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.

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...

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