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, February 26, 2010

Could I Please Have a Normal Day?

Yesterday was a microcosm of this entire trip: awful and awesome intertwined in each other.

We had a day off because there was a ceremony at the Main Temple to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the 13th Dalai Lama’s exile to India, which most Tibetans consider their Independence Day. It’s tough to fathom a country celebrating Independence Day when they aren’t independent, but imagine if the U.S was taken over by Mexico. We’d still celebrate the Fourth of July and that’s exactly what the Tibetans were doing.

 Perfect day to hang out with a bunch of monks at the Main Temple.

One thing making my life difficult at the radio station is getting accurate information about anything connected with Tibet. Up until around the year 2000, the only way information was passed in the Tibetan community was by gossip. Any official proclamations coming out of the Government in Exile or the office of the Dalai Lama were useless, because the information was already widely known in the Tibetan community. Somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody at the office had already leaked the news to the community at large. Things like newspapers, the internet and radio have been greeted with a giant, ‘Duh’ by most Tibetans. They already know it.

Unfortunately if you are not in the loop, like all us Injies, information is difficult, vague or just plain wrong. Such was the case with this ceremony. Tibet TV announced the Dalai Lama would be back in time for the ceremony. He was not. Dalailama.com didn’t mention it at all, and Phayul.com, the most reliable news source, said there was a ceremony on Thursday morning – no time listed. But, duh, everybody knows those ceremonies start at 8:30 don’t they?

Being somewhat in the loop now because I work with Tibetans, I did actually know the ceremony started around 8:30 so I got my butt out of bed at 7:30, dressed and started the two-mile roll to the Main Temple. I always have to do the quarter-mile climb out of Bhagsu to start off, but this time it was significantly more difficult. There was a bit of moisture on the road, but otherwise it was sunny, so I didn’t know why I was so slow. After my right wheel hit my pad for the fourth time I realized the packed bearings that give my chair the quarter inch I need to keep them from hitting my chair had fallen out.

One of the biggest pains about having a driver is that they have to take my chair apart and put it together every time I get in or out of the car. The little ring bearing had gotten loose and, despite several attempts to secure it, kept popping out. Apparently on Wednesday night, my driver put the chair together not noticing the bearing popped out. HOPEFULLY that meant the bearing was still in the floor of the car, not over some 500 ft. ledge in the greater Dharamsala metroplex. Without that bearing, I can’t workout and I can’t drop hills in a wheelie. Basically I’m stuck in my room.

Eventually I made it to the Main Temple and embarrassingly took a push to get up the hill to the main level. I’d been there many times in 2000, but this was the first time I’d seen it in ten years. It’s a very plain-looking yellow structure with a big open courtyard for outdoor ceremonies. Since 2000 they’ve erected a steel infrastructure that can be covered in vinyl to keep rain out during the monsoon. For this ceremony only about a quarter of the courtyard was covered for those who need the shade. Otherwise it was a gorgeous day.

Monsoon be damned! We've got a big-ass tent!

Monks, nuns, school kids and the cream of Tibetan society filled the courtyard before a marching band in traditional costume lined a runway and led the procession of government officials onto the speakers’ platform. There were drums, flutes, bagpipes and singers, but no Dalai Lama. There may have been a dozen westerners in the crowd and I can guarantee all of them assumed His Holiness was on the docket. So much for being out of the loop.


Tibetans know how to throw a parade!

Nonetheless it was an impressive ceremony and they even fed rice and served butter tea to every single person in the crowd. Whenever the Dalai Lama speaks at the temple you can get small radios that broadcast English translations (or Chinese when the Taiwanese are in town). But since he was not speaking, this service wasn’t provided. The speeches were all in Tibetan so us whities looked around the courtyard and smiled. Just because we didn’t know what was going on didn’t mean we weren’t blown away by our surroundings.

The Stars and Stripes are nice and all, but that's a FLAG! And I'm pretty sure the State of Arizona copied it!

When the ceremony was over I had to swallow my pride and take a push up the steep hill back to the main market in McLeod. I’ve been up and down that road dozens of times and I never once have taken a push. I figure if the pilgrims can prostrate themselves around the Potola, I can bust my ass up that hill. But the extra friction my wheel put on the chair was too much. Every time I push up any hill here, strangers grab my handles and start pushing. I politely tell them I’m ‘training’ and they begrudgingly let go. Sometimes I have to stop the chair, turn around and insist they let go, but eventually they get the idea. This time I just let them push. I had no idea who was pushing until I got up to the top of the half-mile climb. Then I discovered it was an elderly monk. Yeeesh.

Back on flat ground, I went about town doing running some errands and talking with the random collection of friends I’ve made over the past three months. I was slowly making my way back to Bhagsu when I stumbled by Nick’s Italian Kitchen. Nick serves a killer breakfast and seeing as it was only 10 o’clock, I slid in for some cheesy eggs and hash browns.

I hoped my bearings were sitting in the back of the TCV SUV, but I had to make plans in case they weren’t there. After I ordered, I jumped out of my chair and pulled the wheels off so I could take pictures of both the good and the bad wheel. My friend, Ron in Corvallis, used to build chairs and he’s a witch when it comes to mechanical stuff. I figured that if I sent him a picture of the good bearing, he could run over to the handicap store in Portland, pick up a good set of bearings and mail them to a friend of brother Dan’s who is coming over in a few weeks. Unbelievably, when I pulled off the bad wheel, I discovered the bearing was there, only the driver had installed it on the outside of the wheel instead of the inside. It actually fits better on the outside of the wheel, it just doesn't function. I reassembled the wheel, hopped back in the chair and uttered a huge grunt of relief. Now I was only down to one bad wheel as my right front caster wheel was still broken off.

I’m quite mobile on three wheels, so after breakfast I rolled over to the Internet café and checked my email. I noticed that I hadn’t had any hits on the blog and that's when I discovered I’d been attacked by Chinese hackers. Anybody clicking on the latest post, which talked about the triumphant return of the Dalai Lama to Dharamsala, was greeted by a thousand duplicate windows opening up. Nice security Google! You let those arseholes hack into blogspot! When I went to my own website, www.thcommunications.com, I discovered that it too had been hacked and each page sent out waves of gibberish. (both fixed now) So much for my temporary good mood.

I logged off and headed back to Bhagsu but just before taking on the long climb I decided two weeks on three wheels was enough. I was waiting for a free car from the TCV, but my normal driver was on vacation and it wasn’t their problem anyway. It was mine. I turned around and headed to the cab stand to see how much it was going to run me to get to the gas-welding shop in Mataur, 33 kilometers away.

After a big of haggling and looking pathetic, I got the cab company down to a 700 Rs round trip. That was about 300 Rs less than I thought it would take so again, I was feeling pretty good. It was just after noon and by three o’clock I’d be back on four wheels busting up all the hills Dharamsala could throw at me. The other benefit is that as cool as McLeod Ganj is, it’s a tourist town and I really like going down to Kotwali Bazaar in Lower Dharamsala to see how normal Indians live. And this trip would take me 25 kilometers past that to the blue collar town of Mataur where the REAL Indians live.

Kotwali Bazaar is always buzzing. 

The driver was a great guy who spoke really good English. The night before the great Indian cricketer Sachin Tandulkar had the first one-day two-hundred run performance in the history of cricket. The entire country was giddy over it and the two of us talked about it all the way to Mataur. I couldn’t believe I remembered where the welding shop was, but my instincts pulled me through and before long we were parked in front of the shop and they were looking at my busted wheel post.

The welder asked to see the wheel and I told him it was in my bag. He dug around my bag, looked up and shrugged his shoulders. I shot him a puzzled stare then he passed me the bag. I dug through the bag and an awful realization hit me. Sometimes you have to go through a metal detector in order to gain entrance to the temple. Before leaving the Akash Deep six hours earlier, I took the wheel out of my bag for the first time since it broke.

FOK!!! FOK!!! FOK!!!

No matter where you are in the world, a machinist shop is still a machinist shop. 

I had no choice. We had to return all the way back to Bhagsu, get my wheel which was innocently sitting on my bed and drive back. An hour and a half later (and 700 additional rupees lighter), I found myself back at the Mataur welding shop.

Of course, this was no simple welding job. There was a small disc that cracked that held the entire wheel in place. The welder had to take the entire assembly off; reweld the disc; then reassemble everything. He also had to wait for all parts to cool before continuing on the next part. I thought I would be in and out in a half hour, but more than three hours later I was still looking at my chair in five parts.

Although in India, the girlie calendars are replaced by altars. 

Finally it was reassembled and, according to the welder, ‘stronger than when it was built!’ While the American health system thrives on ripping off the disadvantaged, in India that's some really bad Karma. The total price for three hours in the shop and a weld that nobody else in town could do: 50 Rs. ($1.05). I gave the guy a hundred note and refused to take his change. The driver not only waited for me, he helped hold the parts and put the chair back together. He told me on the way out (the first time!) that he had a baby at home and was glad he was going to make a quick day of it. It made me feel like crap when I opened up the empty bag.

In the end we got back to McLeod around 6:30. I had to make yet another stop at the ATM to pull out the 1500 I owed him for the ride. I hopped in my rig, back on four wheels, and felt solid for the first time in two weeks. I apologized for the delay and thanked him, but he was actually psyched to catch a nice payday – even if his wife called every half hour. He drove off to the cab station and I reached back in my bag to get my leather gloves which I'd also just had repaired.

They, of course, were left under the seat of the cab!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dharamsala Ready for a Grand Homecoming

These two monks came down from Manali for this week's festivities.

I’m sure it hasn’t been lost on all of you that His Holiness the Dalai Lama scored several big headlines last week. Up until a month ago, the word here was that HHDL would meet with President Obama sometime in September or October. He’d already scheduled a trip to the States to speak in California and Florida, and it appeared that his D.C. schedule was already booked.

But as the Government in Exile stole the headlines by sending an envoy to Bejing to restart talks, the real back channels were speaking to the White House to set up the Obama meeting. When the meeting was announced, the ambiance in Dharamsala was similar to being in Wisconsin the Monday morning after the Packers beat the Vikings. Everybody had a skip in their step; a smile on their face and sure, the kids got some soft serve at the McLeod bus stop too.

This was the most welcome sight in Dharamsala in almost 18 months.

The more the Chinese objected, the wider the grins on the monks’ faces grew. Last year when Obama blew off HHDL, it was a devastating blow to a community in post-Beijing Olympic depression. The year before the Olympics, Dharamsala was buzzing with energy as the Students for a Free Tibet and the International Committee for Tibet planned and brilliantly executed several non-violent protests that brought their cause to international front pages for the first time since the mid-90’s.

The world was on the side of the Tibetans, and the army of journalists flocking to Beijing weren’t fooled by the slickly-run games. The Chinese government made it worse when they restricted internet access and created off-limit zones. If this was the bold new China, the western journalists weren’t having any of it.

But just as soon as the games were over there was a huge US election and the only American foreign policy issues on the table were the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Once again, China had outlasted a Tibetan onslaught, and although world opinion was unanimously in favor of the Tibetans, a bubble had burst in Dharamsala. The expat NGO population in town dwindled and even the Tibetan activists were suffering from a lull in purpose. The Olympic activities could only be considered a success, nonetheless there weren’t any logs left to toss on the fire.
                                                                                                                                             Alice Walker
When the new American president who charged the world’s batteries with post-Bush optimism refused to meet with HHDL it sent Dharamsala into a deeper funk. Phuntosk Dorjee, the director of 90.4 Tashi Delek FM summed it up best when he questioned Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker during their Christmas Day interview. Dorjees question was:

“As a Tibetan we have enormous admiration for your writing, and we also know that you addressed President Obama in your open letter to him. Our people have huge expectations from the President of the United States, but lately the bilateral talks are more than the heart can bear. Can the President make a difference in reality knowing that the U.S. owes a big debt to the PRC.”

Walker’s response took over five minutes, but the pain in Dorjee’s voice over the disappointment was palpable. (www.tashidelekfm.com).

So you can understand why the town has gotten all giddy. Frst with the announcement of the meeting; then with the Chinese condemnation (falling during Losar); and finally with the White House telling the Chinese to piss off.

While HHDL is in the States meeting the President (and Larry King – Oprah must have been booked) and speaking on both coasts, Dharamsala is filling up with Tibetans awaiting his arrival in just a few days. HHDL is scheduled to arrive late Wednesday,  preside over a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the 13th Dalai Lama exile to India Thursday morning, then attend Government in Exile meetings for two days followed by a public teaching at the main temple on Sunday morning.

Next time you bitch about doing some business travel check out what the 75-year-old ‘simple monk’ did over the last few days: Dharamsala -> Delhi -> Washington DC -> Hollywood -> Ft. Lauderdale -> Boca Raton -> Delhi -> Dharamsala for four major days of talks.

Monks have been pouring in through the McLeod Ganj bus station all week long.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Did I Really Need a Two-Week Vacation?

As it turns out my two-day snow vacation turned into a very unexpected two-week work vacation. Had I known about it in advance I could have made something of it, but it all developed on a day to day basis. First the snow hit and that shut off the road to the studio for four days. The rest of Dharamsala was fine after two days, but the unpaved cliff-hanging road up to the studio is about 500 feet higher than McLeod Ganj. It’s also in a forest and gets no sun so it was probably the last road to clear in the entire city.

When it cleared, however, it was the beginning of Losar (Tibetan New Year - marked among other things, by putting up new prayer flags) and, like Christmas vacation in the States, nobody was doing squat at work. Then Losar finally hit and McLeod Ganj turned into a ghost town – at least as far as the Tibetans are concerned. The Dalai Lama said that in respect to those killed in China over the Olympic Games massacre, this Losar was to be a solemn, family affair, not a civic blowout like it is most years.


Even though it was a mellow Losar, McLeod Ganj is still a pretty special place to spend it. 

The shops closed for three days and the only Tibetans I saw in town were the local hotel owners who still had guests. But even those hotel restaurants were shut down. Luckily there are plenty of Indian business that never close so it actually made me go into some business that I hadn’t been into. I found many of the Indian shops to be much better stocked than their Tibetan counterparts.

The biggest example of this was the Indian pharmacy located 50 yards from the Snow Lion Medical Store, the only pharmacy I ever used in McLeod Ganj. The owner of the Snow Lion is an elderly Tibetan doctor who only opens up between 11:00 and 5:00 which means I can only get there on weekends. Almost every time I’ve asked for medicine or handicapped supplies he’s either told me I have to go to lower Dharamsala (300 Rs cab ride) or he’s bungled the order. He never told me there was a perfectly good pharmacy just off the McLeod bus station.

I stopped off at my favorite hole-in the-wall Indian fast-food place and asked the guy if he knew any place where I could get some gauze for my still-festering burn wound and he pointed me to the Indian pharmacy which was a bit hidden underneath one of the restaurants. I rolled in and found everything I needed, including antibiotics. It was all cheaper too. The free market has spoken and I’m now a connoisseur of Indian businesses!


Maybe TMI. But at least you can all see it's healing - albeit SLOWLY. 

Once the Tibetan shops opened up, I assumed we would go back to work, but that was not the case. The station manager wasn’t answering his phone and nobody was answering the station phone. The big boss spent Losar at a Tibetan settlement he helped create in Mongod in southern India (3-day bus/train ride each way!).

After 10 days of being shut out of work and the free internet & lunch that came with it, I finally got a call from the station manager who said he had two weddings to go to over the weekend and he wouldn’t be back in until Monday (today). At now I knew I didn’t have to be anywhere, so I tried to make the best of it and get some workouts in. And of course led to another meltdown.

Most of the roads in Dharamsala have been resurfaced since I was here in 2000, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been maintained. The worst example of this is the road connecting Bhagsu to McLeod Ganj. There’s a steep quarter-mile climb between the two villages and it’s a nice fun challenge. At the bottom of each side of the climb at the entrance to either town, the road is starting to crumble again. Busting up to the top of a climb is always the hard part, but the reward is dropping down the other side and picking up some good speed around the curves. I like it best when I’ve been honked at by an obnoxious driver on the way up and I’m passing them in traffic on the way down.

My chair has built in suspension and after 13 years of riding this bitch, I can control it like Korean video game champ. I'm always tweaking my big wheels, but I’d never thought one of the small caster wheels in front could crack off. I’ve had them break in half before and that’s a pretty easy replacement, even in India. But breaking right off the mounting is another situation and that requires another trip to my favorite aluminum welder who is 40-minutes away in Mataur. 


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

That’s a 1000 Rs ($22 – or the price of ten amazing Indian meals) cab ride, if I could actually find the shop again. There's no way I could so it would probably require an additional 1000 Rs while the cabbie and I drive all over paradise looking for the place. But the TCV is really good about such things so I decided to wait until I went back to work to see when they could swing a ride out there. So for the last six days I’ve been a three-wheeled bandit. The chair is amazingly balanced so I only feel it when I’m getting in or out. But one more nice hit on the existing caster would probably put me in the hospital again and leave me chairless until we got to the welder.

It would be really great if I could sit back in my room and watch the Olympics until the TCV opened up again, but since I wasn’t going to work on a daily basis, I also wasn’t going to the clinic either. I still had to change my leg bandage at least every other day which meant going into town for supplies as well as stopping off at the Delek Hospital Clinic, a small nursing station in McLeod Ganj. The nurses know me well and do a bang up job of changing my dressing, but they were gone for Losar and don’t work weekends. So for one reason or another, I had to bust into town every day to do something.

The chair and the leg wound appeared to handle it quite well, and I was even able to hit up an Internet café a few times (VERY slow connections) over the mini-break. On Friday I was getting low on funds so I went to the McLeod Ganj Bank of India ATM (still freaks me out that it exists) and tried to pull out 1000 Rs to keep me going until the end of the month. I slipped the card in and tried to pull out the grand when I got the infamous ‘Insufficient Funds’ message.

Last time I pulled out a grand there was plenty of Rupees in there, so this must be some glitch. I put the card back in and tried to pull out 500 Rs. Again, the I.F message appeared. I got plenty freaked out this time because I should have close to 20,000 Rs in there and they say I don’t even have 500. I also read last week that the Bank of the Punjab ATM near the TCV was ripped off by an ATM maintenance worker who somehow figured out how to get in and grab 500,000 Rs from it. (He turned himself in after realizing he was the only guy in Dharamsala who could have pulled off the job.)

I wasn’t sure if I’d been hoodwinked by Indian thieves or if somehow the bank had made a terrible mistake. But either way, I found myself in the Himalayas with less than two dollars to my name. I quickly went to the Internet Café and checked my account which was, in fact, down to two dollars. The only place that has access to my account is my car insurance company whom I pay online religiously each month. They had no records of any transactions within the last thirty days.

Instead of spending my last few dollars on FaceBook, I sent my brother, Dan, an email telling him I was screwed and asked him to contact my bank. Then I rolled back to Bhagsu and tried to watch the Olympics without freaking out on the fact that I didn’t even have enough money to pay for my bandages or antibiotics.

It took a day to sort it out, but the insurance company somehow decided I wanted to pay the entire 6-month bill and drained my bank account. I still have no idea why, but at least I know I don’t have to send them another payment until July. Brother Dan bailed me out until the end of the month and I breathed much easier.

The freakouts never seem to stop on this trip which is getting QUITE OLD. I hope this makes good reading for you all, cause I’m sick of it. 


Now THIS is how I anticipated spending weekends in McLeod! The two of us built up a nice crowd of about 50 people, but had to stop because we caused a traffic jam. 

Finally on my last day before going back to work, I had a most awesome and calm day carrying my guitar to a bunch of chai shaks and playing a ton of music. The temperature still drops to 32 at night, but during the day it’s a nice balmy 65. So here’s to more days like today and NO MORE FREAKOUTS!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I Missed My Home Olympics - AGAIN!

(Sorry for the lack of posts. I've been shut out of my office for nearly 10 days and the Internet connections in town are so slow that even blogspot doesn't load!)

I’m simply obsessed by the Olympics, but for some reason, I’ve done my best to avoid going to them. For the second time in my life, the Olympics are taking place in my home territory, and I’m 12,000 miles away.

In 1992 the Winter Games were held in Albertville, France just an hour away from Les Avenieres, France where I had spent the better part of four years. One of the French families that adopted our team of acrobats was from Albertville and I’d spent tons of time there on bike trips and hiking adventures. The summer before the games I tried as hard as I could to score a job as a translator or English guide, but my skills weren’t exactly unique. In order to work legally as a foreigner in France you had to prove that you were not taking the job of a French person. There wasn’t anybody lining up to light themselves on fire and jump off high dive ladders, so my job there was safe. But just being English-French bilingual wasn’t getting me past the visa office.

So as Albertville was putting the finishing touches on what would prove to be an amazing Olympic games, I was on a plane for – you guessed it – India. By the time the games took place I was living in a hotel on Darling Harbour in Sydney where I’d scored another diving gig. The gig didn’t pay very well, but we only had to work weekends which left me with hours a day to ride my bike and, of course watch the Olympics.

When I say ‘hours a day’ I’m not exaggerating a bit. When the Olympics are on, I’m watching them. I watch pool matches of games I don’t understand between countries I’ve never been to or couldn’t care less about. I watch the quarterfinal rounds of the 10,000 meter runs and 1650 swims. During the Beijing games when I was unemployed I was rotating between six NBC stations and even caught a few soccer matches on Univision.

So, of course, when it was announced that Vancouver, just six hours north of Portland, won the rights to host the 2010 games, I jumped out of my chair and did a set of virtual back flips. This time there’s no way I was missing it. One of my best friends lives in Vancouver, I’d been there plenty of times and I’d even skied Whistler mountain, the home of the Alpine skiing events.

Ever since the ’72 games when Marathoner Frank Shorter became my biggest sports hero, I’ve been nurturing a passion for the Olympics and now finally there was no way I would ever miss it. I’ve been lucky enough to go to Final Fours, a World Series Game, a pair of World Cup Soccer Finals and a dozen stages of the Tour de France. Seeing as I don’t believe the NFL actually exists outside of my television set, college football has no legitimate championship and the NBA doesn’t differentiate between the regular season and the playoffs, the big feather remaining in my sporting cap was a trip to the Olympics. And this one was a shoe-in.

My biggest interview score as a TV reporter in Pullman, WA was with John Furlong, the head of the Vancouver Olympic Committee. He was in town to round up student volunteers and give a presentation at the Cougar Rec Center. We set up our cameras; I miked him up and did a five-minute interview on what kind of help he was looking for as well as how he got involved in the games. The interview went smoothly and we scooped the local NBC station. Their reporter was a 25-year-old kid who never watched much of the Olympics. He had no idea that the competition had a full-fledged Olympic idiot on the mic.

Vancouver OC CEO, John Furlong

After the interview I handed Mr. Furlong my resume and told him I would quit school on the spot and follow him back to Vancouver if there was a job for me. But getting a job in Canada was the same problem as getting a job in France. Just because I was a foaming-at-the-mouth Olympic fanatic with a couple job skills didn’t mean there weren’t 50,000 Canadians with the same qualifications. And besides, all the paying gigs were already filled. He told me I should contact some of the sponsors, like maybe ADIDAS! (ugh.)

So working at the games didn’t look likely but that didn’t matter. I was going even if that meant sleeping in my van – which I do all the time when I road trip anyway. Even as I took off for this very trip that I’m on right now, I was plotting with my friend Jeff to score tickets and make the road trip. We were sitting at a sports bar with his girlfriend, Diane, who grew up in Vancouver. She said we were more than welcome at her house and that her Polish mother would smother us with food while we were there. So as I left Portland for Charlottesville, Virginia and the Washington D.C. Marathon, I fully expected to be on my way back in a few weeks to start hunting down tickets.

Somehow along the way East, I got rerouted and yesterday morning I flipped on the television set to watch the opening ceremonies – taking place 12,000 miles away. Fortunately ESPN/Star Sports in India is broadcasting four hours live/day which means I’ll be getting up at 5:00 a.m. for the next two weeks. I’m actually pretty surprised they’re giving it that much coverage since they only have a handful of athletes at the games and no contenders. The only sports that matter here are Cricket, Soccer, Field Hockey, Golf and Tennis – oh, and oddly enough, rifle shooting since they’ve won a few Olympic medals. Their entire Winter Olympic team consists of Indians living abroad. Their biggest threat is luger, Shiva Keshavan, who is hoping to crack the top twenty.

But with the influx of new cash in India, that will surely change. Directly behind me are thousands of square miles of potential downhill slopes and only one ski resort (in Minali). Himachal Pradesh is exploding with tourism and the jock market hasn’t even kicked in yet. It won’t be long before the infrastructure improves and a few more of these towns will turn into ski villages.

Manali Olympics - 2038!!

In the meantime, I’ll be happy with my four hours of Olympics per day – as opposed to the dozen I would probably log in the U.S. But knowing the power in Bhagsu will surely go out at some point, I’ve already braced myself for the fact that Lindsay Vonn will be just about to win the women’s downhill on her propped up leg and the screen will go black.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Out in the Cold Rain and Snow

(Thanks to all of you who emailed wondering where I was. We had a nasty snow/ice/wind/thunderstorm and I haven't been able to get access since Monday)

Ever since I’ve come to India two months ago I’ve had nothing short of hall-of-fame weather. There was one day of rain in Delhi and one day of rain in Dharamsala. Period.

Aside from that it’s been sunny and relatively warm. Most days it floats up around 60, but I work in a cement box with windows facing away from the sun, so I’m cold most of the day. We’ve got a propane heater at the studio that keeps us around 60, provided people aren’t coming in and out. I get home around 6:30, just as the sun is setting and the temp usually drops to freezing. I’ve got two big blankets and the  infamous Chinese heater keeping my room right about 60 degrees.

The weather's been pretty much like this ever since I arrived.
In my pre-accident days, I liked keeping the room temp low, but ever since I cracked my back, my natural thermostat has gone haywire. If there’s no sun, I’m pretty much shaking unless the temperature is above 75. At work I’m always in a sweatshirt and winter hat and at night I’m either under my covers or hovering dangerously close to the heater which, after my burn, sits above the skin I can’t feel.

On my days off, I wait for the sun to warm up Dharamsala and I head out for a push to McLeod Ganj. The sun has been so consistent and spectacular I don’t even wear a sweatshirt. (I’ve got it in my bag for when I go inside, where it’s always freezing.) The buildings here are either cement or brick with no insulation. The locals all seem to worship the cold and keep the doors and windows open no matter how cold it is outside. The door to my guest house, for instance, stays wide open until 11:00 at night. I have a screen window to my bathroom that has no glass option. Seeing as my bathroom door was removed so I could wheel in, I’ve got an open window at all times. There’s a red felt curtain that keeps some of the cold out, but until the front door is closed, there’s a nasty draft in the room.

So during the work week I’m pretty much chilled all the time and on the weekends I bask in the sun until I can’t stand it.

Until this weekend when, for the first time, we got a dose of rain. Saturday morning I smelled the rain a few hours before a dark cloud drifted up the valley and we were privy to a sprinkle. It smelled great, but rain here means the cow-monkey-dog poop soup can get on my wheels, my hands, and through the process of the catheter, directly into an inner organ. So I don’t go out in the rain if I don’t have to.

When the rain comes McLeod Ganj can turn into a swamp.

Sunday morning the rain went from drizzle to constant stream followed by intermittent downpour. I rolled out of bed up to the open front door of the Akash Deep and was chilled like a banquet jello. I returned to my room, turned on the Chinese heater, jumped under the covers and flipped on one of the eight English TV channels.

HBO India was playing the Schwarzenegger Rambo counter, Collateral Damage. Watching TV in India is kind of like eating camping food. When you’re at home you rarely go digging around for white beans and rice or chocolate, graham cracker, marshmallow treats. But out on the mountain, it’s a feast. If I were in the States with TIVO and 200 channels to choose from, I never would have stopped the zapper at a Schwarzenegger flick. In India it was that or reruns of cancelled American sit coms (was David Spade in every sit com last decade?).

As it turns out, it’s not such a bad flick so I settled in to watch Arnold running around Columbia trying to catch the drug lords who killed his wife and kids. I got about an hour into the flick before I remembered the golden rule of TV watching in India: Never get attatched to what you’re watching; the power can go out at any moment. Which of course it did.

I should have known that a fresh downpour would lead to a power outage, but seeing as we’d had so few power breaks in the span of nice weather, I forgot that it could happen. I was told by the owner of the Akash Deep that the power grid in Dharamsala had improved over the past several years. Seeing as this was my first movie harshout of the trip, I was inclined to agree.

I assume Arnold got his killers, but it would have been nice to see. About two hours later, after I’d exhausted a long set of tunes on the guitar, the power popped back on and I settled in to a series of English Premier League Soccer Matches. Between the Indian and English channels there were three matches so I could randomly switch between them and not get really attached to any of them. I’d learned my lesson from Arnold. I caught three goals, but none of the finishes as again, the power went out.

As the day grew, the rain increased, the temperature dropped and my boredom level ramped up. This was my precious day off and I was wasting it like a slacker home on Christmas break. I went to the restaurant and pretended I was being social, although I didn’t speak to anyone but the waiter. I stretched out my egg-fried rice and newspaper for 90 minutes, when finally the cold from the open front door was too much and I returned to my cocoon.

After some BBC, CNN and Cricket highlights it was time for the Sunday movie of the week which was The Wrestler, a flick I’d missed on it’s original run. I watched the grotesquely disfigured, but excellent acting Mickey Rourke make a shambles of his life until again about 90 minutes into it: Power Failure.

This power failure, however was a black out leaving me in the dark with the warmth of the Chinese heater fading with every second. My mom sent me away with a hand-crank lamp which I wound up, hoping it would give off enough light to read by. My brother Dan sent me off with Sun Tzu’s The Art of War which kept me both entertained and enlightened for a half hour until my nose started to freeze off.

Just then the lights, heater and TV flashed on and I saw the Wrestler at some sleazy strip bar hitting on Marissa Tomei. As I was putting together the missing plot pieces, a massive lightening strike shot through the valley, rocked the building and zapped out the power again. Outside my door I could hear a half-dozen Indian tourists yelling at the top of their voices for candles, blankets and anything else they hadn’t brought with them. Between the lightening strikes, thunder bangs, window shaking and Hindi yelling, I was fairly entertained. I managed to fall asleep just in time for the second power tease of the night. This one lasted less than a minute, but managed to jolt my adrenalin enough to keep me staring into dark space for the next two hours.

The power stayed off all night and I woke up shivering to the continuation of the downpour. For eight weeks I’d woken up to bright sunshine, but for the second day in a row I was afraid to get out from under my covers.

But it was a work day, so if I got up and brushed my teeth the reward would be a trip to the office with a back up generator and that propane heater. I bundled up and waited for my driver Suresh to scoop me up and haul me to the hospital to have the doctor redress my burn wound. Surely the hospital would be warmer than the Akash Deep.

Once I mounted up the infamously long and now slippery ramp, I realized for the first time the hospital didn’t have a door; only a sliding gate to close and lock at night. It was a cement ice chest just like my hotel and office. The doctor showed up in a dawn jacket and mittens. He replaced the mittens with sterile gloves, then redressed my wound taking breaks to blow into his freezing hands.

I made it to my office where the propane heater was cranking and the auxiliary generator was giving us not only light, but broadcasting capability and Internet connectivity. For seven hours I was relatively warm (still wore the sweatshirt, jacket and winter hat) and felt in control again. Outside, however the temperature was dropping and the rain was pounding even harder.

In preparing for my hourly news blast I looked at the Dharamsala weather site and, for the first time, saw snowflakes on the screen. It was going to get colder and in higher elevations (that’s Bhagsu!) it was going to snow. At quitting time the students lifted me down the 20 steps to my car and we sped away through the muck to the Akash Deep.

Luckily power had been restored so when I got to my room, I quickly turned on the Chinese heater, ordered room service and ducked into the covers. I caught a rerun of Conan then was psyched to see the Diane Lane film, Untraceable (filmed in good old Portland, Orygun), was playing in an hour. I whipped out the computer and started writing this very post until the flick started.

This time I got all the way until the final 10 minutes before a massive wind, lightening thunder blast blew everything silent. Almost instantly my room became an ice box. I realized the wind blast had blown open a window with a high latch that I could not shut. I hopped in my chair to get some help, but the desk was empty with the door of the Akash wide open, and snow coming in.

While my room was pitch black, Bhagsu was turning white.

I shut the door then navigated the dark hallway back to my room and tried to seal the window by jamming a curtain in it. I crawled back under the covers bundled up only to get the next violent wind, snow, lightening, thunder blast blow my window and curtain wide open.

I refixed the curtain and leaned my guitar case up against it which held for the next three or four blasts until it too finally gave way. At this point I had to give in and take refuge under the blankets and pray for slumber.

At some point over the next eight hours I got some sleep, but I awoke to no power and a freezing room. I donned two sweatshirts and two pairs of sweat pants and wheeled out to the front door to check out my environment. The door, which of course, was wide open, revealed six inches of slush getting hammered by a 32.5 degree down pour.

Hindus are not often equated with snow, but the two workers at the Akash Deep Hotel just love the stuff. In fact, they won't even close the front door when it dumps!

I was hoping to be able to go to work and warm up, but my driver said if there was snow there’s no way we could get me up to the office. And he was right. Now it’s 12:30, it’s still ice-raining, there’s still no power and I am about to lose the remaining battery power on my computer. So bye for now!

Believe me, this vehicle has no business being on these roads in this condition!

Btw – if anyone knows how Collateral Dammage, The Wrestler or Untraceable end – cough it up now!

My new backyard!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Pimp My Ride: Himalaya Style!

Today on Photo Friday we’re going to take a look at the vehicles currently cruising the roads in the Indian Himalayas. In the last ten years everything about motorized transport in Himachal Pradesh has changed – except the mini cab. And even those have been upgraded with cleaner engines.

When I was here in 2000 it was common to see ox-drawn carts and gas-guzzling Tata ‘Goods Carriers’ that barely made their way up the switchbacks. Now all of the older vehicles have disappeared and they’ve been replaced by newer, sturdier SUV’s and super-powerful haulers. Down in Delhi you can still find some older vehicles, but up here in the hills, those creatures met their day long ago. The reasons for this are three-fold. First of all, Himachal Pradesh is the wealthiest state in India so there are more people with cash here than in the flatlands. Secondly, due to the US outsourcing, India itself is richer. Since Dharamsala is basically a tourist town, a lot of that discretionary income ends up here. Local business owners can afford not only the rig, but also the gas – which is about $3.00/gallon. And finally, in the last few years the Indian government has offered low-interest loans to small businesses specifically for vehicle replacement.

A couple of quick facts (from http://www.mapsofindia.com/):
  • The leading brands are: Hindustan Motors, Reva Electric Car Co., Fiat India Private Ltd., Daimler Chrysler India Private Ltd., Tata
  • It is expected that by 2030, the Indian car market will be the 3rd largest car market across the globe. Small cars seem to be ruling the roost in the Indian automobile market with over 7.5 million small cars being sold in India in 2006-07.
  • World Vehicle Rankings:
    • Two wheelers - 2nd largest in the world
    • Commercial Vehicle - 4th largest in the world
    • Passenger car- 11th largest in the world
    The roads of Himachal Pradesh used to be lined with these ancient TATA Goods Carriers. I found this one in the flatlands of Kangra. They're a very rare sight up in McLeod Ganj.

    Back in the day you used to be able to ride from city to city on the roofs of these puppies. Now you have to sit inside - and believe me, the view is not as nice!

    The old standard three-wheel cab is still in use, but the two-stroke engine is a thing of the past.

    There are a couple dozen minicabs still left in McLeod Ganj.

    Tight fit for the chair, day bag and computer.

    Bus Jam

    Beginning of a bus jam.

    This driver let his passengers out in the middle of the road blocking traffic for a good 15 minutes.

    Regardless of how messed up a traffic situation can be, pedestrians have no problem walking right into the middle of it.

    New School

    This SUV is quite common these days; nothing like it back in '00.

    The TATA equivalent of a Vanagon. A decade ago this would have passed for a schoolbus. Today it's just some wealthy Indian's vacation mobile. 


    Needless to say, these roads weren't meant for rides like these.

    There a hundreds of these 'Tourist Vehicles' at the foot of McLeod Ganj. I'm assuming they'll be in use during tourist season, but right now they just sit there.

    Same as it Ever Was

    Even though the rigs are getting nicer, there's always a couple broken down at the side of the road. BTW - my driver just drove around this wreck, barely stopping.

    Indian drivers LOVE their horns. It's getting better, but you can still run into the occassional driver who will honk loudly at ghosts.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010

    Christianity in the Home of the Dalai Lama

    Maybe the oddest location of any Christian church in the world.

    One of the strangest sights in a land full of wonders is the mid-19th century Church of St. John in the Wilderness, tucked in the woods between McLeod Ganj and Forsyth Ganj. While it’s mostly ignored by locals, almost every Western visitor takes the time to visit. What is a gothic Anglican Church is doing in the midst of a Hindu region with the face of Buddhism living a quarter mile across the valley from its archivolts.

    Just across the valley from St. John's is the home of Buddhism's most revered figure.

    In 2000 I had a picnic at the church grounds with my brother Dan, his wife Zoe, their daughter Tashi and Lock Berkebeil, a computer security expert from the Bay area who flew in with me from London. We were in really great spirits because the monsoon had temporarily broken giving us a dry mile walk from McLeod to the gates of St. John's.

    The gates to the church ground were open, but held together by a chain so that no motorized vehicles could enter. Unfortunately the opening was wide enough for bipeds, not for wheelchairs. On that occasion I hopped out of my chair, crawled along the ground and remounted my chair which had been hoisted over the fence. The four of us downed Zoe’s picnic and washed it down with a bottle of Cote du Rhone that Lock bought in duty free. (He’s actually brought two bottles but I backed into one of them our first week in town and painfully watched while our maid mopped it up in her soap-water bucket.)

    The walk through the woods and the view across the valley back at McLeod was a great break from the daily deluge we faced. Before we could take a tour of the church we saw a storm sponge come at us from Lower Dharamsala, and high-tailed it back to town before we got saturated.

    Once the monsoon season gave way, I started a training routine that took me past the church every day. It always intrigued me, but seeing as I couldn’t get through the gate by myself, I never went on the grounds again.

    This six-pointed star on the gate has no affiliation with Judaism. Father Kaja just likes it.

    That is until two weeks ago when I patiently waited outside the gates for a visitor who was kind enough to fetch the parish priest for me. The visitor, who was a Punjabi tourist, told me that there was no priest, but only a grounds caretaker. I asked him if he could bring him to me so I could get the phone number of the priest. The caretaker, a dark-skinned, sixty-year-old Indian in brown pants, a flannel shirt and a wool cap, approached the fence and asked me if he could help.

    “Excuse me sir,” I said, “I would like to interview the parish priest for our new radio station. You wouldn’t happen to have his phone number would you?”

    “I am Father Kaja,” he replied. “What can I do for you?”

    This soft-spoken, timid man looked more like a rail worker than a priest. I told him that I wanted to interview him and he told me he thought he would be a bad subject. I told him I would ask simple questions and he could take all the time he wanted to answer. Reluctantly he agreed and we set up the interview for the next Tuesday.

    When Tuesday came, my driver, Suresh, took me to the church gate and ran in to get father Kaja. Father Kaja unlocked the gates and laid down a piece of wood over the drainage grid that accidentally acted as a mote for wheelchairs. Anybody else could walk over the grid, but the metal slats were too wide and my wheels could easily fall through, or worse yet, get bent leaving me without locomotion for the next five months.

    The Moat.

    Once over the moat, I rolled down a paved stone path to yet another moat, just outside the two wooden church doors. Father Kaja set the bridge down across the second obstacle and then lifted me up two steps to the a vestibule. The nave opened up to reveal a lofted wooden ceiling that is covered on the outside by corrugated steel. There were seven rows of pews in front and another ten rows of folding chairs towards the rear. A short transept divided the modest altar with a stain-glass background.

    You might have to travel all the way to Delhi to find more stained glass like this.

    As I set up my recording equipment, Father Kaja went into the sacristy that doubles as his apartment and came out with a cup of hot chai. He couldn’t have been more accommodating, but unfortunately he was a bit shy with the microphone. As I asked questions, he started to answer, then got timid and turned off his microphone. He gave me great answers off the record, but didn’t think they would be appropriate for the interview. So what resulted was an awkward 20-minute talk that was edited down to less than ten useful minutes.

    Christian scripture in Hindi text. Strange for Westerners, but normal for Hindus who tend to absorb all other religions as they come.

    Luckily, at the end of our talk, a group of western parishioners, who all lived in Dharamsala, came in for their weekly prayer meeting and sat for a much more coherent conversation.

    So if you’re interested in what being a Christian is like in the most unlikely of locations, give this podcast a listen. It’s a bit chopped up, but in the end there’s a great story there.

    Monday, February 1, 2010

    Can One Really Roll in the Himalayas?

    A lot of you have responded to some posts saying that you don’t know how I get around this place in a wheelchair. Most of you assume the mountains would be the biggest obstacle, but in reality they're a small part of the issues I face. I’ll just start at the beginning of the day; walk (roll) you through the various obstacles I encounter and show you what needs to be done to combat them.

    I'm not the only one who's got issues with these hills.

    By waking up at the Akash Deep Hotel in the suburb of Bhagsu, I’ve already defeated most of my daily problems. This room is one of only five I’ve found in all of Dharamsala that could pass as handicap accessible, and there are more than 100 hotels and guest houses in the region.

    First of all, I have roll-in access from the street. There’s actually a stair at the front door, but I can easily put my hands on each side of the doorway and pull myself up. Secondly the bathroom is on the same level as the room. I spent three months in a room in 2000 where the bathroom was two steps above the level of the floor. Had the bathroom door been wide enough, I probably could have pulled myself in. But it wasn’t, which brings up accessibility rule No. 3: My new bathroom door is wide enough for my chair. But it didn’t start out that way. They had to remove the door from the hinges which usually is an easy task unless the hinges are glued to the door in which case you have to remove the hinges from the door frame – which they did without question.

    Once inside, the bathroom is quite huge allowing me to roll about without impediment. I can easily reach the sink and the toilet without having to do any crazy chair gymnastics. That’s a rarity even in U.S. hotels. Had this been the situation with my room in 2000 I probably would have been able to wash my hands everyday and not have gotten the infection that sent me home two months early.

    My new bathroom has room for a nice big wooden shower chair which because of the long seat is the most efficient shower chair I’ve ever used. If my leg didn’t have a gaping wound in it, I’d take more showers, but the doc suggested I try to keep the leg as dry as possible. No, mom, there aren’t big plastic bags to wrap it up in.

    The only problem with the room is that all the pipes leak which means I have to shut off the water after every use. But that’s standard for Indian bathrooms. My hot water heater works great too; I just have to remember to turn it on an hour before I need hot water.

    Eventually I do have to leave the room. As beautiful as these puppies are, and as cool as it is to be here;  there are just some things I can't do.

    My room at the Akash Deep is much better than just about every handicapped hotel room I’ve ever been in. And that includes some pretty swanky places I’ve stayed at for medical conferences. The room goes for around $15/day which in Indian standards makes me a get-the-hell-out-of-here-crazy-rich-white-muther-fukker. In Portland this studio would go for about double that, and I wouldn’t have room service, cable TV or a maid.

    Once I’m dressed and out of the room, I can easily roll the half-mile to McLeod Ganj and pick up just about everything I need. From food to medical supplies; soap to beer. With some difficulty I could roll the three miles up to the entrance to my job at the Tibetan Children’s Village. Then, for the first time, the mountains would become a problem. The roads from Bhagsu to the TCV are challenging, but nothing I haven’t tackled in the past. The road from the TCV entrance to the 90.4 Tashi Delek FM studios is straight up a destroyed road that even the local SUV’s have trouble ascending.

    So, the TCV has decided to send me a car every morning. That way I can show up at work un-sweaty and I can haul my computer along with me. The TCV says it’s no problem but it makes me feel like an actual get-the-hell-out-of-here-crazy-rich-white-muther-fukker. All I can do is treat the driver, Suresh, like a co-worker and not some kind of servant. After six weeks I try to joke and kid around as much as I can with him. I’ve invited him for dinner and even after-work beers. He just refuses and still calls me sir. I think he knows I don’t consider myself above him in anyway; he’s just being an incredibly polite person.

    Ever since I burned a gaping hole in my leg, I have to start every day with a visit to my doctor at the TCV Health Center. He’s a western-trained Tibetan G.P. but his office is two floors up in the clinic. There is a ramp, but it’s nothing I could ever scale myself. Suresh grabs my chair out of the back of his rig and the two of us struggle like hell to get me up to the second floor. Every day the doctor removes the dressing, scrapes off whatever he thinks is gonna turn green, then coats it in iodine and wraps it back up. Suresh and I decend the ramp, trying not to recreate the O.J. Simpson Naked Gun scene, before he piles me and my chair back in the van. This whole episode, of course, would be unnecessary had I been able to feel my damn leg (ugh).

    The longest and steepest ramp I've even encountered. It's now been made worse by the fact that the road to this parking lot, which is just as steep, is now under construction.

    Once I get to Gmeiner Hall where our studio is located, Suresh again grabs my chair out of the back of his SUV and brings it around to the passenger seat for me to flop into. Suresh and our station manager, Kalsang, lift me up three steps to the front door, trying not to let my wheels slip into a wide drainage grill at the base. From there I roll into the building and face five steps, before a landing leading up to the final 12 steps to the studio. Kalsang and Suresh have done this every single day without a single complaint.

    The studio space is tight, but we’ve set it up so I can reach the soundboard, a microphone and all three computers without having to roll around. I flip on my computer, scan the web for little news items and create a little 3-minute news blast that I read once an hour on the hour. Right now, the students are on break so I’ve got some time to work on the station’s website, write my blog, edit photos, edit audio and all sorts of other little busy work things.

    Kalsang and Suresh are saving my arse (and lifting it!) on a daily basis.

    This has to keep my busy until my adult class which starts at 4:30. In the meantime I can’t go anywhere. The negatives are that there’s no bathroom on the second floor so I have to pee in a jar and save it until I get lowered down the stairs at the end of the day. The positives are that somebody from the TCV cafeteria brings me a delicious hot lunch every day.

    I would love to be able to take an hour at lunch and go watch the basketball or cricket games going on just a few hundred feet away from me, but instead I’m stuck up in the studio. It’s a little annoying now, but eventually the students will arrive and I’ll try to sop up that time by teaching English, French or guitar.

    These guys are actually playing cricket on a 10% slope. EVERYBODY makes adjustments here!

    Finally after my adult students are done, they help me back down the 21 steps to Suresh’s SUV. They pile me back in the front seat; Suresh drives me down the horrible mountain road to the TCV entrance and then all the way back to my crib in Bhagsu. From there I either order $2/meal room service or roll to one of the half-dozen restaurants in town where I can eat without being lifted up stairs.

    On a day to day basis that’s about it. But I feel the wheelchair much more on a day off. I live in Shangra-la, but I’ll never be able to hike the mountains around me. There’s a bustling Indian city just three kilometers away, but without a taxi, I can’t get down there (actually I did it once in 2000, but that’s another story – and nothing I could repeat on a day to day basis). There are at least 20 roof top restaurants I haven’t been to because I need someone to lift me up there. And once up there, there are no bathrooms so I’d be sweating it out until the end of dinner. I have limited access to most every shop, although I can see most of the goods from the street.

    So although there are dozens of impediments to me being here, the attitude of the people who help me try to overcome them are more than worth the effort in being here.

    Goes something like this: