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 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!!!!”

1 comment:

  1. You are fucking awesome. Shaking hands with duct tape on. Right on!