Walking borders

I get out of the taxi on a highway offramp. The driver, from Dongguan, doesn’t want to be on the surface streets of Shenzhen. After a week on the road I don’t mind, and I shoulder my backpack and duffle. I weave through stopped traffic to the curb, following it down to ground level. The border is less than a hundred meters away, a large building that houses Chinese customs connected to a walking bridge across the river to another building that houses Hong Kong customs and the Lok Ma Chau train station.

I’ve walked further to borders.

Carrying gear through traffic on the surface street I pause on the dotted yellow as cars start to move and pass on either side. It’s an action that would cause problems in San Francisco or New York but here, like so much of the world, is simply part of crossing the street. Three cars later there is a gap and I am on the far sidewalk. Five minutes later I’m in line for exit customs. Five minutes after that I look at the river that separates Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Like always it makes me realize how small the differences are between places and how much impact they have on our lives.

Borders are largely artificial. Yes, the river forms a nice demarcating line, like the Rio Grande between Texas and Mexico, but the differences in income, opportunity, language and safety are not caused by the river.

On the train into Hong Kong the air is already slightly better. Pollution does not respect borders, but the sources of it do. Hong Kong’s air has worsened over the last decade due to its proximity to Shenzhen, Dongguan, and the whole Guangzhou region, but it’s still better than those cities. So too is the food, Internet, and transit, not to mention salaries. The effects of man. Housing is more expensive though, so many Hong Kong residents have started living in Shenzhen, commuting across the border to take advantage of the artificial cost disparity.

Walking this border is new to me. I first crossed it on foot less than a year ago, though the lines and shops have grown familiar with frequent repetition. Without an electronic ID card I have to wait in line, unlike my commuter friends. It’s still an amazingly efficient border, on both sides. Hong Kong customs are rightfully considered a model, fast, well-organized, and simple to cross. Being a trading port and an international hub requires good customs, I think.

Less than one year. Surprising to me, as it feels like much longer. Fourteen times at least. First with others, colleagues and factory representatives. Then by myself, often met on one side or the other. And now, in a taxi I found, dropped on the off ramp from the highway.

The borders we cross say a lot about our lives. As a boy from upstate New York, the frequency with which I walk the Hong Kong Shenzhen border serves as a shorthand explanation of my job, checking factories and working on manufacturing problems. It also outlines another, more common border I frequent: that between San Francisco and Hong Kong, delineated by airports and the Pacific. This border, seemingly unremarkable, is of course the slowest to cross, and the most expensive. Impossible on foot, or as a daily commute.

Two years ago my border crossings were very different, the product of another job, another life.

In that life I stepped out of the minivan into the harsh light of a Juarez autumn. I carried less, just my backpack, and walked faster through traffic, uncertain of its comfort with mid-stream pedestrians. Hawkers on the corner offered beads and newspapers. The footbridge, a couple hundred meters ahead, arced up over to the U.S. border beside the bridge for cars, jammed and barely moving. Without me onboard my host could avoid this line, using his express pass to meet me on the other side. By walking four hundred meters I saved us each an hour or more. It was an easy trade.

That border changed my travel strategy, led me to the single backpack packing method I use everywhere now. It also taught me that the strangest feeling a border can bring is that of having to ask to be let back in to one’s own country.

So much easier, less stressful, and faster, to ask for permission to enter Hong Kong.

The walking borders of my life two years ago were all between Mexico and the U.S. Mostly El Paso and Juarez, but also Tijuana and San Diego, after long days on the road. Those trips, a staple of my 2012 existence, have disappeared from my life entirely, replaced by Shenzhen and Zhongshan, by so many evenings in Hong Kong. In some ways it’s a direct exchange. I have traded the hot summer afternoons in Mexico, the air dry, for Hong Kong’s humidity and Dongguan’s pollution. Walking back from where the car traffic became impenetrable, almost a mile from the border in Tijuana, to my rental car on the other side of the US border, heading to San Diego airport, flying back to SFO, all that has been replaced by a car ride to Lok Ma Chau, a walk across that bridge, a train ride to Yau Ma Tei, a train to HKG, a flight to SFO. Longer, but much the same. Travel necessitated by sprawling supply chains that are themselves created by the artificial borders I cross.

What would I have said, at twenty, if told that fifteen years later I’d walk the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong a dozen times a year? Would I have been more surprised to know that at thirty three I’d spent months in Juarez? I suspect that twenty year old would be surprised by both, and then by neither, because he too was always seeking adventure, seeking to understand new things and to learn new places. He would be surprised at the specifics, at this afternoon’s offramp stroll. The general picture, of a life on the go, crossing borders on foot for money, would seem entirely appropriate. Or perhaps that’s the present talking, aware of all the strange jobs and odd decisions that brought me here. Perhaps that boy of twenty would doubt this future’s existence entirely, knowing little of Mexican factories and less of Chinese customs.

Either way, I’m glad to be back in Hong Kong, one border closer to home.

Cities of accident

Ciduad Juarez is dusty and chill. In the long sunlight of the middle of November I stand in the courtyard to warm myself. Behind a chain link fence topped with razor wire a small canal separates the yard from the street beyond and the houses that line it. The canal is built of cinder block, and the water that runs through it is a trickle winding its way through piles of leaves and rubbish. Off to the right it continues out of sight, running between the road and this strange strip of quiet land, behind factories and hotels. Left it ducks behind the concrete building I have emerged from and continues on to the main road, disappearing beneath it into a culvert.

The break yard has several beat up office chairs, two dusty concrete benches, and the remnants of someone’s lunch, a crumpled wrapper and a can of soda. In the lazy afternoon light it looks deserted for decades rather than hours.

Yangzhou looks like a Chinese city. The generalization is a particular one, born of identical train stations, hotels, party buildings and apartment blocks. The first groups of these towers, built five years ago, have terraces and are six stories high, walk ups with nice gardens now slowly being converted into parking. Row upon row of these, identical, were built all over China before each tenant had an automobile or aspired to one. The ponds were initially stocked with koi, a few of which remain. The leaves on the landscaped shrubs and trees are covered with the dirt that settles the air, coal dust carried for miles. Balconies likewise, which remind me of mine in Shanghai that had to be cleaned weekly to be habitable. The sidewalks that wind beside the buildings in each of these complexes are almost completely parked over with VW’s and Audi’s, Buick’s and local brands, mostly black, mostly sedans. This is a Chinese city in two thousand twelve, new towers, new subways, new streets still rising while the old wear fast.

Yangzhou looks familiar after passing Wuxi, Suzhou, Changzhou, Zhenjiang on the train. I am here on a Friday morning, my second trip in a week. Across the Yangtze on a ferry from Zhenjiang, Yangzhou was probably a unique place when I first moved to this country.

These are the cities of accident. They are places I never intended to visit, let alone return to. They have renown spots and local problems, neither of which I will spend much time on. Instead I will visit rooms of concrete where large numbers of people gather to make physical objects for humans they will never meet. It is an odd trade at this level, the view of globalization both immediately present and impossible to understand, far beyond the horizon.

In the late summer the courtyard in Juarez has been spruced up, flowering trees and new chairs. Some space has been cleared beneath the largest tree for the lunch table, which looks both more recently wiped and more regularly used. The air still has the desert’s distinct dryness and the sun lurks overhead, ready to subordinate those out of doors too long. I am happy to see the changes, the growth that is born of daily efforts to improve rather than sudden wealth and dictated construction.

I wonder what Yangzhou will look like when I see it next. I do not know when that will be.  No matter the date there will not, I suspect, have been a change as great as that from bicycle to car, of a million people suddenly learning to drive. As far as China goes my time there was perfect, coincided with the wave. All else is bonus, extra time on set.

The ferry was a gift today, I tell myself in the mirror of the G train back to Shanghai. Until this week I had never been on a boat on the Yangtze. I had never been on a working boat in China, nor had it been on my list.

Sometimes the road, rather than the destination, is the day’s gift. Flowers in the Juarez break yard, road crews building by hand in Yangzhou. These are cities I am lucky to see, to know, and to watch change, even if only small patches in brief moments of time alone.

Readily available cures

In my Mexican hotel room Lost in Translation plays, a mirror for those adrift. I am again feverish in a country not my own and so relish the sounds of Japan, the clean linen, the Gatorade and air conditioning. Perhaps it was the food, or perhaps pure exhaustion from a weekend spent running in the sun at Stanford and several extremely long days on my feet.

On screen Bill Murray smiles awkwardly. I shiver. In this box of manufactured air I am secure, and I heal. Tomorrow I will rise early and step again into the heat that waits outside my door, in the very hallway. Tonight, like those lost souls in Tokyo on TV, I ignore Juarez. Instead I try to find some space to breathe, and to think of how fix the problems I am here to see. How to do the right thing, once I have discovered it.

I also remember.

In the Summit, an expensive Shanghai apartment complex behind The Center, a glass tower on Huashan Lu then but a few years old, I remember a man of thirty. He lay for a day and a half in bed. He shivered and shook with some unknown disease contracted in the manufacturing sprawl outside Shaoxing. He cured it the way he was accustomed to in China, with Advil, Gatorade, and thick covers. The Saturday I remember was his one day off out of three weeks in country, and he saw nothing outside of his friend’s apartment, the guest bedroom.

Out the window in Juarez a pool glows in the evening, abandoned for the moment by hotel guests. A gym next to it features men working off business lunches by pounding their knees on an endless rubber path. I have energy for neither sit-ups nor discontent.

I am in a country without holding any of its currency. The idea of this is bemusing and inconvenient as the vending machines on the floor below might otherwise offer sustenance. I toss and turn, occupied by the soreness of sickness. Somehow all of these illnesses, all of these aching hours alone in strange countries, blur together in feverish dreams.

On an airplane across the Pacific, I remember a man age twenty eight.  He had a bulkhead seat, but did not appreciate the space. Neither blanket nor hoodie could stop the chills and the aches of the illness he had contracted in Houston and incubated on the flight to LA. On reaching home in Shanghai he would remain housebound for a week. He would learn of his roommate’s soup-making skills and see little save the sallow face in his own mirror.

At thirty two, I leave Juarez for Phoenix with the illness still inside me. Shivering in the Phoenix airport as the air conditioning floods down, almost unable to stand, I take comfort in having still never been as ill as on that flight to Shanghai.

On the flight home to San Francisco, finally free, finished with the week in the Juarez Holiday Inn Express, I count up those other lost days, ill in countries not my own. So often I have been powerless save for the cures I knew: Advil brought with me, Gatorade purchased for scant dollars, and covers of a bed briefly borrowed.

I am glad once again to be going home to a house that is not empty. Going home to someone who will aid me in ways, alone and with so little language, I have never managed to improve.

When in clouds

Directions are meaningless without a view of the ground. They serve as only the end points of a journey, and the transition from Texas to Nevada is difficult to note without the details of terrain, without any sense of the obstacles crossed. In the dark Las Vegas looks like a place half built by fantastic creatures with wild minds and half built by the most boring of beige square-desiring late 20th century Americans. Despite our individual wants we cannot escape the habits of comfort and communal conformity. In the seat behind me a woman composes a presentation. To my left another reads a self-help book, part of a poorly named genre.

To my right the window looks out on the Pacific, another journey entirely. The water feels fresh and beckoning, like the edge of the world I know it not to be. The opposite side has seats facing the valley, facing the mountains and deserts beyond that. Each time I am offered the choice on a small screen filled with chairs I choose the ocean, never the land.

I grow older on these flights, and learn about the bible.

An hour outside of Texas a woman gives me her explanatory book, heavily annotated. I cannot bear to throw away her efforts and in turn carry it for weeks, looking for a home for this most worn of thin-paged texts. Twice I offer it up to others who take it in jest and then peruse in earnest, once even borrowing it for a week, but eventually it is returned.

We travel in circles, unable to see.

I awake one morning in JFK with my best friend, and we have coffee without hurry at a place near the gate. He is sure this is the best the terminal has to offer, I am confused by the brief blast of humidity between jet and jetway and gate. A week later he will come home from work to find me reading on his sofa, us both within reach of the Pacific. In between he will see Vegas and I will see…

I stand on a mesa outside of a Mexican town famous only for its affordable beer. There is no sign of habitation save the road that stretches off in front of me, first down the hill and then out into the valley. In the distance other plateaus rise likewise from the rock, without vegetation or inhabitants. Across this vast expanse of land the weather varies but with enough visibility nothing it will bring can surprise.

Behind me stands a great mass of concrete and steel designed to keep men from their families, and from doing whatever they please. Ahead of me some few miles runs a strange fence, its individual panes the shade of rusted iron. It sways in the wind slightly, or seems to from a distance. From this side I do not approach it, tales of American vigilante posses too possible to tease me.

I do not quite grasp the language, but the motions for removing one’s belt and wallet seem to be a universal constant, and I leave the car with only my ID. It is worn and will be replaced in 2012 with one that bears a more passing likeness to me.

“Where is that boy?” one of my companions says, when presented with that smiling picture.

“It’s from a photo booth under the Saikyo line in Japan,” I say, as though that explains everything.

We walk in through scanners and detectors, with declarations and pat downs, to do the things we woke early in another country to do. And on the way out we stand quiet in the startling brightness, the sun in full reflection off the concrete and sand, and cover our eyes with our hands.

We do not speak about it, but we are trying to remember this landscape forever.