BOQUILLAS DEL CARMEN, Mexico -- On the southern bank of the Rio Grande, beneath the scarps of the Sierra del Carmen, a handful of mule jockeys in soiled baseball hats shelter from the sun under a straw canopy. On a plastic chair beside them, the boatman V-or Valdez croons a cappella rancheras. The river at their feet is not T.S. Eliot’s “strong brown god — sullen, untamed and intractable.” It is a shallow, emasculated stream, turbid with sediment and livestock dung. Its power is metaphysical: For more than 1,200 miles, the Rio Grande’s thalweg marks the international border between Mexico and the United States.
Eleven years ago, in a fit of post-9/11 isolationism, the United States outlawed the riparian passage that Valdez had traveled for decades, between Big Bend National Park in Texas and Boquillas del Carmen, the Mexican village on the other side of the river. The closing cost the park about $270,000 per year in lost revenue from would-be purchases made by visitors en route to Mexico and by shoppers coming over from Boquillas. And it paralyzed the tiny tourist trap of a village, which had depended almost entirely on the congenially open door to the United States. The nearest gas station or grocery on the Mexican side is 150 miles away; Boquillas is so remote that even drug cartels haven’t bothered to contest it.
After Washington slammed shut the crossing, the village lost most of its income. Its population shrank from 300 people to 100. Those who could fled to the interior; their adobes crumbled, evoking a war zone. Those who couldn’t leave grew maize and legumes by the river and raised goats.
Eleven years of hardship followed. The local diet of beans and tortillas was supplemented by the occasional offerings that benevolent gringos sneaked across the border. Treadle sewing machines for local artisans went in, quilts and gimcracks went out; money went in, but not enough, never enough. The drought of 2011 killed many goats and much of the harvest. Some Boquillans would wade across the water to deposit copper-wire tarantulas and beaded peacocks on Big Bend’s trails, next to honesty jars and bits of cardboard scrawled with suggested prices of a few dollars. Valdez, who had his own jar, would slog halfway across the river and serenade hikers.
Then, in April 2013, the U.S. government reopened the crossing: A stunning anomaly on a militarized frontier dense with history, narco-violence, symbolism, and grief. A new $2.1 million customs building for the Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry now squats behind a small garden of desert flowers and ocotillo, tucked into a cottonwood grove in the southeastern reaches of Big Bend. From the back of the building, a neat boardwalk sashays beneath steamy salt cedars and observation cameras down to the Rio Grande, to a sandy boat landing across from Valdez and his friends. A portal suddenly toed ajar.
But only just. At the port of entry, passport control is managed remotely: U.S. government agents in El Paso check documents via an automated kiosk that looks like a hybrid of a phone booth and an ATM. Most Boquillans, who do not have documents that can be read digitally, must stay on their side of the river.
I always have hewn to borders — ragged outer edges, stripped of what Gretel Ehrlich has called “the stiff veneer of civilization,” the gritty, awkward membranes that resonate and amplify our most intimate aspirations and frustrations. Borderlands carry the promise, true or false, of happiness, healing, enrichment or simply escape — and they also embody the impossibility of an exit, the dashed dreams, the boundary between what is and what is desired. Erecting or identifying borders is a primal need; so is testing them. We tiptoe across minefields to buy bread, we bring down the Berlin Wall, we puncture the rim of the visible sky and piece apart microbial life in the Hadal deep. With each crossing we create new metanarratives. “Most often,” writes Barry Lopez, “changes come from a society’s outlying districts.”
Life is acutest at such fault lines. Borders are where hope and fear, virtue and disgrace reach their utmost density, where our most rigid Manichaean impulse — to bisect the world into Self and Other — finds a perfect outlet. Points of tangency that bind real or perceived economic hellholes to imagined lands of plenty ooze with chance and desire on one side, vigilance and pity on the other. Superstitions swell to magnitudes of statehood. Droughts and floods warp brittle boundaries of water rights. Masked militiamen guard theological divides. Frontlines delineate perimeters of life and death.
What some call the periphery is the epicenter of life-giving friction between violence and beauty, between the ancient and the modern, the precarious balancing that shapes the intricacies of our humanness. We often talk about borders keeping us apart, and they do — but pan out to the sky and look down. We have sutured the Earth with walls, concertina wires, I-beam fences, Hesco barriers, tribal allegiances, religious fealties, and we are always meddling with the seams. To understand us better, travel where the stitching shows.
There is another reason borders seduce me: They are mirrors of the boundaries we carry within, of our inner compasses and intrusions. Even a beloved can be a frontier. I once had a lover who lived by a border, and he was forever redrawing the boundaries of our love. I never knew for certain if he would wave me through or turn me away. He was a landscape of desire, and I was always trespassing, always pondering the range and limitations of our hearts.
If finding and revising our personal boundaries is a lifetime task, then exploring the borders and boundaries of others allows for an introspection, a questioning: Where do I draw my own? And why?
So I pilgrimed to America’s most schismatic river, which draws its waters just east of the Continental Divide and ploughs its course through a landscape sundered over 100 million years of geologic tumult. The 2,000-mile-long boundary between the United States and Mexico is the site of world’s most massive cross-border migration: According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 2012, 159 million people crossed in cars, in buses, and on foot. Boquillas, which peers at the United States across the hazel flow of the Rio Grande, seemed a good vantage point from which to take stock of the meaning of borders. To stretch my own boundaries, I brought along Fyodor, my teen-age son, who never had accompanied me on reporting trips before. In August, he and I drove to Big Bend, hired a dingy across the river, and trudged up to Boquillas in forenoon summer heat.
From under his thatch canopy, Valdez dispatches a small crowd of oarsmen and muleteers to escort tourists to Boquillas. Some of the oarsmen wear shiny nametags and t-shirts embellished with the words BOQUILLAS INTERNATIONAL FERRY and the dubious promise: YOUR RIDE TO THE OTHER SIDE. The young man who takes us across is “Iv-S-hez, Boat Operator.”
The week the border reopened, the Big Bend Gazette ran a cartoon of an emaciated calavera with a pair of scissors slumped by an I-beam fence marked “Boquillas Crossing,” too weak to cut the ceremonial ribbon. And the day we drop in, there are not a lot of visitors to the village. The crossing, once open constantly, now allows traffic only Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Boquillas used to wine, dine, and sell souvenirs to some 300 visitors a day, six months of the year; last summer, on a good day, 10 day-trippers crossed the river to the village where 40 families still hunger.
“A border holds meaning proportionate to the disparity between the two entities on either side of it,” said David Keller, an archaeologist and historian at the Center for Big Bend Studies in Alpine, Texas, two hours north of Boquillas. “We have a Third World country on the other side. That’s why it’s much more meaningful than, say, the border with Canada.”
In Boquillas, the Rio Grande is a fickle god that giveth and taketh away. Ask Bernardo Rojel and his wife Lilia Falcón. Falcón’s father, José, opened a restaurant in Boquillas in 1973. He died two years before the border slammed shut, before Falcón and Rojel had to close the restaurant. “It was a good thing to me, that he didn’t see the closing,” Falcón told me. “He would have been devastated.” The couple reopened Falcón Restaurant — the only surviving eatery in the village —in April. The menu is an honest sampler of Boquillas’s diet: beans, tortillas, Nescafé, soda, beer. There are hopeful repairs in the kitchen, and music screeches from the open windows of a roofer’s rusty pickup.
But there is a quiet dolefulness about the place. The couple’s five children live in Woodstock, Ga., with Falcón’s mother. Falcón has a U.S. passport; Rojel does not. A few times a week, Falcón crosses the river to Big Bend’s Rio Grande Village campground store to chat with the kids on Facebook and by e-mail. There is no cell-phone coverage in Boquillas, no Internet. Rojel has not spoken to his children since he left the United States in 2011.
From across the border, Falcón brings her husband a bottle of blue Powerade. Blue is the favorite color of their youngest daughter, Josie, who turned 12 this fall. Rojel drinks. The bottle top rattles on the wooden bar, wobbles, wobbles, stops. At a plastic restaurant table, a mule driver stares across the river, nursing a glass bottle of warm Coke: a prized token of First World junk in a village with no electricity.
The crossing at Boquillas is not the saddest passage across the line that separates Mexico from the United States. One hundred and thirty miles upstream, Mexican children from San Antonio del Bravo wade illegally across the Rio Grande to catch a bus to an American school in Presidio, Texas. Upstream further still, the three long spans that link El Paso to its macabre southern twin, Ciudad Juárez, carry subdued queues of pilgrims seeking exit from one of the world’s most lethal cities. Farther west gleams the desiccated ossuary of aspirant immigrants along Arizona’s Devil’s Highway.
The Boquillas crossing packs a different kind of heartbreak, a hushed dolor of understatements. Valdez’s voice transforms La Distancia Entre los Dos from a song of two lovers into a serenade for the atomized longing that coagulates over the riverside carrizo cane, a longing for an impossible union. The ballads of Boquillas are the elegiac keening of the thousands for whom la frontera spells the ultimate divide.
Outside the restaurant, along the steep flint road from the river to the village, women and sometimes entire families stand by foldout tables set with wire peacocks, beaded scorpions, and painted walking sticks for sale. They say nothing. Some follow us with their eyes. Our ride to the other side has taken us to the land of the dead.
Then a mariachi band on the roofer’s truck radio starts a polka, and the muleteer with the Coke bottle does a little two-step shuffle in his sneakers. For a moment, the spell is broken.
I grew up in Leningrad, in the Soviet Union, knowing that I never in my life would cross a state border. The communist government guarded the frontiers lest cross-border travel puncture the anti-utopian time bubble within. The refuseniks were only the most internationally renowned example. The Russian language of the Cold War aptly divided the world into “here” and zagranitsa — “beyond the borders” or “out of bounds.”
“I wonder what one experiences when one crosses the border,” Ryszard Kapuscinski, the globe-trotting Polish journalist who also grew up behind the Iron Curtain, recalls thinking before his first international journey in Travels with Herodotus. “What does one feel? What does one think? It must be a moment of great emotion, agitation, tension. What is it like, on the other side?”
My friends and I pieced together zagranitsa from censored foreign films, from brightly dressed Western tourists whom KGB minders herded from Intourist buses to the Hermitage, from the scent of Donald Duck bubble gum wrappers we collected and traded with one another. I had never tasted, or seen, the gum itself. When I was about 12, I traveled with my grandmother to East Germany. My Leningrad classmates said it wasn’t quite zagranitsa, but still. There were border guards: first Soviet, with dogs, then Polish, without. What followed was culture shock: The supermarket in Frankfurt am Oder had sausage. In the Berlin zoo there are no cages, just deep trenches filled with water. Animals without borders.
In Leningrad, we knew that even if we managed to procure permission to exit, few countries outside the Soviet Bloc would issue us visas: Soviet citizens were threats to never return to our pauperized homeland. In 1990, Russia supplied the single largest group of international migrants, more than 12 million. (Today, the most migrants come from Mexico.) We were the muleteers of Boquillas. Except I had never had a Coke.
Then the wall came down, the bubble burst, the borders opened and changed shape. In the summer of 1990, my mother and I arrived in the United States for a month-long visit. I was 14. We landed at JFK and stepped outside. It didn’t smell like bubble gum. It smelled like piss.
I grew up and became a foreign correspondent who crosses borders for a living. I carry a U.S. passport now, but I have lived and worked on the world’s margins most of my life. And in my heart forever lies a kernel of Third-World fear. My first impulse at a border remains to hold my breath. I have no right to be here, I will be found out. Each crossing still comes with an element of disbelief.
Some border memories: The frontier with Uzbekistan a few miles northwest of Osh, Kyrgyzstan, a 3,000-year-old city on the Great Silk Road. Uzbek border guards flag down my hired ramshackle Zhiguli, order me and two colleagues to walk across a strip of cow dung. They say it is to stop hoof-and-mouth disease from crossing the border on the soles of our boots. It’s a dewy morning in September 2002; the manure is gloppy. We pull up our pants and plod across.
Highway 30 in Jordan, just west of Karameh Border Crossing out of Iraq. It is May 2003, near sunset. We are five in the car, crabby, grieving, humiliated, worn out after watching gunshot victims bleed to death in the understaffed and plundered hospitals of Baghdad; after reporting for weeks from a city raked by artillery fire and street bombings; after seeing mothers rebury the skeletal remains of their sons exhumed from dusty mass graves into which Saddam Hussein’s Mukhabarat had spooned its victims; after enduring an abusive customs check at the border. Suddenly, the driver pulls over, cranks up his car radio, and my companions pile out of the car into the empty road and begin to dance. They shake their shoulders and clap their hands to bad Egyptian pop. They jiggle their chests and drop to their knees and laugh. Soon, we are all dancing, dancing, dancing against death on the desert highway.
This year, I’ve been herding cattle with a family of Fulani cowboys in Mali. The Fulani are nomads, the world’s most brazen trespassers. They do not believe in borders. They believe God created the land, all of it, for their cows. They cross boundaries incessantly and with abandon: state borders, farm partitions, unseen ancient limits that surround precious watering holes. They pay for their insolence, too. Last year, 30 people died in a skirmish between Fulani herders and Dogon farmers on the border with Burkina Faso, near my host family’s wet-season pasture.
When we go to sleep at night, we spread sheets of plastic and woven straw mats on the ground near the cattle, with nothing to shield us from one another, from passing herders, from somnambulist cows, from the sequined sky above. But no one ever intrudes on the silence of others.
My other traveling companion to Boquillas was a 75-year-old Scot named Jim Glendinning. He is a professional border-hopper. By the time we took our trip, he had visited 136 countries; a week later, he headed to Transdnistria and Ukraine, via Oxford, England. Glendinning crossed his first border, from Britain to Switzerland, a few years after World War II, when he was 12. In 1995, he wound up in Alpine, Texas – close enough to the border with Mexico, not too far from an international airport. “The word itself, ‘border,’ conjures up mystery about the other side. To me, a border prompts excitement, difference, I’m eager to see what’s on the other side,” Glendinning mused in the passenger seat as I steered through the serrated landscape. Cretaceous marches cleaved this geography 50 million years before man thought to draw up his own boundaries — before man was.
In recent decades the long, parched quietude of West Texas ranchlands has attracted a blend of artists, millionaire eccentrics, cultural hangers-on, nature lovers looking for existential redemption. Many were drawn by the frontier myth of the American Southwest, or by the proximity to the border itself — by its potential for some half-articulated miracles.
“This is the border, the edge, of our culture, right here. That culture over there is so different. There is so much mystery in that,” said Jean Hardy-Pittman, who moved to the area from Houston in 1992 and now runs an independent bookstore in Alpine. At one point, she and her husband were planning to buy a house on a bluff in Terlingua, Texas, a scrapyard of a former mining town on the western edge of Big Bend, cobbled of clay, rusty dirt, and slabs of limestone. “We would’ve been able to see Mexico from our house. It was exciting. There was a sense of adventure. I was wondering whether I should buy a gun, just in case.”
Glendinning introduced me to Cynta de Narvaez, a New Yorker who came to the region in 1996. (She uses the verb “escaped.”) De Narvaez believes she is a descendant of Pánfilo de Narváez, the 15th-century Spanish conquistador who presided over the bloody takeover of Cuba and, in 1527, led an ill-fated expedition to Florida that killed him and most of his men. One of the four survivors, Álvar N-Cabeza de Vaca, wandered for eight years through modern-day Texas and northeastern Mexico — most of the time barefoot and almost naked, some of the time as a healer, some as a slave. In 1535, he walked past, or maybe through, what would become Boquillas del Carmen and Big Bend National Park. That year, he erected a cross at an Indian pueblo on the north side of the Rio Grande and named the village La Junta de las Cruces. Today, that village is Presidio, Texas, the place where Mexican children — descendants of the Native Americans with whom Cabeza de Vaca lived on his journey — go to school after fording the river upstream.
De Narvaez lives in Terlingua. Until a battle with Lyme disease disintegrated her arm muscles, she was a river guide on the Rio Grande: She would take you canoeing down the river gorges, skimming along the international line. After the border closed, de Narvaez raised money for Boquillas — for second-hand sewing machines, a solar-powered water pump. She revels in the proximity of the border, her own faraway nearby. “Even now, even if I’m feeling sick, if you take me across the bridge to Ojinaga, I’m happy,” she told me. “I love living where two different sets of communities interact. It’s like a social version of genetic vigor.”
We stood outside her adobe house and looked toward Mexico. A valiant August rain had cooled off the Chihuahuan Desert. The storm had blown in from Sierra del Carmen, and the land was ocher and lavender on both sides of the Rio Grande. We can choose to be here, I thought, and to devise our own borders. Bernardo Rojel cannot. Borders counteract balance by design.
A few days later, Glendinning emailed me a handful of photos from Boquillas. Absorbed in my reporting, I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that Glendinning, too, had been documenting our journey. One photo struck me. My son and I are standing against the peeling mural of Park Bar, the village’s sole cantina. We are a foot apart. We are not touching. Fyodor looks smug in that vulnerable 16-year-old-boy way. He is holding a can of Diet Coke we had bought at Falc- Restaurant and a water bottle. I am holding my notebook.
No: I am holding onto my notebook, bewildered by the boundary that bisects my life and defines it — the line between reporter and mother.
Anna Badkhen is author, most recently, of “The World Is a Carpet.”
© 2013, Foreign Policy