Here at Casa Two If By Land, we pride ourselves in our honesty. We share the highs along with the lows. Along with the stuff that sets our souls aflame and the universes of our hearts cracking open at their seams, we think it's important to share the pitfalls and the potholes, and to not leave out the stuff in-between—the vagary and commonness of our silhouette against the horizon, at that magical time of day when we could appear to be any one at all. It is in the spirit of honesty and unity that I make this post.
For those of you who don’t know me very well:
I am a regularly menstruating woman.
It’s nice to meet you.
As it happens, I am as susceptible to the allure of the open road as the next person, as Robert Persig of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as Ted Simon of Jupiter’s Travels, and as Ewan MacGregor of The Long Way Round. But, unlike my male predecessors, during the nine months between setting a departure date and actually leaving, a gap remained in my puzzle of preparations, and that was how to manage contraception from outside the US and periods whilst out in the bush. Truth be told, women have long been rolling up their sleeping mats and climbing on motorcycles and bicycles and sailboats and airplanes and horses and pogo sticks and lending their voices to an adventure genre that is nevertheless dominated by the voices of men. I’ve had the honor of sharing coffees and couches and swimming holes and mountain roads choked with dust with many of these women. I live in awe of them, and I think it’s fair to observe that they, along with most women, are accustomed to the act of keeping many plates spinning in mid-air.
I’d like now to turn your attention to one of those spinning plates, the one with the red polka-dots. The one named after an annoying aunt who overstays her welcome; the one we call the rag, the crimson tide, the moon time, the period that is anything but blue. I echo the sentiments of many when I say that of all the things I chose to leave behind, my period wasn't one of them. And since there are so many more women out there who are considering long-term travel without a return ticket, I offer up my own experience here.
About a month before departing from San Francisco, I switched from low-dose oral contraception to a non-hormonal copper IUD, also known as the ParaGard. While I was not keen to disrupt a routine that I had been comfortable with for the last six years, oral contraception was no longer a good option for me in light of my imminent departure. Access to and cost of birth control varies on a state-by-state basis—as a California resident, I am currently entitled to fill a year’s worth of birth control pill prescriptions at once. This was certainly a boon to me, as I was not planning on returning to the US for at least a year. However, I didn’t want to risk traveling with twelve packs of pills, given our vulnerability to loss of property and theft. As we would be riding through hot climates, I had some concerns about the efficacy of the drugs after prolonged exposure to heat and sunlight—a legitimate concern, I think, given the steam that escaped the clothes and sleeping bags stuffed into our black duffle after long days on the bike in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. The limited space in our bags is precious, and frankly, I was tired of having to remember to take the pills every day. The ParaGard, on the other hand, is effective for up to twelve years after insertion and requires one check-up per year.
I wasn’t thrilled by the thought of the ParaGard—before starting the pill six years ago, I had tried the NuvaRing, the Patch, and the Mirena, all of which came with side-effects that were downright offensive. But as time wore on and the urgency of making a decision increased, I decided to give the Paraguard a whirl. I won't go into detail about my bodily-functions here, but so far, six months into life with a copper IUD, I am happy with the method and find that it suits a nomadic lifestyle. While the placement of the device and the first few days afterward were definitely unpleasant, the adjustment phase that followed didn't disrupt my life in any significant way. What’s more, the freedom it has given me to enjoy an ever-changing routine as I move further and further south, without the weight of birth control on my mind, has been completely worthwhile.
If you are considering changing your birth control routine to accommodate long-term travel, I highly recommend doing so as far in advance as possible—you”ll have sufficient time to acclimate, as well as the chance to change your mind. And while I strongly encourage you to conduct your own research as well as to consult your care provider when choosing the method that’s right for you, I also understand the frustration of scrolling through forums and finding post after post which present a horrifying vision of ALL options currently available on the market. (This seems to be the case with every forum, regardless of topic—honestly, you’d think that beyond every motorcycle problem, birth control method, and border crossing lies certain death.) In reality, I think people are simply less likely to invest time in sharing positive outcomes than their negative experiences. So, for anyone out there who finds herself endlessly trawling the internet for perspective on birth control options, I’ll say that switching to the Paraguard has surprised me, and turned out to be a no-brainer.
Another item that has helped me get from San Francisco to Bogotá is Thinx “period-proof” underwear, which I bought on the recommendation of several lovely ladies. I packed four pairs, in addition to regular underwear, because I purchased two and was mistakenly sent an additional two for free. (Sorry, Thinx, for not coming clean about that sooner.) Now, my relationship with these underpants is complicated. My primary complaint with Thinx is that they are not exactly nomad-friendly. Not only are they difficult to fully clean by hand-washing, (I would recommend bringing a small bottle of hydrogen peroxide to aid the arduous cleansing process), but they also dry very slowly due to their highly-absorbent fabric. Nathan and I spent many evenings in hotels and Airbnbs with little to no natural light, which remained very cool during the day, and which had no sunny patio, clothesline, or even a bush outside on which to hang our clean, wet unmentionables. Often, even when I had sufficient clean water to wash my Thinx and a patch of sun in which to lay them, we simply didn’t have the time to wait for them to dry. And, as you may be aware, packing away clothes with even a whisper of dampness means mildew. So, off we would ride, tucking into a new bed in a new town most nights, my period-proof underwear strapped to our luggage and gathering grit and exhaust from the road.
But I think bringing Thinx along has ultimately proved a smart choice, despite how much space the four pairs occupy in my small, Sea-to-Summit clothing bag. For, when I was on the pill, Aunt Flo was demure; a shrinking wallflower; virtually unnoticeable. Now, thanks to the ParaGard, Aunt Flo squats on my life every thirty to forty-odd days like a murderous harpie. CODE RED! CODE RED! (It’s not painful; it’s just a lot of blood.)
Thinx have been a godsend on the days that carried us into our next No Man’s Land, and on which I happened to have my period. Sometimes we rode for several hours before encountering a single gas station or restroom, and in these instances, Thinx provided my costly uglyBros armored riding pants with much-needed supplemental protection. Most recently, I got my period the day before we set sail to cross the Darien Gap. Not only was I caught unawares, but the small fishing village of Portobelo in Colon, Panama had only one small convenience store which did not sell feminine products. To top it off, our motorcycle was no longer starting due to a broken fly-wheel, so riding into town for supplies was not an option. Although I was able to scrounge a few extra tampons from bottom of my backpack, which I had thrown in at some point for good measure, it was Thinx again to the rescue. On a few other occasions, I was on my period when camping was our only option, like when we camped on the remote beach of Campo Papa Fernandez in Bahía de Gonzaga, (where we also dropped the bike and fell off three times), or in pastures where livestock roamed freely. In these instances, Thinx prevented me from having to harm our spectacular landscapes by burying non-biodegradable feminine hygiene products in the earth.
I’ll briefly mention that I haven’t tried menstrual cups, although I know that I may reduce my impact on the environment by using them. I haven’t tried them simply because whilst we are on the road, we have only two small cooking pots at our disposal—one for boiling water for coffee and one for cooking oatmeal. Often, we have just enough time in the mornings for a few sips and a few bites before packing up camp. So, for both time and dignity’s sake, I’d prefer not to use our beloved Snow Peak cooking pots for sterilizing menstrual cups. Then again, who knows—the further from home I find myself, the less discriminating I become. And, from our current vantage in Bogotá, we have miles and miles to go.
The last product I’d like to mention here is the free Clue period and ovulation-tracking app. While I’m sure that my unpredictable cycle has given its developers a run for their money, the app is slowly but surely learning my mysterious ways. Truthfully, the most reliable predictor of my period is not the app, but rather, my period's inexplicable synchronicity with our longest and most significant travel days: our first border crossing at Tecate, Mexico, our eight-hour day of riding from Barra de Navidad to Guadalajara, my solo-trip from Guatemala city to Lago de Atitlán by chicken bus and then motorboat, and our five-day sail from Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. Nevertheless, it’s been fun to pay attention to and enter my “stats”—my energy level, food cravings, skin clarity, etc. It’s almost like being my own Tamagotchi. Tracking my period, which I never attempted to do back home, has helped me to take some ownership over this aspect of femininity. Dare I say that it has helped me appreciate my period? I don't know. Maybe. A little. From here, the culmination of the three years of challenges, revising priorities, and personal growth which made this journey possible, I’m relieved to witness my body, with her Red Badge of Courage and all, just doing its thing and thriving.