As we gear up for the 30th annual Toronto AIDs Walk on Sunday, September 16, we wanted to share our friend Michael Coulombe’s inspiring story of conquering The Inca Trail.
In 1995 the software consultant from Massachusetts was diagnosed with HIV and thought at most, he had one good year left. In 2017, twenty-three years after being diagnosed, the industrious traveller surmounted the Peruvian Andes on our Peru: The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu gay tour.
Read Michael’s full story below.
Would you consider yourself an avid traveller?
I wouldn’t say avid, no.
I’ve been to Italy, Amsterdam and such. But in terms of adventures, Peru was only my second. The first was with my friend Josh in 2009. We did an African safari in Tanzania.
Why did you choose Peru?
Quite frankly my friend Josh chose Peru. When we finished Africa, he said to me, “You know, before I turn 50 I want to do the Inca Trail and go to Machu Picchu.” I simply replied, “Okay!”
I have a huge fascination with ancient civilizations. I’d love to visit Cambodia and explore Angkor Wat. Or Jordan to see Petra. Hell, I’d do a road trip through South Dakota just to explore some abandoned towns.
Machu Picchu must have been the big draw for you, then.
But the secondary piece was the culture of the people. To me, learning about societies and how different people live is amazing.
One of my highlights from the trip was a visit to a weaving community up in the Andes. Our guide Ale brought us up there one afternoon to meet the women who weave the textiles. The whole experience was unexpected and wonderful.
You had a powerful experience doing this trip as an HIV+ person. Please tell me about it.
Yes. It was when I finally made that last step and got to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass. Everyone was already there and cheering me on. The moment I got to the top [pauses]… sorry it’s still very emotional. Let me give you a little background.
I was diagnosed 23 years ago. 1995. And back then when you were diagnosed it was basically a death sentence. I was 33 and I figured I had maybe a year to live, at most.
I’ve never let HIV stop me from doing whatever I’ve felt up to doing. It’s not a mental or physical block. But I just didn’t think I had a lot of time left.
When I got to the top it was like [pauses]… making it up there was just… It put everything into perspective. Where I’ve been. Where I’m going. It’s been 23 years…
Once you have an experience like the Inca Trail, it’s mindboggling. For someone like me, who’s gone through what I have, to find myself at 14,000 feet walking three and a half days, 28 miles at those altitudes, is just… I’m very proud of myself.
I understand how it would be overwhelming living under the constant fear you don’t have time, but then finding yourself all these years later still enjoying these experiences.
The Africa trip was different. Like, you’re riding around in a range rover for eight days. You’re not hiking out in the savannahs. This was a completely different challenge. A mental and physical challenge. When I finished the trek I was so proud of myself.
What do you think you’ve taken away from this?
I took away that I really can do anything I put my mind to. Even after 23 years.
Did you share your HIV status with other people on the trip?
I’ve never worried about people knowing I’m HIV+. It started with being gay. I was like, “Okay, I’m gay and if you don’t like it, get over it.” When I became positive I had the same stance.
When I introduce myself I’m not like, “Hey, I’m Michael. I’m a gay man and I have HIV.” But when I have conversations with people and it comes up naturally — either talking about medications or what have you — I’m not shy to say I have HIV. I will never treat being positive as something to be ashamed of.
HIV is only one aspect of who I am. It shouldn’t change how people treat me.
Going back to travel, you’re saying HIV shouldn’t hold you back from accomplishing the experiences you want.
Exactly. I don’t let it hold me back. If I’m physically not feeling well, then so be it. But you can not feel physically well for all sorts of reasons.
The virus itself is just there. It doesn’t affect how I operate.
In regards to contracting HIV in a time when it was considered ‘a death sentence,’ did you feel the need to rush and fill your life with experiences because you could see your own timeline?
That’s interesting but no. I have never seen my life as a timeline. But my husband did see it that way.
After I was diagnosed he wanted to jam as much as possible into my life before I died. This went on for about a year until this one day when we were getting ready for our commitment ceremony. We were talking to a reverend who was going to officiate, when I turned to my husband and said, “I don’t need quantity, I need quality.”
Whatever I do in my life before I die, as long as I’m enjoying it, that’s what’s important.
Is there anything else you think the HIV community can get out of travel?
For people who’ve been diagnosed, while it is a serious condition it should never be the reason not to do what you want in your life. If that’s travel, then get out there and travel.
Thank you so much for being so honest about your experience.
No problem! Thank you!
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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