Snorkeling, a Mad Hatter Party, and dinner with what became 200 and more of my newest friends was not what anyone would think of as a typical HIV/AIDS support group. Neither is the location — hundreds of miles off the coast of the United States on the beautiful blue ocean near the exotic islands of Aruba, Curaco and Princess Cays.
In November, I had joined some I knew and many I didn’t in the 2011 Cruise Retreat. Although there were moments when we bonded emotionally, I can’t stop thinking about all the time we got to let loose, forget about being HIV-positive and have a ton of fun.
This event welcomed hundreds of HIV positive men and women, infected and affected, to the coast of Florida, where we began a journey we would never forget. Our first glimpse of each other came when gathered at a local resort. Our leader, Paul Stalbaum, and hosts welcomed each other and got the conversation started with introductions. It was also the first time those who chose to save some money and have roommates met their roommate. After the icebreaker infused some fun in the experience, we boarded our new home on the high seas.
Throughout the week we got to know each other at social and educational events, all of which were optional. I found that the more events I attended, the more this group began to feel like more of a family rather than friends I just met. Our mutual connection, “the recipe,” provided private times that our group attended. It was a great way to connect with other HIV-positive people who understand the challenges of being positive. And it was especially refreshing for me, someone from a rural town, to network with other positive guys.
Paul sets up private excursions for the group. An excursion is basically a tour on the island that we visit. It is generally action-packed and lots of fun. This year, one excursion took us snorkeling via a catamaran. We rode out into the blue seas and swam among all types of colorful fish, looked at wreckage of a ship, it was awesome. Did I mention drinks were on the house while on the catamaran? By the time we returned to land, we had forgotten about what we had had in common. The group was dancing, singing and just having a ”boatload” of a time.
The trip is different for everyone. For William Querica of Avon Parks Lake, Florida, “It gave me strength, and now I am vice-chair of West-Central Florida's Ryan White Care Council, helping thousands cope and live healthier lives. I see the cruise as being one huge support group with experiences and education needed to live a wonderful life.”
We all have something in common, yet we all take something different away from this trip. Paul’s mission was to create a safe environment that allows people from all over the country to come together for a life-affirming week of camaraderie, laugh out-loud events and the chance to walk away with many new friends. “I am proud to say that, over the years, aside from literally hundreds of lasting friendships, we have had dozens of people meet their next partner on our cruise,” he said.
This year, the cruise is heading out of Fort Lauderdale and over Halloween sailing on Princess Cruise Lines to Princess Cays Bahamas, Grand Turk, St. Thomas, and St. Marten. This will be my third trip with this bunch. In addition to being a host, I’m also friends with many of those who join us. I can honestly say that these trips continue to be the highlight of my year and provide life-lasting memories and friends I connect with throughout the year.
TOM DONOHUE is the founding director of Who’s Positive, a national organization that humanizes HIV through firsthand accounts of people living with the virus. He also sits on the board of trustees of the National Association of People With AIDS.