Border towns

Tachileik, Myanmar

International borders can be difficult to cross and easy to hate.  Lines are long, tempers short, guns plentiful.  BORDERS mean hassles like paperwork and annoying questions —– exactly the sort of nonsense you want to escape when you travel.  By their very presence, borders are inconvenient, an obstacle separating where you are from where you want to be.

BORDERS also hinder.  No wonder, charitable organisations choose names like ——- Doctors Without Borders, Teachers Without Borders or even Clowns Without Borders.  (It is only a matter of time before we witness the arrival of Cartographers Without Borders)  The implication is that humanitarian impulses observe no limits, especially those imposed by politicians.

wagah border ceremony

BORDER TOWNS —– a certain kind, anyway —— can be even worse.  They are rife with “naked opportunism”.  And, nowhere is this more true than in the Burmese border town of TACHILEIK.  Snuggled along the Thai border, it’s one giant bazaar, a warren of tint stalls stretching in every direction and offering every imaginable ware.

Berlin wall

BORDERS are all of these things, yet, it is not the whole story.  Borders serve a purpose, and there is pleasure, even beauty, to be found amid the barbed wire and persistent hawkers.  At a very basic level, borders provide “contrast.  It’s been said that “Time is Nature’s way of ensuring everything doesn’t happen at once”.  Likewise, “Borders are Mankind’s way of ensuring everything doesn’t happen in the same place.”  At some boundaries, life on either side stands in relief to the other, for example —— West Berlin (living colour) and East Berlin (entirely in black and white).  There it’s as if one has stepped into another country altogether.

BORDERS can also serve as a “relief valve”.  At the WAGAH BORDER CROSSING, separating India and Pakistan, soldiers from both nations angrily stomp and high-step ——– mere metres apart from one another.  This daily “pantomime of violence” helps prevent the real thing from breaking out again.

border towns

Sometimes, BORDERS are almost “comical” in their arbitrariness.  The US — Canadian border bisects the towns of DERBY LINE, VERMONT and STANSTEAD, QUEBEC.  The boundary runs directly through a library.  You can browse science fiction in Canada and then, walk a few steps to gaze at self-help in the US ( A line of “masking tape”, on the floor, demarcates the boundary.

Even the renowned “sleaziness of some Border Towns is, in a way, “admirable”.  Such entrepreneurship takes root for sound economic reasons.  In a border town, the typically interminable lag between “buying low” and “selling high” is compressed, so the resourceful and the desperate, dive in.  Can you blame them ?  Borders represent “cracks in the wall of commerce”, and for the desperate, cracks mean opportunities.

There is something “liberating” about a “good border town” and “very liberating about a “bad one”.  Neither here nor there, these “interstitial” places stand apart from the usual rules that govern the rest of the world.  There’s something about their roughness, their raw energy, their perched-on-a-precipice insouciance that is irresistible. ———– Yes, BORDERS —— boundaries of all kinds —— are good and necessary.  This holds true for even the most creative among us.  No less of a poet than Robert Frost once likened writing free-verse poetry to “playing tennis without a net”.  The truth is we crave limits and are lost without them.

Mexican American border

Research has found that we are at our most creative when faced not with “unlimited freedom” but, rather, “with constraints”.  In one classic study, psychologist Ronald Finke asked participants to create an “art project”.  Some people were given a wide range of materials —– others little.  He found that the most creative work was done by those with the fewest choices —— that is, with the most constraints, who didn’t fold when faced with an obstacle.  Likewise, a good tennis player doesn’t curse the net when he walks on to the court, but works with it, around it, over it and realises the net makes him a better player.

The same holds true for travellers and borders.  View these frontiers as inconveniences and you won’t be disappointed.  But, view them for what they are ——- MAGICAL POINTS ON THE ATLAS ———- and the possibilities are boundless.
—————– Eric Weiner (BBC)

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