This is the second in our "Talking Travel" series of interviews with Travellerspoint members. Today's interview is with Dave Reidy, who, together with his girlfriend Laura, is working in India amongst children affected by HIV/AIDS. I was privileged to interview Dave via email and learn more about the obstacles and challenges undermining the prevention and spread of HIV/AIDS in India.
Dave and Laura at Heaven Lake in Xinjiang Province, western China.
Tell us about yourselves. Where do you call home?
I am a 23 year old Rhode Islander, and that will always be my home. Laura is 24 and from Long Island. We met as undergrads at Brown University, where we both studied Political Science. We started dating our senior year and have been together ever since.
Have you and Laura travelled much previously?
Before coming to India we spent a year in Beijing as English teachers. After graduating from college that May, I moved to Washington DC and worked for the Joint Economic Committee, while Laura prepared for China and then left in August to begin teaching. I stayed in DC until November, at which time I decided to leave the JEC and head for Beijing. Thankfully, the school at which Laura was teaching had an opening for a 4th and 5th grade teacher and offered it to me.
We did a tremendous amount of traveling in China, owing mainly to the very generous vacations afforded to teachers - for example, the entire month of February is a school holiday to celebrate Chinese New Year. For that month we roamed southern China, exploring the Yunnan Province, Hong Kong, Guilin and Yongshuo. While in Yunnan we did the fantastic Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek, which to this day remains the most beautiful trek I have ever done, and spent a day floating down the Mekong river outside of Jinghong. Almost as stunning were the stark karst formations jutting up in the area around Guilin and Yongshuo. We spent a day traveling down the river to absorb the scenery and a few more biking the trails outside of Yongshuo and climbing Moon Hill.
Later in the year we took advantage of a week vacation to head West to the remote province of Xianjiang, home to ancient Silk Road trading posts and the fantastic city of Kashgar. We spent a few days hiking around Tian Shi, the famous Heaven Lake immortalized by Vikram Seth, before embarking on a 26 hour bus ride along the outskirts of the great desert to Kashgar. We soaked in the culture and scenery (and delicious food!) around Kashgar, and managed to take a brief camel-back day trip into the desert. Let me assure you that everything you have ever heard about camels being ill-tempered is more than true - mine complained at every small slope and even threw me off to show his disgust. We also spent a day driving high into the Karakoram Mountains, almost to the border with Pakistan, to see the starkly beautiful Karakul Lake, which is one of the highest bodies of water in the world.
We were also sure to explore the numerous fascinating sights in and around Beijing, including several visits to the Great Wall. On one such visit we spent 2 days hiking and camping along an unrestored section of the Wall with some friends. We also traveled north to Harbin, deep in Chinese Siberia, for their famous annual ice sculpture exhibition. Harbin is the last real city before the completely frozen wastelands of Siberia, and each year they celebrate by carving massive structures completely made of ice.
What inspired you to go to India and work with people infected with HIV?
After finishing the teaching year in China, we decided to spend another year abroad and quickly zeroed in on India as the place where we would like to be. Once we decided that, we began looking for jobs. We are both political science graduates with a heavy focus on public policy, and are both very interested in international public health. Through our studies we had learned a great deal about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and were exceptionally keen to get involved and help. We were lucky enough to stumble upon two positions with the Clinton Foundation working on Pediatric HIV/AIDS, and now here we are in India.
What are some of the major factors contributing to the HIV/AIDS problem in India?
There are many factors contributing the continued growth of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in India, but I would argue that few have the impact of generalized misinformation, stigma, and discrimination. Sex, and therefore HIV/AIDS, remains a taboo subject in what is still a predominately conservative society, and this in turn impedes people from getting information about HIV/AIDS and how it spreads. People continue to engage in what is termed "high-risk behavior" without realizing that they are putting themselves in danger, and thus the epidemic continues to spread. Those who are positive risk being ostracized from their communities because people often do not understand how HIV/AIDS spreads and worry that they may contract it from simple daily interactions, which is not true. This unfortunately makes educational communication about HIV/AIDS more difficult and feeds into what becomes a cyclical problem.
Your work is specifically about helping treat children who are infected with HIV. What are the challenges in getting sick children to receive treatment?
The challenges of linking children to treatment mirror those that plague all positive patients - misinformation. Positive children are often expelled from schools, and parents then become reluctant to test their children. There is often a prevailing attitude among parents that since they cannot help their children if they have HIV/AIDS and the children may face discrimination then they are better off just knowing the status of their children. This is one of the main myths we try to combat by spreading the message that you can do something to help your child if they are positive. Anti-retrovirals are available free of charge in government medical facilities, and can work miracles. In addition to communication, there are several barriers to treatment for children, especially poor children in rural areas. Medical centers are often far away, possibly even an overnight journey, and in addition to paying the cost of the trip parents also have to lose a days wages. Far too often this is simply unaffordable.
You started off your trip in Delhi and then flew across to Mumbai, where you are now. How do the two cities compare?
I read somewhere that Mumbai is a tropical, third-world version of New York, and that statement couldn't be more true. The city is constantly alive and pulsating with electricity, just as Manhattan seems to be at all hours of the day. The crowds, the traffic, and the generally hectic pace of life never let you forget that you are in what is possibly the most populated urban area in the world. Delhi, conversely, has the feel of a large town that just kept growing. It is sprawling and has several small city centers instead of one true urban area. For my money, I'll take Mumbai any day. I find the excitement and energy to be intoxicating, and as a multi-cultural urban melting pot you can experience the best of all different Indian cultures and cuisines in a single day.
How long do you have in India? What comes after that?
We are planning to stay in India at least through the beginning of August. After that, who knows...
To read more about Dave and Laura's experiences in India, check out his blog.