Post Cards From The Borders, Part One

Queensland/New South Wales, 1996 – 2004

When I was small, my family lived in a small city on Queensland’s Wide Bay. At least once a year we would load up and drive south, usually over two days. The destination was Tamworth, where my mum grew up and where my grandmother still lives.

For me, the most exciting part of this trip was the crossing from Queensland into New South Wales. As we rose up onto the Tablelands and zipped by Stanthorpe, I was thrilled to see the exotic black-and-yellow license plates appearing among the familiar green-and-white Queenslanders. Once we entered the border-straddling town of Wallangarra I watched for the “Last Pub in Queensland” and then the train-shaped sign designating the exact line between one and the other. I sometimes asked my parents to stop at the park there, because I had this strange urge to wander from one side to the other on foot, toying with the limits my mind had imposed on the landscape.

While people in New South Wales spoke the same language, accepted the same currency and mainly lived among the same flora and fauna as we did in Queensland, I looked hungrily for differences. The air was colder, for example. The decals designating a police car were different, and the officers wore slightly different uniforms.

By the time we’d reached Stanthorpe, the stilted Queenslander houses that characterised my hometown had long since disappeared. However, I never noticed their absence until we passed through Tenterfield, the first brick-and-timber town of size on New South Wales’ portion of the New England Highway. As the “familiar” territory faded away, I remember settling back in my seat and relishing the drifting feeling of venturing deeper into this foreign country.

Europe and the Middle East, 2010

When I was 19, a friend and I planned to go to Europe on our first overseas trip as independent travellers. As kids with little experience of the world outside of high school, the flight represented a horizon in time beyond which everything would change, a simultaneously exciting and frightening prospect. In the preceding months, I had tried to picture what the trip would actually be like. This daydreaming always conjured a vague idea of “roaming,” which involved picturing myself wandering in bucolic European countryside, camping on beaches and crossing exotic borders.

I grew up in a pair of small, regional cities — we eventually moved to the foreign nation of New South Wales — in Australia, a self-consciously distant and stable backwater in the increasingly homogeneous global culture we like to call “the West.” Australians crowd their coasts and, baffled by the deep time represented in the geology and indigenous traditions in the interior, tend to look to the rest of the world for their cultural cues. After a happy childhood in towns where everyone knew just about everyone else, I was ready to stop watching things from afar and become lost in their roiling epicenter. And in my mind, slipping across borders — neither here nor there — somehow felt like the ultimate embodiment of that idea.

After growing up in an island nation where borders represented little more than a handover of administrative responsibilities, I was excited to cross a real international frontier. These were lines that actually meant something — the languages and cultures would actually change. The people owed their allegiance to different kings, presidents and constitutions. The Old World was famously littered with battlefields where these jostling nation states had come to blows with one another — these were borders written in blood.

So I was a little disappointed to cross from the Netherlands into Belgium and then, a few days later, into France without even having to disembark a bus or flash a passport. Each new country — names steeped in history — were marked by little more than faded blue signs by the highway. Even the colours on the number plates barely changed — you had to squint to catch that the “NL” on Dutch vehicles had changed to a “B” in Belgium, or an “F” in France. 

Though I was disappointed with our border experiences within the European Union, we more than made up for things later on. As we ventured further south and east, we encountered the kind of shenanigans that I had hoped for. I waited in an excruciatingly slow Egyptian customs house crowded with homeward-bound Hajj pilgrims. I sipped tea in the office of a chubby Peshmerga commander at the edge of Iraqi Kurdistan. I watched armed Israeli soldiers frisking Palestinian children at the border wall that runs through Bethlehem. On a Jordanian beach by the Gulf of Aqaba, I looked right to the white resorts crammed into the Israeli enclave of Eilat, left to the Saudi frontier and across the water to the empty mountains of Egyptian Sinai. Barbed wire fences, interrogations, stern men in silly uniforms, the dangerous glimpse of heavy weaponry — it all made me feel like an adventurer, and far from home.

To be continued next week….

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