Growing up in Canada, I took borders for granted. I grew up in a magical time when you could cross the Canada/U.S. border with a birth certificate and a driver’s license or a government issued health insurance card. Now I realize this magical era only officially ended in June 2009, but the era of the easy border crossing truly ended back in 2001.
I remember crossing the Canada/U.S. border countless times growing up – family day trips to Plattsburg, NY or Burlington, VT, cross-border shopping excursions in an era before Walmart invaded the Montreal suburb I grew up in. Back in those days, a sleeping kid in the back seat of the black 1991 Ford Escort hatchback was the magical formula for an easy border crossing. The last time I easily crossed the US border was in 2005 and I was staying at my aunt’s house in southern B.C. a mere kilometre from the US border. My uncle woke me up early one morning. Gas prices had sky-rocketed overnight thanks to Hurricane Katrina, and he was taking me to the US to fill up the tank on his mini-van. I’m not even sure which state we crossed into. I had to look it up just now, and it turns out we were on the Washington side of the Washington-Idaho border.
The first time I ever really thought about borders as a boundary and a concept was in 1995, when my province was in the throes of the sovereignty referendum. If the “No” side won, things would continue to be status quo, and I could push the concept of borders out of my mind again. If the “Yes” side won, my parents were going to flee to Ontario as refugees in the dead of the night before the border closed, the “border” between the two provinces being an invisible line in the highway under an overpass, a line where the quality of the roads dramatically improved or deteriorated, depending on which direction you were driving in.
Now I realize the idea of borders is rather ludicrous in western Europe. For all my limited travel in Europe, the only land border I’ve ever needed to cross was the one separating the Vatican from Italy. Most of the time there is no physical boundary between the two, but on days where the Pope holds an audience, one queues up to walk through a metal detector, and away you go. No need to show your passport or other identification.
Just these guys acting as gatekeepers.
But not all borders can be crossed.
I ventured to the border between Syria and Israel, up in the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights is heavily disputed territory, so technically I was already in no-man’s land. I could see Syria, but I could get no closer. The line of trees separate the two countries.
Armed soldiers sit on both sides of the Israeli-Lebanese border. It is closed to crossing. A barbed wire fence separate the two sets of guards, and in the distance on the hilltop in southern Lebanon, soldiers have high-powered rifles pointed at me should I do anything wrong.
Six months prior to my visit, Israeli soldiers invaded this area to reclaim some kidnapped soldiers. Much blood was shed in a town 1 km from here on the Lebanese side of the border.
A year later I had a newfound appreciation of the simple border crossings between Canada and the United States. The queue might be long, but I could wait from the relative comfort of a car or Greyhound bus, instead of braving the elements with my luggage strapped to my back. I did not need to apply for a visa months in advance, I could stroll across in relative freedom once I told guards where I was going, who I was going with, and what I was planning on doing once I got back home.
This sign is deceptively friendly. We both secured Egyptian visas back home from the Embassy – a hand written affair in our passport that had us exchanging nervous glances. We queued up with all of our worldly possessions on our backs, and I immediately learned the value of traveling light.
We only had to walk 100 m through a series of checkpoints, but the process took hours. The Israelis tore our bags apart, interrogated us, tore our bags apart, dusted one of them for drugs, and sent us on our way. The Egyptians picked our belongings apart for pornography, and I was instantly glad the erotic playing cards I had purchased in Athens were safely stowed away in my friend’s bedroom back in Jerusalem. They x-rayed our bags, had us walk through metal detectors, and tore our bags apart again for good measure. Two hours later, we emerged on the other side of the border feeling slightly violated and victoriously ate a bagel. Stupid extra large backpack.
A week or so later, I braved the process again to cross back into Israel. A few days I made the trek into Jordan, this time without luggage. I was only going on a day trip to Petra, land of glorious pink carvings such as this one:
I stumbled out of my cozy hostel bed before dawn so I could be at the Rabin border crossing when it opened, at 7 a.m. I was not the only person with that idea.
2.5 hours later, I emerged on the Jordanian side. Now keep in mind I had only a small daypack with me: a large bottle of water, some snacks for the day, a notebook, a camera. Not much to search, but the Israelis took my bag apart 4 times, and the Jordanians ransacked it twice. I briefly pondered spending the day in no-man’s land between the two countries.
Instead I continued on.
Approaching the border at night is a surreal experience. The lights twinkle in the darkness, and from the Jordanian side of the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea, you can see the lights from Taba, Eilat and Aqaba – 3 very different cities, 3 very different countries.
Border crossings in Asia are a very different story. For starters, the borders are liberally open to trade. Although passports are needed to cross, the locals find ways around these rules when commerce comes in.
Our driver wandered off with our passports and enough Thai Baht to pay the exit tax, and when he returned, he arranged for our luggage to cross the border separately. I cannot stress how amazing it was to not wear Bertha on my back. (Bertha is my backpack, by the way.)
The Thai border guards smiled at my passport and examined all the stamps. He spoke Thai and Khmer, I spoke English and French. I pointed at my Thai visa and my Cambodian visa and smiled. He examined my passport photo – I had long hair when I got my passport, but short hair when I got there. I mimicked the grimace in my passport photo, he laughed and let me through. The no-man’s land between the two countries was far friendlier than in the Middle East.
You cannot show up at the Vietnamese border without a visa. Don’t even think about it. Fortunately visas are easy enough to obtain in various travel agencies anywhere in Thailand or Cambodia, or you can secure your visa at a much higher price back home through the Vietnamese embassy. I did the latter since I wanted peace of mind that my visa was legit and in order before showing up unannounced at the border.
The border between Cambodia and Vietnam (at least the one I used – there are several legitimate crossings, and many more illegitimate ones) was in the middle of a lengthy bridge over what I wrongly assumed was the Mekong river. It was actually in the middle of the Mekong flood plains, and the rainy season had just ended the week before. As the dry season progressed, the “river” around me would retreat, and this area would be transformed into lush rice paddies.
I once again imitated the scowl on my passport photo. The Cambodian official waved me through. The Vietnamese official was not so friendly. In the throws of the second wave of the swine flu pandemic, we were handed a sheet in English, French and Vietnamese detailing the symptoms of the flu and were required to sign a form stating that we were swine flu free. That wasn’t enough. We proceeded through a check point where our body temperatures were scanned, and if they were found to be too high, we were pulled aside and had our temperatures taken the old fashion way. Of course we were all nursing a hangover and sunburns at that point, and we all looked rather dodgy to say the least. I didn’t dare take any photos, since I was running a mild fever from a sunburn and covered head to toe in a heat rash to boot. I did snap this one photo once I was free and clear.
I have a newfound appreciation for sitting in the car, waiting my turn to go into the U.S. I don’t have my worldly possessions on my back, making me regret every extra pair of underwear I packed. I am in a heated / air conditioned space (time of year depending), and I speak the languages.
But I’ll be back for more border crossings, more searches, more stamps. Just you wait and see.