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Outside the Box


Belén Fernández

Photography by Belén Fernández and Amelia Opalinska


On September 11, 2001, I was in Austin, Texas, completing a summer stint as office peon of the Texas Association of Broadcasters between my sophomore year at Columbia and junior year abroad at the University of Rome. The TAB was overseen by a middle-aged woman named Ann, who resembled a demonic Furby and who specialized in rendering existence tedious in the way that only Americans in office buildings seem to know how. Human vibes rarely emanated from her being, and an Exorcist-type spectacle ensued whenever I deviated slightly from the prescribed script for asking if she could take a call from so-and-so. Each and every malfunction of the Xerox machine was further proof that I had no future.

Befitting the inhospitable environment, the office thermostat was set to tundra mode, meaning that in the dead of the infernal Texas summer I came to work bundled in sweaters. I often spent my lunch breaks asphyxiating myself in my car in the parking lot, windows rolled up, in an effort to coax some life back into my cells. At my desk, I rebelled against tyranny by drinking wine out of my coffee cup and placing calls to Chile on the office telephone.

Beyond the confines of the workplace, it had been a less than monotonous summer owing to an operation on my cervix—after which surgery every gynecologist I would ever visit outside the US would inevitably inquire in horror as to what third world country’s doctors were responsible for internally mutilating me. Over time, my cervical inferiority complex would grow into a sense of violation by my very own homeland, an entity that would rather go bomb people than provide its citizens with effective health care or other useful amenities. 

September 11, of course, produced all sorts of new opportunities on that front. I was back at the TAB post-cervical invasion, and spent the day in the conference room watching replays of the planes hitting the World Trade Center on a large projector screen. Outside, US flags began to proliferate at an obscene rate, and, as the government-media nexus sought to portray the assault on American borders and iconography as a direct violation of every individual American, folks across the country were catapulted to new levels of patriotic resolve and indignation. The stage had decisively been set for the impending slaughterfest known as the US War on Terror and the increasing public internalization of the logic of empire, according to which borders only matter when we say they do.

On the evening of 9/11 I visited my boyfriend, whose housemates had placed a massive takeout order from KFC and were morosely consuming it on the living room floor. This, they explained, was “comfort food” to cope with the attacks 1,800-ish miles away. (One wonders about coping mechanisms in, say, the 25-mile-long Gaza Strip, under perennial assault by the United States’ BFF Israel.) Needless to say, the general outpouring of solidarity and empathy would not be replicated on behalf of the US military’s countless victims in Afghanistan-Iraq-Pakistan-Somalia-etc. These, after all, were beyond the frontier of humanity.

I was in no rush to fuse my identity with that of the homeland—which is not to say that I handled 9/11 well, at all. Having long suffered from panic attacks and a creative form of anxiety that had in childhood led me to diagnose myself with everything from epilepsy to heart failure, 9/11 gave my brain far too much material to work with, especially with the ensuing specter of anthrax-dispersing crop dusters and other apocalyptic threats designed to keep us all on our toes. When in late September I departed for Rome from New York, I hid in a bathroom at JFK until boarding time, fending off auditory hallucinations of explosions. Things got even more interesting on the plane, where a Muslim passenger opted to pray in the aisle during takeoff while the Air France flight attendants looked on—an early testament, perhaps, to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s forthcoming observation that the French were “deeply unserious” about war. When the moment had passed, I endeavored to distance myself from my mental bout of Islamophobia by reasoning that I had been just as hysterical at the prospect of being decapitated by a falling ceiling fan. The most disturbing thought of all, though, was that I wasn’t even entitled to any sort of bodily or territorial security in the first place thanks to my own country’s extensive history of fucking over the rest of the world—from dousing Vietnam in bombs and lethal defoliants to fueling a long-term terrorist assault on Nicaragua to wiping out half a million Iraqi children via sanctions, to name just a few anti-highlights.

In Rome I continued to experiment with the outer limits of sanity, intermittently crouching on the sidewalk in preparation for transatlantic anthrax-crop duster bombardment, before gradually arriving at the realization that, for an ultra-privileged white girl attending school in a country where school attendance was not actually required and wine was a dollar a bottle, life didn’t have to be lived in perpetual terror. The same could not be said, obviously, for Afghanistan—although Thomas Friedman did swear that Afghan civilians were in fact thrilled about being massacred if it meant getting rid of the Taliban.


I returned to the US and Columbia for my senior year just in time for the runup to the next bellicose adventure—Iraq—when the powers that be were once again doing their best to freak everyone out. As with past fearmongering missions, the psychological dimension of the nation’s borders was a key component of the campaign against Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent WMD. During the Cold War, when the appointed enemies were the godless communists with their sordid schemes of free medical care and the like, the psychological battlefront had also focused on the notion that Our Space was on the verge of being diabolically penetrated. In 1986, for example, Ronald Reagan breathlessly warned of the Soviet Union’s “ally on the American mainland only two hours’ flying time from our own borders”: Nicaragua, where a veritable orgy of “Soviets, East Germans, Bulgarians, North Koreans, Cubans and terrorists from the PLO and the Red Brigades” were “camped on our own doorstep”—and all with the additional blessing of Muammar Qaddafi and the Ayatollah Khomeini. Naturally, the campsite amounted to a far more severe transgression than the United States’ persistent backing of Latin American death squads and dictators.

Decades later, once Iraq had been dealt with and Iran had begun to monopolize US crosshairs, we would learn of rampant hemispheric penetration by the Islamic Republic—it was even possible to travel by air between Tehran and Caracas!—while Iran’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah busied itself helping Mexican drug cartels dig tunnels into the US and Representative Sue Myrick (R-NC) reported a surge in Farsi tattoos among imprisoned gang members in the country’s southwest.

Fear, to be sure, is a handy psychological barrier in terms of diverting public attention onto the other and away from the fact that the US spends “more on national defense than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, [the] United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined,” even as poverty and inequality rates are sky-high andAmericans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other rich democracy.” Fear also helps to discourage interest in traversing national borders to see what life might be like in places where humans live in superior harmony with the environment and each other rather than as alienated consumerist automatons—or, maybe, to see why a significant portion of the global populace might have issues with the US government and military. 

Fear of the unknown is to some extent human nature, but the American brand of it has produced such scenarios as when, long after I had abandoned the US for an itinerant existence, a cousin of mine in Florida tracked me down on Facebook and asked in utter seriousness if I weren’t petrified that someone somewhere would slip an IED in my purse (I had to google IED). It bears mentioning that this cousin and I share a grandmother who once threatened her own daughter with a gun, which was briefly confiscated by authorities but then returned to her possession in accordance with the right of every American to armed psychopathy. In other words, the US itself is, at least for me, creepy as hell—and I’m not even black, Native American, Muslim, or any other demographic against which the domestic forces of law and order regularly choose to discharge their murderous wrath.


In retrospect, it seems I was perhaps especially jarred by my post-Italian homecoming as I had begun to detect a sort of border wall the US had erected between itself and the human condition. Indeed, you might say the US suffers from a dearth of human interaction on an actual human level—maybe because the point of neoliberalism is to purge people’s humanity and sever communal bonds, confining individuals to their own personal borders and making for a distinctly bleak landscape.  The upshot for my final year of college was that, in order to be able to sit through my lectures without hyperventilating, I was put on anxiety medication and was therefore able to contribute with millions of my fellow Americans to the maintenance of the pharmaceutical industry and further alienation of society. Iraqis, meanwhile, had more tangible things to worry about, like being blown up.

The late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once said: “Exile is more than a geographical concept. You can be an exile in your homeland, in your own house, in a room.” And while exile is certainly a more crucial theme for Palestinians given Israel’s usurpation of the Palestinian homeland and campaign of ethnic cleansing and forcible expulsion—none of which horrors applied to me in the least—Darwish’s conceptualization of exile as a mental state rather than necessarily narrowly circumscribed by national borders resonated with my own sentiments. In the end, though, exiling myself geographically was certainly more appealing than doing it at home, and so I left for the Greek island of Crete shortly after graduation for a certification course as a teacher of English as a foreign language, a skill I would never use.


More importantly, I would never return to live in the US. English teacherhood was averted thanks to Amelia, a Polish classmate in the course who as a child had relocated with her family from the domain of the Warsaw Pact to that of the NATO bloc, specifically New Jersey. In Crete we developed a hitchhiking habit, which in addition to enabling us to travel at speeds faster than the public bus also confirmed that there was nothing like putting oneself at the mercy of strangers to see that, though the planet was going to shit, there persisted a formidable human capacity for benevolence. Even when this meant getting soundly trampled by a bull—as happened somewhere in central Mexico when a jovial fellow picked us up on the side of the road, inserted us into his afternoon itinerary of tequila overconsumption and village bullfight attendance, and convinced me that it would be fabulous and totally not dangerous for me to participate in the bullfight in a skirt—the opportunities for more profound and intimate interactions were inevitably superior to those offered by transaction-based travel.

There was the middle-aged Colombian man who loaded us into the back of his pickup truck and carted us to his farm outside Medellín, where we were able to catch up on hygienic duties and sleep—and who only troubled us in the morning with the information that his beloved wife had fallen off a horse and suffered permanent brain damage. There was the Moroccan man from the town of Erfoud who not only put us up for several nights but also tasked his son with escorting us to frolic among the desert dunes. (Granted, there was also the Moroccan man in Casablanca whose insistence on accommodating us lasted only until the point at which we declined to marry his nephew.) There was the Ecuadoran couple who, having apparently tired of each other’s company, picked us up at a gas station somewhere west of Quito and took us on a seafood-filled vacation with them to the coast. And there was the Syrian who, returning home from a long-term stint in Serbia, picked us up in the stretch of no-man’s land between the Turkish and Syrian borders and then got to waste a good chunk of his life—along with his friend Ali who had been waiting to welcome him—negotiating with the border officials on our behalf. Visas were ultimately granted in contravention of the rule that anyone with a Syrian embassy in their country was forbidden from obtaining a visa on the border, and Amelia and I were installed at Ali’s property outside Aleppo, where we got to hear about his amorous travails involving a teenage internet girlfriend in Wyoming, who was allegedly converting to Islam and was more than happy to accept whatever money Ali had to offer in the process. (Denied a visa to the US, he would later travel to Canada in an attempt to meet his elusive love, whereupon—in his version of the story—the elusive love’s father would alert US Homeland Security and Ali would find himself back in Syria.)


In September 2006, Amelia and I crossed from Syria into Lebanon for an intimate look at Israel’s recent cross-border handiwork: a 34-day assault that flattened much of the country and killed some 1,200 people, the majority of them civilians, while the US rush-shipped bombs to the Israeli military. Despite my guilt-by-passport, Amelia and I were received with a relentless form of hospitality. Just down the road from the primary bridge on the Beirut-Damascus highway—bombed out of commission by the Israelis—we were greeted with a deluge of arak, first thing in the morning, courtesy of the matriarch of the house in the Druze mountain village where, it had been decided by the son who scooped us from the side of the road, we were to reside indefinitely. In south Lebanon, the reduction to rubble of many villages and the widespread slaughter that attended it did not interfere with residents’ insistence on feeding, entertaining, and giving us their beds. In the town of Kfar Kila, which lies smack on the border with Israel, I got to briefly reprise my role as panic attack superstar when a combination of unconventional noises emanating from the household washing machine and the racket caused by a passing convoy of United Nations tanks caused me to deduce that the war had recommenced. Another fit was occasioned when our south Lebanese hosts encouraged us to throw a rock at the Israeli soldiers burrowed under mounds of camouflage just across the border fence, as the late Edward Said had done in 2000 to celebrate Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon after 22 years of brutal occupation.


Of course, there were also the people who sought different forms of intimacy. But despite common assumptions about the hazards of traveling while female, our unpleasant moments were in fact few and far between and generally consisted of having to jump out of cars in Turkey—which, mercifully, were never moving too quickly given that it is difficult to simultaneously drive and attempt intercourse with unwilling passengers. Beyond that, there were a couple of Experiences in Trucks, like the time we spent the night on the top bunk of a semi somewhere on the side of the road in Italy, swatting away the encroaching hands of the Portuguese driver below—or the time the elderly Turkish dude parked his rig on a desolate cliffside with the intention of napping on my chest. I ultimately permitted the arrangement, not earning myself any points in the Strong Principled Woman category—but there’s nothing quite like several consecutive days of nonstop hitchhiking to blur the boundaries of acceptable behavior and convert the elderly Turk snoozing atop your boobs from a bodily transgression into an annoying bump in the road. When I would later try my hand at solo hitchhiking expeditions, the same abundance of human generosity was also tempered with the occasional setback, as when the Lebanese motorist whose English vocabulary appeared to be limited to the words “sex” and “good,” was intent on practicing the first one—while I struggled to steer the conversation in the direction of non-erotic topics like the Secretary General of Hezbollah: “Hassan Nasrallah good?”


The final joint hitchhiking tour took place over four months in South America in 2009. Amelia would go on to settle in Mexico, and I, at a loss for what to do with my existence, would continue country-hopping, starting with Honduras, where I arrived a month after the US-facilitated coup d’état against President Manuel Zelaya, and proceeded to confirm my total lack of balls as I tiptoed around trying not to get mugged or worse. Referred to during the Cold War as the “USS Honduras,” the nation had long served as a pet US military outpost and site of US-sponsored right-wing regimes and death squads. Zelaya had shown himself to be a traitorous ship captain—raising the domestic minimum wage (to still dismal levels), pursuing agrarian reform on behalf of landless farmers, and threatening to complicate international mining endeavors and other forms of toxic exploitation. So out he went and back in swooped the rightful rulers of the right, riding a postcoup tsunami of impunity that left the country definitively fucked as both the homicide  and femicide capital of the world—with much of the violence predictably attributable to US-backed Honduran security forces. A decade after the coup, a New York Times essay would catalogue some of the ways in which Honduran females had met their demise, from being “shot in the vagina” to being “skinned alive.”


As for my own experience in Honduras, the worst thing to happen over the course of four months was that I awoke one night to find a man in my room, who promptly evacuated himself via the window in response to my maniacal screams. Nor did other sketchy encounters end so badly, as when the would-be mugger who threatened to kill me had a change of heart and offered me adoption of his toddler instead.

As a US citizen I enjoyed the grotesque advantage of being able to evacuate the country as desired, whereas impoverished Hondurans are generally faced with the choice of risking their lives by staying at home or risking their lives by fleeing abroad—often in the direction of the very imperial behemoth that has contributed so significantly to rendering their homeland hell on earth. Those that survive the northward journey are criminalized by the uniquely sacrosanct US border, which stands in militarized testament to US superiority but conveniently doesn’t stop the US from violating everyone else’s borders as it sees fit.


In her book Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, Suzy Hansen asks the question: “Who do we become if we don’t become Americans?” She goes on to contend that, “in these years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many more wars that followed, it has become more difficult [as an American] to gallivant across the world, absorbing its wisdom and resources for one’s own personal use.” But unfortunately for me, at least, I can’t unbecome American, and the relative ease of my global gallivanting as an American can’t, in the end, be disentangled from the assumption of superiority that underpins the whole imperial enterprise. 

And while I may prefer to cast my continuous travels as transpiring in pursuit of the absorption of wisdom (okay, and sun and wine), it seems that a transgression of ethical borders can often attend the crossing of physical ones—and I’m not just talking about American spring breakers in Cancún chanting “Build That Wall” or voluntourists descending on Africa for photo ops with black people. Lebanon comes to mind, where Amelia and I were rarely treated with anything but complete graciousness, but where—particularly given the extensive Lebanese experience with Westerners charging in to explain the country to other Westerners, usually in reductionist and counterfactual fashion—our postwar hitchhiking escapades through the rubble might have smacked of Orientalist voyeurism: observing the natives in their crushed habitat.


Another time in the Mexican city of San Miguel de Allende, we did our best to hitch a ride to Guatemala on a bus used to deport Central American migrants apprehended as they made their way to the US (this, mind you, was in 2005, i.e. more than a decade before the ascent of Donald Trump and even more manic US border fortification schemes). We had found out about the bus thanks to a Mexican official I had befriended in the course of machinations to spring from jail a Venezuelan paramour—named, incidentally, John Robert, in honor of the Kennedys—who had overstayed his Mexican visa. My strategy, which was ultimately successful, consisted of prancing around in a plaid Turkish schoolgirl’s skirt hemmed to obscene heights and stressing my American credentials. Although the official promised Amelia and me seats on the bus, we soon tired of waiting for it to materialize and hitchhiked to Guatemala instead, thereby narrowly avoiding shameless complicity in the United States’ dirty work.

The Venezuelan, meanwhile, was symptomatic of another facet of my own cross-border existence—namely, my apparent conviction that it’s possible to simultaneously lead multiple parallel love lives in separate territories. In a way, it’s like erecting borders between various selves. This set-up was briefly complicated when in 2007 one of these relationships produced a pregnancy in the Turkish town of Fethiye—detected, as luck would have it, just as my Turkish visa was expiring. Somehow I hadn’t experienced an inordinate amount of guilt sleeping with someone who felt that it was okay to kill Kurds if it meant keeping the borders of the hallowed homeland intact, but the prospect of engendering a miniature Turkish nationalist was out of the question, and an abortion was thus scheduled with a doctor named Nezih in the center of town. First, though, my visa had to be renewed, so the embryo and I traveled by boat to an island off the Turkish coast belonging to Greece—another of Turkey’s favorite enemies, with whom many a war had been threatened over this or that rock in the Aegean. All the while, I sensed a foreign occupation of my body, on which I also blamed my sudden frenzied consumption of cheese.


Then it was back to Fethiye and Nezih, who sang Turkish folk songs throughout the procedure and scolded me for being a wuss when, he said, none of his Turkish village woman patients even required anesthetic. Obstacles to continued itinerance thus removed, I went on my way.

Now, as I persist in my global meanderings—with only the homeland as a no-go zone—I’m reminded of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and a quote from ethnographer Father Martin Gusinde on the indigenous Yaghans of Tierra del Fuego: “They resemble fidgety birds of passage, who feel happy and inwardly calm only when they are on the move.” Granted, I wouldn’t consider happiness and inner calm remotely compatible with my being, but the fidgetiness certainly applies, as does the distinct unhappiness that results from being too long in one place. Over the years, I’ve been repeatedly asked by acquaintances and strangers alike when I am going to “settle”—as though settling, and being defined by a fixed address rather than open borders, is somehow the key to existing. Nor is the response “nowhere” generally very charitably received by border officials inquiring as to my place of residence.

Of course, in an age in which borders literally kill—just look at the countless deaths in the Mediterranean and along my own country’s frontier—there’s no overstating the outrageous privilege of being able to traverse them at will. But as the earth hurtles toward climate apocalypse, at least I’ve got some room to breathe in the meantime.