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.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Remembering Fignon

(Written in 2000 from 'The Bridge to Venice'.)

By the time I got back from Colorado my bank account was dry, and all I had left was a plane ticket to France. I packed my bag, caught a ride to O’Hare and the next thing I knew Jean Marie was picking me up in Lyon. Back in Buvin my bike was there, my guitar was there and my bed was still made from leaving it the season before.

While I was in Milwaukee I felt like a stranger in my own home. My friends all had jobs and were settling into the post-college life that would take them into their sixties. Once back in Les Avenières I could step back into my shoes and be a circus clown. Nobody knew any different of me nor expected anything else. It was like slipping into a cool lake after a long bike ride.

Sitting at the table when I got there was the world high diving record holder, Randy Dickeson of Minneapolis. At 6'3" and nearly 240 lbs., Randy was the biggest diver I'd ever seen. Normally divers look more like second basemen than Mike Schmidt. Randy, only 30 years old, was already a 15-year show veteran. I was wondering what he was doing at our little park, but he told me right off the bat that he was looking for a low-key environment to save money. He was engaged to a Belgian girl, Renee, and he needed to sock away money for the wedding and the honeymoon. I told him Les Avenières was the place.

I filled my Peugeot's tires and booked into town on my first ride of the young season. I arrived at the Platanes to find a brisk lunch crowd of old friends. The park was opening in a couple of days, and the seasonal workers were just making their way into town. Our thespian announcer Jean Pierre was there, and I told him of the new sketch we'd be doing - the carpenter's act that we'd done in Harderwijk.
He looked over the script and said he'd get it translated. Monique asked me if I'd brought the second edition of my French book so that I could finally learn how to speak French. I told her I had a new advanced book and that I'd be squawking frog speak in no time. I walked out of the bar, and it hit me that I'd just gotten the low down from everybody and I hadn't spoken a stitch of English. The year before it would have been impossible. Throughout the winter I'd kept my internal dialog in French and continued making vocabulary lists. When the words hit me this time, I was ready for them. I wasn't translating Shakespeare, but I was definitely getting business done.

I rode over to the park and found Jeanine Couty, the woman who teased me about tasting French girls at the season opener the previous year. She was getting her haunted house ready with her husband, Jackie.

"Big changes this year," Jeanine said, "We're not Avenir Land anymore."

"What?" I said.

"Nope," Jackie said, "Avenir Land was bought out by a Belgian company. We're now 'Walibi Rhone Alps' - it's not our park any more."

Avenir Land was created in 1978 by a group of carnival workers who were sick of moving around. Jackie and Jeanine Couty moved so often that they were forced to put their two daughters in boarding schools and drive hundreds of miles every Friday and Sunday to pick them up and drop them off. The Avenir Land Cooperative bought out Le Grand Maree, a swamp in the valley just below the Les Avenières ridge. In the early 17th Century Napoleon trained his troops there, but when the carnies bought it out, it was a mosquito-ridden hell. They drained the swamp and put up the park, but all the rides and attractions were privately owned, and they charged a separate fee. A few years later they enclosed the park and started charging a small entrance fee.

Now that the Walibi Corporation had taken over, the fee would skyrocket, as would the size of the park. Over the winter Walibi had already built a huge new roller coaster and a gigantic water ride. My quaint little park was hitting the big time.
The improvements had started, but there were still years of development before it became a major theme park. Serge and Françoise were kept on as directors, and Jean Marie was still chief of security. All the park workers sported brand new orange, yellow and blue uniforms whereas the year before they wore whatever they wanted. Jackie, Jeanine and a few of the original Avenir Land owners were allowed to keep their shops and attractions, but it wouldn't be long before they would be bought out by the new Belgian conglomerate.

Our job, on the other hand, hadn't changed a bit. Except for Randy, our team remained basically in tact. Robert, the acrobatic skier, had taken a job in Germany, but the other two Canadians, Denny and Richard, were back. Jen had to finish her finals at U of I, and then she'd be joining us. Everyone in town had thought that Ted was one of us but he wouldn't be making it back. He'd stayed on in Les Avenières until the end of the summer, but his headaches and double vision didn't go away. He returned to the States, had a couple of operations on his eyes, and started working as an instructor for Outward Bound. The further away from the city the better it was for Ted. I was really hoping John McGhee would reconsider and come back for a full season, but he had to pay off his MBA and had taken a job with a software developer in Houston.

With the ladder moorings already in place and the pool already built, the show went up in two short days. We were ready to rehearse, when from out of the blue, our gregarious announcer, Jean Pierre, quit to work with a theater group in neighboring La Tour du Pin. I begged him to come back, but it was pretty difficult for a man with his background to do amusement park shtick. My next choice was Chanal, the Yul Brenner look-alike who had gotten- his thumb blown off the year before we came to Les Avenières. But Chanal had even more theater credentials than Jean Pierre and was in demand all around the region. Theater in France is like Little League in America. Almost everyone's been in a play. The park put an ad in the paper and Philippe, a carnival hawker from Dijon, joined us.

I spent one afternoon with Philippe and immediately knew he would fit. He was a smart, good-looking guy with a mischievous attitude and a great microphone voice. We took Philippe and his girlfriend, Natalie, to the Platanes the first night in town and got the two of them wrecked on pastis. They were part of the team, and we never had a problem with them all summer long.

Chip, representing the WWP owners, flew in from Hong Kong for the opener, which was a little rough considering we only had one day to rehearse a comedy with a lot of timing and dozens of pratfalls and gags. We were only working weekends and Wednesdays during the opening month so we had plenty of time to smooth things out.
During the first season I had to train all the divers and do most of the stunts myself. But the second season started with five solid veterans who had no ambition to do anything but get in the groove and make money. The four of us who had been there the year before were already established in town, and Randy was just happy if he could finish the day and drop a few Heinekens down his gut.

The scene at the Platanes was as crazy as ever with the old faces still there and the new crop of lifeguards and park workers in town taking the place of those who had moved on. There was no Ted to hang around and do stuff with at home, so I started spending a lot of time in Buvin at Vincent the drummer's house. It was a completely French environment with four really interesting people. Vincent's mother, Rosette, was a French teacher, who at the age of 30 took off with a 17-year-old student, Pascal. Seven years later they were still together. Vincent's 19-year-old sister Cecile, although quite quirky, was probably the best looking girl in Les Avenières.

When I wasn't working or catching up on journal writing, I spent a lot of time with Jackie and Jeanine. Whenever I was too tired to write or too hung over from a big night at the Platanes, I would take a seat next to Jeanine at her ticket booth for the haunted house. They also owned the house of mirrors in the same building. I would man the gate for the house of mirrors, and Jeanine would take the haunted house. Jackie built both of them from scratch and always had plenty of upkeep to do on them. He was also putting the finishing touches on the house he'd built on the highest ridge above Les Avenières. Their two grown daughters, Krystel and Nadege, worked for Jackie's other business, portable food carts that he operated at the market in Annemasse, the French suburb of Geneva.

Jackie and Jeanine took in Jen and me as their long lost American children. Jeanine would do our laundry and have us up to dinner once a week. Every so often she would invite the entire team and cook up six and seven course Savoyarde feasts that lasted long into the night. We would offer to bring something but she always refused. "You wouldn't know what to bring!" she insisted.

It would start with a dry sausage appetizer, then move on to fresh vegetables followed by potatoes au gratin, then steak, then salad, then cheese, then two or three desserts. We started drinking pastis before dinner, then went through bottle after bottle of red wine topping it off with a stiff shot of digestive liquer before rolling home. Jeanine tried to get us drunk, but with that much food to consume, it was impossible. She just got us fat.

The first summer in Les Avenières the team spoke English at the house and backstage, but this year, Randy was the only one not speaking French. His Belgian girlfriend Renee also spoke French, so often we would be laughing hard, and he would get pissed and demand that someone translate. It never came off funny after being translated so he assumed we were making fun of him. Before long we just started making fun of him.

Sometime around the beginning of June, Randy went away for a weekend, and when he returned I realized I hadn't spoken any English in 48 hours. I had a long way to go, but I no longer got stress headaches from conversations at the Platanes. With certain people like Jeanine and Rosette, I could go for hours without any troubles. The temptation to slack off was there, but when I watched TV or read the paper there were always dozens of words I didn't know. The base was set, but my dictionary was still one of my best friends.

From the beginning of June I stopped buying the English-language Herald Tribune and only bought L'Equipe, the French sports daily. The Tour of France was just around the corner, and I wanted to be up on it. Andy Hampsten had held on to the fourth place he captured in Grenoble, and I hoped he would make a run at the title. I'd hate to not know what was going on if an American had a shot at winning it.
The week before the race started, newspaper racks began filling up with Tour de France previews. I bought a few of them and was surprised to learn that Hampsten wasn't even considered a favorite. Even though he'd had a brilliant tour the year before, he was considered a pure climber and not someone who competed in the contra la montre or "race against the clock" stages where the riders do a shorter course one at a time.

The big favorites remained the reigning champion Pedro Delgado of Spain and two-time winner Laurent Fignon of France. Fignon had had a series of setbacks since winning back-to-back titles at the ages of 23 and 24. He'd won the Tour of Italy, however, and appeared to be in great form. Also listed were the great Dutch climbing duo of Stephen Rooks and the needle-thin Gert Jan Theunisse. Each magazine would list their potential top twenty as well as their favorites to take the sprint title and the King of the Mountains title.

The one name that was left out of every publication was that of the 1986 Champion, the American Greg Lemond. Lemond had been shot by his brother-in-law in a hunting accident the year after he'd won the race. Since then he'd bounced from team to team, never getting a result with any of them. Two days before the race, Samuel Abt, the only American reporter who ever got a cycling column printed in the Herald Tribune, wrote a small piece on the trials and tribulations of Lemond. Three years after becoming the world's greatest cyclist, Lemond was struggling with a second tier Belgian Team, ADR.

The only name rider on the team was the great Belgian sprinter, Eddy Plankaert - not someone who could help him climb the monstrous passes of the Pyrenees and the Alps.

Jackie had been a competitive cyclist in his younger days and was a Tour de France fanatic. From the day the race started until the finish in Paris, Jackie sat in the ticket booth of the haunted house and watched every second on a small color TV. The day before the tour started, I slid in behind Jeanine and watched one of the big pre-tour hype shows. Jeanine rigged up the booth so that all three of us could watch. She might as well have loaded up a syringe and shot me full of heroin. I was hooked after the first ten minutes.

I always had difficulty understanding French television, but after reading all the cycling articles I knew enough vocabulary to understand the bike commentators. Dutchman Erik Breukink won the opening stage, but the big surprise was that Delgado was nowhere to be seen when the starter called his number. His trainer had gotten the start times mixed up, and the great Pedro was still warming up on a stationary bike when his time started ticking off. Finally a fan screamed at him to get on the course but by that time he was almost three minutes late. The yellow jersey from '88 was starting the '89 Tour in dead last place.

Hampsten was way back in the pack, but Jackie assured me that he would make up all that time in the mountains. I didn't even think to look for Lemond. The next day two stages took place, a 150 km circuit as well as a 50 km team time trial. In the team time trials, each team takes off three minutes apart and rides over the course at breakneck speed with each teammate taking a turn at the front of the line. They pull for all their worth until the pace slows and another teammate comes to the front and pulls the train. Even a good rider can lose a ton of time if his team rides poorly.

Hampsten's 7-11 team finished in the middle of the pack, but Fignon's Super U Team won the stage, and Delgado's Reynolds team was right behind. I'd been reading all the cycling articles since April, but at that point I couldn't even remember which team Greg Lemond rode for.

The first couple of days went by with virtually no change in the standings. The opening stages are long flat races in which the pack, or peloton, stays grouped together. There are usually some breakaways, but the peloton travels much faster than individual or small groups and tend to pick up the breakaways, leading to dramatic mass sprints. If a rider finishes in the group he is credited with the same overall time as the winner. That insures the safe arrival of most of the peloton - except for the fierce sprint battle for the prestigious stage wins. The riders in contention for the overall lead are happy just to make it through the first week without ending up in one of the Tour's infamous pileups.
On the fifth day of the Tour came the first contra la montre, a 78-kilometer (48 mile) individual time trial from Dinard to Rennes. The riders take off individually in reverse order of their overall time. The papers expected Delgado to rise up the standings but were mostly looking for Fignon to regain the Yellow Jersey for the first time since his '84 victory. But by the end of the day the cycling world was turned upside down and the sport had changed forever. A former champion was wearing the Yellow Jersey but it wasn't Laurent Fignon. It was the American Greg Lemond.

Lemond had mounted a set of Scott triathlon handlebars on his high-tech Bottecchia frame and the tight aerodynamic body position allowed him to cut through the air and knock seconds off each kilometer. Lemond hadn't even given an interview before that stage, but now the press mobbed him. He took the bouquet on the podium then stepped up again to put on the Yellow Jersey that had been stolen from him by 38 pieces of buckshot. It was an incredible story, but the journalists of L'Equipe called it a fluke. Fignon had been hit by a horrible rainstorm in the middle of his ride, and Delgado, who started at the beginning of the day, didn't have any competitive times to pace himself by. Lemond had lucked out, L'Equipe wrote, and would surely be dropped in the first climbs of the Pyrenees.

Jackie had to agree with the journalists, but he assured me that winning a contra la montre was no small feat. The CLM's are the show of who is the strongest rider, and rarely does a Tour winner go through the race without winning one of them.
"This is a great sign for Fignon," he said. "With Delgado so far behind, the race is his."

That was also the overwhelming response of the crowd at the Platanes. A group of Portuguese men always sat in the back of the bar playing cards, but when someone talked football or Formula One, heated debates arose. I'd never heard them talk about cycling before, but with the Tour in full swing the talk of the Cafe des Platanes turned to the Tour de France.

"The Tour is a long race," my friend Joao told me, "but this year it's Fignon's. And that's good for the sport too. It's good to have a French guy win the Tour de France." I didn't know enough about the sport to challenge them. Apparently they didn't know enough about Greg Lemond. Nobody did.

Sure enough when the race got to the Pyrenees, Lemond had very little team support, and Fignon's Super U team lead the charge up the prickly hot climbs. Lemond was able to hang with Fignon for most of the climbs but on the final ascents, he gave ground. With two weeks gone and the race heading into the Alps, Laurent Fignon was in Yellow.

The first stage in the Alps was a contra la montre heading straight up to the ski lifts in the town of Gap, just a hundred kilometers from Les Avenières. So far Fignon had proved the superior climber, and Lemond, still in second place, was dismissed as burned out and hoping to stay in the top ten. We had to do three shows that day, and I was sprinting back and forth between the ticket booth and the show site to see what was going on. I did the high dive for the second show, but instead of running backstage with the team I jumped the show fence in my Speedo and ran back to the ticket booth to see who was setting the pace. Lemond and Fignon were the last two riders out of the gate and by the end of the day Lemond had again turned the cycling world on its saddle by pulling ahead of Fignon and taking over the Yellow Jersey.

"That's very interesting," Jackie said, "If he's still this strong this late in the race, he's no pretender. These last couple of days are going to be a dog fight." We looked at the remaining stages of the Tour and just ahead was the legendary climb to Alpe D'Huez. Devin from the Casa was coming into town, and I'd already called my day off. We were going to drive up to the top of Alpe D'Huez to catch cycling's equivalent of the Super Bowl. And we had an American in the Yellow Jersey.
After the last show, I picked up Devin and met his girlfriend and future wife, Sharon, in La Tour du Pin. It was great to see Devin on the road again (he had showed up to take pictures in Berlin), and Sharon seemed like she was in the mood to do anything. Sharon had never seen the Alps before, and she was content to gaze at the cliffs and peaks while Devin and I caught up on what was going on back in Cheeseland. They didn't care about the race, but they could tell that I was consumed by it. A friend of mine from Champaign, Don Hannigan, was also passing through and was pretty psyched for the trip.

The next day the three of them watched a day's worth of diving shows, then we piled into the Polski and headed for Bourg d'Oisans just a few kilometers past Grenoble. The sun set while we had dinner at a small café, then we loaded back into the Polski and began the 23-switchback climb to the top of Alpe D'Huez. Alpe D'Huez isn't the longest or the highest climb in the Tour, but it is the steepest and most difficult. Ten-minute leads have been cut to shreds in a matter of a few kilometers. Some of the Tour's climbs flatten out at least a little along the route, but Alpe D'Huez is 18 kilometers (11 miles) of pure hell. We were getting dizzy looking over the side of the mountain along the drive. Climbing it on a bike with the world's fittest athletes on your tail would be insane.

The sides of the road were packed with Dutch cycling fans wanting a stage win from Gert Jan Theunisse, the current holder of the red and white polka dot King of the Mountain jersey. There were so many Dutch cars along the road that the French Gendarmes actually hired a platoon of Dutch police. L'Equipe had estimated that more than 400,000 spectators would line the course with most of them saturating the final few kilometers of Alpe D'Huez. The fans that made it up early had spray-painted the names of their favorites in big white letters across the road. For every 'Lemond' sign we drove over there were 50 'Fignons'. We were on their turf, and the Frenchies were letting it be known. When we got to the top we found a grass parking lot and set up our tents. The city of Alpe D'Huez was packed to the brim but surprisingly quiet. That wouldn't last long.

We woke up to a glorious blue sky supported by dozens of sharp-ridged, snow-covered Alpine peaks. Below the summits were layers of Alpine meadow in full bloom that lined the mountain streams all the way down to our tents. The day's course was 100 miles covering two 2,000-meter (more than 6000 ft.) passes before finishing with the climb to Alpe D'Huez, the most grueling leg in the sport of cycling. As the loudspeakers in town announced the start of the race the temperature was just hitting 70 degrees. In less than an hour the thermometer was pushing 85. That meant that in the valleys between the climbs the riders would be looking at temperatures in the mid 90's.

I'd been riding every day and thought I was in decent shape, but after watching a dozen or so gray-haired tourists climb to the summit of Alpe D'Huez I realized I wasn't even in the game. I'd done a couple of smaller climbs around Les Avenières, but I hadn't even thought of the major climbs I could see from the high dive ladder. I considered myself a fairly avid cyclist, but now I could see I hadn't even started. I was feeling light-headed from the altitude, and people twice my age were topping off a 2,000- meter climb. I never felt so inadequate in all my life.
The four of us ate lunch, then found a stream and doused ourselves with freezing cold water before walking back to town and finding our spot along the road. The finish line was completely packed, so we took a spot at the very top of the hill where the riders would crest before making their final sprint. The overhead speakers were loud and tinny and difficult to understand, but I could make out that Theunisse had broken away and had a three-minute lead entering Bourg d'Oaisan. The pack had completely broken up, and the lead group consisted of Fignon, Delgado, Lemond and the Columbian climber, Alberto Rincon. The superstars had left even the great climbers Hampsten and Rooks far down the mountain.

Before the riders passed through town, the Tour's publicity caravan arrived throwing out water bottles, cassette tapes, hats and anything else a sponsor might be selling. After the caravan came an army of support vehicles carrying hundreds of extra wheels and bikes. Finally the television helicopters rose out of the valley, and we knew the riders were only minutes away. There was so much noise that nobody could understand the loudspeakers.

The Dutch fans, all dressed in red and white polka dot shirts, were tensely awaiting their hero, Theunisse, while the French were dying to see Fignon take some time off Lemond's lead. There was also a cadre of Spaniards hoping for Delgado to avenge his opening error with a great stage win. The American contingent consisted of ... well... the four of us. Not only did Lemond not have a team, he didn't even have a fan base to back him up. We didn't meet any other Americans all day. Our countryman was winning the world's toughest endurance challenge and nobody in America even knew.

As leaders approached, the roar was deafening. The crowd squeezed so tightly into the road that there was barely enough room for the TV motorcycles to pass through. We saw the army of Dutch fans go wild on the switch back just below us, so we knew that Theunisse had kept his lead. A few seconds later he blew by us looking like he was on a morning stroll.

Now it was time for Lemond to pull over the top. We were screaming our lungs out as we saw the crowd make way for the second group. But when they came up to us we saw only the pony-tailed Fignon and the handsome Spaniard Pedro Delgado. No Lemond in sight.

A minute passed and the crowd began to cheer another rider. This time it was Delgado's teammate, the tiny Columbian Rincon. A minute after that an exhausted Greg Lemond powered up the hill and dug for all he was worth. He looked tired and dehydrated, but he was digging up the switchback trying to recapture all the precious seconds he'd lost. We found out later that he'd missed his food bag at the feeding station and had been running on empty ever since the bottom of the climb. He was driving hard for the finish, but on this day it wasn't enough. At the end of the day, with only one day of climbing and a short contra la montre in Paris, Greg Lemond was 33 seconds behind Laurent Fignon.

We'd had a brilliant day on the mountain, but as we sat in the three-hour traffic jam on the way back to Grenoble we all had the look of defeat on us. We were tired and sunburned, but seeing a Yellow Jersey on Lemond at the end of the day would have soothed everything. I wasn't looking forward to the trash talking at the Platanes the next day.

The four of us spent the night at Jean Pierre's new house in Virieu high above the Bourbe River valley, just a few kilometers from Grenoble. In the morning I dropped Don, Devin and Sharon off at La Tour du Pin and drove the Polski back to Buvin to pick up the divers. When I saw Jackie at the ticket booth he was happy with the result, but he said it was far from over. "Thirty-three seconds isn't much," he said. "The way Lemond's been racing against the clock he could still do it."
That day we watched the last mountain stage that ended at Villard de Lans - the same place where Ted and I had watched Delgado take the tour lead the year before. Theunisse was cooked from his incredible climb to Alpe D'Huez, leaving Lemond, Fignon, and Delgado once again on the final climb. A few kilometers from the top, Fignon, now in Yellow, took off from the front of the pack catching Delgado and Lemond by surprise. Lemond urged Delgado to join him on the counter attack but Delgado was cooked. Pedro had raced himself from last place back to a spot on the podium in Paris, but the Yellow Jersey was out of his reach. Lemond had to get Fignon himself. He made an impressive charge but Fignon held off. The 33 seconds that would be difficult to make up in Paris had now turned into an all-but impossible 50 seconds. The Tour was over. Lemond's valiant comeback from the hunting accident was falling one step short. Laurent Fignon had sewn up his third Tour de France title.

"C'est fini!" Jackie said. "Lemond was incredible, but you can't be gone from racing for two years and hope to win the Tour de France. Other races, maybe, but not this one. It's just too damn demanding."

I did my last show then rode disconsolately back to the Platanes. The Portuguese were trash talking and reassuring me that I didn't know shit about the sport. The kinder of the bunch told me that nobody had ever ridden from out of nowhere like Lemond. He had no reason to hang his head. Second place in the Tour de France isn't a bad feat by anyone's standard.

Stage 19 finished in Aix Les Baines, just past the first Alpine ridge from Les Avenières. Right before I had to leave the ticket booth for the last show, I saw Lemond break away from a pack of favorites and outsprint Fignon for his second stage win of the Tour. He was happy with the win, but when a French reporter asked him if it made up for losing the Tour he got pissed. "I've still got two days to race!" he said.

The riders started Stage 20, the last mass start of the Tour, in Aix Les Baines, and then followed the Rhone toward Lyon. We pushed our 1:00 show back so we could drive out to the river and watch the riders go by. They passed along a tiny road just below the Ranch Marin in Buvin, but they were riding very slowly and maintaining the peloton. It was a day for the sprinters as the race stayed grouped up all the way to the finish in L'isle d'Abeau. Only the final day in Paris remained.

It was a Saturday night in Les Avenières, and I went into the Platanes with a bit more attitude than usual. After a pile of drinks the trash talking started up again, and I was talking with my beer voice. "Fifty seconds isn't shit," I said. "It's a 26-click (16 mile) race - I'll take on anyone in this bar right now. We'll go 26 clicks and I guarantee I'll beat you by more than fifty seconds!"
Gerard told me that if I tried to ride 26 kilometers after what I drank I'd end up fifty seconds from death. "Look," I said. "If Fignon wins tomorrow I'll buy you all a drink. If Lemond wins tomorrow, I drink next week for free." There were about ten people around and they all eagerly took the bet. I got on my bike and stubbornly swerved the three clicks back to Buvin.

I woke up with a cement block for a forehead and barely made it to the park in time for show call. I launched off a half-loopy gainer double high dive at the end of the first show so I could get it out of the way. I didn't want to think of anything else the rest of the day but the damn race. Normally the finale of the Tour de France is a mass start race ending in ten laps around the Champs Elysees, the most prestigious sprint in the sport of cycling.

This final stage, however, was a rarity. The Tour de France changes its route every year, and in 1989, for the first time in over 20 years, the finish of the Tour would be a contra la montre finishing at the base of the Arc de Triumph. The watch races are usually 50 to 75 kilometers long, but this one, at 26 kilometers, would be one of the shortest in Tour history. Luckily Jackie had picked up L'Equipe because I was running too late to stop off at the Maison de la Press to buy my copy. The headline read "Fignon, King of the Sun," the title the paper traditionally throws on the champ. According to the journalists this thing was over.

The first few riders had already finished and Thierry Marie, a Frenchman known for short time trials, held the day's fastest time. But being more than two hours behind Lemond and Fignon in the standings, he was no threat for the overall title. The announcers were going over the perfectly flat course and explaining how it would be impossible for Fignon, an excellent time trialer in his own right, to lose such a huge gap in such a short time. Based on Marie's time, Lemond would have to ride the fastest time-trial in the history of cycling to make up the 50-second gap. Either that or Fignon, an ice cold competitor who looked so strong the last few days of the tour, would have to collapse on the most important day of his life. It would probably take a combination of the two and neither was remotely likely to happen.

Back at Walibi, we did our second show in front of a packed summer crowd of 2,500 people. Before drying off, Jen and I hurried back to the ticket booth to watch Lemond's ride. In college I would have died to have 2,500 people gasp over a couple of big dives, but after witnessing the challenges that the Tour riders face, I just wanted to be a sports fan.

When we got to the ticket booth and found our seats in front of the 10-inch screen, Lemond was already on the course, tucked away on his brand new aerodynamic triathlon handlebars. Even though he'd won the first time trial using them, none of the riders followed his lead because of the extra weight they added to the bike. Lemond's head was pressed against his outstretched arms, and he was breathing to the side as if he were swimming the crawl. The camera kept pointing to the massive 57-cog gear he was pulling with the ease of a finely tuned motorcycle engine. As he passed the intermediate time he was a good 30 seconds ahead of Marie's mark.
Fignon jumped on the course three minutes after Lemond without even wearing an aerodynamic helmet. His long blond hair was tightly tied leaving his thin ponytail dangling behind. As Lemond blew across the pavement his body was motionless, aside from his piston-like thighs. Fignon was restless, often standing in his cleats trying to crank up extra speed. At the last check point Lemond had obliterated Marie's time and was firing down the Rive Gauche, closing in on the Arc de Triumph with each powerful stroke. He took the last few turns through La Place de la Concorde without breaking stride leaning hard into the pavement. He righted his bike and took only a few more breaths before blasting past the finishing panels faster than anyone in the history of the sport. 200 meters, 150 meters, 100 meters, 50 meters, finally he flew past the Fiat finish sign painted across the Champs Elysees.

When Lemond’s final time stopped on the television Jen and I pounded our fists. He had done his half of the bargain. He had just ridden a stage of the Tour de France at over 54 kilometers an hour (33.5 mph), shattering the existing record. Thierry Marie, who up to that point was considered the best short time-trialist on the globe, was over a minute and a half behind. That in itself was a Ruthian achievement.

Now it was Fignon's turn to answer. He was well behind Lemond's time, but surely he couldn't lose his 50 second overall advantage. He'd won several time trial stages over the course of his first two Tour de France victories, and he had to be in better form than those years. All eyes were on him as he struggled to stay in his seat and maintain position. He stood again and again, trying to pick up the tempo, but all it did was push wind against his chest. His bike started to rock, and as he cruised around La Place de la Concorde he stopped his pedaling to maintain his balance. Now he was blasting down the Champs Elysees, with Lemond's time parked in the lower left corner of our small TV. By this time a crowd of thirty people had gathered around the haunted house, and Jackie and Jeanine had turned the TV out so everyone could see. Fignon had long since passed Lemond's time but he still carried that 50 second overall lead going into this final stage. As his clock continued to move against Lemond's frozen figure, I started screaming out the difference to the crowd. If the difference grew to more than 50 seconds, Lemond would have pulled off the impossible.

"Thirty seconds!" I yelled. The formerly confident French faces now turned quiet and stared at the TV. Fignon was visibly suffering, throwing every fiber of his thighs into each pedal stroke.

"Forty seconds!" Jackie stiffened up and pounded his fist on the counter.

"Forty-Five seconds," I yelled. "He's gonna do it!" The Frenchmen looked at the TV - Fignon had just passed the 150-meter marker.

"Forty-Six! Forty-Seven! It's Over!" I screamed, " Forty-Nine! FIFTY!! He DID IT!!! HE DID IT!! HE FUCKING DID IT!!!"

Jen and I hugged each other as the crowd of Frenchman threw their hands up in the air in disgust. Lemond was hugging his wife and son on the Champs while Fignon collapsed in a pile on the finish line. He'd won the 23-day 3,300-kilometer (2,050 mile) bike race by eight seconds - by far the closest margin in Tour de France history. Jackie, always calm, simply nodded his head and said, "Chapeau les Americans - C'est encore le votre." (Hats off, Americans - it's yours again.)
Jen and I jumped out from behind the ticket booth and danced around the park singing, "On a gagne!" (We won!) in our worst American accents. The Frenchies didn't get what we were going off about until they put two and two together. Either they'd seen our show and knew we were Americans or they heard the accent and had to figure out what we meant. Undoubtedly after we passed they would take a second to think about it then throw their hands up in the air and say, "C'est pas vrai!" (This can't be true!)

At that point in the season we were in such a groove that every show seemed the same. But the show after Lemond's victory was a memorable one. I grabbed the mic before the show started and announced the race results to the groan of the overflow French crowd. Every time I had the chance I took the microphone out of Philippe's hand and again shouted, "On a gagne!" I'd always taken pride in not being the loud ugly American, but when your countryman wins the Tour de France it's time to stand up and be counted.

After the show I ran back to the ticket booth and asked Jackie if I could have his copy of L'Equipe. "It won't do me any good," he said. I tucked it into the belt holding my hip sack, mounted my Peugeot and sprinted up the hill towards Les Avenières. Just before I hit the Platanes I pulled the paper out and rode by the cafe with the giant proclamation of Fignon's victory right in their face. I wasn't alive for "Dewey Defeats Truman," but this was much sweeter.

I pulled up a seat at the bar and hoisted my first glass. "To Greg Lemond, the greatest athlete in the world!" I said. "Victory party in Buvin tonight!"
One of the Portuguese sports addicts at the bar filled my glass and raised his for another toast. "To the Tour de France!" he said, "The greatest sporting event in the world!"

Jackie and Jeanine took Jen and me out for a victory dinner, and Gerard brought a case of Champagne from the Platanes to the house in Buvin. We toasted Lemond deep into the night, and I passed out using the newspaper for a blanket. When I woke the next morning, I slowly lifted my head and the first thing I saw was the newspaper from the morning before. I reread the articles announcing the sure victory of the great French champion, Fignon. I felt like shit, but by afternoon my hangover was gone. Laurent Fignon's would last a lifetime.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How to Get Americans to Like Soccer

Ok, we’ve got another World Cup in the books (yeah, I know it’s still going on, but since the U.S. lost, the screens in the sports bars have all gone back to baseball) and with the U.S. dying like a Brett Favre champion-wanna-be squad, it’s time to look at why Soccer is not working here.

Sure, the ratings for the US games were their highest ever, but how many of those eyeballs will be tuning into the MLS game of the week from now on? No more than before the Cup. Soccer still has few adherents in the U.S. aside from people who have strong ties to their ancestral home or those who have spent an obscene amount of time on trans-continental airplanes. The guy rocking the Cosimo Kramer shirt at the OTB in Tulsa is NOT following Soccer.

We’ve all known for a long time that the lack of scoring is a huge issue. Would we watch basketball if the hoop was 30 feet high and the thought of tweaking the twine was a twice a day dream? No. And that’s what Soccer is to your average American sports fan.

They’ve come up with some ideas in the past to increase scoring including widening or heightening the goal. The women’s game has caught on more here because of the fact that smaller keepers = more goals. You rarely see a 1-0 women’s game. But resizing all the Soccer goals in countries where most of the disposable income goes to buying off politicians is not practical.

The off-sides rule is confusing to Americans and most Americans just don’t get why it’s there. In this case, the Americans are 100% correct. It is the worst rule in all of organized sport. It rewards lazy defense and punishes aggressive offense. It allows for slower, less-skilled players to play on an even par with quicker, more agile athletes. The game would be much higher scoring and much more exciting if they did away with it. Eliminating the off-sides rule would also eliminate 80% of the goal controversies. There is simply no need for it.

And eliminating the off-sides rule will happen as soon as Rush endorses Obama. It’s just never going to happen. Having spent a good number of years in the sporting industry I can tell you that the most conservative/arrogant people you will ever meet are those people who work for the major sports leagues. The NCAA, the NFL, the IOC, MLB. Even people who work for state high school sports organizations feel like they run the world. FIFA is by far the biggest, richest and most arrogant of them all. They could care less about what a fan says. They wouldn't change a rule even if it would bring more asses to the stadium or eyeballs to the screen. They've already got enough. They think Soccer is just perfect.

But I propose this simple variation to increase scoring and get Americans to watch more Soccer. We don’t change the rules, we change the scoring system. One of the reasons Americans don’t understand Soccer is that a team can dominate a game and still lose on a silly error. It’s just not fair. Offense is rarely rewarded and defense is rarely punished. In order to even the playing field we do what every other field sport in the world does and give points to good offensive efforts, even if they don’t end up in a goal. Football, Rugby, Australian Rules, Gaelic Football and Hurling all allow for an offense to score points without actually getting in the end zone. They all have variations of a ‘Field Goal’ which is worth one-third to half the points of an actual goal. In Soccer it would be really easy: Five points for a goal, two points every time you force the goalie to use his hands.

Since the keeper is the only guy on the field who can use his hands, let’s make it cost him/her something if they use the privilege. If an offense makes a surge that ends up in a great save, they are rewarded with two points. The average score of a match goes from 1-1 to 9-7. 0-0 halves will be a thing of the past and strikers will be much more accurate if they know they can score w/out having to hit a one-foot by one-foot window. Sure it changes the job of the keeper quite a bit, but they’re standing around most of the game anyway. It’s not as hard a job as quarterback or catcher, so making them think of using their hands vs. making a kick save isn’t really stretching the abilities of man. (Oh yeah, two points if they use their head too; don’t want a rash of concussions in the youth leagues…)

It’s a simple solution that doesn’t require any new equipment or referee training. If the score at half time is 2-4, Americans will feel they’ve seen something and keep watching. And when goals are scored the celebrations will be just as wild as before (I was about to say, ‘even more exciting’ but that’s not possible in Soccer).

It’s a fairly radical change, but only for one position, the keeper. FIFA has made only one major rule change in the past two-decades and that is banning the use of keepers’ hands when the ball is played back to them by their own team (unless it’s headed back). This really doesn’t effect the skill set of any of the other players and it would bring all the casual fans to the stadium and the TV sets.

So there ya go, FIFA. I just made you another couple billion dollars in the U.S. market. This one’s on the house – the next one’s gonna cost you something.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cricketainment

If you haven’t caught this by now, I’m a sports junkie and in India that means cricket. Thirty years ago, cricket was the most boring, god-awful waste of time the sporting world had ever devised. Basically it was a way for Brits to spend endless months in foreign lands in between trying to kill all the people in those foreign lands. The foreigners took their revenge by dominating them at their own sport. Cricket is far more popular than baseball and is the top sport in India, Pakistan, Australia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and South Africa. It also competes with soccer in all of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean. In England and New Zealand it shares time with rugby and even the Irish have now put up a formidable side.

What cricket has done, more than any other major sport, is change the game dramatically to make it more palatable to the international market. Although the five-day test matches are still taking place, the recognized world champion is the winner of the World Cup, which is a tournament consisting of one-day matches. And just five years ago, the world governing body, realizing they couldn’t get TV time for these 8-9 hour contests, came up with a stroke of genius – the 20-20 format.

20-20 (or T20 as it’s more commonly referred to) takes the best part of the sport (free swinging batting) and squeezes all the excitement of a 5-day sport into a palatable and exhilarating three-hour format. In the five-day format, each player on both teams was allowed to bat until they were forced out. In the T-20 format each teams scores as many runs as they can in 20 overs (6 pitches or bowls/over) then the other team bats. In the old format a batter could be at the wicket for days on end and never had to take a chance. They could bunt the ball for hours with no penalty. In T20 the batters need to swing early, often and hard. The ball leaves the grounds at unprecedented rates and the crowds go crazy for it. They also don’t have to plan a 5-day holiday to catch a match. They can go after work and even bring the kids.

Three years ago, the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India), devised a new professional league consisting of the best players in the world. The Indian Premiere League (IPL) was born and it’s been a huge hit in India ever since. The IPL brings the best players in the world to India for a short season of t20 matches and spreads the games all over the country. Each match has the flair of an NFL or Champions League Soccer match, with local fans getting to see their heroes, many of them for the first time in their lives.

In 2004 in an attempt to attract major sporting events to Dharamsala, the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Board built a beautiful 30,000 seat stadium that any spectator (aside from someone in a wheelchair) will agree is the most spectacular stadium in all of sport. The stadium is perched high above the city so the grandstands rise above Dharamsala like a glowing red temple. The perfectly manicured pitch is the only flat piece of ground for hundreds of miles so spectators are in awe the minute they walk in. Looming just a few miles away are the dominating peaks of the Dhauladhar. 17,000 ft. Moon Peak, the king of the range, is only twenty miles away as the crow flies, although it would take days by any means of transport to get there.

Unfortunately for me, the Dharamsala Cricket stadium is without question the least accessible venue I’ve ever been to. To begin with there are no simple gate attendants or ticket takers. They only people working the game were police men and local army troops. Any time there’s a huge gathering in India, terrorism is not far behind so security is at a premium. I’m all fine with that – in fact there was a bomb at an IPL match in southern India on the same day. But the HP Cricket Board did absolutely no training with these people on how to manage the crowd. None of them knew where any of the gates were and spectators were universally ignored when asking where their seats were.

In trying to decipher the stadium layout, I was given directions far from the main entrance which lead me down a path through a military base (the terrain around the stadium is used for army exercises) down a huge rock pile (I was carried by four Punjabis), and finally down a series of two-foot high stadium steps. Once I got in line there I compared my ticket to one of the Punjabis and discovered my seat was on the far side of the stadium.

The four huge Punjabi guys (their team, Punjabi Kings XI were the home team) took it upon themselves to help me out. They lifted me back up the stadium steps (about 35 ft vertical), back over the rock pile and finally back to the far side of the stadium where I finally found my entrance. This entrance was through a metal detector and up a huge dirt embankment which of course I had no chance of getting through.

Once I was pushed up to the top, an army officer ran me down and spent ten minutes going through my bag. I had to explain to him what I was doing with catheters, petroleum jelly and rubber gloves in my bag. He spoke little English so I had to wait for another spectator who spoke English and could understand what I was doing with this medical gear (it’s for peeing, if you didn’t know).

I finally got to my gate, but my whole reason for getting there early (I was two hours before the first ball) was that I got in contact with a TV producer who was going to let me work in the TV booth. I called him and told him where I was, but seeing as all I could see around me were stairs, there’s no way I was going to make it work. He told me he was going to scout things out and call me once he knew how to get a hold of me. I didn’t see him again until the next day when he came to my hotel to apologize. There was simply no way to get me around that stadium.

But even though I was well ahead of game time, the stadium was filling up. There was plenty of music and entertainment planned, so I decided I should just get to my seat, relax and enjoy the game. I found the entrance to my section and discovered I was only 30 stairs away from the inside. Before going up, I found a bathroom, which luckily enough had no stairs. I did my duty which was going to have to last, because there was no way I could get back down once I made it to my seat.

Again I had to find four willing spectators to lift me to my seat. Everyone there was in an upbeat festive mood so this really wasn’t a problem. I found four huge cricket fans who lifted me up and carried me up the stairs to a floor section about four feet from the rail to the pitch.
Front Row! How about it! Biggest show in town and I was living large. Unfortunately they turned out to be the worst seats in the yard. This was the only exit for 5000 spectators so for the next five hours I was passed several times by each spectator. There was just enough room for them to walk in front of me so they did just that – all night long. Also, to my left, guarding the entrance were a dozen Army troops blocking 30% of my view all night long.

So it sucked for me, but for the rest of the crowd, it was a magical evening. This was the first time the IPL had come to Himachal Pradesh so the local fans were seeing their heroes live for the first time. Most of these players have enormous international reputations, so every time a defender would come close to the stands, the crowd would scream like a rock concert. The pitch is one of the smaller ones the IPL goes to so balls were leaving the yard at a good pace and scoring was high.

One of the funniest spectacles in the yard, however, were the cheerleaders, who were brought in from South Africa. I found out the next day the cheerleaders were staying in the hotel next to mine with the TV crew (that’s how I made my contact that wasn’t working!). But these were not the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. These girls were average looking, not in any kind of athletic shape and were crappy dancers. They didn’t know the rules of the game, celebrated only when they were cued and seemed bored out of their skull every time they were required to do a dance. But the Indian men went absolutely bonkers for them. The locals rushed to the rail when they danced, threw them all sorts of notes and even tried to copy their dances (yes, the Indian MEN).

At first I thought they were mocking the cheerleaders, but they were absolutely going nuts over them. Marriage proposals; flashbulbs; the whole works. The next day when I spoke to the cheerleaders from my balcony I discovered them to be bitches of the first order, thinking they were some kind of television stars. I’m telling you right now, they couldn’t have made my high school JV cheering squad, and here they thought they were as big as the players. It was really pathetic.

The Punjabi Kings XI were defeated with only a few balls left in the match as the Deccan Chargers hit a boundary sending the home side down. The 5000 people in my section now had to all pass by me again, as the army captain told me he would help me down as soon as everyone left. So I waited until nearly the entire stadium was left before four soldiers carried me down. Luckily there was no beer at this venue because had I put down three or four glasses of suds, my bladder would have been bursting. As it was, I was dehydrated and hungry. The only drink at the stadium was sugary soda and the only food was potato chips and ice cream. I had some of everything, but it made me feel kinda gross. Thank god I ate a huge meal before going inside the stadium or I would have been a wreck.

Luckily for me, a group of performers from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts were doing a dance before the game and I hooked up with them for a ride back to Bhagsu. Had I not connected with them (they only saw me as I left the stadium) I would have had to roll more than two miles up a steep incline to the nearest taxi stand – then wait until 2 a.m. for an expensive ride.

In the end it wasn’t quite the magical night for me that I’d envisioned. But for the 30,000 ‘normal’ cricket fans it was glorious. The play was top quality and they got to be proud of Dharamsala for something besides being the home of the Dalai Lama. So kudos to cricket! Had the game stayed as boring as it was in the 50’s a night like this would never have been possible.

Now if they could only consult an ADA architect before building huge monuments to the game, I’d be a lot happier!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Trekking on a Quickie

(pics to come. My USB cable is stuck in the bag with my broken laptop!)

One of the main reasons people come to the Himalayas is to go on long walks through the biggest things on earth. This is my third trip to these behemoth creatures and unfortunately I’ve only been able to go on a few day hikes in Nepal back in 1991. Ever since landing in Dharamsala on this trip, I’ve been sequestered by injury, weather and chair breakdowns so the hilltops I see from my balcony have gone completely unexplored.

Ten years ago when I was here in a much better wheelchair, I managed to climb high above McLeod Ganj on the TIPA Road, a winding neighborhood path, to see a view most travelers take for granted. One of the coolest things about living in Dharamsala is taking in lunch on one of the rooftop cafes. The tourists gaze out on the city, the mountains and the plains miles off in the distance. But seeing as those cafes are three or four stories up with no elevators I’ve never been to one.

Knowing this splendor was just outside my grasp has been eating away at me for five months. On Wednesday I decided to throw caution aside and push my three-wheeled, frame-cracked wheelchair to the citadel hamlet of Dharamkot, three kilometers up a steep, crumbling road from McLeod Ganj. It’s not trekking in the Annapurnas, but in a wheelchair, it’s the next best thing.

The road to Dharmkot starts harmlessly enough rising slowly from the main square in McLeod. After a few hundred meters I was rising above three story buildings and actually looking down at some of the nicer cafes. Whereas most of the crumbling roads around Dharamsala were recently paved, this road remains a semi-paved obstacle course of potholes and chunks of concrete. When I made this assault in 2000, the road was nothing more than a wide path but it was somewhat smooth. For most of the climb I could grab both my wheels and push as hard as I could. It has since been paved, but during the monsoon season this road morphs into a raging wadi. Sometimes it’s dry, other times it’s a flowing creek. This of course has all but destroyed the surface.

Besides the road, my chair is in a sad state of disrepair. I bought this chair in 2004 and it’s been problematic from the beginning. The geniuses at Quickie thought it would be a great idea to put motorcycle shocks in their sport chairs. They thought it would cushion the blow when hopping off curbs. I personally never felt any pain when jumping curbs and when I first tried riding on the shock it felt like I was swimming, not rolling. I also had a justified fear that the extra parts would lead to extra parts breaking. Last year the aluminum bar that holds the shock snapped leaving me sitting six inches above the ground. I had to constantly lean forward or I would tip back. I found an aluminum welder in Eugene, Oregon who pulled the chair apart, fused the broken parts and sent me on my way. That weld lasted a month. When it snapped again, I found another welder, this time in Corvallis who fused a support bar along side the broken seam. That weld lasted two months. The next time it broke, I was in Kayseri Turkey.

This time, when it broke it stayed semi-attached so I didn’t need immediate surgery. I was on my way to France where Jackie Couty, my French substitute father lives. Jackie is a witch with any kind of building materials and he solidified the crack with a strong steel brace. That was in July and that is how the chair sits today. I’m a low rider, but it still functions albeit much less efficiently. Sitting up high and pushing is much easier than sitting down low and pushing. Had this been the only problem with my chair I would have tackled the TIPA road months ago. But as luck would have it, three months ago I cracked the support to my right front caster wheel (the small grocery-cart wheels in the front of wheelchairs). I had the support welded and that weld lasted all of two weeks. The second break was a month ago and I’ve just given up and gone on three wheels. I have to put a brace under my footpad when I transfer into bed or on the toilet, but in regular riding I don’t notice it’s gone.

Unless, of course, I try to do some climbing on a crumbling road. Then it becomes a major pain in the ass. Instead of leaning forward and pushing for all I’m worth, I have to do wheelies over the uneven sections. Leaning back and pushing forward is NOT the way you want to attack a big climb. But the houses of Dharamkot had been taunting me for months. Even if I did crack my third wheel, forcing me to ride in a wheelie until I get back to the States, I was going to attack that hill.

A half a mile into my trip, the road lifted above the buildings and curved around the hill that is the back drop of McLeod Ganj. Outside of the neighborhoods where there is less traffic the TIPA Road is much more consistent. It is also much steeper. But here, I could lean forward and push hard on both wheels. I was making good progress until I came upon a washed out, really steep section. I started attacking it with mini switchbacks, but it was one step forward for two steps back. I had to wait for help, but it came almost immediately. Two Tibetan hikers were on their way to the local peak at Triund and pushed me up the ugly section. Although everyone who walks next to me in Dharamsala offers to help me (even when I’m passing them up!), this was the only assistance I took on the day.

Once back on relatively smooth road I continued chugging up the ever-rising incline until I came upon the TIPA campus. TIPA or, Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, is a school started by the Dalai Lama to preserve Tibetan music, art and dance. Children enter TIPA between the ages of 12 and15 and are rigorously schooled in every aspect of Tibetan culture. The Secretary of the TIPA is a friend of mine Tenzin Lhoksam. I stopped in for a chat with Lhoksam (goes by his last name) and he told me I was crazy for trying to get to Dharamkot on three wheels. Of course, by this time I was a sweaty, filthy mess (it was an 80 degree day) and I told him it couldn’t get any uglier.

Lhoksam sent me on my way and of course it got much uglier. The road past TIPA became so steep that I couldn’t go straight up. My chair was leaning back so far that I simply could not push forward without tipping over. I had to resort to tight switch backs in the middle of the road. This went on for about a hundred yards until the grade lessened enough where I could push forward. Unfortunately at this point the pavement returned to the crumbling mess it was on the lower sections. I was pushing as hard as I could, but there was absolutely no glide whatsoever. If I let go of the wheel, I would slide back ward. I was making it up this hill one stroke at a time. The hardest day I’ve ever had on a bike was a 78 mile romp into gale-force winds on a dead-flat highway in Mississippi. On that ride I was going stroke for stroke, much like this ride and averaging 8 mph. Eventually this ride would take three hours which meant I was going 2 mph – including rest stops.

I kept up this horrid non-pace for an eternity until I could finally see the first structures in the hamlet. The road was heavily wooded and I didn’t like gazing over the edge, because at most sections there was a 300 foot drop off. Between the trees, however, I could see my neighborhood in Bhagsu quietly going about its business. The buildings that mocked me for months were now just a few hundred yards ahead.

But of course, thinking your there and being there are two different things. Just a stone’s throw from the top, the road crumbled completely and even got sandy in spots. I could see the chai stand full of hikers who had passed me up along the way, but I was at a virtual standstill. My only resort was to put one wheel in the ditch alongside me where there was some traction and grunt the final few meters to the finish.

When I finally burst over the summit, I was greeted by two Belgians who were slugging down a victorious cup of chai. I pounded a liter of water then looked down at Bhagsu which was now open before me. The road continued in a rolly-polly fashion for another kilometer along a ridge so I continued until I saw a steep sandy downhill section that I knew I could never conquer.

But my conquest was complete. I was sitting amongst the neatly manicured lawns that I’d been spying from my balcony for more than four months. My chair survived the ordeal and so did I.

For a while at least. On the way back to the chai stand my right hand popped open and a dime-sized blister forced me to put on my gloves. I knew I was going to have to put on gloves for the ride down, but I really didn’t want them on for the climb. The gloves are made of hard leather and it makes holding on to the wheel and rim very slippery. I never would have made it past TIPA had I been wearing them. I was just hoping to get to the top before I ripped some flesh. I should have covered up at the chai stand, but I was too psyched to be done with the climb.

After a few snapshots, I pulled on the gloves and prepared for the descent. As hard as the climb had been, the descent was that much more dangerous. On a bike you can just drop your head and try to hold the line. But with a wheelchair I’ve got no brakes except my ripped up hands and the soft side of my forearm.

I propped into a wheelie so as not to let my lone front wheel dig into a rut and snap off. I held this wheelie for hundreds of yards at a time, only setting it down to give my hands a rest. My hands and wrists were already heavily abused by the time I started the drop so I had to hold on to the rim loosely and let the wheel slide through my fingers. Any time I picked up too much speed I had to squeeze down without burning through the leather. On the super-steep section outside of TIPA, I had to clamp down hard and let the wheel roll a meter at a time. Speed on two wheels front to back is good. Speed on two wheels side by side is a recipe for disaster. One slight turn with speed and I’m 300 ft down the side of a cliff.

The other problem I encountered was that this was an open road with plenty of traffic. Dharamkot is a popular picnic spot so those not wanting the reward of making it on their own simply hop a three-wheeled cab and bust on up without sweating. Every time one of these cabs passed me I had to slow down or even stop. Just a slight nudge from one of them would also send me over the edge. And they surely were not stopping for me.

Finally after two and a half hours of back-crunching climbing and 25 minutes of a harrowing descent, I made it back to McLeod. I felt like I was finished, but I still had to climb the Bhagsu Road hill and do one more drop before I hit the shower. I bust that hill at least ten times a week, but it was never as hard as it was after tackling the TIPA Road.

When I got back to the Akash Deep Hotel, I ordered up some fried rice and woke up two hours later with a plate of cold dinner sitting outside my door.

Monday, April 12, 2010

India: The Country Where Nothing Works.

I’ve gone beyond frustration with the amount of things that don’t function in this country and have resigned myself to accepting that nothing here works. That way is something does work, I’m pleasantly surprised.

I woke up yesterday and decided to take note of everything I came in contact that does not work. I could barely go thirty seconds without running into some non or semi-functional piece of junk.

I woke up around 8:00 with the sun blasting through my windows. The room was pretty hot so I turned on the ceiling fan. It works, but there’s a crack in the base where it’s attached to the ceiling. So unless I keep it cranked up to ten, it makes an annoying click each rotation. The amount of pleasure it brings is negated by the annoying tick reminding you it's busted.

I flipped on the television to see if I could catch some highlights of the Masters. The on-off switch on the remote works, but not much else. The only number key that functions is zero. Channel up works, but channel down functions only 20% of the time. If I pass up a channel I have to decide whether I should ruin my thumb pressing hard, or go back to zero and start up again. Volume up works, but volume down again only works about 20% of the time. Most of the time I listen at barely-audible levels. There are plenty of other buttons like 'last channel' and 'tint' but they've never worked.

Luckily for me, ESPN/Star sports had a three hour Masters highlight show. The third round was on and Phil Mickleson hit back to back eagles when the power in the hotel went out. The power goes out about five times a week. There’s no way to know when this will happen or for how long. You just have to be ready for it. Sometimes it’s off for a few minutes, often times it’ll be off for several hours. An American friend of mine asked me if my hotel or job had an elevator. Hah! With power that sketchy I’d never set foot in one here. In December I was told by the man that runs my hotel that the power in Dharamsala was much much better than it was five years ago. I lived here ten years ago and I can tell you that the power situation is actually worse than it was back then. The fan stopped and my room turned into a sweat box. I picked up my book and read for a half hour before the power came back on. I flipped the tube back on to see if I could catch a few last holes and every station returns – except ESPN/Star. (This morning when I woke up, hoping to catch the last Sunday holes, ESPN/Star was still out.)

I gave up and decided to hop a shower and head into town. Enter the bathroom zone. Every pipe in the bathroom leaks. I have to turn off the main inputs to the sink and toilet after every use. I did my morning duty, making sure my pants didn't hit the ground because after opening up the toilet valve, the water in the cracked pipes seeps onto the floor.

After I flushed, I turned off the toilet input and transferred onto a wooden chair I use for showering. Before going to bed I turned on the hot water heater because it takes a few hours to heat up a nice supply of shower water. Showering here means dumping buckets of water over your head. I have one faucet for hot and one for cold. I opened up the hot tap; filled three-quarters of the bucket then finished the job with cold water. I dumped it over my head then soaped up. In winter, when there was no heat in my room, I had to do this job fast. But yesterday it was warm so I can took my time. After I washed my hair and removed all the crud from daily living in India, I filled up another bucket and got ready for the rinse cycle. Unfortunately, I forgot that for some unforgivable reason, the plumber ran the hot water pipe through the toilet. The flush I implemented five minutes earlier took with it all of my hot water.

I did a luke-warm rinse then went for an extra scrub on my still open leg burn which was caused, of course, by a faulty heater. I brushed my teeth using only mineral water as the water in this bathroom is non-potable. I spat into the sink and turned the faucet to rinse down the toothpaste, but I forgot to turn on the main water valve under the sink. I reached under the sink, turned it on and rinsed out the basin. I was going to shave the crust under my chin, but now that there’s no hot water left that’s out of the question.

I toweled off put on some shorts and rolled onto my balcony to get some sun. Once I was good and dry I returned to my room, and shut the door, but I can’t lock it. There’s a sliding latch along the bottom, but it doesn’t line up. I’ve got the same unaligned sliding latch to the main door into the hallway. I can lock the door from the outside, but I can’t even close it tightly from the inside. When I’m in my room, the door is always cracked open. This has lead to a number of occasions when Indian tourists simply walk into my room and stare at me. They know they’re not supposed to be there, but by leaving quickly they would admit to having made an error. That is simply not permissible in this culture. They stare at me trying to think of an excuse as to why they’ve barged into a stranger’s room, then turn and leave without saying a word. They never close the door behind them either.

After barricading my balcony door with a chair, I put my shoes on trying not to tip over due to my missing front wheel. The wheel, of course, was broken off after hitting too many potholes in India’s broken roads. Unbelievably over the past three weeks, Dharamsala has gone on a massive road repaving initiative. They’ve asphalted at least three miles of ripped up road making my day much, much easier. Unfortunately, they never stop traffic while they are repaving. As soon as the substance is down and steamrolled, they open up the street. So just a few weeks after this massive road project, many of the potholes and all of the bumps are right back to where they were.

As I’m rolling into town I’m passed by any number of vehicles that run, but wouldn’t exactly pass inspection in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. I pass by stores with broken doors; restaurants with rigged-up stoves and internet cafés with virus-ridden computers and connection speeds that are so slow a five-minute YouTube clip takes over an hour to download.

Basically nothing in this entire country works. It all just kind of half-functions. And India is a nuclear power and one of the fastest growing economies in the world. My friend, Sam Courtney called India ‘a 9-wheeled lorry’. It’s broken, but eventually it’ll deliver the goods. Just don’t try to do anything in a hurry here.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Ugly Side of a Tourist Town


I’m sure I don’t know a lot of what goes around me here, but I was shocked with what happened to me Tuesday night – as well as the reaction of the people around me.

It all started innocently enough as a few friends went out to dinner to welcome Mari Lang, an Austrian journalist who’s going to be helping out at 90.4 Tashi Delek FM for the next few months. Five of us sat around a table at Nick’s Italian Kitchen talking about the station and helping our friend, Wen, construct a web project. She’s working on a site to offer Chinese translations of Tibetan and English news stories concerning Tibet. Most of the Chinese content on Tibet is propaganda spewed by the government, so this project is a worthy cause that really needs to get off the ground.

We hashed over ideas, ate dinner and even had a slice of cake as Wednesday was Mari’s birthday. After dinner we strolled over to the Hotel Tibet and sat around a table loosening up the conversation over a few Kingfisher beers. Since it was a work night, we polished off our beers and went on our respective ways home. The stores in Bhagsu are all closed by 10:00 so I rolled to the center of McLeod to buy a big jug of water for the night. The center was still bustling, so I sat for a spell to see if I could find some musicians for our Saturday Night Dharamsala Live radio show. They only way I’ve found any of the musicians so far is by stopping people carrying a guitar or flute case and asking them to perform.

While I was parked at the bus stop two Punjabi tourists approached me and wanted to know if I knew of any big parties. I told them they were looking at one big party and they could go into any of the cafes where plenty of people having a great time. The first guy, was a long-haired hipster dufus who pulled out a hip flask of Indian rum and asked me if I wanted a pull. I said I was fine, but he insisted. I took a swig then washed it down with my bottle of water. Then the second guy, a short-haired smooth talker asked me if I wanted a girl.

The local Indians know me and have long since stopped bugging me for business like they do all the fresh-faced white tourists. These guys were out-of-towners and were bringing in some shady business to McLeod. I’m not so naïve as to think a town with a 95 percent tourist economy doesn’t have some illicit slave trade going on, but I’ve never been approached by anyone. I told the pimp that western tourists aren’t coming up to McLeod Ganj looking for women, so he might try a 'different demographic'.

The two of them caught my insult, told me to get my ass back to America then stopped just before hitting me in the busy marketplace. I’d had more than enough of the conversation so I packed up my water bottle and headed back to Bhagsu.

That in itself was the most unsettling event of my four months in Dharamsala. I rolled through the now-quieting streets of McLeod onto the dark hill that leads to Bhagsu. I got a few hundred yards up the climb when I heard a motorcycle behind me. I welcome the motorcycles because they light the road and I can plot my course around the potholes. But as the bike got closer I heard the familiar voices from the bus stop. It was the two Punjabi guys heading to Bhagsu where I’m sure they were told can be some raging vacationers. They saw my chair and made a slight effort to run me off the road. Then they passed giving me the finger and yelling what I’m sure were a long list of profanities.

Again, another very unsettling event, but I was sure this would be the end of it.

No such luck.

Just short of the summit of the hill I heard a commotion and saw the bike parked with the two Punjabis beating the snot out of two girls. I realized the two Punjabis came up to McLeod with a stable of women who were not faring well in the local skin trade. I’m sure they thought a town full of rich tourists would be a layup for them, but this just ain’t that kind of tourist town. Even the Indian tourists are coming for spiritual retreats, not coke and whores.

But now I was in a bit of a fix. Up until I heard the noise, my head was face down cranking out the last few meters of a tough climb. Before I realized what was going down, I became the prime witness to a crime scene. The Punjabis saw me, slapped up their women a bit longer then got back on the bike to chase me. By this time I was on a flat section just before the long decent into Bhagsu. I was hauling ass with the same pace I use when I'm chasing someone on the last mile of a marathon.

But I was no match for a bike. They pulled up next to me; the long-haired pimp jumped off the bike and grabbed the two handles on my chair. He tried to dump me off, but I tie my shoes to the side bars of my chair and that was enough to keep me in the saddle. He let go and I made the final fifty yards to the hill. I flung into a wheelie and shot the hill without once letting my caster wheel (note: still on three wheels these days!) touch ground. Thank god the road has just been paved or, at the speed I was carrying, I would have wiped out.

My crib, the Akash Deep Hotel, is at the bottom of the hill and luckily the hotel workers hadn’t shut down for the night. I burst into the door with the pimps chasing me into the lobby. I yelled for the concierge to call the cops, but he was too shocked to react. Before he knew it, two raging strangers were shoving him around and yelling god-knows-what in Hindu. The commotion woke up the second-in-command at the Akash Deep, who is a much sturdier fellow.

A scuffle broke out, but when I screamed ‘I’m calling the police,’ the fight broke off and, amongst what I’m assuming were a series of profane threats, the two hopped back on their bike and took off down the street. That left the two hotel workers looking at me, wondering what the hell I did to merit their rage. I locked the hotel door and told them I saw them beating up women and we need to call the police immediately. They told me to go to my room, clean up and they would take care of everything. I was drenched and filthy so I took their advice and went to my room to take a quick shower.

After my shower I rolled back to the lobby and saw the two of them asleep in their sleeping bags in the dining room. I woke them up and asked them when the police would get here.

“No police, sir,” the concierge said, “It’s a very bad look for the hotel.”

I was stunned and demanded he get up and call the police.

“No, sir,” he protested, “It is too late and this looks very bad for the hotel.”

I’d just been attacked and I witnessed two violent men commit a crime. Not only that, they knew where I lived and I know the hotel has several unlocked windows. I had enough information to lock those two guys up for a long time and I wasn’t satisfied to let this go unreported.

I whipped out my cell phone and demanded they give me the number for the police. I then realized that I had been living here for four months and I had never even thought of alerting the police. India must have a 911 number, but I didn’t know it and had never seen it publicized anywhere.

As it ends up their 911 is 100. I called the police station and waited for a half hour for them to show. I made my report and they said they would take me around in the morning to see if I could identify the two men.

With three gallons of adrenalin running through my veins and two crooks on the loose I didn’t fall asleep until sunrise. I woke again at 8:30 and cancelled my ride to the TCV. I laid back down in bed and waited for the cops to call so we could make our run through town.

At noon I finally awoke and rolled into the lobby to see the two workers staring angrily at me. “You should not have had the police come last night,” the concierge said. “Very Very bad for the hotel.”

I told him we’d see what the police had to say about that when they get here. He laughed and said, “No police coming. They were tired. Want to get to bed. They tell you this so you go to sleep.” Then the two of them laughed at my naiveté on the Indian justice system. 

I was victimized; had the balls to report it and was being mocked by the two guys who run my hotel!

I’m fine now and the two pimps are back in their hole-in-the-ground hut somewhere in the Punjab by now. But my respect for India has dropped several notches.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Computer Crash Kills Blogger

What I thought would be a temporary setback has become a major bummer for this trip. My laptop has completely fried taking with it my ability to sit in my room at night and write these blog posts. I do have computer access at work, but I also have stuff to do at work so it's not real cool to spend a couple hours writing up posts and editing pics. And these computers don't have Photoshop on them either so I'm forced to use some piece-of-crud Microsoft Photo Editor to tweak my pics. Quite disappointing, but I'll try to make a bit of a go at it anyway.

Aside from the computer crash, life here in Dharamsala has improved greatly. The reporters at the station are really cranking it up and we're almost ready for an official launch. The weather has gone from 'really nice' to mostly 'freaking fantastic'. We've got a high of about 75 degrees every day and a low of around 45 at night. Some days we have clouds, but most days we don't bother with them. McLeod Ganj really is a paradise this time of year. No cooler place in the world to be.


"And now back to the music on 90.4 Tashi Delek FM!" 

Our 'Dharamsala Live' open mics have become a huge hit. Last Saturday we had a crowd of about 50 people inside Nick's Italian Kitchen, another 20 listening on the outdoor patio and a slew of passers by on the street who created a traffic jam. The musicians ranged from a Swedish harmonica player to an old English loon who got the entire crowd singing, "I Love Life!"


Rolf just wailed away on his harps!



Stevie P. and Johnny had the entire crowd singing nearly every tune. 

I'm getting my kicks out of it to because I play a 30-45 minute set by myself while the crowd slowly comes in. We announced a 7:00 start, but the musicians don't start showing up until 7:30. As long as I don't see people running out of the restaurant, I'll keep playing!


I begged this street musician to come in and play his tuntuna, but the room full on Ex-pats freaked him out. 

Next week is the biggest event in Dharamsala all year: The IPL Cricket Matches. The 25,000 seat stadium will be packed and the Dalai Lama himself is going to make it down to Lower Dharamsala on Sunday afternoon to catch a few overs.

So I'll keep posting sporadically, but until my computer comes back, I'm down to about one a week. Thanks for reading you guys!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sh*t Keeps Breaking!

Sorry for the short picture-less post, but the latest in my list of things that has broken since I left home is now my computer. I could sit at work and write for an hour a day, but that's really not what these computers are for. So I'll just jot down the list of things that have broken since I left Corvallis. Hopefully, I'll be back up with a slew of posts as soon as my computer gets fixed:

  • Front bike tire (flat on mile 19 of the Portland Marathon)
  • Car (desastrous strike by Bambi in Montana)
  • GPS plug in. (just stopped charging when I needed it most - in Charlottesville, a town with no straight roads)
  • Ipod to radio plug in (actually never worked that well to begin with)
  • Plastic shower chair (that one was pretty funny. I transferred into it and the legs spread like a dog on ice)
  • Voltage transformer (blew a fuse first time it got plugged in at the Pema Thang in Dharamsala. Second fuse has been solid)
  • Wheelchair handle (and my right elbow after I fell six steps!)
  • Chinese heater (!!@#%%%&%$$%ing piece of crap!)
  • Left calf (burned on that !!@#%%%&%$$%ing piece of crap!)
  • Portable sound board (luckily it was just the power cord, not the board)
  • Cell phone wall adapter (smelled something electrical burning...)
  • Lost bearing on left wheel (replaced by a joint US-India operation - Thanks Dan, John and Ron!)
  • Guitar pickup (fixed now, but one day it just all fell apart)
  • Front wheel on chair (snapped off on a bumpy ride between McLeod Ganj and Bhagsu - road has since been asphalted)
  • Front wheel on chair (had it welded; worked for two weeks; broke off on a similarly rough road)
  • Transformer US to India adapter (fried ten minutes before our first open mic - luckily very easy to replace in Dsala)
  • Computer (still hoping it's just the power cord)

So it hasn't been the cleanest of trips so far. I think it's my fault for claiming that my trip to Turkey last June was a 'perfect trip'. Never again. Those travel gods have VERY long memories!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

90.4 Tashi Delek Cranks it Up!

Everyone told me things would start to take off at 90.4 Tashi Delek FM, but for my tastes, things were taking too long. When I arrived in mid-December the town was beginning to hibernate for winter. Only the hardiest ex-pats stayed in town and most of the TCV students and faculty had returned home for winter break.

It was a good time to take stock at our situation, but I wasn’t convinced it was time to sit back and do nothing. There were still plenty of people in town and plenty of stories to cover. Unfortunately there was nobody there to cover them. Our station manager Kalsang and I were a two man crew which left nobody really to go out and get interviews and stories. And the times I did make a contact, they too, were in vacation mode and didn’t really want to come up to the station and talk business.


Tenzin Lhoksam, the director of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, was our only interview in January.

January was completely dead with us only spinning Tibetan tunes and me reading a two-minute news summary on the hour. No new content was created except for a couple of commercial scripts. February seemed even more desperate than that. Dharamsala was hit with a winter storm followed by Losar, or Tibetan New Year. At one point I didn’t even go to the station for two weeks. I was wondering what I was actually doing here.

But after the Losar break we had a meeting with our three reporters, our Director Phuntsok and Kalsang. We talked about our lack of initiative and how I felt like we were wandering in the desert. But we also formulated a plan to get back on track. The TCV students were on their way back in as well as the faculty which would make for interesting interview subjects.

Then good weather arrived allowing me much more freedom to roam McLeod Ganj at night. Along with the weather came Tibetan Uprising Day bringing with it the entire hierarchy of Tibetan activists. After meeting nobody for three months, I met just about everybody I’d had email contact with in less than a week.



Tenzin Choeden is our ace female reporter.

The energy in town was palpable and it carried over to our three reporters. They hadn’t been making calls or following up on projects since I’d arrived, but suddenly they all started kicking into gear. The ad copy that lay dormant for six weeks got recorded. Interviews were done and script copy was written. The computer geeks from Delhi who said since I arrived they would come up to Dharamsala to configure our sound board finally came up.


The TDFM team at work in the recording studio.

I found an anonymous donor to pay for station polo shirts, stickers and event banners. And, best of all, we held our first promo event, Dharamsala Live (see previous post). So after some very frustrating months both professionally and personally (the leg wound is 70% covered now!), things are really taking off. Today we’re broadcasting our first home-spun radio program, the recorded sessions from our Dharamsala Live event. Our student broadcasters have even gone live on air and are contributing to our first feature story on the history of the TCV.

Chimi Tenzing is hard at work recording a history of the Tibetan Childrens Village.

So it may have taken three frustrating months to get going, but 90.4 Tashi Delek FM is on the rise!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Dharamsala LIVE!


After three months in Dharamsala, I finally got enough momentum going to initiate 90.4 Tashi Delek FM’s first ‘Dharamsala Live’ program. The concept was pretty simple. I had to round up the best musicians in town and get them to show up on a Satruday night to play a bunch of original songs. Effecting this plan was a bit more difficult.
When I first arrived I held the misconception that Dharamsala was as happening a town as it was when I was here in 2000. What I didn’t realize was the social scene all but shuts down from December to March. When the weather gets cold people go home at sundown. All but a few restaurants shut down and the steets become deadly silent. Weekends are no different from weekdays. You could hold pistol shooting contests down the Bhagsu Road on a Saturday night in January.

On top of that I burned my leg badly and the risk of infection was so great, I had to limit my motion to only going to the radio station and returning to my room at the Akosh Deep Hotel. I was afraid to turn over at night because putting even a little pressure on the wound could lead to a trip to the Kangra Hospital. I gave up the idea of hosting any kind of event until my fortunes and the night life of Dharamsala returned.

Three weeks ago with the Dalai Lama’s Spring Teachings and Tibetan Uprising Day on the horizon, the town started to come alive. The sunsets got later and night time temps went from 30 degrees to 50. The shops and restaurants kept their doors open later and the streets of McLeod Ganj filled with the eclectic mix of Indians, Tibetans and Westerners from all over the globe. My leg wound was close to healing and was no longer in any danger of infection.


In the dead of winter this usually signaled everyone to go home.

So it was time to kick start the 90.4 Tashi Delek promo campaign. When I first got to town I’d spoken to Nick, the owner of Nick’s Italian Kitchen, about hosting the open mic. He said it was fine with him, but when the months passed without me mentioning it, he though it was a dead deal. But when I rolled in for breakfast last Saturday and asked him if he was ready to actually do it, he nodded  but assumed nothing would come of it. When I got back to the Akosh Deep I opened up my copy of Quark and designed a four-to-the-page handout announcing the event and telling people we would record the music and play it back on the radio. (The original plan was to broadcast it live, but we need a remote system that runs about $1000 to make that happen).

The next order of business was fixing the mini-sound board that had zapped out a few weeks ago. Phuntsok, the director of the radio station, knew an electrician in Lower Dharamsala so he ran the box down the hill and a few days later it came back in perfect working order.

Now I had get people to show up. This called for me running all over town with my guitar, playing songs and giving the handouts to anyone who stopped. If it were as simple as rolling out my door and playing to passers-by it wouldn’t have been much of an effort. But I live about a mile away from the main drag in McLeod and there is a steep quarter mile hill between Bhagsu and McLeod. On the nights where I was really tired I just played outside the Akosh Deep which has a decent amount of local traffic. But to get to the ex-pat crowd I had to hump the hill over to McLeod. I bought a soft-shell case for my guitar that acts like a back pack, and made my way to the drum shop and chai stands. The cool thing about McLeod is nobody is in a hurry so almost anyone will stop and listen to a tune, provided you’re not horrible. In the space of a few nights I’d gotten rid of all my flyers, but still had only confirmed one other guitar player.


Promo's hard work but it's got to be done!
When Saturday rolled around I slept in then played a long set in front of the Akosh Deep to catch the wave of tourists who flock to Bhagsu on the weekends to take a dip in the town’s healing spa. At 5:00 I showered, packed my guitar, loaded my laptop into my back pack and did a gear check. I put on my new 90.4 Tashi Delek Polo shirt and started the assault on the Bhagsu Road hill.

Rolling up the hill with the guitar is one thing, but hauling up it with a laptop and a bag of recording gear is another. I made it 70 percent to the top then, for the first time, accepted the offer of a push. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I could make it. I was sweating like a nose tackle during summer workouts which is not the best look for an MC.


Recording studio on wheels.

Once past the top of the hill, I dropped the long winding section into McLeod Ganj in a wheelie, careful not to let my one remaining caster wheel hit the mine-field of potholes (oh yeah, I forgot to say I’ve been on three wheels for two weeks now). I finally made it to Nick’s where I came upon a very surprised Nick who wasn’t sure if I would actually show.

It was a gorgeous night so Nick’s outdoor patio was hopping, but his inside dinning room was empty. I unloaded all my gear and set up the mixing board, microphones and lap tops. I did a short sound check and noticed the room was still empty with only 15 minutes to show time.

Mercifully a Belgian guitar player walked in holding one of the flyers he said he got from a friend. Then a couple of people I recruited from the Khana Nirvana (see last Wed. post), strolled in and sat at a table. At seven bells there were only seven people at Nick’s. Nick told me to just start playing and people would come in. I'd prepared a speech talking about the radio station and the TCV, but I’d envisioned speaking to a crowd, not a table.

I flipped on the recorder, welcomed the sparsely populated room, then blasted into some of my new material. I’d anticipated the first night wouldn’t be well attended, but considering the effort I’d made, I was hoping for better than just a couple of tables.


An empty room is a scary sight for an event promoter.

Then a Tibetan guitar player showed up. Ten minutes later an Australian violin player arrived with her ukulele-playing cohort. By the time I finished my four-tune set there was actually a murmur developing in the room. I handed the floor off to the Belgian player then rolled over to the door to find a half dozen people standing outside on the road listening. I told them to get their asses inside and by the time the Belgian was done I actually had a crowd.


The Bhagsu Road Ramblers (they'd just met the night before).

Then a Nepalese flautist arrived and a couple of drummers. By 8:00 the place was packed which actually became problematic for the purposes of recording. Instead of a room of people listening to music it just became a Saturday night bar scene – albeit with no alcohol. Two monks came in and took over the table next to the microphones and proceeded to talk so loudly that their voices were picked up louder than the flute.


A TCT Student even got into the act.


Ram is a local Nepalese flute legend.

But these were problems of affluence. I can try to get something to amplify the acts, but not having a crowd would have been disastrous. The best part was that people were laughing, cheering and singing along when they knew the song. Just an hour earlier I was afraid I was going to leave with my head tucked between my arsecheeks. But this was nothing of the sort. It was an actual happening.


Anu from Kana Nirvana crushed with an a cappella song against terrorism.

After all the acts played, I thanked everyone for coming then said the floor was up for open jamming. All the musicians stayed and a few shyer ones who had just been listening, came up and joined in. We played a half dozen cover tunes letting everyone on the floor take long solos.


This room was much warmer than the one I rolled into an hour earlier.

I was in the middle of singing Folsom Prison Blues when Nick walked over and handed me a note. It read: Closing Time 10 minutes. Normally he sends his workers home around 8:00 but it was coming up on 9:30 and they weren’t expecting to be there that late. We could have kept going for hours, but having someone tell us to shut up was probably the more sane idea. We finished up with a rousing rendition of 'All Along the Watchtower' then they all dispersed into the night. I was the last one to leave but before I rolled out I gave myself a private fist pump. 15 years ago, if you would have told me I would be organizing and emceeing a bunch of musicians in a small Himalayan town, I would have laughed you out of the building.

I packed up my gear, but left the recording equipment at Nicks. The Bhagsu Road is really dark at night and I didn’t need the extra baggage. By the time I got back to the Akosh Deep I was again a sweaty mess. I grabbed a beer from the liquor stall next door then washed up and crawled into bed. When I woke this morning the bottle was open, but still full.