The bus drive to Incheon airport, through the morning mist felt like a dream as I watched the countryside through the foggy windows falling into sleep occasionally. Soon I found myself in the airplane rising above the clouds.
After a short transfer in Tokyo and a long flight over the Pacific, we landed in San Francisco. I entered the passport and customs line. There were more than 10 booths and hundreds of people waiting. I enjoyed the fact that despite the technological and organizational differences, this whole thing was essentially in the same category with most of the other borders I had been through. I remembered the crossing into Kyrgyzstan, where the guards took turns to pose for photos on my bike. I didn’t expect such a thing to happen here. For one thing, I didn’t have my bike with me. It was waiting for me in a cargo bay I was yet to find. I approached the booth and the officer examined my passport. In all his officialdom, he said: “May I ask what you had been doing in all these countries sir?” I told him that I had just finished riding my bike around the world. His mood changed dramatically. He said “Cool!” and stamped an entry on my passport.
I passed the gate thinking that in less than a minute I would be seeing Evren for the first time in six months. There she was, casting a deeply familiar silhouette walking towards me in front of the big bright windows. I hugged and kissed her repeatedly until I realized how insufficient and pathetic this activity was. Then I kissed her again.
You’d expect that the rest of the story would involve some romanticism. I hate to disappoint anyone reading this, but we headed straight to the customs building to clear the bike. First we went to the Asiana warehouse to get the paperwork, signed and submitted it to the customs officer in the next building The forklift brought the crate and placed it somewhere on the parking lot. There we were standing in the middle of the parking lot with a big wooden box, two backpacks and a pair of tires Evren had been carrying all the way from L.A.. A truck driver gave us a hammer to open the crate, we mounted the front tire back on, changed the dogbones to raise the rear end a few inches, rearranged the luggage for both of our bags, stacked the new tires, jumped on the bike and rode towards the city. I don’t remember ever riding such a loaded bike, but it felt so good to be back on familiar roads together with Evren. I kept singing in my helmet all the way to the city.
We wanted to take a photograph in front of the hotel. I was lying down on the pavement to arrange the camera when a young woman walking her dog asked if we needed any help. She took our photograph and asked what this was all about looking at the bike and the stuff loaded on it. When she learned that this was the first time we had seen each other since 6 months, she said: “Oh my God! Get a room. Now!”
And so we did.
Next day, I went out to take care of a few things while Evren was sleeping. The paid parking lot I found near the hotel was surprisingly owned by a Turkish man and the attendant was Uzbek. We talked for a while and I found out that he moved to the states right after the infamous Andijon events. I asked him if he had been living in Fargana Valley and he confirmed it in surprise. Obviously, he wasn’t expecting me to know about it. He was even more surprised when I told him about my ride through Uzbekistan.
As I was looking for a restaurant and a laundromat, I came across one place called “Brainwash” that did both. There was free Wi-Fi, food, games and laundry machines within the same place. The customers were all very interesting and friendly people. The simple and annoying task of washing clothes was ingeniously turned into a sociable and enjoyable pastime. I remembered washing my clothes with what little water they had in Beyneu, Kazakhstan.
I found two great bike shops within 1 mile. Both looked very professional and friendly. They helped me change the oil, tires and fix the preload on the suspension. The welder across the street did a great job on my broken pannier racks. The bike felt like it was ready for another round. I remembered my heartfelt joy, when I found a car mechanic in Altai, Mongolia.
On my way back to the hotel, I stopped and chatted with an old homeless man. We smoked a cigarette each. He had a heavy accent and a missing tooth so I couldn’t figure out half of what he was talking about. Nevertheless, he seemed clean and healthy. I remembered the harsh conditions in which children in most of Asia lived.
Back in the hotel room, lying next to my wife, I thought about the colorfulness, convenience, abundance, safety, accessibility and availability I had been witnessing in a single day. I hadn’t noticed it so much before, and I knew it wasn’t anything new. The places I had been to and the people I had seen throughout the journey, must have given me a new way of appreciating such things. And a new reason to ponder upon the harsh difference in between.