The Wall of Privilege
We crossed the US-Mexico border on foot, returned unharmed, but still feel crushed by our own privilege.
I like to begin narrating this story from that moment in the hat shop…conveniently named The Hat Shop, on the boardwalk of La Jolla beach in San Diego. After consuming some yummy vegan natural gelato, my bodyguards (more on this in a bit) and I were planning to go to the beach for a long walk before heading towards the US-Mexico border (we’ll definitely come to that in a bit).
Living in California makes you befriend the sun in a way that you even hear fellow Indians who’ve lived all their lives in miserable Delhi heat, walking out of their homes on an unacceptably bright sunny day, exclaiming, “It’s a beautiful day out!”- English in America. I am not that Indian.
I haven’t made friends with the Californian sun. I love dark, gloomy, windy, rainy days. In my world, you save for a sunny day. And then buy multiple hats with that money.
Interrupting my trials of the Sorting Hat and Lady Mary’s headgear in Downton Abbey, one of my bodyguards pointed his phone at me and used an expletive. It took me a few seconds to realise he was showing me his Twitter feed and the tweet included the words Border and Mexico, and (astonishingly) the tweet wasn’t from DJT. Before we go on, it’s important to take a detour and share his latest tweet for only a hint of humour and free fall into despair:
Coming back to the expletive-ridden sentence my bodyguard used, “<Some swear words> They’ve closed the US-Mexico pedestrian crossing at Tijuana due to violence between the Central American refugees and the border police.” We were supposed to cross over in a couple of hours and spend a few nights in Tijuana. It is one of the largest and busiest pedestrian crossings in the world. At this crossing, one simply walks into Mexico and once you’re done doing what you have to, you amble back into the US, albeit after providing satisfactory answers to stereotypical questions like “Do you have a degree from IIT/IIM?” (true story), more stringent checks and scowls.
What was I doing there? More importantly, what have I done so right that I deserve bodyguards?
Well, it goes like this. I joined a company nearly a decade ago to earn a living. Having lived the fauji life, I am used to packing and moving every two years. I moved to the US on a work visa for three years. Realised that when you move countries, you become lazy. I overstayed. Three years done. It was time to renew the work visa. I am stupid. I booked a visa interview appointment at the US consulate nearest to the best natural gelato in San Diego (Bobboi!!). Of course, I did. I knew the situation about the migrant caravan at the border (largely peaceful at the time). But I love to eat. I keep similar company. Both friends who agreed to accompany me on this life-changing adventure also happen to be greedy buffoons. And so we found ourselves at the Hat Shop. Period.
We had a quick philosophical discussion about life and death over some more ice cream (or was it pancakes?), and decided to drive to an alternate port of entry which was open, safe and recommended by the border police.
En route we had conversations about informing our respective families and took a dramatic detour towards the airport ‘cause how-can-I-put-your-lives-at-risk-this-way (the Diva was driving). With some hints of humour and free fall into despair, we reached the port of entry into Mexico. The Mexican border official was kind, funny, and rotund. Just like us. He talked to my bodyguards about the Royal Enfield for a bit while I provided the perfect silent input — a big fake smile. Even he thought we were direct descendants of Sundar Pichai. Our adorable retort: we called him Pablo for the rest of the trip.
We got into Tijuana with no trouble and spent a couple of nights there. Everything was calm and peaceful, at least on the surface. My experience at the US consulate was smooth too. We returned home to the Bay area with a new visa, this story and an uncomfortable truth.
We saw a few migrants sitting peacefully on the Mexican side, co-existing with the police who seemed friendly and sympathetic, but were dressed in riot gear, ready to respond to any potential trouble. The irony of us waltzing in and out between the two countries to get the visa, while crossing these desperate migrants, crushed me. It was disheartening to see the desperate look on the faces of women and small children. All their belongings wrapped in a tattered cloth, an old toy and corroded cutlery peeking out, as if to say something to all of us.
Something about this experience was different from simply being reminded of one’s privilege. It has left me torn. What did they do so wrong to deserve to be where they are, will they ever have bodyguards…? It goes beyond the debate of what is right and wrong. Of law and order. One can never read enough or look at photographs and watch videos of a refugee crisis, to really understand that desperate look. You simply have to see it. It pierces through your heart.
Maybe it’s about all of humanity. Maybe it’s about inequality and opportunity. But isn’t it largely about bad luck? I hope I never forget that look. I don’t understand the politics of it all. I don’t think people should break the law, harm other people, or forcefully enter a country they’re not supposed to. But if we can just remember to be kind… just like our friend Pablo, and provide silent inputs without a scowl, it might just be easier to live with the uncomfortable truth.