Why is this so Good, A Look Into Paul Theroux’s “The Country Just Over the Fence”

By Casey Pechan

Beginning with the description of a simple painted sign, “to Mexico,” Theroux takes the reader on a cross-cultural excursion which is a mere fence away from Arizona. 

The Country Just Over the Fence,” begins at its natural beginning, the border. Depositing his car in an Arizona parking lot, to walking up to an imposing and rather strange fence separating Nogales AZ from its counterpart in Mexico, to the confused reaction of the security guard when told that the crossing is for mere curiosity, Theroux quickly captures the tension between the US and Mexico. And while most Americans are aware that the relationship with our immediate neighbor to the South has soured due to immigration, exaggeration, cartels, fear, and 9/11, Theroux’s vivid imagery captures both sides of a complicated tale.

Theroux could have easily wrapped up his article after discussing the sad transition of Nogales being a border town for all, with mutual parades, no fence, and tourists that chose to stay over-night, to a place only visited during the day; no more overnight stays. But the reason this is so good is because this is not a story of simply tourism of Nogales with recommendations of where to eat and stay. This is the story of a city, its people, its jobs, and an imposing neighbor across the fence.

Tourism may have fallen to a trickle for Nogales, but its true booming industry is in dentistry. This mundane idea of getting a teeth cleaning and whitening has suddenly taken on a whole new meaning for the town, as more US citizens struggle with retaining good healthcare, and jobs that include dental in their benefits.

Not often will a travel writing article covering the tour of a border town, include a trip to the dentist, and an exploration of a volunteer center rescuing lost souls who were deported from the States.

I’m impressed that Theroux included his experience watching volunteer nurse Peg Bowden care for ailing deportees at the El Comedor shelter. This certainly would not qualify as a tourist activity, yet shows there are still strong ties between Mexico and the US. Peg is from Arizona and realistically has no reason to help illegal immigrants aside from the fact that she wishes to be a good samaritan. And yet there she is helping patch up cactus wounds.

“They were soft-spoken, humbled and hopeless. A woman in her 20s, Rosalba, had spent four days in the desert. She had blistered feet, a deep wound from a cactus thorn and a severe infection. Some had been caught making their first crossing. Others had been sent home after years in the United States.”

But even with sad descriptions of people deported, and a lackluster tourism industry, Theroux manages to end on a happy note. He reports the people of Nogales Mexico to be “courtly and easy to meet, grateful to have a visitor…

Nogales may have amped up its security on both sides, have one eye on drug cartels and one on Arizona, but Theroux is sure to stress that there is an air of survival, and beauty.

“It’s there for anyone to discover, and so simple. It was as illuminating to me as any foreign travel I have taken anywhere in the world. In some ways, being so near home and taking less effort, it seemed odder, freighted with greater significance, this wider world at the end of Morley Avenue, just behind the fence.”

After all, border towns with walls and fences are just sleepy pueblos offering a place to explore, working to maintain good jobs and schools, and survive in a post 9/11 world.

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