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.

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: 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Party in Jorpati!

Just push PLAY here and read on - or watch it to see who comes into the room!

Wednesday and Thursday were back to back huge celebrations for the Kathmandu disability community and I got roped into playing a much bigger part in both parties than I’d anticipated.

The first party on the docket was the opening of the brand new ping pong center for the National Disabled Persons Table Tennis Association-Nepal (NDPTTA-N). Table Tennis is as big a sport in Asia as tennis is in the West. They don’t just bash balls in someone’s basement or aim at full beer cups at the edge of the table. Here they train as hard as any athlete; the TV ratings are huge and the stars are known throughout the continent.

I’ve been spending many weekends in the Kathmandu suburb of Jorpati which is a hotbed of disability activity. There is a major trauma center, a rehab hospital, a school for disabled kids (S.O.S) and a housing unit (The Green Building) that is basically a warehouse for severely disabled people. I get a cheap room in the green building ($2/night) so I can take the bus from the SIRC on Friday (only wheelchair transportation outside of expensive taxis), wake up in Jorpati and play basketball on Saturday morning.

The residents of the Green Building have the most incredible attitudes of any group of people I have ever met. I'm so proud to be a part-timer!

On the surface, the Green House would probably make many of you vomit and run away. Living up to five in a room are some of the most severely disabled persons in the country. Everything from high-level quads, to people suffering from leprosy. The bathrooms are not clean and so many people have bowel and bladder problems that diapers could be used as a form of currency.

My room is in a separate quadrant where things are much tidier. But the Wi-Fi is strong on the other side of the building, so I spend a lot of time there. I started watching cricket with a quad named Krishna and we became fast friends.

Temporarily staying two doors down from me was a paraplegic architect named Deepak K.C. Deepak went to school at S.O.S. and is a life-long friend of most of my new Nepali crew. I was interviewing the headmaster of the school when I saw Deepak next door at a construction site. I rolled over to see what his project was and he couldn’t contain himself.

Best Ramp Designer in all of Nepal - Deepak K.C.

“Tom – come here! Look at the new Table Tennis Center -it’s almost done!”

As I got closer I saw a shiny freshly painted building (a rarity here!) with multiple ramps and huge handicapped bathrooms. The old building had been destroyed in the earthquake and Deepak had been commissioned to rebuild it.  Deepak gave me a tour and told me that the center would be completed in just a few days. He was in the midst of planning a big opening with dignitaries from the International Table Tennis Federation as well as representatives from the U.N. He knew I was at the SIRC filming training videos and he sheepishly asked if I could throw something together for the opening. Apparently the Table Tennis Federation asked him to do this, but he was too busy and he didn’t know anyone who could do it.

I told him to give me all the images he had and I could set up my camera and shoot as the finishing touches are being put on. The next day they were letting a few members of the press in for a sneak peek.    I took a day off from work and filmed as journalists did a walk through and members of the club took their first whacks at the new tables.

Two of Deepak's classmates are Dr. Raju Dhakal, who will soon become the first practicing physiatrist in Nepal and Amrita Gyawali, Nepal's first wheelchair model and president of the 50-bed Amrita Foundation for mental health. 

When I was done I rolled back over to the S.O.S. School and sat down at a keyboard they have in a small rec room. Deepak was looking for me because he had some extra earthquake images. He walked in to find me banging away on some old hippie standards.

“Hey Tom,” he said, “If it’s not too much trouble, could you play piano while people are walking in?”
I’ve only been playing for four years, but I’ve figured out how to get through most of the tunes I play on guitar without sounding hideous. My technique is apparently terrible, but as long as you don’t see my fingers the stuff comes out just fine.

“Sure thing!” I said. After which I started freaking out thinking what I was going to play for 40 minutes.

The next day I took the SIRC bus back to work, but spent the entire day putting the video together. I went home for one night, but had to pack up as I was taking the SIRC bus back to Jorpati after work.  The opening was at eleven the following morning and Deepak hadn’t even seen a rough draft.

When I got back to Jorpati I holed up in Krishna’s room as my computer battery had kicked and Krishna’s electric bed had the only 24-hour power supply in the compound. We watched a movie as I put the finishing touches on the video. Deepak said he would meet us there, but he was stuck in meetings with the Table Tennis Federation and didn’t get out until late.

Early the next morning I found Deepak and he was confident, yet nervous. He had so much on his plate he hadn’t even thought of the video. When I showed it to him, a huge look of relief came over his face.

“Wow!” he said. “This is fantastic!” The Federation was really insisting on this, but I didn’t know if you had actually finished it. You’re going to make me look very good!”

He gave me a few more images to include and I went back to Krishna’s to produce the final cut. An hour later, I headed back over to the table tennis center and helped with setup. While Deepak’s legion was hanging up beautiful room-sized banners, I set up my keyboard and made sure my guitar was in tune. About an hour before show time, I changed into my brand new Nepalese shirt given to me by my friend Amarita. By the time I got dressed and cleaned up, it was time to take the stage.

I felt like a 6th grader at their first public recital. 

There were only a handful of people as I started, but gradually the hall filled a cast of characters that would have been great extras for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Along with several distinguished dignitaries were people representing a wide swath of the disability community. There was everything from children with developmental disabilities to adults with so many birth defects that they arrived on prone carts. A prone cart is a regular hospital cart with large wheelchair wheels on the front. The person lies on their stomach and propels themselves from the large front wheels.

My repertoire included any song I could play that sounded more “piano-y” than “guitar-y.” This included a bunch of Beatles numbers, Grateful Dead tunes that aren’t big show-stoppers and any number of little ditties I’ve picked up along the way. I wasn’t singing anything so bashing out a three-chord tune without lyrics was just going to sound stupid.

Once past the first tune I forgot about the audience and glued into the keys. After each tune I’d look up and scan the crowd, but I quickly returned to watching my fingers run around the keyboard. Motor mechanics are a funny thing. If you practice enough, you can just let your fingers go. They know the chords before you can think of them. After just a few tunes, I was in a nice groove and I let it take over.

With the crowd nearing capacity, I bashed out my finale -  a robust version of Bad, Bad LeRoy Brown.  I banged out the last chord sequence and brought the tune to nice bouncy finish. One of the diplomats applauded and it spread throughout the room. Nobody was blown away, but I didn’t screw up either.

The fools! They bought it!

I rolled off the stage and tried to hide that I was beaming inside. Playing 40 minutes of piano for a distinguished crowd was not in my wheelhouse even a year ago. It was a bucket list moment – not to mention the fact that it was in Kathmandu.

I took a seat in the crowd and listened as talks were presented by each of the dignitaries. I was unexpectedly pulled back onto the stage when the head of the NPDTTA tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Come up and play something while we do some table tennis drills.”  I had no idea what the drills were or what he wanted so I picked up my guitar and bashed out a little three-chord rhythm that seemed to do the trick.

40 minutes into the presentation it was time to show the video. I plugged my computer into the projector and assumed Deepak would introduce it. But he had just given a talk so he handed me the mic and told me to introduce the film. First I asked everyone to applaud Krishna for letting me sit in his room and edit. Then I simply said, “This is not my story. This is your story. I’m just the one here telling it.”

Deepak getting some well-deserved dap from the dignitaries. 

With that I pushed play and let the images and music fly. The room was dead quiet as images of the earthquake gave way to pictures of workers rebuilding the structure. Then at the half-way point I put in a wavy morph from the old building to the brand-new colorful center. I transitioned the music from classical Nepali sarangi to the two-chord power blast in the Grateful Dead’s jazz piece, Eyes of the World

Can't even believe it's the same building. 

When this went down the building literally exploded. Everyone from the diplomats to seven-year-old kids roared and clapped as if someone just scored a goal. I had no idea it would get that kind of reaction. The room was lit up and people cheered loudly every time a new image came on the screen. It literally sent a chill up my spine. I looked over at Deepak and he looked back at me pumping his fist. Three hours before he thought he’d failed, and now it was the biggest triumph of the ceremony.

As the presentation closed and the crowd filed out I sat next to Deepak and leeched credit off his nine months of dedication to the project. He grabbed my arm, look me in the eye and said, “Hey man – you saved my ass today - they really wanted that video and now they are super happy.”

I looked at him and said, “Next time you need a couple hours of editing to validate thousands of hours of work -just give me a call!”

The video from the ceremony. Not a bad last-minute effort!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Ghost of Humiliation Past...

No matter how far away from humiliation you get, once it comes back, it brings with it the ghosts of humiliations past. In this case it came in the form of getting pummeled in a five-kilometer road race on the streets of Pattan -  once a separate country from Kathmandu, but now just the southern area of town.

At one point in my life I fancied myself the next Frank Shorter – the great American distance runner who won the gold in the ’72 Olympic Marathon just days after terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches (yup – they had assholes even before September 11). I’d never watched a road race before but our whole family was glued to the TV as the great Wide World of Sports presenter Jim McKay described the course while color commentator Erich Segal told us what went through the mind of a marathoner.    Segal was much more famous as the author of the sappy novel and film Love Story. But this was back before the running boom had hit America and Phil Knight had sold any shoes. ABC probably figured they’d  pull a new demographic with Segal who was not only a sub-three-hour marathoner, but also Frank Shorter’s English professor at Yale. McKay and Segal had great chemistry and, with an American pulling away for the final medal of the most tragic Olympic games, they had a great story. And then just before Shorter hit the track for the final lap a German impostor pulled out of the tunnel and made his way for the tape. Segal was incensed and gave one of the greatest calls in the history of marathons, “He’s an impostor Frank – You won this race!!”

I met Frank Shorter in 2013 and was as star-struck as a 15-year-old girl meeting Taylor Swift. 
After that day I vowed to win the Olympic marathon. I started running long distances (the mile around my neighborhood) and it stayed with me into my freshman year in high school when I joined the cross country team. I was a solid freshman runner and even got to run a couple of races with the J.V. When my sophomore season started, I dropped some time and scored a bunch of points for the Nicolet J.V. In one race I dropped 30 seconds and finished in the top 20 running the three miles in seventeen minutes and twenty-eight seconds.

Basketball players talk about the change in their body during their high school growth spurt. I had a spurt, except it was pure bulk. I grew an inch or two, but I put on more than 50 pounds between my sophomore and junior season. When I started training cross country I couldn’t even break 19 minutes. My JV teammates moved up to varsity, but I stayed on JV.

Before my senior season started, I had put on another 20 pounds and was relegated to the “C” squad which is reserved for seniors who are too bad to make varsity and juniors who are two slow for JV. I’d start races out near the front of the pack then get passed by runner after runner until my legs felt like lead. I usually jogged in slightly ahead of the heavy wrestlers trying to lose weight for their upcoming season. At the season-ending awards banquet, my coach, the ever-lovable Bernie Bieterman looked at me, shook my hand and said, “Well Thomas… it’s been something.” I got my letter for going out for four years and figured out I had to be the worst letter-winning cross-country runner in the history of Nicolet High School.

No person ever walked through these doors having a poorer four-year distance running career than myself. 

I carried the shame of being a sad-distance athlete until my mid-twenties when I lived in France and started training on a bicycle. I was a professional diver and my thighs were the size of tree trunks. But using the mechanical advantage of gear shifting allows one to compensate for extra weight. All that power I had in my legs went to great use on the bicycle and I discovered I could ride hundreds of kilometers and cook just about anyone on the bike-crazy roads of the  French department of Isere.

Aside from the fact that cycling took my legs from me, I bear it no grudge as it wasn’t cycling’s fault, it was mine. All that distance training came into great use once I bought a hand cycle and started racing big-city marathons. I copped a couple of big city top tens (Washington D.C., Detroit, Seattle) and even won my home town Portland Marathon twice. So the scourge of being the worst cross country runner in the history of my high school was all but abated.

Until Saturday.

2002 Portland Marathon - Vindication!

Friday night I was riding the hospital bus into the disability compound in Jorpati, an eastern suburb of Kathmandu. The local wheelchair basketball team plays on Saturday morning so I’ve been taking my weekends there instead of my neighborhood which is wildly boring – especially when the power and Internet go out.

 I asked my friend on the bus if he was going to play and he said basketball was cancelled because of a 5K race. He told me I could still get in the race and seven wheelers from the SIRC were entered so there were sure to be rides to the start in Pattan.

Check out the logo on the rop left. It's the Association of Nepalis living in Minnesota.
The state outline kind of looks like the Nepali flag. 

I was up at 6 a.m. and rolled out to see two women racers grabbing a cab for the start. Amazingly enough we packed three racers, three chairs, the driver and two young kids into a four seat taxi. The cab driver had no such experience in this and drove with his emergency flashers on. I pointed to the flashers and gestured to him asking why they were on. One of the racers told me he thinks that since he has chairs on his roof he can get through traffic if he acts like he’s an ambulance. I reached over and shut them off.

This rig took about a half-hour to unload. 
We arrived at the start at 7:30 a half an hour before race time. But this is Nepal and nothing happens on time. 8 O’clock came and went and there was still a line of 50 wheelers waiting to get their t-shirts and numbers. I was sizing up the competition and figured that with such a short race, I’d just hop on the front pack, suck their wind for a while then pull around at the end and try to win the bunch sprint. Their chairs were all heavy and mine is made of feathery light aluminum. I hadn’t worked out since leaving the States, but neither had any of the people I knew from SIRC. With all the racing miles I’ve got in my arms, I had to be faster than they were.

Lining up for second place!
We toed the line around 8:30, but had to wait for dignitaries to give long winded speeches – a must for any event in Nepal. I thought we were about to go, when Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball poured out of the speaker system and 12 cheerleaders formed a line dance. It was theater of the absurd and I would have been just fine with it except I downed a liter of water when I got out of the cab thinking I’d be racing soon. Now it was just collecting in my bladder.

What road race doesn't start out with dancers? 
After the dance we turned back around to start the race, only to discover the street had been doubly booked. A couple hundred protesters were coming at us carrying signs in Nepali. I have no idea what they were protesting, and nobody around me spoke English well enough to tell me. The parade went on for a half an hour with me wondering if I had time to sneak off for a piss.

At 9:30 the starter called us to the line and just casually said, “Ok let’s go.” A couple of guys peeled out and I jumped right on their tail only to discover that during the past week my front caster wheels had turned into rickety grocery cart wheels. On Tuesday, my flat mate Fiona noticed my wheels were getting squeaky so she suggested I go to the repair shop inside the SIRC. I rolled in and the head mechanic said he knew what the problem was. I hopped out of my chair and he disassembled both caster wheels, cleaned them out, then re-assembled them. Now these wheels are actually quite complicated. You can’t just unscrew them and screw them back in place or they’ll stick to the side of the mount. It’s actually quite a delicate job to get them to work properly. He told me he’d never seen wheels like these before, but he knew how to get them to work. Once he was done, he spun both wheels and they freely whipped their way around the mount. The floors in the SIRC are smooth as glass so for the rest of the week, I never even noticed a wobble.

Take your marks... Get Set!   OK, we've got a little delay...

For a Nepalese street, this one was actually fairly smooth and had only a few pot holes (as opposed to Jorpati which is one big pothole). But once I went for an angry push, both my casters shook like a dog leaving a lake. The harder I pushed, the more they shook. As the lead pack flew away from me, I tried to hang onto one of the wheelers from the SIRC. After only a half mile he easily pulled away from me in a big heavy 3-wheel chair made for going over rocks.

Before the first mile, the last of the men had pulled away from me and only the slowest women stayed behind me. I was putting in more effort than anyone in the race but I was going backwards. It was like doing an uphill bike race with your brakes on.  I hadn’t felt this humiliated since the final race of my senior cross country season. After the turn at 2.5k, there were only a few women behind me. One by one they all caught me and smoothly pulled ahead. There was nothing I could do. I just kept pushing for all I was worth and my chair shook with defiance on every pull.

By the time I neared the finish line they had already started the awards ceremony. I made it over the line and a bunch of able-bodied helpers ran along with me cheering like they do the developmentally disabled kids. When I crossed the line I was drenched head to toe and my arms were cooked. People kept coming up to me telling me how they loved my spirit – by golly I was “Inspirational!” – and then they would grab the back of my chair and try to push me.

My co-worker Kesh Bahadur Gurung and me post-race. Guess which one took last? 
I wanted to punch a couple of the over-zealous do-gooders in the nads, but I opted for a polite, “Please don’t push my chair.” To which one guy said while grabbing my handles and pushing, “Relax man, I’ll push you – You deserve it!”

I held tightly to my wheels and sternly said, “Look man, don’t touch my chair.” He started to come back with some hyper positive affirmation until he saw that his gonads might actually be in danger. Then he let go and moved on to someone else.

As I slugged a bottle of water all I could think of was good ol’ coach Bieterman… “Thomas… that was… something.”