In a perfect world my period would have started and stopped well before I left the United States for Nepal. I’d counted it out on my calendar before getting my ticket. But no, pigs can’t fly, beggars can’t ride and perhaps if it were a perfect world, women wouldn’t menstruate in the first place. Or, if they did, the periods would be less disruptive. As it was though, I was awakened at three in the morning by the worst cramps, just two days after arriving in Nepal.
I was staying in a tiny room in a small monastic school in the mountains outside of Kathmandu. This was my first visit to Nepal, but all the young monks at the monastery had known about me for several years. In 1996, I had met their abbot and the founder of their school, Ven. Dhubthob Rinpoche. As the result of that profound meeting, I became instrumental in founding a sponsorship program for this school and the affiliated monastery in the city of Kathmandu proper. The appreciation, respect and care I was being shown was overwhelming and unprecedented in my life.
(me upon arrival at the monastery, receiving khatas, white prayer scarves offered as welcome, good luck, etc.)
But back to the cramps…The cramps were hitting hard. I’d packed a box of tampons in my luggage, figuring tampons might be difficult to come by, certainly in the school for young Tibetan monks, but probably in the village as well. Armed and ready, so I thought. Never could I have guessed or prepared for what I was about to experience-The Mother of All Periods. Not in the comfort of my simple home in California, but in this isolated monastic school in the mountains of Nepal.
By 4:30 AM I’d soaked through 9 tampons, squatting almost continually for an hour and a half in front of one candle. I only had 15 total. From all prior experience, that amount would have left me with some extras. Bending double, I tried to reason that the long airplane ride or the altitude was responsible for this anomaly. Luckily, my room was close to a separate bathroom which had been deemed my very own, being the only female in the monastery, but at this rate I might have to move in. And no hot water? My mind began to race. Nothing like this had happened to me before. I had to think fast.
I had to make the tampons last. What could I use instead? There wasn’t even toilet paper readily available in many parts of Nepal. let alone this remote village. With both hesitation and relief, I remembered a few t-shirts I’d brought as gifts for the monks. I had purchased some white tees and a and several pairs of socks, and dyed them in lots of gold or maroon-the colors of Tibetan Buddhist monastic robes.
(this is one of the shirts with missing sleeves)
Without much remorse, I took them from my duffel bag and carefully cut the short sleeves out of them with the scissors of my Swiss Army knife. They’ll still make good gifts, I thought, and besides, these guys don’t wear sleeves anyway. I used only the maroon sleeves, as they obviously suited the occasion more discretely. For the next two hours I used the sleeves as a makeshift tampon, rinsing them out in the bottom half of an empty plastic water I’d made to use as a little bucket. It was all happening so fast. I was stuck to my position on the floor near the bucket and assembly line of rinsed sleeves. Either the flow will lighten up or I’m in for trouble. Likely both.
It suddenly occurred to me that today a monk named Jigme, the administrator of the school, was driving all the way out here from the monastery in Kathmandu, to pick me up at 9:00 AM for my first meeting with Rinpoche. It was a big deal. There was no way I was going to get around having to address this problem of a deeply intimate nature to these monks. Did they even know about periods? Probably Thupten, the translator did. He was just in his mid-twenties, but was not a monk, and had gone to college in India. What a way to monkey-wrench my month long visit, right at the start with such a sensitive issue.
(The monasteries and nunneries surrounding the monastery in Pharping which came alive before dawn with prayers)
My room began to fill with the first tint of dawn’s light. The young monks started chanting their morning prayers in the shrine room below me. Surrounding monasteries and nunneries joined in with their bells, gongs, drums, and horns. And there I was, still squatting before my single candle, alternating cotton sleeves at a dangerous rate.
I knew by then there was no way I could make the bumpy ride in a van to Kathmandu to meet with Rinpoche, no matter what. I’d be lucky to get more than 10 feet from the bathroom or my soggy sleeves. How could I tell them? No other story I could tell was as good as the truth. Besides, was I about to lie to a bunch of monks? No way. What a bind. I prayed, Oh, God or Buddha or whomever, please make this easy on me. Please make the honesty I am forced to speak be an education to us all. I sacrificed a tampon, hid my sleeves and my homemade plastic bucket, got dressed in the darkest clothes I had, and opened my curtains.
Within minutes, there was a knock at the door. It was Dorje, a visiting monk about 26 years old, who occupied a room next to me. Rinpoche had given him permission to stay there for a short retreat, but he’d stayed on for a few extra weeks. Dorje had been to the United States. His English was quite good. I enjoyed his company, but his habit of overstaying had already become obvious.
“So,” he exclaimed. “Are you ready to see Rinpoche?” With a deep breath and the sense that I was about to jump off a cliff, I said, “I don’t think today is a good day for me to go.” He looked confused. “But isn’t Jigme-la coming to pick you up soon?” I shrugged, and said meekly, “Yes.” Dorje looked at me with a bold directness that many monks would think rude, and said “What is it that could make you not go see Rinpoche?”
I sighed, an inward prayer and dove in. “Today I have received the monthly bleeding.” There. I’d said it.
Dorje blinked, crossed his arms slowly over his chest with one hand thoughtfully placed under his jaw. He reflected in silence for about 20 seconds. I had no idea where he was going next. “Oh,” he finally said. “The monthly bleeding. I have heard of this thing.”
Sensing a comical twist to this display of innocence, I suddenly wished I had a tape recorder in my pocket. Dorje continued, intrigued. “Is it really a monthly thing? Do you know when it will come?” I told him it was usually about 28 days. I showed him the back page in my journal where my periods were charted out for the past year. I pointed to this month’s chart and said “It was supposed come ten days ago, but it has only just come today.”
The issue of me seeing Rinpoche was lost in a barrage of questions: “Is it a little, or a lot?” I told him if I went to see Rinpoche today I would bleed all over the seat in Jigme’s van. His eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. “Is their discomfort?” I made a gesture with my hands like squeezing a tennis ball. “For about 9 hours it hurts very much.” He grimaced. “For how long does it last?” “Usually three to five days. The first few days are the worst.” Dorje was completely fascinated. He pondered all this new information for some time in silence. Then he shifted his stance, squared his shoulders, put his hands on his hips, stuck his chest out and continued in a new direction.
“As a monk this is very good talk for me. Sometimes I have the desires, you know, the temptations. I go to the West and I meet the friendly women. I think about this thing and that thing. But as a monk, we must always remember the antidote to those desires. It is then we must contemplate the filth that comes from women’s bodies, the impermanence of the beauty of samsaric delights. So as a monk, this knowing of the monthly bleeding is very good.” I smiled, knowing that 99% of the women I knew would be quite offended at hearing this, but I was also familiar with the teachings Dorje was referencing on how to avert desire and lust. Someday, someone will do a softer, gentler translation of those passages, but for now I was quaintly amused with how this little discussion had gone.
Just then, Jigme and the van pulled into the monastery compound. There was a knock at the door. I wasn’t even going to get to catch my breath. Maybe Dorje will translate it all for Jigme so I can just sit there and smile. I opened the door. Thupten, the translator, walked in first, with Jigme following behind. I beckoned them to sit, offered tea, and cut to the chase. “I’m sorry you came all the way here today to bring me to see Rinpoche. If I could have called I would have been able to prevent your long trip. I had to make a difficult decision this morning. You know that I can hardly wait to see Rinpoche, but I’m afraid today I cannot go with you.” I studied Jigme’s face as he listened to Thupten translate. A shadow of disappointment fell over his face. I could tell from his look, that unlike Dorje, he was not about to ask why. A thick silence filled the room. I proceeded. “Today I started my monthly bleeding, and I am afraid that if I go with you my situation will make difficulty for everyone. Perhaps I can go a different day.”
Thupten looked at me knowingly, and translated. Dorje stood smugly by, with his arms crossed, still contemplating his newfound knowledge. Jigme listened intently, then his face relaxed with relief. He took a sip of tea, and began to speak in a calm voice, seemingly at ease with the situation. Jigme spoke in Tibetan for some time, with his expressive face and hands punctuating what he was saying.
When he finished, Thupten nodded, took a sip of tea, and translated. “Jigme is saying that here in Nepal, when the woman has the monthly bleeding, she must stay in the corner of the house on a dirt floor, about 4 feet square, and cannot leave that corner for one week. During that time, she must not touch or cook any of the food for the family until the bleeding stops. We as Tibetans do not have that same custom, but it is very good you told us this thing. We will make another time for you to see Rinpoche later this week.” The tension in my belly dissolved. “I’m so glad you understand, because I was quite upset as to how I was going to tell you, but I knew if I went it would not be good for anybody.” They all finished their tea, and left.
I sighed a huge sigh of relief, and was left to a quiet day of study and writing alone in my room. Thanks to my sleeves, the little bucket, close proximity to the bathroom, and no more guests, the day passed without too much difficulty. By late afternoon, the flow slowed to where I felt I could begin rationing my remaining tampons.
At 5 p.m. there was a knock on the door. It was Sonam, the young monk I’d been pen pals with for the past 3 years. He invited me down to the lower field where all the little monks gathered to play soccer and fly kites after their last class of the day. I’d promised him the day before that I’d show him how to use my camera so he could take pictures of his friends. I put on my boots and grabbed a dark shawl to wrap around my long black skirt just in case. Sonam carried the camera like it was a baby bird as we walked down the path, through the blooming mustard field, under the ripple of frayed prayer flags and down onto the playfield below.
(young monks playing in the lower field after a long day of study)
A small white dog befriended me as soon as I sat on the grass. The blue sky was dotted with little kites made from sticks and small plastic bags on strings. Not a cloud in site. I scratched the dog till it sat on my lap, showing me its teeth in a wide dog smile, and licked my chin. Out on the field, Sonam gathered all the monks together for a group picture. They yelled to me and beckoned “Miss! Miss! Come! Photo! Now! Miss! Come!”
I unwound my skirt, gently deflecting the dog’s inquisitive nose from my crotch, and stood up. The monks shuffled me into place amongst them and giggled when I held my fingers in rabbit’s ears behind the boy next to me. There really is, never, anything to worry about, I thought. We all smiled, Sonam snapped a picture, and there ended a strangely perfect day.