Trading Summer Leisure for Counting Bugs

It was the beginning of summer. The lawn-care people began to roll around to my neighbors' houses, the ice-cream man could be heard several times a day, and all my friends started to disappear to their summer jobs making money for college. So why was I leaving on a plane to Mexico?

I was headed to the Sea of Cortez (inside the little boot that kicks off California) as a volunteer for Earthwatch, a nonprofit environmental group. I was exchanging 11 days of freedom - during the summer after high school graduation - for 11 days of "research," something that sounded a lot like school, in the driest spot in North America.

Just minutes after I arrived at the field station, I knew I had made the right decision. I gave up my TV remote for a clipboard. I slept on a cot just above the ocean's high-tide line only to be awakened by a brutally hot (though beautiful) sunrise at 6 every morning.

By 8 a.m., we 20 volunteers, ranging from teens to retirees, were done with breakfast and on boats heading for islands in the bay - Bahia de los Angeles (Bay of Angels). After practicing Spanish through joking with the native boat driver, we would get off to conduct surveys and set traps for different predators on the islands - primarily spiders, beetles, and other insects or small crawly things.

Every time I would take a measurement or collect some data, I would glance upward. The heat, the monotony, and everything else would all drain away with that one quiet glance. I would notice the sun reflecting off the red rocks in the distant mountains, or the swish of an endangered blue-footed booby bird as it dove into the water from 80 feet up in the air. Maybe this time it would be a pod of dolphins, a waterspout from a whale family, black fins of sea lions, or even the dorsal fin of a whale shark slicing through the water.

Whatever the case, I was learning more here than I could ever have at home, on a job, in front of a TV, or even in a classroom.

Each day, we would return by 1 p.m. for lunch and a heavenly siesta, where the power goes out in the entire town and everyone curls up in a slice of shade. We went out again in the evening and returned by 7 p.m. for dinner and a brief lecture by a research head. Through these talks, I discovered the impact of my actions.

We were studying these islands to find out more about predation and struggles for survival (like that food chain you learned about in first grade and those islands called the Galpagos you heard Darwin talk about in textbooks). I learned that each little bit of data I collected would be used to help further knowledge about how oceans affect life, and how life acts and reacts. My perspective on the environment changed, but so did my outlook on social interaction.

The volunteers came from across the US and the world (OK, just Bermuda, England, and Spain). Through our common goal of conversation and research, we didn't see each other as foreigners or even opposites (though it seemed we would be in any other situation). Instead, we all gained a unified label of "volunteers." We ate together, worked together, and shared sleeping quarters.

I also had time to explore a completely different culture. The small-town Mexicans had little or no access to technology or communications, yet these fisherman could predict the weather and could teach me more Spanish and communication skills than I learned in my six years of Spanish classes in school. Moreover, they were just nice people.

I would sit in the local tienda watching a fuzzy version of the World Cup and see the locals' eyes light up with mine as what looked like a ball careened toward a white, fuzzy mass that must have been the goal.

I found common ties between me, a small-town kid from Massachusetts, and old Mexican fishermen who had never seen anything outside their little marine town.

When people ask me how I spent my summer, I won't reply "I made money" or "I watched TV" or even "in some poor, small Mexican town with no running water or hot baths where no one spoke English."

No, I'll say, "I helped change the world," and I will hand them this article or an Earthwatch brochure so they can learn about it or do it themselves. Those 11 "free" summer days gave me a greater feeling of freedom than I ever had in my life. The hands-on experience with nature, culture, and research made me realize I had made the right decision. Now the only question is what I'll do next summer.

* Mike Tremblay will be a freshman at Middlebury (Vt.) College in the fall.

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