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Sailing on the 2011 HIV Cruise Retreat

It was my distinct privilege to serve as host and M.C. for a second time on The HIV Cruise Retreat, the labor of love by openly HIV positive travel agent Paul Stalbaum of Cruise Designs Travel. Paul has become the go-to man for gay travel groups ” in addition to the HIV cruise he organizes a gay cruise and even a gay bear cruise ” and he says without question that the HIV cruise is nearest and dearest to him.

As Paul and my fellow co-hosts planned the cruise events over the last few months, I was amazed by the level of detail and care with which Paul approached the task. Then again, he’s been actively involved in the HIV community since setting up and facilitating the earliest support groups in Ft Lauderdale nearly 30 years ago. His heart is in this.

It may seem curious that so many people living with HIV would spend their vacation time and money on an vacation alongside over 200 others living with the disease. But our common issue is inspiring and even a source of humor and fun.

Flip Flop HatThe happy vacationers come from all walks of life and across the country, and many of them hail from smaller cities where they don’t have this type of fun social outlet for people with HIV. It’s pure pleasure being in their company.

After an opening cocktail reception (Princess Cruise Lines accommodated our large group by giving us exclusive use of various venues around the ship), hosts Nate Klarfeld and Grover Lawlis moderated an AIDS 101 presentation for the sprinkling of cruisers who were fairly newly diagnosed.

But on to the parties! This year there were two bashes: The Mad Hatter Party, where guests were invited to get creative with their headgear (I wore a crown made entirely of flip-flops), and The Blue Party, which asked the revelers to interpret the color in any way they chose. The creativity at both did not disappoint.

MarkAndJimAkersHat PartyMy comic alter ego Anita Mann (near right, in an odd, mutual chest grope with one of the passengers) made her Cruise Retreat debut this year, hosting The Blue Party and ensuring I would never date anyone on the ship, once they witnessed Anita in all her peculiar glory.

All sorts of fun events sprang up throughout the week, such as an improv class led by host Jonathan Goldman, who also provided mud masks for our day on the Aruba beach (a sight in itself I assure you). Paul also arranged our own excursions in each of the ports, so we could snorkel or tour bat caves as a group.

We had so much fun with our own events and yet the ship itself offered nearly nonstop entertainment ” a casino, live shows, games on deck, and one of our group members even won the highly coveted Karaoke contest!

On our last day at sea I facilitated “Mark’s Poz Time Machine,” a multi-media review of the last 30 years of HIV. It featured images and video clips along the timeline, but relied on audience members who fleshed out the years by sharing their experiences. Thanks to their recollections and candid memories, it was a bittersweet and enlightening event. I believe so strongly in the power and importance of telling our stories and sharing our history living with this pandemic. I’m so grateful for the contributions of the attendees.

I realize how fortunate I am. So many of us are not able to take the time or devote the money for a cruise like this. It’s my hope that this video blog will inspire you to seek community, in whatever way you can, and never forget that a sense of humor sure does help the journey.

After all, you don’t really need a cruise ship as an occasion to wear flip-flops on your head.

As always, my friends, please be well.





  1. Bill K November 15, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    The joy is palpable! So glad this exists, Mark. Nice to see so many smiling faces. There’s simply not enough joy in the world, and seeing people with HIV experiencing so much joy and fellowship made me happy.

  2. Kai November 15, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    alright mama, have a great time…I wish I was there.

  3. LB1201 November 15, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Thanks so much for this posting. I am so glad that someone (a negative HIV supporter actually) turned me on to your site. I am in a support group now and am finally coming to grips with being positive. It certainly helps to have support like your site. I have to admit, I would really enjoy seeing the “Time Machine” experience. It sounds great. Have a great day!! LB

  4. Don November 15, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    I have been considering going on one of these cruises but I am just wondering if there are enough activities that I would enjoy. I am not big on parties, spending the day at beaches or watching drag shows. I have heard that on some cruises they organize runs and open water swimming expeditions at the island stops. Do you think that there would be other HIV+ people on the cruises that would want to be more active and do those kinds of activities?

    (There was a snorkeling excursion for our group, but you may want to visit the Princess Cruises site to see what more they offer at each of the destinations for the cruise next year. — Mark)

  5. Anne November 15, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    A great combination…to be able to cruise and also to share life stories. A relaxing way to relive memories, make new friends, and even to sneak in a little history and education! Book me for the next sailing!

  6. Sylvia November 15, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    this made me smile to see so many positive people having fun. i have been working in this field for nearly 20 years and i tell you this is the first time i have seen so many open HIV positive people. i am going to use this episode of My Fabulous Disease to encourage positive people i work with and deal with on a daily. Mark keep doing the wonderful work you do

  7. Mommie Dammit November 15, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    Ya know… I’ve been worshiping the Great Goddess Bette since the Continental Bath days, and I don’t remember her ever having blue hair!?! So did they throw you over the side after that? Or did they just plug your “snorkel”? Ye GAWDS!, Mark – when are you going to learn never to give me ammo like this?!? ROFLMFAO!

    Seriously, though, please let me know when this is happening again – and if you’re going – as I’d love to have the opportunity to take part in such a wonderful, heartening, and happy event. I might even bring my pumps, and scare the hell out of the people you missed the first time.

    Love ya bunches!

  8. Craig November 15, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    Happy to see all the shiny happy people. Landlocked on the isle of Manhattan due to austere budget of AIDS Disability, but good to see others found a way. Wish there was a scholarship fund we could apply to. Wish the prosperous could set something up, for here or other costly excursions. Must accept being an armchair traveller, cuz honey…unless you have family money, investments or retirement that was planned out and not dropped on you, AIDS is a chintzy cruise director. Its NETFLIX and the gym, not frequent flyer plans.

    Just got a vicarious buzz from your post. Thanks!

  9. Nathan Daube November 16, 2011 at 1:02 am

    Mark, this was my first HIV+ Cruise and I went because my partner went last year and had a teriffic time. To anyone that is thinking about going on the cruise next year all I can say is JUST DO IT. We had a teriffic time. If you just want to relax and do your own thing you can, or you can join in the group for any of the group acitivites. Mark, Paul, Nate, Grover and all the rest of the hosts do a teriffic job. We met so many really nice people and got to chat with some long term guys (who knew you could still be living life to the fullest 30+ year on) who are an inspiration to all. Im so glad we got to go and we cant wait till next year!

  10. Dorothy Bartolomucci December 2, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    We like Scuba Diving in Bonnair,Aruba, Micronesia, Asia & all over the World on Cruises, Small Ships & off Boats, Live Aboards as well! The best one Barbados Royal Shipper Ship right from Ship under launch Pad! Captain of Ship Married! He was very gracious to Olivia Women’s Cruise Gays! Poz talked there about Cruises Gay & & another families Cruise. I hear the Bear is the GLBT best & most fun! We’d like info on the next Bear Cruize in ’12! We have many Teacher talents we could offer for a cabin or 2 for 1 Balcony/Luxury room or in exchange room w/view for Teaching Yoga on Board or in Spa- I am licenes in Cosmotology, Amy a Massage Therapist as well as several Muchroom/Naturalist Forays in Int’L & US Forest as well!

  11. Trish December 5, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    Didn’t see many woman on the video and would like to know if this is a all man cruise , and are women with HIV invited also. Would love to join in, thanks.
    (There is actually a small straight contingent of men and women who are on the cruise, and some of them are included in this video, but they are understandably more hesitant about appearing on camera. The cruise agent, Paul, can provide you with more details.)

  12. michael lepore December 14, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    hi i am 15 years living with aids and i am still iiving i am poz and i am living with aids i am clean and sober and am living with hiv for 15 years i am still live thank you so much michaellepore

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