"Excuse me, where's the nearest place I can buy some Tampax?" I whisper.
I'm in Sana'a, capital of Yemen, about to set off on a two-week November desert drive. "My little friend" (and I don't mean my travel buddy) has arrived earlier than expected. I've gone down to the front desk of my hotel to see the reception clerk, who, thank God, is a woman.
"Tampax? What's that?" she asks, loud enough for two oil workers checking in next to me to overhear.
"Um, you know, tampons. For when you have your period."
"You mean pads."
"No, not pads, tampons. The ones you insert."
She looks at me, pity in her eyes. "Madam," she confides in a low voice, "in Yemen we do not insert."
OK, we're not talking rape, death or dismemberment here, but a Tampax nightmare is one of the worst travel experiences a woman can have. (Men, you may not want to read further.) Tampons inspire insane brand loyalty; one girl's best friend is another girl's leaky sponge. But not only does Yemen not have my preferred brand of tampon, they do not appear to have any tampons at all.
In desperation I ask our guide, Mohammed, a tribesman with a curved dagger in his belt and an automatic pistol in his glove compartment, a man who is prepared to protect us from kidnapping, who will keep us safe against thirst and scorpions in the Empty Quarter, who we've hired to drive us 10 hours in a Toyota 4-by-4 to the top of a roadless mountain to a fortress village called Shahara -- I ask this white-robed man of the desert to take me to a Sana'a pharmacy.
Ten pharmacies, in fact, none of which have tampons, and whose clerks treat me, when I ask for tampons, as if I'm morally and physically tainted. A true gentleman, Mohammed can see my mounting frustration, but I'm too embarrassed to tell him what I'm looking for. "Whatever is troubling you, chew this," he says kindly, handing me a bouquet of qat. "Qat solves everything."
A mild stimulant, the Yemeni equivalent of a stiff drink, Qat's green leaves bind you up, which partly solves another feminine problem: how to shit with dignity in the desert. Squat toilets and rock toilets I'm prepared to handle. And thanks to qat, I don't have to shit that much at all. But the prospect of going native when it comes to period control is making me crazy, making me consider curtailing this trip. It's a hot country, Yemen. I've packed lots of white.
For a moment I debate going to the American embassy, to ask the diplomats if they have any tampons, or if they can give me a list of expatriate women residents to whom I can appeal for a sisterly loan. Finally I call the Sheraton, an American-owned hotel chain, and ask the guest relations director where I can buy insertable feminine hygiene products. "I don't use them myself," she says amiably (she is from Pakistan), "but I believe you can buy them in the big department stores here. Try City Market on Az-Zubeiry Street." Mohammed and I get back in the 4-by-4, and I ask him to take me to City Market. It's not so big after all. Zip.
By now I really am desperate, so I give in and buy pads. Not mini-pads with wings, or even pads with adhesive strips. These maternity ward-sized pads have string belts. Like the kind Mom used to use. One word sums up my situation. That word is: yuck.
Even though we stand on the cusp of the new millennium, we women
continue to deal stoically with this immutable fact of our biology, this
evolutionary hand-me-down, euphemistically called the curse, my little
friend, that time of the month or, as the French say, in a revealing
cultural put-down, "les Anglais." Why do we endure this monthly mess, this
cramp- and bad mood-producing event? Evolutionary biologists believe
periods are the ultimate female weapon in the battle of the sexes, a red
banner telling us when we're fertile, enabling us, unlike any other
species, to deny sex and children to unsatisfactory males. All I can say
is, too bad they didn't have home-pregnancy and early ovulation prediction
kits back in the days of Australopithecus.
Ladies, I think you'll agree: Tampax is the greatest invention of the
20th century. (The tampon was actually invented by the ancient Egyptians,
who made theirs out of shredded linen and gum arabic. Tampax, the first
mass-produced tampon, came into being in 1936 after a Denver physician,
Earl Haas, patented the idea of a cotton plug on a string.) Yes, Jonas
Salk's polio vaccine has saved millions, and the cell phone and the
personal computer have brought previously inconceivable levels of
convenience to daily life. But could you survive without tampons? Would
you ever leave home without them?
Astronauts don't (NASA has developed special space feminine protection),
and neither, according to marine experts, should any woman considering
snorkeling or scuba diving in shark-infested waters. Ditto safari camps,
where lions, leopards and hyenas have been known to pull women off trails
and from their beds.
According to Advertising Age magazine, 70 percent of American
women prefer tampons to pads. Unfortunately, that view isn't always shared
by women in other countries. In Latin America and some Islamic nations,
many women still think tampons will spoil a girl's virginity. Feminine
hygiene giants Proctor and Gamble, Kimberly-Clark and Johnson and Johnson
are still battling to penetrate the former Soviet Union and China, to boost
their share of the $2 billion global tampon market. Distribution
can be problematic in remote or rural parts of Africa and Asia, where
popular feminine protection consists of rags or handfuls of dried moss. So
if you're traveling anywhere exotic, without 24-hour pharmacies, pack an
adequate tampon supply.
Here are some international tampon travel tips. In Japan, buy big
sizes; tampons there run small. In France, another popular American
tampon, O.B., goes by the brand name "Nett" (short for Nettoyer, or Clean). According to that bible of women's health issues, "Our Bodies, Ourselves
for the New Century," if you're truly, seriously desperate (or put off by
pads), homemade tampons made of natural sponges or sterilized cotton will
do the trick.
Alas, tampon nightmares don't end there. There's technical failure. Use
and abuse. A friend of mine, who understandably wishes to remain
anonymous, was about to go on a romantic sailing weekend with a brand new
boyfriend and his best friends, a married couple who owned the boat and
whom she hadn't met. The "little friend" came along too. She figured she
could keep her beau at first base, but silly girl, she flushed a used
tampon down the loo. A bunged-up toilet delayed the departure. A plumber
was called out to the boat, and after hours of probing, announced to
everyone what he'd found. Trip canceled, new friends pissed off, romance
And what about customs inspections. Ever looked a Syrian border guide
in the eye while he unwraps your Tampax from its packaging? "What is this?
A cigar?" He unwraps another, trying to solve the mystery of the
cardboard tube, cotton package and that funny little string. "Strange
American lady," he seems to say, though in reality he barks: "What are
these for and why do you have so many?"
Managing menstruation is not that big a deal. Like Nike says, "Just Do
It." But let me tell you about my other worst Tampax nightmare, which
happened in Lebanon, in 1983, during a tank battle in downtown Beirut. I
was a freelance reporter working out of the offices of the Lebanese
newspaper An Nahar, and when the shooting started I knew I'd be taking
shelter in the basement for a while. Guess who picked this inconvenient
time to arrive? This is a real nightmare: convincing a panicky pharmacist
shuttering his shop to take time out to rummage around for some boxes of
Tampax Super Plus. He's only got Regular and shoves them at me over the
cash register. "Take them, take them," he hisses. I quickly decide I can
live, shrapnel being the immediate threat, with less than my desired Tampax
absorbency. Then I discover there's no toilet in the newspaper's basement,
only a printing room. Amid the muffled thump of incoming missiles, a brave female
colleague shields me from view while I insert.
For years I thought no one could top this story, until I mentioned it
to my friend Johanna, a graphic designer living in Japan. "Tampons, ha!
What about diaphragms?" she laughed. "A Sudanese customs guy took mine out
of my makeup bag at the airport in Khartoum and waved it in my face. I
didn't have the heart to tell him what it was or where it had been."