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.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Project

Seeing as my name was plastered across your FB pages the entire month of May (Still waiting on word from the van committee!), I thought it best to bury my nose in work and keep a low social media profile for a bit. But as my time here is winding down (four weeks left), miraculously, I can see the finish line to my film project. I haven’t written much about it because, for the first two months, I did not see how I was ever going to get it done. 

The scope of the project was pretty broad to begin with. The goal was to produce the first comprehensive set of rehabilitation training videos in Nepalese. It took a few weeks of just hanging out and shooting random videos so people could understand who I was and what my competencies were. I shot a some videos at the hospital, but since I couldn’t post them without hospital administration approval, nobody saw them. I needed to publish a few on my own.

The first video I shot outside of the SIRC was a three-minute summary of the rebuilding of the National Disabled Table Tennis Center. I was shooting some interviews and b-roll (back-roll – the stuff they put up there so you don’t just see somebody’s face on the screen the whole interview) for my final trip summary when the project manager, architect, Deepak C.K. saw me and begged me to whip up a quick piece for the inauguration – which was in two days. I took a day off of work and cranked a piece that ended up being a huge success. When we presented the video to a crowd of athletes and V.I.P.’s they roared their approval. That led immediately to two more outside pieces (Amrita Foundation for Mental Health and Nepal Spinal Cord Sports Association) that really let people at the SIRC know what I was capable of producing.

Everyone was all smiles after our Table Tennis video got a screaming ovation at the opening ceremony.

Once those doors were opened, I was immediately overwhelmed with work. I’d slowly been filming  a project with the Occupational Therapy department, but it sat on the shelf while I did the off-site projects. But once they saw the potential, the video topics jumped out of the woodwork.

There was just one huge problem: I don’t speak a word of Nepalese. There are plenty of training videos on any number of medical subjects, but none are in Nepalese. The goal of this project was to create videos so therapists and care takers in the furthest villages of Nepal could easily learn without having to struggle with a new language.  When I proposed the project, I wrongly assumed there would be any number of English speakers who could help me out. What I quickly discovered was that most Nepalis have a little English; very few have a good working command of it. And those who do are obviously quite busy – because they’re the smartest people in the country.

The SIRC offered me one of their employees for two days a week, but this project didn’t have an on-off switch like that. It was getting to be harder to schedule her than it was the film shoots. She was more than competent, but she was also quite busy. When it took more than two weeks to schedule and shoot the first video, it became apparent that I would never be able to complete the project.

Then one day, a miracle walked into the SIRC. Actually 21-year-old Rownika Shrestha had walked in about a month earlier as the family care-taker for her father who, although a paraplegic for twenty years, had never been to rehab. We became fast friends mainly because her English is fantastic and she had more free time than an ambitious college senior wants to have. She asked me if I could teach her ANYTHING just so she could keep her mind busy when she wasn’t helping her dad. SIRC family caretakers move in with the patient and are there 24-7. I started showing her how to do some rudimentary web stuff, but our poor Internet connection is so frustrating that we had to abort.

Rownika reading her poem on the Bagmati River Cleanup at the 14th Anniversary of the SIRC.
(Yes, I am aware that she should be in front of the camera, not behind it.)
A few days later she saw me editing video and asked if I could teach her. “Sure,” I said. “It takes some time, but if you keep at it…” It seems now, that before I finished the sentence she was already competent. She had great computer skills and the video editor was just another piece of software to learn. I showed her the basics and in less than a week, she was uploading video clips, chopping them up, synching sound and adding graphics. She picked up the cameras like she’d owned them her whole life. When she showed up at the film shoots I could put down my bag; talk to the therapists and patients in the video; then turn around and both cameras would be mounted on tripods and ready for positioning.

Oh yeah – SHE SPEAKS NEPALESE! Great for me, but unfortunately for her, she has to do the lion's share of editing.  In three days I went from wondering if I was going to have to bail on the project to walking around scheduling as many film shoots as I could. It was like hoping for a million dollars and having a loot sac fall off of a truck at your feet.

So for the past month we’ve been cranking out one video after the next. We’ve donned ourselves “Kollywood Studios” (“K” for Kathmandu. “N” for Nepal doesn’t work because “Nollywood” has already taken by the Nigerian film industry.) and we are an instructional video production machine. We’ve produced nearly 20 titles including Hydrotherapy, Spinal Cord First Responder (back-boarding into an ambulance) and Wheelchair to Motor Scooter Transfer.   This week we’re putting the finishing touches on three videos from the wheelchair maintenance shop and that leaves us with only two left to shoot before we’re done!

Just a few Kollywood Production titles.

But we’re not retiring Kollywood so fast. We’ve also signed on to produce a video for the new Kathmandu Wheelchair Basketball League which runs through the month of June. . We’ve had our first meetings with the league organizers and discovered the same group also teaches English and offers vocational training to wheelers. So it’s a bigger project that just speed-editing hoops highlights. Since I’m going to be playing in the league and Rownika has refused to be a cheerleader for the SIRC squad, it’s her project. She’s lead and I’m the production assistant.

What do I do if she turns out to be a cruddy boss? 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Road Trip!!

11 weeks after landing in Kathmandu, I finally left the valley. Well, that’s not entirely true – the SIRC is actually one hill outside of the Kathmandu Valley. It’s definitely a god-send to be able to work in the countryside, rather than the soot and dust-filled city, but it’s just a few miles from my home, so it doesn’t seem like I’ve gone anywhere.

The little day-trip roadie just 25 km west of the city turned into an epic adventure that had all the plusses and minuses of Nepal wrapped into a 13-hour package. The trip was organized by Woo Suk Junk (Sook), a project manager for the Korea Spinal Cord Injury Association (KSCIA). Koreans are all over Nepal working on any number of development projects ranging from road and hospital building to financing the new handicapped table tennis center in Jorpati.

A month earlier, I worked briefly with a Korean film team who was shooting the grand opening of the 2nd floor bathrooms at the SIRC, which were donated by the KSCIA. Nice though the bathrooms are, their main focus was filming the building of a wheelchair accessible home high above the Tsuli River just west of the city. They spent 10 days filming the disabled couple as friends and family worked to rebuild their old home that was destroyed by the earthquake. Unfortunately, the film budget ran out before the house was finished. My job was to shoot video of the finished project.

Suk had commandeered the SIRC’s Bolero four-wheel jeep for the day. I was showered and ready for a 7 a.m. pickup outside my house and was a bit taken aback when the driver who pulled up was Suman, the same driver who had rolled the SIRC bus over my left wheel. I was screaming mad that day, and though we’d buried the hatchet, I never really warmed up to the guy. But after just a few miles in the car, we were laughing at some idiot Nepali drivers and all the tension quickly melted away. By the end of the day we’d become road-warrior buddies.

Suman drove me though the back roads behind Kathmandu’s Tribuhavn airport and gave me a little tour of the neighborhoods where he grew up and still lives. He stopped off at his house and gave his wife a jug of fresh milk that he’d picked up at a local farm. The milk was still cow-body warm and it almost made me heave.

Suman - Nepal's King of the Road!
We skirted the airport and picked up Chetra, the third member of our crew, in Jorpati. Chetra is one of my favorite cats at the SIRC. He’s a PT who runs the super-busy wheelchair assembly and repair shop. We hit it off early on in my trip when I whipped out a tube of J-B Weld to repair the bus’s wheelchair ramp. He thought the stuff was amazing and made me promise to send him a dozen tubes when I got back to America. (We also used the same tube to repair my left wheel when Suman crushed it!). Chetra has the mindset of an engineer. He sees problems and fixes them. He’s also great at pranking people who deserve it.

Two miles later we came upon the Hotel Tibet, a high-end hotel just across the street from the world-famous Boudha Stupa (the one with the crazy eyes!). Suk popped in the car and handed us all water and bananas. The four of us were on an adventure and the longer the day got, the happier I became with each one of them.  

It was 9 o’clock by the time we scooped up Suk and we had to cross the entire city in heavy traffic. It took nearly an hour to reach the west end of the valley and I was really psyched to cross over the ridge and hit some open road.

But as we crested the summit to the outside world we came upon a sight that I’ve never seen before. From our vantage point we could see more than 6 miles of road twisting down into a valley and winding up the side of the next mountain. As far as the eye could see there was a line of Indian Tata trucks and busses stopped dead in their tracks. We still had clear road for a bit but as we drifted into the valley past thousands of bus passengers I wondered if I would ever make it home that night. Eventually our side of the two-lane highway became congested and we came to a dead halt.

See those dots way, way off in the distance - those are busses packed with people trying to get to where we were.
For the next two hours we proceeded at 100 meter stretches, interrupted by dead stops of up to a half hour. On the opposite side of the road the caravan only seemed to move once every four or five times we did. At one point, I looked at Chetra, who grew up in this region, and asked him if this was a fluke or normal.

“Not normal,” he said, “but not uncommon either.”

Just as noon approached we rid ourselves of traffic and Suman actually got the Bolero up to 50 miles an hour. I popped my head out the window and took in my first breaths of clean air since leaving the beach in Den Haag the first week of March. It was also the first time since my plane landed at the airport that I had traveled faster than 40 miles an hour. It’s very rare that you are ever out of traffic in Kathmandu.

The clouds were threatening, but they did open up from time to time to reveal villages climbing their way up the terrace-farmed mountains. The road hugged the Trisuli River much like the roads in the Oregon hug the streams of the Cascades. Although this was welcome scenery, it paled in comparison to the drunk-on-green rain-forests of Oregon. The biggest mountains in the world lay just beyond my reach, but I was homesick for the Pacific Northwest.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant that the three of them were very familiar with and we were greeted warmly by the cook and his wife. While the Nepalis all went for their standard rice and dal, I saw a plate of egg-fried rice on the menu and ordered up a big helping. While I never got sick of Indian food, Nepali food has gotten the best of me. Unlike Tibetan food, there’s a bit of a kick to it, but eating steamed white rice meal after meal is killing me. When I got home from Dharamsala, I wanted more Indian food. But now I’m just jonesing for a steak.

After lunch we jumped back into the rig and headed to the wheelchair house, a few clicks back in the direction of Kathmandu. Chetra pointed Suman into a small road that quickly turned into a rocky double track trail along the river floor. With no notice, Suman took a left and barreled right into the Trisuli which was only a tiny stream at his point. He crossed it while slyly looking over at me to see my expression. When he plowed out of the bank on the far side he looked at my dropped jaw and gave a nice hearty chuckle.

Then he motored over some rocks before finding the double track that led directly up the opposite side of the valley. As he powered up the trail the terrain switched from a full road, back to double track and at sometimes, huge ditches that somehow the Bolero managed to pass. All the while we were climbing higher and higher up the side of the mountain.

In no short order we were hovering above the valley on a road that looked like it could easily crumble into the Trisuli at any juncture. Suman was smiling ear to ear as he navigated us higher and higher until we came upon the farmstead that was our destination.

While I have been on more hair-raising drives in Northern India, this one is the craziest for one that was described to me as a "Wheelchair-Friendly" environment. 

When Suk described the house to me I understood it to be an accessible home along an accessible road. But this certainly was not the case. After we parked, I had to be pushed around to the back of the house where there was no accessible entry to any of the three structures. The ruins of the former house still sat in a pile of rubble just in front of the new two-room structure that did not yet have a roof. Chetra and Suman wheeled me down a steep path to the entrance way where we met the couple who would soon inhabit it. Chetra explained to me that one room was the kitchen while the other was the living quarters – and soon there would be a wall separating the toilet and shower.

At some point the ruin of the former house would be cleared and they would construct a ramp that would allow them to make it up to the main house. But the main house was easily 10 feet higher than the new structure. If a wheeler planned on making it on their own power, that would require at least 90 feet of ramp. Their certainly wasn’t room for more than a few dozen feet to work with. I imagine that they will build a super-steep ramp and the residents will have to rely on their family to push them in and out of their own home. The 12-1 ADA ramp standard is a pipe dream in Nepal.  The only thing accessible in this home will be the bathroom and more than likely they will not leave their property for years on end.

Soon to be a bedroom and an accessible bathroom. 
I set up my camera and filmed what I could, also doing interviews with Chetra and the woman of the house. As I moved around and set up new shots, Suk whispered in my ear, “This place isn’t close to being finished. Go ahead and film, but the crew needs shots of the finished house.” Aside from the amazing scenery and the crazy drive, for his purposes, the trip was a bust.

We sipped tea and took photos (Every day is picture day in Nepal!) then piled back in the Bolero for the roller coaster ride back to the main road. The decent was twice as hairy as the climb, but Suman seemed to grin even wider. It occurred to me as he tested the edges of the road – and even had to back up for 100 yards -  that he might be the best damn driver in Kathmandu.

It was just around 3 when we got to the scene of the traffic nightmare, but miraculously it had cleared up. There were a few disabled vehicles that were causing the snarl and once they were removed, the train eventually pulled out of the valley. What took us two hours to clear in the morning was silenced in less than 20 minutes.

The Trisuli River Valley is much nicer when not lined with exhaust dumping Tatas.
But this time as we crested the ridge and looked over Kathmandu we saw storm clouds and traffic backing up in all directions. The four of us had been in excellent spirits even though the nasty traffic outside the valley, but this latest slowdown began to wear on us. I put my head down and kipped off for a half an hour only to wake to the same scenery as when I crashed.  

We had to cross all of Kathmandu in heavy traffic to drop off Suk and Chetra. I texted Sangita my house mom and told her I’d be home by 5. When 5 o’clock came and we hadn’t even seen Jorpati, I texted her again and said it would be closer to 7. This whole time Suman, who suffered through the first traffic jam was now into nearly 5 hours of driving only in first and second gear. After we dropped off Suk at the Hotel Tibet he looked at me, rubbed his leg and said, “This is torture – I haven’t seen 4th gear in hours.”

Suman navigated more than five hours of this on the day
After dropping off Chetra and plowing through the back roads to Suryabinayak (which thank god were open) I finally made it home. My phone read 7:05. Aside from lunch at the short stop at the house, Suman had been driving since 5:30 that morning – and still had 20 more minutes before he got home.   I told Suman he was Superman. He laughed and said “Superman is not going to work tomorrow.”

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Captain Crip Extra: Fair Warning to Dog Murderers

A harrowing event at work unfolded when I was rolling up the ramps to the top floor of the SIRC. A 35 lb. short-haired yellow mutt had wandered onto the roof and two complete meatbrains were chasing it away with sticks.   The dog found the ramp down and was on its' way towards me when one of the dufi hurled a shovel at it from above trying to kill it. The pooch freaks out, and thinking  the assault is coming from below, reverses course and unwisely bolted back towards the roof.

I immediately go ape shit on these assholes, grabbing one of them and screaming that if he ever assaults a dog again, I'm going to throw him off the roof. He laughs at me and tells me the dog is a killer who has bitten many people. I look over at the freaked out pooch, who is wearing a collar, and scream at the dotard,  “That’s somebody's pet you jackass!”

Meanwhile the pooch, who has been badly injured in what appears to be an attack from another dog, is running for its life and panting so hard, I thought it was going to have a heart attack. I went to my work room; the pooch runs right in behind me and looks at me as if to say, “Can you believe this shit?”

I reach under his chin and give him a few scratches and he looks back at me saying, “Dude, get me the hell out of here.”

I look back at the brain-dead pair and said, “Sure thing - killer dog! Bites people. You fucking idiots!”

One of my co-workers, who I play guitar with, comes on the scene and I ask him if he can find me a rope. Meanwhile the dog is licking me and just dying to have me get him passed the two crap-for-soul idiots. The guitar player comes back with some electrical cord which I tie to his collar before walking the dog out of the madness. The dog heels perfectly as I navigate the four 100-ft long ramps to the ground floor. I lead him out the door and let him loose, but he looks back at me, still wildly panting and says, “Man, I’m hurtin’ here. Can you spill me some water?”

So I go to the cafeteria where I meet my P.A. Rownika  who is also a dog lover. She gets a bowl, we fill it up with water and she (knowing the cooks won’t be happy if we let the dog drink out of a human bowl) pours water into her cupped hands for the pooch who laps it up like a four-year-old going after an ice cream cone.

We walk the pooch out of the compound, untie the leash and let it on it’s way. Rownika goes to a local bodega and buys him some biscuits, but he just wants to boogie on home. Luckily the neighborhood dogs know Rownika does this from time to time, so they cuddled up to her and munched the package.

But here’s fair warning to ANYONE ON THIS PLANET. If you throw a shovel at a dog, I will throw it back at you. If I miss, I will pick it up and throw it again and again until I cause damage. 

Nepali Disabled Sports

As of last Saturday, I have been hired as personal coach for the Nepalese entrant in the 100-meter freestyle and 100-meter breast stroke at the Rio Paralympics. I got this prestigious job while swimming with one of Nepal’s Paralympians last Saturday at a pool high above Kathmandu. While this sounds quite prestigious there is no money, no trip to Rio and, in fact, I actually have to pay to enter the pool. The swimmer in question has also never really worked out and isn’t quite sure how either stroke works. She saw me chugging out my weekly 1650 and asked for help.

Champions will train in this pool!

Although there are exceptions, this is how Nepalese disability sport works. The roads are so torn up and congested in this country that there really is no place for a hand cyclist or a chair rider to train. It’s quite similar to how my dad explained how the track team at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee worked in the 50s: “For practice we ran around the block. Then on Friday there were track meets.”

There also is very little quality gear to use. A few weeks back I was in a 5K race, but nobody had anything resembling a racing chair. The winner just pumped their super-heavy iron daily rides through the course, hit the tape, then piled into cabs or vans and went home. In rich countries everyone shows up in their daily ride, then transfers into a slick racing chair or an 18-speed hand cycle. When I train for a race, I will put on thousands of miles on perfect roads or trails and be in tip top condition for the start. In Nepal you go with what momma gave you.

(Full wrap up of the 5K Race)

One of my co-workers, Rishi Ram Dhakal is the current president of the Nepal Spinal Cord Injury Sports Association (NSCISA). As in all things political in Nepal there is a split in the disability sports community. The NSCISA offers competitions to spinal cord injured athletes in swimming, track & field, basketball, table tennis, cricket and chess. They’ve even dabbled in water polo. They started offering national championships in 2010 and fielded Nepal’s first wheelchair basketball and cricket teams the same year.  On the other hand, the Nepal Paralympic Committee runs swimming, track and power lifting competitions for all disabled athletes  – and has tickets to Rio.

There are also other sports organizations than run competitions, like the 5K race which was run by the Nepal Healthcare Equipment Development Commission. If you are looking to this post to sort it out, you might as well stop right here, because I have no idea how any of it works.

But I’ve been able to attend one track and field event, a few basketball practices, two swimming workouts and the opening of the National Table Tennis center. I’ve also participated in some schoolyard cricket and volleyball.

Women are an integral part of Nepali disabled sports
From what I can tell the basketball team and the table tennis federation have the best facilities and equipment. They are the best trained and most successful athletes. The basketball teams are sponsored by the Danish Disabled Sports Association and there are ten brand new basketball chairs so players don’t have to destroy their daily chairs. They took 2nd in the subcontinent games in 2013. 

There are outdoor ping pong tables all over Nepal so it’s a very popular sport. There is no difference in equipment or rules from able body ping pong so it makes sense that it’s thriving. As a weird Nepal coincidence (they happen all the time here) the former national table tennis champion owns a sports and music shop in my town, Suryabinayak. He sold me my two guitars the first week I was in town and I hadn’t seen him since. When I was playing piano at the Table Tennis Center opening (many miles from Suryabinayak) he came up to the stage and enthusiastically greeted me. I meet tons of people here so I just waved and kept playing. It wasn’t until I sat down for the presentation that my friend re-introduced us. I nearly shat my pants when I figured it out.

Me, Deepak K.C., the architect of the new table tennis center, and Ram, the former national champ and the guy who sold me my guitars!

Wrap up of opening of the National Disabled Table Tennis Center

But, when I say best-trained, it’s not like any of these athletes are well-trained at all. A US Olympian will usually spend 40-50 hours a week doing something with their sport. These athletes are lucky if they can spend 5-10 hours training.

But what they lack in sophistication, they more than make up in team spirit and inclusion. If there is a sporting event, you can bank on at least 100 persons with disability showing up to participate or watch. Aside from protest marches they appear to be the major social functions of the disability community. And it’s really great to see women participating in all sports and being championed by the media just as much as their male counterparts. It’s also a place where caste and disability level are uniformly ignored.

Not only are Nepali disabled athletes participants, they are also crazy cricket fans!

So you won’t be seeing any Nepalese athletes taking home any medals in Rio, but look out for a strong showing from that Table Tennis team in 2020!

Monday, May 2, 2016

Newari Wedding Season!

If you’ve ever lived abroad, you get a feeling a few months into the trip that you’re actually getting used to the place and it’s not freaking you out every day. Nothing will shatter that delusion faster than attending a wedding in your new country.

I’ve been to several weddings outside of the U.S. but none of them are like our U.S. bacchanaliae. When I lived in Taiwan in 1987 I went to a wedding at a huge banquet hall. The place was packed and as noisy as a boxing match. The bride, groom and their parents were busy doing something at the front of the room while everyone else was yukking it up with ample servings of rice wine. About an hour into it, the wedding party stood up, turned around and everyone applauded. I asked my friend Larry if they were about to start the ceremony. “No,” he said. “It’s all finished. Now it’s just a party.”

I went to a similar affair in Dubai except that the only women talking were the six synchronized swimmers on our team. All the other voices were from Arab males – all of whom were trying to chat up our six women. The Arab women were covered head to toe, but when one of our swimmers went into the bathroom she reported that underneath the burka, the women had more makeup on than she used for her swimming routines.

I went to a blowout of a wedding in France, which was much like an American wedding except when it came to the groom removing the bride’s garter belt. When this happens all the men go to one side of the room and all the women go to the other. The men throw money in the center to have the groom raise the belt higher and the women throw money in to have it lowered. The couple cleared close to $500 US from this stunt.

But I have NEVER been to anything quite like a Newari wedding. It’s so complicated that the woman who invited me – who was the sister of the bride – had no idea what was going on most of the time.

And it took a LONG time.

Early morning cake ceremony - with only the bride present from the main wedding party. 
I was told to arrive at 9 a.m., but when I got there the ceremony had already begun. The wedding was being held in a banquet hall that consisted of two 2500 ft. square rooms. One room was for rituals and the other was for eating. The father of the bride is a patient at SIRC and his daughter, Rownika is my volunteer production assistant. I rolled into the room to see Rownika’s sister cutting up a piece of wedding cake and taking a bite. I wondered how much I’d missed – and I wondered where Rownika was. One would think the bride’s sister would be around for such events, but she was nowhere to be seen.

After the cake cutting was done we were ushered into the dining hall for breakfast. I sat with a table of people who spoke no English, so I wasn’t getting any good information on the day’s schedule. I finished the meal and out of the corner of my eye, saw Rownika dash by. I caught up to her and after telling her she looked absolutely stunning (she should have posed for bridesmaid magazine), I asked her what was going on? How did she miss the cake cutting ceremony?

Selfie with Rownika - I'm just not used to keeping such good company. 

Rownika informed me that this was the first of a dozen rituals that would take place throughout the day. Traditionally these rituals took place over a four day period, but the modern ceremony crams them all into one day. At first I thought four-days was pretty extreme until I remembered that U.S. weddings usually take place over a three-day span; bachelor/bachelorette party, rehearsal & dinner and finally the wedding and the reception.

The big difference is that these rituals are solemn religious ceremonies in which neither the bride nor the groom smile.  They wear sad faces as a sign of respect to their families. They have to show sorrow for leaving their parents’ house, not happiness at starting a new life. This didn’t quite jive with anything I’ve ever thought of for a wedding. Which of course reminded me that without speaking any Nepali, I really don’t have a clue as to what is going on here. I just shoot film and hope for the best.

Catholics have water, wine and some bread. That's nothing compared to Newari weddings!
The rituals continued choreographed by either the priest, or the group of relatives saying good bye (brothers, uncles, aunts etc.). There were so many rituals that even Rownika had no idea what some of them were. There was the showering of fruit over the bride and groom; there was the blessing of money to be paid to the priest, there was the blessing of money given as wedding gifts, there was the blessing of the foods that were given as wedding presents, it went on and on.

Niwari culture is obsessed with food which is why the only appropriate wedding gift is food (well and cash, of course). 
One of Rownika's aunts showering the couple with fresh fruit. 
Rownika was quite busy, but I did manage to corner her from time to time to ask here some simple questions – none of which had simple answers. She kept on introducing me to her brothers and sisters until the list became way too long for just one family.

 “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” I asked. 

“Oh, it’s really just me and my two sisters,” she said. “But we consider all cousins as brothers and sisters.”

“Where is the groom’s mother?” I asked. “I met his father, but not her.”

“She is at home preparing the new house,” she said.

“Wait, she’s missing her own son’s wedding?” I asked. “I think my mom would bust into here with a gun if she couldn’t come!”

“Maybe, but that’s not our culture. Her job is to prepare the new home.”

At no time during the entire day was the group addressed as a whole. In fact, most of the rituals were only watched by 20 people, while the rest of the party was either in the dining room eating, or just sitting at other tables completely ignoring what was going on with the couple. Food was constantly being passed around the room, but this did not mean that the ceremonies didn’t stop for a full huge Nepali lunch.

Even with more than 100 in attendance, most rituals were only witnessed by at best a few dozen. 
After lunch the first sign of alcohol was introduced into the proceedings, but it was just a few small glasses of beer mixed in with the rest of the drinks being served. I grabbed one and it disappeared before I could even set it down. Then I looked around and noticed that I was one of three people out of about 100 who was drinking a beer. This was not the slop-fest that US weddings are known for.

Rownika getting blessed by her new brother-in-law after giving her wedding gift (which like everyone's gift - was CASH!)

The rituals continued for four more hours and although it never got boring, I stopped feeling compelled to jump in and see what was going on. I hung back with the cousins for a few of them and answered the same questions over and over again; I’m from America. I make videos for the SIRC. Yes, I met Rownika and her dad at the SIRC. Yes, I like Nepal quite a bit. No, I will not be staying here.

Die-hard Newari Packer fan. 

I started packing an inflatable globe a few years back and it has come in very handy on any number of occasions. Here it was a grand success as several of Rownika’s relatives have lived abroad. It also doubles as a beach ball to toss at kids who are bored out of their skull.  

Eventually the final rituals ended and the wedding party went outside for the thousands of pictures that needed to be taken. It was six o’clock and things were winding down so I asked Rownika where the after party would take place. She looked incredulously at me and said, “But we were at a party all day. Aren’t you tired?”

“Not really,” I said. “I just assumed there was a big party after all the rituals?”

“No, we’re all exhausted,” she said. “I just want to go home get out of this dress and go to bed (it was 6 o’clock!)”

The three sisters and Shrek. (bride is 2nd from right)

I assumed there would be a big long after party, but again, that’s what Americans do, not Newaris. I’d actually booked a room in Thamel assuming I’d be out past the 9 p.m. cab curfew when all fares double. Instead I grabbed a cab back to my room in Suryabinayak and actually made it home in time for supper. Having stuffed myself all day, I had no interest in anymore food – something that shocked my house parents.

“Tom you must be starving,” my house mom said, “It’s nearly 8 o’clock – you must eat!”
So no, I’m not exactly used to things here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Life at the SIRC

It’s occurred to me that since I’ve left Oregon I’ve written about all sorts of topics and events without even mentioning what I’m doing here or what daily life is like. So, on the first anniversary of the massive 7.9 earthquake that first made me think of coming to Nepal, It’s time I let you all in on what is happening here.

My interest in Nepal goes decades deep. I first came here in 1991 and thought it was one of the brightest jewels on the Asia travel circuit. Kathmandu was a quaint sleepy capitol with clean air and monster peaks towering out over the foothills. I ventured west to Pokhara and hiked high above the city only to be beaten over the head from an audience with the mountain-god, Machipuchare, the most stunning and dramatic thing on Earth.  Ever since then, I’ve always kept Nepal on my radar. I’ve made two long trips to the Himalayas since, but have not been able to get back to Kathmandu.

Hopefully going back to Pokhara in two weeks for another audience with the great one. 
But exactly one year before this writing, I was working on a contract gig in Wisconsin when news broke of the horrendous and devastating quake. A few years earlier at a medical conference in Bangladesh, my brother Andy and I befriended Dr. Raju Dhakal, a Nepalese resident in rehabilitation medicine studying in Dhaka. Raju has a disability himself which forces him to walk with two arm canes. He can also play a mean guitar and sing all kinds of Nepali folk music so our friendship became much deeper than what you usually experience from meeting someone at a convention.

Dr. Raju Dhakal and his most awesome wife Sheela - who just completed here masters in public health. 

When news of the devastation flooded the airwaves I began checking my Facebook page hourly for news from Raju. He was still in Dhaka, but his entire family lives in the Kathmandu Valley. He is also tightly aligned with the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Center, which is where I’ve been working the last two months.

Once we found out that everyone he knew was OK, we decided we had to help out as quickly as possible. We asked Raju what we could do and he very bluntly said, “We need cash.” As Raju and his colleagues in Dhakal mobilized for an emergency flight to Kathmandu, Andy and I began a social media blitz to raise as much as we could as quickly as we could. We sent out a press release and one of the local Milwaukee News stations picked up on it and had us in for an interview.

A little local news love from Fox 6 in Brewtown. 

In less than a week we collected close to $5000 (I’m guessing most of that came from readers of this blog) and sent it via Western Union to Raju. The next day Raju sent a picture from the SIRC with of a huge stack of Nepali rupees and the full staff of the SIRC standing behind him.

For those of you who haven’t traveled to LRE Countries (LRE = “Low Resource Environment,” formerly “Developing Nations,” formerly “Third World” – and probably by the time you read this, they will have come up with a new term.) stuff here is unbelievably cheap, so those dollars go a LONG, LONG way.  The average salary at the SIRC is about $2000 a year – and that’s for educated employees like nurses and physical therapists. I’m gladly paying $450 a month for room and board in a wheelchair accessible house (there are almost NONE here) in the fairly affluent suburb of Suryabinayak. But if I were your average bi-ped, I could surely find something closer to $50 month.
When I eat out, I stuff myself at very nice restaurants for under $5/plate. A nice 32 oz. bottle of local beer will run you $2.50 which is a major splurge for your average Nepali. If I just want to grab lunch at a cafĂ©, it won’t run more than $2. Jeans are $10/pair and I’m going to splurge on a $15 pair of Adidas knock-offs as soon as my credit cards get here (my wallet got lifted the second week I was here and I STILL have not been able to access my accounts).

The biggest expense in Nepal is fuel which, due to Indian gas embargos, has climbed to $4/gallon. This has had a crippling effect on the earthquake recovery and mass transportation is being pushed to the limit. There are busses on the road carrying two times as many passengers as a full bus in the states – and kicking out 50 times (if not more) as much exhaust. 

That traffic ain't movin' and those exhaust pipes are most likely kicking out pure black smoke. 
Every day I wake up, take a shower (something very few of Nepal’s paras get to do) and head to an unmarked bus stop with my Nepali sister, Nikita. The SIRC owns two busses and they make daily 90-minute jaunts from Jorpati in Northeast Kathmandu through the city, past Suryabinayak and ending up at the SIRC just over the first eastern foothill of the Kathmandu Valley. One bus has places for three wheelers to chain in, but there are normally five or six of us. Whoever gets on first jumps out of their chair and takes a seat while the driver’s helper folds the chair and store it just in front of the cab or on the roof.

This bus has seats for 24, but we've packed 48 in - including a dozen wheelers. 

At any time, traffic can come to a complete standstill and you have no idea how long you might be stuck. Last week there was a protest on the road by family members of a motorist who was killed in a traffic accident. Traffic was stopped in both directions so I got off the bus and rolled the final four miles home. My co-workers never made it home to Jorpati. The bus turned around and they all took beds back at the hospital.

But most days, it’s just a twenty-minute ride from my house to the SIRC. The SIRC is a very clean, very modern rehabilitation clinic that currently has 60 beds. There’s a nearly finished expansion that will increase capacity to 200. There is only one part-time doctor, but there are more than 20 professional nurses, social workers, physical therapists and occupational therapists making sure each patient goes through their rehabilitation regime every day.

There are another 20 employees who take care of administration, peer counseling, vocational training and a crack staff of wheelchair repairmen. And there’s another group that does all the cooking, cleaning and driving of various vehicles.

A crowd shot from the SIRC 14th Anniversary party. It's about half staff and half patients.

And then there’s me. My official purpose is to produce the first set of Nepalese-language training videos for each phase of the hospital. PT, OT, Nursing, Vocational Ed, Chair maintenance… the list gets longer every day. I’ve got two people helping me, Anu and Rownika, and they’re making up for the language barrier.

But then I’ve got a bunch of other things I do. I edit the English language publications and I’m a de-facto peer counselor. I’ve been teaching guitar, piano, web-design and excel to anyone who wants to learn. Ever since the word got out that I can make videos, I’ve been working with all sorts of groups to either make them from scratch, or just put finishing touches on projects. I’m due to leave July 9th and I’ll be booked solid right up until the end.

But to be honest, my main job is to hang around and be positive. There is a lot of depression that goes along with spinal cord injury.  I went years not wanting to live another day. I didn’t believe people get through it and have good days. So that’s my main objective here: Have good days and hang out with people who don’t. The language barrier is tough, but I actually think it’s working when people see me they smile – and some patients don’t smile around other people.  

I probably shouldn’t sing loudly as I’m rolling around the place, but they’re getting used to it.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Prime Ministers and Purple Shirts

This is not how my day started. 
There is just something funky about that damn purple shirt and a nondescript workout on Saturday morning sealed its’ legacy.

The "cleansing" fires of last week’s New Year’s celebration made the air so thick with toxic smoke that bacteria can actually be transmitted by breathing the stuff. This left me with a nasty respiratory infection that clogged my lungs and nasal passages for a few days. Each morning last week I spent the better part of an hour trying to clear my throat, lungs and sinuses.

Instead of heading to Jorpati for the weekend, I decided to stay home in Suryabinayak and stay clear of dusty traffic and exhaust fumes. For the first time since coming to Nepal, I had absolutely nothing on my agenda. I slept in, took a shower then scanned my dwindling clothing options for they day. My duffle of dirty laundry was already enroute to the woman who washes my clothes, leaving me with only one T-shirt to go with.

I had not even looked at my infamous purple tie-dye since the scourge of social media forced it to the bottom of the stack. But the only thing on my docket was rolling up the super-steep road that leads from my house to a temple looking over the Eastern half of the Kathmandu Valley. I was going to get filthy and sweat like a pig, so what better shirt to wear?

Although the road to the temple is not long (2 miles?) it is incredibly steep – rising to a 10% grade at some points. As I made my way up higher and higher, I had to fight off an army of well-wishers who insisted on grabbing my chair and pushing. At first I would politely say, “No push, please.” But this did not dissuade anyone. They would smile put their heads down and push even harder at which point I had to grab my wheels and force the chair to a stop. If they insisted, I sternly said, “No push – exercise.” This usually did the trick, but on a few occasions, I had to stop, turn to the person and, in an extremely blunt tone, say, “Stop pushing me. This is not your chair. It is mine. I am exercising. You need to ask before you touch somebody’s wheelchair.” This would finish them off, although the do-gooders at this level are dumbfounded by the concept.

Half-way up the temple road. I'm guessing the view from here 20 years ago was spectacular. There are 20,000 ft. mountains off in the distance. 

After 20 minutes I made it to what I understood to be the summit. But having lots of experience with Himalayan mountain roads, I know that they have no summit. There’s always more to go. I rolled along a flat section of road surrounding the temple until I came upon another rise, this one even steeper than the road from my house.

By now I was getting quite high and the views, which would have been much better without the dense fog of air pollution, were nonetheless remarkable. I also started to gather a crowd as they don’t normally see chubby white guys in wheelchairs humping up big hills in Kathmandu. I took stock of the road which seemed to spiral ever upward at a steeper and steeper grade. I was already having to lean forward with my chest on my thighs just to keep from tipping over backwards.

While I could have continued, I remembered that getting up these things is only half the battle. Unlike on a bicycle, dropping down these big climbs in a wheelchair can be harder than going up. There are no brakes on these chairs, so you have to sit in a wheelie and alternately clamp and loosen your grip on the push rim. This creates an enormous amount of friction and heat. It was 80 degrees out, so even rubbing the rim for a hundred meters would create enough heat that I would have to stop and let the rig cool.

It may not look like much...

But it BURNS! 
Just before I turned around a well-dressed local teen asked me if I needed help to get down. I told him I had it, but it would be great if he could film me. It doesn’t look like much, but that little run ripped a hole in my hand. I reached into my bag for my gloves, but I remembered that I’d tossed them in my laundry bag a few days earlier. I rarely use them, but this would have been the time. I pulled out my role of duct tape and wrapped a few straps around each palm. It still hurt, but I wouldn’t do any more damage.

When the teen handed my camera back he pointed over to a large gathering in the woods about 100-meters away. Then he said, “Sir, seeing as you have a camera, would you like to take a picture of the former Prime Minister of Nepal?"

I’ve been reading quite a bit about Nepal politics since arriving and it is not a nice business. Even the recent history of Nepali leaders is riddled with double-crossings, forced exiles and often times murder. There are dozens of political parties and coalition building often comes at a very high price. I looked around the grounds but didn’t notice any security so I wondered if the kid had gotten his information mixed up.

As I approached the tent where the gathering was held, I looked towards the center to see a distinguished looking man who was, in fact, Madhav Kumar Nepal, the Prime Minister of Nepal from 2009 to 2011. (did not know this – had to look it up!) He was the leader of the Nepal Communist Party. In these poor countries, the Communist Party is basically just a little left of center – not the radical party it is in the U.S. The conservative party is the Nepali Congress Party, but comparing them to Republicans is just as silly. It’s not like there are a huge voting block of people with tons of cash who don’t want to see anything change. They’re just a bit more cautious on the speed of change - which everyone agrees must happen.  

As I made my way into the gathering, people rushed to my chair and pushed me right up to the front. I was trying not to cause a scene, but I caused the biggest scene of the day. One of Nepal’s assistants approached me, took down my name and where I was from then asked me if I wanted to meet the Prime Minister. Of course I said I did and the assistant walked back over with the big wigs.

Every single time I've met a Prime Minister I get seats like this. 

All the talks were in Nepalese so I had no what I was applauding, but I applauded anyway. When it was Nepal’s turn to speak, he opened with a short statement in Nepali, then looked directly at me and addressed me in English. Nepali told them I had rolled all the way up to the temple on my own power and I was a symbol of determination for all of Nepal – to which the crowd rose and gave me a standing ovation I just blushed and kept saying, "Dari, dari dan u bat" (Thank you very very much). He then instructed his assistant to place a golden “Khaka” (ornamental scarf) over my shoulders. I placed my palms together and bowed as the garment was placed on the purple tie-dye which was now soaked through and through.

Nepal concluded his remarks and the crowed stormed around him for pictures. Once again the assistant came over and wheeled me right next to him (I wasn’t bitching about being pushed around anymore). I extended my duct-taped hand to the Prime Minister and he took it with a big smile. I then had to reposition my chair to pose for the crowd. Looking back at me was an army of phones and cameras snapping away as if I were a Beatle.

Duct Tape use No. 22321 - shaking hands with heads of state. 

Nepal turned to me and said, he would love to talk but he had another engagement. With that, four-khaki-clad, Kalashnikov-carrying soldiers dropped from the trees and escorted him to his car that sped him off the mountain.

Just like that it was over. I slowly and painstakingly rolled down the hill and yelled up to my family to come see the pictures. While my house mom and dad were looking at the photos and video I shot, my sister Nikita came in to the room, looked at one picture and said, “Oh My God!!! I can’t believe you’re wearing THAT SHIRT!!!!”

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Happy Birthday SIRC!

Happy 14th Anniversary SIRC!!
Party No. 2 in last week’s back-to-back party sequence was the 14th Anniversary Celebration of the hospital I work at, The Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Center (SIRC). After the Table Tennis Center opening, I spent the night in my second home at the Green Building. Deepak the architect and I stayed up a little too late lauding our success, so it was a rougher morning than I anticipated.

But I was up at 7 a.m. and packed up my gear which had grown considerably for this trip to Jorpati. Normally I just bring a tooth brush and a change of clothes, but for this adventure I had to haul my camera gear, a guitar and two changes of good clothes. Along with my normal backpack, I left my room hauling three bulky bags and a guitar.

The SIRC owns a bus that starts and ends its’ 90-minute rounds every day in Jorpati. It’s got a very steep ramp and room inside to seat three wheelchairs comfortably. But for the anniversary they had invited anyone who had been a patient. By the time the bus would eventually get to the SIRC on the eastern foothills of the Kathmandu Valley, the bus would be hauling 20 wheelers and their gear. 

The SIRC bus on a normal day. 
Those of us who boarded at the starting point were required to transfer into a regular seat while our chairs were being staged to be loaded on the luggage rack on top of the bus. I bounced into one of the first seats, while the lighter women were being carried to seats towards the back.

With most of us loaded in the bus, the driver inexplicably decided it was time to turn the bus around so it would go head first out of the compound gate. There were chairs and wheels all around him, but he thought nothing of it as he backed around and rolled right over my left wheel. I heard a clank and thought to myself, “Damn, somebody just got their chair mushed.”

The driver didn’t stop, he just kept maneuvering his gigantic Y-turn until I got full view of my maimed, irreplaceable (on this continent) wheel. One of my friends was still on the ground and I shrieked at him, “Dude – is that my wheel!!! What the f*ck!!! Let me see that thing!!”

He brought it over and although the basic wheel remained somewhat intact, the push-rim had been bent beyond recognition and the screws that held it to the wheel were mostly destroyed. By now the driver realized that he hit the one chair he didn’t want to mess with as all the other chairs have fully replaceable parts. He saw me through the rear view mirror and it wasn’t a pleasant face. He sheepishly got up and came back to take a look at the wheel.

This driver speaks no English at all, but I’m pretty sure he understood when I yelled, “What the F*ck were you thinking!!”

At this point I’m really freaking out wondering what has become of the rest of my stay in Nepal. This terrain is the toughest I’ve ever had to negotiate and having a solid push rim is essential to holding wheelies and climbing steep grades. Had the driver expressed any kind of remorse, I would have been upset, but understanding. But when my friend translated what he was saying, it made me 10-times angrier. He wasn’t saying, “I’m so sorry; I can’t believe I did this; we’ll get this fixed; can I pay for it.” He was saying, “It’s not my fault; that wheel must have just slipped; I can’t see out of the side view mirror.”

He saw my incredulous chin drop to the floor and realized that he might be in jeopardy of losing his job. At this point he said, “Let’s get It to the shop and work and see what we can do.” I was in a state of shock and panic, but there was nothing I could do. I sunk my face into my hands and said, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

The repaired wheel - believe me it looked a lot worse. 
I had been looking forward to this day since I got here. It wasn’t even eight o’clock and my day, and possibly my entire trip, was ruined. As the bus made its’ way around Kathmandu picking up wheeler after wheeler, I made the conscious decision to not be mad. If things were really crappy with my chair, I was going to deal with it the next day. For now, I planned on hopping into a spare chair once I got to work and having a great Anniversary day regardless of what the next days may bring. 

Two hours after we took off from Jorpati, we arrived at the gates of the SIRC. Normally there are only a few wheelers on the bus and we store extra chairs near the cab. But this bus was overflowing with wheelers. The rack on the top of the bus was a hodgepodge of wheels, chairs and all sorts of mobility devices.

When they pulled my rig off the top and assembled it, I discovered that although the push-rim was trashed, the wheel rolled fairly true. I rolled down the ramp and right into the repair shop, where I transferred over to an Indian long-wheel chair for the day. The long-wheel chairs are super-heavy and instead of two small front wheels, they have a long bar attached to one fat wheel.  While they’re really nice going over rough terrain, they are absolutely annoying in any kind of urban setting. Half the paras here ride one, so I figured I’d give it a test run for the day while my wheel was being operated on.

The festivities started with a time-trial race around the SIRC inside court yard. Even though I had been in my chair less than ten minutes, I decided I had to give it a whirl. While I couldn’t bust around the course like I would in my regular chair, I made decent time. And as opposed to the 5K I entered the previous week, I did not take last place!

New wheels - new finishing place (not last!). 

As much as I was participating, I was also documenting the anniversary for the SIRC website and Facebook page. Every time a new activity started up, I raced to the front with my tripod wedged under my chin then planted it close to the action. I’ve gotten pretty good at this over the past few weeks, but with the new chair sticking out two feet in front of me I had to be really careful with positioning the tripod. I couldn’t do a quick turn-around or I’d dump the camera. The week before, I’d hijacked Rownika, one of the patient’s daughters, as my crack assistant. Most patients come with a family member who stays with them the duration of their rehab which can last many months. 
Rownika is a super smart, super fun, super cute recent university graduate who speaks great English. I could see she was bored to tears with her stay at the SIRC, so I took her under my wing and she’s been a great asset ever since. Whenever I got in trouble, she grabbed the camera and filmed.

Ace production assistant Rownika reading a poem about pollution in Nepal. 
After a morning full of games and a huge lunch for all the guests, everyone moved to the basement where there is a large 200-seat classroom. They use the classroom to teach staff and care givers, but today it was a performance stage. The finale of the day was a talent show where anyone who had an act could hop up on stage and show what they had. I knew of a few musicians, but I had no idea of the depth of talent.

 Meanwhile back in the repair shop, the mechanics had taken off my push rim and unsuccessfully tried to bend it back to shape. Most of the screws that held it to the wheel were bent beyond repair. I always carry a tube of “Water Weld” (same as “JB Weld”) with me and it came to the rescue here. Water Weld is a combination of two kinds of putty that when rubbed together will form a chemical bond that is as strong as steel. We tightened what screws we could back to the chair, then fastened the rest with Water Weld. I transferred into my regular chair and made it back down to the stage just before the program started. Thank god too, because I never could have gotten that big wheel underneath my piano!

After a brief presentation of the history of the SIRC, the founder and president of the hospital gave a quick talk and had a friend of mine from Jorpati, who lives on a prone cart, cut the 14th Anniversary cake.

It’s at this point where it’s best to just run the video as the images speak much louder than my words will. But by the end of the day, my anger had completely dissipated. My chair was a bit of a noisy wreck, but now it’s officially a Nepalese chair. And being angry just takes too much damn work!

And for those of you who are brave, here's my full performance: