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Confessions of a Conference Newbie

July 21, 2010

Becky Allen is's site manager.

AIDS 2010 has brought me a couple of incredible firsts: It's my first AIDS conference, and it's my first time traveling abroad. Either of those things on its own would be overwhelming, but "overwhelming" doesn't quite cover it. My coworkers had told me all about it, and I can remember being amazed by just their descriptions of the conference two years ago, so I'd braced myself. I thought I was prepared.

I really, really wasn't.

Here's the thing: the conference is big. I heard phrases like, "30,000 attendees," and sure, that sounds large, but it's hard to imagine the scope before arriving. The conference center is the size of a city block -- it takes up two separate stops on Vienna's subway. It is, as you can probably guess, easy to get lost. And I got super lost.

It happened like this: There was a workshop on HIV and the media I wanted to go to Monday afternoon. I checked the schedule and saw it was in SR7, at the far end of the center from the media room where I've been camping out. So I jogged over, only to discover when I got there that several of the speakers would be in Russian. Of course, United Nations-style translation headsets were available -- cool! Or so I thought, until (after a lengthy wait to pick one up, as I swear about half of the 30,000 attendees were ahead of me in line) I put it on and discovered that while it did indeed translate the Russian speaker, it only translated him into French. Which I don't speak. D'oh.

But in the end, it actually didn't matter that much, because the speaker shared a slide that was in English. And while it looked like a fascinating discussion of HIV, hepatitis C and prisons, that was pretty clearly not the media workshop I was looking for. I frantically checked my conference programme (which I swear I'd double-checked before), and discovered that I was actually looking for MR7, which was in another wing of the building entirely. I finally arrived sheepishly, more than half an hour late. So it goes.

But in the last few days, the most overwhelming experience was attending a lecture by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Maybe it was the jetlag; maybe it's because Clinton was the president when I first became aware of politics; or hey, maybe it's just because he's a great speaker. It wasn't like he said anything unexpected or particularly controversial -- not shockingly, he defended President Obama's HIV/AIDS policies. He called for investing more money in programs that research shows work better, including harm reduction (in keeping with the Vienna Declaration and a major theme of the conference). He was charming and, at the end, touching, saying his bucket list is to live to see his grandchildren -- and to know that everyone else's grandchildren will be able to grow up healthy.

My boss, Myles Helfand ('s editorial director), says that's what makes me a real newbie. He's over Clinton: he's way past the point of being awed by a former-President, and he says that Clinton's HIV speeches strike him as intended more for the mainstream media than the HIV community itself, anyway. Fair enough, I suppose. But I'm having incredible experiences, meeting people from all over the world, hearing perspectives I'd never have thought of, and drinking in the aura of passion that pervades this place. I wouldn't trade that for anything, and I hope I'll still be this overwhelmed in two years at AIDS2012.

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This article was provided by TheBody. It is a part of the publication The XVIII International AIDS Conference.
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