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.

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!

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