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, May 30, 2013

A Quick Note from Ghana

I have to apologize in advance because I am writing from an Internet cafe and don't have access to any of the amazing pictures and videos I've shot since arriving in Accra one week ago. Yes, I do have a thumb drive and no, I will not insert it into the machine I'm typing on now. Body parts and computer components should not be shared liberally.

First of all, flying over the Sahara is probably the closest thing to space travel I'll ever experience. It's so enormous and empty that you realize whatever is on the other side can't be anything like the place you just left.I was in the air for over an hour when I saw a small hamlet around an oil rig. It was another full two hours before I saw any other man-made structure. Sometimes I'd see a long dirt road that extended from one end of the horizon to another. At one point I flew over an intersection of two such dirt roads and wondered what would happen if you missed your turn off. Once in a while the desert grew into enormous mountains with stunning red cliffs - but again no trace of human life at all.

Eventually I arrived at Kotoka airport in Accra (how many of you have done that tired old Tirana to Accra flight?) and was surprised to be greeted by a brand new airport transfer chair. After passing through customs I was escorted to the waiting area where I hoped to find my friend, Gifty a physical therapy teacher whom I'd met twice while working with the International Rehabilitation Forum. Unfortunately Gifty mixed up the days so I ended up taking a cab to a hotel recommended to me by a Canadian NGO worker who was on her way home.

The hotel was surprisingly accessible and it even had air conditioning and wifi. Gifty found me in the morning and after apologizing profusely took me to the Monrose Guest House in the Adenta neighborhood North of Accra. The Monrose is a super-friendly place that has a big car ramp leading up to the front door. It was almost accessible except for the 10-inch step to my room. I told the manager I'd pay to have a carpenter build a ramp but he told me he'd already hired one. In less than an hour I was lying down on a huge raft of a bed in an air-conditioned room. The bathroom door was just a little tight so we just yanked it right out. As of last Tuesday the Monrose is now 100 accessible!

The first night we had an audience with the Rev. Michael Ntumy, the former head of the five-million member Church of the Pentecost. Rev. Ntumy had a severe case of cervical stenosis (shrinking of the spine in the neck area) and surgery to relieve the condition has left him a quadriplegic. He is currently the head of the German branch of the Church of the Pentecost and was luckily in Accra guest lecturing. But as happens in many areas of the world, the only time any action takes place on disability is when someone in a high position is affected. Since his surgery four years ago Rev. Ntumy has been very active in the disability community and is instrumental in the on-going process of turning one of the pastors residence in to a physical therapy and rehab ward.

A few days later we were invited to attend a meeting of the Ghanian Society of Disabled Persons' Accra chapter meeting. I sat in on a heated discussion of how they would be spending the 2% of the city's annual budget dedicated to disability programs. Having come from Albania where there is almost no governmental help for the disabled it was amazing to see how organized the Ghanian disability community has become. We got to interview the chapter president as well as their sporting director who also happens to be the African hand-cycle championship.

Sunday is Gifty's church day so she and her four kids escorted me to their church which is a fire-and-brimstone charismatic Christian church with a three hour long service. Gifty asked me if I thought I could play with the church band and I was thrilled. Three hours of church can be mighty long to an agnostic, but put a guitar in my hand and it was one big concert. I wasn't sure what to play all the time but I've learned along the road that one bad note can destroy all the good ones. So I kept my axe pretty quiet unless I knew where I was going. In the end, I passed the audition, we're going to rehearse this Saturday and do it up again Sunday morning. 

Monday was a national holiday so on Tuesday we were given a tour of the Medina Hospital of the Church of the Pentecost (If you haven't guessed it by now Ghana is VERY religious). The hospital sees about 300 patients a day and unbelievably enough all five of it's floors are accessible by ramps. But the big hit of the day was going over to see the nearly brand new pastor's mansion that is going to be turned into a PT and rehab ward. Built in 2007 shortly before Rev. Ntumy's surgery the 8-bedroom facility with a swimming pool, kitchen and huge meeting room will be a perfect rehab center serving many more people that its' original intention.

Yesterday I got to play teacher and give two presentations to Gifty's PT students. I was joined by a group of students and faculty from one of my sister Sue's alma maters, the University of North Dakota. These eight women were on the end of two-week tour and they were just beaming with spirit and pride. For some of the students it was their first trip out of the states and Ghana couldn't be a more different environment to the upper Midwest. These 8 women were also the first white people I'd seen since leaving the airport!

So with ten days left we'll be visiting some more hospitals then heading up north to Tamale to visit a Christian mission that caters to disabled people in rural areas. This is one of the most exciting places I've ever been to, but also the most difficult. It's rainy season now and the road to the Monrose is completely underwater. I actually had to take a cab 400 yards to get to the internet cafe. My chair is an a sad state of affairs as the front wheel wants to fall off - much like it did in India. My computer and camera are both having difficulty, but I've already shot enough to ensure a good video. Anything else I get is gravy.

It's just about dinner time so I'm going back to the Monrose which butts up against the local soccer pitch. I'm watching AMAZING players every night. You can see why they've risen to the top of the African competitions time and time again. I feel like I'm watching a country full of Zinedane Zidanes squaring off against each other on a nightly basis - and these are just the local guys!

So hang tight and Ill try to find a wifi so I can drop some pictures your way in the next coming days!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Albania Can't be Painted in One Picture

I would love to tell you Albania is nothing like what you think it is, but in fact, most of you have probably never thought of Albania at all. Globally there are two Albanian icons and the two are such polar opposites that you can guess from who they are just how diverse the population is.

You try to stereotype Albanians!!

So take your pick -> Think of Albanians as either people like John Belushi or Mother Teresa. I hope this leaves you with no clear stereotypes of what Albanians are like, because they represent as rich and diverse a population as we have on this planet. In the town of Shkoder where I am currently filming a report on rehabilitation medicine and disability awareness, the local mosque is the center piece of the downtown pedestrian mall, but it is just a 3-wood away from one of the largest catholic churches in the city. In between is a bustling outdoor café scene complete with beer gardens covered by Tirane Beer tents.

Beer gardens under Islamic minarets.

The center of town is undergoing a massive makeover with new cobblestone & tile streets and sidewalks being built complete with curb cuts and the occasional ramp. The mornings are congested and busy w/shops opening, students rushing off to school and businessmen hurrying to their offices. But now in the late afternoon the streets are quiet, waiting for everyone to get off work and fill up the cafes. 

This is quite different from the country isolated for decades by the dictator Enver Hoxha. Hoxha killed tens of thousands in his quest to make Albanian communism the most pure form of communism in the world. He broke off ties with the Soviet Union at one point because they weren't communist enough. So while the rest of the Balkans became Tito's Yugoslavia, Albania aligned itself temporarily with Mao and stayed an independent nation - although completely closed off from the rest of the world, much like North Korea is today.  

No ski resorts... Yet!

Behind Shkoder are the graceful peaks of the Thethi mountain range and in between are rugged rural roads used not only by late model German cars, but also tractors, horse-drawn carts and the occasional goat herd.
My job for the week is to try to capture the successes, obstacles and aspirations of the physically disabled in this challenging terrain. I have been guided here by Dr. Germano Pestelli, the Vice-President of the Italian Society of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine. Based in Fiorli, Italy, Dr. Pestelli comes to Albania several times a year to help steer the Madonnina Del Groppa clinic into the modern world of rehabilitation medicine.

No Mom, I did not try to jump this curb. 

So far we have filmed a quadriplegic judo champion operating a gym in a small rural town;  the mother of an autistic child struggling with little resources and an honor student struck down in the prime of his life with a spinal virus that has put him in a chair and keeps him sequestered in the second floor of his parents’ house.
We have also filmed the physical therapy ward at the local hospital and interviewed one of the two practicing physiatrists in all of Albania. 

The ramp to Anton Shkoza's judo studio. Try that one in a power chair!
Helping me is Linda Cenaj, a local student who started out as my translator but has now become an integral part of the operation as a camera-person, guide,  gear mule and even a chair pusher as my front wheel temporarily broke down this morning. The clinic director, Fabrizzio just left this morning, but not before he tirelessly worked to arrange my schedule and lift me up to the second floor of the Madonnina Del Groppa for twice daily Albanian-Italian feasts.

Dinner is served up this ramp! (and up a flight of stairs unfortunately) 

So many others are pitching in and it will be so sad to leave after such an inspirational and energetic week. But in the end we will tell a great story and shed light on a situation that will soon be a great tale of victory and overcoming long odds and great obstacles.

But now I’m hungry so I’m going back to the clinic for some pasta. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

That Good Old Lyon to Tirana Run.

For some reason Ataturk airport in Istanbul has a special fondness for me and seems to not want to let me go for periods of ten hours at a time. Four years ago after having traveled for more than 15 hours to get to Istanbul, the Turkish gods conspired to hold me at Ataturk for a gut wrenching 12 hours before letting me continue on to my final destination in Kayseri, a puddle jump flight away. Revisiting it HERE it seems comical, but at the time you can assure I was quite panicked.

My more recent ten-hour stay was self-inflicted and incurred no such panic, but it still didn't want for repeating.

The flight however, the first leg of a 6-week four continent roadie, was nothing short of magnificent. Having been forced out of the Schengen Area one day before my visa expired, I painfully said goodbye to Helene and nervously approached the customs desk at St. Exupery Airport in Lyon.Technically Americans are allowed two three-month stays in the Schengen Area every calendar year. But the stays are supposed to be separated by a three-month period in which you return to your home country.  In my case, I left the Schengen Area to travel to England two days before my first visa expired. I returned through the Geneva airport where a confused customs agent checked my passport, looked up at me and said, “Well I guess I’ll just stamp it.” Meaning instead of kicking me out of Europe and sending me home – which he had every right to do – he gave me three more months.

But I wasn’t going to press it as the penalty could be a several-year exclusion from the continent of Europe. And it was entirely feasible that the customs agent in Lyon could review my passport and still inflict a penalty. My on going joke with my French friends was that when I leave they’ll either get a text from Istanbul or a phone call asking them to find me a lawyer. Thankfully the customs agent simply looked for a blank page and stamped my passport. I have to admit at sometimes during my stay I was quite stressed out about being an illegal alien but with one vigorous pump of an exit stamp, all of that angst evaporated.

I was loaded onto the plane and in minutes took off on one of the most glorious flights I have ever been on. The Turkish Air A330 Airbus swung north out of Lyon then angled off to the East flying past every place I love in France. We floated over Les Avenieres where I spent four epic years and then continued directly over the mountain cliffs I used to stare at before launching 80 ft. high dives. On the other side of those cliffs lay Aix les Bains where I spent the last six months and the Lac du Bourget where I trained on my hand bike. I traced the bike paths back to my apartment but had to look away as it was a bit too painful to think that I no longer lived there.

Once past Aix the flight veered over the Savoyarde capitol of Chambery and headed directly to the French Alps, where I spotted my friend Vincent’s house just outside of the Olympic city of Albertville. Luckily I had a window seat facing North so I saw all the big Alpine peaks including Mt. Blanc, The Eiger and the Matterhorn.  The plane drifted south over Italy where I had a clear view of the Milan Cathedral and just a few minutes later the funky fish eye of Venice.

Before the sun set I caught reflections of the Adriatic along the Dalmatian Coast where in 1986 my brother Dan and I spent five chilling January nights incarcerated in a Ford Escort. An hour later we were circling the Bosphorus with a crescent moon, the symbol of Turkey, blazing in the distance.

That's when the romantic part ended and the grip of Ataturk took over. The only flights leaving for Tirana, Albania take off at 7:30 a.m. so I had the layover from hell. The boarding call of 6 a.m. was just early enough that it didn’t warrant getting a hotel room. I had a couple of Effes beers while watching former Trail Blazer Rudy Fernandez lose the European Championship game, then wolfed down a burger and found the disability lounge. Four years ago there was no such lounge, but now I was obligated to stay there as they were responsible for getting me on the plane in the morning.

I’ve had worse over-night stays in airports, but it’s never anything you’re too happy about. Here I could stretch out on a long cushy set of chairs and use my brand new airport pillow, a parting gift from Helene. But the glaring lights and the constant barrage of loud speaker airline information made sleep impossible. That and the paranoia of having all my computer and camera equipment lying underneath me kept me on guard and slightly awake all night long.

Eventually morning came and I was once again poured onto a plane where I fell fast asleep. I awoke as the pilot announced his decent into the brand new Mother Theresa airport in Tirana (finished in 2008). I was shocked by the fact that they actually had a transfer chair for me and,  after a quick pass through customs, I found the taxi driver from my hotel.

Minutes later I experienced my first Albanian traffic jam. For decades these would have been impossible, but now the streets are full of everything from antique Russian cars to brand new BMWs, Audis and Mercedez Benz. Not two minutes after arriving in a surprisingly accessible hotel in the center of Tirana, I was deep in REM. I woke up six hours later and was not at all sure I wasn't still dreaming. 

As a matter of fact, I'm still not quite sure...

Saturday, May 11, 2013

On the Road Again...

I can’t believe my time here is coming to a close. The Rhone Alps region stole my heart long before I moved to Oregon and I still cannot ever find a good reason to leave one home except to go to my other home. I have a feeling that this pattern will repeat several more times before my ashes grace one place or the other.
But seeing as the French government has decided it’s time I go, I have to pack my bags and make my way back to Oregon. But this time it will not be a direct flight. Instead, I will be going on just about as long a road trip as possible, covering four continents over the next eight weeks.

Ten years ago my brother Andy and I created the International Rehabilitation Forum to help organize rehabilitation doctors who work primarily in low-access areas. This includes not only low-resource areas, but also rural and even disaster areas. We've run three international meetings inviting speakers from all over the globe to present papers, brain storm and share ideas with like-minded practitioners.

Whenever we meet with these groups I am invited to come to their clinics and see what is actually happening to real patients. So now, finally, I will be taking a few of them up on the offer. On Sunday I will first travel to Shkodra, Albania and see the work of the Italian Doctor Germano Pestelli. Dr. Pestelli has changed an orphanage into a working rehab clinic. Not only will I be able to visit the clinic and speak with local officials, I will also be able to talk (through an interpreter!) to fellow wheelers who most likely have never left Albania and suffer quite a bit of neglect and discrimination.

From Albania I will continue on to Accra, Ghana where I will spend nearly three weeks with several groups catering to rehabilitation medicine and disability advocacy. I am arriving just in time for their largest annual gathering of wheelchair users so hopefully we will have lots of media attention which will shine some light on the much neglected disabled population in Africa. I will also be accompanied by my guitar which will be pulled out and exercised any time I hear any African drumming.

From Ghana the trip continues all the way to Beijing where I will reunite with a gathering of the International Rehabilitation Forum during the bi-annual convention of the International Society of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine. Andy and I will host a small organizational meeting during the ISPRM that will set the groundwork for our 4th general meeting to be held in Chengdu in 2014.

After Beijing, it’s time to head back to the States, but before making it back to Oregon, I need to stop over in my old stomping grounds of Milwaukee, Wisconsin to check in, deprogram and play guitar for 14 straight hours at our annual 4th of July jam session.

But the purpose of all this travel is not just to check in and visit. I will be filming the raw footage that will eventually become a short documentary on the needs of rehab medicine in low-resource settings. I have been asked why I have not been more consistent in blogging on this latest adventure and the reason is that I’ve been working on film shorts. These take a tremendous amount of work, but in the end, tell a much better story. Taking into consideration the story-boarding, filming, writing, logging, video editing, recording, sound editing – sometimes even composing music, I spend close to four hours for every minute of finished video.  If you’ve got a great subject (which I always do because I pick my own subjects!) it’s a labor of love. But a labor nonetheless!

So I will try to check in from time to time while on the road, but in the meantime I would like to thank all my loyal readers (nearly 16,000 hits to date!) and I promise to publish here when everything is done and in the can.

Hope to see as many of you as possible on the road!