cloth diapering in the rainforest? a travel tale...

cloth diapering in the rainforest? a travel tale...

As we enter summer travel season, this personal story forms the basis of some important advice that I give to cloth diapering parents in our local Circle meetings.  I thought a revisit here might also assist more people as they plan their travels ahead...

Our family had the opportunity to go down to Panama for three weeks to visit my brother and sister-in-law who run an island resort down there. Since I can't stand the thought of buying disposable diapers (much less putting them on my kids), I, of course, planned to bring my cloth diapers with us on vacation. At one point, I vaguely planned to get a stash of flats as I figured they'd take up less space, but then I got lazy and just went with what I had - 8 pockets with prefolds for stuffing, 6 larger prefolds, 2 PUL covers, and 2 nighttime fitteds and a wool cover.

It took us two days of travel on either end. Ride to airport, flight from NY to Miami, flight from Miami to Panama City, taxi to hotel. The next day (after a brief anticlimactic visit to the Panama Canal), we took another taxi to a different airport, a prop plane to Bocas town, a taxi across the island, and a boat to Popa. And reverse that for the way back (minus a second trip to the Canal, but adding in an unplanned - and unexplained - stop on the prop plane back to Panama City). With a 3-year-old and a 15-month-old. Yikes! I put together a bag of diapers for each day of travel, packing the second one in our checked luggage each time, so I only had a half dozen diapers to carry on. A friend made me a tiny wetbag in which I stored wet washcloths (which were handy for more than diaper changing). Keeping the kids happy and entertained while traveling was FAR harder than cloth diapering!

We had a FANTASTIC vacation, but I definitely could have done a few thing differently with the diapers if I had it to do over again. What were the biggest obstacles?

1. I forgot to bring my laundry detergent. Duhhh... The few times we've deviated on detergent caused problems in the past - and this was no exception. The little guy developed a light rash which wasn't helped by...

2. I only had a couple of samples of diaper rash ointment with me as we rarely have to deal with rashes and I had just thrown them in the bag "in case". Speaking of ointment, I also didn't have diaper liners with me, which I normally use with the ointment, which became a problem because...

3. The washing machine was awful - even when it was "working", which was intermittent. This was a particular problem since I couldn't do much rinsing prior to washing in the low-flow toilets (boy, did I miss my diaper sprayer!). The diapers still smelled a little after washing, but water is from a catchment system on the island so I didn't feel right about running the load through multiple times (nor was it easy to hike to the back of the property to reach the laundry to begin with). Normally, this is something a little sunning could do wonders for, but, alas, in a rainforest, sun alternates with rain so frequently that you can't really do much line drying (though I did try one cloudless day).

Diapers drying in the Panama Rainforest

Diapers drying in the Panama Rainforest

4. The dryer was also miserable, and the constant high level of humidity didn't help. I realized shortly that "wet" and "dry" are relative terms. After the diapers came out of the dryer, they were "less wet" than when they came out of the washer, so they counted as "dry". This constant state of wetness probably contributed to the rash mentioned in #1 and the smelliness in #3 above. (Though I must honestly note that the diapers were MUCH softer than when I air dry them in San Diego...) Numbers 3 and 4 could probably have been alleviated with the use of flats which would have been easier to wash and dry quickly (why did I never act on that idea!?!). I had the most problems cleaning and drying the nighttime fitted diapers, so phased those out in lieu of two prefolds. (Turns out I liked the trimness and functionality of that system so much that I haven't gone back to the fitteds and will be selling them off as soon as I get home - proving again that even an experienced cloth diaperer is always changing her routine.)

5. The last problem was definitely due to lack of foresight. I only had two medium-size wetbags with me - and no diaper pail! So the wetbags were it. They would have to hold two full days' diapers in them so you had to really jam them in there. Of course, that made them wick and smell a little (I also forgot my handy tea tree oil!!). I should definitely have brought at least one all-day size wetbag. I tried to talked to some local moms about diapering (their word for diapers - even the kind they washed - was "pampers" - sad, eh?). The Panamanians mostly used disposables, though they were really interested when they saw my pockets. However, the Ngobe women (the local indigenous people) mostly washed and reused their diapers (flats). I saw one of their washing stations and it was literally a rock in a creek with some string hung overhead between trees. It made me feel a little ridiculous for missing my diaper sprayer.

Ngobe "Laundry Room"

Ngobe "Laundry Room"

Fortunately, the little guy's butt never got too bad and healed quickly upon our return. The diapers were cured with a single wash in my parents' awesome washing machine with some good laundry detergent. So, all in all, a success! With a little more foresight and planning, I could have avoided all the problems I ran into. However, it proved that cloth diapering is possible even when it's not perfect, which is something worth remembering.

Heather McNamara

Executive Director, Real Diaper Association

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