travelers-tales

By Tiffany Hawk

Silver Solas Award Winner in the Travel & Shopping category

My Spanish 101 may be buried under 25 years of rust, but when our bus driver says, “quince minutos,” it’s clear that I’m in big trouble.

Our guide, Jesus, doles out facts about Lake Nicaragua’s freshwater sharks and the lagoon atop the nearby volcano, a UNESCO biosphere reserve. A woman across the aisle complains about her knees as her husband pretends not to hear her. The couple behind us teaches bridge strategies to the couple behind them. In our mid-40s, my husband and I are 30 years younger than anyone else on this tour, which is important: it means no one on this bus can help me.

My husband offers me a sympathetic look that says, I feel for you, but I haven’t got a clue.

Quince minutos. I do not want to see another inch of Omatepe Island, its palm trees or its pre-Columbian petroglyphs. I couldn’t care less about the views or the freshly caught fish we’ve been promised at a lakefront restaurant. I just need to get there before someone calls for an ambulance.

I push my way off the bus clutching the supermax tampon I keep stashed away these days like a frat boy’s just-in-case condom. Dear reader, if you’re not a peri-menopausal woman, I won’t go into detail, but this buys me one more hour, at best. This tour is not due to end for four.

I assess the damage (conspicuous AF), take care of business, and then begin a frantic quest to procure more supplies.

At the hostess desk, a twenty-something man and woman in matching white shirts are playfully joking about something, I interrupt their banter. “Is there a shop?”

He turns away to answer a ringing phone. She stares at me blankly.

“Tiene un tienda?” I ask this time. A souvenir shop, a convenience store, the back of a truck?

She says nothing more than “no,” but her expression very strongly says, “give-me-a-freakin’ break Karen. Spoiled gringa spends hours to reach my pristine volcanic island in the middle of the largest lake in Central America, a sacred site known for its 2,500-year-old rock art …and you want to go shopping? ¡Dios mio!”

I don’t know how to say tampon or pad or sanitary napkin in Spanish. Would Tia Flo mean anything to her?

Actually, I’m way past euphemisms. “Sangre,” I say, and point to the sweater tied around my waist.

It takes a beat, but then her entire aura softens into pure sympathy, friendship even. She claps her hands together. “Si, si. Come,” she says, and I follow her down the wood-paneled hall, beginning to hope there is light at the end of this tunnel.

We hurry into what looks like the manager’s office with a battered executive desk covered in papers. She searches a drawer but comes up empty. Then she pulls a black artificial leather purse from a cabinet. I mutter silent prayers like a gambler at a craps table. She rifles through her belongings and then triumphantly holds up two tampons.

We beam at each other in a moment of shared glory.

I say, “gracias, gracias, muchos gracias,” with my hands together as if in prayer. I pull a stack of cash out of my purse.

“No, no, no, no, no,” she says, waving away even the suggestion.

“Si, si,” I say, but she is resolute in her refusal. I thank her again, wishing my Spanish was better so I could learn more about this savior I will never see again.

We’re of different generations and cultures, but we’ve both spent too much time with sweaters tied around our waists and tampons hidden up our sleeves.

I’m reminded of the day I gave birth to my daughter. After hours of sweating and moaning, pepetually on the verge of vomiting, I finally held her in my arms. But rather than reveling in motherly love, I was overwhelmed by the sisterly connection we both shared with women all over the planet and all through the ages who had shed pride and modesty to endure the same excruciating, death defying and seemingly superhuman rite of passage, whether in a modern hospital, at home, or on a metaphysical battlefield as the indigenous Nahuatl women of Omatepe Island believed. Rather than being seen as the weaker sex, when a Nahuatl woman gave birth, she was celebrated as a warrior. That’s a sentiment I can get behind.

Out on the lakefront patio, the other women on my tour are dining and laughing, their silver hair shining in the sun, and I’m struck by their freedom.

Someday soon, I too will be liberated. I imagine I’ll celebrate, but maybe I’ll grieve. I’ve been reminded of the strength and magic in being a woman, and I feel honored to share in this feminine bond.

As long as I have easy access to a bathroom.

 

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Tiffany Hawk is an award-winning writer whose stories have appeared in such places as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, National Geographic Traveler, The Week, and NPR’s “All Things Considered.” She is also the author of Love Me Anyway, a darkly funny novel about coming-of-age at 35,000 feet, which was inspired by her former life as an international flight attendant and was published by St. Martin’s Press.