The surreal journey of my bike began weeks ago, the seed of a dream to have suitable Nathan-sized transportation at my disposal overseas in Korea. In the past, together we have survived some testing situations and bonded through those struggles. When we first crossed paths, he was already 10 years or so my senior, a veteran road bike from the 1980’s left craving companionship in a suburban garage. Our first real trial occurred during my final year of university. I was determined to finish the race, my first triathlon, as quickly as my body could be willed to.
Such lofty goals, but when will you set aside time to train? Whereas you think the world of your stamina, I know at what point mine becomes limited. My posture is woefully out of whack and I tend to shut down when asked to go above and beyond a typical exertion.
In theory 15 miles would be a cake walk, Mach 5 speed through the barren Illinois wasteland of corn and soybeans. Unsurprisingly, I underestimated the wind that blows aggressively around those parts, being pushed back by invisible hands at every turn.
He’s being passed up by literally anyone that hasn’t dropped out for medical reasons. I almost feel bad, but this leg of the race was destined to prove more of a struggle. 11-year-olds with unbridled energy, athletic grandmas, perhaps with better mechanical partners than I am, and even guys rockin’ the dad-bod are sailing past us.
I could hear these unspoken thoughts from my bike, as if they were my own. Not that I typically personify my inanimate possessions, but my Raleigh bike has had quite the amount of life experience.
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Fast-forward three years and now I just reminisce about my jelly-legs that arose from that fateful race. Until now, we haven’t experienced any such similar moments. Until now.
Will I really fit in there? I’m not as limber as I used to be. I’ve heard about the driving and traffic in Korea. Should I survive the journey, will I last long in a strange new world?
I originally wanted to live out my days in Korea bikeless, embracing the routine of public transportation and awkward taxi rides. Or at least find a bike there; to maybe only my surprise, the cost of large bike frames in Korea starts around $600 USD, whereas Asiana airlines actually allows for bringing bikes on their flights as checked luggage (at no extra cost within their size limit). Coupled with the fact that I want to go on a few bike trips before I move back from Korea, it was a no-brainer to package up my bike and haul it overseas.
He says it’ll just be temporary. They need to remove my bars, my pedals, my wheels, the extremities. But I have faith that it’ll work. Being dismembered this way almost makes me feel young again. And here we go. Here comes the bubble wrap, there goes the light…
“The airline policy clearly starts that this size of box is allowed as checked baggage. I already called in advance to ensure this was okay.”
He sounds pretty angry… Not sure what all the fuss is about. Footsteps are moving farther away, becoming a quiet almost imperceptible clunk. And now I’m sliding forward in conveyor belt fashion, hopefully the sign of forward progress. Hello? Who’s there?
YOU must be the TSA, certainly living up to your reputation. The finesse of a clumsy burglar and the gentle touch of a bull in a China shop. You must be soooooo proud of yourselves.
I arrived to the Incheon Airport now for the fourth or fifth time, but more stressed than ever before wondering if my bike survived the flight. I was beyond relieved to see it waiting for me, almost dutifully, at the baggage claim before all the other bags had emerged. Commence wave one, relief.
I hear him again, Nathan. And I remember her voice too, Paige. They sound a little groggy, but I guess I can’t empathize much. Where to next?
We made our way from the arrivals floor to the airport 택배, the shipping service. Korean shipping is famous for its speed and convenience, so I was blindsided when they said my box was too big to ship. Despite giving a quote for shipping bikes, it was deemed too big.
This is discrimination! This is profiling! This is unjust, unfair, and uncouth!
I thought the problem was that I simply wasn’t describing what I needed well enough in Korean. So I sent in the big guns. First Paige, who was visibly irked when she too was rejected by the 택배 guy, then Isabel, whose Korean if not deemed fluent is as close as you can get. To no avail. Commence phase two, panic.
Plan B was to send the box on a bus directly to Cheongju stored in the large underneath luggage compartment. It seemed foolproof; those compartments are more than spacious enough and I have friends who have transported bikes like that before. I only forgot one thing. Bus drivers in Korea tend to be bitter old men who don’t like unexpected occurrences on their buses. The first bus driver took one look at my box and shook his head a firm and silent no.
Where are you going, Nate? I wasn’t prepared for this form of abandonment and emotional torture. Just kidding, what do I care? You’re clearly more stressed than I am. I’ll just hang out here in the box for a while.
Now that our small group of ETA’s had waited for me to resolve this bike issue, I felt more pressure. It was early in the morning, I was hungry, I was angry that the airport information desk had zero advice for me (seriously?!), and we had to leave the airport soon for the Fulbright ETA orientation site. I had no choice but to leave my box in storage (I almost felt like I was abandoning the cause and running away from my problem) and deal with it later.
I came back to the airport less than 48 hours later with knots in my stomach. As I mentioned before, I wasn’t nervous about being back in Korea, starting to teach again, or even moving into a new apartment to live alone. My sole source of stress was this damn box and trying to successfully transport my bike to Cheongju.
I hear him once again. No other voices, so he’s probably alone. I wonder if he’s devised a new plan.
This was the moment of truth. I collected my bike from the storage facility. I purchased a ticket for the next available bus to Cheongju. I told myself that I was going to put this box on the bus and nothing was going to stop me. Nerves of steel.
The bus pulled up. The driver got off. Passengers loaded their luggage underneath and I waited. When I was the last one standing there, I made my move. I told the bus driver in Korean, “This is my only luggage. They said it was too big for shipping. I can make it fit.” And despite his irritated look and once-over all-encompassing “what an annoying foreigner” stare, he complied. So, I forced the box into the compartment and boarded the bus, forever a changed man. I had stood my ground against a Korean bus driver and won.
We did it. As your students would say, “take a rest.”
In Cheongju, I unloaded my package off the bus and rode over to the new apartment in my host mom’s car, also barely big enough to shuttle the box. What a wild return to Korea. If I could solve the problem of the ridiculous bike box, then anything I face for the rest of the year will feel like nothing in comparison.
You better put me back together…