Backpacking SE Asia with a Pregnant Peruvian
Tatiana didn't merely break my expectations of a woman traveling as a backpacker while pregnant—she shattered them.
As a North American male without sisters or female friends that have been pregnant, I, like so many men with the same background, had this particular preconceived notion of what it's like to be the boyfriend or spouse to a pregnant woman. That she would be some demanding, emotional whirlwind of cravings, vomit, and crying that needed constant attention and pampering.
Well, I don't really know what kinds of experiences others have been dealt in the past, but my time with Tatiana has been the complete opposite from the stereotype that was floating around in my head, prior to backpacking SE Asia with her.
I've learned that pregnancy naturally amplifies a woman's attributes—like slowly turning the volume up on speaker. Sometimes the level gets so intense for them that channels start mixing together in ways they didn't before. And with everything cranked up, some smaller qualities that were once unnoticed begin to stand out. These aren't new, just amplified versions of what was there to begin with.
I found it fascinating to see a provocative warrior like Tatiana feel venerable for the first time in her life. Nothing will stop a strong-willed woman from doing what she wants—but now there's new hesitation where there was once none. It's a voice that makes her fear for her wellbeing, and that of the child growing in her belly.
And to watch all this happen, and adjust and adapt accordingly alongside the mother-to-be, is a truly an intriguing, enthralling process to be wrapped up in.
Fun, Fear, and Friendships
Looking at Tatiana during our travels, I couldn't help but liken her image to one of those cave paintings of big-breasted, big-bellied objects of prehistoric idolization. One friend said he found her more attractive now that she was pregnant, than before.
I loved to playfully call Tatiana 'Frodo' when she'd make a silly comment about my reaction to a request to hold a plastic bag (or something light) she was carrying—"Look, I'm carrying you're child, and you can't carry this bag?"—or if she was feeling fatigued after minimal effort. "Let's go, Frodo," I'd tell her with a wry smile. "It's like you're carrying a the Ring towards Mordor or something—It grows heavier every day… but the burden is mine, and mine alone!"
Fun and jokes aside, I was genuinely concerned about making sure Tatiana didn't exert herself. I would leave her to mind the backpacks while I ran around new cities, hunting and haggling for upwards of an hour or more for new accommodations. I was always thinking about medical care in the event of an emergency, as well as the mosquitoes in the region, and the myriad illnesses they carry that could seriously harm her and the baby.
But most noticeable of all the changes that Tatiana's presence brought with her was the isolation from other travelers. SE Asia can be a lonely place for guys that don't drink or like to hang around restaurants and bars. It's a region of the world where private hotel rooms are the norm, and hostels are the oddity.
In Latin America, it's easy to meet and greet with others while cooking in the kitchen, or watching television in the common area. In SE Asia, there are no kitchens for backpackers, and few communal lounges filled with travelers (that aren't considered bars or brothels). Outside of these environments the only other place to really meet and make friends are on tours or group activities, like diving, surfing, and trekking.
Tatiana is naturally anti-social, and I found myself opting for her company over trying to uncover new friends. I'd ask questions of others when trying to clarify paths, but the number of travelers that I even spoke with after meeting up with Tatiana dropped to the lowest levels I've had since I started up with all this two years ago.
I saw it happen with couples that traveled together in Latin America—they'd be anti-social to the point where they'd miss out on some great conversation and first-hand information. But I think a strong part of me still believes that to visit the places I went without Tatiana would have been a much lonelier experience.
Perhaps I would have started drinking, just to have someone to chat with.
Tatiana has a secret weapon that she's carried with her since the start of her pregnancy. It's helped her survive the stench of Arab men in Egypt, reduced motion sickness, kept her from vomiting on multiple occasions, and generally allowed her (and that pregnancy-enhanced bionic nose of hers) to travel in environments where people and garbage can really stink up place.
The secret: A small container of menthol—and it works wonders for the woman.
Traveling with a pregnant Peruvian significantly decreased the regular amount of my daily walking, and increased my waistline. We were much more likely to take a taxi instead of walking the two or three kilometers to a market, or point of interest, as I'm accustomed to doing.
I somehow managed to pack on 10+ pounds while traveling with Tatiana because the woman is perpetually hungry, and as a result of my proximity to her speedy metabolism, my food intake tripled. I found it difficult to watch Tatiana eat and not have a little something myself, or consistently refuse the portion she wanted to share.
When I'm alone, there's no pressure to eat when I'm not hungry; but there was with Tatiana, because I didn't like sending her off to eat her meals alone. Eventually, I explained all this to her, and we started to find a balance—though the damage had already been done.
Tatiana, in turn, was always having serious difficulties with clothing. She really underestimated just how large her belly was going to get while traveling, and options for purchasing appealing new clothing in a region of the world where garments are designed for petite women with A-cups, compared to Tatiana's belly and DD-breasts, was a problem.
Tatiana likes to look good, and look good for me, and I really felt bad for how it was undoubtedly impacting her emotional state every time she had to squeeze into a shirt or wear a pair of pants modified to accommodate her new figure.
Food was at the forefront of my mind with Tatiana in a way that it had never been before. It's a key factor to keeping her happy, and seeing her as such kept me happy. Unfortunately, the region's culinary delights seem to be limited to a handful of countries.
Given the volatility of our meal options, ensuring that Tatiana was taking a prenatal vitamin was essential for the health of both mother and child.
Out of curiosity, I asked Tatiana to rate, as a pregnant woman, the counties of SE Asia visited for quality and satisfaction of food, as if she was giving advice to another pregnant woman traveling to the region. Her reply:
- The Philippines
Seeing as we shared these experiences together, it's of little surprise that my list would be the very same, with the exception of adding Laos in between Malaysia and Indonesia (a country that she didn't visit). And speaking from experience, the quality begins to drop far and fast once you hit Indonesia on that list—everything after that point is of a level where you really have to hunt for something pleasing, or for something to break up the monotony of fried rice and fried noodles.
Tatiana lost a lot of weight before leaving Miami (because of morning sickness and the such), and was struggling to gain weight through the duration of her travels. And of all those cities traveled in, the only one that afforded her the luxury of whatever food she wanted, when she wanted it, was Bangkok.
In the week and a half spent in the Thai capital she gained 1.5 kilos—constituting the bulk of her weight gain over the course of the three months she traveled in the region.
In Cambodia, we were told by hospital staff that it was the Year of the Female Pig, and we were very fortunate to be having a baby boy in it. "A lot of women are trying to have boys this year," they continued.
There is a general sense of overwhelming approval when Asian men and women were told that the gender of the baby is male. "You're very lucky—I have two girls," one local man remarked on Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia. It made me wonder if the traditional idea that birthing a son will bring wealth and support to the family, whereas girls are merely married off when old enough, still holds true.
How Far Along Are You?
The way people count the age of a baby bothers me. No, not the act of counting weeks and months, but from what date doctors count from.
This whole your baby is considered X weeks and days old from the mother's last menstruation is poppycock. I realize that a standard had to be developed for people that didn't know the approximate date of conception, but for us to constantly be calculating the age of this child as starting in March, a week or two before I even arrived in Miami, is annoying.
Tatiana was never allowed to pass through a metal detector in SE Asia, with the exception of a few airports. A common emplacement at movie theaters, ferry terminals, and some department stores, it would seem that an understanding of the passive nature of these devices eludes the bulk of the Asian men and women charged with operating them. Staff would notice her belly, and either lightly pat her down or just let her walk around the unit without inspection.
It annoyed Tatiana to no end to have to sign airline liability indemnification waivers when the flight staff would occasionally noticed she was pregnant during the pre-flight check. I was getting warnings from friends and family that Tatiana might not be allowed to fly or be allowed to enter some countries after a certain number of months/weeks had passed—but I needed only remind them of who these agents would be dealing with as a response to their concern.
I routinely lie to customs and immigrations officers about everything except the information on my passport. Tatiana is a straight-faced poker player that can sweet-talk or yell her way past most any situation. Shaving two or three months off her actual pregnancy with a lie wasn't an issue—we'd just say she's having twins—and I'd love to see the airline that would try and make her produce some kind of doctor's letter of consent. Oh, man, she'd raise hell, and we'd probably get on the flight after signing the same wavier that's asked of her anyway.
In the end, the only inconvenience was that she wasn't allow to sit in an emergency row during one particular flight. That, and the low cost carriers that are so cheap they wouldn't even give a pregnant woman a cup of water during a multi-hour flight without charging for it.
Tatiana is street-tough, and accustomed to being able to fight back against unwanted behavior by telling people off in a language they understand. She's traveled in the Americas extensively (among other international locations), and has a command of Spanish, English, Portuguese, and French.
I sensed her frustration, and often tried to calm her down when she'd get worked up over behaviors that, for the first time in her life, she couldn't rebuke with a witty remark in the local tongue. She's out of her linguistic comfort zone, and was experiencing growing pains as a result of it.
Communication is a funny thing. Actions always speak louder than words in these environments, and travel often requires a combination of tolerance and ignoring the offensive actions of others. I've learned to adapt to being a black polar bear in the middle of the Arctic, and am quite accustomed to many of the behaviors that were driving Tatiana nuts.
I suppose it's also beneficial that have the ability to turn off the translation switch in my head whenever I want, so I don't have to hear anything I don't want to—as long as it's not spoken in English.
I was very interested in noting the differences between walking around an Asian city alone, walking around with Tatiana when she could hide that she was pregnant, and walking around with Tatiana when she was obviously pregnant. After quite a bit of mental note taking, I can say without question that I was harassed at an exponentially more frequent rate when walking with Tatiana, than without.
By harassed, I mean solicited or approached for wares and services. As a single male with an attitude about him that now seems to repulse vendors, touts, and taxi drivers, I could walk down the streets, beaches, and boulevards of SE Asia without so much as a peep from the same men that would later pounce on me when I was Tatiana. Little difference seemed to be made regarding their perception of her pregnancy or not.
What was happening is that when I'm alone, the vendors think that I'm obviously in the market for the local vices: Sex, drugs, and pornography. And though these are prevalent in all the countries of SE Asia, they're only a small fraction of the junk that's being pushed on tourists.
As a part of a couple—a man with a girl, maybe his wife, maybe on his honeymoon—vendors repeatedly targeted me (us) with propositions. Jet skiing, motorbikes, tours, clothes, food, movies, watches, wooden carvings, hair braiding, booze, and pretty much anything else you can think of under the sun was perpetually being shoved in our faces. Alone, I'm not a particularly attractive mark, but with Tatiana, the vendors know that they can make one proposition to two people—twice the opportunity at the same expense of effort. Adding to this, is the way couples will play off each other to rationalize a purchase they might not otherwise make alone—"…but I think you'd look really good with cornrows! Come on, give it a try."
To put it simply, locals know tourists do stupid shit in groups—like buy their mass-produced wares, rent their vehicles, or take their tours.
The act of touching a pregnant belly is synonymous with pregnancy itself. And for Tatiana, a woman that doesn't like to be touched by strangers, this started to become a problem for her in a region of the world where the women wouldn't ask permission before grabbing at her expanding abdomen.
Part of this behavior was because of the language barrier, part of it was cultural, and part of it was just rude and insensitive. She would show me her shirts before hand washing them and point at how dirty the area around her belly was compared to the rest of the garment. Knowing full well what the probable hand-washing policy of most people is in a region where toilet paper is something that only foreigners use was a bit troubling.
Coupled with this is how men and women would just point or stare at her belly. They'd stare at her belly (ignoring any attempt at eye contact) when talking to her, they'd stop what they were doing on the street just to watch her and her belly pass, and they'd literately come up and stick their faces in her stomach, like they expected to feed off the same umbilical cord as her son.
Some of the behavior really started to get under Tatiana's skin, and she remarked in every SE Asian country (save Singapore) if "people here lay eggs? It's like they've never seen a pregnant woman before."
"No," I told her, "They've just never seen a pregnant Peruvian before."