The Country Just Over the Fence By PAUL THEROUX
A SIMPLE painted sign on a wooden board — “To Mexico” — was propped near the door in the fence, but it was the fence itself that fascinated me. Some masterpieces are unintentional, the result of a freakish accident or an explosive act of sheer weirdness, and the fence that divides Nogales, Ariz., from Nogales, Mexico, is one of them.
In a lifetime of crossing borders I find this pitiless fence the oddest frontier I have ever seen — more formal than the Berlin Wall, more brutal than the Great Wall of China, yet in its way just as much an example of the same folie de grandeur. Built just six months ago, this towering, seemingly endless row of vertical steel beams is so amazing in its conceit you either want to see more of it, or else run in the opposite direction — just the sort of conflicting emotions many people feel when confronted with a peculiar piece of art.
You can, of course, also go through it, which is what I wanted to do. And there was the entryway, just past J. C. Penney and Kory’s clothing shop — a door in the wall at the end of hot, sunlit Morley Avenue.
After leaving my car at a secure parking lot ($4 a day), I showed my passport to the United States border guard, who asked about my plans. Business?
“Just curiosity,” I said. When he made a disapproving squint, I added, “Don’t you go over now and then?”
“Never been there,” he said.
“It’s 10 feet away!”
“I’m staying here,” he said, his squint now suggesting that I should be doing the same.
I pushed the turnstile and stepped through the narrow door — no line, no other formalities — into the state of Sonora, Mexico, where I was instantly, unmistakably in a foreign land. The roads were bumpier, the buildings vaguely distressed; I was breathing in the mingled aromas of bakeries, taco stands and risen dust.
Glancing back a moment later, I could not see Arizona anymore, only the foreground of Mexico — small children kicking a ball, men in sombreros conferring under a striped awning, steaming food carts.