|January 24, 2003
Iranian cyclist's peace tour stopped cold in Arizona
Iranian bicyclist Reza Baluchi has documentation of his world travels but is stuck
in an INS detention center in Florence.
By Dennis Wagner
Jan. 13, 2003
FLORENCE - Iranian bicyclist Reza Khoshvravesh Baluchi traveled through six continents
on a world tour for peace, but now he runs in circles at an INS detention center.
Smiling like a little boy about to begin recess, Baluchi follows a guard into the
visitation room, opens a scruffy binder and produces his introductory note, hand-printed
in child-like English:
My name is Reza Balouche. I'm from Iran. I lift my country in 1996 in my way to Eurap
on bickal (bicycle). My goal is to try peac betwin Iran and USA. I don't like violence.
I like peac and freeadem...
In broken English, he tells of pedaling 46,000 miles before his travels came
to an abrupt halt two months ago at the hands of U.S. Border Patrol agents.
INS officials declined comment, but the questions about a 30-year-old Iranian interloper
are obvious: What was he doing camped on the Arizona-Sonora line 15 months after
the World Trade Center attacks? Where was he going? It turns out that Baluchi was,
and is, on a mission related to Sept. 11, 2001: He wants to honor victims
of terrorism by completing a global tour for world peace at Ground Zero in New York
Part of this story is told on outdated Web sites (www.geocities.com/barjusch
The remainder proves difficult to unravel in the confines of a visitation room at
the Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center. Baluchi is only allowed
one hour with a guest, and his English is so poor that chunks of the interview are
conducted in street Spanish. Despite just five years of schooling, Baluchi has developed
rudimentary skills in a half-dozen languages.
Stories of a wanderer
His words are supported by wrinkled articles published in newspapers from South
America to South Africa. Stories about an idyllic wanderer who thinks one man can
change the world. Some of the facts are muddled: Baluchi's name is spelled and arranged
differently everywhere it appears. The starting year for his travels is listed as
1996, 1999 and 2000. But if details seem fuzzy, the overriding message is clear:
"My religion is peace," Baluchi says. "I like everybody go together."
The South African article says he was inspired by an Iranian president's speech urging
civilizations to unite through love and understanding.
"Although Baluchi is not fluent in English," the reporter noted, "he
believes that dialogue does not only involve speaking. He uses his sporting skills
and believes art and the way one conducts oneself can also communicate the same message."
Binder of adventures
Baluchi nods and smiles, then reveals his prize possession: a binder full of
photographs from around the world. In Nigeria, he is holding up a lion cub. In front
of the Arc d'Triumph, he waves an American flag. In Mexico, he rides his bike loaded
"Every country give me medal for peace," he says. "Everybody help
me. Everybody nice." Baluchi says he was hospitalized for malaria, got hit by
a car and had several nasty spills. He ran out of money sometimes, but found work
or was taken in by new friends. The album contains a snapshot of a pretty Mexican
girl. "She is my girlfriend, I think," he says, shyly.
Baluchi recites a sketchy biography: Born in the village of Rasht, northern Iran.
One of eight children. Sent away to become a mechanic's apprentice at age 9. Worked
on cars and lived with his employer. Began competing in bicycle races as a teenager.
Became a member of the Iranian national cycling team. Got drafted at 18. Served two
uneventful years in the army.
Baluchi mentions American flags being burned in the streets, apparently during the
Iranian revolution. He talks of the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran that ended
in 1988. Somehow, these memories explain how his passion for biking and pacifism
morphed into an odyssey.
He pulls out a world map and traces his route through former Soviet states, across
western Europe into Africa. He claims to have pedaled up to 180 miles a day.
Sept. 11 changed plans
Baluchi planned to culminate the tour in Canada, but Sept. 11 changed that. Agonized
by the terrorist attacks, he made New York City his symbolic destination on the one-year
Baluchi flew to South America and began cycling north. Through 55 countries, he had
negotiated all kinds of weather, bad roads and visa requirements. But the U.S. border
stopped him cold.
A spokesman for the American consulate in Monterrey, Mexico, confirms that Baluchi
applied for a visa last year. Because of his national origin, the paperwork did not
come easily. So an impatient cyclist headed to the Arizona line and spent three months
pedaling around Sonora, waiting for permission.
Baluchi says he was given bad directions on Nov. 10 and got lost. As darkness fell,
he set up camp. "I sleep in my tent. Helicopter comes. I don't know I cross
He was arrested for illegal entry near San Luis and taken to the Florence detention
center. Baluchi says he can't pay the $5,000 bond, so he sits in a cell awaiting
word on his plea for political asylum. His next hearing is Jan. 22.
"It was my mistake," Baluchi says cheerfully. "I'm not mad at the
U.S. I'm for peace. I'm not sad."
But what if he is deported?
It is OK to tell
For once, the smile disappears. He asks if he can tell something that won't appear
in the newspaper. He says he is not Muslim and was given 70 lashes in Iran years
ago for violating the fast during Ramadan holy days. Later, he spent 18 months in
prison, accused of attending an anti-government meeting.
Baluchi's eyes light up again. It is OK to tell about the flogging and jail, he decides,
because he can never go home anyway. He is a good person, and America is about liberty.
"No deported," he declares. "I like free."
In Florence, where inmates get two hours in the recreation yard each day, Baluchi
uses every minute to run laps wearing black clodhoppers. "He runs fast,"
an INS officer confirms. "And he never stops. It makes me sick the shape he's
"Reza definitely marches to the beat of his own drum," adds Victoria Lopez,
a staff attorney with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. "Even
being incarcerated, he has this sort of attitude: 'I'm not really in jail; I'm a
free person.' "
Lopez says her client brought the black binder to his first court hearing and insisted
on sharing pictures with the judge and INS prosecutor.
"He's absolutely unique," she adds. "He has amazing documentation
of what he's been doing and who he's been with on his voyage."
At Florence, Baluchi gets $1 a day for cleaning. The money goes for stamps and phone
calls, so there is nothing left to buy athletic shoes. He bares a foot to reveal
the blood-blistered proof, then grins and announces that plans for the peace tour
have changed: Instead of bicycling from Los Angeles to New York, Reza Baluchi intends
to run the final 2,500 miles.
"I cannot stop me," he says. "I run for peace."
Sent by Yury Sheydayi
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