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.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sandwich from Hell

This piece may not be for the squeamish, but it’s part of traveling in India, so you’re all going to have to put up with it for just a day – which is four days shorter than I had to!

The day after the cricket match, I left the Vivek and went to Delhi National, or Palam Airport, for what would be the final leg of my trip. There are a couple of ways to get from Delhi to Dharamsala, depending on how much gear you have and how much pain you are willing to put your body though.

In 2000 I was privy to three 12-hour Dharamsala-Delhi (or return) bus trips, all of which were quite cheap (<$10), but only one of which I survived unscathed. The problem with me taking a bus trip is that once I’m on the bus, I’m on it for the full 12 hours. I say goodbye to my bags and my chair and don’t get to see them until I get off the bus. Leaving your bags out of sight for a long period of time is a great way to get ripped off. And I can’t hop off the bus at the road stops with everyone else. I wait for then end of the ride; watch everyone get off the bus; ask a stranger to find my chair; slide along the floor of the bus to the door; bounce down a few steps; hop in my rig and finally see if I still have my bags. The whole bus trip I try not to think of how screwed I would be if the stranger came back into the bus saying, “There’s no chair back there?”

To my great luck, I’ve never had any baggage taken, although I did sit next to a guy who just had all his gear stolen from him at the New Delhi Railway station. So it happens frequently and I’ve just been lucky.

Of the two bad bus instances I had, one was common to India travelers and the other is something that would only happen to a paraplegic. The crip story is gruesome, but it came from an act of kindness on the part of one of the drivers. The driver took pity and asked me if I wanted to ride with him in the front of the bus, which on India tourist busses, is like a cockpit. It’s a separate compartment with three padded benches. I sat on one of the benches and put my feet on, what I later discovered, was the engine block. It was covered by plastic and the driver used it as a table. When I put my feet up, it was a little warm but not hot. I was on a night bus so around midnight I fell asleep in my comfy cabin. What I didn’t realize was as the bus kept going, the engine block heated up and slowly cooked my right ankle. I woke at sunrise outside of Delhi and lifted my ankle to find a two-inch oval of broiled Tom. The skin was black and had already started to get infected. Luckily I was going to Delhi to get a UTI checked out. The doctors cleaned up the wound really well and set me up with a bucket of antibiotics that eventually (5 weeks later!) healed the wound.

But my second mishap is more germane to this story, that being a bad sandwich. Again, I was on a night bus and was offered a breaded chicken sandwich from an Italian who lived permanently in Dharamsala. The bus took a break at a roadside food stand and the Italian said he’d eaten food from this place on several occasions. I saw a couple of cucumbers and some white sauce on the sandwich. I wiped it off, tossed away the bread and just ate the chicken. But the chicken paddy had already sipped the evil white sauce. I ended up spending the next five days in my room, moving only to rush to the bathroom.

It only takes one time for this to happen and you swear you’ll never get fooled again. It’s a nasty existence complete with chills, body aches, fever and dehydration due to the fact that absolutely nothing you put in your body stays in for long. You have to keep drinking water but you realize you’re going to pay for every sip. You starve yourself for the duration and, only when the bug leaves your system and your head clears, do you realize how weak your body has become.

The trick is to eat only well cooked foods (rice is boiled!) as well as fruit with thick skin, like bananas and oranges. Bottled water is a given (Delhi claims to now have clean drinking water, but the pipes are still old) and any meat really needs to be cooked well done. But if you follow these simple rules, you can avoid the dreaded Delhi Belly.

But there are the things that throw the most experienced travelers off guard. The one that got me was airplane food. Seeing as I had tons of electronic gear with me I decided against risking the bus trip and found the one-hour flight was only ten bucks more than renting a car with a driver. Add to the fact that I might get a crazy view flying into the Himalayas, and the decision was a layup.

Delhi’s local airport is a brand new facility for domestic flights. Another byproduct of all the new wealth is a burgeoning internal airline industry. In 1991 there were only major carriers, but now there are a dozen small airlines offering discount fares all around the country. Cutting your travel time by 92 percent over Indian roads and rail has made anyone with a job buck up for the tickets – which are still cheaper than U.S. flights.

The new airport is spotless and makes the cruddier US airports (read: Atlanta, Miami) look like - well India. I was flying on Kingfisher Air (yes, the same company as the beer) and was treated like a diplomat as soon as I rolled into the airport. Immediately there were four Kingfisher employees, taking my bags, pushing my chair and skipping me through all the customs and baggage lines. Normally I like airline employees to leave me alone, but with all my gear I was happy to take the help.

One problem, which I encountered earlier in the year in Turkey, was that the airline didn’t want me to fly alone. They asked me a gazillion medical questions and wouldn’t let me on the plane unless I promised them I was meeting someone at the airport – which I wasn’t.

The plane was a dinky 40-seater and the flight crew was dumbfounded as to how I was going to get on the plane. They get plenty of geriatric travelers in wheelchairs, but no paraplegics. They had no lift and the plane loaded via a staircase from the tarmac. I rolled up to the staircase; transferred onto the bottom step and had a worker lift my legs while I hoisted myself along the handrails. The stairs were at the rear of the plane and my seat was in the front, but it was a half-full flight so I was able to pull myself into the first seat.

Kingfisher was horribly embarrassed by all of this but I was just as happy to be in my seat with all my gear on the plane (I saw them load it). I was sweating after the lift so a stewardess loaded me up with bottled water and a spicy nut mix. Once the plane took off I was the first to be fed. I hadn’t eaten anything all day and was starved, so I was a little off guard. I opened up a sealed package containing a big veggie sandwich with a killer hot mayo sauce. I took one bite into it, realized it was mayo (a big no-no on the India food list), but assumed an airline would have to have a pristine kitchen. Right?

Unfortunately it was cloudy so I only got a short glimpse of the big peaks before the plane landed in the dinky Kangra airport. After climbing down the stairs and flopping back in my chair I split a cab with a teacher from St. Louis. Before long I was riding along the strangely unfamiliar streets of Dharamsala. I knew these streets extremely well, but my head just wasn’t processing. My brain started floating; my body started aching and, before I had settled into my guest house in McLeod Ganj, I felt the first rumblings of Delhi Belly. The Kingfisher mayo was calling.

This is not how I remembered the streets of Dharamsala!

I don’t need to get into the gory details, but it was a full four days before I left the guest house. On that day I went to my first day of work at 90.4 Tashi Delek FM radio station. I know many of you have had pretty ugly first days at a job. But has anyone literally shat themselves?

Not “Oh I was so nervous, I almost shat myself.” But actually being in a meeting and crapping your pants – all knowing that your ride home is in your new boss’s car?

You just know it had to get better from there…

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