Inggit and I climbed higher and higher, her daughter and niece along for the adventure, up slippery rocks and across dilapidated wooden bridges. Two hours later, we emerged from the heavily shadowed path into an open field, where three small rivers flew off the mountain crag above, tumbling down around us with a heavy, fizzy spray as three waterfalls.
We played in the mist, we took funny photos and washed our muddy, sandaled feet. And as we rose to head back down the mountain, Puput, Inggit’s daughter, looked up and asked Inggit, “Mama, kenapa air terjun tidak berhenti-henti?”
“Mom, why doesn’t the waterfall ever stop?”
I smiled at her innocent question, and pondered it myself as well, on the ride home and here on my final day in the Rumah Cemara office.
Just as a river runs through countless sticks and stones, Rumah Cemara, and every Staff member I’ve been privileged to befriend, runs into difficulties as they implement their admirable work every day. Why don’t they ever stop?
Yet in the same sense, HIV/AIDS continues to infect people everyday, making life more difficult and for some, bringing it to an end, although it’s preventable and treatable. Why doesn’t HIV/AIDS ever stop?
The answer to Puput’s question is: it’s at the source. At the root of HIV/AIDS transmission is people who are unaware of their status spreading it to others, or people unaware of HIV who do not act responsibly enough to prevent transmission. The virus will continue to spread as long as people are unaware of the dangers, and unaware that they are living with HIV. How to change this? Simply with education and more HIV Testing, so those not positive can prevent transmission, and those positive can stop passing it on. Yet these concepts, as I hope you have learned in my writing, are not so simple, when clouded by the complications of social stigma and discrimination. When the disease is treated as a moral punishment and not a medical illness, there is no funding or political will to educate the youth, and there is no incentive to seek an HIV test, knowing you will only face a world-full of judgment if you test positive.
Changing the source means eliminating this stigma towards people with HIV, and that, thankfully, is a task that anyone and everyone can take on.
As far as the Rumah Cemara family, myself included, why do we never stop? I suppose it’s from a sense of loyalty to the cause, belief that our goal of a stigma-free world is possible, and knowledge that for those we have helped, their lives have been saved, or significantly changed for the better.
At Rumah Cemara specifically, I have learned that the “Peer Support” model of people with HIV helping people with HIV, or addicts helping addicts, is a success, mainly because a prerequisite to Peer Support is that people with HIV have opened their status, and braved the consequences they might face for this. It is a painful step for the individual, yet a crucial step for the community.
And now, my own life’s stream is shooting off into a waterfall, from Indonesia, falling all the way back to America. I try to manage the persistent sadness of leaving a loved (and loving) environment by looking ahead to how I will be able to serve this community into the future. A PhD in the field of HIV/AIDS? A USAID posting in Indonesia? Though I can’t predict my life five or ten years out, I do leave Bandung with this community, and the lessons I’ve learned from them, solidly in my heart, guiding my professional interests and the projects I will commit my time and energy to.
I wrote to you almost one year ago when I first arrived in Indonesia, quoting the Ferryman from Hesse’s timeless novel “Siddartha”, “Everything has reality and presence.” Or, as I paraphrased, “regardless of the order in which we experience growth and learning, the river (life all around us) never stops flowing.”
It is with a full heart and a very inspired mind that I depart from Bandung, equally saddened to leave my Rumah Cemara family as I am eager to see my own family after too long of an absence.
I know I’ll circulate back to this place, even if I cannot to this time. And so, rather than try to preserve these people like artifacts in my mind, I look forward to keeping up relationships, growing with my new friends, continually weaving along through highs and lows, and flowing forward, like the river.