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How to Navigate the Awkwardness of Stomach Issues While Traveling

It’s about time we strip away the shame and embarrassment of having traveler’s diarrhea abroad.

I don’t know about you, but upset stomachs and other bowel-related issues can be awkward and feel quite shameful while traveling with others. However, there is nothing shameful about normal bodily functions.

Bathrooms, and the deeds we do in them, carry negative connotations. First, there’s the unpredictable noise our bowel movements make. No instruments are involved, but the word acoustics fits just right. Then there are the pungent smells. It can all be uncomfortable.

Sharing intimate space is one thing. But the anxiety of sharing communal bathrooms can cause prolonged constipation or draw unbearable humiliation when gas is uncontrollable and the belly just won’t act right. All of this is even more complicated when you struggle with eating disorders or if you identify as trans and washrooms are already an unsafe space.

In May of 2009, I co-led my third team abroad to do volunteer work in Kenya for one month. I had been to the East African nation once before on a similar trip in 2006, so I had a rough idea of what the rainy season would entail. At the time, we were 11 or so strangers staying in a small market town in the western part of the country. Our host had been generous enough to let us stay in his compound. All the women on the team, all nine of us, slept in a meticulously constructed pale terra cotta hut. I later learned from a Masai man in Namanga that these were called manyattas.

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The exterior was made of brownish/burnt orange mud and clay, sometimes mixed with cow dung. The spheric lodges were constructed in a circle, each facing a larger structure in the middle. Inside, the natural bamboo mats we slept on to maximize space matched the pallid yellow triangular coned rooftops lined with straw thatching. The property was situated on a farm, so lush greenery was everywhere, making conditions muddy when the torrential downpours came. As luck would have it, I got traveler’s diarrhea while there.

Until then, I had been constipated for well over a week, probably going on two. Meaning I had, for the most part, avoided using the outhouse tucked away in the back. That is until the pendulum swung the other way. The outhouse was a small, wooded structure consisting of a literal hole in the ground, dug deep like a well. It came more as a test to my squat and balance game, more than anything else.

It felt liberating and free to not be accountable for what would have otherwise been a tragically shameful experience.

To my surprise, I experienced very little shame because all our stuff was accumulating together at the bottom. My contributions were indecipherable from the next. No one could say for sure that the foul stench was attributed to me because all of it smelt awful, even before I entered. I was glad for the whole setup. It felt liberating and free to not be accountable for what would have otherwise been a tragically shameful experience.

That was 13 years ago. Like much of the world, times have changed, and advancements and improvements have been made. Africa is much more than the dilapidated impoverished scripts we find in the media. In one short year, I’d find myself back in Kenya yet again. The country had already catapulted into the future.

This time, we were a smaller, more intimate group of five women, all educators, including two of my best friends at the time. After attending one of the most insane parties of my life, a rooftop rave on top of a Nairobi mall, we made our way to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in the northeastern part of the country.

I have done a safari at Masai Mara National Park twice, visited the Great Rift Valley, and fallen in love with the beaches of coastal Mombasa. But there is truly nothing like staying at Lewa, a gorgeous 4.5-star sanctuary. The scenic views were unbelievably picturesque. Hippos greeted us at our lodge when we arrived. Giraffes could be found roaming freely, reaching to the top of trees, munching away on leaves, with no cages in sight. As the sun went down, herds of elephants made their way across the tropical savannah, as cheetahs chilled under acacia and bushwillow trees.

The lodges at Lewa were breathtaking. We had a beautifully decorated suite and a shared bathroom. While there was no outhouse this time, for some reason, I found the shared arrangement much more difficult. Bathroom shame had intensified, though the luxury had stepped its game up. Why was that?

4 Tips to Combat Bathroom Shame, According to Experts

As a shame researcher, I now know that this is precisely how shame functions. The word shame means “to cover.” Not surprisingly, shame makes us want to cover and hide. With the outhouse the year before, I had more privacy. I was hidden in the back; my business was covered by the collective mess. At Lewa, I felt exposed, even when among friends. I had underestimated how vulnerable sharing a bathroom would be. And it’s for a similar reason that romantic couples first hide their flatulence from one another, hold in their farts, or are afraid to use the washroom when the other is around. Our close bond made the stakes feel much higher.

These hoops we jump through, and the mental gymnastics we undertake to mask socially constructed bathroom shame are outrageous. A bladder infection is not worth it. Fecal incontinence is even less cute. But this universal awkwardness is real. The shame is cultural, not personal. We can’t be hard on ourselves for indoctrination around these taboo topics. So here are some tricks and tips.

1. Book an Appointment With a Health Care Professional

It’s a good idea to check in with your family doctor, pharmacist, or travel clinic before travel. They can give you recommended vaccines and medication, like for traveler’s diarrhea, malaria, or other prescriptions. I like to travel with a mini first aid kit. I keep Advil, Tums, Gravol, and over-the-counter allergy medication in it. While staying hydrated helps flush the system out, in some countries or regions, you’ll need to drink filtered or boiled water. Fruits and veggies are a great way to stay regular, but if buying them from a local market, make sure to wash your items well or buy things you can peel.

2. Select Non-Judgmental Solution-Oriented Travel Companions

You might not feel super vulnerable with them, but at least you know that they aren’t actively out to draw more shame in you. Find solutions as a collective. Play some music, light a match, burn candles, drop some essential oil in the toilet, or go before taking a shower.

3. Consume Content That Normalizes This Topic

Susan Freiman’s article Bathroom Realism and the Women of Cable TV highlights shows like Broad City or Girls, which feature “unruly bodies sprawled on toilets and in tubs, dedicated to desecrating the ideal of proper ladyness.” Frieman also names Issa Rae’s HBO series Insecure, which shows bathrooms as a space of introspection, using the mirror as a prop. Content that destigmatizes bathroom shame can help us to shift our relationships with bowel movements.

4. Name the Shame

As Dr. Brené Brown says, to break shame, we must speak it. Talk about the awkwardness with your travel companions. Likely, you’re not alone.