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 9, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool # 7: Club Moses Swimming Pool and Party Palace, Jorpati, Nepal

Upon first report, anyone who lands on the Subcontinent will loudly and graphically detail the absolute and total filth of the environment. The streets are lined with trash; riverbanks are coated with rotting waste and the air quality is below that of the grandstands of the old Winston Cup stock car races where cigarettes were distributed freely to all spectators.

When I first arrived in India in 1991, I was so shocked at the chaotic waves of grunge, I feared leaving my guest house as I might catch whatever disease it was that made people behave this way in the first place. At that point I had traveled to more than 40 countries, but Delhi wretched me like no other place on Earth. I was afraid to drink bottled water so the mere mention of a swimming pool would send me to convulsions. 

The one place I found solace was Kathmandu. In 1991 Kathmandu was the glorious Shangri La of legend. It was a city of half-million people rolling though exotic market places on single-gear bicycles and rickshaws. As the morning fog lifted, the biggest mountains in the world peeked out over the valley walls and sat like gods watching the drones in their ant-farm. There weren't any swimming pools at that time, but I did manage a plunge into the Trishuli River during a rafting trip. I was careful not to take any of the water into my system and I dried off completely before touching any food or water. It wasn't the most pleasant of experiences, but after three subsequent trips to the region, it was the only time I'd ever swam in the Subcontinent. 

These were my thoughts as I swam my final laps last spring at the Osborne Aquatic Center before leaving on a four-month return journey to Kathmandu. By this time, swimming had so transformed my body and my life that I feared what would happen once it was gone. I Googled "Kathmandu Swimming Pools" and found an Olympic swimming complex on the south side of the city. Unfortunately, it was included in an article about the lasting effects of damage from the 2015 earthquake. When I left Oregon, I packed my suit and goggles, but I didn't think I'd be using them. 

When I deplaned in Kathmandu, I had to deal with the usual delays and unpreparedness that goes along with disability travel in poor countries. They don't know how to deal with it, and as I discovered throughout my stay, they simply don't care. There aren't enough paras and quads traveling for them to purchase the necessary equipment or even make an honest effort. You are greeted as a pain-in-the-ass and treated as such until they can pour you into a cab and get you out of their space. 

To my great shock and horror, over the past 25 years, the glorious mystical-mountain capitol of Kathmandu had turned into the wretched hell-hole of 1990s Delhi. The air was a caustic mixture of factory soot and unfiltered auto emissions. The sides of the roads were a mosaic of water bottles,  plastic wrappers and rotting foodstuffs. In short, the city, now seven times larger than it was when I left, had been destroyed. And this had nothing to do with the earthquake. They had done a marvelous job in rebuilding and I was hard-pressed to find any evidence of it. This had to do with pure human greed and neglect. I put aside any wishes of finding a swimming pool. I found my new home, went to my new job and tried to rebuild my image of Kathmandu. 

Although Kathmandu was shrouded in a veil of pollution, the old spirit of those cyclists and rickshaw drivers was still there. My co-workers were the most friendly people I've ever met and, even though I was working in a spinal cord hospital with grim situations all around me, the mood could not have been more positive. People worked hard and got stuff done, but we spent most of the day going from one laughing room to the next. 

One day, one of my favorite co-workers, a 30-something para named Sonika Dhakal asked me if I was a swimmer. I told her I would love to go swimming, but I heard the Olympic Pool was broken. She told me there were plenty of other pools and she was on the Nepal Paralympic Swim team! Naturally I was stunned at this revelation and she showed me some YouTube videos of her winning the national championships. 

"Where is that pool!" I asked. 

"It's in Jorpati!" she said. "We'll go this weekend!" 

Jorpati is a neighborhood in northeast Kathmandu that houses hundreds of handicapped people. I'd been spending most of my weekends there playing wheelchair basketball or working on video projects. When I packed my bag for the weekend, for the first time, I tossed in my suit and goggles - both of which had been dry for two months. 

I met Sonkia in Jorpati and followed her just a kilometer down the road to the outdoor, surprisingly pristine, Club Moses Swimming Pool and Party Palace. Aside from one step up to the ticket window and another to the pool it was basically accessible. The locker rooms and toilets were on different floors and had tiny entrances, but I'd assumed that from the get go. There were about 50 people milling about the 6-lane 25-meter pool, but nobody was going in. I asked Sonika why nobody was swimming and she said it was too cold. It was 75 degrees out. That was fine for me. 

I stripped down to my suit, pulled on my goggles and asked a lifeguard to hold my chair. The gutters in the pool were deep and wide making it really hard to get my chair close. But with a little bit of coaxing, the guard positioned my chair and I flopped in. I hadn't been submerged for so long I forgot how good it felt. I did some underwater stretching and came up to discover everyone on the pool deck staring at me. Some looked like they were ready to jump in after me, while others were asking me if I needed help getting out. I politely shrugged them away, then started in on my first mile in months. 

As I was swimming I felt a bit like Esther Williams. Everybody on the pool deck had their eyes glued to me. Some of them even cheered. They assumed I'd do a few laps and get out, but as I kept swimming lap after lap they eventually got bored and jumped in. There were no lane markers in the pool and there was also no recognition I was actually trying to work out. I kept swimming laps among cannonballs, pool stunts and new swimmers who were basically drowning. I thought it would be polite to take the far lane and just plod along, but very few of these people knew how to swim, so they needed the edge of the pool. I ended up creating a path right though the center of the pool and knocked out my mile as if I'd never been away. 

Getting out was extremely difficult as there was no lift. I hoisted myself up on the edge, but had to slid my hips over the wide drain on the side of the pool. It wasn't just wide, it was also sharp. I cut my foot trying to get to some pool furniture. I hoisted myself up on the lounge chair, then was able to prop my butt onto my wheelchair and push myself aboard. 

Again, everyone at the pool was watching my every mood. Sonika, who had swum a brief workout, came over and said, "Tom - why you swim so long?" This question was coming from their reigning national Paralympic Champion. It was a really confusing response which brings us to 

Pool # 8: Sherpa Party Palace and Pool, Kathmandu

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