take a load off

After nearly 20 days of backpacking with Drew, it was time to change things up a bit and take a load off with two of my favorite girls, the Sinha sisters. So Drew and I said our goodbyes in Lima--dont worry, I left him in the hands of the drunk Irish we had met in Cusco--and I made my way to Rio for some fun in the sun. Unfortunately, I arrived in BA (where I had a 3 hr layover) to find that my flight to Rio had been CANCELLED! No, not delayed...cancelled! Imagine my delight at 6.30 AM, sin cafe! No worries though, they quickly re-booked me on the next available flight...which was leaving at 3.30 PM! Needless to say, I am now quite familiar with the international terminals at the BA airport, which means that i can sit back and relax tomorrow as I wait for my flight home...no need to explore again!

Luckily I did arrive in Rio safely though, and, after waiting for an hour for my luggage to plop out on the conveyer belt, I made my way to our hotel in Ipanema...9 hours later than planned! The next two days were filled with good food, caipairinhas, sugarloaf mountain, Jesu Cristo, and some good ole fashioned fun in the sun! Just imagine tanya and i singing "copa, copacabana" every where we went and sylvana close behind snapping photos and you get the idea...

From Rio we caught a plane down to Iguazu Falls, which honestly (again) cannot be adequately summed up in a mere blog entry...where we not only had an HJO (Haley Joel Osmond) sighting, we also managed to take in the beauty of the natural falls AND some of the natural habitat...we even witnessed a coatí scare, as the furry little creature made his way up on the bridge we were on, leaving one woman screeching and the three of us briskly walking to the other end of the bridge, shoving sandwhiches BACK into tanyas suitcase purse. While there, we also got up close and personal with the falls in a speed boat (which was luckily speedy enough to meet tans' need for speed!)...it took us right up under the falls, where i laughed and laughed, tan danced, and sylvana squnited her eyes and turned away...and they were powerful too...SO powerful that mr. spurlock (a man sitting in the front of our boat) ended up next to me in the back! After that adventure, we really needed to take a load off, Ameeerica style, so we got a cold beer, chips, and ice cream...and then continued on our way through the park. The next day we woke up and went horseback riding through the rainforest with our 14 year-old guide, Julio (Sylvana was expecially excited that this was his name, especially when we rode by the indigenous school house...just imagine hearing "me and julio down by the school yard" being sung over and over in the rainforest and i think you can get the picture)...

No ladies and gentlemen, the trip doesnt end there...from Iguazu, we made our way down to BA for a few days. in retrospect, i can tell you that my decision to take the overnight, 18-hr bus ride, was no where near worth it. nope. there was not enough wine in the world (and we didnt have a cork screw)...luckily we basically had our own apartment, a BOX of snacks, and movies...but still. In the end we made it and had a great time though...and we became best friends with a group of local artesans who we just couldnt get enough of, apparently. The trip culminated in a (not so) tango show...which ended up being a murga show (a typical uruguayan dance which is NOTHING like tango)...luckily there was enough wine for this one :)

And so now we too have separated, and I am back in La Plata for one last night...in just 24 hours I'll be boarding my flight for Atlanta and then continuing on to Roanoke. The past 5 months have absolutely flown by, and while theyve been challenging, Ive loved every second. Argentina's an amazing country, still searching for its meaning and its place in this world, evolving every day...I think thats why I like it so much. It's kind of like all of us, just trying to learn from its past and discover its future.

Thanks to everyone for all of your support, prayers, and love throughout this chapter of my life...te mando un abrazo grande y nos vemos pronto!


The [not so] motorcycle diaries...

After an all-night rager at the DJ Tiestho concert in BA, more than 30 empanadas each, 2 unpaved bus rides, 4 "paved" bus rides, hitchiking through northern argentina, 2 snales-pace trains, approximately 20 liters of beer, 1 lost jacket, 1 lost hat, 3 groups of Irish girls and loads more groups of British, 2 really weird hostel "roommates" along the way, Bolivian PTA scares, 1 broken down bus on the side of a cliff in the middle of the world's most dangerous road, being haggled by possible cokeheads and prostitutes, and one hell of a good time, drew and trey's big south american adventure has come to the end. In just 20 days, we've managed (somehow) to make it from Buenos Aires to Lima, with nothing but adventure in between...we've managed to experience both modern and traditional Argentina, survive the unknown in Bolivia, and visit the birthplace of Incan civilization in Peru.

In all honesty, i cant even begin to describe some of the things that we saw...so im not really sure how im expecting this entry to be anywhere near successful...maybe its purpose is to just let everyone know that we've made it. you can be sure that pictures will be up soon, as words just cannot do things such as the gran salinas, lake titicaca, and machu picchu justice...


just me and my mochila (backpack)

So it's been a while since my last entry...mainly because I have been so incredibly busy with my project at the clinic, but yes, I am safe and sound in South America. After possibly the most impactful four months of my life, my time in La Plata has (successfully) come to an end and I have taken to the ways of the backpack...

Last week, my buddy from Clemson, Drew, flew down to BA to meet me for what has definitely become an adventure. After fighting off the rain, seeing some sights, and partying like rock stars all night long at the open-air DJ thiesto show, we boarded a flight (with little more than a tiny nap) for salta (in Argentina's NE corner)...from there we explored some of the regions finest landscapes and wine (although the wine tour part of the excursion wasn't what we were really hoping for)...and then we moved north through Pumamarca and Humahuaca. I think the highlight of this leg of the trip may have been being dropped off on the side of the road next to a sign that just pointed the direction for Pumamarca...so we started walking with a little Argentine family until a couple of teenagers in a pick-up truck stopped and gave us a ride the rest of the way into town...yes, i understand that hitchiking in south america is not the brightest of ideas, but lets be honest, i was a) with friends and a family and b) not in south compton.

so now, after a day of travelling across the Bolivian border (not nearly as scary as we were preparing ourselves for), and rickety, randomly-syopping, barely crawling 12 hour train ride (in a cabin filled with people we had met along the way, randomly enough) from the border town to Uyuni (where we showed at 2 am up with a hostel booked at apparently the worst one in town, so decided to follow th Irish girls to their hotel to see if there was space...luckily there was!) to see the salt flats (which were AMAZING)...and ANOTHER bolivian traveling experience (an overnight bus from Uyuni to La Paz- characterized by a) the first 5 hours being on unpaved "roads" and b) bathroom breaks meaning "get off the bus and find an open area to start peeing")...we are finally in La Paz...

Due to a slight iteneray set-back, we'll be here a day longer than originally hoped, but we'll move on to Copocabana and Lake Titicaca on Tuesday morning and then on to Cusco and Machu Picchu by the middle of the coming week...

Stay tuned for more traveling adventures (if I get around to updating this thing again before its all over!)...I can only imagine that, with Drew and I living the lives of South American nomads, the stories will only continue to pile up!

un abrazo grande...


Eso es Argentina

So I think i might be falling in love with Argentina. It's taken me some time to get settled and accustomed to everything here, but after two months, I think I can safely say that I love this amazing dysfunctional, inefficient, socially dynamic country. I've begun to really appreciate the beauty which Argentina offers...that which is completely different from anything I've ever been exposed to in developing countries.

After two months, I've realized that what I love about this country is the raw history which is so present on every corner. During my first trip to Buenos Aires, just several weeks after arriving in Argentina, our taxista pointed out the bullet holes in a passing building...fresh from the recent revolution. And there's the graffiti...everywhere graffiti...but it's not like that of the bling-bling gangsters in the states...there appears to be much deeper meaning behind each spray...each demanding the recognition of someone's human rights or supporting a politician. And there are the stories...I've long been a believer that everyone has a story, but I've never quite known such stories of rich context. Just several weeks after I arrived here, my boss and I were walking to a retaurant where we could discuss my time here over lunch...when we came to a certain street, he calmly told me that, on that one street, 95 of his high school classmates were disappeared in the dirty war of the 1970's...including himself. Luckily, he was released after just two months. And the other day, when walking from the clinic, he pointed out a tree up the street..."see that tree?" he asked me..."I once spent the night in it...i was walking along this street, and I saw military trucks ahead searching for people...so I sat in the tree all night. They never found me, but I saw them all underneath me searching..." He then nonchalantly pointed out that the plaza down the road was where "they" took his girlfriend at the time...I can't help but wonder how many other stories there are like Jorge's here in La Plata, as it was one of the cities hit hardest by this military dictatorship. And of course there are the stories of others affected by such atrocities...one of our patients is a child (now fullgrown) of disappeared parents-- his is a story of emotional/mental problems, drug use, and HIV. These stories are all around me...I can feel them. OHH...and the cartineros fascinate me daily! These men who maneauver their horse-drawn carts through the streets, often with family and small children in toe, looking for any piece of recycle-able materials they might be able to add to the cart and sell for a minimal amount of income. If I could have one hour with them, what would they tell me? Have there always been cartoneros, or are they a recent creation of the economic crisis at the turn of the century? One can't help but ponder their place in this world...why are we born into the worlds which we are, especially those with no hope of ever escaping?

BUT I also see the beauty in the connection that these people have to their history...it's often been said that, in order to know where you're going, you have to know where you've come from. Seeing this knowledge of a past, this connection, is incredible...these people appear to know where they are going...or at least where they would like to go...

Apart, Argentina is also a geographically diverse and beautiful country...filled with warm people and good wine. A few weekends ago, Jill and I went to Mendoza...heart of the wine country, for the long weekend...and it was unbelievable. I can now say that I have both been sledding and horseback riding in the Andes. I've never been to the west in the states, but I imigine it to be similar...and talk about fresh air...even when atop a crazy horse named Pampa...one who I insist is going through menopause because she was loca! It was nice to get away from the traffick sin stop signs/signals of La Plata and enjoy nature at its best...including some of the best wine that it can produce!

As I hit my half-way mark here, I'm contemplating what I've done in my short time here, and what remains to be done in my duration...on one side, I feel like I have years left, and then I also feel like I don't have nearly enough time left to do what needs to be done. I've had frustrations, sure...but I've also had amazing victories...even if they're seemingly insignificant conversations/connections with the trainers at my gym or the people who work at the computer lab around the corner from my house. Eso es Argentina, I keep reminding myself...this is Argentina...in all of its dysfunctional beauty...


A Través de Nuestros Ojos / Through Our Eyes

As an intern with FSD, I have been given the opportunity to write a grant for the funds necessary to implement a project of my choosing at the clinic in which I am working...the following describes the project for which I recently wrote AND won my grant...I will be implementing this project throughout the duration of my time here in La Plata.

If a picture is indeed worth a-thousand words, the city of La Plata is in for one hell of a story. Argentina is a country of rich history, and with a past wriddled with political instability and military dictatorship, a generation of disappeared people, and the more recent economic crisis of 2001, its people have something to say. The patients who walk through the discrete, frosted glass door of the Centro de Referencia de VIH/SIDA, where I have been working for 7 weeks now, have an exceptional story...the socio-cultural forces weighing down on them have manifested themselves in a betrayal that runs much deeper than corrput political ideology; theirs is a betrayal of their own blood cells. For many, HIV is one more obstacle which thwarts their abiity to survive in a developing country. In the midst of poverty, unemployment, and malnourishment, these incredible people attempt to live with HIV...but are they truly living? The government provides the resources for their sustinance...throwing them further and further into a dark pit filled with excuses, complaicance, and lack of responsibility...but simple sustinance doesn't provide a life.

Over the past 7 weeks I have seen first-hand not only the fear of discrimination for a positive HIV status, but also the reality of this fear. It's everywhere. I see it in the patients' eyes when they describe that they have recently been fired simply because their boss suspected that there was infection nearby...sometimes in the partner of the employee. I hear it in the interviews that I am holding with patients to better know their needs...they speak of the fear that they live with, for if anyone found out that they were positive, they would be treated poorly. Sometimes their own family members-- flesh and blood-- don't even know. And I feel it too. I feel it in the air when I tell someone where I work. When the letters even leave my lips-- HIV-- I see the confused look come across their faces...the palpable level of discomfort is incredible. Do I have HIV, they ask. Could they really be talking to someone with HIV? What if they catch it through the air that we're sharing? For this reason I no longer give a general answer when one asks what I'm doing here...I now tell them exactly which clinic I am working in. The conversation around the illness ravaging their city has to start somewhere...why not with an American boy who's leaving in 3 months?

In an effort to affect this lack of understanding, while also empowering the patients, I have written a grant to implement A Través de Nuestros Ojos: a Photovoice pilot program for the patients at La Salita. Based on the Photovoice Method (which I urge each of you to read about- www.photovoice.com/org) this project will allow patients to explore what living with HIV/AIDS in La Plata means to them through photography. I will be giving approximately 5-8 patients cameras and asking them to explore this construct over a one-week period, after which we will reflect on their experiences and discuss photos which they choose to share. Through this phase, it is hoped that the patients will truly uncover both positive and negative aspects of their lives as HIV-positive persons. For many, they lack the tools to see themselves as the subject, rather than an object, in their lives...and I hope that this project will aid in the development of the tools to do such as they view their world from a fresh perspective given by the small lens of a camera. The second part of the project will serve to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS among the general population of La Plata through a public exposition in the premier cultural center of the city- El Pasaje Dardo Rocha. During the week of 23-28 September, the participating patients' photography (of which they elect to show) will be on exhibition for the general public.

Although we live in a world saturated with visual images, the true meaning of photos is often lost...the subject all too easily becomes an object in a world far from the one which we know. I hope that this project reunites both the photographer and the viewer with the reality of HIV which surrounds them in La Plata, regardless of infection status.


A truly happy meal (?)

For any who may be offended by the idea of oral sex, I truly apologize for any discomfort the following may cause...in fact, I encourage you to retreat from your attempt to "check-up" on me and come back next week...

Now, the rest of you perverts sitting there anxiously awaiting to read what I could possibly have to say about oral sex, brace yourselves for what you are about to read...I was truly amazed...

You thought that McDonald´s and Burger King were the only one´s who could produce a good happy meal, didn´t you? I did too, I admit. And then of course Burger King (I believe) took it one more step: they created the big kid meal, with more mature, age-appropriate toys...but now, here in La Plata, I have found the Big Boy meal...and its utter existence truly amazes and disgusts me. It is called a churipete (pronounced churie-pet-ey), and it involves the eating of a sausage (CHURIpan) and fellatio (pete)...for a minimal price of 10 pesos (just over $3USD)...and last week, as I accompanied my colleague and two sex workers who are health promoters to places of prostitution to promote sexual safety (condom use, HIV testing, STI signs and symptoms, etc) among sex workers, I encountered this asenine creation.

Prostitution is one thing, but I am left to wonder where we went wrong with this churipete phenomenon...when did it become acceptable to mix meals and acts of sexual exploitation, of course, but more...I´m left to ponder the (lack of) significance which has been placed on these acts, both by the client and the worker. Certainly there are inumerable contexts which lead a young girl to sex work, but over the past week, I have been stumped by the contexts which could lead a young girl to one of these establishments; for this appears to be a restaurant, and these girls waitresses. It does not appear anyway that these girls are being held against their will or exploited by a pimp of sorts. Did they end up in these "restaurants" because they just have to perform oral sex on customers (albeit while they´re eating...or just after)...or if they at least feel lucky to be there instead of other "houses" for similar reasons. How degraded they must feel to serve as the man´s "toy" in his happy meal. And so I sit, considering the heirarchy of sexual degredation...just which end of this scale of exploitation is "better"? And somewhere along the path of social development, I suppose it became acceptable...maybe more acceptable than visiting a brothel...for a man to visit these places for "dinner" and order such a "simple" act for dessert. Have we really begun to order sex off of a menu?

Before arriving at the churipete establishments along "the route," we visited several other places of prostitution and spoke with the dueños, and in some cases the girls themselves, about the sexual risks to which they were all obviously vulnerable. In the first place (and my first ever), which was only a few streets away from my hous, I was overcome with emotions-- confusion--frustration, sadness, fear, anger (and the list goes on)-- as we entered the dark, dingy waiting room...eluminated by faint red lights and furnished with leather chairs. The place was dirty, literally and figuratively...and the dueño was not much better. In the midst of explaining the importance of getting "his girls" tested for HIV regularly (which he would only submit to if he was given their results) there was an outcry from behind the door which seperated us from the girls...apparently they had begun fighting...and one openned the door crying. So many tears must lie deep within her eyes, I thought...how I would love to sit down for an hour and just talk to each one of the girls and learn more about their personal histories...girls like those I saw should be in high school...they should be learning about themselves and going on dates, not sleeping with older men for money (little of which they surely are able to keep). We invited the girls to come and speak with us, and I saw there scared eyes peer through the crack in the door...were they fearful that I was their next customer, their next violator, their next meal...or were they embarrassed to discuss such issues? Certainly those who provide sexual services for a living couldn´t be embarrassed to discuss sexual acts...or could they? Perhaps, if they have not chosen this life for themselves, they could be, I thought...and I wonder, how many of those eyes which I stared back into through the crack in the door were there against their will...how many young girls had been ripped from their childhood and trafficked like cattle to this place of business?

Unfortunately for many, this is their livelihood, whether self-elected or forced...this is their reality.


I was bruised and battered/And I couldn't tell what I felt/I was unrecognizable to myself

It´s been two weeks since I´ve started working in the HIV clinic here in La Plata, and the words of Bruce Springstein are all around me. Already my head is swimming with stories and emotions. While I am far from seeing it all as they say, I have seen so much more than ever before in such a small period of time. In my first week, I stared Kaposi Sarcoma (skin cancer associated with AIDS...indicating the innevotable mortality which awaits) in the face...I spoke with young women who were meeting HIV head-on, with their small children along for the ride...I spoke with mothers and children of sick patients, transexual sex workers, drug addicts, and patients with fewer CD4 cells than I have fingers...I helped to counsel a young couple, newly infected with HIV, as they delt with the raw emotions associated with the news and anger over the fact that the man was unjustly fired from his job when his co-workers learned that there was merely the suspicion that his girlfriend was HIV-positive...at this point, I began looking for Tom Hanks...but then, this isn´t a Hollywood blockbuster, is it? This is real life...this is HIV in a developing country at the dawning of the 21st century.

I was delighted to hear that the state offers so much to these desperate individuals...the government actually pays for ALL diagnostic tests, care, and treatment (including antiretrovirals)...the problem is, however, that these gifts don´t necessarily give life. After the economic crisis in 2001, life in Argentina quickly plummeted for the vast majority...with over 70% of the population living below the poverty line, HIV is just one more thing that many can just not afford the time or energy to properly deal with. Free ARVs are fantastic...but what good do they do if you have no food, or at least inadequate amounts and types of food, to eat with them (beyond the obvious importance of food, it is incredibly important for HIV-positive individuals to maintain a healthy diet and many of the drugs require that they be taken with food)...what good does emotional counseling and empowerment do if you have no job and no permanent home to call your own? It seems as though these people have been continuously betrayed by their own government and now they have been betrayed by their own bodies...even the blood in their veins is rebelling against them...

Before coming here, I was a bit confused by the words Bruce Sprigstein sings in the middle of his hit song Streets of Philadelphia: ...aint no angel gonna greet me/just you and I my friend...Now I see a bit more clearly just how true these words can be...how right Bruce might have actually been. While I completely see God´s hand here and am confident that there are, in fact, angels here among us...for me, maybe they´re all HIV-positive...I am also accutley aware of the lack of such comfort felt by our patients. I would like to think that there are angels who will greet them here in this world, but I´m just not confident that they will be afforded such encounters...at least not outside of the clinic in which I find myself working. There, we try to build a sense of empowerment and ownership over their bodies, their lives, their illness...we hold workshops every friday (including art therapy and reflection sessions) to supplement our normal medical and psychosocial services, with the hope that we can build a base, a foundation from which the patients can begin to organize their lives and make healthy decisions in every area of their life, as they begin to allow HIV to trickle over into all aspects...as they begin to live with HIV rather than die from it...