Early Monday morning I packed and took the half-loaded bike and my riding gear north to the Ezeiza airport exit, finding the Ministro Pistarini International Airport cargo terminal exit using GPS coordinates sent by Javier and his wife Sandra. They were adamant I be there by 10 am for the 4 hour process, and I was there at 9:30 am in my usual Boy Scout fashion.
A woman walked over to me as I rode up to the wait area, of course being Sandra, and introduced herself. I was glad they were already there and she took me over to meet Javier, a big, gravelly-voiced guy. I paid him the $1780 fare to Houston in cash. It felt weird handing over almost 2 grand cash in a parking lot hidden between cars in a foreign country. The next step was getting paperwork done. I’d read a blog about what copies of paperwork were required and had made them the day before which pleased Sandra and saved us an hour of time. While we waited for an official to bring paperwork allowing the moto into the secure area, Javier helped remove the windshield while I pulled the mirrors. In the past, the motos had been required to remove the front wheel, all cases, windshield and battery. Now only the windshield and mirrors were required, with the addition of disconnecting the battery once on the pallet.
The paperwork official arrived and I was directed where to ride, Sandra meeting me on the other side of the security gates. After showing paperwork, I was told to ride very slowly up to the loading area. In a moment or two I was waved inside the warehouse and followed an official to the scale for weighing the bike. After this, I was led to the crating area where several workers assisted me riding the bike onto a very narrow pallet. I disconnected the battery, lowered tire pressures, stowed the mirrors and my riding gear, jackets and pants into my now empty side case. Workers wrapped my helmet and boots in plastic and strapped them to the pallet under the bike. After an inspector looked in the gas tank, the bike was strapped in place and wrapped in stretch wrap. I was required to unlock all the cases and leave the keys on the bike, as in the past random inspections had occurred and when no keys were available, officers simply broke into everything.
After the bike was wrapped and waiting, I reached into my pocket for my phone to take a photo and realized my keys were in my pocket, a habit after unlocking the cases. I panicked but was able to work my arm between the plastic wrap to get them in the ignition just before the bike was taken by forklift to the security scanner.
It was a strange feeling seeing the bike, my daily compadre for 7 months, wrapped and about to disappear
Sandra had been with me the entire way through the process, discussing various things that had happened to bikes and riders in the past. We watched as my bike went into the scanner and passed through quickly, a good sign she said as that meant they saw nothing of interest. It was whisked off the conveyor belt and deposited back in front of us, where an official slapped a sticker on the plastic and smiled at Sandra. It was good to know she and Javier had such a good rapport and reputation with the customs officials and process.
Sandra told me the bike was now "official and secure", to be shipped the next day on United Airlines Cargo direct to Houston, providing a higher paying shipment didn’t bump it.
Originally in our discussions, Javier had told me they could ship it anywhere in the US, and I got quotes for Houston and Miami, knowing Miami was a very popular route for South America and personal flights were cheaper there. I’d selected Miami as it was a little cheaper for the bike shipping, but mainly because the personal flights were cheaper since it was a big hub for South American flights. The night before bringing the bike to the airport, Javier made mention that when I arrived in Miami, the bike might be two days later since it landed in Houston and would then be trucked to Miami. I was shocked to hear the bike went through Houston anyway and told him there was no point in Miami if it went to Texas. Luckily it was an easy change. I was relieved in a way, however I was looking forward to hitting Key West and then leisurely riding through the old South back to Texas from Florida. Still the expenses saved would be good for my rapidly disappearing budget.
Sandra had assured me I could leave immediately, and despite knowing the bike was cleared, I still had paranoia that some form or inspection might occur and decided to book a flight leaving the same day as the bike. In my last minute flight searches, the best price was for a next day flight, which would leave a day before the bike. I actually could have flown on the same United flight as the moto, but the fare was much higher. I booked a flight leaving the next day at midnight, flying to Mexico City for a layover then on to George Bush International in Houston.
I was in a weird state of mind. Having no bike, wondering about the process and having my little world broken up, I felt strange and disconnected. My flight was at midnight the next day, and I had to check out of the hotel by 11. I had the Russian hostel owner call a cab and I was in the airport by noon, spending the next 11 hours in the terminal. By the time Aeromexico opened at 9 pm, the line was huge and despite having checked in online, I still had to go through it for checking the bag and getting a boarding pass.
Boarding the flight at midnight felt surreal and strange. I guess there was something comforting about the BMW, like the only friend you have each day. I'd paid extra for the emergency exit row which turned out to be a smart move. The Mexican flight attendants spoke Spanish that I could almost understand and I wanted to kiss them like lost family. The 10 hour flight to Mexico City was consumed by watching a couple of movies and thinking about stuff, and though I'd been dreading it the flight wasn't too bad. I managed to stay awake the whole night and saw Mexico City glittering below like millions of diamonds and gold in the dark. It felt good to know I was about to land in Mexico, which seemed like an old friend now.
In the Mexico City airport at 6:30 am, the sleepiness hit as I went through the X-ray inspection and tried to explain the incredible mishmash of things in my GS bag when I was pulled aside by an inspector. He finally understood when I mentioned "estoy viajando en la moto a Ushuaia" and then wanted to know how expensive the motorcycle was and told his friends. Yep, definitely back in Mexico!
I was in a fog, but the layover time wasn't too long and I got checked in and my ticket to Bush International in Houston. I'd mentally written off my checked duffle bag ever making it to the US, since it had to get from Argentina and Mexico to Houston. I clung to my remaining GS bag like my guns and religion as I waited in the very last line of my trek. The gracious ticket clerk put me on an exit row and when she began using the loudspeaker, the large crowd bum-rushed the entrance. It turned out several different flights were simultaneously leaving at the same time from the same gate. Definitely back in Mexico!
The salmon-like crowd flowed down 3 flights of stairs and split several directions. Of course there was no signage anywhere. Definitely back in Mexico. I followed a couple of people from my line and went into a hallway which led to yet another inspection and X-ray process, which I found weird, but went through the routine again and fifteen minutes later stepped into the main airport lobby. What the hell??
I ran all the way back to the ticket counter again and waved my ticket frantically. They decided to tell me how to find the gate after going back down the stairs again, telling me to run, which for chunky boy meant certain death. Damn! Definitely back in Mexico! After finding the gate hidden behind a sheetrock dust covered sheet of hanging plastic (definitely back in Mexico) I found a series of empty bus lanes with one just about to pull out. Breathless and waving my arms I shouted "Houston??" He stopped and I got on board. God I was frazzled and I couldn't believe I'd almost missed my last 2 hour flight to Texas.
Once out of the bus, up the rolling staircase and on board, I found my exit row seat and started to relax. As I looked out on the wing, the flight attendant loudly and sternly announced to me that I alone would be responsible for getting the exit door off and helping everyone out in an emergency. I said "No problem", but silently thought "they're all gonna die".
As the engines started up I relaxed and the fatigue started catching up. I was having trouble keeping my eyes open... that is until take-off when there was such a loud, ear-splitting shrieking sound coming through the emergency door next to me for the entire race down the runway. I just assumed it wasn't sealed and would tear away as soon as we reached altitude. It finally stopped, but God Almighty my nerves were toast. Definitely back in Mexico!
After that I couldn't sleep and after a while eventually saw the gulf coast come below the aircraft, then the reduced engine power that signaled descent. After a very hard landing and long taxi, my first sight heading down the hallway for immigration was two fat, bearded, Texas bubbas changing a light fixture and eyeing the “furners” coming down the hall. I laughed out loud at being back with my Texas homeys.
The new customs questionnaire machines sped up the process and the officer kindly said "Welcome back" as I handed him my two forms. “Ka-chunk, ka-chunk,” the most satisfying sound in the travel world according to my friend Ken, and I was at home. The airport was clean, new, organized and sterile. I nervously waited at the luggage area for my duffle bag, and was stunned to see it slide down the belt. What a relief and I hoped it was a good sign for the bike’s arrival the next day. I instinctively avoided conversations until I remembered that I COULD actually speak the language. I turned into Chatty Cathy at the Starbucks and I'm sure it will go down in legend as the freaky, funky man who wouldn't shut up.
I needed to find a hotel and started the online booking process when it dawned on me that I could actually CALL and ask the questions, which I promptly did. The hotel clerk had a Spanish accent on the phone and instinctively I responded in grubby Spanish. I got in the hotel room at 2 pm, messaged a couple folks, and the next thing I knew, it was 5 am. I had slept almost 15 hours straight, having fallen asleep in mid conversation on WhatsApp at 2:30 pm. Hadn't slept that long in years!
I nervously checked the motorcycle tracking number online and to my relief the bike had arrived at the United cargo warehouse at 6:03 am, an hour after I’d woken up. What a relief! I realized I had no idea how the process worked and called United’s information line. I was told it usually took 4 hours to clear the TSA so the plan was to get to the cargo warehouse around 10:30 that morning to avoid waiting.
The hotel shuttle driver dropped me at the cargo terminal about 10:30, having done a song and dance with feigned "fear of being fired" trying to shake me down for extra money. I ignored him. I went in the United Cargo office and stood at the empty counter in front of a lady who didn't acknowledge me for quite a while. After a few minutes I was acknowledged, with an attitude, and then a call was made to the back. In a few minutes a guy came in and told the lady there was indeed "a motorcycle back there" but the customs inspectors hadn't come yet. Great.
I sat in a chair and watched animals being loaded at the other end of the lobby for almost an hour with no response on the bike. I'd heard the uninterested employee say she was going to lunch, so I waited until she left and her replacement came in. I then asked the new worker about the bike and she left for a few minutes, then returned and dug through a stack of papers. She then handed me a stapled group of them, saying I had to go to customs and handed me a printed address. At least she was helpful.
Customs was a few miles away and I grabbed an Uber over, then entered the building to find no signage indicating where to go. Back in the USA government world. I spotted an officer at the end of a hallway and walked down to find a glass window and a Hispanic lady standing there. Behind the window was a Customs and Border Patrol officer with the worst attitude I've yet seen, who was an absolute jerk. She barely spoke English and said she was sent there to pay a fee before she could get her dog from the airline, trying to hand him cash through the window. He stood so far back from the glass neither she nor I could hear him, and he got very frustrated, yelling at her that the fee was not paid to them but to the airline. She didn't understand and I tried to use my pigeon Spanish to tell her, but the officer got mad and demanded to see her identity, which turned out to be about two weeks past her exit time. He got very angry and questioned her then opened the door and loudly told her she was in trouble, grabbing her and disappearing down the hallway to return alone about 10 minutes later.
When he came back, he was in full tactical asshole mode and treated me like a jerk, demanding to know why I was there. When I said I was sent there with the papers by United, he cut me off and grabbed them, saying I was in the wrong place and then came out of the office, pissed and said "I'm the only person working the desk" storming off through a door. In 5 minutes he came back out, pointed to a chair and said "Sit!." He went back in the office and started his behavior on the next person in line.
I was damn tired of being treated like some piece of crap and it was everything I could do not to call him an asshole. Welcome back to the typical, condescending attitude of law enforcement I've gotten so sick of. Definitely back in the USA. After about 30 minutes, he yelled at me to come to the window and handed one of the forms back that had a signature. I bit my tongue and walked out carrying my two bags to head back for the cargo center. The Uber App couldn't find my location so I downloaded Lyft and finally got it to work. $11.67 later and a ride with Koorsoh the Persian, I was back at the cargo center. This time I was acknowledged, paid them $50 with my credit card and took my form to the dock door outside.
In about 15 minutes I heard a forklift and my beautiful beast, leaning a bit but still wrapped, was deposited near the door where I could get it set up. Damn it felt good to see it again. What a relief! It took a bit to get the net off, then the plastic wrap. I noticed the gas cap was open and realized they hadn't closed it when they inspected it in Buenos Aires. I had so little gas in the tank I worried if enough had evaporated to leave me stranded. The bike was leaning to the right side a bit but I would have to cut all the straps on the opposite side to get the kickstand down. I finally got smart and dug out two tie downs, connecting them as a safety straps and got the bike upright and over on the kickstand so I could begin reassembly. The battery was hooked up and then it took forever to get the windscreen back on, simply due to two locknuts that keep the adjustment knobs from backing out. Each time I ever take off the windscreen, the nuts get lost into the recesses somewhere and it takes forever to find and fish them out with a magnet. I always forget what a pain it is and made a note to add the guy who came up with the design to the list of engineer/designers at BMW I want to harm.
Leaning a little but luckily it hadn't gone over
I fired up the bike to juice the battery a little before re-inflating the tires and a warehouse worker ran over, telling me to be careful since there was almost no gas and he didn't want me to run out before getting to a station. It was very nice of him and when I shut it down he wanted to talk about the bike. I dug all my riding gear out of the cases and began reinstalling the pads I'd removed to make the gear fold better, getting boots back on before carefully getting back on the bike.
The pallet was just wide enough to get the bike on and the kickstand had just barely caught the edge with a tenuous hold. I again grabbed my motorcycle tie downs and safety strapped the bike to keep it upright while I cut the last plastic shipping straps. There was a big gap between the front of the pallet and the steel frame, just wide enough for the front wheel to drop into and hesitate. I figured if it caught the wheel and bumped me off balance just a little it could make me drop the bike. The pallet was so narrow that a foot couldn't be put down if it started over, and 700 lbs of motorcycle and gear once off balance can't be stopped. In Buenos Aires they were kind enough to have made side pieces for you to step on as well as a ramp onto the pallet. Also, the workers surrounded the bike in case you got off balance. Not so in Houston and I decided to play it safe, piling up the heavy shipping net to make a ramp across the gap. Getting on the bike was tricky since I couldn't stand on the edge of the pallet and my duffel was now twice as fat after the repack, but I did my best ballet move and got on. I started the bike and tippy toed slowly forward with my feet between the cylinders and pegs, until the front wheel rolled off, then gunned it off the pallet. Success! And I didn't drop the damn thing in front of the watching crowd of workers.
The remaining afternoon was spent repacking my Rubik's Cube of gear. Fitting everything together for such a long trip had taken a lot of time developing a system to make it fit and I'd had to destroy it for the air flight. It took a long time, in part due to the number of people coming to chat about the bike. It was 4 pm by the time I rode out the door to find gas and head west. When it dawned on me I was in Houston on the east side, I quickly gave up on the idea of trying to get across town in rush hour traffic. I ran the bike slowly down the service road to make any remaining gas last a bit longer and made it to the gas station, used a credit card and pumped my own gas for the first time in almost 7 months. Definitely back in the USA!
I picked a hotel just a couple of blocks from the gas station. The manager was a Hispanic lady and to my surprise I recognized her Mexican accent and asked if she was from Mexico City. She was surprised, as was I, that I had pinned the accent accurately.
My room was very nice, but I felt out of place in it, as if visiting a museum or a store display. Now that my bike and gear were all accounted for, I felt in a daze, an emptiness as if I were hollow. It's difficult to explain, as it wasn't sadness for the trip ending as I expected, just a complete sense of emptiness. I didn't want to talk to anyone, see anyone, or interact with anyone.
I couldn't bring myself to write, look at photos or do anything. The adjacent Chinese restaurant was where I had my first iced tea in over 7 months and the change of food was nice. I stared out the dark tinted windows into the parking lot as customers came and went. I stared at nothing, with an empty mind and an empty heart. I guess the overload of 7 months of ingesting sights, sounds, stresses and hard physical challenges had overloaded my circuits and the body had taken control. It was determined to take a break.
That evening I lay in bed, many thoughts trying to enter my mind but each rejected. Ahead lay many decisions and directions, but now was not the time.
The next morning, I packed my gear and loaded the bike, a surprisingly comforting process since it was now a familiar routine. The sound of the engine as it lumped along trying to warm up was soothing to my ears. My jacket and pants smelled and I hated putting them on, but I had to wait until I had a place to wash my clothes. Kicking my leg over the high seat and rolling out into morning traffic felt good. As the highway opened up and my speed increased, the city, and then the world became a better, brighter place. The future unknown, the direction of life unknown, the next day unknown. Somehow deep inside I was a different man, formed over the journey just completed and now fitting into my known world even less than ever.
I still longed for new lands and new people in spite of fatigue, and deep inside knew that the world I'd left months before would never satisfy my soul again...