The Military and the Turtles

“What are you doing here?” A young soldier, working as a gate sentry in at an Infantería de Marina military base near Barra de Nexpa Michoacan State, challenged me. “I’m looking for a place to camp on the beach – is it possible here?” Not really understanding my Spanish, he replied, “you want to see the turtles?” “Si” (Sure, that will do it)!

I wasn’t really sure what to expect as I entered the base. In Canada, other than during the solemnity of Remembrance Day ceremonies and recruiting shows, the military is seldom exhibited in public. I consider this to be a healthy thing, almost a luxury to have a separation between the military and the public, a society where soldiers train outside of the public sphere and are seldom used to police domestically. In Mexico the distinction is lost: the police and military often appear to go hand-in-hand, a constant presence with troop carriers passing on the road, vehicle checkpoints and door-to-door patrols. In Zihuatanejo Mexico, a modern tourist and fishing town, we watched a vehicle convoy of masked soldiers ride past us at midnight through popular alleyways hosting nightclubs and cantinas – for the locals this isn’t alarming, it’s normal. 

I had grown accustomed to this daily occurrence and was now really curious to see inside their world, as a novel and interesting experience. As I marched my bike past the gate and pushed it through the sand, I watched young men painting rocks and filling sandbags, soldiers running on the beach in olive green T-shirts, and an older man lying in a hammock – whom I presumed was an officer. I felt obliged to make my presence on base known, and so I asked the man in the hammock where I could pitch a tent. He gave me this complacent look which read – ‘I really couldn’t give a shit, kid.’ I set up camp between a military obstacle course and, oddly enough, a turtle refuge.

Aside from their mandate to protect oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico and fight the ‘War on Drugs, the personnel on this base protects turtles against poachers and seagulls – I found this strangely endearing, in a ‘benevolent soldiers giving candy to children’ kind of way. 

After I cooked and ate my dinner, I was approached by a man in a crew cut and a sharp tailored mustache who, naturally, asked what I was doing. I was shirtless and soaking wet, having just returned from a quick swim to wash off sweat, sunscreen and road scum – I looked as out-of-place as, well, as a stinky, unshaven gringo on a foreign military base could be. After introducing myself to Patricio, I learned that it was his job as a ‘marine’ to both guard and protect the turtles as he pounded his chest with pride. Zoo keeper by day, soldier by night – I thought. Instead of admitting that I had reached the end of my day, steered off the road toward an mango orchard field and accidentally ended up at his base, I said I really just wanted to see the turtles. Excited that someone had taken interest in his turtles, he whispered – “is it just you? … I can show you the tortugas.” (I had separated from Guillaume a few days prior, planning on meeting up later, and I was experiencing a kind of individualistic ‘walk-about’ as I rode alone.) We opened the gate to the turtle refuge and peeked around looking at the turtle eggs. He pointed and said, in an non-negotiable tone, that he would wake me early in the morning to release the turtles into the ocean. 

I feel asleep to the sound of soldiers on ATV’s buzzing around the beach, then awoke to the sounds of Patricio whispering outside my tent, “Hola amigo — are you ready to see the tortugas?” He was wearing a large wool sweater and pants, and was excited to show me his turtles make their first journey into the ocean. I jumped out of my tent wearing flip flops, a T-Shirt and shorts. He looked at me inquisitively. “Aren’t you cold?” It’s winter in Mexico, and I’ve been asked with this question since we entered Tijuana. I never before thought it was “a Canadian thing” – but after 2000 km on Mexican roads, I’m certain it’s a trait of people from northern climates to walk comfortably in what many Mexicans would consider almost naked. Entering the refuge, I met with the biologists (also clad in large hoodies and pants) who were documenting the turtle eggs. One of the biologists, Carlos, told me that Leatherbacks grow to be the biggest turtles in the world, then handed me the egg of one just then breaking out of his shell. I stared as this very tiny, critically endangered animal as it emerged from his shell. In my ignorance of turtles I could not at first discern him from the gooey mess in the shell, but I felt a serious sense of wonder and amazement – that something so small and vulnerable, even with the help of biologists and heavily armed soldiers, must squirm across the beach braving aggressive opportunist predators, tumble into the swell of the violent ocean full of larger marine predators, then instinctually figure out life in a world that includes a heinous human “fine dining” culture that relishes the eating of endangered species. For all the wrongs of human existence, giving turtles a little bump is a small gesture. 

I was taken down to the beach with Patricio and another soldier and we gently tipped the turtles from a small basket onto the sand. Soon, the waves swallowed these small creatures and pulled them into it’s powerful swell as seagulls watched hungrily from a distance. Patricio noted with a wink that the senoritas love the turtles – I’ve heard this logic before with dogs, but I’m convinced the ‘senoritas’ have caught on to our game. I left the water, bid farewell to Patricio and started to pack my bike.

As I packed, Carlos came over to invite me in for breakfast at his research station near the refuge. For hours we listened to R.E.M while making eggs, tropical fruit salad and Nescafe, and talked about turtles, his work in Costa Rica, and North America’s entertainment obsession with Mexican drug cartels. Eventually we said our goodbyes, and as I left Carlos threw me a pack of cookies, saying, ‘Buen Camino.’ When last year I walked a section of Spain’s Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, “Buen Camino” was a common acknowledgement of one’s journey, an expression of support and a wish for safe travels, literally “have a good road.” It’s one of my favorite expressions, and as I left the beach and the military base, I thought about the turtles and their daunting journey into the wild. Buen Camino, tortugas.