I've always been impressed by the power of radio to transport me to places I've never been, to weave travel stories in a way that holds me rapt. National Public Radio does a particularly good job of it, and their current series, Borderland, which began airing on March 18, is no exception. The program, which features NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, explores the U.S.-Mexico border while traveling east from El Paso, Texas, to Tijuana, Mexico, dipping across the international line, chatting with locals on both sides, and recording plenty of great stories.
The road trip spanned some 2,428 miles and involved 22 crossings. Along the way the team of radio personalities were harassed by border patrol, attended pop-music concerts, sat in on a "grito" (shouting) contest, and sipped margaritas in a city best known for intense drug violence.
In a rare opportunity to turn the microphones on one of America's best-known and most capable radio interviewers, I caught up with Inskeep on his way home to Washington, D.C., to ask him a few questions about the adventure. You can listen to the full interview here. Highlights below:
On the origins of the project
I've always been interested in [this area]. The thing that really drove the trip, though, was a book that I was reading that divided the U.S. into 11 areas… It had this region on the map called El Norté, and this book argued that both sides of the border were very culturally similar and had a lot more in common with each other than with the countries on either side. And that made me want to go there.
On surprises during the reporting
What we tried to do, rather than big pieces about issues, was small, personal stories. You begin the subject thinking you know the big issues: immigration, the drug problem, trade, and then you hear the details of someone's story and you realize that you don't know it all.
On the porosity of the border
There's intense security, particularly on the U.S. side. You are always aware that people are watching. There are border patrol vehicles everywhere. The border patrol itself has nearly doubled in size in the last decade. You see them in filling stations. You see them in restaurants. You see them parked along the border. You pass them on the highway. You see these aerostats, blimps attached to cables. It is a heavily policed area.
But is it porous? We were in the Tohono O'odham Indian reservation, in Arizona, which goes down to the border. Last year the border patrol seized 476,000 pounds of marijuana on that Indian nation. If that's what being seized, you know a lot more is being sent or they'd stop sending it that way.
On tensions he encountered along the border
We visited one section of the border wall, this big concrete slab. You can stand on the south side of the wall, but there's a little distance between it and the Rio Grande. People trying to sneak into the United States would come and try to scale the wall. While were there something like 14 people got arrested right in front of us—this whole collection of men, women, and children. There are also people who live on the U.S. side who stopped crossing the border for fear of crime and drug-related violence.
However, when we crossed, it seemed quite relaxed. The people were very friendly and open. Statistically speaking the violence in northern Mexico is much better than it used to be. There's still crime, but less violent crime.
On visiting Juarez, Mexico
In 2010 there were more than 3,000 murders in Juarez. There's a new documentay, that was mostly shot in 2010, called Narco Cultura, and it is just unbelievable what was happening back then. But since then, the murder rate has gone down dramatically. I think there were 500 murders last year. It doesn't feel like a city at war anymore. We were able to run freely. I've been to a few interesting places. I've been to Syria, I've been to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. You learn to sense how dangerous it is and how scared you should feel, and it just never felt particularly terrifying in Juarez.
On parts of border that were really enjoyable
There were some stunningly beautiful places. In El Paso, there was a former state park ranger who said, "I gotta show you this." And he takes us up this tram to the top of a mountain. Were more than a mile high looking down on Juarez and El Paso, in the sunshine. It looks like a map, we're so high.
Driving into Columbus, the landscape is just amazing. You can see the town from like 15 miles away, with mountains studding the desert. The Tohono-O'odham Nation is incredible, with its cacti and mountains and these sweeping valleys. I would even mention that there's this Lawrence of Arabia moment near Yuma, in California, where there are these waves of pure sand. It completely looks like Saudi Arabia—or what I'd imagine Saudi Arabia to look like since I haven't been there.
We did have margaritas! There's a place called the Kentucky Club in Juarez, which claims to have invented the margarita. I think that claim is disputed but it's a good margarita. And the second was better than the first.
There's another drink down there called a Michelada. It's different in different parts of Mexico, but in Matamoros, where I first had it, it's tomato juice and Worcester sauce and lime, and you pour a beer into the mix. That was interesting to say the least.
On how Mexicans view border issues
I think there's a little bit of resentment. There is historical resentment of the United States. And there's resentment toward the massive security that is in place on the U.S. side. But it was not overt when we were there. To the extent that you saw demonstrations, they were about the drug gangs or the past violence. They were about losing people in Juarez. One area of contention, of course, is with the border patrol. There have been a number of shootings of unarmed people, who were reported to have only rocks—they were throwing rocks. There is even a lawsuit going on involving shooting someone from U.S. soil while they are still standing in Mexico… But even all that said, the rawness of feeling toward the U.S. isn't the same as what you would find in Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq.
For many people in the U.S., Mexico is an abstraction. And I bet if you went to Mexico City, for many Mexicans the U.S. would be an abstraction. But along the border, each country is a reality to the other.
On getting out of the studio and doing first-hand reporting in the field
Oh my gosh, it's the most valuable thing that I do. And it's the only thing that makes it possible for me to come back into the studio and know what I'm talking about, or at least know the right questions to ask… You just get completely different stories. On road trips like this, you meet people you never would otherwise. You turn your focus on a region and you learn about people you otherwise never would have met. We met writers, musicians, so many different kinds of people, and you see them in the context in which they live. The very act of traveling forces you to think about the region that you're traveling through, and to realize the complexity of it.
On advice he'd give to other travelers
The more I travel the less I pack, so I don't have any great gear suggestions. But here is some mental gear, if you will: Be willing to go and travel somewhere that strikes you as a little bit scary. There are so many places in the world, and northern Mexico is one of them, that people are terrified of because of events that have happened in the past. I don't mean don't be cautious, but you can go to places like that and look at them and give them some thought, and you realize that most people are really very nice and will actually take care of you if you're an outsider. It's worth having a margarita at the Kentucky Club in Juarez. It's worth seeing the central square in Matamoros. A lot more of the world is open to you than you might think at first glance.