Disclaimer: For all my guy friends that constantly moan about how I talk about my ovaries too much, here is your fair warning to simply close this, and walk away. I have a more gender-inclusive post coming, but my woman-bits are on my mind, so that’s what this one is about. However, if you don’t scare easy, and want to know a bit more about the woes of the fairer sex, read on.
Everyone thinks that travel is all fun and play, but really, backpacking involves a fair amount of planning and logistics that ordinary travel typically does not. Shoestring travel means that complex strategies must be worked out to avoid visa fees and costly red tape, maps are poured over to work out feasible ways to reach the most desirable hitching spots, days are spent lolling around many-a-godforsaken port town, waiting for the next public ferry out, etc etc etc. It all takes a lot of time and effort. Most importantly, in order to do all this, it’s essential to keep your bag small, preferably carry-on size, and under the weight limit of most budget airlines (7 kilos for Air Asia, Tiger Airways, Emirates, and Qatar). This calls for ruthless discrimination when packing. You need to cut down to the bare essentials, while still packing enough of the things you know you can’t easily find (tampons!) for your entire journey, which can be difficult if you’re going for a long time.
Over the last few months, I’ve been slowly trying to adopt a reduced-waste lifestyle, after being inspired by Bea Johnson’s book, Zero Waste Home. I’m not anywhere close to Zero Waste, yet, but I’ve been trying to make less and less, (much to the annoyance of everyone who has to be around me as I proselytize about the environmental burden of single-use items). I’ve been getting better about refusing what I don’t need, and reusing what I do, and one of the best tools for accomplishing this is my trusty new Diva Cup.
There are already lots of ladies in the world who are intimately knowledgeable about this little guy, but for anyone who isn’t sure what it’s all about, the basic run-down is this: It’s a tulip-shaped doodad made out of medical grade silicone. After folding it on itself a couple times, and positioning yourself just so, you push it on up there, where it unfurls and settles in to catch all of your outbound goods. A few hours later (the box says 12, but really more like 3 or 4), you empty it by using your thumb and forefinger to pinch it and pull it out (there’s usually a little bit of digging around involved, but I’ve never had any real trouble here). Rinse and repeat, literally. The first few times I tried this, it was a little awkward. It feels icky, and since it works by suction, you’ll get the odd (and not entirely welcome) sensation of it settling every now and again. Anyway, I got the hang of it after a few tries, and haven’t looked back. Additionally, there’s something really fascinating about coming eye to eye with your own menses. It’s hard to explain.
Anyway, like I said, this is something I’m still getting used to. Moreover, this is my first trip eschewing the classic tampon/pad combo, and just trusting in my little Diva Cup instead. It’s working out OK, but for any ladies who are thinking about making the switch, here is my analysis of the experience so far:
Pro: Not having any tampons or pads in my bag. Normally before a big trip I’ll stuff a regular zip-lock full of OBs, and have around 4-5 pads for backup. Not having the carry all that mess is a huge relief and leaves more room in my bag for the industrial-size medical kit I brought with me this time around (I AM an NP, now, after all!).
Con: Not having any tampons or pads in my bag. Tampons = valid currency on the backpacking trail. In the past, I’ve traded these ever-coveted goodies for paperbacks, internet time, and even beers on occasion. Lady backpackers will haggle over tampons in the hostel common room, yelling like elderly mah-jong players in Golden Gate Park. Not having any tampons to trade in times of emergency is something of a handicap.
Pro: Not making unnecessary waste while abroad. Nepal’s actually surprisingly clean- the highways are practically bare, and I’ve seen not just a few Nepalis plucking garbage off of the sides of hiking trails, cussing about the bastards who would do such a thing. This is unusual. In the land of the developing country, the plastic bag is king. One of my friends from England even laughingly summed up the backpacking experience with a phrase she heard all too often in Jamaica, “Would you like a plastic bag with that?”
In these exquisitely beautiful countries (and it almost seems, the more beautiful the country, the more this is a problem), plastic bags, bottles, styrofoam, and odd particles of packaging clutter all major highways and byways. Locals flippantly hurl Pop Mie containers into the cerulean waters of Komodo National Park. Discarded beer boxes wash up on the shores of La Moskitia. It’s absurd. The worst of all this is the fuckface backpacker who joins in on the mess by hurling his own shit out the window of a bus, with nothing but the threadbare excuse, “Everyone else is doing it.” Disgusting. Anyway, with all this garbage being tossed about everywhere, it’s wonderful to not be a part of the continuous waste-making. At least in this small way.
Con: The need for a particular bathroom layout. First of all, it’s best to have a private bathroom with a nearby sink. This is easy enough in Asia, but in Central and South America, these kinds of amenities come at a premium. Second, in Asia, where the squat-toilet reigns supreme, how is one meant to manage the complicated ritual of applying and extracting, rinsing and reapplying? Using the squat toilet is already a two-handed affair. Consider that the average squat toilet is usually ringed with random urine (and other suspect-looking matter) that some lazy bastard couldn’t be bothered to clean up after himself (and that no one else will, out of principle). Keeping your clothes out of this is Priority Number One, and can be more difficult than you think. This is especially true if you are a connoisseur of travel garments (Thai fisherman pants, Ali-baba pants, djellabas, etc.) It’s usually a coordinated effort between both hands (and chin!) to keep your clothes out of the muck at all. It is almost egregious to even think of adding on any more responsibilities.
Pro: No more buying supplies on the road- you’re all set.
Several years ago, I found myself in a small market in Vilanculos, Mozambique. Mozambique, unlike most countries in Africa, speaks Portuguese. I had been more or less fine in the country speaking Spanish, just with a Portuguese “accent” (talking as if my mouth was full of watermelon, and ending all my sentences mewing like a cat). This worked about 60% of the time. Anyway, I was in the market on that day looking for tampons. As many of you know, markets in most places consist of a bunch of people seated on the ground with their goods spread out on a blanket. The people selling electronic things will congregate in one place, those selling veggies and fruit in another. Generally, if you’ve found on person selling what you’re looking for, then you’ve found the whole section.
Vilanculos is a small town, and that day, there were only two ladies comprising the cosmetics and toiletries section. I asked them, in my Spaniguese, if they had any tampons. They had no idea what I was saying. I asked again, describing what I was looking for, louder. Nothing. I went through the whole explanation again, this time in my most Portuguesey accent. The two ladies looked at me, then at each other, with a look that read, “is this chick fucking meowing at us?” Inevitably, someone sent for a kid to come help translate. A moment later, a young boy- maybe 10 or 11 years old, comes trotting up to help. Big breath- I explain to him, again, what I am looking for. Of course, this kid, being extraordinarily bright, knows exactly what I mean, and, being a 10-year old boy in rural Africa, goes completely red and silent. At this point, the two shopkeepers start yelling at him- thinking that he is just being naughty for not translating. Seeing the public castigation of this kid, other shopkeepers abandon their posts to come have a look. Soon, 14 or 15 different people have come up to see what all the commotion is about. I try to excuse my self at this point, but no- they want to help. They ALL want ot help. It is decided that I should explain, again, to ALL the shopkeepers, and all their 28 individual eyeballs and earballs, what I need. I clear my throat and, again, go into a description fo what I want and what it’s used for.
A single, female voice rises above the crowd, explaining what I had said to the bewildered shopkeepers.
A moment of silence.
Then, “No. No, we don’t have that.”
The shopkeepers disperse. I go back to my hostel, tampon-less.
So, yeah. DivaCup. No more of that.
Pro: No risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome, the creators of the DivaCup boast.
Con: The risk of, well, just about everything else. Thankfully, the water in Nepal has been clear and clean. I have mostly been drinking from the tap with only a couple of tummy-gurgles to show for it. However, this isn’t always the case. I’ve bucket-showered with completely brown water in some places, and one of my showers in Indo had a fully established ant colony in the head. Rinse my DivaCup? In THAT? Then you want me to WHAT? I don’t think so.
Pro: No more trying to dispose of tampons in the oddest places. Trekking in the jungle, on a dive boat, in the non-functioning toilet of a local family that has invited you to spend the night, etc. All the ladies reading this know exactly what I mean.
Con: The need to boil the cup monthly. The company recommends boiling your apparatus every month following use, to sanitize and disinfect before storing it away. I imagine some liberties can be taken, but still, it needs to happen at some point. While this is easy enough at home, so many guesthouses in Asia do not have a communal kitchen, and those found elsewhere… well… I imagine that the other backpackers would not take too kindly to your commandeering of the only small pot in the kitchen for this use. Also, the kitchen usually serves as the perfect spot to meet other travelers. Chatting up a cute South African surfer gets a lot more challenging with your menstrual cup popping and simmering at your elbow. Sidenote: Mingling with others and quietly poaching your DivaCup are two mutually exclusive activities.
So, yeah. Not the save-all answer to menstruation abroad that I’d hoped… but not exactly a bad alternative to the established system, either. I imagine that with a little bit more experience and practice, some of the kinks can be ironed out.
Anyway, I’m still in Pokhara at the moment, enjoying the cheap living and chillin’ with a good book while I wait out the rainy days. Like I said, I have a more gender-inclusive post coming about my experience thus far. For now, I’ll leave you with this happy clip of my drive from Kathmandu to Pokhara.
“It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman