Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Ankara

By the time I woke up, Andy and Will were already on a Turkish Air flight to Istanbul. All the doctors were gone and I was by myself in a non-English speaking town in central Turkey. Instead of having someone grab my bag, I bungied my duffle from my footplate to the handle on my seat cushion. I’ve got two little posts on my chair that serve as mini luggage racks and keep most of the weight off my feet. As long as I don’t have any big hills and I can get on the sidewalks, I roll fairly freely.

I didn’t roll long before I flagged a cab not far from the hotel. The cabbie took me to the train station and lifted me the two steps to the ticket office. While I was bungying my bag back to my legs, my cabbie was at the ticket window buying my ticket. I was on my way to Ankara to check out a wheelchair factory run by a friend of one of the doctors from the conference. I found a card phone and called the doctor in Ankara while my cabbie bought my ticket for me. In some cities this would be a setup for a ripoff, but I was told at the hotel that Kayseri cabbies were honest. This wasn't New York City and my cabbie had an honest concern for my welfare. When he came back, he had my ticket, my itenerary and my change. I offered him the change, but he refused it.

The Kayseri train station was a combination of industrial, military and passenger rails. The platform was a 200-meter uncovered concrete slab only a foot above the rails. When the train came I was going to need a lift to get up to my car. The train was an hour late, so I had plenty of time to gather a posse. I found a room with a crew of uniformed train workers and showed them my itinerary. They weren't sure what to think of me but then they then signaled they would take care of the situation. When the train finally pulled into the station, five workers
grabbed the handles of my chair and lifted me up the four steps to the car. There was plenty of room inside the car so I took the first chair from the door and settled in. The train workers disassembled my chair and stored it in the luggage rack above me. In Western Europe the train workers are rabid about making sure people sit in the proper seat. In Turkey they are rabid about comfort and common sense.

The train pulled out and rolled painfully slowly toward Ankara 350 km. northwest of Kayseri. I was sitting in a family car with a bunch of kids and some very tired mothers, looking to catch some sleep. While there eyes were shut, my eyes were glued to the rugged Anatolian farmscape. Behind me were a pair of 12,000 ft. volcanoes and far off in the distance were the highlands that surround Ankara. While the parents were sleeping, I goofed off with their kids, making faces and noises. They were asking questions and laughed uncontrollably when I responded with, “Tomatoes are actually a fruit,” or “Grand Funk Railroad was misunderstood.” But I’m pretty sure there favorite answer was, “Zeke Bratkowski.”

The train was an hour late taking off and lost two hours on the way to Ankara. We crossed one mountain pass and slithered through three deep river canyons, stopping in each one to let a train pass in the opposite direction. Every ten to fifteen miles we passed a hamlet with two or three mosques and the requisite prayer minarets. You’ve got to think that in a town of 2000 you would need only one mosque, but apparently that’s not the case. I wonder if they take turns on the daily prayer sirens.

I was hoping to get into Ankara in daylight so I could catch my bearings, but the three-hour delay got me to the train station just as the sun dropped over Ankara’s West hills. It took almost an hour to get from the outskirts of town to the city center, but that gave me time to pick out a guest house near the station. There was a city map in the Lonely Planet Turkey guide that Andy and Will left me, but those maps are typically lame. They don't mark hills and they tend to leave out non-major streets. In a city with poorly marked streets like Ankara, it’s easy to get lost.

But orientation and housing were problems I could only attack once I got out on the street – something I couldn’t do because the conductors had forgotten me on the train. I assumed someone would help me after the train got to the station, but as the passengers filed out with no conductors were in sight, I needed to ask my friends for help before the train pulled out of the station. I tugged on one of the parent’s coats and pointed to my chair stashed neatly in the rack above my seat. The guy looked kind of surprised. While I was playing with his kids he had no idea I was a para. He started speaking to me in Turkish, but I shrugged my shoulders and poked at my dead legs letting him know it was my chair. He motioned he had to get his wife and kids off the train, but just seconds later he was back with two other helpers. They plucked my chair off the rack, we assembled it and the three of them lifted me down three tight steps to the platform. Seconds later, my bag followed. I pulled out my luggage racks and bungy chords, showed the Turks my system, and thanked them in one of the few Turkish words I’d picked up, ‘Tesekk├╝r ederim' or ‘Thanks broham!’

Once loose in the station, I bought my ticket to Istanbul, found a card phone and called one of the guest houses. I scored an English speaker on my first attempt. The concierge at the Hotel Spor in the middle of the town center or ‘Ulus’, ended up being the only English speaker I ran into the entire weekend in Ankara. He had a $50 room he thought might work, but told me he’d help me find a room if it didn’t. Had there been daylight I would have navigated my way with my bag bungied to my feet, but at night it’s always best to find a home before exploring. I had no idea what the curb cut situation was, and with a heavy bag on my feet, I needed a cab.

The concierge at the Hotel Spor was a blond Turk who had spent years abroad as a truck driver in Germany and England. He had short hair and tight cheekbones and was a spitting image of Lance Armstrong. When I said he looked like Lance, he said I should call him that so I wouldn’t forget his name. Lance had a room for me on the 6th floor and was worried I wouldn’t get into the elevator. I unstrapped my bag and, with it balancing lengthwise on my lap, was able to close the door. I made it to my room but couldn’t get past the first of two small beds. I called downstairs and Lance came up to figure out the situation. He lifted the first bed on its headboard and leaned it against the wall. I was short one closet, but I wasn’t going to use it anyway.

The biggest issue was getting through the tiny bathroom door. I asked Lance if he could pop the door off the hinge, but he said the owner would kill him if he messed up the paint. Instead he suggested I use the restaurant bathroom on the first floor. It was potentially a pain in the arse, but since I was leaving on the midnight train the next night and I’d only be staying for one night, we were square. We settled the difference over a few Effes beers (best beer in all of Ephesia!) and I was out to discover the nightlife of Ankara.

Whereas Kayseri had no drinking and no nightlife, Ankara had a bustling, if not seedy, night life. There were plenty of bars in Ulus; basically open-air restaurants that stopped selling food after dinner. Most of them had TV’s tuned to horse races or Turkish MTV. The tables were full of men, but no women patrons were in sight. The only women around were overly made up barmaids who, although sitting behind the bar, were not carrying out any drinks. It didn’t take a Mensa to figure out what they were doing.

I discovered the same beers I was paying 4 TL for at the bar were available at the convenience store for half the price. Since I wasn’t chatting it up, there wasn’t any live music and I wasn’t in need of a hooker, I got a six pack and rolled to the room. Lance told me they had ESPN on the tube and plenty of international channels. The Turkish version of ESPN was showing archery (no sport could ever be more TV unfriendly) and none of the international channels were in English or French so I flipped off the tube, popped open an Effes and watched the streets of Ankara go to sleep from my 6th floor window. There was a 15-storey building under construction across the street from my window and the construction workers slept on sight instead of going home. The hookers and the construction company were doing ‘bang-up’ business. It wasn’t a pretty night.

##

The air-conditioning unit in my room gave off more heat than relief so I woke up with sweaty sheets and catheters sticking out of the two Effes bottles I’d stored because I couldn't get into the bathroom. Although my chair couldn’t breach the bathroom door, I was able to reach the sink to empty my bottles and wash my hands. I couldn’t see leaving the bottles of Effes full of piss for Lance to clean up.

I made it downstairs and found Lance off duty, replaced by a non-English speaking Turk. He didn’t get the idea that I was checking out but wanted to leave my bag. And then he freaked out when I headed for the restaurant bathroom with a towel and my shaving kit. His 20-word English vocabulary and my five words of Turkish wouldn’t do the trick, so I left my bag and went in to clean up.

The whole reason for my side trip to Ankara was that I’d met an American doctor at the Kayseri conference who told me he had an American friend in Ankara who builds wheelchairs. I told the doctor that I’d love to check out the workshop and he said when I get to Ankara, I should call. Evidently the guy thought there’s no way I would take a seven-hour train by myself so it shocked the hell out of him when I called saying I was in town. The doc fumbled for words then told me he would call his chair welder to see if he could meet me. Since my Verizon cell phone was useless (get a T-mobile phone if you plan on spending any time in Europe) I left him with the hotel phone number and started out on a nice reconnaissance mission through the center of Ankara.

Ankara, like many Middle Eastern capitols, is a series of steep hills with thousands of apartment buildings saturating the landscape. There’s been people living there for 3200 years, but until Ataturk moved the capitol from Istanbul in 1923, the population never amounted to more than 35,000 people. Now, there are more than 4 million Turks creating a no-nonsense business, government and academic climate. Whereas the folks in Istanbul like to get loose and party, the people of Ankara tend to buckle down and work.

Just 100 meters outside of my hotel, I realized my decision to take a cab from the train station instead of rolling the streets with my bungied bag was the best decision I’d made since leaving Portland. The curbs were preventatively high and although there were some curb cuts, most of them were ridiculously conceived and poorly maintained. Beyond that, the hills of Ankara can be viciously steep, turning a mile on the flat Lonely Planet map into an insurmountable wall for someone in a chair. The main streets of Ankara are divided by foot-high boulevards that an able-bodied person can step over, but a person in a chair may have to detour more than a mile to get to the opposite side of the street.

TURKISH CURB CUTS








Instead of following a map (I couldn’t find one – Ankara is not a big tourist destination and there is very little tourist infrastructure) I looked towards a hill just outside Ulus and made my way along a sloping boulevard towards the summit. I tried to stay on the sidewalks as much as possible, but at some points I was forced to jump off foot-high curbs and roll hundreds of yards on busy streets before I could find a driveway with access to the sidewalk. My chair started feeling a little soft, but I didn’t realize for another week that I’d actually snapped one of the support bars of my chair jumping the curbs of Ankara.

After an hour of climbing, I reached a high-end antique market at the summit of Kale hill. I was soaked and my hands were filthy so I chilled with a bottle of water and got my bearings before the drop down the hill. One might ask why I was getting myself in such a state when surely there are busses and metro trains in a city of four million. There are, but the busses are inaccessible and most of the metro stops are a flight of stairs below ground. Ankara had some accessible mini-vans, but they were only for residents who filled out long medical questionnaires and phoned in for rides 24 hours in advance. Cities all around the world have programs like this, but they are so impractical that only the most disabled citizens use them. Most of the insurance regulations are so restrictive that any semi-functional crip finds another way to get around. For me it’s rolling and getting filthy; unless I need to show up looking respectable - then I buck up for the cab (and usually roll home).

I was hoping to find a music shop in the district so I asked one of the antique dealers if he knew where I could find a guitar shop. Again, English wasn’t working, but the universal gesture of strumming lit up the eyes of the forty-something Turk. He rushed into his shop and returned with a nylon-string Gibson which, unfortunately, was strung up right handed (I’m a lefty – curse of my musical career). I gestured to him that I wanted to hear him play, but instead he offered it to me. I protested towards my blackened forearms and sweaty shirt, but he insisted I play. I set the guitar besides me, cleaned up with baby wipes and got a feel for the axe.

After nimbling through upside down scales and finding a couple of barre chords I could fake, I lifted my head to see a dozen Turks waiting to see if I could play the damn thing. My seven years in the circus taught me to never waste a good crowd, so I cleared my throat and dug into a set of the easiest tunes I could muster. The first thing that came to mind was Johnny Cash’s ‘Big River’. I belted out the tune and, to my surprise, got a nice round of applause. I followed it with ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ and even got a few of them to sing along. But these were Turkish antique-ers, not classic rock fans. They put up with one more tune, but after that I was playing to the shop owner and his son.

I gave the guitar back to the shop owner who was too shy to play, but his son ran into the shop and came out with a Turkish 'Saz’ or ‘long-necked lute’.
It’s a three-string instrument with movable frets that are actually pieces of tied string. You can tune it with the pegs or realign the frets. It’s a freaky, funky, bazookia-sounding rig that takes a week to learn and a lifetime to master. While I played some twangy rhythms on the guitar, the kid sat there and whaled on the Saz. I was dying to rip out some runs on a lefty guitar, but I wasn’t going to be too upset with the experience anyway. Just as I was about to leave, the shop owner came out with tea and sandwiches. You just can’t beat the hospitality of the Turks.

After lunch, I had the harrowing task of dropping back down the two-mile hill. On a bike, the reward for a climb is shooting the down hill. In a chair, going down a steep hill in traffic is scary as hell. First, I put on a pair of thick leather gloves (Thanks Mom!) and check my bags (I’ve got a backpack and two small sacks on the legs of the chair) to make sure they’re zipped up. Then I pop a wheelie and drop the street like a ski racer. I can’t squeeze my rims too tight or I’ll burn through my gloves. I can’t drop the hill at full speed because there’s no way I can brake without tossing the chair on the pavement. I let gravity pull me and wherever I can, and use the street like a slalom course. I wait for a red light behind me then lean back in the chair and do wheelies that last a quarter-mile at a time. Once the traffic comes up, I duck behind a parked car and wait for it to pass. My goal is to make the hill without anyone honking at me. In America I usually succeed. In Asia, they honk at anyone no matter what they’re doing.

Eventually I made it back to the Hotel Spor where Lance was back at the helm. He told me my friend called, but there was no way I would be able to meet the chair builder. So much for my reason to be in Ankara, but then again, I had the rest of the day to explore. I spent the afternoon in and around the walled Ankara Kalesi, or citadel. Again, it didn’t look far on the map, but the climb up to the summit was too steep to do by myself. It took two hours to get to the top, but it was only by the grace of a lightly trafficked back road and the help of a half dozen Turks that it was possible. The reward for reaching the summit was a glorious view of the city as well as a visit to the Museum of Anatolian History, named Europe’s Museum of the Year in 1998 even though it’s not even in Europe.

By late afternoon with temperatures hovering around 90, I peered over the edge of the citadel walls and looked for a long route back as opposed to the steep ascent I took to get up. There were plenty of roads back down to Ulus, but all of them were life-sized HotWheels tracks. Whereas the traffic wasn’t bad on the way up, I was leaving at the museum’s closing time with cars and busses lining up at the exit. I had to pick my line and drop the hill as quickly as possible so as to beat the traffic but not kill myself. I started down the hill doing switch backs in the middle of the road until a line of traffic would come and I had to park against the curb. There were sidewalks, but the hill was too steep to drop using a four-foot path. I needed to weave back and forth on the street in order to control my speed. Eventually the bus traffic became consistent enough that I could just slip in between a pair of bumpers and slither into the valley without disrupting the flow of traffic. At first the driver behind me was honking to get me out of the way, but he discovered that I was easily keeping up with traffic (had to slow down more often than not) and he got a kick out of it. When we got to the bottom, he sent me off with a series of horn blasts, a wave and a big smile.

Ever since breaking my back my athleticism has been severely limited and I’m frustrated when I watch people play the sports I love. But wheeling in Ankara was the coolest shit in the world. Bombing a killer hill in a funky Asian capitol was as fukked-up as jumping off a 90 ft. ladder. I don't know if that means anything to you, but it's gold to me.

When I got back to the Hotel Spor, I was drenched and as filthy as could be. Lance gave me the same look my mother used to give me after returning from a day playing along the banks of the Milwaukee River. He smiled, tossed me a towel and asked me if I needed a clean shirt. I told him any shirt would do so he dug into my bag, found a my Portland Marathon shirt and sent me to the restaurant toilet with a towel and my shaving kit.

I spent the evening at the restaurant watching game one of the Turkish basketball league final (Effes beat Finnerbachi for all you Turk hoops fans) and asking Lance questions about the future of Turkey. Before I knew it, it was time to grab a cab for the train station. When I went to pay my bill, Lance’s cash register had run out of 5 TL bills and he was short. He’d been an invaluable help so I told him to hold onto it. He told me I’ve got a 5TL credit next time I stay at the Hotel Spor.

I’d love to take him up on it.

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