Ferdinand Garcia marked his tenth year living with HIV by surmounting the Peruvian Andes on Out Adventures’ 2013 The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu tour.
Overlooking Machu Picchu, Ferdinand posed for a photo holding a simple sign that read, “I Am HIV”. It was the first of many such international photos he’s taken to raise awareness for HIV/AIDS.
Almost five years later, Ferdinand is now training for Out Adventures’ Nepal & Everest Base Camp Adventure. This time to mark his fifteenth year living a full, active life with HIV.
We rang Ferdinand to learn about his “I Am HIV” campaign and find out how his training is coming along.
Everest Base Camp will be another huge accomplishment for you. How many Out Adventures tours have you been on now?
I think seven? I’ve been to Machu Picchu, Kilimanjaro, the African Safari, Myanmar, Cuba, Sri Lanka and Bali. Everest will be next.
Can you tell me about your “I Am HIV” campaign and how it got started?
I became positive fourteen and a half years ago. I didn’t think I would live five more.
I knew a good amount about HIV before I became positive. I was already active in the HIV community having done 12 bike rides across the country for AIDS. But when I became positive, I still didn’t think I’d live five years.
When I did hit my five-year anniversary of living with HIV, I decided I’d do a marathon. I’m not a runner, so the idea of championing a marathon was very daunting.
In years one through to five, it was me thinking I wasn’t going to live. Then from years five to ten, I started doing other things to keep pushing myself. So, for my ten-year anniversary, I hiked to Machu Picchu. Only that time I wanted to add a social component which was when I decided to begin my “I Am HIV” campaign.
What was it like taking your first “I Am HIV” photo at Machu Picchu? How was it received?
Very positively. I didn’t have any negative experiences. Especially because, in the beginning, I was very selective and careful when I did it. I was with three good friends when we did Machu Picchu. I knew if there was a negative reaction, I had three friends that would be there for me.
Can you explain the stigma you’re trying to fight with this campaign?
Well, for one, a lot of people still think contracting HIV is a death sentence. There are so many misconceptions: people think HIV can be contracted through saliva, or they think because you’re HIV positive, you can’t live a full life.
So the idea behind all of these pictures is to show people that just because you’re HIV positive doesn’t mean you can’t do all the things you wanna do. Whether it’s hiking a mountain, going scuba diving, hang gliding, or whatever the case might be.
The message is HIV isn’t a death sentence anymore, and there shouldn’t be any shame in people knowing you’re HIV.
Tell me about your experience climbing Kilimanjaro.
The first time I used the “I Am HIV” sign was in Machu Picchu. But I only took the sign out for a postcard picture. For Kilimanjaro, I thought about how I could raise more awareness if I had the sign on my backpack the whole time.
I asked my friend Cole if he thought it was a good idea. He said, “Well, as long as you’re comfortable with it.” And I was like, “Well, I’m not comfortable with it, and that’s the point.” I say that because if I were comfortable having a sign on me saying “I Am HIV,” then it probably didn’t need to be done.
So I put the question to Robert. I asked him what would happen if someone else from the group wasn’t comfortable with my campaign. There were nine other people on the trip. I had just met them. I didn’t know them, and I didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable hiking with me.
Robert said if someone had an issue, he’d handle it. He made it clear if I wanted to hike with the “I Am HIV” sign on my backpack, he’d support me.
The amazing thing that happened was at the top of Kilimanjaro, a guide from a totally different group saw me taking pictures with the sign, came up to me, and said, “Hey can I take a picture with you and your sign.” Afterwards he tells me his sister had just died of HIV. He couldn’t even say the words “HIV” or “AIDS.” He just pointed at the sign and said thank you.
I love how hiking with the sign shows you’re not weak or dying, but rather you’re living a full life.
Absolutely. Like I said, when I became HIV positive, I didn’t think I’d live five years. That was fourteen years ago.
I’m part of this Facebook discussion group. A funeral director recently posted about burying a 25-year-old who just died of HIV. And apparently, the guy was so scared of getting tested that by the time he did, he was too far along. So there’s still this intense stigma.
The idea of raising awareness through social media is to let people know that, for one, it’s not a death sentence. And second, I want people to know how important it is to get tested and know your status.
What has been your biggest accomplishment since coming out as HIV positive?
I started doing the California AIDS Rides before I was positive. My biggest accomplishment was having inspired over 80 people to do that event, and in the last twenty years, I’ve raised over 5 million dollars between the two teams I started.
Sorry, five million dollars?
Are there any other anecdotes you wanted to share?
Visiting the HIV-positive orphanage in Yangon, Myanmar, was amazing. 105 kids who were all positive were orphaned because their parents had died of HIV. I had the opportunity to speak with 15 kids. I told them I was HIV positive and not to let their situation determine their future. Just because they are HIV positive, doesn’t mean they can’t do whatever they want when they get older.
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