Walkabout posts July 29, 2016
For some time, I have been making one-line notes about every “story” I have to tell in life and they are numerous indeed. There are so many, in fact, that I will of necessity be required to sub-divide my life in order to make any progress at all in actually telling these stories.
One of the most profound changes in my life was when I decided to go and work in South America. As a result, very many of the one-liners (over 70) are specifically about Venezuela, where I was based from 1989 to 1993 or more generally about other countries in South America, where I worked then and afterward. This will require some background even before we get to Venezuela. I will start out chronologically, but I am quite sure that, before long, I will be tumbling randomly around in Time like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim.
Upon graduation from the University of Texas, I had little or no direction in life. I had spent my college years studying Physics and Astronomy, but there did not seem to be any career path that I was qualified to enter. I had a few years of welding and mechanical assembly experience that might have supplied a modest but respectable income. In the last few part-time semesters, I was working at a piece-work metal shop. One is paid by the unit produced and with practice, I was eventually producing enough that I estimated myself to be one of the highest paid students on the UT campus. I presumed that I should find something more technical and I did soon do so. But, it was years before I was again earning as much as the metalwork and assembly were providing.
I had worked assembling large all-terrain vehicles and the portable drill rigs they carried for a seismic exploration company called GeoSpace. Knowing something of that industry led me to apply at such companies. At least one such company offered me a field position as a welder/mechanic. At the time, I was uninterested in field work and wanted to find something more than the same assembly and metalwork as before. It might have been a better path to start there, after all. But, that is water under the bridge. What I did find was an office job processing seismic data on IBM mainframe computers. At this point it might make sense to explain a bit about the seismic industry.
Oil and natural gas are an organic part of the structure of the Earth in sedimentary rock. As deposition of sediment occurs it buries the remains of plants and animals which are broken down into hydrocarbons and covered by more sediments until they undergo a transformation into petroleum. Natural gas is petroleum (literally “rock oil”) that has been so broken down as to be gaseous in nature. The oil and gas is present in most formations but many are impermeable and will only give up their fluids where they are fractured by faults of flexures. Those “traps” can be found with sound waves – just like ultrasound.
Processing of such data is technically complicated enough to require some scientific training. Acquisition and processing of such data was in high demand at the time. That is where I wound up spending an entire career. But it started in processing and I spent eight years there, in windowless gang-offices, pretty much going nowhere fast. I managed to get to the field finally and found an entirely different world there. The people I worked with there were all tough, capable, intelligent and multilingual. I like to think of myself in those terms, as well. 😉
I first arrived in Maracaibo and immediately thought I had arrived in, perhaps Brazil, by mistake because I could not understand the people I met. The trouble is that they speak a thick-tongued, letter dropping dialect that is to Spanish almost as Welsh is to English. Listen here – Welsh
Well, maybe not that severe, but I still cannot understand them.
Many a time after that, I requested my co-workers from Caracas or Colombia or Peru to interpret the mutterings of some Maracucho and often they would tell me (in relatively impecable Spanish), “I am sorry Señor Campbell, but I did not understand him either.”
Where we worked was South across Lake Maracaibo near a town called Caja Seca (Dry Box). The town itself had a hotel and a few other signs of civilization, but the camp was about 40 miles away and “in the middle of nowhere”. Work took most of the ex-patriot workers (ex-pats) far afield, but I spent most of my time processing seismic data, there in the camp. Most of the crew (maybe 50 men) were Venezuelans and only five to ten were ex-pats. When I say “we”, the ex-pats are who I am talking about.
You might think I had not made much progress, what still processing data and all. But look at the big picture. I was in another country, on another continent working with and training Spanish-speaking geophysicists to process data in the field. This was unknown in the past and a worthwhile innovation that we were just instituting. Before, the results of seismic acquisition could not be seen for weeks or months after it was acquired. It could not be known even if the targeted formations could be seen at all, in many cases.
The job paid substantially more than my office gig in Houston and my room and board were taken care of. Granted, I lived at the time in a trailer with five other ex-pats in over-under bunk beds. But, the food was not bad, freshly made from local ingredients. I worked continuously for six weeks, then had two weeks off. My salary was paid directly to my bank. I could cash checks with the company for spending money and I also received a monthly stipend called a living allowance that would provide enough for hotels and food during my two week breaks…in the Caribbean. It was a different and more interesting world.
We occasionally had a chance to go into town and use the telephone in the hotel, since we kept two rooms there for our client representatives. Telephones in Venezuela then were about fifty years in the past. To make a long distance call, it was necessary to ask a girl at the switchboard to call the US and then wait patiently while she called again and again until she got through. There was also a bar in the hotel and, of course that is where we waited. I met a very good-looking barmaid there whose name was Nubia. I was still struggling to remember my High School Spanish, but she seemed quite willing to converse with me patiently for hours at a time. The fact that the exchange rate allowed me to tip most generously might have had something to do with that.
Nubia was Colombian and had a slightly Asian look that was most attractive. My family back home got plenty of phone calls in those days which required me to be often in her bar and I went out of my way to be there when she was working. Nubia and other Colombian Barmaids taught me to dance, as well. Let me hasten to point out that I was then a single man, yet to meet the woman who is now my wife (just in case that particular woman may ask you). And don’t listen to that particular woman when she tries to tell you that they were all “ladies of the evening”.
One thing about the “different world” that stood out clearly was the difference in the attitude of women in South America. U.S. women at that time were undergoing a radical and militant period of “feminism” that left them quite hostile toward men. They thought themselves “superior” to men and were quite unpleasant to be around – apart from…well, you know. It was as if they thought that, to be equal to men, they needed to act like men. And not real men did they imitate, but rather the false image of “macho men” – from their strange feminist mythology. It may well be that not all US women were like that. But, I was having no success finding those that were not. I did not leave the country for that reason, alone. But, I knew I was not happy in my own country and I wanted to see what else was out there. It worked out well.
Women in South America know they are women, different and better than males and they have no need to act like real or imagined men. Far from despising – on the contrary – they like men. And, they especially like men who treat them well – “Caballeros”, they called us. Most of the local men were not much like that, but I was raised to be polite toward women. In the 80’s that got me nothing but contempt and ridicule from the US girls, but by contrast it made me quite popular with women in South America. Add to this that the change in diet and activity caused me to lose about 80 pounds, quite rapidly and become once again the slim, good-looking fellow that I had been in my 20’s. Considering that, you will not be surprised to learn that I was married just seventeen months after that landing in Maracaibo. I am still married to that Peruvian woman and we have two very good sons who have both grown to be responsible adults.
Overall, it was a different and far, far more interesting world. That decision to work abroad changed my life forever and for the better. Much better.