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.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Photo Friday: Monks Rockin' New Kicks

It's time for a new feature on Captain Crip: It's Photo Friday.

Our first installment is dedicated to the Monks of McLeod Ganj and their ever-increasing sense of footwear fashion. When I first came to India in 1991 everybody in the entire country wore flat leather sandals with little or no support - the kind of footwear you would imagine Jesus wearing. I bought a pair in Delhi so I would have something to wear when I stepped into the Hare Krishna Guest House bathroom in the middle of the night. But these torture chambers were so awful, even for the few minutes a day I sported them, that I left them at the bathroom door when I checked out.

In 2000, when I moved up to McLeod Ganj for three months, there were still a few remaining sandal adherents. But most of the locals and nearly all of the monks had slid into hard black business shoes. They had some support and went quite well with the maroon robes, but again, not the best footwear for walking around the world's tallest mountain range.

Come 2010 and the monks have made a cosmic leap; or at least they can now make that leap without hurting their feet. The monks have moved up to some damn fine, high-grade, ass-kickin' footwear. Sure they may clash a bit with the maroon, but every monk I spoke with said they were happy as hell to not have to rub their feet back into shape every night - and sometimes these guys will put more than a couple miles in those dogs.

So here is a former athletic footwear industry worker's tribute to the monks and their comfy kicks!

You have to admit these guys need good shoes in this place.

The Shoe Boot.

The Cross Trainer.

This Korean Nun brought hers from home. Incidentally, she was the only monk/nun I spoke to whose shoes weren't donated.

These puppies added a full inch of height!

I found this monk stopping for a quick polish.


Not quite Chuck Taylors.

But he really wanted to walk the runway in them.


BRONZE: The Soccer Boot (If you haven't see the Australian film, The Cup, go rent it. This will make a lot more sense).

SILVER: The Samba Ripoff (please: no authentic footwear here in Asia)

GOLD: By unanimous vote - THE CROCK!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Kalsang Namtso

This is my second stint in the town of Dharamsala, but the last time I came, I was freaked out about being in a wheelchair and what my life had become. I had to go some place as far away as I could and rebuild the thing from scratch. The monsoon turned the roads into rivers of cow poop mud so I spent most of the first two months in my room. It was the most productive and creative period of my life so I don’t regret a minute.

This was the view from my room in 2000. I saw the courtyard on the right every day, but the valley on the left was a treat that rarely came out during monsoon season.

I wasn’t unaware of my surroundings, I just welcomed and profited from the solitude. Once the rain stopped I did plenty of exploring, but I had little interaction with the Tibetans. I made a few friends and started exploring the culture, but before I had a chance to get immersed in it, I was on my way back home.

This stay is completely the opposite. Almost from day one I’ve been working in a Tibetan office; teaching Tibetans; learning more from them than I could ever teach and engrossing myself in the most exceptional community in the world.

There are a few situations that are similar to the Tibetan predicament, but since the fall of the Soviet empire there are much fewer. The Palestinians live in a similarly precarious national situation, but both they and the Israelis have always resorted to violence for quick and obviously non-permanent fixes. The Kurds have fought for their capitol and, although they don’t have a sovereign state, they do have autonomy in the new Iraq. The Gypsies have been floating from town to town in Europe, but their in-fighting has been their own undoing. As Europe gets less racist (believe me – Europe is MUCH more racist than the states) and the Gypsies are more accepted in the local communities, their situation will get better. As horrible as the American Indian saga has been, the US government and all rational Americans recognize it was a tragedy and are willing to help make amends; however miniscule they may be in lieu of what was lost.

Even though the Indian government has been extremely gracious to the Tibetans of Dharamsala, they still feel captive by the Chinese in their borrowed home.

There are others, but none have suffered with more dignity than the Tibetans. Thanks to the grace of the Indian government (btw – yesterday was ‘Republic Day’ in India) they have been able to create a stronghold right up against their former border. But the Tibetans living here still have only refugee status. They must register once a year at the local police station, even though most of them were born here. They do not vote except in their own elections which have no official bearing on even the city they live in. Fortunately they are crack businessmen and Dharamsala is an extremely profitable city so the Indians have no qualms about them staying.

There's no way Dharamsala would be this clean or advanced were it not for the Tibetan struggle to survive outside of their country.

But the thing that makes this situation exceptional is that it has all been done in peace. They were forced from their homeland in a wave of violence, but the only leader this community has ever known refuses to raise a fist.

This, of course, cannot be said for their adversaries, the Chinese Government. I don’t say ‘The Chinese’ because the Dalai Lama is widely revered in China. Due to horrible propaganda campaigns, as well as restrictions to the Internet and almost any form of free speech, most Chinese citizens are left in the dark as to what is taking place. For the past fifty years there have been waves of mass murder throughout Tibet that have only slowly been made public in the west.

I’m not breaking this story by any means, but since arriving in Dharamsala one story has gripped me more than others. It’s the story of the 17-year-old nun, Kalsang Namtso. In 2006 Namtso was crossing the Nangpa La pass from Tibet into Nepal when she was gunned down in cold blood by a Chinese sniper. It’s impossible to say how many others have been gunned down because the Chinese military isn’t exactly releasing figures.

Fortunately for us a Romanian Journalist, Sergiu Matei, caught them red handed:

I saw his documentary on Tibet TV and went to work the next day shaken by what I’d seen. I told my coworker Sonam I’d seen the documentary and he nonchalantly told me he’d made the same trip as a ten-year-old.

When I got home this is what came out of my guitar:

A sign leading into the military base in Dharamsala.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Illini Hoops! Live in India?

I woke up Wednesday morning to perhaps the most bizarre sight I’ve seen since arriving in India six weeks ago. I flipped on my TV and the ESPN/Star sports network showed the live Illinois vs. Purdue men’s basketball game. I have been traveling abroad fairly consistently since 1986 and this is the very first time I watched one of my teams involved in a real live television broadcast. Sure I’ve seen scores of US Olympians and international teams play, but this was MY university playing on MY home court.

As I was watching the 2010 Illini miss shot after shot, I thought of how much my existence outside of the US has changed since my first long trip in 1987. That November I was on my way to work a high diving show in Hong Kong’s Ocean Park. When I said goodbye to my parents at O’Hare, I didn’t expect to see anything familiar again for the next five months.

Just one of those India things - this guy walked into my hotel the night before the game. First Chief I'd seen since leaving the Midwest.

I wasn’t far off either. The only connection Americans living abroad had were the two international newspapers, the International Herald Tribune and the USAToday. Somebody on our team got the IHT every day and everyone read it cover to cover. On Tuesday I would grab a USAToday to check out the NFL scores (games weren’t over in time for the Monday edition) and read the paragraph news summaries on Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri – the three states I’d lived in up to that point.

I wrote close to a dozen letters a week to my family, my close high school friends and my college team mates. To their credit, I don’t remember one single time anybody left me hanging – they always wrote back. Which made the lunchtime mail call at Ocean World Dolphinarium in Yeilui, Taiwan (I got transferred out of HK ten days after arriving) the highlight of my day.

I did bring along a few comfort items on that first trip that I continue to bring – although their format has changed wildly. I brought along a walkman recording deck; a case of Grateful Dead bootlegs I’d recorded; a crappy camera of some ilk (kept losing them) and my guitar. Looking around my room today the guitar is still there albeit an $800 Epiphone, a much better axe than my $200 Lys. Thanks to my sister Sue, The camera has been upgraded to a snazzy hi-res digital that shoots video and fits in my pocket; and the walkman & case of tapes have morphed into an 80-gig Ipod. There’s more music on that puppy than I’ll be able to swallow by the time I leave India. And thanks to my friend, Tom, instead of 12 Grateful Dead tapes, I’ve got almost every show they played from 1967 to 1975.

On that first trip to Taiwan, the only television I saw was a bunch of MTV videos on small TV screens hung above the tables at our local pool hall – which was called ‘The MTV Bar’. Three months into my stay I found out the Tien Mu (the western enclave we lived in) American Legion post had NFL games videotaped and Fed Exed to them from Los Angeles. Unfortunately, by the time I discovered this, it was Super Sunday so I only caught one game.

I'm pretty sure nobody in my nieghborhood got up early to catch the Illinois game.

As the years went by I took long contracts in Holland and France with the only immediate home-spun gratification continuing to be the two newspapers and mail call. The only time I ever had any daily contact with the U.S. was when I lived in the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai). We were on a four-month tour and stayed in hotels with TV’s. This was 1987-8 and cable TV usually meant a dozen channels coming in without having to adjust the horizontal hold. Saddam was in power in Iraq and he declared war on the U.S. which compelled Reagan to send a few battle ships into the Gulf. Along with the Navy came Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS).

In Abu Dhabi, if I bothered to get up at 7 a.m., I could catch Carson followed by Letterman. If I really wanted to make the effort they aired live US sports, but it came on at 4 a.m. For some reason the head of AFRTS couldn’t find it in his head to repeat the games later in the day, so I never caught any of them. Again, I settled for a taped Super Bowl, this time at a Mexican bar run by Philippinos (the resemblance to Mexicans was 100% convincing). The idiot local business man who videotaped the game just so he could hang out with the Americans, cut it short in the 4th quarter. Thank God it was the Doug Williams, Redskins v. Broncos blow out otherwise the guy would have had plenty of angry sailors in his face. Instead they were all just drunk and didn’t notice. We, on the other hand, had evening shows and soberly let the guy know what a dill weed he was.

Our choice of live sports in Abu Dhabi was limited to waiting for the field to cross the line at this camel race.

For the most part I spent six years knowing very little about the daily lives of my family and friends or the fate of my teams – Packers, Brewers, Bucks and Illini.

Fast forward to 2010 and the world that seemed to be so huge, is only as far away as my computer; the new comfort article I’ve been traveling with since 1997. Through FaceBook and email I’m in constant connection with everybody I’ve ever met. I can be as avid a fan of any of my teams as I care to be. If I had a quicker connection – which is coming here within the next year or two – I would be able to video conference and watch The Daily Show. And I’m 6000 ft. up in the Indian Himalayas!

Oddly enough the newspapers are gone now, but when I go on-line at work I’ve got more information than I care to digest. I can even pay my car insurance online and pull money out of my bank from the local ATM. Did I mention I’m in the freaking Indian Himalayas?

When I caught the game from Assembly Hall in Champaign (The House of Paign!), it was a nice surprise, but also a reminder of how tiny the planet has become. And incidentally four days later I even caught my new team, the WSU Cougars, get spanked around by UCLA

So is it a good thing? Sure it is. Pining for the no-contact days, would be like an old NFL QB saying how great it was in the days of the weekly concussion. I can’t tell you how much easier it is to get medical supplies up here than it was in even 2000. But I can’t help feeling that students traveling abroad are missing a big part of game. When I was diving off a cliff in the Gulf of Oman, I really felt like I was on the far side of reality. Nobody I see in the internet cafe where I'm typing has any idea what I'm talking about.

Today I found out a friend of mine who I haven’t seen in fifteen years had a broccoli omelet for breakfast – and hated it. I’ve been here for six weeks and I don’t know the price of a stamp. I'm not giving back any of my gadgets, but I do have to remind myself from time to time that I'm 12,000 miles from home!

Maybe I shold look through the telephone, DSL and TV cable lines and see if I notice anything...

Monday, January 25, 2010


An esteemed guitar colleague of mine from Chicago uses a saying when he knows he is about to be forced to hang up his axe for a week or two because his day job, being a high-powered Loop lawyer, is about to consume his life to the point where even his passions and vices will have to sit down for a while.

The saying sums it up succinctly: Evil, Shit, Rain – or ESR for short.

While I haven’t had a job consume me since leaving the hallowed corridors of Adidas America, I have had considerable use for the phrase since becoming a paraplegic. Thursday qualified as an ESR day. I thought my burn had been healing but I’ve now learned that burns can change in a matter of hours.

The odd thing about this burn is that it looks nasty and would be incredibly painful if, in fact, I could feel anything. But I can’t, so I haven’t experienced a moment of pain or discomfort ever since it happened. Sounds like one of the few benefits of being a paraplegic, but then again, if I could have felt the heater I never would have gotten burned. Had I normal blood circulation in my legs, I wouldn’t have had the need for a heater in the first place. But had I not broken my back, I would be in my 10th year of some desk job in Portland, and not in the Himalayas needing a heater.

The fact that I couldn’t feel anything however did not make the situation any less dangerous. And on Thursday morning it got a lot more dangerous. One of the benefits or working at the TCV was having access to their local health clinic. The TCV has 2000 students and houses about 1/3 of them on campus. That means they can’t have a simple nurses office, they need an actual hospital. In 1997, they built a fantastic four-story ward complete with a pharmacy and several examination rooms. There are two doctors who rotate their time and a couple dozen nurses who do most of the work.

Ever since I’d been burned I’d been going to the TCV health clinic every day to get my dressing changed. For a week things had been progressing normally, if not a bit slow because of my poor leg circulation. On Thursday morning when the wrap came off, my original thought was positive. Every other day there was nothing under the wrap but raw pink flesh. On Thursday, however, it appeared to start to scab over. I looked up at the doctor and said, “Hey, looks like it’s really starting to heal!”

“No, he said, that cover is light green, you now have an infection.” In three seconds I went from total optimism to dark ESR. “You need to go to the burn specialist at Kangra Hospital,” he said. “This is a dangerous thing.”

I was just hoping to take a pop off this jug in the Kangra ER and wake up with my leg all healed. Hah!

Instead of motoring up to the station to prep the daily news brief, I was off to Kangra Hospital, 20 kilometers down the valley. The crew at the station told me not to worry about anything – just do what it takes to get better.

The last time I’d been down the road to Kangra I was in search of an aluminum welding shop. Even though it was the day after my burn, I was in great spirits because my chair was getting fixed and I was exploring small Indian towns at the base of the Himalayas. My driver, Suresh, and I were laughing at bad drivers and talking about the difference between US and Indian roads (aside from pavement, they’ have NOTHING in common).

This drive, however, was dead silent. I wasn’t prepared for the downgrade to my condition and I didn’t like the look on my doctor’s face. When we got to the Kangra Hospital, I was admitted and within a half an hour I was looking at the same unhappy grin on my new doctor. He shook his head and said, “This thing is all infected. Be happy you didn’t wait another day.”

The doctor turned to three nurses and spoke sternly to them in Hindi. They circled around and listened attentively, then went for their sterile cabinet as if he broke their huddle. The doctor looked back at me and said, “They’re going to debride your wound, and put you on IV antibiotics. You will need to stay here for two days.”

Two days! What the hell was I going to do in an Indian hospital ward for two days? I didn’t even have my book with me – it was sitting on my night stand in Bhagsu. I didn’t know for sure, but I was pretty sure they didn’t get ESPN. Wyfi? Could I be so lucky? Not a chance. The only computers were a couple of hard-wired boxes in the doctors' offices.

Unfortunately that IV bottle was just out of reach. I was stuck.

While the crew was using me has a human pin cushion trying to find a vein (apparently over developed forearms are not advantageous to vein finding), I avoided the pain by wondering how the hell I was going to not die of boredom over the next 48 hours. I was hoping the procedure would take a few hours because once they were done, there was nothing but staring at the walls for two days.

Unfortunately I was debrided and wrapped up in less than a half hour. They rolled me on the gurney from the exam room to a dark empty room with four beds and no windows. The room resembled a cell more than any hospital room I’ve ever stayed in. They flipped on a dull florescent light and instructed me to transfer onto my bed. I looked at the dull green walls and tried to think if I had anything in my back pack that I could use to take up any time at all. The most interesting reading material included a visa application, notes from the first three interviews I’d done and a copy of my birth certificate.

I was afraid to sleep because any time I spent with my eyes shut would mean more staring into the dark at night. It then occurred to me I couldn’t reach the light switch. Even if I wanted to transfer into my chair, I was hooked up to an IV bottle that was attached to a wire strung across the four beds and slightly out of my reach. There wasn’t any phone in the room so if I needed to call a nurse for any reason (like to turn on or off the light) I would just have to scream.

I was less than an hour into my bit when a pair of male nurses came in speaking Hindi (or the local Himachal language, I have no idea) and unhooking my IV bottle. I got from their gestures I was moving somewhere else, which was a great relief to me, because I had to be better than where I was. They wanted to move me in the gurney, but I motioned it would be much easier to move me in my chair. They understood this, but I should have known by the fact they didn’t speak English, that they weren’t the most educated of aids (any educated Indian speaks a great deal of English). When they went to unhook my IV, they pulled the plastic tube out from the needle and my blood squirted all over the floor and bed. Having bled frequently from hitting springboards with my head as a youth, I knew I had plenty to spare, but I was hoping they could put an end to this. The second aid put his finger on the needle and turned a couple turns the plastic valve attached to it. The brighter aid and I were laughing at the incident, while the first guy couldn’t even look us in the face. He’d lost face and that’s something you just don’t do in Asia.

The two aides pushed me up a series of six long ramps that took me up to the fourth floor. I was wheeled into a similar room, except this one was occupied by three Indian families looking after three Indian patients. Nobody in the room spoke much English, but for some reason it took away my solitary-prisoner freak out. Even if I could barely communicate with them, just trying would take up plenty of time. If I needed anything, I could ask one of them to get a nurse. Then it occurred to me that in a room with three adult Indian males, one of them had to have a deck of cards. I relaxed, put my head back and let myself take a nap.

My Kangra Hosital family. No English; excellent vibe.

When I woke, I looked over at one of the mothers who smiled and offered me a cookie. As freaky as living in a foreign country can be there are some experiences that let you know we are all pretty much the same. One of them is being in a hospital room. No matter where you are in the world, a family gathering around a hospital bed will always be the same. Everyone is concerned; everyone is trying to be positive; everyone is looking for a little diversion. A white guy in a wheelchair was plenty of diversion. Before long there were hand signals, chopped up English and lots of laughing. I didn’t feel sick so I was actually looking forward to the next 44 hours.

That is until the doctor came into the room and told me I could go home as soon as I’d drained the 400 cc’s of IV antibiotics. Much as I’d like to stay and chat, I called the TCV and told them I was out of there. Within an hour, the station manager, Kelsang, was there with another driver and I was on my way back to Bhagsu, 3200 rupees, or $72 shorter for my effort. In the states, $72 would not have gotten me past the front desk, but in India 3200 rupees is three-weeks salary. And if you don’t have it – they don’t treat you. Then again, if I were an Indian, I never would have gone to this hospital for this treatment anyway. I would have gone to my local Ayervedic clinic and have them treat it there.

Personally, I’ll take the antibiotics.

I met this TCV worker in the Kangra Hospital parking lot. Neither one of us give a shit about Wisconsin Football.

Update: As of this writing, the antibiotics have once again kicked in and at my daily TCV Health Clinic checkup, the doc said the infection is being held at bay and the wound is healing nicely again. We HOPE!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Story Behind 90.4 Tashi Delek FM

Phuntsok Dorjee
Now that I’ve been going to work for about a month, I’m finally wrapping my head around what I’m supposed to be doing. We need to create a ton of content for the station as well as teach the students how to record and edit audio. Unfortunately that job is still a month away as the students at the Tibetan Children’s Village are on their winter break until Losar, the Tibetan New Year, Feb. 20.

In the meantime I’ve got two adult students who are going to turn into crack radio men and will run the content side of the station once I’m gone. Lobsang and Chimi both took quite quickly to audio editing on Adobe Audition and Nuendo even though they were dumbfounded at first.

Their first project was editing an interview I did with our station’s creator, Phuntsok Dorjee. I conducted the interview while the station manager, Kalseng took levels and the two of them sat close by to see how it was done. Once they figured out it was just organized talking, their fear of being on a microphone was greatly reduced.

This picture has nothing to do with this post whatsoever. I bet you're really bummed you're looking at it too.

Next week they get to interview Phuntsok in Tibetan, but this week was spent painstakingly changing the levels on each exchange between Phuntsok and me. So instead of a long blog entry, you can see how they did for yourselves. And as you’re listening you’ll find out exactly what’s going on here at good old 90.4 Tashi Delek FM!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Where to Find an Aluminum Welder?

The fact that my leg was a blister blob had little effect on the fact my wheelchair was still broken (although I did kind of forget about the elbow being swollen). One of the handles the Tibetans use to yank me up 15 stairs every day had snapped making it impossible to lift me up to the studio. The doctor told me I should rest, but my legs are basically at rest all the time. Instead I asked the station if I could borrow Suresh, my driver, to go in search of an aluminum welder. The TCV had a few errands for him to run, so the two of us dropped out of the clouds and went down to the real Dharamsala, down in the valley.

Dharamsala is split into two different and distinct areas. I spend 95% of my time in Upper Dharamsala about 3000 ft. higher than the main city. There are two roads between the two sections. The Main road is nine kilometers long, full of gradual switchbacks and long rises that gradually lift you from the lower city into the burbs of McLeod Ganj, Forsyth Ganj and my crib, Bhagsu. Along the way there are plenty of smaller villages and a big army base. I forget sometimes that I’m only about 50 miles from the hottest nuclear front on the planet, Kashmir. As the crow flies Pakistan is no further from Dharamsala than Portland is from Corvallis. Dharamsala to Afghanistan is the same distance as Portland to the California border. But even with proper visas, it would take days to get to the Afghan border.

The second road is what used to be the most treacherous road in the civilized world, The Library Road. The Library Road does that same eight kilometer stretch in three kilometers. It’s a barrage of thin hairpin switchbacks that up until 2007 was barely paved. Depending on which side of the road you’re on, a little hiccup could send you careening over a 1000 ft. cliff, or dump you into a 3 ft. draining ditch. Now, however the road has a glistening new blacktop and lines where it’s wide enough for two way traffic – although in India, they ALWAYS assume two vehicles can pass. In sections the Library Road is so steep and narrow I can’t even ride it in the wheelchair. As it approaches McLeod Ganj it splits into two one-way sections each ramping up at around 20%. Cabs can make it but only the most souped-up motorized rickshaws have a chance.

Cell tower to the heavens - heavily used by monks at the main temple.

The TCV is located off the Main road so Suresh took the long route to the lower city. Lower Dharamsala is almost all Indian and you get a much better feel for the country than the cultural hodgepodge up in McLeod. The main market is full of things people actually need, not Tibetan handicrafts. The food is about half price of that in McLeod and the streets are twice as dirty. Women in saris walk with grain baskets on their heads and school kids march to class in dark blue uniforms. The terrain is still extremely hilly and only flattens out four kilometers from the bottom of the main road. There’s still quite a big tourist infrastructure including a water park and a small amusement park. But it’s all for Indian tourists; the whities aren’t here for roller coasters.

The markets of Lower Dharamsala cater to residents, not like the tourist trade up in McLeod Ganj.

The trick was finding someone who could weld aluminum. Aluminum is more heat resistant than steel so you need someone with a super-hot welding torch – and that means a huge electrical supply. Extra electricity is not an easy thing to come by in these parts as the region suffers from at least two blackouts a week. They used to go on for almost a full day, but now they’re usually over in just a few minutes. Unless it’s a weekend – then they’ll still last a few hours. Most of the restaurants and hotels now have generators, but they only flip them on if someone asks, or if it’s necessary for the business (like an Internet cafĂ©). Aside from that you just stare at the mountains. After all, it’s what you’re here for in the first place.

Unfortunately the Tibetan garbage trucks do not service Lower Dharamsala. The ditches have decades' worth of composting trash.

Suresh had no idea where to start looking so he went to his gas station and asked around while we filled up. Gas is 33 Rs/liter or about $2.90/gallon. That’s prohibitively expensive for all but the most affluent residents of Dharamsala so most vehicles (including mine) are company cars. Most workers commute on foot, bus or motorcycle. There are very few bicycles because either the hills and the traffic would kill you.

We were directed further down the valley past the biggest structure in town, the new Dharamsala Cricket Stadium. Built in 2003 and holding 19,000 fans, it is now one of the most famous pitches in India. It’s only held a few national matches, but the players and journalists claim it to be the most beautiful athletic complex in the world. The stands are high enough to keep the dust and noise of the city out, but nowhere near tall enough to obscure the peaks. In April Dharamsala will host four very important national matches and the entire town is just giddy over it. Much as they are thankful for the Dalai Lama bringing in cash to the region, they are proud they will be famous for something purely Indian – their cricket pitch. Come April you’ll find me at that stadium with a Kingfisher Strong Beer in my hand.

Not my pic - but hopefully in April I'll have something like it!

A few clicks past the stadium we came upon a section of town that was nothing but building supply stores and carpentry shops. Suresh spent an hour trying to find the right shop, waiting for the owner to come in, then finding out they couldn’t do aluminum. Finally he got a hot tip that the best aluminum welder lives in Matour, 10 kilometers further down the valley – probably a 45 minute drive on these roads. Neither one of us had anything else to do and I really had no choice, so we headed off to Matour.

Matour, out in the valley, has no tourist infrastructure at all. Just your random town in paradise.

The ride to Matour was on a muddy one-lane road along a trickling river bed. The river bed was 100 meters wide, but since there’s been so little snow in the mountains, there was only a small stream winding around huge boulders. Had I been on this quest by myself, I would be eternally lost and forced to join the ranks of Indian beggars. There are no directional signs except on heavily trafficked roads. This road had very few cars, yet there were houses and business in identical caving brick structures almost the entire way. Once inside Matour, there were a few signs, but only for cities, not for roads. Suresh knew the place a little bit, but we also spent a lot of time asking around – something he could do because he speaks the local language. I wouldn’t have stood a chance.

It looks like there's barely room for one bus going one way. But none of these three busses even slowed down as they passed.

Finally about two hours after leaving the TCV we stopped in front of a garage door in the middle of a non-descript street and, sure enough, this guy had the big gun. Suresh disassembled the padding from my chair; the welder fired up his magic wand and I sat in the car praying it was going to work out. The welder did a phenomenal job putting the handle back on and assured me the second handle was in good shape. Total cost for his services: Rs 30 (66 cents).

What I hadn’t noticed on the way to Matour was that behind us loomed the full Dhauladhar ridge of Himalayas. In Upper Dharamsala you can catch the tops of the peaks, but the ‘foothills’ (10,000 footers) can block much of the granite. Out here in the plains of Himachal Pradesh the monsters are in full glory. And as opposed to the monsoon season, the winter sun was glistening off each peak and avalanche.
Suresh drove back via one of the quicker national roads while I stuck my head out the window like my pooch Sydney used to. It wasn’t long before we were at the base of the Library Road. No matter how many times I take that drive it still gives me a thrill. It may have been the most beautiful day of errands I’ve ever experienced.

While I was looking ahead for welding shops, this was in Suresh's rearview mirror.

For three hours I was having the time of my life; completely forgetting there was a giant gap in my leg.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Meltdown (literally)

Ever since I’d recovered from Delhi Belly, things had been going surprisingly well. Working for the radio station has been an absolute dream; I’d moved into a relatively cheap 100% accessible hotel with a dozen English speaking cable chanels – including ESPN; I’d interviewed a Pulitzer Prize winner and my two students had learned how to edit audio and are ready to become reporters.

The Culprit.

Considering my track record, it was a little too much to ask for. And slowly things started to sour. It started with the purchase of a brand new Chinese space heater I picked up to keep my room above freezing at night. It doesn’t stay cold long here, so there’s no heating in any of the hotels. Before I broke my back I had no problem camping out in near freezing temperatures, but since my body just can’t take it. My extremities chill up quickly and worst of all, my nose gets so cold and clammy that it gives me a slight headache.

The space heater was only $8.00 so picking one up was an easy call. The problem is they are all cheap pieces of garbage. By the time I rolled the mile and a half from Mcleod Ganj to my crib in Bhagsu, the entire mechanism had fallen apart. Screws came undone, heating filaments fell out of the box and after putting it back together only one of the heat coils fired up.

But it did kind of throw out a bit of heat, or at least enough to warm my nose if I stuck it a few inches from the grill. A minor setback, but of course it would lead to more calamitous events.

Next on the agenda was my cell phone. Dan’s co-worker, Helen picked up an Indian cell phone during here trip here a few years back and lent it to me for my stay. It seems like every other shop in McLeod Ganj is a cell provider, so I just stepped into one and within minutes I was hooked up with a new number and a fully functioning phone. I left the charger at the studio where I plugged in my computer. Whenever I saw it running out of juice, I just plugged it in for the day and I was fine. Fine until the charger went missing one day and 24 hours later I was out of phone, with several potential interview subjects trying to reach me. Meltdown number two.

Then yesterday after I had a great class session with two very eager Tibetan reporters the meltdowns started getting worse. As they were carrying me down the dozen steps from the studio, one of the handles on my chair snapped off and I went tumbling down to the bottom of the cement staircase. I managed to avoid breaking any bones, but my elbow took a nice crack and I caught a fat contusion on my left calf. It was nothing to take me out of action, but a thick bit of hurt to carry around with for the next few days. We’ll call the chair meltdown number three and the elbow thwack meltdown number four.

I made it back to Bhagsu and flicked on the heater to try to warm up my legs which were icy cold from the first snow day of the year. Although none of the snow stuck, the temperature never got above freezing so my body never really warmed up. I tried a little experiment and flipped the device on its head to see if the second coil would fire up. Nothing doing, so I put the heater next to my legs, opened the laptop and whipped out a blog entry. Fifteen minutes later I noticed my nose wasn’t cold anymore so I lifted up the laptop and saw that my trick of standing the heater on it’s head worked. Both coils were firing away and the room was getting toasty warm.

When I finished writing, I folded up the laptop and hopped into bed to catch The Tonight Show which was right in the middle of the Conan v. NBC fiasco. Before tossing the covers over my legs, I rolled up my right pant leg to see what was happening with the contusion. This is when I realized the contusion was nothing, but the large patch of white wrinkled skin was something – something big. As the double heater coils warmed me up, they’d also bubbled up my leg. I immediately doused it with water and used another cold water bottle to keep the skin cool (no ice machines up here in Bhagsu). I could feel the skin was loose but I couldn’t tell the extent of the burn. I fell asleep praying that it would just be a red spot in the morning.

But, of course, it wasn’t. The heater (which went completely dead in the middle of the night) had left me with a 9-inch by 4-inch bubble on the left side of my left calf. There was enough fluid in the blister to fill a coke can. Thus we have king of the meltdowns rendering all the other meltdowns meaningless.

When my driver Suresh came to pick me up, he took one look at it and agreed with me that I had to go to the hospital. He zipped me down the harrowing Library road to Delek Hospital, not far from the Tibetan government offices. I’d been to this hospital once in 2000 when it was little more than a waiting room and a doctor’s office. Since that time there’s been an enormous improvement. It’s now a four-story building with several wards, an x-ray machine, a full lab, a pharmacy and even a minor operating room. When I showed the burn to the admitting clerk, he quickly sent me to a western-trained Tibetan doctor who told me I needed to take care of it immediately.

He said he was going to have puncture the bubble and admit me with IV antibiotics. This is not what I wanted to hear, but what he said next was much better. He informed me that the TCV also had a very nice clinic on campus. I had no idea there was a hospital just a few blocks from my office, but I told the doctor I think it’s best if I got treated up there. He agreed and Suresh zipped me up the Library Road, though the main drag in McLeod and up to the TCV.

ADA standards require 12 feet of horizontal for every one foot of vertical. This baby at the TCV Health Clinic is 5:1 - and two stories up !

Oh yeah - there's stairs in the middle of it too!

The doctor at the TCV clinic agreed it was a nice burn, but didn’t think I needed to be admitted. He covered the bubble with iodine then carefully punctured it letting the seepage drain until the blistered skin again lay on my leg. He bandaged everything up, gave me a stock pile of antibiotics and told me to come back in the morning to change the dressing.

Eight inches long by four inches wide. I'm sure I'll be able to show you all the scar when I get home - because it won't heal overnight.

The handle on my chair will get a new weld, the phone has been recharged, the heater is in the trash can, but my leg… That’s gonna leave a mark!

UPDATE: Here's my right leg for the next few months while this heals. This actually happened on Jan. 13 and as of Jan. 18, it's healing quite well. It's a first degree burn, quite wide but happily not at all deep. I go to the hospital every morning where they rebandage it and check for infection (there is none!). So I'm all chocked full of antibiotics which is probably good for UTI's too!
And no, it's not serious enough to get out of work. I'm reading the news in five minutes!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Alice Walker for Christmas

To say it was my first week on the job is a bit misleading since I’ve actually had the fortune to interview quite a few famous athletes while I was writing for L’adidas, the most successful in-house newspaper in the history of corporate America. So successful, in fact, that we were shut down by the international corporate headquarters of Adidas, in Herzogenaurach, Germany.                                           Alice Walker

The international guys published (probably still do) a 32-page color glossy rag that was nothing more than group photos and pontifications by members of the board of directors. It was summarily tossed in the bin within hours of each production run. L’adidas, a four-page monthly infotainment piece was read cover to cover by every employee (including the slugs at international) and if you went through 95% of the desks in the Adidas cube farm in Beaverton, Oregon you would find nearly every employee had a collection of their favorite issues.

We wrote it as a celebration of a growing company, not a mausoleum for a decades old dynasty. We interviewed athletes, coaches, CEO’s of other companies, as well as someone from every rank of the corporate chain of command. Even the head of the mailroom got a column. We had a wise-ass lawyer write a column as well as a racist octogenarian who was somehow still on the payroll.

All the interviewing and reporting told me no matter how high or low someone is, they've got a story - and almost everyone is willing to tell it. I can’t say I didn’t get goose bumps interviewing a star athlete, but I did learn how to put them at ease and get the best out of them.

And this was perfect training for my first assignment at 90.4 Tashi Delek FM. Not three days into the job we were told that Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of the Color Purple, was in town for an audience with the Dalai Lama. Our contact at the temple spoke to her, told her that we were a fledgling radio station and wanted to know if we could interview her. Great lady that she is, she said it would be just fine.

While I was giddy at the prospect of interviewing a Pulitzer Prize Winner, it also occurred to me that I was unfamiliar with her work (saw the move, didn’t read the book) and really had no business interviewing anyone who didn’t wear a jock strap or a sports bra. For some reason I didn’t think a 65-year-old Hall-of-Fame writer and human rights activist would be up for talking NFL.

Not much was made of Christmas in McLeod Ganj except for this dancing Santa.

For the next eight hours I scoured the Internet for content. I read her blog, digested her website and read four or five random biographies. From that I whipped out a slew of questions and showed it to Phuntsok. Phuntsok looked at the questions and said, “This would make a great interview for somebody in the States or Europe, but not a Tibetan. You need to tie this all into why she is here and what she thinks of us.”

Back to the drawing board. Well, not exactly, but there were plenty of revisions to be made. When I showed him the final list he thought it was a good start, but added that he might throw in a question or two as we went. Phuntsok’s not only the boss; he’s a very astute guy so having that backup was great for me.

Alice’s trip visit just happened to fall on Christmas Day, so this was either going to be one of the greatest Christmases of my life, or a gigantic disaster. As we drove to her hotel (the nicest place in town – triple what I pay) on a brilliant sunny day I gazed back at the Himalayan monsters behind me and fell into a calmly insignificant state. Those cats have been around for a few million years, so what effect would a nice talk in their shadow have?

Whenever you think you're doing something important in the Himalayas, you just look up and laugh. These big boys have seen it all before.

With that Suresh (the driver) pulled into the hotel, and Kalsang (station manager) and I unloaded and set up all the gear. This was also a test of all the electronics I brought with me from the States. We did a few mic checks, and waited for Alice to show up. I’ll let you be the judge of how well we did, but man is that one incredible lady: Alice Interview

The action shot! (Nice place for an interview eh?)

And the celebrity pose: Me, Alice, Kalsang Tsewang (station manager) and Phuntsok Dorjee (big boss).

Friday, January 15, 2010

90.4 Tashi Delek FM!

Five days after arriving in Dharamsala, ten days after arriving in India, 60 days after arriving in Charlottesville, 85 days after leaving Oregon, 18 months after graduating from the Murrow School, and four and a half years after I got the craw in my shorts to become a broadcaster, I sat down to my first job in my now chosen field.

Of course is wasn’t as simple as driving to work and sitting down in front of a microphone. My commute was only three miles, but it was three of the craziest miles one could imagine. I thought I would roll to work everyday, but since I needed my computer at both work and home, I accepted the offer for a driver from Phuntsok Dorjee, my new boss and the head of 90.4 Tashi Delek FM.

A View of McLeod Ganj from Forsyth Ganj.

I’d been exchanging emails with Phuntsok for weeks and upon meeting him earlier in the week, found him to be both competent and affable. He’d taken on the radio project three years earlier but. due to very strict and cumbersome Indian communication regulations, was only able to get a license and start broadcasting in October.

The three years Phuntsok labored getting permission to mount a radio station was nothing compared to the decades that Indian free-speech advocates suffered through to open up airwaves to the private sector. India has had radio since the late twenties, but only granted it’s first private license in 2000. Before that you could switch on a radio and everything on the FM dial from 90 to 96 would be one government channel. Everything from 96 to 100 another – and so forth.

Since 2000, at the insistence of some major players in the global communications industry, the government has been selling frequencies for huge sums and the private owners have been making a killing on advertising. The new radio giant, Big FM, has huge 20,000 watt stations in all the big cities: Delhi, Calcutta, Mumbai, Madras, Bangalore. They had enormous sums of cash and expertise to rely on and it’s been a tremendous success for them.

But this left the small community radio entrepreneur out in the cold. In the rural regions of the country they had no one to create and broadcast local content. This left enormous populations lacking in free health, agriculture, and legal information. TV is almost all national, low literacy restricts them from reading newspapers and very few of them own computers or have internet connections.

So in 2006 the government opened up licensing to local rural agencies who could both come up with enough gear to open a station , and also wade through the still tedious process of Indian bureaucracy (locals call it 'license raj'). I’m not saying running a democracy of over a billion people is easy, but if they’d just loosen up the leash they’d find the dog knows where it’s going.

One kind of rural agency the government was looking for were schools. The Tibetan Children’s Village might not only be the best college prep school in the Himalayas, it’s also the centerpiece of an international network of TCV’s. If Phuntosk could wait out the license procedure, he had plenty of Tibetan connections to muster up the gear and expertise. He also had the backing of the TCV for studio space.

Finally in September the license came though and all the wires started getting plugged in. By the time October came around it was time to flip the switch and start broadcasting from 90.4 Tashi Delek FM!

Only one problem: They had no idea what to broadcast!

They had a bunch of music and a bunch of recordings of the Dalai Lama’s teachings, but they did not have the money for either an Indian or western music license. They also had nobody who knew how to speak or what to say on the radio. They were required by the license to develop local interest content, but didn't know where to start. Basically they needed a Com-school moron and through my brother, Dan, they found me.

But I’m in a goddamn wheelchair and that’s a huge pain in the ass for them which brings me back to the commute. The TCV has a couple of cars and a driver and one of them, Suresh, was dedicated to me. Suresh drove up to the Pema Thang guest house and the two of us figured out how to get both myself and my gear (computer, sound board, mics, daily bag, wheelchair) into his 4 x 4. There was plenty of room in the back for the gear (the truck doubles as a school bus sometimes) but the passenger seat was a good foot above my chair. I tossed my right leg in the car, grabbed the handle on the roof and did a one-arm pull-up, while Suresh shoved my ass in the seat. Luckily the rig had seat belts (very few Indian vehicles had them in 2000 – now they all do) because I was going to need them.

Suresh isn't 'my driver'. Sometimes he's the school bus driver too!

We pulled out from the Pema Thang and caught a few hundred yards of open road before coming into the main market streets of McLeod. Suresh slithered through the morass of monks, cows, vegetable stands, shoe shiners, and chai vendors until we came upon the old bus stop and our choice of roads to take to the TCV. Suresh made a call on his cell and discovered the low road through the town of Forsyth Ganj was jammed, so we opted for the slower, riskier high road. We buzzed unscathed through some thick forest until we arrived at the neighborhoods in Upper Dharamsala leading up to the TCV. These twisty tight roads took us up steep, but populated ridges until we came to Holy Dall Lake, which unfortunately was drained so that it could be dug deeper and cleaned (it was pretty nasty back in the day).

This was also the entrance to the TCV, but we weren’t going to the school. We were going to the studio on the second floor of Gmeiner Memorial Hall, a 1000 seat auditoruim built in 1990 for school functions. That meant a quarter mile diversion along something that used to resemble a road, but is now just mountain of rubble. Up to that point I thought that, with a couple weeks of training , I could actually make my way up the the TCV. But now I could see that even if I got in marathon shape (it’d only been 8 weeks since DC!) there’s no way I would ever be able to navigate the last stretch – they would have to send a car down for me just to go the last quarter mile.

The TCV hoops court. How the hell are you going to concentrate on a free throw with that backdrop?

Finally Suresh pulled in front of the Hall and I met my co-worker, the station manager of 90.4 Tashi Delek FM, Kalsang Tsewang. Kalsang plays in one of the hottest local bands, who were on enough of a hiatus that he could take this gig running the station. He’s great with the soundboard and the recording software so he was a natural for the job. Kalsang and Suresh lifted me up the three steps to the entrance, then we came up on the 15 steps up to the studio. I knew they had a wify set up, so I told them I could just work downstairs. They wanted no part of it. They lifted me up the fifteen stairs (something they’ve done for three weeks now) and showed me to the studio.

Doesn't look like something you would see in the Himalayas does it? Tibetans just rock when it comes to tech stuff.

I was as far away from home as I could possibly be, but when I saw the computers, the board and the mic – I felt right at home. As a matter of fact, I was more freaked out when I rolled into the studios of KUGR in Pullman, Washington. This time, I knew what to do and it felt great.

Kalsang flipped on the mic, I rolled up and said, “You're listening to 90.4 Tashi Delek Fm broadcasting from the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala, India. Now back to some Tibetan music….”