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, April 8, 2010

The Ugly Side of a Tourist Town

I’m sure I don’t know a lot of what goes around me here, but I was shocked with what happened to me Tuesday night – as well as the reaction of the people around me.

It all started innocently enough as a few friends went out to dinner to welcome Mari Lang, an Austrian journalist who’s going to be helping out at 90.4 Tashi Delek FM for the next few months. Five of us sat around a table at Nick’s Italian Kitchen talking about the station and helping our friend, Wen, construct a web project. She’s working on a site to offer Chinese translations of Tibetan and English news stories concerning Tibet. Most of the Chinese content on Tibet is propaganda spewed by the government, so this project is a worthy cause that really needs to get off the ground.

We hashed over ideas, ate dinner and even had a slice of cake as Wednesday was Mari’s birthday. After dinner we strolled over to the Hotel Tibet and sat around a table loosening up the conversation over a few Kingfisher beers. Since it was a work night, we polished off our beers and went on our respective ways home. The stores in Bhagsu are all closed by 10:00 so I rolled to the center of McLeod to buy a big jug of water for the night. The center was still bustling, so I sat for a spell to see if I could find some musicians for our Saturday Night Dharamsala Live radio show. They only way I’ve found any of the musicians so far is by stopping people carrying a guitar or flute case and asking them to perform.

While I was parked at the bus stop two Punjabi tourists approached me and wanted to know if I knew of any big parties. I told them they were looking at one big party and they could go into any of the cafes where plenty of people having a great time. The first guy, was a long-haired hipster dufus who pulled out a hip flask of Indian rum and asked me if I wanted a pull. I said I was fine, but he insisted. I took a swig then washed it down with my bottle of water. Then the second guy, a short-haired smooth talker asked me if I wanted a girl.

The local Indians know me and have long since stopped bugging me for business like they do all the fresh-faced white tourists. These guys were out-of-towners and were bringing in some shady business to McLeod. I’m not so naïve as to think a town with a 95 percent tourist economy doesn’t have some illicit slave trade going on, but I’ve never been approached by anyone. I told the pimp that western tourists aren’t coming up to McLeod Ganj looking for women, so he might try a 'different demographic'.

The two of them caught my insult, told me to get my ass back to America then stopped just before hitting me in the busy marketplace. I’d had more than enough of the conversation so I packed up my water bottle and headed back to Bhagsu.

That in itself was the most unsettling event of my four months in Dharamsala. I rolled through the now-quieting streets of McLeod onto the dark hill that leads to Bhagsu. I got a few hundred yards up the climb when I heard a motorcycle behind me. I welcome the motorcycles because they light the road and I can plot my course around the potholes. But as the bike got closer I heard the familiar voices from the bus stop. It was the two Punjabi guys heading to Bhagsu where I’m sure they were told can be some raging vacationers. They saw my chair and made a slight effort to run me off the road. Then they passed giving me the finger and yelling what I’m sure were a long list of profanities.

Again, another very unsettling event, but I was sure this would be the end of it.

No such luck.

Just short of the summit of the hill I heard a commotion and saw the bike parked with the two Punjabis beating the snot out of two girls. I realized the two Punjabis came up to McLeod with a stable of women who were not faring well in the local skin trade. I’m sure they thought a town full of rich tourists would be a layup for them, but this just ain’t that kind of tourist town. Even the Indian tourists are coming for spiritual retreats, not coke and whores.

But now I was in a bit of a fix. Up until I heard the noise, my head was face down cranking out the last few meters of a tough climb. Before I realized what was going down, I became the prime witness to a crime scene. The Punjabis saw me, slapped up their women a bit longer then got back on the bike to chase me. By this time I was on a flat section just before the long decent into Bhagsu. I was hauling ass with the same pace I use when I'm chasing someone on the last mile of a marathon.

But I was no match for a bike. They pulled up next to me; the long-haired pimp jumped off the bike and grabbed the two handles on my chair. He tried to dump me off, but I tie my shoes to the side bars of my chair and that was enough to keep me in the saddle. He let go and I made the final fifty yards to the hill. I flung into a wheelie and shot the hill without once letting my caster wheel (note: still on three wheels these days!) touch ground. Thank god the road has just been paved or, at the speed I was carrying, I would have wiped out.

My crib, the Akash Deep Hotel, is at the bottom of the hill and luckily the hotel workers hadn’t shut down for the night. I burst into the door with the pimps chasing me into the lobby. I yelled for the concierge to call the cops, but he was too shocked to react. Before he knew it, two raging strangers were shoving him around and yelling god-knows-what in Hindu. The commotion woke up the second-in-command at the Akash Deep, who is a much sturdier fellow.

A scuffle broke out, but when I screamed ‘I’m calling the police,’ the fight broke off and, amongst what I’m assuming were a series of profane threats, the two hopped back on their bike and took off down the street. That left the two hotel workers looking at me, wondering what the hell I did to merit their rage. I locked the hotel door and told them I saw them beating up women and we need to call the police immediately. They told me to go to my room, clean up and they would take care of everything. I was drenched and filthy so I took their advice and went to my room to take a quick shower.

After my shower I rolled back to the lobby and saw the two of them asleep in their sleeping bags in the dining room. I woke them up and asked them when the police would get here.

“No police, sir,” the concierge said, “It’s a very bad look for the hotel.”

I was stunned and demanded he get up and call the police.

“No, sir,” he protested, “It is too late and this looks very bad for the hotel.”

I’d just been attacked and I witnessed two violent men commit a crime. Not only that, they knew where I lived and I know the hotel has several unlocked windows. I had enough information to lock those two guys up for a long time and I wasn’t satisfied to let this go unreported.

I whipped out my cell phone and demanded they give me the number for the police. I then realized that I had been living here for four months and I had never even thought of alerting the police. India must have a 911 number, but I didn’t know it and had never seen it publicized anywhere.

As it ends up their 911 is 100. I called the police station and waited for a half hour for them to show. I made my report and they said they would take me around in the morning to see if I could identify the two men.

With three gallons of adrenalin running through my veins and two crooks on the loose I didn’t fall asleep until sunrise. I woke again at 8:30 and cancelled my ride to the TCV. I laid back down in bed and waited for the cops to call so we could make our run through town.

At noon I finally awoke and rolled into the lobby to see the two workers staring angrily at me. “You should not have had the police come last night,” the concierge said. “Very Very bad for the hotel.”

I told him we’d see what the police had to say about that when they get here. He laughed and said, “No police coming. They were tired. Want to get to bed. They tell you this so you go to sleep.” Then the two of them laughed at my naiveté on the Indian justice system. 

I was victimized; had the balls to report it and was being mocked by the two guys who run my hotel!

I’m fine now and the two pimps are back in their hole-in-the-ground hut somewhere in the Punjab by now. But my respect for India has dropped several notches.


  1. That is a most unsettling tale, to put it mildly. Glad you were not injured.

    Saw the post for Brewers/Summerfest. Perhaps Terry Mac & I can drive up and join ya'all. Keep us posted.

    Godspeed lad,
    B O'H

  2. India is often a very cruel place, which can make a difficult place to live. Often we foreignors are somewhat immune, but as you wrote, not always. Be well, stay safe, and visit when you are in Delhi. Macy

  3. Sorry to hear of your bad night Captain! One likes to think that our world isn't that way, until we are confronted by the sad truth that it is sometimes brutal, voilent, and down right scary! Take care, my Friend! This silly old world can't afford to lose nice guys like you!!!

  4. Where's that can of pepper spray when you need it.

  5. I am going to share this story with others, Captain. You did great.