Portsmouth-born travel writer and cultural observer Sian Rees recalls a nerve-racking journey across the Mexico-Guatemala border, which led to deeper reflections on the meaning of identity, culture, frontiers and reality.
I’m waiting for the tourist shuttle bus at 6:00am in San Cristobal, Southern Mexico and feeling a little anxious. I am about to embark on a fourteen-hour journey across the border from Mexico to Guatemala on the same day my visa expires. I had convinced myself I would risk overstaying, but the stories of people imprisoned for this offence were mounting. I’d heard that ‘officials’ stop tourist buses on certain routes and check their documents. If someone is in the country illegally, they remove them from the bus, take their possessions and detain them until they manage to seek the help of the embassy to take them back to their own country. Our twelve-seater shuttle bus picks up tourists from different locations in the area until it is completely full. Once we are all snuggled together, sandwiched equally between people and their belongings, the driver enters and informs us that if we are not carrying copies of our vaccine passports and negative Covid test results we will be left at the border, without the possibility of getting driven back.
Is there anyone who doesn’t get anxious because of border control? I can feel my stress levels increasing as we approach (despite the soothing Mexican version of ‘Hotel California’ playing in the background). Why is it that even while I am confident that I have all the relevant information and documentation I need to cross, I am still feeling so apprehensive? I wonder if it has anything to do with power dynamics and the threat of my identity being called into question. I wonder too, if my unconscious becomes more aware, at this particular juncture, of the absurdity of borders: the aggressive way in which Otherness is created, maintained and then punishable; the way in which bureaucracy creates ‘evidence’ for the separation of spaces and bodies.
We are in the queue at the Mexican immigration office. I have 30 US dollars in my wallet as I had been told that occasionally the people in the border office ask for ‘leaving tax’. They didn’t ask me this time, my passport gets stamped, and I’m free to make my way to the final checkpoint. We all pile back into the bus, then drive into an area, just before the next checkpoint, full of restaurants, tool shops, mechanics and other goods and service places.
My anxiety, turned curiosity, of the border and its social effects and meaning has now turned into sheer bewilderment, sparked by the peculiar community we now find ourselves driving through. We are no longer in Mexico, not yet in Guatemala. The ‘border’ is no longer a singular place or destination, fixed, rigid and immobile. A point or line, like its rightful home on the edge of a page. It is now a live place, an entire area, a hive of activity brimming with human exchanges and interactions. Where did people get their mail delivered to?
Road blocked. Twelve of us, mostly carrying 70L backpacks, all presumably not used to the suffocating Mexican heat, were told we needed to walk the rest of the way to the other side. Sweat was pouring down our faces as we walked up a steep hill lined with multi-coloured umbrellas shielding women selling street food on tables underneath. We could see a sign in the distance, signalling that past that point, we would then be in Guatemala. By now I was lethargic both physically and mentally from crossing from one country to the next. Yet, there was a certain charm to walking with such exhaustion, with the idea of crossing two different countries. I liked to imagine myself as a solo explorer, risking my life walking hundreds of miles through wilderness, and soon to be arriving at my final destination and back into civilization. But the anxiety was not over yet.
We approached a small, makeshift room, closed off by curtains, with a middle-aged man tucked under a table, with a laptop and various pieces of paper sprawled out in front of him. A couple of people in the group were panicking as they didn’t have paper copies of their negative Covid test results. Thankfully and strangely unsurprisingly there was a printing shop within the border area, so we all watched as they ran up the road in search for it to try to get back before we all returned to the bus. Some people were discussing how many days they might be granted and what to answer when they asked questions about our intentions in their country.
I was bored of ‘border anxiety’ by this point. Strange it seemed to feel ‘bored’ of an emotion that carries the opposite symptoms: I was alert, my body was tense, energised and full of adrenaline and yet the situation was tedious and tiresome. Despite the perceived threat of the situation, somehow I must have been aware that borders were nothing to be anxious about. To be bored of anxiety suggests I was in some ways dissociated from any actual risk; through rationality, rather than emotion, I felt calm enough to be bored.
The man in the room, with the laptop, stamps my passport which tells me I have 90 days to roam freely in Guatemala. (That’s sixty days more than I was granted for Mexico). Those of us granted with a visa get back into the shuttle bus and drive towards our final destination for the night.
The border, or border-land, as both a concept and a place, reminds me of a concept Foucault describes as ‘Heterotopia’, a physical place which disrupts the norm; a place which obstructs reality, of unique otherness. Indeed the border, like a ship, prison, or cemetery acts as a place where the everyday culture and rules and social cues are disrupted. At or in the border, the freedom one might have in one space, only moments before is suddenly called into question; in limbo, frozen. Strangers have the right to judge you based on your birthplace, ask you personal questions, and then allow you into a space inches from where you are, based on the answers. The person seeking entry is immediately subservient. Once you are out of this ‘border’ however, everything is back to usual. Perhaps then, my anxiety comes from this. An unconscious awareness of my own lack of control and power; a fear of the liminal place where my freedom is determined for me and my identity is scrutinised. Once my freedom is granted however, these thoughts gently dissipate , that is, until the next time of course.