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, January 5, 2010

Don't Think - Just Get on the Next Plane

There’s just no way to prepare for a 26-hour commute. There are things you can do to make it less obnoxious, but in the end it’s gonna hurt and it’s gonna take a couple of days to get over it. A good book can go a long way; the Ipod is mandatory; some decent films can kill a few hours and if you’re lucky you might get some good weather flying over some non-ocean space.

But in the end it’s gonna hurt.

My book was The Forever War by New York Times Middle East correspondent Dexter Filkins. I powered through the first few chapters on the way to Brussels, but my eyelids lost their battle with gravity and I kipped off for an hour. When I woke up I peeked at the video screen on the chair next to me and saw Jimmy Page jamming with The Edge and Jack White of the White Stripes. It was a cool little rockumentary about three generations of blues players paying homage to the giants upon whose shoulders they stood. As soon as it was finished it restarted so I could catch the twenty minutes I missed at the beginning. And, of course, I ended up watching the entire thing again.

After the second viewing, I flipped over to the plane navigation channel and marked that I’d burned five of the eight hours of the first leg. I was feeling OK with my progress until I did the math and figured out I hadn’t even done one-fifth of my travel day. Outside my window it was pitch black and having spent a winter in Northern Europe I knew that the sun wouldn’t be coming up until 8:30 a.m. Most of the people on the plane were crashed, but I’d already wrecked my sleep. The Ipod buds went in and I listened to a couple hours of Allman Brothers bootlegs.

The plane landed in Brussels and I prided myself in having knocked off the first and longest leg of the trip. Now it was a three-hour layover in a dead airport followed by a four-hour flight to Abu Dhabi. Just seven more hours before phase II would be complete.

So seven hours later after solid rotations of reading, sleeping, movies and Ipod the Etihad Airways jet circled my old stomping grounds of Abu Dhabi (I spent two months there in 1988) and I found myself at the beginning of a five-hour layover before the five hour flight to Delhi. While Abu Dhabi is the straightest city I’ve ever set foot in, their airport is right out of a Jefferson Airplane song. It’s a gigantic psychedelic green mushroom the Arabs, I’m sure, think is quite beautiful.

I, on the other hand, saw an architect with a great sense of humor. At this point it was time for some good old Grateful Dead music. Two days worth of Filmore West shows got me to the gate and on the last leg of the trip.

The other part of being on a 26-hour odyssey is that you have no idea what time it is where you currently are; what time it is at home or what time it is where you’re going to end up. You’re given some number that represents when you need to be at the gate, but as far as your body and mind go, it’s just a number. You’re not sure if you need sleep or food. You definitely need water, but in my case, if I drink too much of it, I’m stuck in my seat for a few hours before I can deplane and find a handicapped bathroom. In short, I’m just doing time.

There is one thing you MUST to do on one of these treks and that is to have a solid destination upon arrival. The first time I came to India, all I had was a Lonely Planet guide that explained how easy it was to find guest houses.

20 years after seeing Paharganj for the first time, I'm actually quite comfortable here.

Four hours after being ripped off by cab drivers and rickshaw riders I finally found a place along the grubbiest street I’d ever seen in my life. I was so frazzled I started hating India before ever giving it a chance.

But one task on the gargantuan list of things I needed to do before leaving, was scoring a hotel with an elevator in the Paharganj area of New Delhi. As it turns out, Paharganj is actually that same grubby street I landed on in 1991, but having spent three weeks there in 2000, I’d become quite comfortable with the place. Unless I rolled through a pile of cow poop, I didn’t even mind the grunge either.

Anyone for a wedding in the cow slop?

Handicapped travelers are still quite a rarity in Asia so as soon as I landed in Indira Ghandi International Airport, I had three people accompanying me everywhere I went – including the bathroom. Normally this bugs the hell out of me, but seeing as I had more gear than I could deal with, I welcomed their help. They pushed me to the front of the customs line and helped me with my overstuffed bags.

In 1991 the taxi stand outside the arrivals gate was like the pit at the New York Stock Exchange. Any white face was accosted by hundreds of screaming cabbies who all got commission from various hotels who paid well for foreign tourists. But in 2009, the system was quite orderly and prices in the cabs were fixed. The airport workers helped me load up my ride and made sure the cab driver knew exactly where he was going.

Within twenty minutes I was sitting at the doors of the Vivek Hotel in the center of Paharganj, New Delhi. They actually had my paid reservation and the elevator to the third floor not only worked, but there was actually room for my chair. I had no idea what time it was or whether I was hungry, tired or thirsty. All I knew was there was a bed in a warm room behind a door that locked.

Not 20 yards from the mess that is Paharganj is this pristine temple dedicated to all the religions of the world

Eventually it would all turn into India, but for the time being it was just a glorious lack of motion – or destination. I’d made it.

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