Hello Hanoi!

1 02 2011

Though the weather is just as mizzy and the roads just as muddy, Viet Nam surely does have the personality factor so glaringly lacking in China. Back are the gaudy Greco-Asian buildings that teeter like emaciated drag queens along the edge of the road, and the choruses of hellos are back too, wafting over the vast stretches of cloggy paddy fields to cheer us on our way.  Though meteorologically miserable, Viet Nam has categorically snuggled up to us with exceptional warmth of character and welcome.  This snugglyness is not just metaphorical; we are both literally snuggled up to on a regular basis; men and women alike pull in exceptionally close to examine the map or paw over our magic letter, which inevitably means that we spend much of our rest time on a physical slant.

After four days of harder and hillier than expected roads we finally landed in Hanoi. The 64km run into the city centre was an exhilarating foray into insanity. The key rule to navigating the Hanoi melee is bravery. Keep on target and keep going! It is a heaving throng of small vehicles where the moped rules, closely followed by bicycle; cars are kept penned in and penned slow by the constant buzzing swarm of peds whizzing all about.  The pace of business was no less hectic as Hanoi proved our most welcoming city to date; not only did we received £170 of donations for the charities, we also spoke to over 150 young people about HIV/AIDS, were taken to lunch by a delightful group of British ex-pats, AND we were invited to tea at the British ambassadors house! It is this type of engagement with issues around HIV/AIDS that (fingers crossed) will stand Viet Nam in good stead to confront many of the highly challenging issues that surround this disease. If there is one thing that we have tentatively surmised from our travels is that if you are talking about it then you are fighting it.


1 12 2010

India is in general denial and secret promotion. We spent the day in the secret promotion camp – at an out-of-the way train station with the HIV Express info train! A good photo op for a few local dignitaries without them having to disturb the general Delhi populous too much – a great chance to look like you are doing something about HIV awareness without actually doing anything.

‘Male ego’ Nanda swished at us. A ripple of agreement wobbled through the crowd of trans, male, and female sex workers– ‘our biggest problem is male ego. They just don’t think condoms are what real men do!’. Yet it is this tough, world-weary little faction who are being targeted by the HIV Express; it is the powerless who are being asked to carry the responsibility, those who go hungry if they say no. The male ego won’t go hungry – it’ll just go elsewhere. After a hundred rounds of photos, a few cheeky propositions, much hugging and shaking of hands we moved onto our next engagement – trying to convince a top Delhi school to let us talk to their students about HIV/AIDS. As we made our way though the imposing marble gates we were struck by the distinct lack of red. World AIDS day obviously hasn’t hit the education system.

Sadly it was the same old story – teachers are positive but no one is willing to face the potentialmaybe wrath of parents who maybemight object to their innocent spawn talking about *sex* maybe. It is a significant and dangerous disservice that is being afforded to our young people – the world over. If our journey has taught us anything it is how grievously underestimated and blinded are our young people. And how afraid the world is of sex. (shh)

On an up note we did get interviewed for Night and Day News channel – which gave me (Catherine) the perfect opportunity to talk honestly about the biggest killer – fear and ignorance.

India and HIV… if only…

10 11 2010

Having reality rudely smear our Middle East efforts with a good dollop of ignorance and small mindedness we tentatively entered India; packets of optimism seeds neatly tucked into our panniers. Not content with managing the pressures of long distance cycle touring (where are we going to eat? where will we sleep? which road should we take? what will the road quality be? will we lose another of Liz’s pannier screws? Have we stretched enough? Etc etc) we also spend much of our off-saddle time trying to find ways to advocate for HIV/AIDS issues; we talk to young people in the street, visit schools, visit HIV/AIDS projects, talk to ex-pat groups, and just generally do anything and everything we possibly can to try and get people talking about HIV/AIDS (we’ve even taken part in an Iranian TV programme and written a few articles for local rags). The process goes something like this … Step one – research key destinations on the route; step two – ring venues to ensure contact name and correct email address; step three – email correct contact; step four – wait; step five- try and stop Liz feeling depressed that no one has replied; step six – ring contacts to draw attention to emails; step seven – wait again; step eight- sacrifice something to Kali; step nine – potential success –  Two ex-pat groups in Mumbai are going to try to set up presentation platforms for us – super! But, as yet, it’s a no go on schools. Two days ago, however, Liz hit upon a small gem in the shape of Fr Joseph, Fr Paul and Fr Bartholomew, these three Camillian Brothers live in a small village 20km from Cochin.  They run an HIV/AIDS care centre and they invited us to visit. At 10.30am, on Tuesday, we duly presented ourselves; 40k’s worth of sweat and grim glinting off our skin in the mid morning sun prompted offers of water, juice, bananas and sweet meats.

‘The main disease is not HIV, its stigma’ said Fr Joseph leaning in intently; he has been working in the field of HIV/AIDS in India for the past 7 years; despite the wall of challenges this implies our overriding impression of this young man, dressed only in jeans and an open shirt, was that of optimism, commitment, and positivity. ‘If we could only eliminate stigma then people could come here openly, get the help they need, no need to pretend its cancer, we could really do something to stop this disease’ he speeds. ‘There is so much we could do but in India people don’t want to talk about it; hospitals won’t take people with HIV, did you know that? We are running courses to educate doctors! Can you imagine! If you are HIV positive surgeons won’t even operate on you – there was a young girl, born HIV positive, she had a problem with her knee, she needed a small operation – no surgeon would touch her!’ As he stops momentarily to catch his breath Fr Paul sighs and shakes his head; Fr Paul is an equally young man, his patient gentle voice slipping smoothly beneath Fr Joseph’s, ‘they won’t talk about sex, that’s the problem. And most Indian’s just don’t think it’s a disease they will get – poor people come to places like this (if they are lucky), poor people are the statistics, those with money go to private clinics where they pay to be treated and pay to keep it a secret, they say they have cancer or something… Anything else.  No one will ever know they have HIV, not even their family, or even their wives… until the wife dies the same way a few years later… or the child dies… then maybe someone will put two and two together… maybe. Would you like to talk to the patients? See our centre?’

We follow Fr Joseph into the main building; the centre is a simple one story building set around a courtyard, the facilities are basic; they have a consulting room, a series of 3-6 person dorm rooms, a couple of isolation rooms for those with TB, a communal area with a few books and a TV, and a small dining area. The ubiquitous smell of all things medical hangs lightly in the air as we are introduced to some of the patients.  Fr Joseph opens the door to one of the small isolation rooms, the room dark, the stale air close. ‘This is Meera, she doesn’t have long’ he whispers. The room is bare save for a solitary bottle of half finished 7-up and the small crumpled form of Meera. The bed’s steel creaks and moans as the 76 year old struggles to sit up. She smiles at us.  She thanks us for visiting. She wishes us well. She asks us to please close the door on the way out.

In the next room we meet three women, aged anywhere between 20 and 35. Anu has only just been admitted. She had been on ART’s (anti-retrovirals) but had decided to come off them to try and pursue a local ayurvedic course of treatment – this had left her immune system vulnerable and she had become an easy target for infection. ‘We hope she will regain her health’ Fr Joseph whispers rather unconvincingly, ‘using natural medication alongside conventional drugs is fine.. but coming off ART’s … it’s just uninformed’, he pauses a moment, seeming lost. A sudden loud vocal rush splits the air, a colourful women in her late 30’s stands on one hip surveying us. Fr Joseph smiles and introduces us, he tells her about our trip and she waves it away in disbelief or as blatant stupidity before dismissing us to go and see if the gathering of men in the day room can be clattered into providing her with entertainment– ‘Seeta will be leaving soon. She has been here a number of times. She works as a prostitute – just the other day she was telling me that recently she had a group of students come to her, she told them to use condoms but they refused. What could she do? She has to earn money to live. She can’t reveal her status or she will have nothing. She told them to protect themselves. They made the choice. These boys should know. They would have known about HIV… they just don’t think it will happen to them. This is how it is here.’ As we walk slowly across the lawn to our bikes, squinting into the  midday sun as it glints through the palm trees, the clear air busy with dragonflies and birdsong, he signs ‘If we could just cure stigma, then maybe, just maybe we could make a start.’

Little Mr Fear and little Ms Stigma – our HIV Story

2 11 2010

This is not the right story. This is not the story we thought we were in and it’s not the story we wanted to tell. Our HIV story is telling itself in ways we hoped it wouldn’t. It has been a constant struggle getting access to schools to talk about HIV/AIDS but we have kept trying and have, generally had some success. We work hard to advocate for HIV/AIDS issues – our magic letter and our t-shirts help considerably with this. Undoubtedly there is much misunderstanding about the disease and a great amount of personal distancing from it. HIV is clearly associated with ‘sinful’ activities in this region, such as sex outside marriage (which if not illegal is totally taboo) and narcotics (which it very much is in Iran).  This makes it a hard disease to talk about and even harder to get people to engage with a more companionate and complex consideration of the issues surrounding transmission and protection.  This has been brought home to us in Dubai – where we have had a nasty encounter with little Mr Fear and little Ms Stigma.

There are a swarm of International Schools and local schools in Dubai – and we contacted a good slice of them. We emailed, we rang, we emailed again… only two replied. One to say no, one to say maybe. We clung tight to our maybe and were excited when they confirmed an hour session with 300 students! But the day before they asked to see our material .. we sent it and they changed their mind – because one of our supporting video clips gives an example of a man who contracted HIV by having sex, without a condom, to a girl he is not married to. It seems it is ok to mention HIV but not to talk about transmission or prevention. Clearly many of the teachers want to engage with the issues but are being blocked from doing so by the shadowy haze of little Mr Fear at management level. This is sad and should be a major concern for this country – international agencies are growing increasingly concerned about the regions inability to engage with this disease. Worryingly there is a lack of statistical clarity to draw on but patterns would indicate that rates of infections are rising and will continue to do so. So, while the UAE may screen for HIV in those who want to come and work out here it doesn’t screen the thousands of holiday makers who hit its plastic shores every year, it doesn’t screen its locals every time they leave the country or its economic migrants after they have popped home for a holiday. We have also noticed that people move away from us on the metro when out with our t-shirts on and a waft of shifty glances and whispered comments leave a tinge in the air behind us.

Hiding behind a screen only helps little Mr Fear and little Ms Stigma to thrive. We hope for better luck in India where they have been dealing with a significant HIV/AIDS issue since the epidemic boom in the 1980’s…. maybe….