LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Headlines from the U.S.-Mexico border are usually grim. But, in fact, most people on both sides of that 2,000-mile frontier live quiet, normal lives. For the next three mornings, well offer snapshots of that life along the border. First, a man in south Texas who wants people to stop thinking of the Rio Grande as a river of fear. NPRs John Burnett reports.
(Soundbite of water flowing)
Mr. ERIC ELLMAN (Executive Director, Los Caminos del Rio): Im paddling a big orange plastic kayak in the middle of the Rio Grande. On my right is Texas, and on my left is Tamaulipas, Mexico. The banks of the river are thick with trees and bushes and cane and grasses. Its very calm and beautiful down here. You wouldnt know that we were paddling on an international boundary with a reputation for lawlessness.
JOHN BURNETT: Thats the message that this man wants to get out to the world.
Mr. ELLMAN: My name is Eric Ellman. Im the executive director of�Los Caminos del Rio. And we're trying to change the way people see the Rio Grande and the Rio Grande Valley.
BURNETT: For more than 1,200 miles, the Rio Grande defines a boundary between two tense global neighbors, but its still a river with amazing birds and lush plants and even a little white water. For two years, Ellman has offered kayak trips on this stretch of river that begins on a class two rapid below an irrigation dam.
Mr. ELLMAN: This is, like, about as good a teaching rapid as I can imagine. You can see all this beautiful clean water just sweeping right at you. Theres a little waves. You can get on it, get off it, get back in this eddy, try it again.
BURNETT: Ellman is an outdoor fanatic, a travel writer and a former New York City bicycle messenger, who, at 52, finds himself amid the grapefruit orchards and taquerias of South Texas promoting tourism on the Rio Grande. When he arrived in 2000, he found the cool river that bisects this sweltering land to be inviting, but no one else did.
Mr. ELLMAN: They assume it's illegal. They assume it's dangerous. They assume it's dirty. I actually - I had one person ask, they thought it was electrified - you know, every reason in the world. And then they get on - then the local superstitions. There are all whirlpools, the dangerous currents, alligators. There was a huge alligator scare here last year.
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BURNETT: When the locals realized that gators were not swallowing kayaks and the water is relatively clean, Ellman encountered enthusiastic support on both sides of the border. Jeffrey Salcedo(ph) is a business promoter with the Mexican city of Reynosa, which is one of Ellman's backers.
Mr. JEFFREY SALCEDO: (Spanish spoken)
BURNETT: Perhaps Mexicans on this side think of the river as a barrier that's more mental than physical. Because when we cross the river, we're accustomed to being detained and questioned. It's not so difficult to change this mentality, because these water sports have been very successful. We just need to promote them.
Things are happening. Last November was the first annual Big River Festival on the lower Rio Grande, featuring canoe races with 40 competitors from both countries. Now the cities of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo upstream are sponsoring a 33-mile canoe race on their stretch of river as part of RioFest in October. Ellman says he learned, to his surprise, the federal agencies that control and patrol the river welcomed boaters.
Mr. ELLMAN: And it demonstrated to everybody who was watching that this is not only possible, but it's actually something that the powers that be encourage.
BURNETT: For its part, the U.S. Border Patrol is in favor of private watercraft on the Rio Grande, believing the more good people who use the river, the fewer bad people are likely to.
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BURNETT: Sonny Montes, a small-business owner, recently moved from Seattle back to the Rio Grande Valley, where his family has lived for 150 years. Now, he's a regular paddler down here.
So what kind of reaction do you get from people in the Rio Grande Valley when youre telling youre going down to the river to kayak?
Mr. SONNY MONTES (Small Business Owner): Were crazy, because were taking too much risk and its dangerous. So - but you know what I tell them? I tell them we have the best security in the world, because the Border Patrol has patrols in the air. They have patrols in the river, and they have eyes along the border.
BURNETT: The organization of which Eric Ellman is director, Caminos del Rio, has long sought recognition of the cultural and historic importance of the lower Rio Grande. Earlier this month, Representative Henry Cuellar from the Rio Grande Valley asked Congress to name the river lands from Laredo to Brownsville as a National Heritage Corridor. But try as they might to make the Rio Grande a tourist destination, it remains the world's busiest border for drug smuggling, and that fact is unforgettable on the water.
(Soundbite of splashing)
Mr. MONTES: Caseys(ph) standing on top of the truck.
BURNETT: A 16-year-old whos become an avid kayaker balances on top of the cab of a black pickup truck, submerged in the gentle current.
So this is the truck graveyard?
Mr. MONTES: This is one of them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MONTES: Careful, Casey.
BURNETT: It's one of at least 30 sunken drug vehicles ditched by traffickers thats been identified in this stretch of river. Rio Grande visionaries hope that one day, there might be more kayakers than drug smugglers.
John Burnett, NPR News.
WERTHEIMER: From kayaks to bikes tomorrow, NPRs Carrie Kahn paddles the streets of Tijuana.