient and brilliant nurses for my first couple of ops, but within a few days I was feeling like a vet again. It turns out that even 18 months away isn't enough to make you forget! 

There's a real sense of team spirit here, with everyone working together to make sure all the animals are cleaned, fed, medicated and cared for. Consults and surgeries occur on a fairly ad-hoc basis, with people sometimes turning up at 2pm with no appointment and 5 cats they want neutering. This afternoon please. Esther Honey is obviously keen to neuter as many island animals as possible so we try to fit in as much surgery as we can.

Consultations can be interesting. Normal strategies don't always work too well, with questions as simple as the animal's name and age often drawing blanks ('Oh, this one might be Blackie. Or maybe Snow White', when the dog in question is neither black nor white!). There's sometimes not a lot of point trying to go into details of how much it's drinking or how long it's been ill.

Dinner time!
Some owners are very loving and come to visit pets who are clearly part of the family, but others leave us wondering. It is quite common to have ill animals left here, seemingly forgotten. We get them better and then ring the owners with the good news that their pet is ready to go home. Maybe a few days later they turn up. Perhaps it's 'island time'. 
We worked hard to save little Jessica the puppy, who came in critically ill, weak and anaemic. When she'd turned the corner we phoned her owners every day to come and get her, only to eventually discover they'd moved to Australia!

Jessica feeling poorly
I've had some memorable cases in my month here, like 'Tintin' the cat, a stray found with his whole head wedged firmly inside a tin can. To make matters worse he'd also been caught by a dog while in this state and shaken, causing fractured ribs and emphysema. He must have been petrified, and was well on his way to dying of dehydration and starvation, so it was very rewarding to free him, treat him and watch as he went from having a huge swollen, distorted and bruised purple face to looking like a cat again. There have also been some funny moments, like the call out to an attacked dog that turned out to be a perfectly happy goat! I've stopped expecting people to come in with a cat basket, most animals arrive here cradled in one arm, the other hand driving the scooter!

The clinic runs entirely on donations, and we try to be as efficient and inventive as possible with the resources we have. It has been an opportunity for me to get to know many alternative drugs and try to work around problems using what we have available. Many of the medical supplies are donated, often less commonly selected drugs in bizarre concentrations, given to us as they have expired and would no longer be used in practice. This creates an eclectic array of medicines to choose from, although there's always something appropriate. It will feel like luxury to go home to a well stocked practice with, among other things, more than one anaesthetic circuit, paper towel and different size needles, catheters and syringes! We always have a long wish list, and anyone in practice reading this may be able to help - please visit

After work drinks!
I have loved my month here as a 'honey'- it's been hard work at times but often very rewarding, and I always feel proud to tell people I meet around the island that I volunteer at the animal clinic. Locals and tourists alike are very grateful that we're here and it's nice to feel part of the island community. Although I did get one comment, 'Is that why there are so many dogs with 3 legs on Rarotonga? Do you vets come here to practise surgery on them?'!!

It's definitely going to be hard to leave, and I've even started to sleep through the nightly chorus of whining, meowing, barking and cock-a-doodle-doos!