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, May 24, 2016

Road Trip!!

11 weeks after landing in Kathmandu, I finally left the valley. Well, that’s not entirely true – the SIRC is actually one hill outside of the Kathmandu Valley. It’s definitely a god-send to be able to work in the countryside, rather than the soot and dust-filled city, but it’s just a few miles from my home, so it doesn’t seem like I’ve gone anywhere.

The little day-trip roadie just 25 km west of the city turned into an epic adventure that had all the plusses and minuses of Nepal wrapped into a 13-hour package. The trip was organized by Woo Suk Junk (Sook), a project manager for the Korea Spinal Cord Injury Association (KSCIA). Koreans are all over Nepal working on any number of development projects ranging from road and hospital building to financing the new handicapped table tennis center in Jorpati.

A month earlier, I worked briefly with a Korean film team who was shooting the grand opening of the 2nd floor bathrooms at the SIRC, which were donated by the KSCIA. Nice though the bathrooms are, their main focus was filming the building of a wheelchair accessible home high above the Tsuli River just west of the city. They spent 10 days filming the disabled couple as friends and family worked to rebuild their old home that was destroyed by the earthquake. Unfortunately, the film budget ran out before the house was finished. My job was to shoot video of the finished project.

Suk had commandeered the SIRC’s Bolero four-wheel jeep for the day. I was showered and ready for a 7 a.m. pickup outside my house and was a bit taken aback when the driver who pulled up was Suman, the same driver who had rolled the SIRC bus over my left wheel. I was screaming mad that day, and though we’d buried the hatchet, I never really warmed up to the guy. But after just a few miles in the car, we were laughing at some idiot Nepali drivers and all the tension quickly melted away. By the end of the day we’d become road-warrior buddies.

Suman drove me though the back roads behind Kathmandu’s Tribuhavn airport and gave me a little tour of the neighborhoods where he grew up and still lives. He stopped off at his house and gave his wife a jug of fresh milk that he’d picked up at a local farm. The milk was still cow-body warm and it almost made me heave.

Suman - Nepal's King of the Road!
We skirted the airport and picked up Chetra, the third member of our crew, in Jorpati. Chetra is one of my favorite cats at the SIRC. He’s a PT who runs the super-busy wheelchair assembly and repair shop. We hit it off early on in my trip when I whipped out a tube of J-B Weld to repair the bus’s wheelchair ramp. He thought the stuff was amazing and made me promise to send him a dozen tubes when I got back to America. (We also used the same tube to repair my left wheel when Suman crushed it!). Chetra has the mindset of an engineer. He sees problems and fixes them. He’s also great at pranking people who deserve it.

Two miles later we came upon the Hotel Tibet, a high-end hotel just across the street from the world-famous Boudha Stupa (the one with the crazy eyes!). Suk popped in the car and handed us all water and bananas. The four of us were on an adventure and the longer the day got, the happier I became with each one of them.  

It was 9 o’clock by the time we scooped up Suk and we had to cross the entire city in heavy traffic. It took nearly an hour to reach the west end of the valley and I was really psyched to cross over the ridge and hit some open road.

But as we crested the summit to the outside world we came upon a sight that I’ve never seen before. From our vantage point we could see more than 6 miles of road twisting down into a valley and winding up the side of the next mountain. As far as the eye could see there was a line of Indian Tata trucks and busses stopped dead in their tracks. We still had clear road for a bit but as we drifted into the valley past thousands of bus passengers I wondered if I would ever make it home that night. Eventually our side of the two-lane highway became congested and we came to a dead halt.

See those dots way, way off in the distance - those are busses packed with people trying to get to where we were.
For the next two hours we proceeded at 100 meter stretches, interrupted by dead stops of up to a half hour. On the opposite side of the road the caravan only seemed to move once every four or five times we did. At one point, I looked at Chetra, who grew up in this region, and asked him if this was a fluke or normal.

“Not normal,” he said, “but not uncommon either.”

Just as noon approached we rid ourselves of traffic and Suman actually got the Bolero up to 50 miles an hour. I popped my head out the window and took in my first breaths of clean air since leaving the beach in Den Haag the first week of March. It was also the first time since my plane landed at the airport that I had traveled faster than 40 miles an hour. It’s very rare that you are ever out of traffic in Kathmandu.

The clouds were threatening, but they did open up from time to time to reveal villages climbing their way up the terrace-farmed mountains. The road hugged the Trisuli River much like the roads in the Oregon hug the streams of the Cascades. Although this was welcome scenery, it paled in comparison to the drunk-on-green rain-forests of Oregon. The biggest mountains in the world lay just beyond my reach, but I was homesick for the Pacific Northwest.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant that the three of them were very familiar with and we were greeted warmly by the cook and his wife. While the Nepalis all went for their standard rice and dal, I saw a plate of egg-fried rice on the menu and ordered up a big helping. While I never got sick of Indian food, Nepali food has gotten the best of me. Unlike Tibetan food, there’s a bit of a kick to it, but eating steamed white rice meal after meal is killing me. When I got home from Dharamsala, I wanted more Indian food. But now I’m just jonesing for a steak.

After lunch we jumped back into the rig and headed to the wheelchair house, a few clicks back in the direction of Kathmandu. Chetra pointed Suman into a small road that quickly turned into a rocky double track trail along the river floor. With no notice, Suman took a left and barreled right into the Trisuli which was only a tiny stream at his point. He crossed it while slyly looking over at me to see my expression. When he plowed out of the bank on the far side he looked at my dropped jaw and gave a nice hearty chuckle.

Then he motored over some rocks before finding the double track that led directly up the opposite side of the valley. As he powered up the trail the terrain switched from a full road, back to double track and at sometimes, huge ditches that somehow the Bolero managed to pass. All the while we were climbing higher and higher up the side of the mountain.

In no short order we were hovering above the valley on a road that looked like it could easily crumble into the Trisuli at any juncture. Suman was smiling ear to ear as he navigated us higher and higher until we came upon the farmstead that was our destination.

While I have been on more hair-raising drives in Northern India, this one is the craziest for one that was described to me as a "Wheelchair-Friendly" environment. 

When Suk described the house to me I understood it to be an accessible home along an accessible road. But this certainly was not the case. After we parked, I had to be pushed around to the back of the house where there was no accessible entry to any of the three structures. The ruins of the former house still sat in a pile of rubble just in front of the new two-room structure that did not yet have a roof. Chetra and Suman wheeled me down a steep path to the entrance way where we met the couple who would soon inhabit it. Chetra explained to me that one room was the kitchen while the other was the living quarters – and soon there would be a wall separating the toilet and shower.

At some point the ruin of the former house would be cleared and they would construct a ramp that would allow them to make it up to the main house. But the main house was easily 10 feet higher than the new structure. If a wheeler planned on making it on their own power, that would require at least 90 feet of ramp. Their certainly wasn’t room for more than a few dozen feet to work with. I imagine that they will build a super-steep ramp and the residents will have to rely on their family to push them in and out of their own home. The 12-1 ADA ramp standard is a pipe dream in Nepal.  The only thing accessible in this home will be the bathroom and more than likely they will not leave their property for years on end.

Soon to be a bedroom and an accessible bathroom. 
I set up my camera and filmed what I could, also doing interviews with Chetra and the woman of the house. As I moved around and set up new shots, Suk whispered in my ear, “This place isn’t close to being finished. Go ahead and film, but the crew needs shots of the finished house.” Aside from the amazing scenery and the crazy drive, for his purposes, the trip was a bust.

We sipped tea and took photos (Every day is picture day in Nepal!) then piled back in the Bolero for the roller coaster ride back to the main road. The decent was twice as hairy as the climb, but Suman seemed to grin even wider. It occurred to me as he tested the edges of the road – and even had to back up for 100 yards -  that he might be the best damn driver in Kathmandu.

It was just around 3 when we got to the scene of the traffic nightmare, but miraculously it had cleared up. There were a few disabled vehicles that were causing the snarl and once they were removed, the train eventually pulled out of the valley. What took us two hours to clear in the morning was silenced in less than 20 minutes.

The Trisuli River Valley is much nicer when not lined with exhaust dumping Tatas.
But this time as we crested the ridge and looked over Kathmandu we saw storm clouds and traffic backing up in all directions. The four of us had been in excellent spirits even though the nasty traffic outside the valley, but this latest slowdown began to wear on us. I put my head down and kipped off for a half an hour only to wake to the same scenery as when I crashed.  

We had to cross all of Kathmandu in heavy traffic to drop off Suk and Chetra. I texted Sangita my house mom and told her I’d be home by 5. When 5 o’clock came and we hadn’t even seen Jorpati, I texted her again and said it would be closer to 7. This whole time Suman, who suffered through the first traffic jam was now into nearly 5 hours of driving only in first and second gear. After we dropped off Suk at the Hotel Tibet he looked at me, rubbed his leg and said, “This is torture – I haven’t seen 4th gear in hours.”

Suman navigated more than five hours of this on the day
After dropping off Chetra and plowing through the back roads to Suryabinayak (which thank god were open) I finally made it home. My phone read 7:05. Aside from lunch at the short stop at the house, Suman had been driving since 5:30 that morning – and still had 20 more minutes before he got home.   I told Suman he was Superman. He laughed and said “Superman is not going to work tomorrow.”

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Captain Crip Extra: Fair Warning to Dog Murderers

A harrowing event at work unfolded when I was rolling up the ramps to the top floor of the SIRC. A 35 lb. short-haired yellow mutt had wandered onto the roof and two complete meatbrains were chasing it away with sticks.   The dog found the ramp down and was on its' way towards me when one of the dufi hurled a shovel at it from above trying to kill it. The pooch freaks out, and thinking  the assault is coming from below, reverses course and unwisely bolted back towards the roof.

I immediately go ape shit on these assholes, grabbing one of them and screaming that if he ever assaults a dog again, I'm going to throw him off the roof. He laughs at me and tells me the dog is a killer who has bitten many people. I look over at the freaked out pooch, who is wearing a collar, and scream at the dotard,  “That’s somebody's pet you jackass!”

Meanwhile the pooch, who has been badly injured in what appears to be an attack from another dog, is running for its life and panting so hard, I thought it was going to have a heart attack. I went to my work room; the pooch runs right in behind me and looks at me as if to say, “Can you believe this shit?”

I reach under his chin and give him a few scratches and he looks back at me saying, “Dude, get me the hell out of here.”

I look back at the brain-dead pair and said, “Sure thing - killer dog! Bites people. You fucking idiots!”

One of my co-workers, who I play guitar with, comes on the scene and I ask him if he can find me a rope. Meanwhile the dog is licking me and just dying to have me get him passed the two crap-for-soul idiots. The guitar player comes back with some electrical cord which I tie to his collar before walking the dog out of the madness. The dog heels perfectly as I navigate the four 100-ft long ramps to the ground floor. I lead him out the door and let him loose, but he looks back at me, still wildly panting and says, “Man, I’m hurtin’ here. Can you spill me some water?”

So I go to the cafeteria where I meet my P.A. Rownika  who is also a dog lover. She gets a bowl, we fill it up with water and she (knowing the cooks won’t be happy if we let the dog drink out of a human bowl) pours water into her cupped hands for the pooch who laps it up like a four-year-old going after an ice cream cone.

We walk the pooch out of the compound, untie the leash and let it on it’s way. Rownika goes to a local bodega and buys him some biscuits, but he just wants to boogie on home. Luckily the neighborhood dogs know Rownika does this from time to time, so they cuddled up to her and munched the package.

But here’s fair warning to ANYONE ON THIS PLANET. If you throw a shovel at a dog, I will throw it back at you. If I miss, I will pick it up and throw it again and again until I cause damage. 

Nepali Disabled Sports

As of last Saturday, I have been hired as personal coach for the Nepalese entrant in the 100-meter freestyle and 100-meter breast stroke at the Rio Paralympics. I got this prestigious job while swimming with one of Nepal’s Paralympians last Saturday at a pool high above Kathmandu. While this sounds quite prestigious there is no money, no trip to Rio and, in fact, I actually have to pay to enter the pool. The swimmer in question has also never really worked out and isn’t quite sure how either stroke works. She saw me chugging out my weekly 1650 and asked for help.

Champions will train in this pool!

Although there are exceptions, this is how Nepalese disability sport works. The roads are so torn up and congested in this country that there really is no place for a hand cyclist or a chair rider to train. It’s quite similar to how my dad explained how the track team at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee worked in the 50s: “For practice we ran around the block. Then on Friday there were track meets.”

There also is very little quality gear to use. A few weeks back I was in a 5K race, but nobody had anything resembling a racing chair. The winner just pumped their super-heavy iron daily rides through the course, hit the tape, then piled into cabs or vans and went home. In rich countries everyone shows up in their daily ride, then transfers into a slick racing chair or an 18-speed hand cycle. When I train for a race, I will put on thousands of miles on perfect roads or trails and be in tip top condition for the start. In Nepal you go with what momma gave you.

(Full wrap up of the 5K Race)

One of my co-workers, Rishi Ram Dhakal is the current president of the Nepal Spinal Cord Injury Sports Association (NSCISA). As in all things political in Nepal there is a split in the disability sports community. The NSCISA offers competitions to spinal cord injured athletes in swimming, track & field, basketball, table tennis, cricket and chess. They’ve even dabbled in water polo. They started offering national championships in 2010 and fielded Nepal’s first wheelchair basketball and cricket teams the same year.  On the other hand, the Nepal Paralympic Committee runs swimming, track and power lifting competitions for all disabled athletes  – and has tickets to Rio.

There are also other sports organizations than run competitions, like the 5K race which was run by the Nepal Healthcare Equipment Development Commission. If you are looking to this post to sort it out, you might as well stop right here, because I have no idea how any of it works.

But I’ve been able to attend one track and field event, a few basketball practices, two swimming workouts and the opening of the National Table Tennis center. I’ve also participated in some schoolyard cricket and volleyball.

Women are an integral part of Nepali disabled sports
From what I can tell the basketball team and the table tennis federation have the best facilities and equipment. They are the best trained and most successful athletes. The basketball teams are sponsored by the Danish Disabled Sports Association and there are ten brand new basketball chairs so players don’t have to destroy their daily chairs. They took 2nd in the subcontinent games in 2013. 

There are outdoor ping pong tables all over Nepal so it’s a very popular sport. There is no difference in equipment or rules from able body ping pong so it makes sense that it’s thriving. As a weird Nepal coincidence (they happen all the time here) the former national table tennis champion owns a sports and music shop in my town, Suryabinayak. He sold me my two guitars the first week I was in town and I hadn’t seen him since. When I was playing piano at the Table Tennis Center opening (many miles from Suryabinayak) he came up to the stage and enthusiastically greeted me. I meet tons of people here so I just waved and kept playing. It wasn’t until I sat down for the presentation that my friend re-introduced us. I nearly shat my pants when I figured it out.

Me, Deepak K.C., the architect of the new table tennis center, and Ram, the former national champ and the guy who sold me my guitars!

Wrap up of opening of the National Disabled Table Tennis Center

But, when I say best-trained, it’s not like any of these athletes are well-trained at all. A US Olympian will usually spend 40-50 hours a week doing something with their sport. These athletes are lucky if they can spend 5-10 hours training.

But what they lack in sophistication, they more than make up in team spirit and inclusion. If there is a sporting event, you can bank on at least 100 persons with disability showing up to participate or watch. Aside from protest marches they appear to be the major social functions of the disability community. And it’s really great to see women participating in all sports and being championed by the media just as much as their male counterparts. It’s also a place where caste and disability level are uniformly ignored.

Not only are Nepali disabled athletes participants, they are also crazy cricket fans!

So you won’t be seeing any Nepalese athletes taking home any medals in Rio, but look out for a strong showing from that Table Tennis team in 2020!

Monday, May 2, 2016

Newari Wedding Season!

If you’ve ever lived abroad, you get a feeling a few months into the trip that you’re actually getting used to the place and it’s not freaking you out every day. Nothing will shatter that delusion faster than attending a wedding in your new country.

I’ve been to several weddings outside of the U.S. but none of them are like our U.S. bacchanaliae. When I lived in Taiwan in 1987 I went to a wedding at a huge banquet hall. The place was packed and as noisy as a boxing match. The bride, groom and their parents were busy doing something at the front of the room while everyone else was yukking it up with ample servings of rice wine. About an hour into it, the wedding party stood up, turned around and everyone applauded. I asked my friend Larry if they were about to start the ceremony. “No,” he said. “It’s all finished. Now it’s just a party.”

I went to a similar affair in Dubai except that the only women talking were the six synchronized swimmers on our team. All the other voices were from Arab males – all of whom were trying to chat up our six women. The Arab women were covered head to toe, but when one of our swimmers went into the bathroom she reported that underneath the burka, the women had more makeup on than she used for her swimming routines.

I went to a blowout of a wedding in France, which was much like an American wedding except when it came to the groom removing the bride’s garter belt. When this happens all the men go to one side of the room and all the women go to the other. The men throw money in the center to have the groom raise the belt higher and the women throw money in to have it lowered. The couple cleared close to $500 US from this stunt.

But I have NEVER been to anything quite like a Newari wedding. It’s so complicated that the woman who invited me – who was the sister of the bride – had no idea what was going on most of the time.

And it took a LONG time.

Early morning cake ceremony - with only the bride present from the main wedding party. 
I was told to arrive at 9 a.m., but when I got there the ceremony had already begun. The wedding was being held in a banquet hall that consisted of two 2500 ft. square rooms. One room was for rituals and the other was for eating. The father of the bride is a patient at SIRC and his daughter, Rownika is my volunteer production assistant. I rolled into the room to see Rownika’s sister cutting up a piece of wedding cake and taking a bite. I wondered how much I’d missed – and I wondered where Rownika was. One would think the bride’s sister would be around for such events, but she was nowhere to be seen.

After the cake cutting was done we were ushered into the dining hall for breakfast. I sat with a table of people who spoke no English, so I wasn’t getting any good information on the day’s schedule. I finished the meal and out of the corner of my eye, saw Rownika dash by. I caught up to her and after telling her she looked absolutely stunning (she should have posed for bridesmaid magazine), I asked her what was going on? How did she miss the cake cutting ceremony?

Selfie with Rownika - I'm just not used to keeping such good company. 

Rownika informed me that this was the first of a dozen rituals that would take place throughout the day. Traditionally these rituals took place over a four day period, but the modern ceremony crams them all into one day. At first I thought four-days was pretty extreme until I remembered that U.S. weddings usually take place over a three-day span; bachelor/bachelorette party, rehearsal & dinner and finally the wedding and the reception.

The big difference is that these rituals are solemn religious ceremonies in which neither the bride nor the groom smile.  They wear sad faces as a sign of respect to their families. They have to show sorrow for leaving their parents’ house, not happiness at starting a new life. This didn’t quite jive with anything I’ve ever thought of for a wedding. Which of course reminded me that without speaking any Nepali, I really don’t have a clue as to what is going on here. I just shoot film and hope for the best.

Catholics have water, wine and some bread. That's nothing compared to Newari weddings!
The rituals continued choreographed by either the priest, or the group of relatives saying good bye (brothers, uncles, aunts etc.). There were so many rituals that even Rownika had no idea what some of them were. There was the showering of fruit over the bride and groom; there was the blessing of money to be paid to the priest, there was the blessing of money given as wedding gifts, there was the blessing of the foods that were given as wedding presents, it went on and on.

Niwari culture is obsessed with food which is why the only appropriate wedding gift is food (well and cash, of course). 
One of Rownika's aunts showering the couple with fresh fruit. 
Rownika was quite busy, but I did manage to corner her from time to time to ask here some simple questions – none of which had simple answers. She kept on introducing me to her brothers and sisters until the list became way too long for just one family.

 “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” I asked. 

“Oh, it’s really just me and my two sisters,” she said. “But we consider all cousins as brothers and sisters.”

“Where is the groom’s mother?” I asked. “I met his father, but not her.”

“She is at home preparing the new house,” she said.

“Wait, she’s missing her own son’s wedding?” I asked. “I think my mom would bust into here with a gun if she couldn’t come!”

“Maybe, but that’s not our culture. Her job is to prepare the new home.”

At no time during the entire day was the group addressed as a whole. In fact, most of the rituals were only watched by 20 people, while the rest of the party was either in the dining room eating, or just sitting at other tables completely ignoring what was going on with the couple. Food was constantly being passed around the room, but this did not mean that the ceremonies didn’t stop for a full huge Nepali lunch.

Even with more than 100 in attendance, most rituals were only witnessed by at best a few dozen. 
After lunch the first sign of alcohol was introduced into the proceedings, but it was just a few small glasses of beer mixed in with the rest of the drinks being served. I grabbed one and it disappeared before I could even set it down. Then I looked around and noticed that I was one of three people out of about 100 who was drinking a beer. This was not the slop-fest that US weddings are known for.

Rownika getting blessed by her new brother-in-law after giving her wedding gift (which like everyone's gift - was CASH!)

The rituals continued for four more hours and although it never got boring, I stopped feeling compelled to jump in and see what was going on. I hung back with the cousins for a few of them and answered the same questions over and over again; I’m from America. I make videos for the SIRC. Yes, I met Rownika and her dad at the SIRC. Yes, I like Nepal quite a bit. No, I will not be staying here.

Die-hard Newari Packer fan. 

I started packing an inflatable globe a few years back and it has come in very handy on any number of occasions. Here it was a grand success as several of Rownika’s relatives have lived abroad. It also doubles as a beach ball to toss at kids who are bored out of their skull.  

Eventually the final rituals ended and the wedding party went outside for the thousands of pictures that needed to be taken. It was six o’clock and things were winding down so I asked Rownika where the after party would take place. She looked incredulously at me and said, “But we were at a party all day. Aren’t you tired?”

“Not really,” I said. “I just assumed there was a big party after all the rituals?”

“No, we’re all exhausted,” she said. “I just want to go home get out of this dress and go to bed (it was 6 o’clock!)”

The three sisters and Shrek. (bride is 2nd from right)

I assumed there would be a big long after party, but again, that’s what Americans do, not Newaris. I’d actually booked a room in Thamel assuming I’d be out past the 9 p.m. cab curfew when all fares double. Instead I grabbed a cab back to my room in Suryabinayak and actually made it home in time for supper. Having stuffed myself all day, I had no interest in anymore food – something that shocked my house parents.

“Tom you must be starving,” my house mom said, “It’s nearly 8 o’clock – you must eat!”
So no, I’m not exactly used to things here.