Women Of Akumal – Part 6
A SERIES ON WOMEN LIVING SOLO IN THE AKUMAL AREA
Her Happy Place
There is a strong smell of marijuana as we approach a house on a popular stretch of beach where Green Turtles like to nest near Akumal – so much so I almost feel a buzz myself! The music is blaring, people are shouting, and girls are dancing in bikinis. White light from the house and cell phones lights up the beach and shoreline, exactly where a 160kg (350lb) Green Turtle is looking to lay 100-150 eggs and continue the life cycle of her species – a species that is endangered. The mother turtle turns back to the sea, confused by the light and the noise. If this is a repeat attempt to lay, she may abort her eggs at sea – a serious loss to the ecology of the area.
Walking up to the group, one of the bikini-clad millennials asks, “Are you the Turtle Lady?” My companion calmly replies she is and begins the same speech she has given party-goers a hundred times over in the past eight years of working with the turtles. She speaks in Spanish with her Oklahoma accent and they listen attentively. She is politely thanked, then the party-goers continue their celebrations, some changing their actions to be cooperative, others not. What can she do but turn away and move on to the next dilemma?
On the evenings I volunteer to work the turtle program, I witness home owners, renters, and poachers who hardly allow her to get the words out – these are the difficult ones. These are the people with whom she has run-ins multiple times in a season, who care not about the plight of the turtles, the environment or the human impact on it, and by whom her words are ignored. I learn that if anyone poses a direct threat to the nesting process, a phone call will be made to police, who may or may not show up to investigate and intercede.
This year, because of Covid-19, paid employees are not working on the beaches, so she and her small team of volunteer-tourists (mostly expatriate residents in the area) are doing the job of many. This year she is acting as the beach coordinator as well as the Voluntourist Leader, which means she is working as a tortuguera, administrator and equipment person. She is organizing schedules, training new volunteers, answering endless emails, and then there is the paperwork. Out on the beaches six nights a week from 9pm to 2am, returning in the mornings from 5am to 8am, and then again at mid-day, leaving very little time to do the administrative tasks, let alone sleep; she is volunteering hours beyond what most of us can imagine. At 64 years of age she has reluctantly taken on the role of boss, whereas she would prefer to work only a couple nights a week as one of the Voluntourists – less responsibility and more time for herself.
In a normal year CEA (Centro Ecológico Akumal) organizes volunteer university students and utilizes paid employees such as biologists, ecologists, and tortugueros/tortugueras (nationals who are specially trained as turtle ‘technicians’) to work with the turtles. With the federal government shutting down these types of activities, and without her and her team of Voluntourists, the turtles would be on their own this year, nesting on the beaches as they have for a millennia.
What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, thousands of years ago there weren’t tourists swarming the beaches at night for a chance to see baby turtles making their way to the sea – babies that get stepped on, crushed to death, or pick up and handled, which can be dangerous to their health. A millennia ago there weren’t tourists walking up to a nesting mother to snap photos of her eggs, spooking her which in turn can cause her to abandon the nest and abort undelivered eggs. Noise from humans in the form of voices and music can be equally disturbing to the turtles. A millennia ago there weren’t pool or yard lights, or the glaring indoor and outdoor white light from beach properties that cause disorientation. Upon hatching, baby turtles gravitate to the brightest light – before humans the brightest light was the moon. Today, artificial bright lights cause confusion and attract the babies to danger. They end up in pools – a sure death sentence unless rescued – on roadways and walkways where they are crushed, or in bushes where raccoons and other predators will feast on them alive, typically removing their heads and leaving the rest of the body to rot on the beach. A millennia ago there weren’t poachers digging up freshly laid nests, scavenging to sell them at a high price to people who see them as a tasty aphrodisiac. This year, due to job loss caused by the pandemic, people are hungry, and sometimes the only food available is an easy dig on the beach. The dangers are numerous.
Born in Oklahoma City, she has always been adventuresome. After high school she started working as a waitress and a bank teller instead of going to college. Later on, going into management at high-end dining rooms was a step towards making her entrepreneurial dreams come true. In the 1970’s there were “drugs and more money than people knew what to do with … I was able to stay out of the bad side of it … and … always be the momma”. This leadership trait helped her to capitalize on her position at work as she moved into an esteemed management position with the Marriott Hotel group in 1986.
There she met the man she would eventually marry, and who would be the father of her daughter. Together they worked towards her next dream. She opened Roz’s Diner in 1989 and had a thriving breakfast and lunch business, but “life has always thrown me huge curveballs”; she divorced when her daughter was two years old. She sold the restaurant and went back to work nights as a food waitress at a supper club. This she enjoyed because it allowed her the flexibility to be mom in the daytime while making a living at night. It meant long, hard hours – a sacrifice she was willing to make. This sacrifice foreshadowed the future.
At the supper club she fell madly in love with the “man of my dreams”. He owned a hat manufacturing company in Oklahoma City and she began working for him, developing a successful sales career. After a dreamlike romance for two years, the relationship ended, but the knowledge she gained benefited her greatly as she created her own successful promotional products business.
She became one of three logo-wear product suppliers for a major energy company. Her reputation and career grew. Soon she saw the need to create her own company to accommodate the numerous orders and warehousing demands, and so Roz Co. Inc. was born. Success came at a price. “They owned me. I worked 16 hours a day … the work was overwhelming and I was ready to have a life. I tried to retire … but the orders kept coming and I had employees now to think of, so I continued.” This imbalance meant she couldn’t indulge in typical single girl activities in order to meet people and socialize with friends. This is a theme that would reoccur later in life.
How she fell in love with Akumal Bay is not unlike how most of us fall in love with this area: vacations and the idea of some day owning property here. Remarking on seeing a turtle for the first time, “I still, to this day, think it is the biggest turtle I’ve ever seen.” On one visit she saw a woman walking the beach late at night holding a red flashlight, which she learned is used to avoid scaring the turtles. Ironically this was another hint of the person she would later become, as the woman on the beach turned out to be a tortuguera. Witnessing the turtles feeding on seagrass in Akumal Bay for the first time in the early 2000’s was another major turning point in her life. Back then she did not know the relevance of these experiences.
Her successful career in Oklahoma City afforded her the opportunity in 2011 to purchase two homes located back to back in Chan Chemuyil. In 2012 she moved permanently and made extensive renovations to her homes. Working with turtles at Xpu-ha for a season, she then started working with CEA and saw the hard work of the tortugueros and the need for local people to get involved to help staff behind the scenes. The volunteer program, called Voluntourist, grew from this in 2016.
On trying to build community spirit and awareness with the turtles, she feels she has had an uphill battle. She developed a community outreach program as a way to educate homeowners on what needed to be done to ensure the future of the nesting turtles. “This is the Place Of Turtles. It should have the best turtle program anywhere in the world. It should have a turtle hospital.” A lot will have to change before that happens, but CEA is making strides in the right direction. For now, there is a Rescue Program which she created that does things like rescuing turtles that have fallen into pools – another all too frequent occurrence caused by turtles becoming disoriented by white light glowing from houses.
The turtles that hatched on these beaches decades ago are the same turtles coming up onto these beaches today to lay their eggs. Returning to their place of birth is just one of their miracles. “And people don’t realize how crucial that is.” Unfortunately some home owners on the beaches of Jade, Akumal, and Half Moon Bays don’t take the information given about the importance of the turtles to this area’s economy through tourism, and to the environment and ecosystem as a whole, as seriously as they should. She is tired of giving homeowners the same information every year which is then disregarded or forgotten. She feels strongly there is so much to gain from saving these turtles, and cannot understand why small sacrifices cannot be made which would make this a monumental success for all parties involved, human and animal alike.
“There is some reason for me to be here, but I’ve still yet to figure out what it is.” When asked if she thinks she ever will find the answer, she says, “At this point I don’t think I ever will.”
There are other initiatives she has worked on besides helping the turtles, specifically her connection to a community in Ek Balam where she met a missionary at the church. One cold day she was introduced to a family with seven children. They huddled around a cook fire and lived on cold, dirt floors with a palapa roof overhead and no proper clothing to speak of. Remembering a blanket project her daughter did in school, she organized neighbors in Chan Chemuyil to help make 350 polar fleece blankets to be given out on Three Kings Day, and that is how Babes With Blessings was born. The kindness continued after that first year, as the lesson of the gift of giving was imparted to the people of Ek Balam. The villagers of Ek Balam continued to spread warmth across small pueblos in the state of Yucatan by making blankets for others in need. Today she still has a close relationship with that family she met on the cold, dirt floors – and they now have a total of ten children.
As a woman alone in Mexico she believes it takes a special person to be here. “It has to be someone that is already very independent, self-sufficient, an adventurist … [but] you have to be able to embrace being alone.” When asked what she needs to be happy here, she replies, “I’ve learned to live so much [more simply] to be happy. I don’t need things.” Then she thinks and corrects herself, “I need a few things. I need a swimming pool.” We can both agree on that!
When asked if she is a dreamer, she says “Oh, a huge dreamer. I’ve always been a dreamer and I always will be! I’ll die being one.” In her words, “I can’t have regrets. I have been so lucky [but] I want so much more … I’ve been very blessed … My house is named El Sueño De Rozita because I dreamed of living here. I accomplished it … Looking back it all happened with only one person’s hand involved.” She found her place of peace in El Sueño De Rosita, “peace like I’ve never known … My happy place has to have turquoise water, white sand and palm trees – Akumal definitely has that and more.”
The Turtle Lady does not like to turn back turtles to the sea or relocate them before they’ve had a chance to nest, but it is a necessary deed. At times the mother turtles can create emergencies by digging up existing nests, destroying eggs, or as I witnessed one night digging up hatched babies who are sleeping in their chambers waiting for Mother Nature to call them to the sea. I also witnessed an 180kg (400lb) turtle climb on top of the back of a smaller turtle already in the process of nesting, threatening her welfare and the eggs that were just laid. In these situations the turtle needs to be encouraged to move elsewhere. Biologists say the priority is to save the existing eggs and so the Turtle Lady does what they ask. With every turtle she relocates, an apology is given in a low, quiet, comforting voice, like a mother explaining to her child why she can’t do what she wants. Begrudgingly, each turtle hesitates like it’s evaluating her words, then slowly turns its behemoth body away from its nesting grounds to return to the sea. The breeding females will simply go down the beach a short way to an area that has fewer nests.
The relationship this woman of Akumal has with the turtles – like she’s known them forever, like they’ve been in her soul her whole life whether she knew it or not – is a bond that cannot be defined, nor should it. She said, she often thinks to herself, while sitting on the beach at night, out under the stars, “As a gringa, who gets to do this? To work with the sacred Mayan turtles on these beaches in Mexico?” It is an honor for her to be able to do this work because when she gets exhausted she is reminded of how special she feels. “When times get tough, when I feel overwhelmed with emotion from the hard work, I see the beauty of helping these mommas and helping these hatchlings.”
“I now see the steps were laid in front of me. My decisions were made from my heart and things happened in my life that may have been a challenge – but I got through them and now I look back to see I made good choices that were the ladder to my future.”
Rozanne Quintero, or Rozita as she is called by the locals, is the famous Turtle Lady who has dedicated so much of her life to saving the turtles of Akumal.
Thank you, Rozanne for sharing your story – we, as a community, can only hope to do justice to the creatures of the sea that you have dedicated so much of your life to. Thank you for all that you do!