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


After the 33-hour flight from hell I didn’t have much time to collect my wits. The reason I was in Turkey was to present my Internet strategy to the doctors of the International Rehabilitation Forum (http://www.rehabforum.org). Just seven hours after arriving in Kayseri I found myself on stage in a large academic hall at Erciyes (EAR-jis) University addressing 75 doctors and medical professionals hailing from every corner of the globe. It was a fairly daunting task seeing as I’d only had six hours of sleep out of the previous 72. But the silver lining of all this was that just 15 minutes later, my major responsibility for the trip was over. I still had to attend group sessions and address the conference in the wrap up session, but for the most part, I was on vacation.

IRF Pres and CFO, Andy Haig and Devendra Peer.

But when you’re traveling in Asia in a wheelchair you’re never really on vacation. Although my room was in a modern hotel and 100 percent accessible, the rest of the city, including the University, was 100 percent inaccessible. There are no curb cuts, no ramps, no busses. Elevators are non-existent or, even more annoying, in foyers three steps up from street level. Phone booths and public toilets are tucked behind tiny doors and even something as simple as washing your hands can become a half-hour excursion.

In order to deal with the town without going crazy I need to come equipped with four things – money, sanitary wipes, an above-average fitness level and a blind faith in the human spirit. In America I probably take a cab once every two years, but with accessible public transport being virtually non-existent in darkest Turkey, I end up taking more cabs than I ever would in the states. The price of taking a cab is probably five to ten times more expensive than the public transport, but it’s still a third as expensive as cabs in the U.S. or Europe. The other thing that comes with the cab in Asian cities is a cool, savvy driver. This is my third trip to a third world setting while in a wheel chair and I’ve discovered that if a driver picks up a handicapped person they will make damn sure that person gets exactly where they want to go. I’ve had drivers argue hotel fares for me, carry me up flights of stairs and even have me into their house for tea. On the other hand, I’ve also gotten dropped off miles from my destination on the far side of town (in Delhi) so the driver can get a commission on the hotel he knows. But by and large, cabbies in the third world have saved my arse.

Besides the cabbies, I cannot be shy in asking anyone for help. You don’t have to speak a lot of English to get the point across. When you point at stairs or are sitting outside of a train or bus, it’s pretty obvious what you want. I’ve asked hundreds of strangers for help and only once have I been ripped off. That was some A-hole in Jerusalem’s old city who took me for 20 bucks after I got stuck in a dead-end at the bottom of 50 long stairs. I was screwed, he knew it and, as soon as he got me up the stairs, he held me up for everything I had. Luckily I didn’t have much cash on me.

That explains money and faith in mankind. The wipes just make intuitive sense. If I can’t get to a sink, I need to be able to wash my hands at anytime. They don’t just get dirty, they get filthy. I’m basically walking on my hands wherever I go. Whatever is on the streets or sidewalks ends up on my wheels and eventually my hands – even if I wear gloves. I bring gloves with me, but unless I’m in a hilly city, they’re more trouble than they’re worth. I’m constantly taking them off for money, my camera, a credit card or my phone (although my Vorizon phone was worthless on this trip – you need T-mobile in Europe). If I’ve got a steep downhill where I go for a half-mile wheelie and use my hands as brakes or if it’s so hot that my rims get blistery, I wear gloves. If not, they’re not worth the hassle.

And that leaves the fitness level. I wasn’t in marathon shape before I left, but I was cranking out 3-5 15-mile hand cycle rides per week heading into the trip. At any point I could easily find myself miles away from my destination without anyway to get there. It’s reassuring to know that if I find myself ten miles from home with no cab in sight, it’s no big deal to go ahead and roll it. I’ve done it before – and eventually on this trip, I would do it again.

In Kayseri I was participating in a conference with 75 doctors, so I didn’t need to use any of my solo-ranger tactics. The university was completely inaccessible, but I was traveling in a sea of adaptive professionals so I didn’t even have to ask for help. If I wanted to get on stage or up to one of the classrooms there were immediately four people there to lift me. If I needed a gopher for water or food, my 11-year-old nephew, Will was always at my side. Nonetheless, when the president of the university gave his closing remarks, he apologized profusely for his institutions lack of handicapped awareness (yes, it was a medical school!).

Unfortunately the mode of transport for the conference was the dreaded five-step luxury bus. That meant everywhere we went as a group, my brother, Andy, stowed my chair under the bus and we made our way up to the seats, one step at a time. I used rails to lift my upper body and Andy took my legs. I was so filthy after the first bus trip (a city tour to the oldest hospital in the world) that I never wore the good clothes I brought – including to the final banquet.

The final day of the trip was an incredible day trip to the Flintstone-type villages in the Cappadocia region of Anatolia. The volcanic plumes of the region have been the hiding place for everyone from the early Christians to the wandering Hittites of the 8th century. Houses are carved out of porous rock and have been standing for millennium. The neighborhoods are a system of stairs and caves, which of course I couldn’t explore. But I wasn’t complaining as the cities are some of the most stunning sights I’d ever seen. What I did complain about, however, were the 15 trips up and down the bus stairs. By the end of the day I was so exhausted that I turned down the dinner offered to us at the home of the hotel concierge. Andy and Will went to dinner, but I hit my bed at 7:00 and slept for 14 straight hours.

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