Thursday, October 6, 2011

Cocos Island: The Role of a Volunteer - William Henriques


Guillermo Hernandez


When I first showed up on the island, I was the “problem volunteer”. It wasn’t that I didn’t get along with the rest of the Wafer Crew, I wasn’t blasting music late into the night, and I’m not a slob. It was simply that my status as young, non-Spanish speaking, unskilled worker gave me a certain reputation. I’ve got summer-job-level experience when it comes to construction, and I took wood shop in high school and that pretty much sums up the inventory of my technical skills. So I couldn’t be placed on motor repair duty. I was useless in the vehicle maintenance department. No help in the kitchen, since it would take more time to explain what I was supposed to do than it would to do it. And I certainly couldn’t take inventory - that’s entirely in Spanish, and I wouldn’t stand a chance. So where to put me? I imagined the funcionarios talking late at night, debating whether or not they should just send me back to the mainland on the next available boat.

But, they figured it out by day three; they stuck me with Guillermo (the volunteer, not the funcionario) who had been assigned to organize the bodega, which was in a sorry state. Plenty of work there for William, the “problem volunteer”.

It’s the best thing that’s happened to me; Guillermo’s been the ideal teacher and mentor. He embodies the Pura Vida way of life. His patience is limitless when it comes to dealing with my poor Spanish. His impish grin and devilish sense of humor make my days infinitely amusing. At 62, he walks with a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye, and works steadily the day long, often breaking into song with a surprisingly beautiful, resonant baritone.

Guillermo’s here with his wife of six years, Vilma Mora (that exquisite pinto chef I mentioned in my last posting). The two of them are here for a month as volunteers, Vilma in the kitchen, and Guillermo wherever he’s needed. They leave on Sunday, returning to their house outside of Garabito, in the province of Puntarenas. I’ll be sad to see him go. He’s knows a little bit of everything, has the mind of an inventor. He’s always looking for better ways to do the work we’re doing, always innovating, using the materials at our disposal in unimaginable ways. He’s got a constant eye out for pieces of scrap wood that would make nice handles for the various hammer and spade heads collected in the upper shop. He’s the one responsible for our evolution as hook-processors. His back was getting tired from hours of sitting on end, so he ferreted around the station and found an old plastic bucket seat, and an old boat part, and bolted them together to create a relatively comfortable, straight-backed chair to work in.

Walking back down to the shop where we are separating hooks and gacillas after this afternoon’s coffee break, a light mist falling, illuminated by golden low-angle sunlight, Guillermo commented to me “Es bonito, el trabajo que nosotros estamos haciendo.”

It’s beautiful, this work we’re doing. Beautiful that we’re able to give back to, to contribute to this magical place. Cleaning the bodega, landscaping, maintenance, this work with the hooks and gacillas. It’s vital work. The fact that I’m here, that we’re here as volunteers, doing this kind of work, it means that the funcionarios don’t have to do it. They’re already understaffed, and to have us here, doing this day-to-day, maintenance type work, it means that the funcionarios can do the work that’s really important - the patrolling, the conservation of this beautiful place. That’s the really important piece.

I couldn’t have asked for a better workmate, teacher, or friend, and though I’ll be sad to see him get on the boat with Vilma on Sunday, he leaves me with this incredibly invigorating, refreshing thought: This is crucial work, the work I’m doing. Even the “problem child” can contribute here, because if I’m doing the maintenance work, the quotidian, the mind-numbing, it means the funcionarios don’t have to. It frees them, enables them to devote their limited resources to the real problem: ending the poaching and preserving this irreplaceable and singular place.

And as Guillermo said, that’s the most important piece.

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