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.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Back in Paharganj

Indians take their hospitality very seriously, which is usually a good thing. But when they woke me up for the third time with an ear splitting phone ring it was crossing the line. I’d arrived at the Vivek around 7 a.m. local time and told Atwal, the manager, not to interrupt me for any reason including fire. I don’t think I’d gotten more than an hour’s sleep in the last 36 so jetlag be damned, I was hitting the rack.

My room was painfully small and the bathroom was out of reach. Luckily there was a utility faucet on my floor so I was able to wash my hands, brush my teeth and empty my pee jar (yes, in that order). Once I’d washed the transit grunge off me, I changed into some pajama bottoms, jumped into bed and channel surfed until I found a BBC News station I could fall asleep to. For whatever reason, my body didn’t want to go right down, so it wasn’t until noon that I finally teetered off. At 12:01 the first ring jolted me out of a dream about Poland (no, I have no idea why it was Poland) and shocked me straight up. The phone, of course, was out of reach so I had to get back in my chair and roll over to pick it up. It was Atwal who wanted to know if I would be having lunch.

“Atwal,” I said calmly while letting him know I was quite angry, “Do you remember me saying not to interrupt me for ANY REASON?”

Atwal ignored me completely and replied in a tongue suggesting he were running the Olympic 100-meter final, “Mr Tom, the soup is excellent today. Perhaps I could bring some up?”

It took me a sec to figure out what he’d said and I firmly replied, “Atwal, DO NOT CALL THIS ROOM TODAY – am I understood?”

“No lunch today sir, OK Mr. Tom, good day.”

And with that I thought I had made it perfectly clear that I was going down and did not want to be disturbed. And that lasted until approximately 3:30, two minutes after I’d dozed off to a replay of a one-day international cricket match between Sri Lanka and the Indians. This time it was my doorbell which was slightly quieter, but way more surprising since I didn’t know it existed.

Not only did the bell ring, one of Atwal’s staff barged right into the room wanting to know if I needed my laundry done. The Vivek’s a pretty nice hotel for Paharganj standards, but it’s still kind of a dump – there’s not exactly bellmen in uniform walking around. So basically I was woken up with some strange Indian dude going straight for my duffle bag. This time, I wasn’t calm, I let him have it.

“Who the F*CK are you! What the hell are you doing with my clothes!”

“Very sorry sir,” he responded quicker than a pipe burst. “Today is laundry. No laundry tomorrow. It is today sir.”

“GO AWAY!” I blurted. “Get the hell out of my room!” at which point I got back in my chair, closed the door and remembered that Indian guest house doors don’t lock - you need to bolt them down yourself. I called Atwal and repeated almost to the point of tears that I did not want to be disturbed for ANY reason. “Yes, Mr. Tom,” he assured.

Here’s the laundry culprit – and he’s in a compromised position too – those are my toes!

That burst of adrenalin left me wide awake until dinner time when (I should have known better and pulled out the phone) Atwal, once again, jerked me out of a dead sleep informing me that I hadn’t eaten all day and that’s not good for me as I could get very sick and India is a very dangerous place to be sick, especially for a man in my condition who has medical needs and get very weak and is so far from home that I think it is best I should eat some curry – very fine curry at the Vivek.

At this point I gave up and went for my first stroll in the main bazaar of Paharganj. The street was unfamiliarly clean – or at least there wasn’t trash piled next to store fronts. The cows were still there and I had to be careful not to roll over a chunk of biocrud, but the rotting piles of filth we’re happily missing.

A lot of the shops and restaurants had changed owners, and my favorite restaurant was gone. There was also a large military presence that I don’t remember as well as metal detectors at the entrance to the main bazaar. I sat down at a pizza place and asked the owner what the deal was with all the soldiers.

Everyone carrying a bag going into the main bazaar at Paharganj is required to pass through a metal detector – thanks to the Mumbai bombings earlier in the year.

“2010 Commonwealth Games,” he said. “Everything in the city is changing. Much cleaner, new Metro. The army is here to drive the mafia out of Paharganj. Many of the buildings are coming down – the street will be repaved – maybe Delhi will get the Olympics if things go well.”

Check out this nice sleek Metro – with a power supply not connected to the suspect Delhi power grid.

And check out these well dressed professionals who have enough money to use the thing! (~$3/day)

In 1991, the thought of Delhi getting the Olympics was kind of like Green Bay getting the Oscars. The country was one big unemployed open sewer. But that’s the kind of transformation India’s gone through over the past twenty years. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a population the size of the U.S. living in poverty. But due to a loosening up of some archaic English banking laws, the rest of the country is coming around. All those outsourced call centers are leading to new cars, wide screen TV’s, cell phones, washing machines and better medicine. In 1991 I couldn’t go ten feet without crossing a heavily maimed beggar. As I finished dinner and rolled back to the Vivek it occurred to me that I hadn’t been confronted by a beggar once since arriving in the country.

Not everything has changed – the three-wheeled motorized rickshaw (seven-wheeled with me in there) is still the way to get from one side of town to another – at least until they finish the metro. Then these guys are screwed.

Just across from the Vivek was a restaurant I used to hang at back in 2000. The same owner was there and the same gaggle of westerners were sitting in benches sipping Kingfisher Strong Beer. I bounced down two stairs to the floor, ordered a Kingfisher and eavesdropped on conversations until I found an in.

Not too much into my beer, I found myself talking to a Belgian named Jan who was riding a motorcycle down to Goa for the annual Christmas - New Years debauchery. Jan had also been to India twice before and we were marveling at the changes. Goodbye American Express Cheques, hello ATM. Goodbye telephone & telegraph office; hello wify.

Jan’s first trip to India was in 1991, just like mine. He offered up the fact that he’d be spending his birthday in India next week. “Me too,” I said. “How old are you gonna be?”

“48,” he said.

“Me too,” I said. “What Day?”

“Monday the 21st,” he said.

“Me too,” I said. I was staring at a guy who had spent almost the exact same number of minutes on this planet as I had – and both of us were thousands of miles away from home having never met each other.

We sat back and sized each other up before Jan laughed and said, “Shit like this happens in India all the time.”

And fortunately stuff like this happens all the time in India too – just a random temple in the middle of New Delhi’s high rise business district.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff Tom! Keep up the writing and more pictures, please. Very very cool
    Take care man,