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.

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.


  1. I'm choked up; I'm learning the song. These stories need to spread like wildfire. -Ron

  2. BC here.... I love the song Tom. I've now learned it. It's one of those songs that just compels the singer to let it RIP. And I do so most every time. We'll definetely have to do this one together sometime... and we'll sing it for Kalsang!