Carlos Barrios Orta squeezed himself into his rubber diving suit, pulled on an 18-pound helmet that made him look like an astronaut, then lowered himself into the sewer. He disappeared into the filthy water, which looked like some cauldron of rancid beef stew, until the only sign of him was air bubbles breaking the surface.
"It's very, very cold," Barrios, 48, said into the radio microphone in his diving helmet.
Above ground his partner, Julio Cesar Cu, monitored his radio transmissions and urged him to keep talking. As long as Barrios was still chattering away, it meant that he was okay, that his air hose was working properly and that he hadn't been swept away to his death by an unexpected rush of waste -- as happened to another diver some years ago.
It was 11 a.m. in a massive drain underneath Mexico City, where the smell of human waste and rotting trash was so strong it was hard for a visitor not to vomit. But it didn't seem to bother Barrios, one of four divers who maintain the 600 miles of sewers and pipes beneath the biggest city in North America. He was just doing his job: keeping pumps and sewers clear.
"I feel plastic bottles, wires, glass," said Barrios, his every breath exaggerated on the radio.
In the darkness of the sewer, Barrios could see nothing. He doesn't bother to carry a light, because it would be of no use in the thick waters. He inched forward in his bright red suit, an airtight model that sealed away the disease all around him, feeling his way with his rubber gloves, listening in the darkness. He could hear the powerful, whirring pump that pushed the flow through a six-foot-wide pipe. His mission was to clear away the debris around it so it wouldn't back up into city streets. Thousands of homes have been flooded in the past by dammed-up wastewater.
"I've got it!" Barrios said as he pushed away bottles, plastic bags and other junk he could not identify by touch. At least there were no human bodies today, like the two he found floating by recently.
Now Barrios was singing. "I live in the water, lah-deh-dah-dum." It was a popular children's song, "The Pretty Little Fish," and Barrios sang it like he couldn't possibly have been happier. He loves his job. Two years ago, he gave up a career in accounting for this -- which, he noted, says something about accounting.
Barrios, a happy-go-lucky father of three, said none of it bothers him -- not the smell, not the dangerous spinning pump blades, not even the two cadavers. He never found out who they were, because they were carried off in the flowing waters. The police were not called. The divers, who periodically encounter bodies because sewers are popular spots for dumping murder victims, only call police when they bring a body to the surface.
The radio crackled again. Barrios was still working to clear the big pump.
"I am not sure what this is," he said. "Maybe glass bottles?"
"Stay alert. Don't get cut," Cu told him.
"Okay," Barrios said. He'd been underwater 10 minutes, and Barrios said his body had adjusted to the cold about 24 feet deep in the 60-degree water. "I'm comfortable. It's great. I feel the adrenaline."
Barrios was pumped up. No office, no pencils, no spreadsheets, no routine. He did that for 24 years. He said he's had more fun as a "wastewater diver" than he did in a quarter century of totaling up stacks of numbers. And he's proud that he's providing a service for his city, which has few resources for a more modern sewage system and must rely on divers to keep the aging equipment humming.
His adventure, as he calls it, was at this moment leading him to large pieces of wood floating dangerously close to the pump pushing the waste of a city of 20 million to treatment plants. Who knows how the lumber -- or for that matter, the plastic bags, toothpaste tubes, shoes and other discards -- ended up here? Perhaps some poor family's shack was washed away by heavy rains and flowed into the sewers.
Barrios snagged one beam, then another, with a hooked crowbar, putting them in a steel cage that hauled them to the surface.
The scariest thing, Barrios said, was when his gloves felt what he thought was a human arm. He radioed that he feared he was bringing up a dead child. "But it turned out to be a teddy bear," he said. "It was such a relief."
For this, Barrios earns about $480 a month. It's not much, certainly -- his diving helmet alone cost the city $3,500 -- but it's more than he ever made as an accountant. He has never been sick, but his wife and children love to kid him when he comes home from a day in the sewers, shouting, "Don't come near me!"
Barrios is a compact man, not quite 5-feet-6, with an easy smile. He swims competitively, and dreams that when his young children finish school, he can move to the sea, perhaps on the Gulf of Mexico, to swim and dive in crystal-clear waters. But for the moment, he said, he's happy to know that while there are millions of divers in the oceans, only four have the privilege of diving in the Mexico City sewer system.
About a half hour after he lowered himself into the water, Barrios broke the surface. Cu and some others raised him to street level in a steel basket. Barrios said he felt great as Cu tossed buckets of soapy water on him to get the gunk off his diving suit. Barrios then peeled himself out of it, and he and Cu stowed their equipment for the next dive.
Lunchtime. Barrios said he had sure worked up an appetite down there.
He was ready for a taco.