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.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Could I Please Have a Normal Day?

Yesterday was a microcosm of this entire trip: awful and awesome intertwined in each other.

We had a day off because there was a ceremony at the Main Temple to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the 13th Dalai Lama’s exile to India, which most Tibetans consider their Independence Day. It’s tough to fathom a country celebrating Independence Day when they aren’t independent, but imagine if the U.S was taken over by Mexico. We’d still celebrate the Fourth of July and that’s exactly what the Tibetans were doing.

 Perfect day to hang out with a bunch of monks at the Main Temple.

One thing making my life difficult at the radio station is getting accurate information about anything connected with Tibet. Up until around the year 2000, the only way information was passed in the Tibetan community was by gossip. Any official proclamations coming out of the Government in Exile or the office of the Dalai Lama were useless, because the information was already widely known in the Tibetan community. Somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody at the office had already leaked the news to the community at large. Things like newspapers, the internet and radio have been greeted with a giant, ‘Duh’ by most Tibetans. They already know it.

Unfortunately if you are not in the loop, like all us Injies, information is difficult, vague or just plain wrong. Such was the case with this ceremony. Tibet TV announced the Dalai Lama would be back in time for the ceremony. He was not. Dalailama.com didn’t mention it at all, and Phayul.com, the most reliable news source, said there was a ceremony on Thursday morning – no time listed. But, duh, everybody knows those ceremonies start at 8:30 don’t they?

Being somewhat in the loop now because I work with Tibetans, I did actually know the ceremony started around 8:30 so I got my butt out of bed at 7:30, dressed and started the two-mile roll to the Main Temple. I always have to do the quarter-mile climb out of Bhagsu to start off, but this time it was significantly more difficult. There was a bit of moisture on the road, but otherwise it was sunny, so I didn’t know why I was so slow. After my right wheel hit my pad for the fourth time I realized the packed bearings that give my chair the quarter inch I need to keep them from hitting my chair had fallen out.

One of the biggest pains about having a driver is that they have to take my chair apart and put it together every time I get in or out of the car. The little ring bearing had gotten loose and, despite several attempts to secure it, kept popping out. Apparently on Wednesday night, my driver put the chair together not noticing the bearing popped out. HOPEFULLY that meant the bearing was still in the floor of the car, not over some 500 ft. ledge in the greater Dharamsala metroplex. Without that bearing, I can’t workout and I can’t drop hills in a wheelie. Basically I’m stuck in my room.

Eventually I made it to the Main Temple and embarrassingly took a push to get up the hill to the main level. I’d been there many times in 2000, but this was the first time I’d seen it in ten years. It’s a very plain-looking yellow structure with a big open courtyard for outdoor ceremonies. Since 2000 they’ve erected a steel infrastructure that can be covered in vinyl to keep rain out during the monsoon. For this ceremony only about a quarter of the courtyard was covered for those who need the shade. Otherwise it was a gorgeous day.

Monsoon be damned! We've got a big-ass tent!

Monks, nuns, school kids and the cream of Tibetan society filled the courtyard before a marching band in traditional costume lined a runway and led the procession of government officials onto the speakers’ platform. There were drums, flutes, bagpipes and singers, but no Dalai Lama. There may have been a dozen westerners in the crowd and I can guarantee all of them assumed His Holiness was on the docket. So much for being out of the loop.


Tibetans know how to throw a parade!

Nonetheless it was an impressive ceremony and they even fed rice and served butter tea to every single person in the crowd. Whenever the Dalai Lama speaks at the temple you can get small radios that broadcast English translations (or Chinese when the Taiwanese are in town). But since he was not speaking, this service wasn’t provided. The speeches were all in Tibetan so us whities looked around the courtyard and smiled. Just because we didn’t know what was going on didn’t mean we weren’t blown away by our surroundings.

The Stars and Stripes are nice and all, but that's a FLAG! And I'm pretty sure the State of Arizona copied it!

When the ceremony was over I had to swallow my pride and take a push up the steep hill back to the main market in McLeod. I’ve been up and down that road dozens of times and I never once have taken a push. I figure if the pilgrims can prostrate themselves around the Potola, I can bust my ass up that hill. But the extra friction my wheel put on the chair was too much. Every time I push up any hill here, strangers grab my handles and start pushing. I politely tell them I’m ‘training’ and they begrudgingly let go. Sometimes I have to stop the chair, turn around and insist they let go, but eventually they get the idea. This time I just let them push. I had no idea who was pushing until I got up to the top of the half-mile climb. Then I discovered it was an elderly monk. Yeeesh.

Back on flat ground, I went about town doing running some errands and talking with the random collection of friends I’ve made over the past three months. I was slowly making my way back to Bhagsu when I stumbled by Nick’s Italian Kitchen. Nick serves a killer breakfast and seeing as it was only 10 o’clock, I slid in for some cheesy eggs and hash browns.

I hoped my bearings were sitting in the back of the TCV SUV, but I had to make plans in case they weren’t there. After I ordered, I jumped out of my chair and pulled the wheels off so I could take pictures of both the good and the bad wheel. My friend, Ron in Corvallis, used to build chairs and he’s a witch when it comes to mechanical stuff. I figured that if I sent him a picture of the good bearing, he could run over to the handicap store in Portland, pick up a good set of bearings and mail them to a friend of brother Dan’s who is coming over in a few weeks. Unbelievably, when I pulled off the bad wheel, I discovered the bearing was there, only the driver had installed it on the outside of the wheel instead of the inside. It actually fits better on the outside of the wheel, it just doesn't function. I reassembled the wheel, hopped back in the chair and uttered a huge grunt of relief. Now I was only down to one bad wheel as my right front caster wheel was still broken off.

I’m quite mobile on three wheels, so after breakfast I rolled over to the Internet café and checked my email. I noticed that I hadn’t had any hits on the blog and that's when I discovered I’d been attacked by Chinese hackers. Anybody clicking on the latest post, which talked about the triumphant return of the Dalai Lama to Dharamsala, was greeted by a thousand duplicate windows opening up. Nice security Google! You let those arseholes hack into blogspot! When I went to my own website, www.thcommunications.com, I discovered that it too had been hacked and each page sent out waves of gibberish. (both fixed now) So much for my temporary good mood.

I logged off and headed back to Bhagsu but just before taking on the long climb I decided two weeks on three wheels was enough. I was waiting for a free car from the TCV, but my normal driver was on vacation and it wasn’t their problem anyway. It was mine. I turned around and headed to the cab stand to see how much it was going to run me to get to the gas-welding shop in Mataur, 33 kilometers away.

After a big of haggling and looking pathetic, I got the cab company down to a 700 Rs round trip. That was about 300 Rs less than I thought it would take so again, I was feeling pretty good. It was just after noon and by three o’clock I’d be back on four wheels busting up all the hills Dharamsala could throw at me. The other benefit is that as cool as McLeod Ganj is, it’s a tourist town and I really like going down to Kotwali Bazaar in Lower Dharamsala to see how normal Indians live. And this trip would take me 25 kilometers past that to the blue collar town of Mataur where the REAL Indians live.

Kotwali Bazaar is always buzzing. 

The driver was a great guy who spoke really good English. The night before the great Indian cricketer Sachin Tandulkar had the first one-day two-hundred run performance in the history of cricket. The entire country was giddy over it and the two of us talked about it all the way to Mataur. I couldn’t believe I remembered where the welding shop was, but my instincts pulled me through and before long we were parked in front of the shop and they were looking at my busted wheel post.

The welder asked to see the wheel and I told him it was in my bag. He dug around my bag, looked up and shrugged his shoulders. I shot him a puzzled stare then he passed me the bag. I dug through the bag and an awful realization hit me. Sometimes you have to go through a metal detector in order to gain entrance to the temple. Before leaving the Akash Deep six hours earlier, I took the wheel out of my bag for the first time since it broke.

FOK!!! FOK!!! FOK!!!

No matter where you are in the world, a machinist shop is still a machinist shop. 

I had no choice. We had to return all the way back to Bhagsu, get my wheel which was innocently sitting on my bed and drive back. An hour and a half later (and 700 additional rupees lighter), I found myself back at the Mataur welding shop.

Of course, this was no simple welding job. There was a small disc that cracked that held the entire wheel in place. The welder had to take the entire assembly off; reweld the disc; then reassemble everything. He also had to wait for all parts to cool before continuing on the next part. I thought I would be in and out in a half hour, but more than three hours later I was still looking at my chair in five parts.

Although in India, the girlie calendars are replaced by altars. 

Finally it was reassembled and, according to the welder, ‘stronger than when it was built!’ While the American health system thrives on ripping off the disadvantaged, in India that's some really bad Karma. The total price for three hours in the shop and a weld that nobody else in town could do: 50 Rs. ($1.05). I gave the guy a hundred note and refused to take his change. The driver not only waited for me, he helped hold the parts and put the chair back together. He told me on the way out (the first time!) that he had a baby at home and was glad he was going to make a quick day of it. It made me feel like crap when I opened up the empty bag.

In the end we got back to McLeod around 6:30. I had to make yet another stop at the ATM to pull out the 1500 I owed him for the ride. I hopped in my rig, back on four wheels, and felt solid for the first time in two weeks. I apologized for the delay and thanked him, but he was actually psyched to catch a nice payday – even if his wife called every half hour. He drove off to the cab station and I reached back in my bag to get my leather gloves which I'd also just had repaired.

They, of course, were left under the seat of the cab!


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