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.

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!


  1. Very impressive, Tom. I don't know where you get the energy. Traveling really seems to suit you, and there seems to be many people better off from your travels. All you Haigs impress the hell out of me.

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