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 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.


  1. Keep it coming, Tom! I LOVE your descriptive style.

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