On the trip from the airport to the Pemex office and then to the hotel Acuario 11 days previously, I had been tired, a little discombobulated by the heat, not being collected, and my general feelings of extreme stress over everything, so I had not really taken much notice of my surroundings or when Ciudad Carmen had turned into a bit of a slum.
Wherever the metropolis lurked, I didn’t find it during those ten days that I stayed at the hotel Acuario.
I spent the rest of my time there, taking a tan on my face, neck arms and legs. There was no poolside or decking where I would have felt comfortable removing my shirt, so I did my best in the arboretum.
Eleven days after my arrival in Mexico, as I was resting in my room after lunch, a message arrived from Pemex via the young boy in reception.
I was to be ready for pickup at 4 PM.
I hadn’t really unpacked, so packing wasn’t a chore and I was in reception with my bags for a good many ‘adios Alto’s ‘moments with the staff of the hotel.
Just after 4 o’clock a moustachioed Mexican man, wider than he was tall, bustled into reception, looked at me, said “Nelson” and then paid my bill with a great big bundle of Peso’s.
When he had his receipt, he gestured to me and we left.
Another pickup, with another red hot passenger seat, I noticed that he had spread a little tea towel on his side, clever.
He said some stuff to me in Spanish, but as it had nothing to do with mailing a letter or being tall, I had no idea what he was saying, I couldn’t even say ‘I don’t understand’.
All I could do was sit there in blissful ignorance, and watch the mostly poor suburbs of Ciudad Carmen, pass by.
Slowly, over a period of forty-five minutes or so, the cityscape began to change. There were palm trees lining the roads, tall and graceful and all painted white up to about two metres off the ground.
There were unbroken footpaths and fully finished flat roof houses, painted in pastel blues and pinks, practically all with satellite dishes attached.
The shops were more obvious and bigger, selling, sombreros, clothes and beach gear.
Suddenly there was a strong smell the sea, and houses gave way to a high chain link fence, behind which row upon row of fishing boats were tied up alongside a long wharf; the Gulf of Mexico I presumed.
A few minutes along the chain link fence we turned in at the dock gates.
A policeman, complete with gun, approached my side of the vehicle, the driver rolled down the electric window, said something in Spanish to the cop, and then to me said “passeporte” which was close enough to the English for me to realise that my passport was required.
I had it in my shirt pocket, so without further ado I flashed my green book and handed it over.
He looked at it quizzically, front and back, then held up by the spine to me and repeated “passeporte?” to which, after only twelve days in Mexico, I responded “si, passeporte, Irlanda”. With confidence.
He made a little, sort of, well would you believe that? Gesture, and examined it more closely.
I now fished out my Mexican Visa book, it had a purple cover with the Mexican crest embossed on the front, it was the correct size and looked much more like a passport than my passport.
When he saw it, he smiled and exclaimed “ah” visa.
Happy now, he retreated into his little hut with my documents, to fill in his ledger, or whatever he needed to do.
Two minutes later he re-emerged and gap toothed smilingly, handed over my papers and gave me a little salute to the peak of his cap.
Without preamble my driver moved off down a long road, off which wharves, similar to the one that I had seen earlier, branched regularly at right angles.
There were pelicans, lots of them perched on bollards the way seagulls would be at home.
Wow pelicans! Big!
We were driving through a working dockland; I didn’t see any pleasure craft at all.
Where my destination was, I had no idea. I guessed that I would be dropped to a supply boat or similar which would take me out to the field.
We came to a stop beside a small fast crew boat, very similar to the ones used in West Africa to ferry people out of work. It was called Puma.
My companion indicated that I should go aboard with my bag, he then engaged in a shouted conversation with someone on the bridge.
There were aircraft type seats inside, so I threw my bag up on a rack and grabbed a comfy chair for myself.
Over the next few hours the boat gradually filled up, and filled up, and filled up. They were cramming people in, way overcapacity I’m sure.
I watched my bag being moved unceremoniously to the floor so that this little fat guy could take the rack as a berth. I wasn’t overly worried once I could keep an eye on it.
I had picked up a discarded scientific American magazine on the flight to Merida and it kept me occupied, while I watched every nook and cranny on board being filled to bursting.
It was very dark outside by the time we cast off.
I had nodded off and was awakened by the deep guttural throb of the big diesel engines.
I checked the whereabouts of my bag, it was where it had been, but was now being used as a seat by two of my fellow passengers. There was nothing really breakable in it so that was fine.
The sleek boat cut through the inshore waters of the harbour smoothly, gliding along slowly with ease.
Whether there was a breakwater or not, I didn’t know. However not long after setting out we started to hit more choppy water and then the, ‘ease’ the, ‘smoothly’ and the, ‘gliding’ swiftly became memories. I couldn’t see what the conditions were, but we were getting slapped by quite a swell within twenty minutes of departure and after an hour the boat was tossing around alarmingly.
There had been no drills and no lifejackets had been issued.
The lounge was crowded as it was but because the sea was breaking over the open deck, the people out there began to crowd in for shelter, until it was jam packed and it was very hot and very stuffy.
Conditions remained so for three or four hours, thankfully nobody was sick, that I could see.
Eventually we got to our first destination, somewhere. The sea state remained rough and going alongside where ever we were must have been risky.
However, despite the heaving of the boat a lot of the people got off there and relieved the pressure on space.
We must have been in some field because the stops from then on were only about twenty minutes apart, and every stop more people disappeared.
It was my guess that the little boat was going alongside platforms and the people who are getting off to step across onto a boat landing, in calm conditions that can be a risky endeavour, but in conditions like we were in at that time, it would be very dangerous. Good timing and fleetness of foot were essential
Where I was going I had no idea, was I supposed to get off and one of these stops? I didn’t know. I just sat there as the crew boat emptied.
When most people were gone, I ventured out on deck to have a cigarette and as soon as I appeared a crew man with a lifejacket on, pointed to me and said “Umka”, that was the name of the ship that I couldn’t remember, so I responded “si” he then made a sort of dismissive gesture with his hand, and said something in Spanish.
While I was smoking my cigarette, bracing myself against the doorway of the lounge, I looked around. We had indeed been in a field full of platforms and rigs all lit up by many flares and the sea was very rough.
We had been there but now as far as I could see were heading out into the darkness.
I went back inside and sat down, it was just after midnight.
I nodded off and was awoken by my crewman friend from the deck shaking me and saying “Umka” “Umka” with urgency.
I looked at my watch it was 4 AM.
Groggily I grabbed my bag and stumbled out on deck.
We were almost alongside, on the starboard and thankfully in the lee of, a big red boat, the Umka I assumed.
A witch’s hat man basket had been craned over and was on the deck of the crew boat.
The crew man grabbed my bag and threw it inside the basket, and then held the rope steady for me to stand on the base and get my arms knitted in around the netting.
Without checking to see whether I was fully ready or not, the crane driver on the Umka snatched the basket off the deck, causing it to swing wildly over the crew boat.
I held on for dear life while I was swung over the aft end and over the deck of the Umka where the crew could grab the trailing tagline and steady my swing.
I was then landed on the deck with a knee jarring thump, where I was surrounded by some people talking Spanish some Russian and others Italian.
I had arrived in Babel.
speaking English with a distinct and prim Scots accent.
“You are Jim Nelson I assume” “I’m T B” he said, offering his hand and sounding like Janet from Dr Finlay’s casebook, “me and you are the ROV nightshift”, he said as we shook hands.
. “Come along and I’ll show you the ROV Shack”
I grabbed my bag and followed Tom Brown toward the port side of the After Deck.