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, March 31, 2016

The Dead

Over the past three weeks I have had the disturbing chance to have crossed three dead bodies on the road. Outside of funeral homes and cultural relics, these were the second, third and fourth dead bodies I have seen in my lifetime.

The first one came on a late summer afternoon in 1980.  I was crossing the Milwaukee River on the railroad trestle that connects my childhood neighborhood to Kletzch Park, the undisputed jewel of Glendale, Wisconsin.  I cut grass for the local school district and the quickest way home was to dart across the park and walk the bottom rung of the trestle as if it were a balance beam.

I’d crossed that beam so many times that I could do it backwards and blindfolded.  But on this Chamber of Commerce day, my world got rocked when I saw a middle-aged woman lying next to the cement mooring on the east bank of the river. I wondered why she would pick a wooded place to sun bathe, but when I got closer I noticed her clothes were tangled and a line of ants crossed over her exposed abdomen. She was dead.

Up to that point, my experience with corpses came from the awkward viewings of my elder relatives who seemed to pass on during the ugliest months of the Wisconsin winter. With all lack of respect to the morticians of 1970s Milwaukee, you were horrible at your jobs. None of my relatives looked anything like their sleeping selves. They were completely different people. There was no reason to walk up to the casket and see some imposter inhabiting my grandmother’s body.

I’ve been to a half a dozen funerals since my childhood, but I never go into that viewing room. My mom once told me they do that so people who travel in from out of town are assured that the person is actually dead. I need no such assurances. I’ll take your word for it. And if the person isn’t dead, then they certainly don’t want to be seen by me.  I’ll just leave them to their new life.

The Tibetans have an odd way of dealing with their loved ones. They chop them up into bits, walk them up to a scenic spot in the mountains, then toss the bits in the air where they are consumed by vultures. I guess it sounds kind of noble, but I’m not so sure I want my last remains turned into bird droppings. I also would be really worried if someone in my family volunteered for the task. That doesn’t sound like someone I’d like to hang around with.

I have opted to be burned to a crisp. If it’s at all legally feasible, I’d love to have my ashes spread in Les Avenieres, France. It’s a beautiful place nestled in the foothills of the French Alps and that’s where life was at its’ peak for me. If not, Punchbowl Falls on the Eagle Creek Trail will do nicely.

And that brings me back to the three bodies I’ve seen since arriving in Nepal. Two weeks ago, while I was on the Asia Try protest, I looked at the side of the road and saw a man in nearly the exact same condition as the woman in Wisconsin. He was lying in a weedy hill just off the highway. His clothes were disheveled and bugs were crawling on his exposed abdomen. I looked to see if he was breathing, but after 30 seconds, I saw he was not. I looked to one of my co-workers on the walk and before I got any words out he said, “He’s dead. We see him on the road all the time. He’s always drunk and out of it.”

I asked him if we need to call the police and he said they were on their way. Naturally this made me think back to the summer day in Wisconsin. In that case, the woman dove to her death off the top tier of the railroad trestle. In this case the guy went for the longer, more painful vehicle of acute cirrhosis.

The lowest I’ve ever been was the year following my spinal cord injury. I was so depressed I had not one, but a half dozen suicide schemes. For most of that year, it wasn’t a question of “if” but “when.” And “how” of course. I would try to imagine how my life would play out, and suicide seemed the better option than any of the scenarios my ravaged psyche could muster.

The only thing keeping me from delivering on the promise I made to off myself were my nieces and nephews. They really didn’t give a shit if I was in a chair or not. In fact, the younger ones preferred it. They were never allowed to push an adult around and now they had a big huge toy on wheels. They were having a blast around me and the only bummed out person in the room was me. The more I thought it over, I realized that if I offed myself it would literally ruin those kids. It would be something they would never got over. They wouldn’t even be able to understand until they grew up to be jaded adults with an excuse to quit life. I just couldn’t have that happen.

It also occurred to me that most of my suicide schemes were actually thrill-seeking ideas which meant I probably did have a decent thirst for life. I wanted to roll up to Multnomah Falls in the Columbia Gorge and do a 400-ft header. I wanted to plow my car at 110 MPH off a Cascade mountain view point. I wanted to track down my old ass-hole boss who fired me from Adidas, break into his house (hadn’t figured out how that would work in the chair…) wake him up in the middle of the night and yell, “Here’s your 30,000 fucking T-shirts!” then pop him in the forehead. I’d try to get away, but get blasted to bits in a hail of gunfire as the cops chased me down. Apparently very few of those scenarios actually work and I’d most likely end up one of Frank Zappa’s suicide chumps. Disappointing FZ just can’t be in your best interests.

Which brings me to the next two bodies. Yesterday as our bus approached the bottom of the hill from the hospital we saw a mob of motorcycles, trucks, cars, busses and people forcing traffic to be stopped in both directions. I couldn’t see what happened, but I did catch a glimpse of a guy running for all he was worth along a road next to an empty field. Several locals were giving chase and, as he approached the side of the hill, he was confronted by a mob coming from the homes above. They grabbed him and waited for the police to arrive.

As our bus got closer to the scene I saw that a Tata truck had careened off a bridge, broke through the railings and its’ cab was jammed into the banks of a small creek 20 feet below. Also in the creek bed were two motorcycles and two lifeless bodies. Before we left the accident, a police SUV raced up to the scene. Five officers jumped out and ran towards the mob who had the driver of the Tata in a headlock. The mob handed over the driver as we slowly rolled away.

The morning after. No need for anything more graphic in this post. 

A few of my coworkers had leapt off the bus earlier and hopped back on as we neared clear traffic. They reported that the truck driver was lit; he swerved into traffic; then off the bridge taking the two bikers along with him. He survived the impact – they did not.

I’ve been involved in several car accidents; from rolling a van full of clowns to taking a header into the grill of a 14-wheeler. On every instance time has slowed to a crawl and I’ve been uniquely aware my life was about to drastically change. As the bus pulled away from the accident I strummed a little air guitar (which is the first thing I did after breaking my back), pounded my thighs and thought, “Damn, I’m glad my life is going to be the same tomorrow.”  

Thursday, March 24, 2016

HaPpY HoLi!!

One of the biggest blunders I’ve ever made in my traveling career came this week six years ago. I was living in Bagsunag, a tiny tourist enclave about a mile from McLeod Ganj, more well known as the home of the Dalai Lama. It was Friday night and I was shagged out after a long week of trying to get an all-music Tibetan radio station into the news business. When I got home, I rolled next door to the local bottle shop and picked up a pair of Kingfisher beers. I asked the owner, who I’d been friends with for a few months, if there was anything happening on Saturday.

I wrote "Bagsunag" on the steps of that bottle shop. One of my better efforts. 

“Festival tomorrow,” he said.

I was pretty exhausted, but I knew if there was some kind of festival in the village, we had to cover it. We were training four high schoolers as reporters, but they never seemed to be able to come up with any stories. So if there was some big festival and they didn’t tell me about it, I just had to assume they didn’t want to work on their day off.

“What kind of festival is it?” I asked.

“Holy (sic) festival,” he said.

“A religious thing?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Where is it – is it at the temple?”

“No,” he said, “people do it in their own homes.”

“Oh, so it’s not some big gathering?”

“No, just for families.”

As long as there wasn’t some big public gathering, we didn’t need to cover it, so I grabbed my beers and rolled into my room. Not only was I shagged out, I was also recovering from a severe leg burn and I had doctor’s orders not to roll around more than necessary. I had a couple of movies to watch on the computer and my cricket team, The Punjabi Kings, we playing a match, so I decided to pack it in and just hang out at my crib all day.

When I went outside on Sunday I saw that the town was soaked in a rainbow of colors and it just never occurred to me that a “Holy” festival was actually “Holi” the Hindu festival of colors. I didn’t know the name of it, but it had been on my bucket list for years.  I basically slept right through it. I was stunned at my stupidity and I’ve been regretting it ever since.

Until this Tuesday. Now, I live with a wonderful Nepalese family in a neighborhood chocked full of kids so there was no missing Holi. Up in Dharamsala, nobody even mentioned it to me, but here in Bahktapor, it’s all anyone could talk about for days leading up to it.

My flatmate, Fiona Stephens, a nurse from the UK and Hongkui Kim a visiting Korean occupational therapist and I were woken up by the neighborhood kids pounding on our door, yelling at us to hurry up. They had the same exuberance as any American kid would have on Christmas morning.
We yelled back through the door, “Why? I’m tired. I want to go back to bed. Why are you so loud this morning!”

To which they all screamed, “No no!!! Come now! Come Mr. Tom! Come now Fiona!!”
We teased back, “But I haven’t had breakfast yet. I don’t know what clothes to wear. I haven’t had a shower yet!”

“Noooo!!!” They screamed, “Come now! Hurry, hurry, hurry!!!”

We pushed open the door, strolled out towards the sidewalk and got pelted over and over with colored powder and tiny bags of water. The kids howled with laughter until we picked up some bags ourselves, filled them with water and returned fire.

They screamed bloody murder then went back in with more colored powder – and this time one of them picked up the full bucket they’d been using to fill their bags and dumped it over my head. While the other adults could run up and down the thin dirt trail that leads to our house, I was stuck in the mud. I target practice.

I was giving as good as I was getting until a 10-year-old boy dumped a little bucket over my head that obviously did not come from the faucet. Faucet water is actually pretty bad, but he must have pulled this water right from the ditch, because it was a foul smelling concoction that nearly brought me to puke. My happy face was gone and I felt like the kid in Slumdog Millionaire who falls into the outhouse pit.
The little guy, back left - he's the culprit!

I have smelled this once before and that was in Sydney, Australia in 1992. A series of storms forced a backup in the sewage plant pouring untreated water into Darling Harbor where we were diving. As soon as our show was over, we raced towards an adjacent fountain and poured buckets of clean water all over ourselves. But here I was stuck. I begged my Nepalese sister, Nishta to race inside and get a full bucket of clean water from the faucet and dump it on me. I was never so happy to be doused in all my life.

We spent the rest of the morning getting powdered and dumped until all the water bags were broken and the dust was liberally spread. I made it out to the street and rolled up and down daring kids in high windows to try to nail me. A couple of them did, but water falling from four stories doesn’t have the same impact that being clobbered from two feet away. Nonetheless, it draws a big reaction and our whole neighborhood exploded in color and laughter.

But that was only Phase I. My adventurous ex-wife Rachel and her husband Stephen were coming into town on an afternoon flight, so Hongkui and I showered up and grabbed a taxi to Thamel.  Just before arriving in Kathmandu, traffic came to a dead stop as legions of multi-colored teenagers roamed the streets chanting “Happy Holi” and spraying colors.

The traffic started moving, but we discovered the reason for the jam was a 100,000-person concert just next to Thamel.  The entire city was exploding and we were right in the middle of it. After an hour in traffic we made it to the twisting streets of Thamel where hundreds of people from all over the world roamed around wearing clothes so battered by color they came to a uniform muddy red hue.

Don't know who's playing, but they're getting a huge crowd!

We pulled into the Hotel Mandap, only to see the restaurant jam packed with Holi Zombies sucking down beers like it was Oktoberfest. I told many of my friends that Stephen and Rachel were coming, so one by one they all showed up until Stephen and Rachel bounced into the courtyard in person. At this point we were fairly clean, and we stuck out like sore thumbs. As chanters passed by we held out our arms and were pelted with fresh colors.

Phase II underway at the Mandap. 

Rachel and Stephen made fast friends with the crew and before too long they blended in as if they worked at the SIRC. We were ten strong when we left the Mandap and became a street gang ourselves. We roamed the labyrinth until we came upon the Black Olive restaurant that featured great food and a Nepalese trio playing guitar, tabla and flute. I was really excited to see the guitar player playing a lefty axe, but he’d actually strung it up backwards!  The only left-handed guitar in Nepal and he was playing it right handed!

But he let me take a whack at it and as soon as he could see that I could play, he shoved a mic in my face and I whipped out a quick version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” When I finished, I went back to the table where a giant hukkah was in full blaze. I looked over to Stephen who was just flabbergasted at the amount of fun he was having. He tapped me on the hand and said, “Man, 

Nepal is just awesome.”

Hell yes it is!!

Half of our crew: Rachel, Me, Shubhi, Amrita, Stephen

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Legend of the Purple Tunic

The Legend of the Purple Tunic commenced in a spirit of giving, but reached tragic end at the hands of the mob, profiteering from the light boxes to whom all humans now abide. But in this circumstance, none of the throng would be asking to leave Brittany alone; they would be asking for her head.  In the proper context, the Purple Tunic, would have been an insignificant footmark in an otherwise glorious fortnight of communal celebration in the center of the great mountain capitol, Kathmandu. 

But one reckless decision after another fated the Purple Tunic into a cancerous monster bringing shiver to grown men while nurturing women wonder if, indeed, its’ bearer was born of a natural mother.

The Purple Tunic was birthed by the hand of Bagus, a 30-year master at both dye and batik. Years earlier he offered a tunic as reward for the finest prognosticator of a global athletic competition. Although capable of intricate and detailed work, on this occasion, he became abstract, gay with both color and pattern. His brother Thomas, who would eventually bear the scorn of the Purple Tunic, was not the competition’s champion. That title was earned by William Crabtree, his minstrel partner in the legendary duo, The Tools of Ignorance. Thomas was only gifted the lesser of two tunics simply for delivering the champion his deserved reward.

Six months hence Thomas, stricken down in his prime one score earlier, was summoned to the grand Asian capitol to aid in the reconstruction of lives recently diminished by the hand of god shaking the very Earth upon which they stood. His arrival in the Orient was heralded as a phoenix rising from the depths of that despair in which the stricken Nepalese still toiled. But the curse of the Purple Tunic, ferried in a rucksack from the mountains of Oregon, would soon sink his reputation to that of a Noel’s gift of coal.

On the morn of the festival, Thomas drew the Purple Tunic from his satchel and sported it without note – nor reflection for that matter. His affliction left him short in stature and unable to cast a gaze upon the mirror which may have counseled him otherwise. His appearance was unkempt, but he thought it fashionable.  For the throng he was to cast himself into had traveled great distances for days without benefit of bath. Their afflictions also declined invitation in those auberges demanding finer clientele.

Upon arrival at the manifestation, Thomas, ignorant of his unkempt coif and feeling no disgrace of the Purple Tunic, established presence with the twirl of a dervish and the gunny whale of subterranean creatures. The afflicted rejoiced in a chorus of languages and gave loud credence to his lack of social convention.

Pursuant to his debut, a local, wise in the scheme of travel, approached Thomas about addressing a gathering of like-minded voyagers keen on improving transport for the afflicted. Thomas engaged the merchant and heartily agreed to share the depth of his wisdom at the rendez-vous on the morrow.
As the festival continued, Thomas made acquaintance with the glorious and passionate lot, taking part in the flurry of images created by the light boxes, paying no mind to the fact that it would be these light boxes that would instigate his demise.

As the sun rose on a new day, having not anticipated prolongation of his engagement, Thomas sheepishly adorned the Purple Tunic, hoping that the merchant, true to his word, would host a casual affair. He hired transport and was delivered to the domicile where he was pleased to witness, the finest of princesses, not among the afflicted (though she did suffer), but among all of the Nepalese. 

The damsel Amrita, greeted Thomas and give snicker to the Purple Tunic which now seemed to clothe a boorish cad, unawares to the royalty he was soon to address. She did not take pity on Thomas. Nay she championed his bravado and sidled up to her fellow afflicted as she, too, would bear evidence of discrimination to the gathering. As the dignitaries surfaced to chamber, Thomas, aware of the Purple Tunic’s attack on his reputation, elected to pay it no heed and addressed the elite of Nepal, and even the Ambassador of his own country, as if he were garbed in his finest splendor.

Even the highest in presence inwardly applauded the fool’s confidence, but it was not this group who would bring his undoing. It was their connections abroad through the light boxes who would provide the black powder for the fusils that would lay him decimated. Seated on the dais next to the Ambassador and the Princess, Thomas was conscientious in lecture, and to the surprise of those in audience, a keen speaker when called on in voice.

Upon excuse from the merchant, the courtisans rejoined for drink and cake. In his manor, Thomas claimed oblivious to the threats of the Purple Tunic and even suggested repast with the Princess. The fair Amrita accepted invitation and left with the brazen Thomas for a journey to the town center. Thomas, feeling he had escaped the fate of the Purple Tunic,  made quick haste to a barber for attention, much to the giddy delight of the princess and her acquaintances. The princess herself, spread the news of her new-found oaf by light box – and yay, even Thomas himself thought merry of the day and alerted his companions for comment.

Drunk with friendship, the gathering wandered the streets of ancient Kathmandu finding sustenance and drink at local pub. The Purple Tunic appeared to be giving Thomas luck at this juncture, but as he fell to slumber, the galaxy of light boxes drew end to his folly.

Upon the rising sun, The Curse of the Purple Tunic seared wounds in Thomas’s psyche. His reputation lay in tatters as the army from the light boxes rose to mock and defeat his arrogance.

Robert Erb, a colleague in the great Cascade wars of 20th century quipped:
“Come on, man. Keep it real. Looks like you were in a psycho-Christmas cookie fight. That new look needs some Brooks Brothers or maybe Vineyard Vine?:

Karen Hanson, the eldest of four comely sisters, oft the target of male pursuit exclaimed:
Hair looks great! But I am on board with all the other posts about the shirt...”

Vaughn Halyard, who mentored a much younger Thomas on the finery of serviettes, called of royalty, but not in a complimentary fashion:
Prince called about the purple shirt... PRINCE: "Tom... even I wouldn't wear that shirt"

The troubadour, Michael Bathke made reference to a thespian who is known best in drag: 

The dame, Christie Dooley, although an abstainer of both drink and spice, showed no inhibitions in her comment:
It's not really a shirt so much as a really ugly women’s blouse. Seriously if you're going to wear it you need to at least accessorize with some pearls and a nice hand bag.”

The speedster, Michael Dobrient, was as quick with his words as he is fleet of foot:  
She’s (Amrita) got to get you to ditch that shirt.

Thomas’s brother Daniel, long in the tooth in Tibet and the Orient, (nor a dullard on the affairs of Europe) chastised the arrogance of the Tunic in such revered company:
“Dude, there is nothing Asians hate more than Americans dressing like hippie slobs at meetings. Get your shit together!”

And in fact it was only Thomas’ mother, perhaps in protection of her own reputation who offered the sole positive note:
“I think you look very nice.”

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Asia Try 2016

Before coming to Nepal it seemed like I was missing one huge event after another. While I was figuring out when I could leave, the SIRC hosted Nepal’s first international conference on rehabilitation medicine. And then the day before I arrived they mustered up 100 wheelers to take over a few blocks on central Kathmandu for World Wheelchair Day. I easily could have made it for that, but nobody told me it was taking place until I’d already bought my ticket.

Then last Wednesday I received a group email from the head of HR at SIRC saying that a group of protesters from the “Asia Try” organization would be stopping off at the SIRC on their journey to roll all the way to Kathmandu through traffic to promote disability awareness.  This trick seemed right up my alley so I asked around to get more information. There are quite a few English speakers in Nepal, but it’s far from granted. This means you’ll come across people who can whip up a couple of jagged phrases, but in doing so they are likely to get their message completely back-assed. I remember being on the dull end of that stick when I was learning how to speak French, but I was always keen to laugh at my mistakes and chalk it up as a teaching moment. That doesn’t happen here. That would be the dreaded Asian “Losing Face,” which would be as severe a crime here as larceny is in the West.

Eventually by putting together quite a few conversations, I was able to surmise the group was one of five coming in from all over Asia to roll slowly from the outer reaches of the Kathmandu Valley through heavy traffic into Bhrikutimanadap Park (Fun Park!) in the city center. The groups all arrived in the city center on Wednesday and then were bussed to five separate start locations up in the hills. I thought I was quite clear when I talked to everyone that I was going to join the marchers for the 30 km roll from SIRC to the city center.

They arrived with great fanfare as the SIRC whipped out their finest bunting and cooked up a spicey rice & dahl lunch (KILLER dahl!). I wore a bright red Portland Marathon wicking shirt and lined up for pictures with the group. As we rolled out one of my coworkers who I actually thought spoke decent English stopped me and asked me what I was doing.

Asia Try 2016 hits the SIRC. 

“I’m rolling with them to Kathmandu,” I said. “I told you that yesterday.”

He looked confused then turned to a bunch of SIRC employees, and obviously relayed the information. They looked a bit confused, then slowly shook their heads in agreement as if they understood all along. I’m pretty sure this language kerfuffle will continue until I get on the plane in July.

One of these things is not like the other...

I commandeered Smokie and Sajan, two photogs among the SIRC aids, to film us as we rolled down the very steep and almost completely destroyed road that leads down to the main highway. I’ve dropped hills like that, but never down anything that chewed up. Of the 30 rollers in my group only four of us made it down on our own power. The rest of the wheelers took liberal assistance from the 20 able-bodied volunteer assistants.

Kilometer One. 

As we made our way West towards my home town of Suryabinayak, I noticed that very few of the wheelers were actually pushing. It’s a cultural phenomenon that really needs to go away. I never let anyone push me anywhere unless I absolutely cannot make it up a hill. But the wheelers on this ride had no problem with someone just walking up behind them and pushing. They fold their hands and take the ride. This may seem innocent enough, but the faulty mentality behind this is that people in wheelchairs NEED to have someone with them all the time. Granted in Nepal there are many more obstacles that require aid, but it gets very frustrating when I’ve traveled solo in Asia and Africa and have been refused train and airplane tickets because I don’t have someone with me.

Day one of the trek ended at a guest house not far from my apartment in Suryabinayak. Instead of staying with the group, I opted to go home and meet up with them on the road the following morning. I showed the organizer where I would meet them on a map and he assured me that the group would be rolling by around 8:30.

The next morning I rolled down to the major intersection where we’d agreed to meet. As 8:30 came and went, I started to wonder if I’d gotten the time confused. The intersection is also the place where the SIRC bus comes to pick up workers going up to the hospital. One by one my coworkers strolled by me, shrugged their shoulders and said something like, “Nepali time eh?”

Nakita, who lives in the apartment above me called some friends in the movement and she assured me that they would be coming by in the next 15 or 20 minutes. As the SIRC bus rolled off, I went back to my viewing perch and waited for the train of wheelers to come by.

9 O’clock passed. Then 9:30. 10 o’clock… Part of the deal with the movement is that they will stop at busy intersections and give speeches, so I figured they found a good crowd during the morning commute and stopped to hand out pamphlets and chant their message. 10:30…   11….  

Now I was sure something was messed up. I returned home where Nakita’s sister Neeshta was shocked to see me. “Tom,” she said, “what happened? I thought you were rolling to Kathmandu?”

She made a few calls and discovered that instead of traveling along the main road, they decided to take a longer trail through the ancient city of Bakhtapur – which is less than a half mile from where I was waiting. Again, language confusion got the best of me. I don’t know how I could have been more clear. I even showed the leader a map and pointed to where I would wait – and he enthusiastically agreed that he would meet me at that spot.

I’d already reserved a hotel in Thamel, the tourist district of central Kathmandu, so I grabbed a cab and headed into town. The next morning I rolled from my hotel to Bhrikutimanadap Park and ran into another Asia Try group about a half mile from the entrance. I joined their line and entered the park where there was an elaborate greeting line. There were more than 200 wheelers (the most I’ve ever seen in one place) as well as scores of volunteers, journalists and dignitaries.

Who gets those great front row handicap seats when everyone's in a wheelchair? 

I rolled around from group to group asking where people were from. I met wheelers from Taiwan, Cambodia, Bangladesh, India, Tibet, Korea, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Japan. I was the ONLY white guy there! 

Japanese wheelchair activist and Asia Try founder, Sunji Khadota got the movement started with a solo 600 km trek through Japan in 1978. 

And then I saw my crew from two days earlier make their entrance. I rolled over to them and they greeted me like I was a long lost friend. The frustration of being left behind was long gone, but I had to figure out where we got crossed up. I spotted the leader, pulled out my map and asked him where we got confused. He confidently showed me the route they took, but did not get the idea that he’d left me waiting. I found a good English speaker and the leader’s face dropped when he learned that I’d waited more than three hours for them. He said he thought I was trying to show him where I lived. He never got the idea that I was going to join them.

Nepalese women represent!

I’m sure that this will not be the last time something like this happens. In fact, I’m guessing it’s the norm. In the end, the festival was tremendously inspiring and I met dozens of wheelers from all over Asia. I’m going to try to learn some Nepali, but I have a feeling that the level of confusion will only grow until I’m on the plane home.

Now that's a party!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Return to Kathmandu

It’s been a week since I landed in Kathmandu and not a day has passed where something pretty off-the-wall has gone down. But it’s a completely different place than what I left in 1991.  I first came to Kathmandu after a 36 hour stay in New Delhi. I’d been living in France for the better part of four years and my soon-to-be wife/ex-wife Rachel and I had decided to travel to our next high diving gig in Australia by crossing Asia over land. Before we left we stopped off at the Indian embassy in Paris to get Indian visas. We were told by a woman at the embassy that as long as we had plane tickets in hand showing we were moving on, we could ask for a transfer visa at the airport.

This turned out to be 100 percent crap information, which is something any experienced traveler on the subcontinent needs to get used to. Shit doesn’t work here and people will say “yes” just so you’ll move on and get out of their way. We arrived in Delhi and the passport control officer looked at us like we were high school kids. Americans DO have to get visas to India. Our flight wasn’t scheduled to leave New Delhi for four more weeks so we had to think quick. The man at passport control told us he could issue us 72-hour transit visas, but if we ever wanted to see our passports again, we needed to come back to the airport with plane tickets leading out of India.

So we dove headlong into the morass of Delhi which in 1991 was a gigantic clusterphuck of black air and raw sewage. We were seasoned travelers at this point, but India hit us like an Ali upper cut. We got ripped off by rickshaw drivers who wouldn’t take us where we wanted to go – only to discover that no hotel would take us without our passports. We also discovered that we needed our passports to do things like change money and buy airplane tickets. It was the single most maddening day of panic-stricken travel I can remember. Eventually we were able to convince people that the receipt we had for our passports, along with drivers’ licenses and even amusement park IDs were all we could show them. We were able to change money, buy two tickets to Nepal and crash in one of the sleaziest dive hotels either of us had ever stayed in.

Paharganj area of Delhi circa 1991. 

Our flight left at 8 a.m. which meant we had to leave the crash pad by 5. By the time we hopped our rickshaw, I was working on 40 hours with no sleep and was doing my best just to keep an eye on our gear. We made it to passport control, where miraculously our passports were waiting for us. We showed them our tickets to Nepal (which still requires no advance visa) and we made our flight.

Lifting out of the quagmire of 1990s urban India into the gracious hands of the Kathmandu Valley was one of the greatest two-hour transitions I’ve ever made. The Himalayas were screaming at us while the noise and chaos of Delhi was replaced by a slow paced, almost over-friendly vibe. People weren’t trying to rip us off; they were actually trying to help us. We gave directions from our Lonely Planet book to a rickshaw driver – and he took us right there!!!

Our two weeks in Nepal bring back nothing but memories that were both peaceful and stunning. We saw Mount Everest; we rafted the Tsuli River; we spent 8 hours riding on top of a bus to Pokhara and even did a mini trek to see the 24,000 ft. Annapurna mountain god, Machipuchare – which today remains the most stunning sight I’ve ever seen in my life.

Annapurna 1: 26,545 ft. 

Machapuchare. Yes, it is a real mountain. 

I’ve got a lot of amazing memories in the bank to override just about any amount of negativity that 2016 Nepal could throw at me. But wow, has it ever been tested. The population of Kathmandu in 1991 was around a half a million people. Now it has ballooned to close to three and one half million. I live next to the ancient city of Bhaktapur. In 1991, that was a nice afternoon’s mountain bike ride through flowing green terrace farms. Now it’s straight shot on a four-lane highway with houses and business lining the road the entire way. 

Sunny day in the Kathmandu Valley.

With that level of growth comes a nearly intolerable level of air pollution as well as traffic jams that can crush the spirit. There are water shortages and my house only gets about an hour of electricity a day. There is Wi-Fi at the house, but it’s rarely functional and when it is, I think I could manually type letters faster than individual bytes are downloaded. There is a gas shortage that has kicked the price of taxis to nearly western standards. It cost me $20 US to ride 8 miles into the center and back. It was $10 before the gas crisis, probably $2 in 1991. I’ve got no TV and although my phone works, the podcasts and tunes I listen to before going to bed are way too phat to stream.

Much of this inconvenience is due, not to the recent earthquake, but to the fuel embargo which is blamed on both the Indian government and separatist protests by the Madheshi people who live in the territory on the Indian border south of Kathmandu – and are supported by the Indian government. Both groups claim innocence, but fuel is pricey and lines outside of gas stations can run a kilometer.

There’s also the issue of being disabled in a country that has nearly no disability infrastructure. I can’t hop a bus. Sidewalks, if they exist, have no curb cuts. All the ATMs, which are my only access to cash, are placed on top of steps.  I have no access to any business above the ground floor. I haven’t seen a structure with an elevator, and in a country where electricity is a luxury, you wouldn’t catch me in one if it existed. Oddly enough, the earthquake damage that I feared before I arrived hasn’t even entered into the picture.  

So one might ask the question: Why the hell am I living here? The answer lies in the amazing people I work with at the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Center. 

Who you will all get to meet in due time…

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Running the Gamut of Planes, Trains and Wheelchairs

In a short 5-day span I’ve gone from the most accessible city in the world (Portland, Ore.) to the least, Kathmandu, Nepal. And in between I spent my time in Holland which scores a solid accessibility “B.”  

Getting on an airplane when your legs don’t work can be a real pain if the people working the plane don’t know what they’re doing. But the folks at PDX have it down. I have to transfer into a small aisle chair where they strap me in and roll me right to my seat. I unclip the straps transfer over and I’m good to go. 15 years ago, I had to teach nearly every flight attendant how to use this gear properly, but now most of the PDX crew have it down.

Transferring in San Francisco was just as easy as they are also old hands at this process. I’ve come to expect this in the States, and these days I’m rarely disappointed. But once you leave the U.S., you’re in for a different story.

My first international transfer was in Munich. The Lufthansa crew didn’t exactly know what they were doing, and they put me in a transit elevator instead of letting me just get in my chair and ride up the runway like everyone else. The transit elevator is one of those bulky 20-wheeled contraptions that you’ll see only on an airport tarmac. It was designed to carry disabled people as awkwardly and uncomfortably as possible to the gate, where they are escorted to an elevator that lifts you to the same line with everyone else. Every worker outside of the U.S. will immediately grab the back of your chair and start pushing you whether you want them to or not.

This does not qualify you to operate an aisle chair!

When I got to my Amsterdam flight they had an aisle chair, but it had no straps on it. I was forced to hold my legs together and balance on a 10” seat using butt muscles that haven’t worked since the Clinton administration. There were two attendants, one hauling the aisle chair backwards through the plane and another trying to hold my arms together so that they wouldn’t hit the seats – ignoring the fact that the whole time I’m slipping off the chair. I got to my seat and prayed that my chair would be at the gate at Schiphol.

The Dutch did not have straps on their chair, but their attendant realized that it was better to hold my knees together than grab my elbows. My chair was sitting right at the edge of the plane so I easily popped in and rolled what seemed like 15 miles to the baggage carousels. Once through customs, I rolled a bit further to find myself at the Schiphol rail station – located inside the airport.

This, of course is wildly convenient, except for the fact that the attendant at the help desk told me in no uncertain terms that I was not allowed on the train without a lift and the lifts must be ordered 24-hours in advance. That policy is wildly discriminatory but before I had a chance to point that out, he went on a diatribe of how rude it was for me to put him out like that – after all he was going to have to take one of his workers off the ticket line (It was 10 o’clock and the ticket lines were empty) and have them go down to the track with me and work the lift. I was just about to let him know a thing or two about inconvenience, but then I noticed that although his mouth was flapping, the process was, in fact, taking place.  I also noticed that when the lift operator arrived, they had no problem. The help desk guy kept complaining to himself long after I was out of earshot. He was just a complainer.
The Dutch rail system actually does like a notice, but it’s only an hour, not a full day. The lift is actually just a folding ramp that takes little more than 20 seconds to get in place and deploy. I took a dozen more trains throughout my stay and never once had a problem. Every time I had to transfer, the lift was waiting for me.

Holland has a fleet of zippy intercity trains that are all accessible. 

I was based in Den Haag with my old friend Maaike and she lived just off of one of the new completely accessible local tram lines. They are super easy to use, relatively cheap and 100% accessible. The only problem is there is still a large system of non-accessible trams in Den Haag. Had I been staying along one of those lines, it would have resulted in some hefty cab fares.

After just a few short days, I was off again, this time into the realm of zero-disability awareness. I said goodbye to my cushy Dutch fantasy land and headed for an 18-hour layover in Istanbul.  For the past 10 years, it seems that every time I travel to Asia, I’m spending time in the Istanbul airport. The airport’s great - it’s just that if I get a room in Istanbul, there is no way I’ll be able to get into the bathroom.

I didn’t get any sleep on my red-eye, so I opted to run into town and crash at a cheap dive for the day. The only place I could find on short notice had three big steps at the entrance and a bathroom door as wide as home plate. The way I get around this is to squeeze a small chair into the bathroom and transfer to it through the bathroom door. From there I hop around on it as if I were a hostage tied to it. Provided the legs don’t split (they have in the past!) I can usually bump my way to the sink, toilet and even the shower if I’m lucky.

I was so bagged that I never even made it out of the hotel. I just watched Al Jazeera News and caught a few episodes of Fargo on Netflix. Once back at the airport, I had the last hamburger I’m sure I’ll see in a long time and sucked down another episode of Fargo, assuming (correctly) I would not see good Internet connection the rest of the trip.

Istanbul Transit Board

Eventually it was time for my flight and they ushered me to a disability transfer lounge. Before I made the switch to the aisle chair, I asked again if my chair was marked so it would meet me at the airplane and not go through to baggage. They assured me it would. I asked them if any of them would like to place a wager on that. I had no takers.

The final leg of the trip was an 8-hour flight straight east to Kathmandu. As far as disability goes, Turkish airlines is the worst I’ve ever been on. One time they refused to board me without having a doctor ride with me. Fortunately for me, I was going to a medical convention and one of the doctors on the flight recognized me from our website. I was told I had a window seat, but when they rolled me on the plane, they stuck me on an inside aisle – because they thought it would be easier for me. Of course, they would know what’s best for me as I am a feeble-minded man in a wheelchair.
Most of the big airlines have aisle chairs on board so people in chairs can use the bathroom on long-haul flights. No such luck with Turkish Air, but I came prepared. I waited for the cabin lights to go down, pulled a blanket over my lap and peed in a bottle.

Eight hours later the plane flew past the Himalayas on a scorching sunny day – something I could barely make out from my aisle seat. As the plane emptied out I was waiting for a flight attendant to tell me my chair was waiting at the door. Instead, one of them looked at me curiously and asked why I wasn’t leaving.

“Do you not remember that I had to be carried on?” I asked. Now in America they would admit their mistake and do their best to correct it. But this is Asia where saving face is a way of life. The attendant smiled and walked away – and I never saw her again. Instead another woman came and said that they would be with me momentarily. 55 minutes later, they finally arrived with the most poorly designed aisle chair I’ve ever seen. The foot plate stuck out so far that it was impossible for me to transfer from my seat to the aisle chair. I had to throw myself about a foot backwards and the two attendants grabbed my arms and pulled me onto the chair.

My fellow disabled passengers on the Kathmandu flight. 

In America this is where they strap you in as if you were Hannibal Lecter. But this device had no straps. I had to grab my legs in a tuck and lean back while the attendant bounced me through the plane crashing into every fourth seat. Eventually we made it to another giant elevator truck, which was sorely lacking in my personal wheelchair.

“Where is my wheelchair?” I asked. The attendant confidently responded in a tone insinuating he had it all covered, “We have this chair.” In the past I’ve put up a major stink when this happens. Not only am I sincerely pissed, but I usually weasel out an upgrade or a meal voucher out of it. But seeing as this was my last flight, I wasn’t getting anywhere. I just sat on the rolling stool teed up like a golf ball.

The elevator truck dropped us down to the tarmac where I held on for dear life as I was rolled through a maze of planes and airport vehicles and into the customs line. The attendant was not only pushing me, he was also hauling my backpack and a super-heavy bag containing my computer and camera equipment. When we got in line, he left me there to fill out forms and set my bags down next to a doorway where anyone could just pick them up and walk. Losing either one of them would have disastrous effects.

With one eye on my out-of-reach bags and another filling out my visa form, I waited impatiently for him to return. Luckily, they let me skip to the head of the line, most likely because the guy was sick of dealing with me.  Finally, with my visa was stamped, I was rolled into the baggage hall and sitting very lonely up against a big pillar was my wheelchair. I’ve never been happier in my life to see that thing. I transferred into it, did a couple of spins and wheelies, collected my bags then headed immediately towards the bathroom with the attendant following me yelling something in Nepali. By the time I was done, he was gone and I never saw him again. I picked up my big bag, bungied it to my feet then wheeled out to meet my driver from the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Center. I survived the five flights it took to get me to Kathmandu, but wrestling with disability issues in this town had just begun. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Time Travel

I just woke up in a very small hotel room in a modern suburb of Istanbul. I landed at Ataturk Airport this morning at 04:30 and was told by Turkish Air that since my flight to Kathmandu doesn't leave until midnight tonight, I have the right to a free hotel room for the day. I just had to wait until 10:00 for them to clear a room. At 08:00 I went to the desk to ask them if I could go to the hotel to wait  because the airport wifi signal was too weak. The Turkish Air hostess looked at my boarding pass and said, "You are leaving tonight. No need for hotel."  I should have struck while the iron was hot.

But having slept at the Istanbul airport twice before, I decided I'd rather try my luck finding a super cheap room to chill out until my flight leaves. I went to the hotel desk at the airport and asked them if they knew a cheap hotel where I could crash for the day. The man at the desk was very polite and told me I could get a room for 100 Euros. I raised my eye (which is tough because it's black from a dance floor incident 10 days ago) and said, "Does it look like I have 100 Euros for a room?"

The man sized me up, looked around to see if there were any superiors around, then jotted down a phone number on a piece of paper. "Give this to a taxi driver," he said, "Tell them to call the number and take you there. Hotel and Taxi should cost you about $40 U.S." Now that's what I'm talkin' about!

So with sleep in my eyes and a congested nose from the horribly polluted skies of industrial Istanbul, I am opening up the Captain Crip blog which has been dormant for most of the past 5 years. And it's a great time to start writing again, because I have,  indeed,  discovered the secret of time travel.

I'm a big fan of Morgan Freeman's Science Channel show, Through the Wormhole. It's an awesome show that breaks down very complicated subjects in physics (quantum mechanics, dark matter etc.) and explains them graphically to lay people. One subject that has taken up several episodes is time travel. Einstein proved that traveling forward in time is easy as long as you get your giddyup on and approach the speed of light. Actually even the astronauts will jump ahead a millisecond or so when they reach the speeds it takes to leave the atmosphere.

But the real nugget is traveling backwards in time. A Swiss physicist, Prof. Nicholas Gesan (sp?) claims that by the process of quantum non-locality, a weird proven fact that photons can appear in two different places at the same time, has discovered that he can actually make the same photon appear in the same place at two DIFFERENT times - one just nano seconds before the other. From this he extrapolated that in the far distant future with computers getting faster and faster, eventually we could conceivably build a time machine that goes backwards. The only caveat is that you couldn't go any further backwards than the date the machine was built..

This week I figured out how to do that. You simply travel to Holland - provided you turned your time travel machine on many years earlier and have 40 years of patience to make it work. I got on my time travel machine (a Lufthansa airbus) and after 20 hours or so, I found myself in Den Haag, Holland. I went outside the station and patiently waited until my friend Maaike Leeuwenburgh, whom I hadn't seen in 27 years, popped up from around the corner. She gave me a big hug and a kiss, and threw me in her car. It's just that easy. 1) Turn on your time machine. 2) Have the sense to make really awesome choices in who you hang out with (optional, but highly recommended). 3) Remember where they are. 4) Let decades pass. 5) Go where they are.

Works like a charm. If the person isn't a tool, you just simply pick up where you left off and get going on new adventures. Maaike and I used to work as circus clowns and acrobats in the late 80s and as it turns out, no matter what kind of serious crap we've done with our lives, we have pretty much remained circus clowns and acrobats.

Although Maaike would be my keystone for the week, I still had more time travel to do. Two days later I got on another time travel portal (they're all over the frickin' place - you just have to know what's at the other end) and 90 minutes later found myself in Harderwijk, an old North Sea port town that, because of sea reclamation, is actually is no longer on the North Sea. I lived there in 1987 with a most amazing woman and just like that, she appeared at the end of the time portal and, just like Maaike, greeted me with a hug and a kiss.

Linda was one of the great loves and my life, but for one reason or another (mostly we were too young and lived on different continents) had to break things off. While my time machine tends to age my skin and physique, hers some how does not. She looks exactly as she did in 1987 - in fact now she appears even younger, if that's possible. She'd gone through a lot of soul searching over the past few years and with the grace of long solitary walks, has correctly decided that she is a most incredible mother, businesswoman (she runs her own clothing shop) and friend. Her face glows with a confidence that neither one of us had back when we were together.

I had lunch with her two sons then strolled along the medieval  city walls visiting old haunts and talking about friends past. I know some people who still live there, but I am no longer in contact with anyone except Linda. She also is not in contact with anyone I know. She is my only friend on Facebook with whom I have no other friends. But none of that seems to matter. We just walk and talk like we used to and tell each other about where our lives are going. We finished off the afternoon with a couple of drinks at Nikki's Inn, the local pub where we first met. She walked me back to my time machine and then with a hug and a kiss, we moved back towards our secular lives.

The next day I returned to the Den Haag Zentrum and had a rendez-vous with Doug Siglin, a friend of my Portland Adidas days. I'd seen him within the year just before he moved to Rotterdam to live with his girlfriend.  It was a strikingly sunny day so we meandered through the busy market streets of Den Haag and settled at an outdoor pub. There is nothing better in the world that sitting at an outdoor cafe in Holland to take in the free freak show that undoubtedly will pass by. From the outside it seemed like a pedestrian day (lit & fig!), but as I told Doug before we split, it's days like these that will give us the biggest smiles when we're on our death beds.

Later that evening, I found another time portal which was actually just a subway stop one kilometer from Maaike's apartment. There I ran into Dr. Wessel Zimmerman, who for one short year was my college diving team mate. Wessel was one of the best divers in the history of Holland and came to the University of Illinois, sight unseen, because my coach Fred Newport COLD CALLED him from Champaign.

Wessel ended up being an NCAA All-American and a cum laude graduate, but not of Illinois, rather Nebraska where he transferred after a tumultuous freshman season. But more important than that he returned to Holland and became one of the top Sports Medicine doctors in the country. He works for the military and helps soldiers put their lives back together after years of rigorous military training. He also developed some of the most successful beginning diving programs in the world and may have the biggest library of diving literature on Earth (> 400 titles).

This is where my time machine had to do it's heaviest lifting as we hadn't seen each other since 1983. Thanks to Facebook (which is quite crucial in the operation of my time machine) we hooked up again and I just figured it was time we get together. He brought his son to dinner who is also a crack drummer so I, of course, set him straight on rock and roll (I know NOTHING about drumming).

It's actually a bit scary using the time machine like that because you really have no idea who you're going to see at the other end. This is where rule No. 2 (Have the sense to make really awesome choices in who you hang out with) becomes quite crucial. If you stick with that principal you have much less to worry about when using the time machine. In this case, I couldn't have been more correct. Wessel Zimmerman, as it turns out, is still a really awesome choice.

The gas on my time machine was running thin, but I still had one more run to make. I had to visit two old friends whom I hadn't seen in quit a while. One was the city of Amsterdam. Unlike other major cities, Amsterdam is a living organism. The buildings move around at night and actually end up hugging each other during the day. Construction is not a thriving business in Amsterdam, because the buildings themselves mate and create their own offspring. Amsterdam swallowed me up in 1985 as if it were  a Borg Collective and I willingly accepted capture. I happily return to the mother ship from time to time to check in. We were very happy to see each other again.

And out from the middle of that organic stew, came one Daniel Bodner, I've actually known longer than the other participants in my time travel. We were distant friends in high school, but as my younger brothers began playing music, Dan's brother, Jon was always the drummer. Even though we only get to play once every few years, he's still the drummer. Through Jon and several other friends, I've gotten to know Dan over the years. We discovered that he moved to Holland the same year I moved away and that's why we'd never hooked up there before.

The difference is that Dan never left. Dan is a successful artist and has had lofts and studios all over Amsterdam for  more than 30 years. His partner, Robin, lives in Manhattan, so he's got a foot in each continent. But his talents were obviously much more useful to the Amsterdam Borg, so he's been kept on. We had a tremendous Indian dinner, warming my stomach up for the subcontinent, then stopped off at a local coffee shop.

Even though Oregon now has legal weed, I've been quite a slacker on the pot smoking front and have rarely taken advantage of the privilege. But when in Amsterdam...  do as the Romans do.  In short time I was spiced out of my gourd and in full paranoid blaze - much like I was on my first trip on New Year's Eve in 1985/6.  I was spaced out, got lost and, at one point, forgot who I was talking to. We strolled around his neighborhood until I had a paranoid delusion that I was late for the last train back to Den Haag. I wasn't late and it wasn't the last train either. But we rushed over to Centraal Station and, after sprinting after one train, easily made the next. Total amateur hour on my part. Thank god there was a sane experienced local to straighten my act out and get me on the train.

But now the gas in my time-travel machine read empty and it was time to cruise. Maaike and I spent so much time together that we are no longer old friends talking about war stories, but fresh new buds - actually more a brother and sister combo. One great thing about the sport of diving is that we train with the opposite sex. I often visit my old teammates and it doesn't matter whether it's a man or a woman. I love them all - we're just teammates and  friends. Very few sports have that kind of male/female camaraderie. And sure, I guess that leads to quite a bit of diver mating, but what the hell - We did a lot of sit ups so we get first choice!

After using my time machine to see five old friends (one from high school, one from college, one from my high diving days, one from my life in Holland and one from my days in Oregon at Adidas) it's time to tuck the time machine away and start re-charging the batteries. As odd as this seems, I'm sitting in a tiny hotel room, with no chance of getting into the bathroom, in an Islamic neighborhood in a city that's not sure if it's Asia or Europe - and I've never felt more at home. That just means that it's time for adventures again.

Captain Crip has officially re-opened.