Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Simply the Worst Flight Ever

I’ve been road tripping for most of my adult life and I have to challenge anyone to come up with a worse travel day than my recent Portland, OR to Kayseri, Turkey flight. If you are currently staring in the National Geographic series, ‘Locked Up Abroad’, you may have had worse days, but aside from that – I think I’ve got you beat.

It all started relatively well as I woke up in my friend Bill’s house at 5:00 a.m. without even using an alarm. I groggily bungied my bag to my chair and made it out the door to the Portland light-rail train. As the train pulled into the airport I couldn’t believe how smoothly things had gone. Just three days earlier I was forced to drive up to Seattle to wrestle my passport out of the hands of a bungled rush-order passport operation. They said my passport photo was 1/8 of an inch too small. The only way I could get it was to take new photos, drive seven hours out of my way, sit in their line and walk out of their office with the passport in hand. Stunningly enough, when I got the new passport, I discovered they had attached a scanned copy of my photo, not the actual pictures I’d had taken at Kinkos. They could have scanned the originals, enlarged them 5% and saved me the two days. But that headache was gone. This trip was gonna be fun.

Nonetheless, I made my 7:45 a.m. flight and was on my way to Newark for the first leg of a 4-flight, 20-plus hour travel day to Kayseri, deep in the center of ancient Anatolia. I was going there to present my communication plan for the future of the International Rehabilitation Forum, a group of doctors headed by my brother Andy who deal with rehab medicine in third world settings. Ten days earlier I didn’t even think I was going, but when the call came to hop on a plane, I was on it.

It was a cloudy day in the Northwest so only the tips of the biggest Cascade and Rocky mountains snuk above the cloud cover. I’m always game for a nice ride over the great American West, but seeing as I was in for a marathon travel day, I was just as happy to slide back and catch a couple of z’s on route.

The six-hour flight was harmless enough and two hours later, I was giddy with the fact that I’d made my transfer and was on a cross-Atlantic flight to Rome. Whereas missing a connection is a rarity for an able bodied traveller, it is a common threat to a crip. We are always the first ones on the plane and the last ones off. In order to get us to our seat, we are strapped onto a thin aisle chair and carted down the walkway in the same fashion that Hannibal Lector was transported in Silence of the Lambs. If one of these aisle chairs is waiting at the terminal upon arrival, I have a decent chance of making my flight. If the aisle chair is a half mile away, I have to sprint like crazy to make my flight. But in this scenario, the chair was there and I even had time for a slice of NYC pizza.

The long haul to Rome was again eventless as the same pack of clouds that had been following me since Portland was still below me. As the sun rose following a three-hour night, I was not greeted by the shores of France, but the same collection of non-descript fluffy white teasers. The plane was flying directly over Marseilles, Corsica, Sardinia and Tuscany, but I was watching marshmellows. Annoying, but typical; nothing to lose my socks over… yet…

The transition in Rome was typically Italian. Whenever I’m strapped onto the aisle chairs in the states, the attendants make sure every strap is fastened and every belt is firmly connected to the chair. Once a guy in Cincinnati pulled out an instruction manual to make sure I was properly loaded (yes, I did miss my connection that day). But here in Italy I bounced on the chair, the AlItalia worker shrugged his shoulders and pushed me through the aisle with me holding my knees together and balancing on the chair while the belts hung loosely below, clanking against the seats. I’m not sure how the quads feel about it, but I’ll take the Italian method any day. Once back in my normal chair, I was accompanied the entire way by a cute Italian woman who didn’t speak a word of English. In U.S. airports, I’m almost always left to my own devices, but in European airports I am always escorted. The first time it happened I found it was annoying, but I quickly discovered that along with the escort comes the line-skipping at customs and security checks. They also take me right to my next gate and push me to the front of the line at check in. I know I don’t need it, but after missing as many flights as I have, I just let them do their job.

As I was waiting for the plane to Istanbul I made my first mistake. I took out 80 Euros at and ATM. I didn’t think twice about it, but in just a few hours that was to be my undoing. At this point I’d been travelling for 18 hours and had only caught a few hours of sleep. My head was nodding and the realization that I still had at least five more hours to go was weighing heavy. Once again I was strapped onto an aisle chair, tossed into the plane and tried to get some shut eye.

And this is where things started to get annoying. There was a mess up at the airport and I was stuck in the plane, on the tarmac for over an hour. This being my third flight of the day, I developed a little headache. The odds of me catching my connecting flight in Istanbul were shrinking which meant a possible five hour layover before my final flight. Finally the plane lifts off the tarmac and for the first time since leaving Portland, the skies clear and I am witness to some of the most famous real estate in the world. The plane swings down the Mediterranean and swoops over the boot just North of Mt. Vesuvius. The organic Italian country side morphs into villages and vineyards as we cross the boot and witness sleepy port towns along the Adriatic. The plane hits land over Albania and wisps along the Aegean coast until the church steeples of Greece are replaced by the prayer turrets of Turkey. Before long I see the Bosphorus and the traffic-clogged streets of Istanbul. I know I should have been sleeping, but who can pass up sights like that?

I’m just one leg short of getting to Kayseri with no major mishaps, but my luck has just run flat to zero. This time when I am strapped into the tiny aisle chair I am met at the gate, not by my chair, but by an Ataturk Airport guide with a nurse-pusher wheelchair. Since I can’t go to the bathroom on the plane, the first thing I always do upon deplaning is hop in my chair and roll to the nearest toilet. This was not an option with a Turkish woman pushing me, and me having no say in where I was going. Nobody within earshot spoke any English or French so my protestations made me appear to be not only paralysed but mentally ill.

I am rolled over to Turkish customs where I hand my passport to the officer who stares me down and demands to know where my visa is. I was told U.S. citizens didn’t need a visa, but when I inform him of this he slams my passport down and in a perfect Soup Nazi voice he screams at the airport guide to fix the problem. The guide takes my passport and tells me to give her 20 Euros. I hand her the bills and she disappears with my passport and my money. I sit motionless in front of the Soup Nazi who keeps staring me down as travellers from all over the world pass by, assuming I’m at best a smuggler but probably a terrorist.

Ten minutes go by and the woman arrives with a visa stamped in my brand new passport. The Soup Nazi grudgingly lets me pass and I am whirled down to baggage claim where I have to pick up my bag before transferring over to the domestic terminal and the final flight of this never-ending ordeal. I’m also told that I will be reunited with my chair which will in-turn allow me to say good bye to my ever increasing supply of urine. Since everyone in my flight is long gone, my bag is the lone article on the carrousel. Good luck, one would think, except for the fact that my chair is nowhere in sight. My Turkish hosts, who now number three don’t see the problem as they are more than willing to cart me around the airport for as long as it takes. But there’s no way I’m going any further without my chair. The odds of it showing up in Kayseri without it showing up first in Istanbul are nil and there’s no way I’m going to try to tackle a Middle Eastern city without my chair.

When I put the brakes on the nurse-pusher chair and refuse to move, they get the idea that I want my own wheelchair. Two of them run behind the magic baggage claim curtain and ten minutes later, they come zipping out with my chair which had been tagged for the far-off land of Portland, Oregon. With that crisis over, I strap my bag to my feet and roll as fast as I can to the domestic terminal hoping beyond hope that my flight to Kayseri was delayed.

It was not. So now after travelling for 22 hours, I am faced with a five-hour layover. The patience for this voyage is just about empty. Aaaahh, but that’s when they get ya! I rolled up to a Turkish Airlines check-in, show them my ticket and explain that I need to get onto the later flight. The man behind the desk looks at my printout and says, ‘This flight has left. You must get new ticket.’

He sends me over to a ticket window where I show them my paper and ask for a new ticket. The man behind the window pounds on his keyboard for ten minutes then hands me my new seat assignment and says, ‘158 Turkish Lira, Please ($140 US).’ I chuckle at the miscommunication and say, ‘No,no - I’ve already bought the ticket, this is just for the new flight.’ He’s not chuckling, ‘158 Turkish Lira, you must buy new ticket.’

Obviously this guy isn’t getting the situation so I ask for the manager. The manager comes over, looks at the situation then says in perfect English, ‘You missed your flight. Now you have to buy a new ticket. 158 Turkish Lira, please.’

At this point I am ready to blow up. I tell them that no airline in the world behaves like this. I was detained by airlines. This is not in anyway my fault. I have a perfectly good ticket in my hands…

‘158 Turkish Lira.’ he says (note, no ‘please’ this time).

I decide that I’m in no position to argue and I’m on the other side of the world and they’ve got me by the short and curlies so I pull out my Visa card and slap it on the counter. The ticket agent runs the card and, of course, it is declined.

I’ve had this card since 1994 and it has never been declined and I even got a brand new one just a month before taking off because the magnetic stripe failed on me once and how awful would that be to find myself in say, Turkey, without my card.

They run the card again. Declined. My friendly credit union in Portland has decided that there’s no way I could be in Rome pulling out Euros so they cancelled my card. Even though I’ve used this card in more than 20 countries since I’ve been a member. I pull out my wad of Euros and discover that after cashing them in I will be 10 Turkish Lira short of the ticket. I put the bills on the counter, they do some math and come back saying, ’10 more Lira.’ Again, I pull out my printout and start yelling, ‘Look! this is a perfectly good ticket! I’m only 10 freaking Lira short of buying another ticket! I’ve been in the air for a day already and now you are stranding me for 10 freaking Lira!’

‘NEXT!’ he shouts (this guy has the Soup Nazi down pat!) and I am pushed aside.

At this point I roll back from the counter and collect my assets. I’m in Istanbul, a city I spent four days in 22 years ago and have absolutely no contacts whatsoever. My cell phone does not work here. I have 70 Euros and a worthless credit card and nowhere to go and somewhere to be. This is not stacking up well on my side. I’ve also been travelling for so long and passing through so many time zones that my body has absolutely no clue as to whether it is tired or dead or getting some kind of weird adrenalin buzz from the whole thing.

Just then another Turkish Airline worker asks to see my ticket and says, ‘I can get you on the 5:30 flight. I’ll put you on standby and if there’s room, I’ll put you on.’

Holy crap! I’m on! My troubles are over! I knew the Turks were a hospitable lot! I just had to find the right one! The ordeal with the baggage and the ticket had taken so long that my plane was boarding in only three hours. I parked next to his counter, pulled out my book and tried to make those three hours disappear. I needed a good eight hours of sleep at this point, but it wasn’t coming now. I was staying awake until I was on that plane.

Eventually the time passed. There were three open seats on the flight and I stepped up to claim one of them. My friendly Turkish Airline rep tagged my bag, and printed out a boarding card. Then he asked to see my passport and ticket printout. I showed them to him with my eyes wide open and my lips sporting a purely ecstatic grin. I might even get to Kayseri in time to have a drink with Andy who has been in town for two days already. Anatolia here I come!

Then the Turkish Air worker responds, ‘Mr. Haig, this is an old ticket – you must buy a new one.’ My face turns crestfallen, my energy level turns a sour shade of green and I emotionally collapse. ‘I have paid already!’

But my friendly Turkish Air worker misunderstood what he overheard. He thought I just wanted to get onto an overbooked flight. He hadn’t heard the real problem. He pulls my bag off the conveyor and says there is one more flight – at 11:45 if I can come up with the cash.

If only I’d brought my guitar I could set up on the sidewalk and surely I could make 10 Lira in six hours. What if I sang A cappella? What if I just sat out there looking crippled and defeated? Maybe if I ripped my clothes and rubbed dirt on my face – I’m sure I had the right expression to pull it off?

When I looked up from my quandary I saw a row of card phones mounted to the wall. I saw an airport sign that read, ‘Post Office’ so I rolled over and bought a phone card. I could reach high enough to put the card in the phone and touch the numbers, but I couldn’t read the instruction screen. After about a dozen tries of various card insertions and number combinations I was able to call my brother, Bagus in Denver. I told him how screwed I was and he set out to call Turkish Air and buy me the new ticket. We decided I should hang up and call back in a half an hour. It was about an hour later when I finally got a hold of him again, but he said he couldn’t buy the ticket without showing his card in person. The Turkish Air on-line sales system is a pitiful excuse for ecommerce, but I was just hoping he could find his way through it. I told him I’d call back and I thought of another option.

During my wait, I’d called my sister, Sue, in Oregon and left her a message saying I was stranded. When I finally got her live, she had already found the phone number for my bank in Portland. She’d already figured out that they cancelled my card after the withdrawal in Rome. Luckily, by this time my bank was open and, after pushing five option buttons, I finally got a live voice. I must have sounded like someone trying to rob a bank over the phone, but they finally got the message that it was actually me and I was actually in Istanbul. They opened up my card and 10 minutes later I was rushing to the ticket window with 200 Lira.

I slapped down my cash and everyone in the office seemed genuinely happy that I had solved my problem and I was going to make my final flight. I rolled over to the counter with my new ticket and presented it to the very first agent I’d seen. He smiled, tagged my bag, cranked out my boarding card and then said, ‘Now Mr. Haig, who are you travelling with?’

‘Nobody,’ I said, ‘I’ve been here all day by myself – don’t you think I would have gotten the money from a friend if I had one?’

‘I’m sorry, Mr. Haig,’ he said, ‘but we simply cannot let you travel on Turkish Air by yourself. What if you get sick? How will you go to the bathroom? A man in your condition can only travel with a doctor.’

‘That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard!’ I said. ‘I’ve been travelling for 12 years in a wheelchair and nobody has ever refused me before. I’ve been travelling for 24 hours TODAY! This is crazy!’

And once again, I was staring down a Turkish Airlines employee who was holding all the cards. Except one. I had my boarding pass. I rolled away from the counter, rolled out of his sight, then dashed over to the customs maze and crossed over without him seeing me. I still had two hours to kill and I was feeling the thrill of victory so I found a faux British Pub and settled into a pint of the Islamic world’s finest brew, Efes.

One pint led to three pints at which point I discovered a German couple, heading to Kayseri on the same flight. I explained my situation to them and they, being equally outraged, agreed to adopt me for the flight. Then I did Turkish Air one better. Evran, a German doctor who spoke fluent Turkish and was on his way to the conference, spotted me in the line and recognized me from my picture on the conference website. Evran became my new best friend, and we went down the runway to the plane together.

Instead of waiting for Turkish Air employees to get me on the plane, Evran held my chair as I pulled off the wheels and he rolled me on my small front wheels to the front row. I hopped in the first seat, buckled in and nobody ever questioned us. The chair went under the plane and at Midnight, Istanbul time, 30 hours after I’d left Bill’s house in Portland, I was on my final flight.

The beers and fatigue put me out and I woke up as the plane was floating over Kayseri. I was told someone from the conference was going to meet me at the airport, but seeing as it was 2:30 in the morning and I saw no sign in the small provincial airport, I just grabbed a cab and landed at our hotel. 33 hours door to door – the last ten of which were hell.

Five hours later I woke up and found Andy and my nephew Will on their way to breakfast. They were the most welcome site I’ve ever had in my life. While at breakfast I overheard two doctors talking about their travel horrors. One of them was simply beside himself: There was nobody at the airport to greet him! Can you imagine the outrage!


  1. Hi,

    I am glad you made it to Kayseri at the end but you should definitely write to Turkish Airlines and explain the situation.

    I am trying to put up a website about people's experiences in Turkey. www.iwasinturkey.com

    Would you be interested in publishing this article on my site with a referral back to your blog.

    Let me know what you think.
    You can reach me via info@iwasinturkey.com


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