– BY NONI ROBERTS –
Getting my period whilst backpacking wasn’t something I was particularly worried about. As a monthly inconvenience I’d dealt with for over a decade, I didn’t think it warranted worrying about. But for all female travellers, the way you handle that time of the month is definitely something you need to consider before packing your bags.
If you suffer from heavy periods, pain and backache, those days can be a real nuisance. And when you want to be making the most of your time somewhere, you don’t want your period bogging you down. There are options which stop your periods entirely, or at least make their effects a little less severe. A few years ago, I was on the mini-pill (progestogen-only-pill) and it was brilliant. My periods basically stopped altogether, besides the odd bit of very light spotting.
But after a long while, I became aware of the overload of hormones I was putting into my body. I also got excruciating leg cramps and worried that the pill could be causing DVT (which scared the shit out of me). Plus, my moods around when my period should have been were changing and unpredictable. I was concerned it might be sending me a bit crazy so, ultimately, it wasn’t for me.
How to deal with menstruation on the move?
If this method isn’t for you either, you’ll need to think about the best way to mop up the mess while on your travels. Disposable pads or tampons take up room in your backpack and need to be topped up along the way. Plus: they’re a nightmare to dispose of. Most toilets in South East Asia aren’t equipped for toilet paper, let alone tampons and pads. Some have a small bin (mostly without a lid), but more often than not there’s only a hose, nothing else. Disposable sanitary products are also horrific for the environment, and not so fab for your health, but that’s another story.
Another option is re-usable products, such as menstrual cups and cotton pads. I’ve never tried cotton pads before, but if I were back home, I’d definitely use them. Re-usable pads work the same way as disposable ones; only, instead of throwing them away after use, you wash them. This is fine at home where you’ve got privacy and a washing machine, but when you’re travelling, these luxuries don’t exist. Having to carry it around until you’ve got somewhere to wash it just seems a little too much trouble. Also, from my experience laundrettes in South East Asia get a little awkward with underwear, so I can’t even imagine how they’d deal with blood-filled cotton pads.
‘I’ve comfortably used my menstrual cup in the grimmest of toilets’
Menstrual cups, on the other hand, are bloody brilliant (pun 100% intended). A godsend when it comes to menstruation on the move. The little cups are designed to sit inside your vagina just below your cervix, collecting your menstrual blood. Most are made of silicone, so they’re lightweight, compact and malleable. When correctly inserted, you barely feel it. Plus, they’re easy to use in the most basic of bathrooms: there’s nothing to throw away but the blood, which is tipped down the loo. I haven’t had a single problem while travelling with my cup. It hardly takes up any room in my toiletries bag, I’ve used it comfortably in the grimmest of toilets and wore it while quad biking, canyoning, and scuba diving*, all without a single leak.
My first backpacking period reared its ugly head when we were in Pai (Thailand). We’d been travelling for about a month at this point, and I was almost excited for my menstruation, curious to see if my lifestyle change had affected it in any way. Back home I’d ordinarily have a few days of feeling quite bloated, along with moderate-severe PMS making me want to blow things up before weeping at a cat meme for an hour. I’d then suffer a couple of days of excruciating abdominal pain, followed by back ache that was so bad I’d be begging for my period to arrive. But this period was strange. Not only had I not had any bloating, I’d also experienced very little pain. I perhaps had two mild cramps on separate occasions, but other than that, nothing. The period itself was much lighter as well. It only lasted three days – a world away from the heavy five I’d suffer through at home.
‘Is it the rice, the holiday feeling or the Vitamin D that’s making my uterus so happy?’
Trying to understand why my period had been so different this time around, I even googled ‘Asian diet and periods’, assuming it was something to do with the new food I’d been eating. I was joyfully preparing to eat rice and curry until my menopause, but the search came up with nothing. I’d more or less cut out dairy since arriving in Asia, so quickly assumed it was the culprit of my painful periods in the past. But since we’ve been living on a dairy farm in Australia, I’ve drank more whole milk than ever before, and my periods are still just as light and pain-free. My boyfriend Ryan thinks it’s because I’m not working, and puts the old periods down to stress. This definitely isn’t a bad suggestion, but I’d say travelling can sometimes be stressful in its own right. Could be all the Vitamin D that’s making my uterus so happy, who knows.
The lingering curse of PMS
One thing that, unfortunately, didn’t transform along with our lifestyle change was the PMS and mood swings that were consistent with my periods at home. When growing up, flourishing awkwardly into womanhood, my periods were a rollercoaster. I remember one month I was arguing with my mum over absolutely nothing, shouting like a knob about something ridiculous. I was almost hysterical: screaming and yelling without taking a breath. Then, when I finally did take a long inhale, the exhale came out in floods of tears, and I collapsed in a slump by her feet, before laughing at how stupid it all was. That is PMS. Unfortunately my pre-menstrual moods decided to join me on our travels, which Ryan definitely noticed after a heavy bout of PMS (it’s always worse when combined with a hangover).
Despite the lingering curse of PMS, I soon realised how brilliant my cup was for menstruation on the move. I didn’t have to worry about carrying tampons or pads, and changing it in any public bathroom was a doddle. That hose next to the toilet, absolutely ideal. When it comes to really cleaning your cup when backpacking, however, the best option is to use biodegradable wipes. Back home, I’d usually boil my cup to sterilise it, but on the road that isn’t really an option.
‘Everything that’s flushed down the toilet goes straight into the ocean. Also tampons.’
The importance of using a cup when backpacking was also emphasised during our visits to islands and unspoiled nature reserves, all which had countless pleas for a sensible and waste-free visit. On Gili Trawangan in Lombok (Indonesia), we did a lot of diving, and it’s usually dive shops that are the most vocal when it comes to respecting and protecting the environment. In their bathrooms, there were numerous signs asking visitors to not flush anything down the toilet. Flushing toilet paper is a big no-no all over South East Asia because the sewage systems just can’t handle it. On these small islands, however, this rule is emphasised ten-fold.
That’s because everything that’s flushed down the toilet goes straight into the ocean. When tampons are flushed, they don’t just disintegrate. They break down slowly, eventually becoming micro plastic, a substance our oceans can definitely do without. These micro plastics disrupt the coral reefs’ delicate ecosystem, sending it all out of whack. While binning your tampon is a much better option, you’re still contributing to the waste that’s being sent to landfill. And when local resources are already struggling with waste management, the best you can do is to ditch the disposable products entirely before you set off. By using a menstrual cup, you’re not only cutting down on waste, you’re also doing your bit to maintain the beauty of the places you visit, so that others can enjoy it years from now.
‘The cravings are gone, which is good as decent chocolate was hard to get in the Mekong Region’
I’ve just had my sixth period of this trip, now in the much less tropical climate of Southern Australia, and it remains unchanged since the first. There’s absolutely no pain or backache, and it’s still very light. Back home I’d change my cup at least three times a day, and each time it would be full. But since being away, it hasn’t been full once. I’m pleased to report that I haven’t over-indulged in alcohol around that time of the month, so the PMS episodes have also, thankfully, mellowed. Plus: the cravings that used to appear around my period are still non-existent. That’s a good thing considering decent chocolate was extremely hard to come by in the Mekong Region.
The best advice I could give any female traveller is to be prepared. Your periods might not bother you one jot when you’re in your normal routine at home, but dealing with them amongst different climates, cultures, and bathroom facilities (or lack thereof) could bring up a whole host of other problems. Take some painkillers in your first aid kit just in case you need them. I’d also highly recommend buying a menstrual cup and getting used to using it before you travel, you won’t regret it. And who knows, maybe the backpacking lifestyle will change your periods for the better, just like it did with mine. Just another benefit of quitting the stressful nine-to-five lifestyle and exposing yourself to other cultures, foods, and climates while you doss around the world for a bit.
Due to changing air pressure during diving, at first I was quite concerned the cup could possibly be dangerous for me to dive with. (Fellow divers will know the dangers of trapped air during diving). But many cups have small holes below the rim to prevent a vacuum seal from forming. I’ve asked a qualified instructor and cup-user about wearing my cup whilst diving, and she assured me that there was no issue. However, I’d recommend getting in touch with the manufacturer of your cup to ensure your safety before descending into the deep blue.
About the author: Noni Roberts (pictured on the right) is a Welsh backpacker who’s been travelling with her boyfriend Ryan since February of this year. On her journeys, she realised there were certain aspects of backpacking that were rarely discussed. Therefore, she decided to start a blog that outlined the nitty-gritty and often uncomfortable truths that come with the incredible experience of backpacking. She hopes this will open up conversations about taboo subjects while also encouraging others to travel. Follow Noni on Twitter.
More personal stories?
A very public menstrual leak, by Sarah Sahagian
Dear Period, by Yayeri van Baarsen
Me & My Cycle, by Mariette Reineke
Period changes and chemotherapy, by Cruz Santana
A time for celebration, by Robyn Jones
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