Sunday, November 1, 2009

Visa taboos and small town joys

I'm going to Chile in three months. My scholarship year is ever so slowly approaching, 18 months after I started the application process. Now that I've been accepted to the Universidad Pontificia de Valparaiso I'm waiting for my final documents so I can send them to the Chilean Embassy and book a visa appointment in D.C.

The student visa application required me to get an HIV test. After a few unanswered phone calls to local health departments, I made an appointment at a nearby family clinic. I showed up at 9:45 a.m. with my 40 bucks in hand, ready to be pricked. The check-in counter didn't have a sign-in sheet, so I told the receptionist my name and appointment time. "What are you here for today?" she asked.

I paused. "An HIV test." Her eyes grew wide and the blood drained from her face. The other women in scrubs behind the counter all froze and looked at each other. I think the entire waiting area silenced for a moment. Should I have whispered? Had I violated a confidentiality norm or HIPAA protocol? Did they expect me to write my reason for coming on a scrap sheet of paper rather than voicing those three letters aloud?

Coming from the College of Charleston where health services regularly advertised free AIDS/HIV testing events (a friend who I volunteered with in the Dominican Republic even organized one), and after reading interviews in women's magazines where Scarlett Johannsen and Natalie Portman reveal that they get annual HIV tests, and after seeing the horrifying images of the babies and children suffering from AIDS in Africa I wasn't prepared for the reaction I would get asking for an HIV test in Hurricane, W.Va. Now I know that H-I-V is a four-letter word around here.

Back at the clinic, my face flushed at the shocked reaction I'd elicited. I decided that I better explain myself because my dad works at that office part time. Plus I didn't want to put the nurse and myself through an uncomfortably graphic speech about safe sex practices and shared injection needles. So I clarified that I needed the test for a study abroad visa, and everyone relaxed.

Later this week we headed to Fayetteville for some hiking. We showed up for a haunted night hike led by a pair of park rangers who told 19th-century ghost stories about the surrounding woods and its now-disappeared mining towns and railroads. We ate dinner at Pies and Pints downtown, where I ordered Thai pizza - curry sauce, shrimp, and toasted coconut with fresh basil and cilantro. On our way out of town after a rainy morning in the woods, we stopped at the Cathedral Cafe, a hip and arty little place in an old church that serves dishes like carrot leek soup and spinach and hummus salad. I was so inspired by culinary small town West Virginia that I spent most of today making coconut curry butternut soup.

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