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.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool #18: Kangaroo Lake, Door Co., Wisconsin

So while a lake isn't a pool, I did manage to get two really great swims from my sister Nari's cottage on Kangaroo Lake in Door County, Wisconsin. And the reason I'm adding it to the list is that I have recently signed up to do a series of three open-water swims on Oregon lakes this summer. While I've been knocking back my daily pool mile and hardly ever missing a day (including weekends!) swimming on Kangaroo Lake has put a bit of fear in my plan.

Which is pretty odd, because that wasn't the first time I've swam in Kangaroo Lake. My parents have owned a time share condominium on the opposite shores of the lake since I was in high school and I'd swam across that lake a number of times. As a matter of fact, swimming across open water was a thing among my friends in high school and college.

My first big lake swim was on Hardwood Lake,  the main recreational facility for Camp Lefeber Boy Scout camp, twenty miles east of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. In the summer of 1973, I spent two weeks at Lefeber with my Boy Scout troop which included my Dad and my brother, Andy. The goal of the trip was to get as many merit badges as you could so you didn't have a naked badge sash all winter. In what seemed like a four-year stint at that point, I knocked off my rowing, swimming, canoeing, camping, orienteering, fishing, sailing and rifle-shooting merit badges. (Have not even touched a gun since.)

But for me, the big goal of the trip was to get the mile-swim badge. One night just before dinner, I told Andy and my Dad I wanted to do it. They commandeered a rowboat and followed me for an hour as I crawled and dog-paddled my way around the mile-swim course on Hardwood Lake. I got my badge and felt like a real swimmer - until I found diving boards and gave up the sport for life (or so I thought).

Although I never trained as a swimmer, I did live in a swimming pool and discovered throughout the years that I was a fairly effective swimmer. This came in quite handy on any number of occasions because nearly everyone I hung out with was a swimmer. It was fairly common for us to head down to Lake Michigan late at night and swim a mile in the dark out to Love Rock, an old water filtration intake daring us off the shores of Bradford Beach.

Also any time my family was invited out to a Wisconsin lake cottage, my Dad and my brothers swam across the lake before dinner. Some families fished; our family swam across lakes.

The last time I remember doing a lake crossing was after college when I was doing my first diving show and living on the shores of Lake Ozark in Missouri. My teammates from Illinois were training in St. Louis and drove down three hours on a Friday night to catch my show and drink an enormous quantity of beer. When we were about half-way through the enormous quantity of beer, one of us (cannot assess blame at this point) decided we should swim across the Lake. Idiotically we ran off the pier and miraculously made the half-mile crossing and the return swim. The next morning, my teammate Matt Scotty and I decided to do it again just because we were young and inexperienced in the ways of the hangover. What seemed to take us five minutes the night before, now took three-quarters of an hour. Lesson being: always swim distances under the cover of inebriation.

But now thirty years later, I found myself back in a lake, albeit with a much poorer kick. My sister, Nari, my bruther-from-anuther-muther Toys and I had embarked on a booze cruise around Kangaroo Lake on Nari's pontoon boat. It was a beautiful sunny day with enough wind blowing across the water to cool us off and keep us from knocking back more beers than we should.

We circled the lake for an hour then found ourselves not far from my parents' time share about a half a mile from Nari's dock. I popped on my goggles, opened up the swing gate and asked Toys to grab my handles so the chair wouldn't dump to the bottom of the lake. I splashed in, got my bearings and tried to swim a straight line towards the dock. The day before, I flopped in the lake from the dock and tried to swim a bit, but my straight line was a gigantic rainbow. I thought I was going straight, but after a few hundred yards, I had actually turned 90 degrees. It seems the lane lines and the black stripe on the bottom of the pools were doing much more than I thought.

Toys said when the swim team trained in open water they would take 15 to 20 strokes then pop their head up and adjust course. I tried that unsuccessfully the day before, but now with the boat less than 100 yards ahead of me, I was doing much better. Nonetheless, that half-mile open water swim seemed to take even more out of me than my daily mile in the pool - something that is scaring me today as I prepare for three 1500 meter open-water swims.

Aside from the fact that it was REALLY difficult to extract me from the lake, it was fantastic swimming out in nature with no boundaries - something that was nearly replicated in Pool # 19: The Amazon Pool, Eugene, OR. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool #17: Lincoln Park Pool, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

Having spent several years in France, it pains me to leave after such a short stint. But with the bank account drained and my prospects of finding legal work null, it was time to return to Oregon. Normally I fly out of Geneva directly to an airport in the States, but I discovered a super-cheap flight on Polish air through Warsaw. I'd never flown out of Poland before, but this odd change of itinerary, proved to be serendipitous glory. In flying east out of Geneva, I had a front row seat to the Swiss and Austrian Alps. The flight out of Warsaw took me north past the Baltic and over the Norwegian fiords. Since it was the middle of July, the sun never set which gave me stunning views of Iceland, Greenland and Eastern Canada before we traced the shores of Lake Michigan into Chicago. Combined with the audacious parade of Himalayas I'd flown over just two weeks earlier, it was the most grandiose view of the globe I'd ever been privy to.

While I do not care to spend another winter day in my birth home of Milwaukee, I'll take as many summer days as I can muster. Brewtown is ripe with festivals in summer and even if you don't go to one, there is a constant supply of back yard BBQs and beer gardens to keep you fat and happy until Packer season sets in.

This ends up being problematic if you don't mix in a bit of exercise along the way. Sausage, cheese and beer are more addictive than heroin, and if you multiply the effect by hanging out with musicians, you're in for some coronary problems. In the past, I've wrecked months of exercise with just a week or two catching up with my relatives and oldest friends.

But this time I was equipped with my new swimming habit. It's odd to call it "new" seeing as I first picked up the habit in the same city more than 50 years earlier. The first time I actually swam a stroke was at a campground beach in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, 230 miles northwest of Milwaukee. I was swimming with a life jacket on and after a few strokes, I noticed it had slipped off me and I was actually swimming. I jumped for joy and swam over to my Dad who was also quite psyched by it all.

When we came back to Milwaukee, they enrolled me in swimming lessons at the Nicolet High School pool where I would eventually spend more time than my bedroom. Now while I gave up competitive swimming nearly as quickly as I learned how to swim (No, divers do not swim to keep in shape), I was, unlike Martin Short,  a "strong swimmer." Like my brothers and all my friends, I spent my summers life guarding at the local pools.

But there was a big difference: I worked in a country club pool, but my brothers and a few friends were members of the militaristic Milwaukee County Lifeguard Corps. While I spent most of my time babysitting rich kids, the County guards conducted life saving drills and surveilled their pools from guard chairs as if a battalion might attack their rear flank. Which, as it turns out was warranted because kids from the city pools actually took pot shots at the helmeted guards with BB guns. In two summers at the country club I had one rescue, while my brother Andy tried to keep his pool down to one rescue a day.

The more serene County jobs were at the fabulous Milwaukee beaches, but my brother Andy was a pool guard. If there were a Hall of Fame for the Milwaukee Country Guard Corps ,my brother Andy would be a first ballot inductee. The Guard Corps had two big competitions and Andy won them both. He tossed in a buzzer-beater goal in the city water-polo championships and also won the brutal Lake Michigan mile swim. Andy was a Lincoln Park Pool guard. He later made fame as head guard of the now-defunct Gordon Park, but he cut his teeth at Lincoln.

I, on the other hand, had never swam there before. When I got to Milwaukee I searched for outdoor pools that had open lap swim and Lincoln Park was the only one within miles of my parents' house. While Milwaukee is known for its festivals and the lakefront, it is also known as the most segregated city in America. Aside from the few black kids that went to my high school, I never had any interaction with a black person unless I went to a Bucks game. And that's not because my parents tolerated racism in any form. Both my mother and father, staunch Republicans, would have spanked us silly and grounded us if the "N" word ever came out of our mouth. But culture and geography kept us apart.

And that's why it was so cool to head over to Lincoln Pool in 2016 and swim in an integrated environment. The racial mix of the guards, the patrons and even the snack bar workers was 50-50. What it lacked in disability features (no lift, no shower chairs) it made up with black and white kids playing tag and standing in line together at the diving boards. I'm not for a minute going to make this a Pepsi commercial, but it was really cool sign of pragmatic hope in a city ripe with racial problems.

I got four great workouts in at Lincoln Park pool and thought I was in great shape until I got to Pool No. 18: Kangaroo Lake. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool #16: Centre Atlantis - Ugine, Savoie, France

People have often told me they are jealous of the adventures I've been able to experience outside of the U.S. While I do have more than a handful of super-crazy episodes in my story-satchel, they are not the memories I cherish the most. When my life flashes before my eyes as I die, it may gloss over some of those pinnacle events, but the slide show will consist mostly of the incredible friendships I've made along the way.

And none of those slides will be more life-affirming than that of the Fabbri family who live under the peaks surrounding Ugine (pronounced like the Oregon town) deep in the French Alps. I first came across the Fabbri clan in 1988 in the tiny French hamlet of Buvin, equidistant from Lyon and Grenoble. The amusement park I worked for thought it was best they lodge my team of six foreigners in a farm house away from the city. But that made us even more conspicuous.  

The Fabbri family lived just a few hundred yards up a hill from us, and it wasn't long after our first late night party that they began frequenting our bashes. But in contrast to the farm families that surrounded us, the Fabbris were an intellectual clan who were well versed in music, French literature and world cultures. They had lived in Africa for a spell and Rosette, the matriarch of the family, was a French teacher in the local grade school (or "college" as they are called in France). The two children, Vincent and Cecile were university age and loved hanging out with our exotic troop of foreign acrobats. 

As the years flew by, all too quickly, we became closer and closer (I actually dated Cecile for a spell) until we could walk in and out of each other's houses as if they were shared living spaces. But after four glorious years our show got cancelled and it was time to fold up the circus tent and move along, or in my case, retire. I moved to Oregon and began my life, but always pined for the care-free summers in the foot hills of the French Alps. 

Fast forward six years and I found myself back in the same town, not as an acrobat, but an invalid in an aluminum wheelchair. The Fabbris had moved away, but after some due diligence (pre-internet!), I was able to find Vincent living near his father's house in Ugine, as story-book mountain village of French chalets lining sharp switchbacks leading to a bustling town center around a tiny Gothic church. 

Vincent was recently married and living a double life as a college teacher and the lead singer in Subaudia Sound System, a "Ragamuffin" band which is a combination of rap, ska and traditional French rhythms. His wife, Kathy, was a French rock climbing champion and also a singer in Subaudia. For their dates, they would routinely climb the highest peaks in the region then parachute off the tops, landing in farm fields next to their house. This all sounds really bizarre if you don't know me, but if you do, it's easy to see how we had no choice but to remain brothers. We didn't know that many people who were like us!

As the years passed, I've been able to check in once every few years. Vincent and Kathy have two kids who are as curious, energetic and athletic as their parents. This year, as it turns out, my visit to France coincided with the Tour de France passing just a few hundred meters from not only their house, but Pool #16, Centre Atlantis. I arrived five days before the passing of the Tour which gave me plenty of time to workout. The road to the pool was a challenging mile, but that made hopping in every day much more welcome. Normally I'm tentative about jumping in the pool, but not after I'd already worked up a good sweat. 

Unfortunately, they had put a roof on the 25-meter pool which meant I was swimming indoors during the peak of summer. They also kept the pool much warmer than I would have liked as I was soaking wet with sweat before I got in. Nonetheless, I swam my mile every day including the day of the arrival of the Tour. 

Although the race started in the Olympic town of Albertville, just 10 k down the road, Ugine was the city at the start of the deciding climbs of the day - and as it turned out, the Tour. After I swam, I met the Fabbris on the streets leading up to the town center which had been closed all day. There was a Tour de France festival going on and Ugine was in its floral finest as we waited for the world to come screaming by. The organizers had a standing roulette wheel offering up all sorts of Tour swag as well as one great prize - a polka dot jersey. Nobody had come away with the jersey all day, but Kathy eyed the cadence of the wheel and stopped it right on the money! 

We made our way up the climb so the riders would be slowing down and not flying by us like cars. Loudspeakers announced the progress of the race and we could watch it on a giant diamond vision screen in the middle of the festival. Soon enough the roar of the publicity caravan blasted through the streets and six TV helicopters hovered overhead. An army of team cars carrying the most expensive bicycles in the world buzzed through and all that was left were the riders themselves.

A short breakaway of three riders entered the city to a deafening roar. Not 30 seconds behind them, the massive peloton, with the best bike riders in the world, made its way up the hill towards us. Before we knew it, Christopher Froome, the leader and eventual winner of the race, slithered by us in the distinctive yellow jersey. The crowd was screaming and it occurred to me the riders must hear this noise nearly all day long for 23 days. I'm surprised they don't go deaf, on top of having their hearts, lungs and legs pushed beyond capacity. 

We waited for the trailing riders to pass, then raced home to see the final two climbs of the day on television. When we got back home, we got an added bonus as one of the helicopters had to land just next to Vincent's yard for some reason that wasn't clear. We not only watched the final of the race, we waited for the TV replay (usually 2-3 replays for each stage!) to see if we could make ourselves out along the course. It took us some tricky DVR navigating, but we finally found a helicopter view of us just as the Yellow Jersey passed. Three seconds of our 15 minutes well spent!

As was the entire week, and just another episode of a magical friendship that has lasted nearly 30 years. In one week's time, I would be back in the US swimming in Pool # 17: Lincoln Park Pool, Milwaukee, Wisconsin - the city where I first learned to swim. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

The New Awesome 72-game NBA Season

So, truth be told, I'm one of these idiots who listens to sports talk radio. I catch about 20 minutes in the afternoon while I'm in my car and go to bed listening to the PTI podcast. I usually catch the first 10 minutes of Sports Center as well as the plays-of-the-day if I can remember to flip back over.  If I'm suffering from insomnia, I'll pop on Dan Patrick or Mike and Mike until I flounder back to sleep. You would think I would put on music, but music is just too damn interesting and it actually keeps me awake.

The big topic this week has been how stupidly long and insignificant the NBA regular season is. You will get no disagreement from these quarters, but I actually have the solution to ALL their problems.

It's the weekend-only, 72-game schedule. And here's the catch - you play the same team all weekend long. The season is a collection of 24 three-game series. Throughout the year you play a home and away series against your division rivals, and the rest of the series are spread out over the rest of the league - much like the NFL schedule. You don't play every team every year, but neither do NFL teams and that certainly hasn't stopped it's popularity.

To insure that each game counts (big problem now as teams routinely throw games) the league is decided on a points basis. If you win one game, you get one point. If you win two games you get three points. If you sweep the series, you get five points.  At no point can you just throw in the towel and not send your full team (unless you are really trying to tank the season).

Back to back to back games are normally tough, but not in this scenario. The problem with back to back to back games now is that there is usually a nasty day (or 2!) of traveling late at night or getting off the plane and going right to the court. But in this scenario the number of travel days throughout the season drops from 82 to 24 (travel both to and from away games)! Players don't get tired playing, they get tired traveling. So even though there are 24 travel days, NONE of them are as stressful as any of the travel days they now face. In this scenario they can get into town the day before the series, then leave after the last game and have PLENTY of rest. When they have home series they sleep in their own bed for at least 12 straight days. With consecutive home series they don't have to travel for 20 days!

Right now the NBA plays every night and that goes against the well-proven theory of intermittent reward. Since there is very little scarcity of product, there is very little reward for its consumption. That is why football works - you only get one game a week. Ratings will soar to NFL-sized numbers so the TV $$ will more than make up for the 10 fewer games (or just add 3 more weekends).

This is the solution to all the NBA's problems, but I'm guessing they're a little too short-sighted to see it that way. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool # 15: Aqualac, Aix Les Bains, France

Those of you who have been reading these regularly have figured out that I've been using the pools as an excuse to talk about other things, but in this case, it's all about the pool. I have traveled all around the world and been in hundreds of swimming pools, but Aqualac in Aix les Bains, France is the greatest of them all!

This has quite a bit to do with the fact that this is also my favorite place in the world (OK - just a little bit of back story...). In 1988 I moved to a tiny town called Les Avenieres, about 20 miles west of Aix les Bains. I was exhausted having just come off a Middle East circus tour which only started after I'd already logged six months visiting nearly every country in Western Europe. My first day in town I bought a Peugeot road cycle and took a ride around a place I still call home. It was a crystal clear day in Alpine foothills with the big peaks soaring off in the distance. I hadn't even unpacked my bags, but I knew I would not be leaving this place for a very long time. Most days, in my mind, I'm still there.

I ended up living in Les Avenieres for four glorious years and, after breaking my back in 1996, returned for another five-month rehab stint. I arrived as a show diver, but I left as a road biker. By the time I left on my own two feet, I knew every single twisted little path within 50 miles of my house - and many much further away. When I returned in the wheelchair, I brought a hand cycle with me and spent every day retracing all but the steepest of those roads.

In the years since, I've returned a half dozen times for short stays and leave in tears each time. Of course there's the stunning natural beauty, but there are also the people I've now known for more than 30 years. They cheered me in my youth; they saved my life when I was at my worst and now we've just happily grown old together.

Four years ago I returned again, this time for a six-month stay in Aix Les Bains, which is one of the most beautiful towns in Europe. I rekindled an old romance which has since fizzled, but I was blessed to once again be part of this incredible community. Aix Les Baines is on the Lac du Bourget, the largest inland body of water in France. It's a four-mile long by half mile wide gloriously clean basin sunk between the 4500 ft. Chat ridge on the west and the 5000 ft. Revard on the east. Tucked beneath The Revard is the cosmopolitan village of Aix. It's known around France for its thermal spas, but also has a checkered past as a seedy brothel town. The brothels are all gone (as far as I know?), but the spas and health-tourism still generate most of the city's wealth.

While locals complain the town is full of "curists" (geriatric patients) the environs are perfect not just for getting healthy, but for getting in world-class conditioning. Aix is the home of the French national crew team, dozens of Tour de France cyclists and Christophe LeMaitre, the world's fastest white man (Olympic Bronze in 200m in Rio). It also has the greatest swimming pool on earth.

(Check out this Aix Les Bains travelogue - it's my most famous video with 15,000 hits!)

Aqualac is a massive complex hugging the lake with an indoor 25-meter 8-lane pool and, the piece de resistance, an outdoor 10-lane 50-meter wonder bath. By the time I'd left Nepal all the pools I'd been to had been open for a few months and had gotten disgusting. I don't know what they use for filtration, but it doesn't work. The last time I swam in the Club Bagmati pool, I couldn't even see the bottom.

But Aqualac was a crystal jewel nestled in between two of my favorite mountain peaks. It was so clean, I couldn't even tell how deep it was. Once I navigated the complicated locker room situation (co-ed except for changing rooms) I pulled up to the edge and flopped into the widest swimming lane I've ever been in. Normally I hate sharing lanes because I either smash wrists with other swimmers, or crash my hand on the lane line. But here we could have swum three swimmers wide and never gotten close to each other. Before I started to swim, I held my breath and sunk to the bottom. It's not like I wasn't showering in Nepal, but I hadn't been soaking in sterile unsoiled water since I left the U.S. It was like cocaine for my skin.

I started in on my mile but, seeing as I'd never worked out in a 50-meter pool before, I spaced out and lost my lap count. If you forget where you're at in 25-yard pool, it's just a small error. But in a 50-meter pool you might make a 200 yard mistake!  After forgetting where I was three times, I began to concentrate and pulled 1600 meters with the sun caressing my back the entire session. Eventually I came to a stop and the life guards got me out using the first lift I'd seen in months.

Once out, I ventured out onto a picnic area packed with kids playing soccer and pulling tricks in an 8-trampoline bounce park. I was in a state of euphoria but two minor things made me reflect on how France is changing. First of all, the kids were fat - just like American kids. I've had French friends come to the States and one of the first things they notice is how fat Americans are. But now, there really is no difference. The whole Western World is getting chubby!

The other thing is that women weren't sunbathing topless. I worked in a water park for four years and women never wore their tops when they were lying on their towels. But over the years, that must have just gone out of vogue. I blame it all to globalization!

I was able to visit Aqualac one more time before I moved deeper into the Alpes to see my friend Vincent - and the Tour de France which passed just in front of Pool #16: Centre Atlantis, Ugine, Savoie, France

Thursday, April 6, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool # 14: Escamphof Indoor Swimming Pool, Den Haag Holland

Possibly the greatest thing about taking long plane trips is the complete contrast of environments from departure to arrival. It never ceases to amaze me even when I know what's coming ahead of time. The transition on this trip was a stunner.

Although my time in Kathmandu was as revelatory and inspiring as any four-month stretch I've ever experienced, it was also extremely difficult. When I lived in Dharamsala, I was in a small village nestled in the Himalayas, but everything was close by and semi-accessible. Most stores were on the ground floor and if I was keen for working out, I could get almost anything. There were some daunting obstacles (23 steps to my job!), but the roads were smooth and I didn't want for much. If I needed to go down to the extensive Kotwali market for electronics or medical supplies, there was a fleet of taxis, any of which would ferry me down and back for a pittance. 

But Kathmandu is a big city and I had a more complex job. While my neighborhood was easy enough to navigate, getting into town was expensive and cumbersome. Able-bodied people could easily hop a city bus into town for a quarter, but none of those buses would pick up somebody in a wheelchair. I had to reserve a cab and pay up to 40 times the price. I don't mind haggling for a guitar or a car, but haggling over a ride into town is obnoxious - and then after this confrontational episode, you have to sit for an hour in a car with the guy you just argued with. 

Electricity in Dharamsala was intermittent, but it was there most days. In Kathmandu, electricity is a luxury, and it was off for several hours every day. Seeing as my job required charging cameras, computers and phones, I spent all my waking hours making sure my devices had power. As soon as I saw the lights come on, I dove for my bag and plugged in everything I had (up to six devices charging at once). As soon as a device was charged, I pulled it off because I have lost two expensive laptops due to power surges on the subcontinent. Basically my entire existence consisted of monitoring my equipment. By the end, the stress was wearing me thin. 

On top of that, the absolute filth of Kathmandu put me in a foul mood on a daily basis. I was breathing in black clouds and rolling by gutters filled with every species of garbage imaginable. The people I met and worked with were incredible, but I was at my limits. Dharamsala was challenging, but I spent most days in a state of spiritual marvel. Kathmandu was a heavy drain and I spent most days wanting to leave. 

When I finally took off for Holland it felt like a bag of oppression had been lifted off me. In spite of all the technical obstacles, I'd completed more than 30 short films and had made friends in the Nepali disability that I will keep the rest of my life. As we soared above the pollution haze, I could finally see the Himalayas in their soaring, sharp, pristine-white glory. The negatives of Nepal were quickly fading and being replaced by a heavy feeling of accomplishment - much like having completed college finals. It wasn't fun doing the work, but man was I glad I did it. 

Nearly a full day later, having crossed some of the most dangerous regions on Earth (went right over ISIS!), I landed in Amsterdam. All three airports (Kathmandu, Istanbul, Amsterdam) lost my chair along the way so I wasn't completely rid of my Nepal angst. Eventually I was able to collect my bags and hop two accessible trains to Den Haag to stay with my sister-from-another-mister, Maaike Leeuenburgh. 

When I woke the next morning the first thing I wanted to do was find a grocery store and buy food. I hadn't been in a grocery store since leaving America (there was one in Suryabinayak, but it was four floors up with no elevator) nor had I cooked anything (the kitchen in my home was on the second floor). I ended up buying two bags of food just because I could. I cooked up a rice and chicken dinner and fed Maaike, her mom and her son. It wasn't my best dish ever, but just the fact I could do it made me ecstatic. 

The next morning I wanted to find a pool and go swimming. Stunned by the constant stream of electricity and Internet access, I went on line and discovered a public pool just two blocks away. I checked the schedule, found my suit and goggles and headed over to the Escamphof Indoor Swimming pool. 

Seeing as the pools I'd been swimming in Nepal were getting filthier and filthier as the weeks went on, I was looking forward to hopping in a warm, clean pool. I rolled up to the entrance only to discover there were 10 steps to the entrance and it appeared to be closed. There was a tennis ball sitting at the bottom of the steps, so I began tossing it gently against the door until a janitor popped his head out. I asked him if there was an elevator somewhere and he, struggling to find the words in English, just said, "Sorry, sir, de pool ist closte." 

I'd pushed my ecstasy on returning to the West one step too far and was stymied by a budget cut in the City of Den Haag's recreational department. Unfortunately, Pool #13 will have to go down as a complete failure. Except for one thing - it forced me to adventure further into Maaike's neighborhood until I came upon the freaking Atlantic Ocean. 

It was 80 degrees out; the winds were howling and kite surfers were rode waves in and out of the distant horizons. I rolled off the beachhead and settled into a surfing pub that was showing videos of surfing and football (it was the day of the EuroCup Final!). I ordered a Jortag Gan (my favorite Dutch beer!) and sat on an outdoor patio blocking the howling winds. Just 48 hours earlier I was choking on the hideous traffic of Kathmandu and now I took in delicious gulps of the cleanest air I'd breathed in months. I also noticed that my shoulder put up with rolling several miles - something it refused to do when I first jumped in Pool #1 in Denver. 

Pool #13 may have been a bust, but the fact that the number of pools continued to rise lead to incredible results. And Pool #14, Aqualac, Aix les Baines, France ended up being the greatest pool of them all. 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool # 13: The Penguin Pool, Pokhara

Over the years, Pokhara has developed  around the eye candy that is Phewa Lake. It's a three by one mile tarn with steep Himalayan foothills on either side. The east side has shops and restaurants while the west shores house some audacious Buddhist temples. On a clear, still day the peaks of the Annapurna Range reflect off its surface making it one of the most inviting water sport spots on Earth.

Unfortunately while Pokhara has done an amazing job keeping city streets clean, the victim has been Phewa Lake. You can rent boats and paddle boards for play, but it's best not to go swimming as the bacteria levels from business sewage are far above healthy standards. They are working to clean it up, but it wasn't going to happen before I left town. 

Instead Sita, here two companions and I opted for the Penguin Pool located a half hour north of town on the banks of the Seti Gandaki River. As far as sheer beauty, the Penguin Pool is No. 2 on the list, beaten only by Pool # 14: Aqualac, Aix les Baines, France. The river banks rise up to lush tropically forested cliffs and, in the not too-far distance, the white-glaciered Annapurnas paint the blue sky. On this day, even Machipuchare himself made an audacious appearance. 

The pool is a six-lane, 25-meter outdoor resort pool with a shallow side pool for beginners. The view from the center is as dramatic as any pool I've ever been in. But there are two problems that dropped it down in my rankings. First of all, it is horribly inaccessible. There was a series of steps at the entrance and another series of steps to get to the pool. The locker room and bathroom doors were too small for me to enter and there was also a difficult gutter system that made getting into the pool not just difficult, but hazardous. 

Then there was the second problem. It was kind of a rape-y pool. 

That's right, a rape-y pool. There were no women in the pool when we arrived and, at first survey, Sita and her friends decided they didn't want to swim. I asked Sita why and she told me it wouldn't be safe for women. Men would surely swim up to them and grab them. "In an outdoor pool with life guards all around?" I asked. "Yes," she said, "Nepalese men don't care. They just grab." 

I asked the women if we should go somewhere else, but it was super hot and they really did want to jump in that pool. Instead I told them to wait until I get in and swim for a bit, then they could join me if they wanted. I got carried down the cumbersome steps to the pool and had a lifeguard dump me in over the extended drain that almost cut my foot. It created a scene and nearly everyone in the pool was watching. Although there were no lane lines, I carved out a bit of space along the west edge of the pool and began swimming laps. 

Just like every time I swam in Nepal, people stopped and stared. It created enough of an event, that when Sita arrived, it appeared we were part of a disability program. The men gave us a wide berth. As long as Sita and her two friends stayed together and made it look like they were helping her, they were left alone. I ended up cranking out my mile and eventually the three women were left to themselves and they could just goof around like everyone else.

That doesn't stop the fact that if they were just three women arriving by themselves, they would have turned around and gone home. Young women in Nepal are absolutely petrified of men they don't know. The week before, my production assistant said she couldn't come out with us on a celebration dinner, because there was no way she could safely get home. I told her I would buy her a cab and she refused saying she didn't trust any of the cab drivers. Women in wheelchairs often must use cabs to get to work, but they use a driver the family knows. Other single women would never take a night bus alone for fear of rape. It's impossible to get accurate statistics of rape in Nepal, but you would never catch a woman out by herself after seven o'clock. 

That's not to say they won't get beaten and raped at home. I knew of two women at my workplace who were routinely beaten, and I'm assuming, raped by their husbands. Because of the misogynistic culture, these women have no place to go. Divorcees (and even widows) are considered untouchable by Nepali men so leaving a husband could easily put you out on the street. Through my work with the disabled community, I was able to meet many more Nepali women than your average white man. I discovered a great deal of depression, loneliness and abuse - much more than I'd seen anywhere else. ( In Arab countries I lived in I wasn't allowed to talk to women at all.) On the surface Nepal can be as beautiful as any place on Earth. But unfortunately, for many women, it is a sad and dangerous place.  

One of the most callous things I've seen since coming home was during the March for Women after the Trump election. Conservative women made fun of the marchers saying, "They don't know how good they have it in America!" 

What they were ignoring is that women from misogynistic cultures depend on the leadership of Western women for hope and change . I GUARANTEE the Nepali women would march in lockstep with their Western counterparts - if they weren't petrified.