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 Texas : Features : Humor : Column - "A Balloon In Cactus"

A Modern-Day Ferry Tale

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand
The sun was shining, the breeze was gentle and Mark Alvarez was in a really good mood. "People call me all day when it starts raining," he said, "but not today." They call when it rains because they need to find out if they'll be able to get to work that day; the Los Ebanos Ferry Mark Alvarez operates doesn't run in heavy winds and rain.

Mark is the operator of the only international ferry connecting the United States and Mexico at the Texas-Mexico border. No cell-phone holding, Hummer-driving, Gulfstream jet-flying big shots are involved. Bill Gates and Donald Trump have nothing at all to do with it. Not even Oprah Winfrey is interested in the goings-on of this relaxing mode of transportation. There's a reason for their lack of interest.
Los Ebanos ferry in the Rio Grande
Los Ebanos hand-operated ferry
2000 photo courtesy of Joe Cerulli
The steel ferry, which shuttles three cars and a dozen or so people over muddy waters, is operated by five men heaving hand over hand on a rope and pulley. They may not be captains of industry, but they get the job done. And since they're in the waters of the Rio Grande and not the Caribbean, it's not likely they'll ever be taken over by Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow.

Like the Little Engine That Could, The Los Ebanos Ferry doesn't have it easy. She has to answer to the U.S. Coast Guard since, technically, it operates in international waters, no matter how short the distance which in this case is a mere 25 yards.

"It's almost as if time has stood still, and it continues to operate and function," said Mark Alvarez's uncle, Ed Reyna Jr., the son of the farmer and local politician who started the ferry in 1950.

Like everything else connected with the southern border of the U.S., there has been a lot of talk by politicians who want people to think they're going to make things better. When it comes to this historic ferry, they want to replace it with a bridge. However, we won't have to worry about losing all that charm, not to mention hunky men pulling on a big rope. Remember that it's politicians -- all talk and no action.

Locals on both sides of the river also enjoy talking about replacing the ferry with something else, but they have no plans to do anything about it either. They're pretty happy, all things considered, with the slow pace of life there so why should the way they travel across the river be changed?

In the meantime, five men haul that rope every single day from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., except in heavy winds and rain. In such weather, pedestrians (with or without three cars) have to drive to Rio Grande City to cross.

These days, if there's no waiting line, and the crew isn't on their 15-minute lunch break, it takes roughly 8 minutes to cross this narrow place, costing 50 cents for pedestrians and $2.50 USD per car. Long ago in this very spot, Spanish explorers exported salt, Mexican soldiers crossed to fight the U.S. and in the Roaring Twenties, booze worked its way over via enterprising smugglers.

Mr. Reyna's philosophy is probably too logical for U.S. politicians to understand. He says the key to the ferry's continual operation is simple: "People use it."

Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
December 13 , 2008 column

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