Distraction Free Reading

Audio Ethnographies of Water from Latin America: Attend the Rains

Each night and day in the industrial port of Ciudad del Carmen (Campeche, Mexico), dozens of Pemex oil platform workers roll their small suitcases across the concrete as they approach the dock to board ships that will take them to offshore platforms for two-week shifts. At any given moment, seventeen thousand people live and work aboard the ships and platforms in aging infrastructure. On land, dozens of logistics workers spend their days observing. They watch the movement of people and the movement of the weather. They then record it and make decisions based on what they note. Constant transport—from workers to provisions and materials—is required to maintain a constant drilling rhythm, and all needs to happen according to schedule, a task made more complicated by the volatile weather conditions that characterize the Gulf of Mexico.

Each morning, Pemex’s meteorology office receives multiple calls from platform supervisors before starting the work. Someone answers the phone: Si, meteorología? From the platform, a voice on the other side reports their location: sometimes “Ku-H,” sometimes “Nohoch.” Those are platform names, often derived from Mayan words, abbreviated, and voiced monotonously.  The meteorologist flips through a few tabs in the database containing current wind, cumulative precipitation, and wave height records from the nearest on-site weather station. The platform supervisor issues a quick thanks: as long as the numbers read out loud on the phone are under a certain value—understood to mark the threshold of risk—the work can proceed. The morning calls and provision of daily weather reports make up the core of the meteorologists’ monitoring labor. Their charge is to watch for bad weather, to attend to the rains and winds that threaten the continuous pace of oil drilling, and to alert other workers when the need for the alignment of production to the rhythms of weather arises.

June and July mark the onset of the rainy season. During the weeks before hurricane season becomes a threat, evenings are interrupted by punctual turbonadas, squalls that appear as a thick, velvety gray curtain on the horizon bringing sudden rains from the southeast. Inside the meteorology office, the sound of these evening rains is often diffused. While looking at satellite maps, the meteorologists play their favorite songs and banter with each other about which numerical model to trust this time.

Towards the end of the sound mix, you can hear one of the meteorologists joking with his colleague: tú a cuál le vas, mexicano? Which one are you rooting for, fellow Mexican? The utterance is reminiscent of an exchange one might hear about one’s soccer team. Yet in this context, it refers to a choice among two weather forecast models, the Global Forecast System (GFS) and the European model. Each offers a slight variation on the geography and intensity of predicted rainfall, which is required to issue storm warnings for the ships and flood warnings for inland drilling in the neighboring state, Tabasco. The allusion to a casual bet between friends is far from exceptional: the meteorology team members have to ‘pick sides’ every day, and in doing so they follow a mixture of habit, comparison, and trained intuition. This year, they told me, the European forecast model seemed a bit too dramatic and exaggerated, coming up with excessive amounts of rain all the time. Without direct knowledge of the black-boxed parameters that generate a particular numerical forecast in lieu of another and which vary every year as they are modified at a global scale, the meteorologists in Pemex’s offices build familiarity with algorithmic models as if they were trusted horses or teams: temperamental, a bit out of shape during some seasons, sometimes shocking with an unexpected great performance.

In this audio ethnography, office, industrial, and atmospheric sounds overlap. The bits of space, rhythm, and phenomena surrounding Pemex’s logistics center are condensed: asphalt, wind currents, squalls, tires, a truck supplying natural gas, office equipment, luggage, rain, conference calls, chit-chat. This is a combination of sounds that I never encountered directly layered onto one another in the field. Indeed, not only inland logistics experts but even operation managers aboard offshore platforms spend their work hours in air conditioned, shielded control rooms, with blinds down that don’t even allow the variation in sunlight to tell the time. The work of these observational experts is shielded from direct exposure to environmental conditions, even when the ultimate reason behind their work is oil production’s dependence on a precise attunement to weather and sea conditions. Their work thus consists in predicting and planning around environmental conditions from which they are almost entirely shielded. By listening to the sounds of weather in the midst of an industrial operation that attempts to isolate cognitive and logistical work from environmental exposure and yet is thoroughly structured by it, my intention has been to explore how tension emerges between cognitive, industrial, and atmospheric rhythms. Writing about temporal attitudes at the eve of the industrial revolution, E.P. Thompson describes seamen whose work it is to “attend the tides: the patterning of social time in the seaport follows upon the rhythms of the sea; and this appears to be natural and comprehensible to fishermen or seamen: the compulsion is nature’s own” (1993: 60). For Thompson, such traditional attitudes toward time existed in opposition to industrial work rhythms, organized by numerical clock time. This sound piece attempts to complicate such a distinction, proposing instead that we listen to the way in which social and environmental time markers interact with each other in the context of Mexico’s offshore oil industry.

Listen to the audio ethnography:

Audio Description

This post was curated by Multimodal Contributing Editor Pablo Aguilera Del Castillo.


Thompson, E.P. 1993. Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture. New York: New Press.

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