04/30/2012 06:58 am ET Updated Jun 30, 2012

Borders Were Made To Be Crossed

In bars around the globe, in war zones, in refugee camps, after natural disasters, over drinks at conferences, people are comparing hair-raising travel stories. The scariest flight, the most disgusting hotel, the most horrific meal they were obliged to eat in order to avoid an international incident.

The challenges of overland borders provide their own special tales of woe. For those whose knowledge is limited to crossing between the U.S. and Canada by car, or traveling on the Eurostar, it is hard to believe there can be anything interesting about this experience. There can be.

Cuidad del Este is a bustling city on the Paraguayan side of the Rio Parana. It forms the triple frontier with Brazil and Argentina, but it couldn't be more different from its orderly neighbors. In Paraguay, electronics and electrical goods carry are much lower sales tax. Consequently at any given moment thousands of Brazilians stream across the bridge on foot and in vehicles, returning loaded down with goods. Such is the crowd, you could be forgiven for thinking a war had started, or a hurricane was headed their way.

Smuggling revenues in Cuidad del Este are thought to be five times the legitimate annual income of the Paraguay. As one crosses the bridge, the neatly paved Brazilian tarmac disintegrates into dust and litter at the Paraguayan frontier, like a Hollywood version of a banana republic. The streets team with motorbikes, vans and pedestrians weaving around each other. Music blares, people strike bargains at stalls, and a hundred signs jockey for space, offering discounts and deals. On the skyline there are mosques and pagodas, catering for the Taiwanese, Koreans, Lebanese and Iranians who make up the city's population. Hezbollah is rumored to have its South American base here.

Nearby, at Cuidad del Este's airport, large cargo planes without livery or windows idle on the tarmac. A taxi driver offers helpfully, "Narco." Stretch limos disgorge well-dressed people in sunglasses, surrounded by men with wires coming out of their ears and bulges beneath their jackets. "Narco," the taxi driver repeats.

Another strange crossing is the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, at the southern tip of Lake Kivu. The lush green mountains on either side of the lake stretch up to a clear blue sky, pure and unspoilt as a picture postcard of Switzerland. But both sides of the frontier are crawling with ruddy-cheeked diamond smugglers from South Africa, Indian 'merchants' who won't meet your eye, brightly painted women laughing too loudly, and men in turbans hanging around the lobbies of brothels.

At the northern end of the lake is the border between the DRC's Goma and Rwanda's pristine holiday resort, Gisenyi. Goma is lawless, wretched shattered, sordid and tense, a vast camp for internally displaced people trying to avoid the war lords who have turned eastern DRC into one of the world's most deadly places. Teenagers with bloodshot eyes and quivering lips clutch Kalashnikovs at makeshift road blocks, demanding tribute for 'the king of Goma.' A report for The Lancet medical journal estimates that five million people have died as a consequence of the war lords' activities here since 1994.

Goma's continuing humanitarian disaster has its roots in a nightmare that gripped the border eighteen years ago. More than a million refugees streamed along the narrow road from Rwanda and into Goma in the space of only twenty four hours. They were going to what was then Zaire, escaping the genocide, and literally running for their lives. Carrying cooking pots and babies, they headed for Goma's quickly improvised refugee camps, but they were soon dying of cholera at the rate of 2,000 a day. The world's emergency aid groups responded swiftly, and then had second thoughts when they grasped how many of those who had escaped from Rwanda were responsible for the bloodshed they were leaving behind.

Now the border crossing is quiet, and it is hard to imagine a million people flooding along the modest lane. As you leave Goma, walking into Rwanda, with its street lighting and clean, well-maintained roads, you are greeted by a 'welcome' sign from the local branch of the Rotary.

On the overland border between two war-torn African countries that must remain nameless, our driver recognized one of the uniformed men on duty and nodded respectfully. "He's in intelligence," he told us quietly. "Meaning?" we asked. "Interrogation," he said, blinking rapidly.
As he took our documents, Torture Guy was chatting to a friend wearing a T-shirt decorated with an image of the smoking Twin Towers. George W Bush's face was on one side and Bin Laden on the other, as if inviting observers to take their pick.

Torture Guy scrutinised our passports, clicking his tongue at the UK's royal crest on the cover. With a tilt of his head he indicated we must follow him into his office. He closed the door, and suddenly the room seemed suffocating and dark.

"So," he began with a frown. "I have a sensitive question."

We offered tentative smiles, keen to have our passports back; even keener to leave his interview room.

He leaned toward us and tapped his finger on the royal crest.

"Did the Queen of England really have Princess Diana killed?" he asked.

He seems disappointed by our response, but soon we are on our way, gratefully clutching our dog-eared passports.