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 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. 

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