Saturday, June 17, 2006

Running the border

Texas includes 267,339 square miles, or 7.4% of the nation's total area.

It's an eight hour drive from Houston to the bordertown of Rio Grande City, Texas.

Eight long, flat, boring, empty, dusty hours.

But now things were becoming exciting.

The river looked a long way down, but as the bridge bounced I could easily imagine the water rushing towards at, uh, whatever the terminal velocity of a Ford 150 truck would be after falling 100 feet. One arm of a guardrail had already broken off which allowed me to guage just how much the bridge was flexing. It wasn't reassuring. Six inches seemed like a lot of flex.

There river below us was the Rio Grande, infamous border between the United States of America and Mexico. I and a coworker were spending a week analyzing oil for Pemex. They were having problems with asphaltenes. We were there to fix the problem. Each morning we would leave our hotel on the USA side of the border and drive an hour to the "lab" in Mexico. Actually, it was a pretty good lab for Mexico. It had a fume hood and real glassware, not just an open window and empty Coke bottles. It also had air conditioning!

USA side of the border.

The Bridge.

The Rio Grande River.

Mexico side of the border.

Camargo, Mexico.

Who ya gonna call? Asphaltene-busters!

Now, I love borderlands. I love their mystery, their freedom, their "blood-in-the-mouth" beauty. I love poking in ruins and prowling through unclean places. I love not knowing what I'll find. But Lord have mercy, the USA-Mexico borderlands are a hellish place indeed. Well, the Mexican side anyway.

The bridge between Rio Grande City, USA and Camargo, Mexico is not used by tourists. This is a bridge for 18-wheelers loaded with goods crossing to and fro between Mexico and the USA. Trucks loaded with Mexican bricks cross the bridge to feed our mad construction market. In the other direction American 18-wheelers loaded with compressed stacks of cardboard enter Mexico on their way even farther south. Apparently Guatemala can't get enough high-quality American cardboard.

I don't know why they want the cardboard.

All I knew was everytime a truck got The Wave from the customs offical it would thunder across the narrow, highly-flexible(!) bridge. Everyone wanted The Wave from the customs man. It meant, "we trust you, come on through". No searching. No questions. Just a wave. The truck would roar by and the bridge would bounce. We learned to keep the windows rolled up so we wouldn't hear the"skkkkkkrrrrriiiiiinnnn" sound made by the straining metal. It was very un-nerving. We just wanted to get back across the bridge, have supper, then crash in our hotel rooms. Please mister USA Custom's Man, we survived crossing the damn bridge of doom, now just wave us on through.

Crap. We got The Point.

The Point means we pull over.
They search the truck (Mexican license plates, loaned to us by the field engineer).
They question us.

No sir.
Loaned to us sir.
No sir.
Yes sir, April of 2004.
No sir.

Crap, they want to look in the truck's toolbox, but we don't have the key. The border agents search us and the truck for keys that'll fit the lock. No luck. The agents glare at us then huddle to discuss what to do next.

They give us The Wave!!! What the heck? Don't they know we could hide a nuclear bomb in that giant toolbox?! You search the truck but if there's a locked box you just let it slide through?! Ye Gads!!

Of course, I don't push the issue.

It was a heck of a week. Up early, work late, pick random things off the menu to eat for lunch in Camargo's only restaurant, try to avoid the Mexican "police", hope for The Wave, spend half the night on the toilet, etc...

On the other hand, the guys in the lab were really awesome and treated us like family. We never had to clean a dirty piece of glassware or breath the fumes in the solvent storage, and if we needed a Coca-Cola, Bam! An ice-cold one was in our hand before we could finish the request! More importantly, they really knew their chemistry and the unusual characteristics of the Mexican oil. Their extensive knowledge of the problem coupled with our chemical products knocked out a solution in one week rather than the expected one month! Eric, Javier, Paul and the rest totally rocked. The next time I'm in hell I hope they are along for the ride.

Of course, word has it I'll be going back soon.

And not just one more time.

They have six more problematic wells.


Adventure! Excitement! Borderlands!!

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