This post is made possible by the generous sponsorship of GladRags. And had I known about the Moon Cup back then, I would never have experienced this. Sorry, Kenya. Thank you, GladRags.
I went to school for paramedic medicine, with the intention of working in underdeveloped countries. It was a lofty, heartfelt dream. Like Indiana Jones meets Mother Teresa meets Jim Gaffagan. I wanted Meaningful Adventures, and I set out to make them happen.
One of these Meaningful Adventures took place in the remote West Pokot region on the Kenyan-Ugandan border. I flew in a Swiss helicopter operated by a German pilot, and worked with a male Kenyan nurse who grew up in the tribe where we offered a day of medical assistance.
At 5:30 a.m. I eagerly anticipating the next 12 hours of helping people and adventuring. I boarded the helicopter for the 3 hour flight, became immediate friends with the pilot, and watched the breathtaking landscape of rural Kenya unfold before me. Herds of wild antelope raced beneath us, fluffy white clouds billowed and shifted, and the ever-brightening mountainous horizon beckoned us closer.
About 90 minutes into the flight, we touched down at a medical dispensary to pick up the Kenyan nurse and our supplies. I took a quick bathroom break and panicked. My period, which wasn’t scheduled to come until much later in the trip, had made a sudden guest appearance and it was…fierce. Vengeful, even. I hunted through my bag and found two super absorbent tampons and one maxi pad, and prayed it would be enough to get through the day. You know. Kind of like the miracle loaves and fishes. Except with tampons and a maxi pad.
We landed about two hours later in a small clearing, high up in the mountains. The pilot deposited us and our supplies, then flew off to run more African sky errands. The tribespeople emerged from bushes and trees, and watched us with cautious, inquisitive eyes. I gave the traditional greeting the Kenyan nurse had suggested, and the caution turned to warm welcome.
The day rushed by in a terrific blur of work, smiles, hand gestures, and laughter. The tribe was open, generous, stunningly beautiful and incredibly curious. Every step I took, I had a little entourage of fascinated tribespeople following closely behind. This made eating a public event, and I didn’t even attempt to sneak away to go to the bathroom. While I had no problem squatting behind a bush, I was fairly certain I would not have the privacy I needed to conduct tampon business.
The gorgeous sunlight soon hid behind dark, looming clouds. The Kenyan nurse kept looking nervously at the darkening sky and then shooting me shaky smiles, trying to tell me in very broken English that a storm was coming.
I didn’t panic immediately. I had no idea what time it was, but we would be swooped up by the giant steel bird at any moment, right? Right. Because I was very poorly prepared to spend the night in the mountains where I could barely communicate with anyone about my bleeding uterus. I could hold my pee for another 12 hours. Skipping a few meals was not even a little bit of a problem. I had enough clean water for 24 hours if I rationed well. But I couldn’t figure out a way around The Tampon Problem.
The sky started spitting on us and we heard the helicopter whirring in the distance. The nurse and I packed up quickly, made the short hike back to the clearing just in time to meet the helicopter. The pilot got out, threw our bags in the luggage compartment, dumped out all of our drinking water, and we were zipping through the air two minutes later trying to outrun the imminent storm.
The pilot told me that he needed to pick up supplies, and drop off my Kenyan nurse buddy, (who was still looking nervously at the dark clouds and had pulled out a well-used rosary by this point). In order to do this, the pilot needed to drop me off on the way at a third location for about 20 minutes. By myself. But not to worry because he would come back for me in EXACTLY 20 MINUTES. And I believed him because he was German and Germans are always prompt.
We flew for about 45 minutes, and the storm clouds abated. We touched down on a basketball court in the middle of nowhere. A large crowd gathered, shielding their faces from the swirling dirt. I hopped out with my backpack, and the helicopter was gone as soon as I closed the door.
So, there we were. About 100 smiling Kenyans and me, trying not to bleed everywhere. I smiled back and waved. I knew I should feel at least a little apprehensive about being dropped off alone, somewhere in Only-The-German-Pilot-Knows-Where Africa. But I had one urgent mission to complete in 20 minutes:
CHANGE THE EFFING TAMPON.
Surely, if this village had a concrete slab and basketball hoop, they would have some kind of bathroom, right?
I tried Kiswahili first.
“Jambo! Uhhh…Bafu?” (Literally translated to “Hello! Uh, bathroom?”)
Kind, confused smiles.
“Hi! Where is your bathroom?” I asked, certain they knew exactly zero English, but desperation was setting in.
Blank, smiling stares.
And so it went for 10 MINUTES. I thought about pantomiming a squat, but I didn’t want to offend anyone. Also, I was absolutely certain I would no longer be able to contain any of my bodily fluids.
Finally, I smile-shouted “Lavatory?” as a desperate last resort and everyone laughed knowingly. Then they ALL led me to their community squatty potty. Jubilant, I walked inside. I pulled out my second tampon and looked up. I was in a three-sided outhouse with the whole front wall missing. The tribe gathered and watched me silently, still smiling, waiting to see what would happen next.
The squatty potty footholds were slanted, so I couldn’t turn my back to the crowd. Believe me, I tried. I toppled backwards and then overcorrected and nearly launched myself head-first into the hole. Then I heard the tell-tale sounds of the helicopter blades and pattering raindrops on the corrugated steel roof. My time was up. I had already peed myself a little. I knew I would not make the rest of the journey without a major disaster.
So, with an entire village of enthusiastic onlookers, I hiked up my skirt, squatted as low as I could go without falling into the terrifyingly wide squatty hole and changed my tampon.
I tried not to make eye contact with anyone afterwards. But I did. The smiles had vanished. Profound confusion had taken their place. I jogged back to the basketball court, along with 100 of my now-bewildered Kenyan friends, certain all of us were now indelibly scarred for life. The pilot was anxiously waiting, oblivious to my tampon triumph and simultaneous humiliation. This was certainly not the epic Meaningful Adventure I had been hoping for.
That night, the German pilot and I almost died. We were caught in a terrifying thunderstorm. In a helicopter, in the dark, above a remote and dangerous stretch of African wilderness. The rain was so heavy we could barely see right in front of us and the wind threatened to knock us straight out of the sky. I know the pilot made calculated decisions about what was more dangerous: forging ahead into the storm or sheltering in the open with deadly gangs of roaming cattle bandits and violent thieves with no passable roads for help to reach us on the ground.
The pilot made a series of life and death decisions and kept us alive that night.
I changed a tampon and scarred a Kenyan tribe forever.
We’re all a bunch of little miracles, aren’t we?
Changing The World One Feminine Product At A Time,
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