I wrote this a few years ago, just months after moving to the U.S. I was in San Diego at that time, at the 49th IETF meeting. One afternoon, I had some time, so I decided to drive to the U.S.-Mexican border. It was quite an experience, and quickly afterwards I sat down in a small outdoor cafe to write down some thoughts that I had back then. I just found this piece when cleaning up my home directory.
December 13, 2000
‘Last USA Exit’ – this is the freeway exit I take. ‘Only Mexico’ – the other option. It is a beautiful late fall day in Southern California. The sun shines and the temperature is just right. I head south on the interstate, towards the Mexican border. A road like all the other roads I traveled on before. A couple of miles before the border the freeway changes: Instead by a four feet tall concrete block, the highway is divided by a 20 feet tall fence. Warning signs appear on the side of the street: they figure a fleeing family: ‘Caution’.
Being a European and – especially – a German that experienced the ‘Iron Curtain’ while it was still in place, borders are just a fact of my life. Nothing special. I still remember when driving from Cologne to Venlo involved crossing the German-Netherlands border. Slowing down, preparing the passport, waiting in line and finally smiling at the German border officer – to make sure he understands that I am no trouble. Then, driving a couple of hundred yards, same procedure. Only this time it was the Netherlands border post. Finally, I crossed the border. Tension, then relief.
The name of the exit: ‘Camino de la Plaza’. That is a Spanish name, but the street is still on U.S. territory. However, most of the people on the street do not look American at all. Actually, the fact that they are walking on the sidewalks, carrying large plastics bags, makes them already alien. Taxis form long lines and there is even a tram commuting between the city and the border.
I had quite a different border experience at the French-German border a couple of years later. At that time, Europe and the member countries of the European Union were already on the way to tighter integration. The border posts grew smaller, and more and more border posts became ‘united’: the two neighboring countries would no longer install two posts, separated by a sizable distance, but rather use two adjacent buildings and tear down one of the older post. Still, crossing the border was time consuming and there was always some tension in the air. But driving close to the border was different: Not only that one could see the neighboring country, but also one could walk there. Without any officer or guard asking for a passport. I still remember a large green field on the French-German border. The only thing marking the border was a small white stone in the ground.
The Mexican license plates are green on yellow and marked ‘Front B C’. Baja California. Most of the Mexican cars are much older the U.S. cars with the Californian license plates. There is a large sign: ‘Pedestrian Border Crossing’. Many of the bag people are walking in that direction. Old women and small children carry much more than they should. The small businesses in the shadow of the huge, gray border post building are filled with all kinds of merchandise. They are also filled with dark skinned people who are examining the quality, negotiating prices and trying to convince their children that they do not need another Barbie doll. Meanwhile, the busses to San Diego and Tijuana are rushing by.
The German-German border was different. This was not a friendly border. I walked close to the border and met some West German border guards with a dog. They were on patrol, guarding their ‘shadows’ on the eastern side. They told me that the other guys were usually very cautious and difficult to see. We walked together to the very edge of Western Germany. “You shouldn’t cross that line, sometimes they are nervous and start to shoot in the air. Or worse.” the officer told me. From our side the border didn’t look too scary in the first place: there were the tall black-red-gold and smaller white poles that marked the end of Western Germany. Behind that line was Eastern Germany – Enemy and Brother at the same time. Their large obelisks with the Hammer and Circe were a symbol of an arcane and strange society. Behind that, the first fence. That was it. It was definitively different from the French border, but only on their side. However, their side was even worse than the first looks: there were minefields, unattended automatic guns, patrols with deadly dogs and the ‘Schießbefehl’ – the order to shoot to kill.
I turn west on Camino de la Plaza to get closer to the actual border. The border crossing itself was scary and the surroundings depressing but still it was not unexpected. On the first intersection I turn right on Virginia Avenue. This is a dead end street. I stop in front of a large iron wall and get out of the car. In fact, it is a gigantic iron gate, so I walk up to it to peek through. There is not much to see except for a large yard that is bordered by a pretty new, even larger brick wall. The border patrol officer, who is standing on a small hill close by, is starting to look at me. Through his binocular. I get back into my car and drive away. Towards the ocean.
Back in 1986 I went to West Berlin, the most eastern haven of freedom at that time. The only way to get there and avoiding traveling through Eastern Germany was by plane. It was a short flight, since it was only about 300 miles away. West Berlin was still cool at this time: they knew that they were on a small, unprotected island, always threatened by the next storm. In an environment like this, live is much more intense and real. Seeing and feeling West Berlin was one thing, going to East Berlin another. This was the real border: the end of the free world, the beginning of the Enemy’s territory. Three points to stop, two different teams of officers checking our passports. I was on a charter bus, a guided tour though East Berlin. This was the easiest way to get into a Warsaw Pact state, since the tour operator has blank petitions and visas for their customers. These cost a lot of money – West German money, of course. Our bus was checked for contraband by three different teams of border guards. They used mirrors, dogs and God knows what else. It was a foggy, gray day and everything lost color on that day: the whole world turn concrete gray. Large halogen light illuminated the entire scene – at 11 am. Ghostly.
I head west on Monument Road, towards the sunset. In the distance I see a chopper cruising the skies. Then another one. Then a third. Suddenly there are six or seven helicopters, circling over the marshland. To my left, the large iron wall disappears and reappears after a while again. I start to notice the halogen lights. Every 50 yards or so, there is a huge pole with lights, directed towards the border fence. The white SUVs are the cars of the border patrol. The street is getting smaller and less well maintained. There is a lot of dirt and dust on the road; at the same time there are fewer and fewer residences. Finally a sign: ‘Border State Park – Wildlife Watching’. I continue on the road, although it gets more and more like a badly maintained country road. The entrance to the Park is open: ‘9:30 to 5:00’. Half a mile down the road I see a small cabin – I get some money out of my wallet to pay the entrance fee.
Things changed. The wall came finally down and Germany re-united more than 40 years after it got separated. The Warsaw Pact disintegrated and for the first time in my life I saw Eastern Europe not as the Enemy, but much more as a wasted land that lay bare and ready to get cultivated by the seeds of democracy and capitalism. A few weeks after the 9th of November 1989, I drove east to see relatives in Jena. The Eastern Border and its posts were still in place, but the guards were no longer as organized and harsh as before. They still exercised their military drill and their professional unpleasance, but were much less self-confident and arrogant. However, the gigantic posts with their installations of all kinds of tools of terror were still in place.
The entrance booth to the Park is deserted. The sun is already low over the marsh ahead and the shadows of the park signs get longer. An officer is approaching my car. At the first glace he looks like a park ranger, getting ready to collect my fees. However, his white SUV has large golden letters on the side of the car: ‘Border Patrol’. I ask him whether this was the Border Park and where I could park my car. He is quite tall, large and has friendly looking eyes and a red face. Quite politely, he explains me the way to the parking lot and the picnic area on the ocean side. I turn south towards the border – on a dirt road, passing the large poles with halogen lights that are mounted on small trailers. Every 100 yards. The choppers are still circling in the skies behind me. The white SUV starts and follows me.
Suddenly the iron curtain was gone. Nobody really expected it; nobody was prepared. I experienced the last remains on a hiking trip through the ‘Harz’ in 1994. The Harz is a small area of hills in northern Germany that was during the cold war. The ‘Brocken’ is the highest of these hills. During the witch burnings in the late medieval age and the early renaissance, people believed that all witches traveled to the Brocken in the ‘Walpurgisnacht’ for a yearly convention. After 1945 the Soviets and the East German regime built one of the largest spy posts on the top of the Brocken: it was only 1 ½ miles away from the border to Western Germany. Hiking in that area is fun: Nature is quite untouched in most parts, the area is not too crowded and the people are reasonably open to strangers. I chose a path that took me from my lodge (which was on – formerly – western territory) to the top of the Broken. Quite obviously, this included crossing the former border – the ‘Todesstreifen’ (death strip). You cannot prepare for that. Walking through the woods I suddenly stood in the sunlight. There was a 20-yard strip just ahead that lay bare. No trees, no bushes only a couple of dried grasses. The earth lay bare and eroded slowly away. A concrete pathway gleamed surrealistically in the sunlight, like a path made of bones. The former East used any herbicide available on this strip to keep it clear. At this time it is still quite unclear how long it will take to wash out all chemicals that were used. I walked up to the center of the strip and looked downhill. A dead belt cut through the green forest. I shivered in the heat of the sun.
I drive down the dirt road, heading west towards the ocean. To my left, approximately 100 yards away is the rusty fence. Behind it, the Mexican houses rise in the sky. The land between is marked as ‘Do Not Enter’. I see a small stadium on the Mexican side, and the
Ocean. The white SUV is still tailgating. All of a sudden there is bitumen again. There is another SUV parking on the side of the road. The driver gives me a smile and waves at me. The road is leading up to a small plateau. A clean bitumen road. Another right turn and I am on a parking lot that was designed for more than 100 cars. The grass is green; there are a couple of Grills and some signs explaining the wildlife. I stop the car and get out. I am the only one on this parking lot, except for a white SUV parking in the far corner of the lot, facing the Ocean. The fence is there: just 30 yards away. Behind the fence: a dirty but busy road and the entrance to the stadium. I start walking around the lot, being ultimately drawn toward the white SUV and the fence.
After the German border was removed, the European politicians started an even more ambitious program: the final removal of all borders between qualifying countries. Travelers between those countries were no longer required to identify themselves at the borders – all the border posts were finally being torn down. The treaty was singed in 1996 in Schengen. While this treaty was a great relief for all citizens of the member countries, it was also in invitation for organized crime. The governments of the member states were well aware of that fact and – besides the creation of a tighter integration of the European police forced, called Europol – the member of the Schengen treaty had to fulfill strict requirements in regards to securing their non-Schengen borders. Seven years after the end of the iron curtain a new, but subtler border grew through the heart of Europe: this time along economical borders: the end of the rich world and the beginning of the humble remains of the Warsaw Pact. The means to protect this border, however, stayed almost the same.
The border guard in the SUV watches the fence and its extension into the Ocean. Actually, it just looks like a large separator between two sections of the beach and it also extends not too far into the Ocean. Only that nobody would dare to cross that separator or try to walk around it. I turn towards the fence and walk to a memorial site. It is a small plaza, with a couple of large mirrors and some inscriptions. The center of the memorial is a large white obelisk: a border stone that separated Mexico and the U.S. since ages. Half of the obelisk is on U.S. territory, that other half on the Mexican side. Right and left of the obelisk is the fence. Behind the fence, the street. Cars drive by, a couple of Mexicans start to stare at me in unbelief and caution. There it was again: a real border – the end of the industrialized world and the beginning of the third world. I walk back to my car. It feels like the German border, only this time I am on the other side – and it is the right one.