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Happy Times, High Seas

By Ray Villegas

The blue skies, the crystal clear water, the musical timbre of the steel drums, and the fresh tropical air of the Caribbean was the setting for more than 200 men and women living with HIV/AIDS last fall. The 2012 POZ Cruise Retreat sailed across the Caribbean, touching upon St. Martin and St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, and Turk and Caicos.

Travel agent Paul Stalbam said he first put together these cruises after friends and clients started asking for vacations for HIV-positive people.

"Being POZ and a travel agent, I decided to give it a try and created the LGBT POZ Cruise," he said. "Lo and behold, 2014 will be our tenth annual POZ trip."

Since its inception, the cruise has also welcomed, with opened arms, straight HIV-positive men and women to sail and enjoy the benefits this cruise has to offer. 

Stalbaum chose a group of hosts to help lead and keep the cruisers entertained One host who particularly stood out was award-winning columnist, author, video blogger, and AIDS advocate Mark S. King, founder of the blog My Fabulous Disease. King's uplifting take on life and his sense of humor ignited the excitement amongst the cruisers needed for a memorable time. With the help of volunteers, King kept cruisers entertained with humorous events and social activities such as his own versions of The Dating Game, and The Newlywed Game.

While on shore, King and Stalbaum led exciting and adventurous shore excursions, island shopping experiences, and also provided an educational workshop relating to HIV/AIDS. The educational component of the cruise is a unique feature attracting returning cruisers and new cruisers alike.

"The educational component was always meant to be a part of the group. Of course the focus is on fun and meeting new friends but we wanted to help keep guys informed," Stalbaum said. "Some people come from tiny towns in rural areas where there is little or no HIV information or support groups. The focus is fun, fun, fun but we like to provide the educational and interactive component. All of our events, cocktail parties, dance parties, and educational programs for our cruisers are private."

This year's educational workshop was conducted by Elie Schochet, M.D., a colorectal surgeon from Ft. Lauderdale. Schochet presented the "Happy Hiney" workshop focusing on the importance of colon and digestive health, especially for HIV infected men and women. This information aides doctors in detecting early signs of pre-cancerous cells and if detected early enough HIV individuals can live a longer life. Attendees shared their fears of colonoscopies and pap smears that often keep them away from visiting a doctor. Schochet used his expertise to ease the fears the cruisers were feeling about colon health by answering questions thoroughly. This excellent workshop provided valuable information to all and gave the cruisers the hope needed to quench uncertainties on a topic that is normally pushed away from normal conversation.

After a wonderful 2 hour workshop on how to live healthier while living with HIV, the mingling of both gay and straight positive cruisers adds a magical touch to the trip. Both groups are able to create new friendships, dispel stereotypes of each other, and bond as one unit instead of two.

"A while back a group of heterosexual men and women contacted me to see if they could join in and after I explained it was a gay group their response was, 'We don't care. We just want to be part of the POZ Cruise!'" Stalbaum explained. "Long story short, they come back year after year and the blend of straights and gays is so refreshing to see. The mixing and mingling and friendships developed are amazing!"

HIV-negative partners, family members, and caregivers are also invited to sail with cruisers as well.

"We are up to 225 participants yearly," he said. "This year's sailing [2012] has about 90 first timers, plus close to 50 who have sailed with us 5 years or more." As he gazes over a packed house cocktail party, Paul reflects on the dozens of men who have met their significant others while part of the annual cruise, myself included. The camaraderie and love within this group is quite visible.

Mark Wasson, who has sailed three times with the POZ Cruise Retreat, said he wasn't sure of what to expect from the whole trip.

"I was nervous at first, but quickly made friends the first day, friends which I continue to keep in contact with 3 years later," Wasson said. "My roommate and I have been accused of being an old married couple - we have only seen each other on these cruises. Paul did a wonderful job placing us with each other."

For many first time cruisers, like Dan Taylor and his partner Robin Brown, the impact of the POZ cruise experience is a life changing event.

"What we found most appealing about this cruise was everyone else was basically in the same boat as we were, so to speak," Brown and Taylor said. "They could relate to us or how we felt that day. We could smile, laugh or even cry because our life stories were similar in some respects. Sharing our thoughts weren't looked upon as strange but looked at as they can relate. All our smiles were the same....positive!"

"As I sit here at home and reflect on the trip, the overriding feeling is that I need to really live life, not just survive," said Tony Hamilton, another first-time cruiser. "I need to be more involved. Isolation has been the major coping skill I've adopted. Although my family and a few friends are aware of my HIV status we really never talk about it unless I'm sick. This cruise was amazing! I felt free to discuss my HIV issues as part of normal conversation."

After eight years of success, more cruises, like one last year to Alaska, are branching off from Stalbaum's pet project. He's also working on an excursion for heterosexual HIV-positive people, as well as an all-POZ trip to Europe following a successful small group trip through Budapest, Vienna and Prague. But first, there's the 9th annual cruise this November leaves Miami for  Cozumel, Mexico, Belize, Mahogany Bay, Isla Rotan, and Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands. 

For more information: PositiveCruise.com

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