National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee Andrés Ruzo is back in the field doing research to create the first geothermal map of northern Peru. Follow along as his collaborator and wife Sofia reports from the field about their ensuing adventures.
Petroleum underneath our fingernails.
Hair matted with dirt and sand.
The steely odor of crude oil.
Yes indeed, we’re back in the oil fields of northern Peru! It has been an incredible experience to be able to work once more out in the desert. And this time, we are completely outside. Due to the safety regulations of some companies with which we are working, we cannot take our rental car into some of the fields where we get temperature readings from wells. So every day, we drive to base camp and transfer our equipment and supplies onto a truck, which then drives us out to the well we will be logging and drops us off there for about 4-5 hours to log the well. On the days we have time to log 2 wells, we are hauled to the next well in the same truck to spend another few hours completing the second log for the day. We finish the day by packing up and heading to base camp to reload everything into our rental car, and then make the evening commute to Máncora a half hour away.
The Short and Somber Tale of our Tent
We begin our descent into the oil wells in the early mornings, when the skies are clear and deep blue, and the wind is just enough to cool us down as we manually crank the thermometer down the wells. As midday hits, the clouds and cool skies give way to the hot sun, and the challenge to keep our energy high and our body temperature low begins. With the average daily temperature of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (over 38 degrees Celsius), we keep ourselves distracted from the heat and sharp winds by taking turns cranking the thermometer down so one of us can explore the area a bit. These breaks are usually so Andrés can take pictures and observe the geology of the area, whereas for me, they serve a more primordial function—when the effects of my unceasing chugging of water compel me to quickly find a nearby crevice and an outlying tree branch to serve as my toilet paper dispenser.
Between these necessary breaks and annotating measurements, Andrés and I talk about our plans for this field season, our hopes for the future, and laugh at the funny things that have happened to us so far, of which there is no shortage. Just last Monday, my “brilliant find” at a convenience store in town turned out to be a complete disaster. When I found out we were not going to be able to drive into the lot with our car, I dreaded the thought of hours in the desert with no structural protection from the sun (trees don’t count when they don’t have leaves). I insisted we visit the nearest convenience store to see what we could find to use for shade. Luckily enough, we found a pavilion tent on sale in the recently-built “Plaza Vea” (Peruvian supermarket chain) in Talara, I assume for people to use on the beach while sipping Pisco Sours underneath its shade. Andrés looked at it with skepticism, as we had heard that the winds are so strong where we were going that it has blown motorcycles off roads nearby. I dismissed these rumors as I thought that surely the wind would blow through the poles and that we’d be able to hammer nails with rope to hold the structure down. I’ll confess, there was also an ulterior motive, as I was secretly hoping we would have some extra time so we could hit the beach on our day off and I could be the one lazily sipping Pisco Sours underneath its shade.
Well, dear readers, would you like to know how many days the tent lasted? One! I knew we were in trouble once it began to sway from side to side, but not wanting to give up on my “great find,” I yelled above the deafening winds to Andrés, who was busy cranking, “No, don’t worry, it’s holding up just fine!” But then, as if on cue, the winds began to pick up, covering us in dirt and forcing us to stop talking, as opening our mouths meant another mouthful of sand. All of a sudden, we heard a creak, then a loud crack, which turned into a slow, drawn out groan, and as if in slow motion, the awning caved in on top of me.
Well, I paid for my insistence to purchase the tarp despite Andrés’ warning, as I sat for the remainder of the day propping up the tent with my head. Since then, we’ve put the remnants of the awning to good use. Andrés, who I swear could survive the Apocalypse, took a knife to the material and fashioned an attachment for our helmets, à la “Lawrence of Arabia,” to protect our necks from the sun.
Everything was moving at a great pace until yesterday evening, when we were wrapping up our last well log for the day. As Andrés pulled out the thermometer from the well, he noticed fraying at the end. It was clear the line was damaged, likely as a result of the high down-hole pressure in the well. Once we got back to our hotel room, he immediately called his professors at SMU. It was a tense few hours as we had no idea if we would have to stop well logging immediately.
But great news—we will persevere! Andrés’ professors gave us the go-ahead to keep logging as long as possible. Today, in between meetings with 2 oil & gas companies, Andres has spent all day wrapping the instrument in Teflon, electrical tape, fishing wire, and everything else he can think of to make sure the thermometer remains on the line. It now looks ready to be launched into space—it is completely encapsulated in layers upon layers of tape and wire and looks pretty much indestructible. All we can do now is transport it extra carefully into the field, lower it very slowly down the well, and hope it lasts as long as the next 6 wells we have to log. We have no idea what will happen tomorrow, so please send good wishes and prayers our way!
Next week, Andrés and I head off to Cusco, Peru for a break to traverse the Inca Trail with our families. I can’t wait to write about our adventures walking in the Sacred Valley and climbing up Machu Picchu. We’ll be returning here afterwards to log more wells as long as the equipment holds up. In the short term I will definitely keep you updated on whether tomorrow we leave with another well logged, or with the equipment which we call “El Muerto” (“The Dead One”) truly muerto (“dead”).