I think it is safe for me to say that my most memorable experiences of my gap year have been in the Jaguar Rescue Center. Yes, I also went to Cartago for a while, but it was unlike the connections I made with people, animals, and nature like in Puerto Viejo, Limon.
Like unforgettable memories, certain people tend to leave more of an impression on you than others in life, naturally. One individual, a pioneer in animal rescue and rehabilitation in the JRC, is Nerea. She is fiery-tempered and stern with the volunteers, but always with the utmost respect and best intentions in mind. She made sure every volunteer was there because they genuinely wanted to help the animals and made sure no one slacked off. Her saying was always, “My priority is the volunteers and the animals.”
I’m characteristically an earnest and hard-working person, especially when trusted with crucial tasks at the JRC. I made sure to try my best on everything and finish diligently, regardless of whether it was shoveling horse dung, disinfecting a transportation cage, or caring for the baby monkeys. I think Nerea saw this in me. I could tell that she had a particular soft spot for me since she trusted me with more significant tasks, like becoming one of the exceptional caregivers for tiny Harvey and entrusting me with showing the ropes to new volunteers.
The most significant way she showed me how much she trusted me and cared about me was when a close volunteer friend from France (we entered at the same time), Axelle, and I had baby monkeys for the afternoon. That day, the male volunteers took most of the monkeys to the forest. I remember having Ntao on my head and Leo on my lap when Nerea entered the enclosure. A celebrity amongst all the primates at the center, the few baby monkeys immediately rushed to Nerea. She sat down on the blanket, next to Axelle and me. It was Axelle’s last day at the center, so the atmosphere was somewhat melancholic.
We started talking, and Nerea opened up about her past and how she came to the JRC. She grew up in the Spanish countryside with plenty of farm animals and horses. She admitted her youth was a bit turbulent and confused and that she came to Costa Rica in her late twenties to do surf in Puerto Viejo. She found renowned zoologists Encar and Sandro, both animal-lovers and Spanish natives like she is, and she began to work with them at their retirement-home-turned-rescue-center. She would go home and come back to Costa Rica to help at the center often, and she ended up studying animal behavior. She told us stories about how Sandro, the now, unfortunately, deceased and former co-owner of the center, was an expert in reptile behavior and taught her so many things on snakes (one of her favorite animals.) I also can’t seem to forget how she admitted that Sandro’s temper was so bad, that as her senior and mentor of sorts, he sometimes made her cry. What I got from this reflective conversation is how much of a strong woman she is for following her dreams — my already immense respect for her only grew even more extensive.
Nerea is currently a long-term volunteer and the right-hand woman of Encar, the owner. She’s an incredible woman whose big heart left an impact on mine, and her ceaseless passion for animals inspired me.