BoomerCafé Co-Founder and Executive Editor Greg Dobbs has worked most of his life as a television correspondent. First, a quarter of a century at ABC News, and now at HDNet Television’s “World Report.” Greg is a natural – he has a quick, curious mind, and he’s a solid professional journalist. Occasionally, he writes essays about places and people who have caught his attention, like this Letter from Mexico.
Dear Family and Friends,
Often when I finally leave a story, I find myself picturing some of the key people I’ve met, even long after I’ve gotten home. Just in the past year for example, I still sometimes think of the Colombian soldiers with whom last Spring, along with a crew from HDNet, I dropped down from combat helicopters into the damp wet jungle, the soldiers’ job being to take out camouflaged cocaine labs and fight off the bad guys who resist. And of the remarkably inspiring young man on whom I shot a piece in California and Connecticut, the man born with no arms and no legs, but hardly hampered by his shortcomings. There are still people I think about in the Middle East with whom I’ve spent time and admittedly grown empathetic, who struggle every day of their lives simply to survive, in ways the average American cannot begin to imagine. And those I saw a year ago in Vietnam, whose bodies are gruesomely mangled, apparently from absorbing the dioxin, Agent Orange, that we unknowingly used during the war there. It destroyed some American soldiers too.
Well, for the past week and a bit, I’ve been in Mexico, and there are two groups of people here who will stick with me a while. One is the group of men (and a handful of women) who staff oil rigs far from the shore in the Gulf of Mexico, literally isolated on a single rig for in some cases 14, in others 28 days at a stretch. The other people I won’t soon forget is a group of women — society’s dregs — who live in a damp cold house in one of the poorest and most dangerous parts of the city, but for whom the place is a refuge from the world they inhabited most of their sorry lives; it is a charitable home for retired prostitutes.
Let me begin with the oil rigs. Our story is this: back in the early 1970s, a fisherman from a place on the country’s southernmost Gulf coast called Ciudad del Carmen started noticing oil mucking up his nets. He thought for a while it might be leaking from a passing ship, but it continued, and continued, and if anything, got thicker. Eventually, the story goes, he contacted Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil company (the name is short for Petroleos Mexicanos), and what they figured out was that there was crude oil coming up from the sea floor. Lots of it. Within just a few years they had rigs out in the water to exploit the oil, and they called the rich find “Cantarell.” Why? Because that was the fisherman’s name: Rudecindo Cantarell.
It’s only appropriate that they named the area after him, because thanks to the couple of hundred huge Pemex platforms that have been working there for more than 30 years now, as well as abundant resources onshore, Mexico has become one of the biggest producers of hydrocarbons (oil and gas) in the world and, not just incidentally, sometimes the second, sometimes the third biggest oil exporter to the United States (the other biggies are Saudi Arabia, Canada, and Venezuela).
The trouble is, production from Cantarell has peaked, and begun to drop. How bad is it? From a high of three million barrels of oil a day just a couple of years ago, two-thirds of which came from Cantarell, Mexico’s total production has declined to just two-and-a-half million barrels per day. In terms of percentages, that’s huge, and in terms of money, it’s even bigger, because depending on the price of oil, the proceeds from Pemex have accounted for as much as almost 40% of the national budget. Or put another way, five consecutive Mexican presidents have been spending the money. They credit oil for improvements to the nation’s infrastructures of transportation, education, and health. And that’s accurate; although it’s fair to say that they have had a risky undiversified business plan, the fact is that their country is stronger because of the oil. Mind you, it’s also fair to say (although some Mexican officials won’t openly say it) that their war on drugs today is consuming more than they can afford. Anyway, they need the money, which means that as Cantarell’s oil flow slows down, they’ve got to replace it. Somehow.
And that takes us to the deep water. In the petroleum industry, Cantarell isn’t “deep;” to the contrary, it’s called “shallow,” which means the sea floor where the rigs are operating is no more than 500 meters down from the water’s surface; roughly converted, that’s a little over 1,600 feet, or almost a third of a mile. Which any offshore oil company knows how to work in. That’s why they’ve called the oil they’ve been getting out of Cantarell — the second biggest “shallow” field in the world — the “easy oil.” That was then, this is now: though it’s an exaggeration because things aren’t black and white, they now generally say the “easy oil” is gone. But they do have something to replace it, because in other Mexican waters in the southern part of the Gulf, north of the coastal city of Veracruz, there are strong seismic indications of more oil than Cantarell ever produced; the estimates run as high as 29 billion barrels (for comparison’s sake, altogether in its 70-plus years of operation, Pemex has produced about 50 million barrels).
The rub? Pemex has never drilled in deep water (which is defined between 500 and 1,500 meters), let alone “ultra-deep” which is beyond 1,500 meters. Yet already, in what some consider an irresponsible headlong rush to replace the revenue from Cantarell, they’ve started doing just that. In the ultra-deep. As one leading Mexican analyst told me in an interview — she’s the head of an energy institute at Mexico’s closest thing to Harvard — Pemex wants to fly to Mars, even though it hasn’t even reached the moon. Which is the real heart of our story and the question we address: are we headed for another environmentally and costly disaster like BP’s Deepwater Horizon?
I can give you the declarative answer even before I deliver the debate: maybe, maybe not. The critics’ thinking is, if things could get out of hand in deep water for a company as experienced there as BP and as closely regulated (or, as we have learned in retrospect, sort of closely regulated) as the United States requires, then how can we hope that with no experience in the deep water and thus far no enforceable government regulations to guide it, Pemex will show all the necessary caution to minimize the possibility of another spill on the scale of BP’s? We can’t.
Why not? First, because Pemex is a state-owned monopoly which operates, according to one critic I talked to, with a military-style “We will damned well do what we want” culture. Second, because although Pemex has been producing oil for the nation for more than 70 years, there never has been and to this day still isn’t a government regulator with enforceable powers. Just two years ago, as Pemex was setting its sights on the deep water, a commission was appointed by the Minister of Energy (answerable, of course, to the President); it’s called the National Hydrocarbons Commission, intended for the first time to be a watchdog over Pemex. And it is working to create a set of regs that Pemex should follow. But I say “should,” because the word isn’t “must,” at least not yet. The commission has a total staff of about 50 people, which is no match for the 160,000 who work for Pemex, and when it was created, it was given only the power of persuasion; not the power of the law. I interviewed one member of the commission and he had to concede that it has no teeth; what he’s counting on is public opinion to force Pemex to abide by the commission’s recommendations if it doesn’t voluntarily do so. Good luck.
And if it doesn’t cooperate, what could happen? Well, the company might suffer a BP-scale spill, but have no workable plan to contain it. After all, despite the strong concern and heavy publicity and sheer resources earlier this year of both the U.S. government and private industry, Deepwater Horizon lived up to its name and gushed for a hundred days. In the event of a leak in a shallow water rig, divers can go down and at least try to plug it up. In the event of a deep or ultra-deep leak, as you might remember from the BP fiasco, they can’t do that; they have to rely on repairs by remote control, and I’m sure you remember how badly that went.
And that leads me to the third reason why people have cause to be afraid. Oil drilling can be a dirty business, and dangerous. However, although cost-cutting and carelessness seem to be behind the Deepwater Horizon disaster, they aren’t necessarily at the root of every catastrophe involving flammable fuels, which means that even with the best regulations and the best technology, accidents happen. Just a couple of days ago, a Pemex pipeline exploded in the Mexican state of Puebla. 28 people died, half of them children. At first glance, it wasn’t Pemex’s fault; it seems people were tapping into the pipeline and diverting the flow. A single spark— maybe just a cigarette— probably ignited the blast.
The relevance of that fatal explosion is, when something like that happens on land, you’ve got fire trucks and other emergency responders who try to keep things from getting any worse. In the water, you just don’t know what kind of response can be launched. If the National Hydrocarbons Commission, for example, says that Pemex needs a fleet of a hundred boats and a dozen helicopters prepared 24/7 to respond to a deep water leak, there’s nothing to force Pemex to spend the money. Nothing, that is, except its own good intentions.
It is fair to say, though, that the company is not run by a bunch of cowboys; not only have they been at it and quite good at it for many decades, but they are educated Mexicans who I’ve come to believe care as much about their own environment as we Americans care about ours. Until Deepwater Horizon, the biggest spill ever to foul the Gulf was theirs, back in the late 1970s at a well called Ixtoc. They’ve been there, done that, and don’t want to do it again. But if there’s a tug-of-war between the regulators and the accountants, who knows who will win?! The good news is, Deepwater Horizon made everyone in the industry aware of just how big a risk they’re taking; a recent estimate put the total cost to BP and its partners at something on the order of $40 billion. Neither Pemex nor anyone else wants to foot that kind of bill again. Having a safe, proper, reliable plan in place is the best insurance against it.
But so far, they don’t seem to. We spent two days being taken out to both the shallow water and the ultra-deep…. two days and a lot of air hours, from Mexico City to Ciudad del Carmen, then five helicopter hops around Cantarell, then back to Mexico City to turn around and fly to Veracruz and more hops by helicopter before rebasing Mexico City a second time. I asked the Pemex foreman on the very biggest rig they’ve got, the one that has started drilling in the ultra-deep waters of the Gulf, what kind of response plan is in place in case there’s a serious disaster. He told me they have “contingency plans;” but aside from vaguely referring to choppers and boats and a hotline telephone from rig to shore, he wasn’t more specific. Being accountable only to the government as opposed to the way a public company is accountable to stockholders, Pemex doesn’t have to say much about what it’s doing, and usually doesn’t.
However, thanks to a full court press by an aggressive freelance journalist we hired before we traveled Mexico City, we did get a rare interview with the number two man at this multi-billion-dollar company, the head of exploration and production, a man named Carlos Morales. We talked for more than half an hour and I won’t burden you with much from the interview, but I think one thing he told me pretty well summarizes his attitude toward drilling in the deep water. He said, “We still have a lot of work to do, we still have to learn a lot, we still have to understand many things, but I can guarantee you that with the things we do, we don’t run any unnecessary risks. And we have the latest technology, we have the skilled people, we have the procedures that hold today.”
Having flown out to see their newest deep water rig, I have to say, I think he’s telling the truth. No outsiders had ever been there before, and I had been warned that we had no chance of becoming the first, so with nothing to lose I went for broke and toward the end of the interview asked Morales on-camera if we could go out to verify the claims he had just made. I felt it might make it hard for him to say no, and to my surprise and my delight, he said yes. We couldn’t do it the very next day because we already were due to fly out to Cantarell, but we could do it the day after that. I didn’t quite know how lucky we were until we went to party a few nights later in Mexico City with our fixer, the freelance journalist. Almost everyone there was an American journalist who covers Latin America— The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, the Associated Press— and some jaws dropped when they learned who we’d talked with and where we’d been.
From the outset, it was a jaw-dropping trip. We were in a chopper out of Veracruz, flying over empty water for about 60 miles— no rigs, no ships, nothing to see but the glare and the smog over the Gulf— when suddenly like an apparition, we first spotted dead ahead just a vague shape, then the massive form of our target. So let me tell you something about these rigs, both the ones in the shallow waters of Cantarell and the one off Veracruz.
The shallow rigs are amazing enough; the one in the ultra-deep water is even more amazing. Flying out to Cantarell, within about ten minutes you begin seeing spots in the water, which grow into installations, which grow into rigs. You can see up to a dozen or so in a single sweep of the eyes. Many will actually be a collection of four, five, even six platforms connected by steel bridges; some are aligned in a straight line, some spike out of a hub like the points of a star. Many have humongous vertical flames flaring from the tops of pipe-towers protruding from their edges. What they’re doing is burning unwanted buildups of toxic or combustible gases, and sending a fair amount of black smoke into the sky. One of the raps against Pemex, by the way, is that the presence of so much burning gas proves that the company is not sufficiently efficient to make better use of the gas and therefore not efficient enough to drill in the risky territory of deep water, and that the company’s protestations of concern for the environment are bogus.
For our visits to every rig, we wore “Nomex” jumpsuits, which are flame-retardant; they’re the same kind of protective gear I’ve worn in forest fires. Under the suits, as we’d been told before we left, we could wear nothing but cotton. Anything else in a fire, any synthetic (which might in fact be oil-based), would stick to your skin and aggravate the burns. We also couldn’t have cell phones; their radio-frequency transmissions could kick off systems that might actually shut down a whole rig. We sure didn’t want to do that! And needless to say, on every rig there are strict rules prohibiting any kind of smoking, and with the risk of mortal danger so high and the need for every resident worker to be always alert, prohibitions against any kind of alcohol.
In Cantarell we landed on the helipads of three different rigs, plus a stationary ship that Pemex is very proud of; it’s nearly 350 meters long, which is almost the length of four football fields, and it processes so much crude oil that weather permitting, each day, through a flexible tube, it loads an entire supertanker which then heads off toward a distant port, mainly ports in the United States. There was one slightly strange thing associated with our time on the ship. A landing hadn’t been scheduled; we were only approved for a “flyover” to give us the chance to circle and videotape the ship in both a close and a far circumference. But after doing that, to our surprise we did land, and within a minute of clearing the blades of the helicopter we were ushered down to the greeting room closest to the landing pad. And there, we were given a half-hour safety briefing. This isn’t unusual; it happens on every rig, and it took at least a half hour at each stop, sometimes longer. They not only repeat the prohibitions about things like cigarettes and liquor, but they explain about lifeboats and muster stations and generally the safety protocol of the place.
And, they demonstrate how to put on a gas mask, which leads me to what happened to our team from our program World Report. There are four of us here from Denver, and I’m the only one who came clean-shaven. The other three guys all had facial hair, meaning, moustache and goatee. But note my use of the past tense “had;” they were required to shave it all off, because if you have to put on a respirator, you need a tight seal, which facial hair would prevent. One of the members of the team had had his beard for 17 years. So long, that we even expected tan lines! Now, mission accomplished, he starts the beard growing again from— excuse the pun— scratch.
Anyway, here’s the strange thing about our safety briefing on the ship. We landed, we sat for the briefing, then we climbed back up to the helipad on the stern and lifted off and left! All I can figure is, you cannot be on the ship (or a rig) without them hammering home what you need to know about surviving a gas leak or an explosion; it’s just not allowed. So the Catch 22 is, if we were going to land at all, we were going to have to hear the whole thing. Yet by the time it was over, it was time to leave because we already were behind the clock. We weren’t quite sure why under those circumstances they put us on the ship in the first place, but believe me, that’s not the only question with which I left.
On the shallow water rigs, most of the people working there do 14 days on, then 14 off. It’s a very confining environment; part of every rig is a “habitat” where they have rooms and a mess hall and maybe a video theater and a gym and a few other facilities for their off-time. But basically, they wake up, then shower and dress and eat, then work for 12 hours, then eat again and hit the sack before doing it all over again. One of the rigs on which we spent time has 220 people living there, which actually means more like 440 staff the rig week in and week out. It gives you some idea what the oil and gas are worth. 71 different undersea wells feed this one rig (which separates oil from gas). The control rooms are pretty high tech, with computers and controls to constantly monitor temperatures and pressures and water salinities and other factors that could turn into trouble if they go too far off safe parameters. Not to mention the multiple infamous “blowout preventers” about which we all read in connection with Deepwater Horizon. But again, if despite their precautions, something goes terribly wrong, some sort of breakage in the shallow water is considered relatively easy to contain.
Not so for the deep water. Simply because it’s so far down and so dark and the pressures are so high, the wells in deep and ultra-deep water are inherently more dangerous. And harder to fix. In Pemex’s defense though, I came away from our visit to the new rig that they just got in position in the ultra-deep water pretty impressed that all possible precautions are exercised.
The rig is called Centenário, which means centenary, which stands for the century of Mexican independence. They call it a “sixth generation” rig, because since the beginning of drilling for oil in ocean waters, there have been six generations of new technology, each replacing the old. And Centenário does have the very latest. It is a “semi-submersible,” which means the whole 30,000 ton platform is actually floating in the water— four bulbous legs are filled with ballast and are submerged about as deep as a five-story building— and more important, there’s state-of-the-art computer technology to execute eight thrusters that despite wild winds and strong seas, keep Centenário precisely where GPS and other technology says it’s supposed to be. Which means, directly over the hole it’s drilling. The tubes they push through the water and sink through rock beneath the floor of the sea are designed with enough tolerance to bend up to 80 meters. But the day we were there, this 60-million-pound platform, measuring almost 400 feet from the surface of the water to the top of the drill derrick, was only off by an almost incomprehensible 10 centimeters. Think, four inches. I wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes on the computers in the bridge of the rig.
And everything— at least every critical system for both monitoring and responding to a problem— has not just redundancy, but double redundancy. Between the thrusters to maintain position and these redundant systems, it makes me think of the space shuttle. Although the funny thing was, while I was in the central command, called “the doghouse,” for about five minutes, I asked the man in charge, called “the driller,” about the highest of all the high tech devices on the rig, he hit a button and suddenly on every huge glass panel overlooking the main drill, windshield wipers started sweeping back and forth. He laughed and said there were better things than these, but still, it really was pretty cool.
Work on an oil rig is dangerous work. Not just from the chance that there’ll be an explosion and you might die, but from the hands-on work itself. You’ve probably seen movies with “roughnecks,” who are sticking their hands into heavy steel machinery that is spinning and rising and falling all at the same time. Injuries, sometimes serious injuries on rigs like those, are common. But not on this newest generation of rig. It’s all computerized, so that the driller, in his “doghouse,” controls almost all the movement of pipes and drills and bits by remote control; his station looks like something out of Star Trek. And that goes for the blowout preventers too. There’s a driller on duty in the doghouse 24-hours a day. The moment anything spells trouble, he can have his finger on the button to activate the preventers within mere seconds. A guarantee? No. Comforting? I’d say so.
Security is another concern. When you think about it, Pemex today has to look out for foreign terrorists, for pirates, for drug cartels. Any of them might cause chaos. And the cartels might be the biggest threat; they already have attacked land-based pipelines and kidnapped some Pemex executives. Every rig has a 500-meter-radius buffer zone, which means nobody is authorized to come any closer. I asked how they’re protected from a serious challenge, but understandably, beyond talking about “contingencies,” they didn’t spell anything out. Hopefully they weren’t evasive because their contingencies are thin. So far, out on Centenário, they’ve only been challenged once— by Greenpeace, as the company’s director of communications told me with a wry smile. It was peacefully resolved.
Another fear of the critics is that since Pemex has no previous deep water experience, the people working the rigs will neither understand the technology nor know how to respond to a catastrophe. But my admittedly brief experience on Centenário says, that’s not an issue. Both the captain of the ship-side of the platform, and the superintendent of the drilling side, are from the Netherlands, each with more than a decade on the deep water. The “driller” I met in the doghouse is from the U.K. with a similar volume of experience. I went into the engine room, which is impressive: eight massive Caterpillar engines, with more than four megawatts of power, enough to light up a medium-sized city. The two men in charge? Both from Canada, their lives spent on the deep water. The point is, international standards call for any key position to be filled by someone with at least five years experience drilling in the deep. Pemex seems to be living up to that.
The rig itself was built in Singapore, then sailed like a ship for three months across two oceans to its position in the Mexican waters of the Gulf. It now sits a little more than 1,900 meters above the ocean floor (that’s well over a mile already) and just since September when it started digging its hole, the drill is down half-a-mile further into the rock. The target, which seismic readings suggest is rich with hydrocarbons, is a full two-and-a-half miles beneath the surface. I’m no geologist, and don’t even play one on TV, but those hydrocarbons— the oil and gas underfoot— aren’t in big open subterranean aquifers; they are trapped in hard porous rock; to get to it and through it, one of the drill bits they use is about 9-inches in diameter with diamond tips. I got to pick up one core sample of the rock, only about a foot long and maybe five inches across. It probably weighed about 20 pounds. Visually, it’s almost like an abstract black-and-gray barber pole, with irregular dark seams and sometimes larger dark splotches running through it. That’s the hydrocarbon that has to be brought to the surface. How anyone ever figured out what’s down there, let alone how to get to it in the first place, I don’t know! Except, I do now know the story of Rudecindo Cantarell. As do you.
The historic importance of oil to Mexico is demonstrated at the base of the Pemex headquarters tower in Mexico City. I’ve seen Paris, Athens, Rome, probably the three cities in which you’d expect to find the world’s most colossal sculptures of everyone from warriors to philosophers to lovers. But I’ve never seen one nearly as big as the bust— we’re talkin’ just head and shoulders and I’ll bet it’s 15 to 20 feet high— of President Lázaro Cardenas. He’s idolized in this country, because he’s the one who in 1938 nationalized the foreign oil companies then operating in Mexico— mainly British and American. And that’s why to this day, for better or worse, Pemex operates alone.
The government actually tried to mollify the company’s critics (and attract investors to lighten the load) just a couple of years ago by floating a proposal to actually change the nation’s constitution. Since the days of Cardenas, the constitution has prohibited Pemex from partnering with any foreign companies. But the proposal was rejected. It’s probably too bad, because if the companies that have been at it for many years could partner with Pemex, people probably would be reassured and possibly, in the final analysis, safer. But oil isn’t just a commodity to Mexicans; they call it their nation’s treasure. So, while Pemex can hire experienced foreigners to oversee things, and recently won the right to offer incentive contracts to foreign oil companies, it can’t give them a stake, which diminishes their involvement because they’re not in business to make a dollar-per-barrel profit; they’re in business to have the oil so that when the price goes up, so do their profits.
Just one more thing about Pemex, and it’s a weird one. In other oil-producing countries I’ve been in, from Saudi Arabia to Venezuela, the price of gasoline is heavily subsidized for the people living there. Some of you who are reading this letter might remember my story in a letter earlier this year about a border town in Venezuela, where we followed smugglers who bought their gas for pennies in their own country, even filling additional tanks secreted under their vehicles, then crossed the border to sell it for a profit in Colombia. Well, Pemex doesn’t do any such favor for its citizens. To the contrary, when you convert liters to gallons, they pay more for gas here than we do in the United States. And that even includes California where prices are outrageous!
Speaking of gas, if you’ve never been to Mexico City, you wouldn’t believe how much is wasted here. By sitting still. In traffic jams. Like some of you, I’ve seen epic traffic jams in other parts of the world, but Mexico City is like the mother of traffic jams. Leave for the airport at 4:30 (as we did this morning) and you’ll breeze your way there. But leave an hour later and you’re already in trouble. And we’re not just talking “rush hour;” once people are up and about, the congestion never clears. If you’re anything like me, you try to figure out what’s happening when you’re stuck in traffic. Whether I’m on my way home from work or from ski country, I want to understand the dynamics of a stoppage. An accident? Construction? A tunnel (which somehow creates congestion even though there are just as many lanes going through the tunnel as there are going in! What’s up with that?)?
One day we went to the top of Mexico City’s third tallest building. We wanted to get some “high shots” of this massive city (estimated population: close to 30 million). Well, we didn’t get what we wanted because we needed a permit that we didn’t have. But it gave me a chance to study the traffic from on high, the 44th floor. Literally as far as my eye could see— and that limit really was reached because of smog, not vision— a four-lane one-way street heading toward the skyscraper was packed with cars, all of them sitting stone still. I had to be seeing at least a two mile stretch. There was no accident, no construction, no tunnel. Just cars. Too many cars. When a light changes from red to green, the block of cars at the starting line begins to move, but because it takes a few seconds for each layer of drivers to react, no more than five or six lines get through before the light goes red again. And there, my friends, you have the best analysis of traffic jams that money can’t buy.
Our worst traffic experience — and there were a bunch — was trying to get to the site of a second little story we were shooting in Mexico City because we were there; call it two for the price of one. I’m not even reporting the story; I just went along with the producer and crew because it sounded interesting, and it was. In fact it was fascinating. The story— which will be entirely told with the voices of the people involved— is about a retirement home for prostitutes. It was founded a few years ago by a Mexico City mayor and an advocate who had been a prostitute herself. It is in one of the poorest and most congested parts of the congested city, the central market for cheap toys and cheap food and cheap makeup and cheap clothes, many of which I suspect fell conveniently off the back of a truck. You just look at some of the people brushing by your car while you stand locked in traffic for a minute at a time and you know, lock your doors.
The women — the prostitutes — have to be at least 60 just to get in. And destitute. It’s not surprising when you think about it; although a few have relatives who still stay in touch, many have no one to care for them, no one to utter a nice word to them, no one to love them. They are society’s castoffs. There are 25 broken-down women living there and I asked the director of the residence whether there’s a single one who hasn’t been raped and beaten on a regular basis. Her answer was, no.
The story of just one woman apparently is typical. Her name is Sonya. She got pregnant and had a child at 13. Then a year later, age 14, when she refused to dance with a man, he pulled a gun and shot her in the head. To this day, the bullet is still embedded. It partially paralyzed her, which made her unfit in those days for other kinds of work, so since she ended up with three children to support, she turned to sex. And has sold her body for the 46 years since then. She accepts her life, accepts her fate. What’s more, she still looks for her kind of work. As you might imagine, this is not a part of town where you find sequined whores the likes of Eliot Spitzer’s girlfriend. But still needing money, Sonya charges 50 pesos, about five bucks, just to show up — kind of like the minimum price of a service visit when you call the plumber — then another 50 pesos for the act itself.
For the hour or two that we were there, various other residents drifted in and out of the courtyard where we were working. None is pretty, none is curvaceous, none is stylish. They all seem pretty much used up. Yet there is still a spectrum in how they look. On one end, there was a woman with fingernails painted purple and lips painted red and eyebrows painted amber. Yes, amber. She is heavy and wrinkled, but still doing her best to look nice. On the other end, another woman has a face that reflects the beatings she endured. She is only 60— a newcomer— but permanently hunched over. There’s not a tooth left in her mouth.
Since they live a very idle and monotonous life now, sitting around much of the day in this damp place in dirty white molded plastic chairs— except for the ones like Sonya who sometimes still go looking for clients— I tried peripherally to watch the ones just sitting and passing the time to gauge their interest, their curiosity, in what we were doing. This is not a place that sees a television camera every day of the week. But I got nothing. Until we were leaving. At that point— with the crew already outside shooting the teeming market just beyond their safe door— one of the women got up and said to me in Spanish, “We are glad you came. You are welcome here any time.” Then she leaned across to me and gave me a hug. Believe me, I had mixed feelings about returning it, but after her was another, then another after that. They all wished me well, and I returned the flattery. I thought about it afterward and certainly don’t know, but maybe they warmed to me because I was a man who came and went quickly through their lives without knocking their teeth out.
Up on one wall of the refuge is a poster. It says, “Ni Santas, Ni Puntas, Solo Mujures.” What that means is, neither saints, nor whores, only women. Right before leaving, I made a donation on the behalf of our team, a thousand pesos which is roughly a hundred dollars. The director— an attractive psychotherapist in her forties— told me how grateful she was; they operate as you might imagine on a very thin shoestring, and this money would buy them Christmas dinner. Feliz Navidad.
One more thing. Driving away from the retirement residence, we crawled at snail’s pace down a street on which young prostitutes were looking for work. Dozens of them in low blouses, short dresses, high heels. Very high heels. I couldn’t help but wonder, will these girls who feel pretty and maybe even wanted end up where we’d just been? Some probably will. If we’re lucky, we all turn old (just ask me!). The question is, will we have a decent place to be when we get there?
I often say I’ve got the best job on earth. Maybe you disagree, because reading about me spending my time with risky oil rigs and neglected prostitutes may not make it sound so hot. But look at the range of what I got to see and do just this one week. I was out on a high-tech oil platform in the middle of nowhere that can stay within ten centimeters of its ideal target…. and in a casa for washed-up puntas where dirty clothes are still washed in a sink. I’ve been with people whose energy and expertise generates billions of dollars for their country… and with others who sell their bodies for about ten bucks. I wouldn’t trade a moment.