Blood, Sweat and Fears: Why I Travelled to Peru, and What It Taught Me

10 August 2015

A street in Peru.

A street in Peru, taken by Rosanna.

One of the great secrets to not being disappointed with something is to have no expectations. I can’t say I ever dreamed of visiting Peru, or that Machu Picchu was on my bucket list; the South American continent has always been somewhere I hadn’t thought to visit.

If you had told 17-year-old Rosie that in ten years she’d be sitting in a garden 13,076 kilometres from Canberra, using geographically limited wifi to contact home while researching a book that was a collection of essays about menstruation, she would have popped the cap off another tub of chocolate icecream and howled into it all of the despair she felt for not following her ultimate career path: becoming the Editor in Chief of American Vogue. It’s a very specific life goal, and in hindsight, I’m glad we’re not there, because being knee-deep in uteruses, ovaries, and menstrual blood is so much more fun, and exceedingly rebellious.

Periods have always been a screaming, aching, puking, clotted sore spot I never thought of dedicating years of research to. I think one of the reasons this is the case is because hardly anyone writes about periods, and when I realised this, I started to ask questions. Why don’t we talk about periods more? Is menstrual silence only a white people thing? Is it a product of schooling, or parenting, or religion? And if I’m brought up not talking about menstruation, what am I missing out on? I set out for answers almost a year and a half ago, and while transcribing endless interviews with male and female-identifying people from 13 to 55, it became clear that I had a book on my hands – a big, bloody, absorbing (and absorbent, with contoured wings and leakage protection) book. The research bourgeoned: I discussed Sicilian menstrual traditions over a table of pizza in Bologna, questioned respect for menstruation with a criminologist in a university library at the northern-most point of the Philippines, and, more recently, I booked tickets to a shamanic women’s knowledge retreat in Peru’s Sacred Valley. Without funding from  YWCA Canberra, Peru would never have happened.

Run by Shamanic Midwife Jane Harwicke-Collings and Cynthia Ingar, a Masters graduate specialising in traditional Andean women’s knowledge, the seven-day course pushed and pulled my understanding of menstruation until it was elastic with possibility. Menstruation became a rite, a point of physiological pride, reverence and strength. Growing up, I was taught the opposite of these lessons: periods were shameful, annoying, and a sign of weakness. Jane and Cynthia illuminated the mirroring cycles of the seasons, the moon, menstruation and the waxing and waning of human life. They offered lessons in understanding how and why shame around menstruation has been particularly successful in countries that have experienced colonisation. Finally, they took the retreat group to Andean sacred sites, to host conversations concerning the intricate ways menstruating people are linked to ecological and environmental creation. I never expected any of these lessons, and each one has brought home the importance of writing and talking about menstrual perspectives from all over the world.

One of the great secrets to being a writer is you have to be prepared to go wherever a story takes you: those moments or days or weeks of hunting down a narrative you are embedded in, are the ones that offer the greatest and most unexpected experiences. You will miss people. You will bear down on your own teeth as you are immunised at the last feasible hour. You will realise at the last moment that you forgot to learn the language and piecey Italian will have to suffice. You will return home and start up your computer, scan across your travel notes, and sit in disbelief that you ever went anywhere at all.

 

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