Seven years ago an American woman named Joslin Carson set out on an adventure that would change her life forever. Fed up with the careless, consumerist culture in the United States and intent on showing her daughters, who were four and six at the time, that there was more to life than their proverbial backyard, Joslin sought out a volunteer opportunity abroad. She quickly found that while there were many organizations in need, none wanted to host a couple with two young children.
“I must have applied to like fifty places,” Joslin told me, “I was looking for projects but nobody would take us because we had kids. ‘We don’t have facilities; we’re not set up for that. I was getting really discouraged.”
That is until one fateful day when Joslin received a phone call from Frank Smith, a conservationist living in a tiny Mexican pueblo.
“My phone rang and it was Frank and he’s like, ‘Yeah, you applied to this turtle camp in San Pancho. Are you still interested?’ I was, like, ‘Yeah!’ So he says, ‘When can you come?’” Joslin’s eyes lit up when she recounted the experience. It was only a short transaction, but it was the beginning to an incredible journey. “I’d never even heard of San Pancho,” she said, but that summer she and her family packed their bags and travelled from Arizona, USA to Nayarit, Mexico.
San Pancho and the Sea Turtles
Nestled between the verdant Sierra Madre mountains, the abundant jungle, and a stretch of Pacific coastline is the village of San Francisco, known by the locals as San Pancho. Its beach seems a pure, pristine oasis but, like much of Mexico’s coast, it has a dark past. What once hosted thousands of magnificent marine turtles each year had, due to massive turtle harvesting in the 1970s and ‘80s, become a massacre site. The tradition of consuming turtle eggs for their supposed aphrodisiac properties (experts say all they contain is cholesterol), along with the practice of slaughtering turtles for their meat, shells and skins had led people to poach the local population to near extinction.
In 1990 the Mexican government declared a total ban on sea turtle trade. They even converted the country’s largest turtle processing plant into an aquarium, the Mexican Turtle Centre. Despite the new legal protections for turtles, locals still coveted them. Tradition, ignorance and extreme poverty were enough to keep poachers in the game, often for about twenty-five cents an egg. However, 22 years ago Frank Smith set out to save the turtles and together with a loyal group of volunteers (Joslin told me 50% of first time volunteers return) he set the wheels in motion. It wasn’t easy – in the beginning they often received death threats – but the group helped bring the turtles back from the brink of extinction. No one knew it at the time, but Joslin was about to change things again.
A Whole New World
When Joslin and her family arrived in San Pancho, they were put up in one of the apartments Frank rents to his volunteers (it’s about $300 for the experience). She and her husband worked through the hot Mexican nights. Together with volunteers from around the world, they worked in shifts between nine pm and seven am, protecting turtles and rescuing eggs. The work was urgent (they had to beat the poachers to the nests) and arduous (they dug up and carried hundreds, sometimes thousands, of eggs from the beach to the nursery each night), but Joslin loved every minute. Her daughters came along, too.
“When we would go out on our night patrol the dune buggy [which] during the summer had this canvas cover to keep the rain off – well, my four year old would sleep up there. My six year old would ride on the seat, my husband would drive and I would ride on the fender. And that’s how we would work at night.”
Every year leaving became more difficult. “Whenever we left here,” Joslin said, “We just cried and cried and cried. Then all the time we were [in Arizona] we were wishing we were [in San Pancho].” Not only was the work rewarding, but the community was incredible. “Our kids have so many opportunities here, and I feel it’s really safe. My daughter can ride her bike wherever she wants to go.”
Eventually Joslin couldn’t stand leaving anymore. After five years of travelling back and forth, she made the decision to stay in San Pancho permanently. With the extra time, she could actively advocate for the turtles, educate the most impressionable minds (children) and raise money for the cause. Her husband didn’t feel quite so passionately. After two years of volunteering he didn’t return.
“My husband didn’t want to come so the girls and I just came by ourselves. And when we got back [to Arizona] he had someone else so that was the end of that.”
Life and Learning in Mexico
Since permanently relocating to San Pancho, Joslin’s quality of life has improved dramatically. “I love it here and my daughters love it here.” Despite disapproval from her family (“What are you doing? Your children should have a normal life. You’re not even giving them a chance!”) Joslin feels she’s made the right decision.
“It just seemed to be the right choice; it felt really natural. To see my daughter blossom – my little one that goes to school here – she can get along with all different ages in either language,” she said, beaming with pride, “I don’t think you get that in America, because it’s so segregated.”
In Mexico, the school system is totally different. Her youngest daughter goes to a small school of 32 students in the jungle.
“In the states they get tested every day and here she’s only had one test all year. It’s more hands-on and much more about building relationships with people, working together, and being responsible and independent. There’s no plastic. They have to wash their own dishes after lunch and dry them using cloth napkins. They have to brush their teeth. It’s all vegetarian and it’s all fresh. It’s really different, but I think they’re getting a much rounder education. And, “ she adds, “my daughter is happy.”
Her eldest daughter isn’t fluent in Spanish (a requirement for the upper grades) so she took homeschool instead. The community came together to ensure Starlie received a well-rounded education.
“Kimba, a volunteer from Australia, taught my daughter how to bake and knit. Now Starlie is so funny and [when she wants to bake] she’s like, ‘You can’t use mix! You have to bake it from scratch.’ She’s big into Harry Potter, too, so she’s knitting this Gryffindor scarf that Kimba taught her to knit.”
Joslin went on to tell me about Starlie’s other teachers. There was Simon, from England, who taught her yoga; Tom who taught her writing; Nico who taught her science; and some local authors who gave her writing lessons. Shannon, who owns a local t-shirt shop, even gave her free business lessons. He taught her how to write a mission statement, make a business plan, run a Facebook page and (with a loan that he gave her) manage finances. He even gave her a shelf in his shop to sell her merchandise (candles). This year Starlie returned to “real” school in Arizona. Joslin was sad to see her go, but she’s eagerly awaiting her return this summer.
Culture Shock and Awe
It’s not just school that’s different in Mexico. “People here are much more streetwise. In the states if there’s a root on the sidewalk you could sue and get so much money. Here there’s these huge holes and you’re supposed to be smart enough to walk around,” said Joslin, adding another example, “You see firsthand the source of everything. Like, the guy makes the t-shirts right in his shop and you can watch him make it. The food, you can see it made fresh. You know where it comes from.”
Socializing is different, too. In Arizona Joslin could go an entire day without seeing someone she knew. In San Pancho that isn’t the case. It’s a close knit town where everyone knows and supports one another. Her work conserving turtles and educating kids has opened a lot of doors, too.
“I love it because I get to be outside a lot. I get to meet all kinds of people and volunteers from all over the world. I go to the schools. I know all the kids and when I go through town [everyone asks], ‘Hey! How many turtles last night?’”
“The treasure of San Pancho,” she told me, “is really our community center.” At the center, called Entreamigos, kids and adults alike can take classes in anything from yoga, karate and bellydancing to languages, arts and crafts. Its director, Nicole Swedlow, operates on the principal that everyone has something to teach and everyone has something to learn. Nicole was recently recognized as an “Unsung Hero of Compassion,” an award presented to her by the Dalai Lama in Hawaii. “She’s the most amazing person I know,” said Joslin, “besides Frank.”
Perhaps the most incredible class that Entreamigos offers is circus school. Thanks to generous donations of equipment and instructors by Cirque du Soleil co-founder Gilles Ste-Croix, the children of San Pancho have put on several awe-inspiring “Circo de los Ninos” performances.
Joslin beamed proudly and she told us about all the incredible people in her newfound community. “I’m surrounded by inspiration,” she said, “You’re really interviewing the wrong person.”
Just Getting Started
For Joslin life is good in San Pancho, certainly, better than in the States. “There are so many cool things here that my kids couldn’t [have done] in the States,” she said. Granted, it hasn’t been without sacrifice. In leaving Arizona she left a comfortable lifestyle with modern amenities. She lost her husband, for much of the year, she’s even lost her daughter (this is visibly a point of great sadness). On top of which, besides a rental property in Arizona, she doesn’t have any income. So, how does she get by?
“Not very well,” Joslin admitted, exasperatedly, “We just try to make it work. Any money that we make – like, that I make for the turtle program – I don’t get to keep any of that. I need to find a way to make it work but I haven’t figured that out yet.” Considering all this, for Joslin it’s still been worthwhile. “Life isn’t easy here. It’s harder, but it’s better. Life is more meaningful.”
Joslin has accomplished a lot in her seven years coming to San Pancho. She was even a part of a huge landmark, the millionth turtle released into the ocean. Despite this, and the 20 plus years of efforts by Frank and his volunteers, the turtle population in San Pancho is still very vulnerable. Since turtles are on land when they’re born and when they return (an incredible 15 years later to the same spot!) to lay their eggs, they are essentially sitting ducks on the beach. Eggs are often destroyed by a type of beetle, soft-shelled babies are preyed on by birds and fish, and adults are still not immune to poaching. Furthermore, even a seemingly inconsequential change in temperate (2 degrees) can result in the eggs being all male, all female, or sterile.
Thanks to the hard work of volunteers, an expansive turtle nursery is available to protect eggs from most of these predators, and to maintain the necessary temperatures. And, the conservation group are the only people allowed to use a motorized vehicle on the beach, which gives them an advantage over poachers. Years of educating the locals have also reduced the numbers, and the level of hostility, of poachers. However this year Joslin is venturing into new communities where the people are less informed and where the volunteers will be more vulnerable. They need more bodies, another off-road capable vehicle, supplies and of course, money. Joslin is many things – loving mother, inspiring teacher, dedicated volunteer and, certainly, unsung hero – but she is terrible at asking for help!
So, if you have been inspired my Joslin’s story or touched by her cause please consider donating your time, money or expertise to San Pancho Turtles.
What do you think of Joslin’s story? Do you believe she did right by her children by moving them to Mexico? Do you think she deserves to make a salary for her work? We’d love to hear your thoughts!
This story is part of a series called Living the Dream about people from all walks of life who’ve made travel a priority.