Sunday, October 14, 2007

The border

The nutcases who want to build a high tech fence along the Rio Grande just don't understand the culture of the area.
LOS EBANOS — On this remote bend in the Rio Grande, morning commuters lined up on both banks of the river.

But there were no EZ tags, HOV lanes or other trappings of modern transportation — much less an international bridge. At this traditional crossing place on the Rio Grande, dating to the Spanish colonial era, time seems frozen in the past.

Today, those crossing the river rely on a transport that's the only one of its kind on the U.S. border: a simple, hand-drawn ferry across 40 yards of river shaded by steep banks, stands of ebony trees and brushy thickets.

The man in charge is toll taker Alejo Baldemar, who oversees a crew of six stout men who tug on the heavy rope propelling the Los Ebanos International Ferry on a five-minute trip across the Rio Grande. There is just enough room on the 44-foot ferry to squeeze in three vehicles. Passengers stand or sit on storage boxes on the narrow deck.

''This is the only ferry in the world between two countries that uses human power," the 65-year-old Baldemar said proudly, as he deposited ferry tolls into a carpenter's apron and scribbled down the number of customers in a school notebook.

It was a few minutes past 9 a.m. — an hour after ferry operation began — and Baldemar and the crew had already crossed 17 cars and 19 passengers. On a busy weekend, they may make 40 trips a day across the river, collecting 50 cents for each pedestrian and $2 for cars.

Whether or not the hand-drawn ferry is a worldwide rarity, as Baldemar asserts, it is the only government-licensed ferry operating on U.S. borders, according to U.S. Border Patrol officials.

And, ferry riders must undergo the same inspections on each side of the river at customs stations operated by the U.S. and Mexican governments.

''The volume, obviously, is not that big ... but we do have enforcement actions there from time to time," said Rick Pauza, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. ''Just because it's a small, hand-drawn ferry doesn't mean we're not continuing our enforcement mission."

And though it is a popular tourist attraction, the Los Ebanos ferry remains a necessity to residents of this far-flung stretch of the Texas border, dozens of miles from the nearest international bridges.

A frequent client is 17-year-old Jerry Rodriguez, who lives three miles away in Sullivan City. He drives his red Chevy pickup onto the ferry almost every weekend to visit his grandmother who lives in Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, the Mexican town a mile and a half inland from the ferry landing.

Without the ferry, Rodriguez's frequent visits would require an 80-mile roundtrip if he used the nearest bridge in Rio Grande City. It would be even longer if he went downriver and crossed at Hidalgo.

''It's more convenient, and gas is so high," said Rodriguez, who is studying business administration at the University of Texas-Pan American. ''The bridge in Rio Grande City is 25 minutes away, and then you have to drive back down on the Mexican side."

'Something from the past'
The ferry became an official U.S. port of entry in 1950, when farmer and former Hidalgo County commissioner E.B. Reyna secured a government permit. The crossing was so popular during Prohibition it was nicknamed ''Smugglers Haven," and lore has it that Texas Rangers followed cattle rustlers into Mexico here in the 1870s.

Today, the ferry's ownership is a border crossing in itself. The Reyna family in Texas and the Armando Garza clan across the river in Diaz Ordaz own the ferry operation.

''A lot of people are surprised it has lasted so long, with all the computers and stuff today," said Mark Alvarez, a relative of Reyna who manages the ferry operations. ''It's good to see something from the past."

Alvarez maintains an office in a small wooden tollbooth next to the ferry landing. Beyond convenience, he said the ferry's quirkiness and personal service draws people.

Several of the ferrymen also say the daily human contact has kept them on the job. Gabriel Soto Becerra, 46, who has worked on the ferry for 12 years, said the job is strenuous but rewarding.

''It was hard, the first few days," Becerra recalled. ''But when you have problems, and you're feeling down, the passengers give you advice. They give you the spirit to keep going."

Baldemar, the toll taker, agreed, saying they are never bored.

''There is a lot of atmosphere," he said. "Here, you know everyone in the community, so there are jokes and lots of stories."

But the ferry has also been the scene of human drama and tragedy.

In late 1994, a pickup sped off the ferry and splashed into the river, drowning a 5-year-old boy from Diaz Ordaz.

The boy's expectant mother was pulled from the river and rushed to a local hospital where she delivered a child by emergency Caesarean.

Newly rebuilt
The mechanics of the ferry remain low-tech.

On the Texas side of the river, a heavy steel cable is looped around an aging ebony tree that gives the crossing its name.

It stretches across the 40 yards of river to the Mexican side, and the ferry is attached to the cable by two sets of rope pulleys. The stout rope pulled by the ferry men runs above the cable.

The original ferry was a wooden-hulled vessel that could carry only one car, but today's steel-hulled version was launched in 1980 and rebuilt in January, said Alvarez, the manager.

Since the entrances to the ferry on the both river banks are not paved, heavy rains or a rising river can shut down ferry services for weeks at a time.

But in spite of the dated technology and inconvenient closures, operators say the little ferry will press on across the great river.

''As long as they keep coming, we'll be here," Alvarez said.

I've gone fishing in the Rio Grande near Laredo where it was possible to walk across the river, by jumping from one large rock in the river to another, and we did that.


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