Sunday, October 9, 2011
Aeroflot flight #179 from Moscow touched down in the deep night air in Biskhek, Kyrgyzstan at 5:04am on Monday, the third of October. Reflexively I looked at the time and re-set it to the local time, two hours further east from Moscow, 10 from Washington.
Against common sense I checked email, turning on the cell phone and using the data search to find a local Kyrgyz carrier. I put the phone back in my pocket and gathered my belongings from the overhead, the under-seat and all the other places I store my technology and gadgets when on the road and in a cabin at 35,000 feet. For some reason I remembered standing in line in O'Hare in mid-July, arrived just from Hong Kong, a bundle of books in my arms because I had given my iPad to Aidan for his 14th birthday and hadn't replaced it. For some reason I thought I really didn't need it anymore, and that books were fine. The Buster Keaton (look it up) imitation standing in immigration, and then in security for the connection to DC provided far, far too much amusement for the people behind me, and, finally, led one guy with a belly stretching to Texas and a drawl to match to say "Man, get with the 21st century -- get a Kindle."
Disembarking, my back left pocket buzzed -- the little alert that tells me when I have mail (a far cry from "You've Got Mail" to be sure). It then double-buzzed to tell me that there were also SMS messages waiting and, finally, pinged -- voice mail.
The trip to Kyrgyzstan had come up so last minute that I hadn't had a chance to get my visa before arriving in Bishkek. They're easily obtained at Manas International Airport, a tiny, old Soviet construction place where the lights buzz and the smell of cigarette smoke clings. A small line for the one overworked immigration officer was simple if slow, and in about 15 minutes my passport had its latest piece of paper allowing me access.
The entire operation for immigration -- entry, visas, security, border control -- is no more than 40 feet long and 25 wide. Three immigration kiosks, the usual machinery and scarred floors from too many feet and too much buffing, all stood in close proximity.
I'd been at the very back of the plane, and with my visa process was the very last to complete everything. Immigration was empty and the kiosks closed save for one.
I had my knapsack on my right shoulder, cameras and lenses on my left and my phone in my hand, pulling mail and searching the directory to figure out what Hotel I was going to (I had no recollection and I needed to be sure in case the transportation arranged didn't arrive).
The kiosk open was at the far right, next to the window overlooking the tarmac. My face, I suspect, glowed a bit from the light of the display screen as I pushed my finger over the screen, sliding the mail cue up and down looking for my itinerary. Usually we get asked where we are staying, and I figured probably best to have some idea when that question arose.
I put my passport down on the counter and said good morning. All routine.
And then, suddenly, there was a guard -- tall, thin -- maybe 6'1" at my right shoulder. "Hi," he said. Not the usual greeting from a border guard. He said something in Russian and then there were three guards around me. And then a second at the kiosk.
That's typically not a good sign.
I looked at him and he looked at my hand. At my phone. At the buzzing, beeping, humming, find your hotel walking through an aged and aching airport in the dead of an October night deep inside a tiny country still battling with Lenin's ghost in so many ways (more on that another time) machine in my hand that fit easily in my palm. He was snake-charmed. Transfixed.
"iPhone!" He said and looked around to the other guards.
He held out his hand and, for all practical purposes, pulled my iPhone from my hand -- a bit of gold glowing in the night. It wasn't an offensive gesture in any way. Just one of anticipation and breathlessness.
He took it with a bit of wonder it seemed, and over his shoulder the other two guards outside the kiosk leaned over his shoulder. He looked at me again, wanting a lesson in iPhone-ese. And so, for a few minutes, we played with my phone - the mail, the browser, the internet and the video and then, finally, the music.
"Music -- how?"
I pulled up the last thing I had been listening to. Randomly, it was Miles. Kind of Blue. "So What." He put it to his ear, then looked for the sound, which was coming from the tiny, tiny speakers at the machine's base. High-hats tick-ticking and then Miles's opening solo, just loud enough to echo, faintly, through the Manas immigration room at 6 am on an October morning.
He played with the screen, with multi-touch, and I wondered, for a moment, if I'd ever put my hands on my magic device again. But standing there, in that space, the random American walking half a dozen border guards through the wonder of that little machine -- completely non-verbally because we couldn't actually talk to each other -- the world got small, and easy and friendly and funny. All because of little box calling out one of the great albums of all time.
Finally, and a little possessively, I took it back from this guy -- this lit-up guy. My passport had been stamped minutes before. An after-thought, really.
We all said, in our way and language, good bye. You never say good-bye to border guards -- particularly not in Post-Soviet countries where its all so random. But we did -- bonded by a little wonder that went quietly back into my back pocket, buzzing again as it did so.
Turing past the kiosk and just before the door that took me to my luggage, with the sound of the moment fading, the guard said one last thing to me.
"iPhone. COOL MAN."
Two days later, at the Silk Road Hotel, sitting on my Mac and typing in a note before the day start Jason, in the other room, said "Steve Jobs died."
For some reason that moment in the airport was the first thing which came to mind. All my years of love of these machines, of my endless evangelism for them, for my gloating and glee as all the people who told me over the years that Apple was a fad, a faded company, a place where children went to buy their toys but business people shunned and all the things I'd heard for so long but which had utterly vanished in the past years, came back to that moment in Bishkek. I gave iPhones to friends when they came out in 2007 -- it was the present for the people I loved the most, a machine -- but more than a machine.
I've wondered for days what to say about Wednesday's news. So many elegant words from so many brilliant people -- I wanted to say something, but couldn't imagine what I could offer. And then I thought about Monday.
As I gathered my luggage, the kiosk doors closed behind me and the early, early dawn coming to Biskhek, I heard Miles in my pocket. I'd forgotten to pause the iTunes track, downloaded from the iTunes store onto my MacBook Pro, transferred to my iPhone some years earlier. I thought of that border guard. Of the wonder of that machine now buzzing away.
"Even here," was all I remembered thinking in that moment.
"Even here" those ideas, those dreams, those machines and those tiny bits of genius resonated, bringing smiles, wonder, cordiality and a moment across so many different collisions of culture in the pre-dawn Central Asian air.