|Marine Conservation in Mexico|
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[Last updated: 19-May-2018]
These web pages are an electronic version of a paper diary that I kept (as best I could) during a two-month marine conservation project I attended between Mar-2017 and May-2017.
After losing my job in April 2016, I took part in two international volunteer projects: marine conservation in Thailand, and wildlife conservation in Botswana; see my Thai journal (work in progress!) and my African journal. After completing the latter in November 2016, I started job-hunting; or should I say, jobs started hunting me! Coincidence? I don't know. Whatever the reason, a job would have been useful, to fund my next conservation project; wherever and whenever it might be!
At the same time, I found myself watching a lot of television programs on marine and wildlife. Over the Christmas holiday, it became obvious to me that marine conservation slowly edged ahead as my favourite interest.
I had several job applications on the go: in the UK, Belgium and Switzerland (which included two leads from two friends - thank you AC (Fr) and SR (Be) for thinking of me ), and I was fortunate enough to have been selected for a few interviews. Even though one or two of the positions were stated as being urgent, feedback was non-existent! One manager was on a business trip to the United States (U.S.), and another manager was absent because of a family illness. And, to prolong the wait, there was the Christmas and New Year holiday period!
Once the first full working week of January had arrived, I contacted the agencies about my applications and interviews. Two responses were "We are still waiting for news", one was "We didn't submit your CV" (when I was led to believe it had been!), while the others didn't respond at all! [It just goes to prove that these agencies are more interested in earning money, than looking after the candidates!]
As the days and weeks passed by, my interest in going for the marine conservation took a decisive lead. Perhaps the job delays were meant to happen, being a signal for me to do more volunteering!
When I investigated my trips last year, I looked at Global Vision International (GVI) and Projects Abroad (PA) for inspiration; PA won. This time, I decided to see what GVI had to offer. A 9-week project in Mozambique took my initial interest, as it combined marine and wildlife conservation. Brilliant! However, it entailed diving for the first 4 weeks, followed by 5 weeks wildlife. I was looking for a project where the two activities ran in parallel, not in series.
I don't know why, but my interest then turned to Mexico; in particular, a diving project in and around the Mesoamerican Reef, in the Caribbean Sea. Sounded good! Volunteers can join PA projects virtually any time, whereas the GVI Mexican project only has one start day per month. My first thought was to go for 6 weeks, but as there was a discount for advanced divers, I opted to go for 8 weeks. [The reason for the discount is that there would be no need to spend time and money learning how to pass the Advanced Open Water Diver Course; which I passed in Thailand last year.]
Flights were arranged between Heathrow and Cancún (via Miami). So too was hotel accommodation in Playa del Carmen (for both before and after my time at Pez Maya (south of Tulum). I didn't realise, but transit passengers, through the U. S., have to apply (and pay for admission (under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)), using the Electronic System for Travel Authority (ESTA) website. The whole process was reasonably simple and took me about 10 minutes to complete, and cost USD 14.00 (~£11.15).
As my departure was at 08:35 on Friday, 03-Mar-2017, I decided to book a hotel room at (or near) Heathrow for Thursday night, as getting to the airport before 06:30 on Friday, from home, using public transport, would be have been very difficult - if not impossible!
My favourite travel agent found a very good deal for me at the Thistle London Heathrow Terminal 5 (including breakfast). I thought "That would be ideal"! However, on further investigation, the hotel is located just outside the airport's perimeter road. No problem (I thought), I can use the ULTra (Urban Light Transit) PODCAR system that travels between the car park next to the hotel and Terminal 5. But once my itinerary arrived, it showed that flight BA 207 departed from Terminal 3! Fortunately, Terminals 2 and 3 are served by a Heathrow Hoppa bus service from the hotel.
At 08:35, I checked-in at ba.com (from home) and allocated seat number 45K. The rest of the day was spent checking that everything that I needed, had been packed in the suitcase, or was in my cabin luggage. After lunch. I left the house and made my way to the railway station.
The journey to the airport was very simple; a train to Reading and a bus to
Terminal 5. I used the PODCAR system to get to the hotel. [That is a
brilliant system!] I checked in at the hotel, got to my room, and relaxed
in front of the television until I fell asleep, thinking of fish and coral
in crystal clear water!
Friday, 03-Mar-2017 - Heathrow to México
I left the Thistle Hotel (after having had a quick breakfast (egg and sausage, and some fresh fruit) and managed to get the 06:07 Hoppa bus. I thought it would travel directly to Terminals 2 and 3, but it called at three or four other hotels on the way, thereby reducing my check-in time.
I checked-in at 06:50 (with my suitcase weighing 25 kg) for my 08:35 British Airways flight to Miami, hoping that the 2 kg over my allowance (of 23 kg) would not be questioned. However, the check-in assistant did her job to the letter, because I was asked to either pay £65.00 or take something out. I went for the latter option, removing my diving fins (that weighed just over 2 kg). I was assured that I would be able to take the fins into the cabin (as a second item of hand luggage) without question; even though the rules state only one item of cabin luggage! She also told me that I would have to collect my suitcase at Miami for the U.S. imigration. [Not true, as you will find out later!]
I made my way to Gate 32 in plenty of time. At 07:50 (when I thought we might start boarding), the information board indicated that BA 207 had a delay of 20 minutes. That meant, instead of 2 hours at Miami, I would have an hour and 40 minutes! Do-able, I thought. Because the aircraft was late in being taken to the gate, the delay eventually became 1 hour, due to the fact that the catering company's activities were also delayed! We started boarding at 09:15 and I quickly settled into seat 45K. We left the gate at 09:40 and for the first time in a long while, the middle seat was unoccupied! After taxiing out to the runway, we finally left the ground at 10:00! I was really hoping that the captain would make up the lost time (or at least some of it). Giving the current situation, I would only have about an hour to transfer to my flight from Miami to Cancún, including collecting my suitcase and going through U.S. immigration!
Rather than fly directly across the Atlantic Ocean, the route used the great circle route, flying over New Brunswick (Canada) and Maine (U.S.). The following three photos show the snow-covered landscape of Maine, from an altitude of 34,000 feet.
During the flight between Heathrow and Miami, I watched the film Jason Bourne, had a short sleep, and then watched The Girl on the Train. I was really confused by that film, but 'the fog partially cleared' by the time the credits started rolling up! [I need to watch it again though, if I want to fully understand the plot; because I lost it!]
If the flight was on time, the scheduled arrival time would have been 13:20 local; giving me a little over 2 hours to transfer. However, because of the delay, the revised arrival time at Miami was 14:00 local, so 40 minutes had been made. It is thought (by some Americans) that they are very polite, etc.; "How can I help you?" Well, that might be so, but the U.S. immigration staff must be the largest and most unhelpful bunch of public servants I have ever come across. Plus, the process is the pits!!! For what I thought was a quicker immigration check, there is Electronic System for Travel Authorization (E.S.T.A.) computer terminals, where, after completing an on-line form (before leaving home), passengers scan their own passport, have their faces photographed and have finger prints taken. Great idea in theory (despite the long queues), but not in practice!
I thought I could now go directly to the departure gate for my flight to Cancún. Wrong! For a reason I didn't know at the time, I was directed to the Immigration Hall, where there was an even bigger queue! I explained my time situation (for my connecting flight) to one of the 'assistants' [joke!]. All she said was that "You have to wait in line with the rest, and be interviewed"!
When my time came to be 'interviewed', I had about 35 minutes to get to the departure gate for my flight out of the U.S., which I explained to a very unhappy and unsympathetic immigration officer, but he simply wasn't interested in what I said! In his own time, he instructed me to do exactly what I did with E.S.T.A.! What a complete waste of time and effort E.S.T.A. turned out to be (certainly for me)!
I (and other people I have since spoken to) believe that the U.S. immigration system is the worst in the world! I wonder how large the server farm is that stores the information gathered from the thousands (millions?) of passengers that cross American borders every day, 365 days per year! What does the authority do with all that personal information?! Perhaps it is all passed to Cambridge Analytica! [Imagine the poor guy who has to sit in front of a computer screen, looking at, and veryfying, people's faces and finger prints all day! ]
Are you listening Mr. Trump? If there is one (quick?) thing that you can do to improve American relations (via your overly inefficient immigration system), it would be to (initially) remove all the duplicate activities, and ensure the assistants actually assist travellers; and live up to their name - assistants!!! Oh, and also give them a sense of humour and put a smile on their faces!
I eventually got through and followed signs to the Transfer and Baggage Claim areas. What a distance that was! Due to the time it took me to get to that area, the belt had stopped moving and all luggage had been stacked beside the belt, except mine! When I enquired about its whereabouts, I was informed "Oh Sir, there's no problem. It would go straight through to Cancun"! That was another time-consuming event that I could well have done without, as there is a 'short-cut' after passport control (via luggage scanners) through to the departure gates; which I was unable to use, because I was told (st Heathrow) that I had to collect my (non-existant) suitcase before immigration!
I was on my way again, but in the confusion, found myself on the wrong side of the departure gates. I asked at an Information Desk "Where does AA 158 to Cancun leave from"? "Gate 7, at the far end of the building" was the reply. "But first, you need to go through one of three luggage scanners". I went through the first one I came to, carrying my fins, coat and rucksack, perspiring profusely! To avoid any further delay, I even removed my belt and wristwatch. Fortunately, I was through without the scanner beeping at me! Unfortunately, in my rush, I left my wristwatch in the bottom of the tray; and when I realised my error, I couldn't afford precious minutes to go back and collect it!
I arrived at the gate at 15:30, which amazingly, was still open (for the 15:36 flight!). After checking-in, I walked as quickly as I could, down the passage and into the aircraft. On my way, I noticed that I didn't have my passport cover (and its contents) in my hands. Perhaps I had put it into my rucksack at the desk without knowing it. I sat down in seat 19A, only to be followed by the check-in assistant, saying "Martin, you left this [my passport cover] on the desk"! As soon as she had walked back to the front and left the aircraft, the doors were closed and we were pushed back from the gate! Phew! That is the closest I have ever been to missing a flight; and I hope it never happens again!
The flight was quite boring; flying over clouds and blue sea! After landing at Cancún International Airport, the immigration process was a lot quicker, even though there were (again) 'thousands' of passengers in the immigration hall. Despite them all, I was through in about 30 minutes.
I made my way over to Belt 9, and as in Miami, the belt was stationery and the cases had been stacked beside it; except mine! Looking for an American Airlines representative was like looking for a needle in a haystack! When I eventually found one to speak to, he informed me (via his computer) that my suitcase was still in Miami and would arrive on the next flight (at 20:30). I gave him the address of the Hotel Colorado (where I was staying for the night) and he said that it should be delivered at about 22:00.
[I can only think that the reason it was still on Americam soil was possibly because of my almost 'no-show' for the flight at Miami, and therefore it was removed from the aircraft. I'll never know the real reason!]
I exited the airport building, was met the representative from RVM Travel, took some Pesos from a cash machine and was finally on my way to the hotel in Playa del Carmen - minus my suitcase! At least I was now on Mexican soil, for the first time in my life!
On arrival at the hotel, Jack, the person I agreed to share the room with,
was already in the air-conditioned room. I was parched, so we went to
find a shop that sold water; and found one that was across the road for the
hotel [thanks Jack]. Back in the room, we exchanged experiences and switched
off the light at about 22:00, wondering if my suitcase will arrive!
I awoke just after 04:00 (09:00 UK time), with the sound of the wind and, at times, heavy rain. I went back to sleep until 07:00, when nature called! Jack and I went downstairs and joined the (seven) other volunteers, and Tommy (the GVI staff member from Pez Maya) for a 10:00 meeting. It is said that you can sum someone up in the first moments of meeting them. Tommy certainly lived up to that. Although he had a serious side (doing the meet and greet), I also saw that (for an American(!)), he had a great (British?) sense of humour. I was sure I was going to get on well with him!
I wanted to ask the hotel owner if a (my) suitcase had been delivered, but I did not need to, as I saw it parked beside the Reception Desk! Yee-haa! Let's go diving! The owner appeared and she said that her husband got up twice during the night (at 01:00 and at 04:00); the other piece of luggage belonging to Romain; one of the other voluteers (from Switzerland).
After we all introduced ourselves to each other, we walked to a nearby minibus (colectivo) and were taken to the base at Pez Maya, arriving about 1 hour 30 minutes later. So much happened that afternoon (introductions, inductions, familiarisations, exploring our new 'home', etc.), I forgot to take a note of everything. However, because of what happened at Miami International Airport, I updated my diary, while everything was fresh in my mind.
Sleeping accommodation is in one of four huts (named Amanecer, Ancla, Medusa and Naufrago), each one able to sleep six volunteers (of both sexes). I, along with a Finnish couple, was assigned to the Medusa hut. Rather than sleep in separate bunks, the Finnish couple (Annina and Sakari) decided to 'make camp' in one of the two vacant lower bunks. There was one other lower bunk available, which I was very happy to occupy; no climbing required! Two of the three top bunks were already occupied by two other volunteers; Namate (from Zambia/U.K.) and Stephan (from Canada). One of the lower bunks was occupied by Sophie (from France/Germany). After setting up my mosquito net (with help from Sakari), I nestled into my sleeping bag and quickly went to sleep!
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