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Off the beat: Bleeding across different cultures

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SEPTEMBER 08, 2014

“We’ve got to escape. That’s the only chance.”

“San Ramon can’t be far away, they’ll have something there.”

Huddled in a circle of plastic chairs in the middle of a coffee-farming community in rural Nicaragua, we strategized on how to find tampons.

We’re on our weeklong academic excursion to the campo, living with a family of coffee farmers to get a glimpse at how about 40 percent of Nicaragua lives. And for three of the seven of us, we’re also here to test out our womanly endurance.

I was designated team leader for the week. Guillermo, our academic director’s husband, had said my aura was strong as we prepared for the trip. I think about this as I prepare myself for what many a study-abroad woman at some point in time must ponder: What happens when we run out of tampons?

Fun factoid: Tampons have actually been around since 15th-century BC Rome, although in a more natural, ferny or wooly form. The tampon of today — the prize we sought out in the campo — wasn’t invented until the 1930s by a doctor who sought to relieve his wife’s monthly discomfort. I’m not sure how it took that long for a doctor to have a little sympathy for his partner, but nonetheless: Dr. Earle Cleaveland Haas, muchos kudos. The world quite literally has never been the same for those with luxurious access to the modern tampon, and in 1986, the tampon was voted one of the small wonders of the world that had revolutionized the lives of consumers.

Huddled in the campo, I was ready to a lead a ceremonial dance for Dr. Haas’ nifty invention.

Given that toilet paper was a luxury we had had to bring up from the nearby urban center, we assumed that the community wouldn’t have the necessary feminine products. Our only hope for surviving, therefore, would be to escape El Porvenir, head downhill (about a two-hour hike, we estimated), find the necessary products and return before nightfall. We share one last look of united misery before I walk over to the community leaders, dragging my fellow, male student Cameron and his advanced Spanish skills along.

Eugenio and Steve, former comandantes in the Sandinista Revolution — the revolution’s leader/current president’s posters are plastered throughout the frail wooden shacks — are our main point of contacts in the community. They’re sitting in front of Eugenio’s house, sorting through the coffee beans we picked earlier that morning. Cameron and I say “hi” cheerfully. I ask, “Can we go to San Ramon for the day? We just want to visit. We are fine with walking on our own. We won’t be a bother.”

No, he says. Our academic director had given strict orders that we weren’t to leave the community. It’d be too dangerous to walk all the way there alone, and way too far. It’s better to stay here; they have anything we might need. Why do we want to go all the way there anyways?

I pause, take a deep breath and hope my utter embarrassment will be masked by my poor Spanish skills.

“Errrr…necesitamos productos femeninos,” I tell him.

It didn’t translate quite right. “Para tu cuerpo?” Eugenio makes a bathing motion. “Para comer?”

I’m a bit stuck. As Eugenio and Steve continue to make some interesting guesses at what we meant, Cameron jumps in. “No. Tampons. Tamponés?”

No matter how many different ways Cameron pronounces our holy grail, it just doesn’t translate.

With time being of the essence, Cameron eventually adds with a few universally descriptive hand movements, “Sangre! SANGRE!”

At this point I’m of course dying. Cameron kindly shouts, “MENSTRUACION!”


Eugenio, Steve and the many, many community members who had gathered round throughout our conversation were quick to address the situation, being, of course, quite kind and generous throughout the ordeal. They usher us to a nearby house that co-served as the community store.

As we walk over, Eugenio turns to me and said it’s OK, it’s natural. “What? They have natural tampons??” I ask wide-eyed, full of excitement to Cameron.

“Um, no. Like, it’s just a natural situation for you girls,” Well, that’s disappointing.

I’m not sure if this was just another case of the language and cultural barriers one faces when living in a foreign country, or rather another example of our forgetfulness of the luxuries we far too often take for granted. Menstrual care, and especially tampons, are not accessible for the majority of the world — both in the global south and global north. As I struggled through an explanation of menstruacion and purchased pads at the small, house-run store, the value of this small luxury became quite real. Never again will I take the menstrual care aisle at Walgreens for granted.

Now, the real cherry on top of the whole affair? Turns out the community burns all their trash. So by the end of the week, right before we were going to have our grand send-off celebration at the house of one of the study-abroaders who went through this whole drama with me, we discovered that they had decided to dispose of the bathroom trash buckets that afternoon.

Thus, as family members filed into the house for the celebration, we found a small sizzling pile with a half-burnt tampon applicator sitting gloriously in the open for all to see. Lovely, just lovely.

“Off the Beat” columns are guest columns written by Daily Cal staff until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.

Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter: @dailycalopinion.

SEPTEMBER 08, 2014