Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Back in Style

When I was 19, I had a close brush with being a hair stylist.  Overcome with grief over the fact that I would, at some point, have to come to terms with math--solve for x, figure out which was locomotive was fleetest of rail, and the like—I dropped out of college to pursue what, to my own mind, seemed an ambitious and glamorous enterprise.  I envisioned opening a business I described as a “travel boutique;” part travel agency, part beauty salon, because, duh, everyone wants to look their best on holiday.

People regarded my business plan—which consisted of first going to beauty school, and then working at a travel agency and subsequently leaving with all my clients—with some combination of skepticism, bemusement, or scorn.

Things began reasonably well.  I enrolled in beauty school and sailed through the academics, getting 98% on my haircutting practical exam, which involved giving a boyfriend a haircut.  The next step involved a several month stint working on the salon floor, which really seemed like an, um, job.  And it was summer.

Because I’d spent most of my life looking forward to graduation, I hadn’t yet realized that I was an academic, and, by nature of the beast, wired to eschew summers in the workplace.

I figured in light of the stellar haircutting grade and the completion of the texts, I’d gleaned all there was to glean from the experience and I became a beauty school drop out. I spent the summer in a Kerouac-like state of experiential drifting, settling into an entry-level job at a travel agency in the fall.

The travel gig fell apart late the following spring.  It was really sort of droll, because all you did was sit in the office and arrange for everyone else to do what you’d rather be doing. By that time I had decided that I was really an academic and needed to take the summer off before settling back into university life come fall.  The travel boutique was never spoken of in any serious capacity since, and my haircutting skills utilized by a small client base which consists of The Minister and his father.

Because I am an academic, it is in good conscience that I now spend summers in places like Haiti.  And so it came to be that on a hot day on a dusty patch of Haitian soil that I became a hairstylist once again.

In June, The Minister and I were part of a team that worked in both our Mole St. Nicholas base and two other remote villages, where we set up a medical clinic, eye clinic, and hair salon along with a Vacation Bible School-type program for the children.

Most of the team, including me, was scheduled to help with the VBS program.  But on location at our first remote mission, I received a field promotion from Sue, an accomplished stylist and business woman who operates a shop and beauty school here in Hampton Roads.

Sue and I had formed an unlikely bond during the 13-hour road trip that began our Haitian adventure.  Although separated by age and culture—she’s older than my parents and speaks basic English with heavy Korean accent—in Sue, I was happy to discover a confidant, ally, and co-conspirator.
Sue often needed an interpreter of her own to talk with the Haitian interpreters, who had a hard time decoding her accent.  The communication barrier, along with a lack of counter space to keep needed supplies near at hand led Sue to insist on having me as her salon assistant. 

In the absence of running water or electricity, our services were limited to chemical hair relaxers, a three step process that included the application of a Vaseline-like jelly followed by the relaxer, and then sending the client home to wash it all out with a special shampoo.  I began by holding the various jars for Sue, but quickly became a full practitioner with my own clients.

The women would sit down on a metal folding chair.  Their hair would be in one of two states: bushy and somewhat matted, or tightly braided.  The braids would have to be taken out, and the matted hair worked through with a comb.  The hair then need to be separated into little partings, and the petroleum jelly worked into their scalps.  The chemical relaxer was a thick, lotion-like cream that had to be worked completely into each section of hair. 

To get an actuate mental picture of this process, it’s important to remember that our clients did not have access to running water in their homes.  This meant that they lived their daily lives in an environment engulfed in heavy, red dust without an easy way to shampoo on any kind of regular basis.  Translation? The jelly and chemical cream mixed into dirty hair became a thick mud that needed to be thoroughly massaged into these women’s scalps.  I did my first couple clients without gloves. Even after I found the gloves in a pocket of Sue’s kit, the reddish-brown mixture of chemical filth transferred effortlessly to my clothes and skin.

Which brings me to the much-needed final step of the process.  The chemicals had to be washed out of the clients’ hair in a timely manner to avoid the ill-effects of over-processing.  Furthermore, the wash had to be done with a special shampoo, a fact lost on even me until it was too late.

Our lack of running water—of, really, any water—meant that the woman had to leave our salon with the shampoo to wash it out.  I don’t know exactly where, or how they did this—the Haitians are resourceful, and will find a way to get done whatever the situation requires, if properly motivated.

Sue had two bottles of the special shampoo.  For several hours, she had been sending both bottles out at the same time, and the women had been bringing them back, until the inevitable happened.  Two bottles left, and a very long time passed.  A client was sitting in a metal chair, waiting for the shampoo to come back so that she could go wash her hair and complete her relaxer.  Sue was getting upset, and, as I mentioned, I did not completely grasp why (recall that I got a 98% on haircutting, not chemical processing). 

“Sue, let’s just have the interpreters explain the problem to the women.  I am sure someone has some shampoo.”

The only phrase I could clearly catch Sue repeating was, “Eighty percent!  Eighty percent shampoo!”

Finally it hit me what Sue was saying.  Most of the success of the relaxer depended on washing the chemicals away with THAT shampoo.  And both bottles had been stolen.

It’s a fact of Haitian life.  I do not love the people any less because of this fact.  Hey, if I lived there and some blancs showed up and handed me a bottle of shampoo, who is to say that I would return? 

The interpreters explained the real problem to the women, many of whom were sitting around reveling in the glory of their newly-tamed locks, and some who came with the poor woman whose head was covered in chemicals.  We asked if they knew who had the shampoo, and if anyone could find them.  The women discussed the situation among themselves, and came to the conclusion that neither bottle of shampoo was ever coming back.  Sue said the chemicals needed to come out of our client’s hair, shampoo or not, right away.  Somehow a basin of water appeared and Sue washed the woman’s hair right there in the basin.  The woman looked beautiful, and was thrilled, and we were happy for her and also a bit saddened by the knowledge that the next time her hair was washed, it would return to its original frizzy state.

And, with that, we closed shop, the shampoo gone, and the rest of our chemicals depleted.  I asked the interpreters to explain to the women that they were very beautiful and special and that God sent us there that day to tell them so.  The women were suitably impressed, since, as a people, they do not believe in coincidences and take it very seriously if someone comes to see them, particularly if sent by a deity. 

And so it was that I spent a day elbow-deep in real-life salon work and found it to be ironically what I wanted all along.  I got to travel, and, even though I was looking a bit rough, covered as I was in a patina of thick chem-mud, I found that I’m not the kind of traveller that needs to look polished.  I’m the kind of traveler who finds adventure in bringing the beauty to glamour-less places because, duh, everyone wants a chance to look their best.

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