When I embarked on this journey more than two years ago, I had no idea that if you have been to Iran after the year 2011 you are not eligible for the Visa Waiver Program to enter the United States and need to apply for a visitor visa in your country of residence which in my case was Germany. I was cycling in Chile when I came to know about this rule. Taking an expensive long flight back to Germany wasn’t an option for me so I decided to try my luck on the road. I first thought to apply for a US visa in Santiago, Chile, then in La Paz, Bolivia, then in Lima, Peru and finally decided to go for it in Ecuador.
After submitting the online visa application form, I appeared at the US Embassy in Quito, but the visa officer aborted my interview as soon as she saw the Iranian visa in my passport. From thereon, it took another six weeks during the course of which I was asked to submit tons of supporting documents. Even when I got the visa, it was only valid for one year with an expiry date of 5th Feb 2018.
One year later, on February the 4th 2018, I walk through a long corridor in Tijuana, just one day before my visa is going to expire. The eyes of surveillance cameras follow me everywhere I go. Ironically, there are also No Photography signs right next to them.
Earlier in the morning, I shaved, took a shower and wore the best clothes I had. I put on clean trousers and a new cycling jersey. It was going to be a big day for me.
Will the wall which has kept millions of people on this side of the border let me through? What makes my story different than those who have spent their entire lives in the hope that one day they are going to make it to the other side. Even if they let me enter, will I get enough time to cycle through the US?
At the pedestrian border crossing, the general public queue moves slowly on a spiral passage. There is only one cyclist ahead of me, but he appears to be a local. He is not wearing cycling clothes and his bicycle is without panniers.
As I enter the immigration area, I am greeted by two official portraits hanging on the wall. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are beaming smiles for me. I feel as if they have personally come here to receive me.
The immigration officer waves at me. I push my bicycle towards his desk. “Where are you going in the States?” he asks me.
“Alaska!” I reply.
“Are you kidding me? To Alaska, on a bike!” He is so amazed that he stands up from his chair and speaks loudly to his colleagues across the room and tells them about me. He takes a look at my bicycle and asks, “how do you carry all this stuff on your bike?” Then he continues, “sir, the system has picked you up automatically for a referral.”
“What does that mean?” I ask him.
“It means, you will be asked a few more question by a security officer. Please follow me!”
I follow him to the office behind his desk. He talks to another officer and passionately tells him about my bicycle tour. There is no interrogation. The officer says, “it’s all good. you are good to go!”
Then I head to the permit office and pay 6 USD to the cashier who gives me a blank I-94 form. One immigration officer is practising Spanish with an elderly Mexican woman.
“Why do they say ‘good morning’ as ‘buenos días’ (good day) instead of ‘buenas mañana’ (good morning) in Spanish?” he asks his Spanish speaking colleague. His colleague scratches his head and says, “hmmm, good question. I don’t know.” I want to jump into the conversation and share my views, but I refrain from it.
It is relaxed and friendly atmosphere inside the office, not something I was imagining before coming here. After a while, it is my turn. I am attended to by a female officer. Her colleague, who was practising Spanish few minutes ago , points at me and says to her, “aah, you took the señor, I wanted to have him.” He then makes a sad face.
“Too late! I have him already!” she replies with a smile and then asks, “where are you going?”
“To Alaska”, I reply.
“Do you have an address there?”
“No, but I do have an address in San Diego. I show the address of the hostel in San Diego on phone.”
She types the address in the system, prints out the I-94 form, and puts a stamp on my passport.
“Welcome to the United States!” she hands me back my passport.
I walk out of the office with the passport and a 6-month permit in my hands. The sun is directly behind a giant US flag. Standing in the shadow of the flag, I look at the waving flag, then look at the entry stamp in my passport, and again look back at the flag. “Surely, I have come a long way!” I think to myself. It is indeed a big moment for the son of a tyre repairman. Dad wasn’t able to travel outside his country even once but used to tell me about other countries as if he had seen them all. He wasn’t supportive of my bicycle tours so I always did them secretively. When he would come to know about them later, he would say, “if you had told me before, I would have organised a press event to see you off.” Now I wonder, “What would have been his reaction if I could talk to him right now and tell him that I have just crossed the US border by bicycle?” He would have surely jammed the telephone lines of the local and international press by calling them non-stop. I stand here for quite some time, hoping to hear his voice, but all I hear is people talking to each other and the flag flapping in the air.
I sit on the saddle, take a last look at Mexico. I can see the arch in the Tijuana downtown area. Then, I take a deep breath and press the start button on my Garmin device and begin pedalling. The first thing I notice across the border is that roads are much wider and there is significantly less traffic on the road. I cycle on a dedicated bicycle path which goes through the Coronado resort city. After cycling for over two years in Latin America, everything looks a bit different here, be it the houses, the road signs, the distances in miles. For the first time, I can also understand everything written. I smile and wave at every cyclist I see on the bicycle track.
As I cross the bay on a ferry I see an aircraft carrier with a “welcome home” banner on it. I pretend it is for me which brings a big smile on my face. In the downtown area of San Diego, the streets are 6-8 lanes wide but there is no traffic. Some bars are open with people hooked to the TV screens watching American football. I come to know that it is the super-bowl championship final.
At the ITH adventure hostel, I take a dormitory room and settle myself in. Soon I receive a message from Kashan, a Pakistani living in San Diego. He has been following me on Facebook. We agree to meet at 8:30 at night. He and his wife come to pick me up from my hostel and take me to Hookah Bar where I have a great time with them.
Next day, I am invited to stay at Umar’s place. We visit his friend Rashid where Kashan also joins us later. Rashid has read all my stories on Facebook, even those I published in the year 2011. It is the first time on this tour that I get to talk about those stories in person. I haven’t presented my journey to the public, so I don’t know how to talk about the stuff I have already published. Should I provide more details, or should I interpret? I am not a writer but it is humbling to know that some people do care to read what I write. I spend a great evening with these gentlemen and we talk until almost 11:00 at night.
After spending two nights at Umar’s place, I ride 40 km north of San Diego. I am kindly invited to stay with Rich and Vicki at Roadies Hideaway, a peaceful countryside property in Bonsall. It is late at night as I type these lines from the comfort of the bed. I am still shaking my head thinking, “how on earth have I made so far up north?” An invisible hand keeps sending help through unknown sources. No matter how lost I feel in life, simple acts of kindness by people who are complete strangers to me make me believe that there has to be a universal plan behind what I am doing. Otherwise, the place for the son of a puncture-fixer is in a tyre shop, not in a comfy home in California.