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Border Towns and Border Crossings

South Africa's newspaper The Weekender published this article in its 4-5 July 2009 edition, under the headline "Crossover Curiosities." The subheadline said 'John Miller finds border towns emphasise what unites people, not what separates them.' They included a couple of relevant photos, but not this one of the cable car crossing from South Africa to Botswana.

You'll have to read the whole story to see what I'm talking about.

Border towns are intriguing places. Their distinct identity defies our stereotypical view of the countries in which they lie. In such places, residents identify themselves less with their country and more with their neighbours across the border.

The mix of cultures and language that should be awkward, is rarely noticed. In fact, some border towns are so unusual they are not a transit point, but the destination itself.

Rio de Onor in the northeastern corner of Portugal, and Rio honor de Castilla in northwest Spain, comprise a single town in a remote agricultural area. A large stream (barely a river) separates the countries, but nothing separates the people.

There was a gate when I visited many years ago — a heavy, aged boom cut from a chestnut tree, permanently in upright position. There was no border guard on duty then and with the advent of the Schengen rules of the European Union, I’m sure the boom gate has been removed.

Whether on the Portuguese or Spanish side of the stream, residents displayed their produce for sale on small tables lining the single, main dirt road, chatting in their native Leonese or Rionorês. At day’s end, they strolled to their homes built high off the ground, warmed by the cattle sheltered directly below.

The character of other borders is defined by a region rather than the crossing itself. A remote Malawian border post shares Likoma Island beachfront with market stalls and clothes washers on Lake Malawi. Its Mozambican counterpart is a shack on a little hill in the village of Cóbué on the eastern shore of the same lake, now Lago Niassa.

The many villages on the lake comprise a single, vast community that pays little attention to the political boundaries of nations and the formalities that take place at those border posts.

Regardless of what is on either side of a border, the crossing itself can be quite an experience. Long ago, a friend and I travelled by foot from rural northern Argentina to rural southern Bolivia. We had walked a kilometre from our humble lodging in La Quiaca, Argentina, where a bus had dropped us the night before, to the frontier into Villacón, Bolivia.

Exiting Argentina was easy: the border post opened on time at 6am; the distinguished official stamped our passports; and the gatekeeper raised the boom. Not 10m later, the Bolivian gatekeeper was on duty though unable to welcome us to his side without the approval of his boss, the absent border official. The gatekeeper called over a young chap, let’s call him Juan, to escort us to the official’s home.

With Juan at the helm of his wheelbarrow and laden with our backpacks, we entered Bolivia with caution. We walked the dusty tracks as illegal aliens, enjoying smiles of wide-eyed children, taciturn faces under bowler hats, babies and produce on backs, a market town coming to life in the early morning.

We soon rounded a corner to a wide and prosperous street of sturdily constructed, two-storey houses with fenced lawns. We dutifully followed Juan through the garden gate of a respectable home. When no one answered his knock at the door, Juan opened it himself, invited us in, and encouraged us to go with him up the stairs. His knock on the bedroom door there elicited a one-word reply — “Entre”.

We were face to face with the Técnico Aduanero de la Aduana Nacional de la República de Bolivia. In striped pyjamas, propping himself up on his pillow, he retrieved the accoutrements of his office from his bedside table — a rubber seal and ink pad.
With a stamp in our passports, the weighty functions of his office were fulfilled.

We were legally in Bolivia.

Not long after, I crossed from the US to Mexico at a border similarly obscure, remote and odd.

The signs from the south Texas highway to the town of Los Ebanos were clear. Once in the town of unpaved streets with occupied homes alongside empty ones, I relied on my sense of direction to find the hand-drawn ferry that made the 25m crossing of the Rio Grande.

I drove farther from the highway on a slight descent and asked directions of anyone in the shade.

There was no queue. My car and one other rolled down the bank onto an unsteady steel raft that had room for a third car. There was a loosely hanging rope at raft’s end, ostensibly to prevent vehicles from rolling into the muddy river.

We were quickly under way, and before I had a chance to offer the four operators my help muscling the ropes through the pulleys fixed to the ebony trees on both sides, we had arrived.

It was time to start the motor and drive up the bank into Mexico. Only another 7km to reach downtown Ciudad Gustavo Díaz Ordaz.

Years later, my partner and I crossed the Limpopo River from the farmlands of SA to the Tuli Block of Botswana. The summer rains had been good so the river at Pont Drift was much too high for our smart 4x4. There are no border towns here, only an unusual border crossing.

We left our bakkie for several days in the shade and safety of SA and walked the few hundred metres to a large shed high on the banks of the river. It stored goods destined for Botswana — lumber, zinc, foodstuffs; as well as goods recently arrived from Botswana — small suitcases and plastic bags of personal possessions. The shed also housed one end of the cable car over the river.

The two of us stepped onto the slightly swaying car. The operator closed the gate and gave a hand signal to his counterpart 200m away in Botswana. With the push of a button, the two-minute journey began, time enough to appreciate the unique mode of travel, but barely time to look up the river, down the river, back where we came from, and forward to our arrival. The car halted at a covered hut overlooking the river at the edge of a parking lot that hosted scurrying chickens. As soon as we paid R35 each for the voyage to the Limpopo Valley Access (Pty) Ltd operator, he returned to his game of Morabaraba with his friends and we walked into the office, our passports in hands.

Borders that keep regions apart and separate towns in two also focus our imagination on the whole of those parts, and the short journey between them.