This has been posted in my blog, but I thought I would repost it here as for varying reasons, my blogs seem to have almost mutually exclusive audiences! If you have time to keep up with me, feel free to do so at this address. The following takes place at the Peace Arch crossing at Douglas BC / Blaine WA, which I’d been oohing and ahhing at earlier in the same entry.
Peace Arch and Blaine
It is truly weird walking down the road to a land border and actually seeing all the weird contraptions set up to handle the thousands of motorists who cross this point every day, and also to look on beaches just a couple of km away and realise they’re in a different country. Coming from Australia, where no other nation is visible, this is just bizarre.
The Peace Arch Provincial Park (BC) and Peace Arch State Park (Washington) span the border, and are basically a big green recreational area with forest on two sides, and the Peace Arch, a big white structure which one can actually walk through, in the middle next to the freeway, which has by this point been separated out and slowed down to 30km/h (or 20mph on the US side). The Peace Arch has several inscriptions on it like “Children of a Common Mother” and “Brothers Dwelling Together in Unity”. On the inside is a gate (which couldn’t serve any purpose as the entire space on both sides is open), jammed open, with the words “Let This Gate Never Be Closed” above it. Each year, there’s a big get-together of kids from both sides for the purpose of engendering communication.
About 400m from it on each country’s side is that country’s customs and immigration centre, which has about 5 or 6 lanes for cars to pass through, and separate duty free areas for each. I noticed Canada’s was far busier than the US’s. Near them is a flower plantation made up of each country’s flag, and not far from the Peace Arch are the actual survey points marking the border.
My Adventure in the USA
I walked across the border marvelling at the structures, and followed the path to the US Customs, noting the instructions for pedestrians to go to the east side. I entered a small, functional room at 17:09 whose only welcoming words were that there were no, zero, zip restrooms (in several languages) and that they did not accept Canadian cheques (despite being a border crossing from Canada…) In this room was a counter, behind which sat many black-uniformed police and customs officials, and some seats. I was grilled first by a lady who insisted I leave all my bags on the counter, took my passport and told me to sit down and not leave the building. The grilling seemed to focus mostly on the fact that I was crossing a US-Canadian land border on foot with an Australian passport, and despite having a valid 90-day visa-waiver dated July 24 from Honolulu, this was a very strange thing to do. She didn’t seem to like the fact that I wanted to visit Blaine, and seemed suspicious of my reasons for wanting to go there. (I put it together credibly at the time, but “mere curiosity and novelty” was the real reason).
I didn’t hear anything for 25 minutes, and when I briefly stood up to stretch my legs, I was told by another officer to sit down.
Finally, I heard my name called and yet another officer called me to the far end of the counter. He asked me many of the same questions as the first lady, except he also asked me where I was staying in Vancouver. He seemed suspicious (but not so much as the first) that someone would want to visit a border city, take scenery photos and then leave. I even offered to show him my White Rock photos to give him some idea, but he said that was fine.
10 minutes later, he called me over and said everything was fine and I could go. He wrote “SOUTH” crudely on a 1/4-A4 torn out sheet that looked like recycle paper, and asked me to give it to the officers in the carpark. After some searching, I found said officers, gave the piece of paper to them and they accepted it and wished me to have a nice day. This was at 17:51.
So I wandered around Peace Portal Drive and Marine Drive, noting that apart from the nice harbour scenery and green-themed roads, it had that very different feel that Honolulu had – definitely not like an Australian or Canadian city. Blaine has American flags draped from almost every lamppost as well, which is quite visible (four lampposts at one intersection = four American flags).
After wandering around the town and taking a few shots, I decided to head for the border again. As I was trying to find it, I noticed two US Customs officers sitting in the emergency stopping lane of the freeway sliproad viewing me through binoculars (the town was pretty much closed up except for Subway) as I moved up D Street looking for the pedestrian exit (as the freeway clearly said “no pedestrians”, unlike the Canadian side where pedestrians were directed to use the bike lane).
I found an awesome Mexican restaurant (south of the border :P) called Paso del Norte on 2nd St, where I decided I was actually hungry and would eat. I went in and ordered Arroz de Pollo (which seemed to be a huge dish with bits of chicken, capsicum, tomato, avocado and sauce on rice – and not deep-fried!) and pineapple juice, and sat down in expectation of my meal. The service was fabulous, and the food was authentic. Just as I was getting into the starters, two more Customs officials walked into the restaurant and straight up to me (to some surprise from the staff) and asked me for ID. When I provided it, they asked me how long I proposed to stay, and how long I’d been there. I said I’d been there 40 minutes since crossing at the Peace Arch, and intended to finish my meal before returning. The guy seemed a tad embarrassed when I pointed this out, and said that was fine, and left. I could hear an engine running outside the restaurant the whole time I was there, though, and it was stressful and took away from my enjoyment of the otherwise excellent meal.
After paying, I left the restaurant and realised I was a bit disoriented (the stress probably didn’t help) and I didn’t have a map of Blaine (my Greater Vancouver street map stopped at 8th Avenue, White Rock). Just then, I realised that the two customs guys and a third guy, this one with “US Border Police” on his sleeve, were sitting there in a car watching me. I signalled them and asked them where the exit to Canada was for pedestrians. The guy told me, and I went up to the end of the street, left at the park… and suddenly realised I was back in Canada. Douglas, BC, starts at 0 (Zero) Av and only a crude little ditch with the odd sign indicated the end of the Peace Arch Park was even a border at all. I could have walked off into suburban Vancouver without even trying, most probably.
When I got to Canada Customs, I walked round the side – to find out they were waiting for me and had my name! I showed my ID, explained that I was staying in Vancouver, gave the address, and 2 minutes later (after efficient, reasonably friendly service not unlike when I arrived in Vancouver on the 26th), I was back on Highway 99 going to a bus stop I’d found on the walk there. The guy suggested I surrender my US visa waiver. I didn’t argue. I think Point Roberts is something I’ll do when I feel a bit more brave.
My two run-ins with the US – the first with the state of Hawaii, which was more a culture clash, and the second in Blaine, which was more like a Nazi police state type run-in, have left me somewhat disillusioned. I actually saluted the first Canadian flag I could see on a home just off the highway between 8th and 9th Av – sure, Canada has its problems and isn’t perfect, and same could be said for Australia (I’d happily have hugged an Australian flag right about then), but it is a tolerant, accepting country, and it has accepted me.