Issue Twenty-Two - Summer 2013


By Jim Gearhart

The edge between land and sea may be the world’s oldest border. Walking by the shore, where the ocean grinds against sand and rock, you see how life thrives along this boundary. Algae grow on the rocks, seaweed grows in the shallows, and animals feed on both. Crabs scurry out of the water and back. Shellfish raise their calcium defenses against the air, but lower them when the water rises.
At the northern edge of Thailand, a concrete bridge about 100 yards long leads across the Mae Sai River into Myanmar. When I visited the bridge, small markets had grown up on either side of the river, with elements of each country spilling over into the other. Citizens of Myanmar (Burma, then) walked the Thai streets in sarongs. Shops on either side offered crafts and antiques from Myanmar’s time-paused interior alongside electronics and clothing from Thai factories. Traffic flowed across the bridge in two streams of cars, rickshaws, livestock, motorcycles, and motorized three-wheeled carts with the onomatopoeic name ‘tuk-tuk’.

But Thailand’s traffic traveled on the left side of the road, Myanmar’s on the right. The lines met on the bridge. I saw no one directing the transition from one side to the other, but it happened. Cars and small trucks edged across the centerline in either direction. Motorcycles swerved around the cars and puttered through streams of diesel fumes. Scrawny men with steel cable muscles navigated their rickshaws slowly and indirectly, tacking across the bridge like sailboats in a light wind. The lines of traffic met, intermingled, and emerged separate, whole, but changed.
When you descend into the water, when you cross the border between air and sea, you enter someone else’s element. The rules change. The crabs are still here, shuffling along every surface, and so are the shellfish, with their gates open to breathe and feed. But new creatures live here, too. Corals grow reefs, fans, and bouquets of colored bone. Fish-shaped flashes of color dart among the brittle flowers. You’re a foreigner here, with an air tank to breathe, a mask to see, fins to swim, and a weight belt to hold you down. Remaining still, simply staying in one place, becomes a constant balancing act. Diving instructors call it ‘neutral buoyancy’.

A border lies 33 feet below the surface, unseen but felt. There, the water’s weight increases the pressure to twice what it is on the surface. The two atmospheres squeeze any air pockets in your head unless you equalize by swallowing or blowing against a plugged nose. The diving vest shrivels, requiring more air from the tank to maintain neutral buoyancy. But stray the opposite way from the border, ascend just a bit–maybe for a look at an elusive fish–and the air expands again. The vest can inflate like an amusement park’s helium balloon and in what seems an instant you end up back at the surface, bobbing and flopping.
“What are we supposed to do, search all of their backpacks?” the monitor from the vehicle checkpoint grumbled.

It was 1994, in former Yugoslavia, and we were among dozens of border monitors watching a newly defined border between Serbia and Bosnia. The fighting between those ethnic groups was at an impasse; a negotiated pause, but not yet a lasting peace. Into the lull, the governments of Canada, the United States, the Netherlands, Italy, Russia, and others had sent representatives to observe how the new boundaries were holding.

We worked at vehicle checkpoints and train stations monitoring traffic for signs of smuggled war materiel or anything else to show whether this border would hold. Meanwhile, life went on, including children who passed the monitors daily, crossing this new international border with backpacks full of schools books and lunches.

In my stack of papers from that three-month assignment is a napkin with a hand-drawn map of the United States. A Priboj resident had sketched it after a few toasts of slivovitz, a local plum-based liquor that seemed as suitable for starting fires as conversations. The man inked thick lines through the rough map, dividing it into thirds. Tapping his pen on the table for emphasis he delivered what I assumed was an extended complaint about the division of his country. Everyone along that border was trying to adjust, to find a new point of balance in a changing environment.
After descending another 33 feet — 66 feet below the surface, now —- a third atmosphere’s worth of pressure settles in. Here the water exerts three times the push of what you feel on the surface. The fish are similar to those in the shallow water, but larger; they seem warier, less frivolous. Heads of eels jut from holes in the coral. A stubby triggerfish, twice the size of its relatives from higher up, defends its lair by lunging time and again at a diver’s fins. The world seems dimmer down here, the colors muted; the water is absorbing the light, starting with the reds and the oranges.
The residents of the Serbian town Priboj may have resented the new border outside of their town, but at least everyone knew where that boundary lay. What we observers did not know were the unmarked borders, the ones snaking through Priboj’s streets and shops dividing the populace.
On a winter night, a man entered a small café. He ordered, sat, and looked around. I was there, having a late night meal, and to me, the lanky dark-haired man seemed no different than the regulars; his language sounded the same, he seemed to dress the same, and he carried the same shitty cigarettes. But his arrival spread silence. Everyone except me knew he had crossed onto foreign ground.

The air shifted; something fell. Maybe someone slurred out a threat. The man jerked from his chair with the speed of reflex and sprinted out. Three men raced after him, knocking aside chairs to pursue him into the dark. In the cavity of silence that followed, the proprietress looked at me and shrugged as if to say, ‘What can you do?’ She made a backhanded sweeping motion, a common Serbian gesture that conveyed apathy, helplessness, and dismissal all at once. She went back to her work. I returned to my monitor duties. I visited the café a few times after that, but I never saw the man return.
Another world’s worth of pressure surrounds you by 99 feet. The water steals more heat and light; it becomes still colder and darker. The creatures have grown; their movements are deliberate. A ray glides far below, soaring along a deep trench, its wingspan as wide as outstretched arms. It’s unfamiliar; it’s the wrong size for a lagoon ray, and the wrong shape for a manta. It doesn’t fit expectations. But there it is.

The air you breathe has changed. It’s thicker, with four times as many molecules in each inhalation. You’re drinking down what’s left in the tank, and now nitrogen, oxygen’s usually unnoticed companion, can seduce you. The increased nitrogen entering your system has a narcotic effect, similar to nitrous oxide at the dentist’s office. It can trick you into thinking things are safe, fine, understood.
In Thailand, friends and I camped next to a river flowing out of Myanmar. We had been rafting the river all day, starting near the border, but had miscalculated wildly how much progress we could make. Instead of reaching the city of Chiang Rai, we were maybe a third of the way there. When the sun began setting, we stopped at a clear spot on the shore, and ended up sharing it with a group of Thai college students on a much better organized excursion. There was no moon that night, no road or town nearby; the liquid dark of the Mae Kok River rumbled past us sitting on the solid dark of the land.

At that time, more than water flowed out of Myanmar: heroin; young women; illegally felled teak; pelts and body parts of endangered animals all found their way to customers in Thailand, or transited Thailand on the way elsewhere. Throughout the night, boats growled by, maneuvering along the river without lights.

A Thai riverboat is wooden, long, and narrow with what looks like a car engine perched on the stern. A drive shaft leads into the water, and the pilot swings the engine back and forth to steer. Around the fire, our local hosts bragged that the nocturnal drivers and their spotters had memorized every turn and rock between Chiang Rai and the border. But when we asked what they carried in the boats, the Thai only smiled, laughed, and shrugged.
Some borders we impose on the world around us, and sometimes the world imposes borders on us. Rules change along borders, whether physical or political. Even as those borders try to exclude or to contain, they also entice and attract. When we encounter those barriers, how should we respond? Do we intermingle, interact, and allow something to flourish within the friction? Or do we attack, force apart, and break?
Rise too quickly from a dive, and air can hurt you. Decompressing gasses can damage joints, tear blood vessels, burst lungs. The rules for ascending are meticulous: do not rise faster than your bubbles; exhale constantly; and, if you have been down deep enough or long enough, take a safety stop. The safety stop lasts for five minutes 15 feet below the surface. It is a tricky depth. Conditions on the situation at the surface can affect you; currents and waves disrupt your balance, the pressure changes quickly. Sometimes, if you used air incautiously while below, the supply can run dangerously low. a diving buddy will have to share his air with you. All of this allows more nitrogen to spill from your body so painful bubbles do not form in bones or joints. After that pause, a final safety break, you can cross the border from water to air again and return home.

Copyright Gearhart 2013