After months of looking for somewhere to go, today I went to a hair salon while on Koh Tao in Thailand to get my extremely fragile locks dyed. During those 3 hours and 35 minutes, I experienced an emotional roller-coaster that ended as one of the best immersive travel adventures I’ve had in months.
It all began as I cautiously walked up to this tiny shop with two chairs that I found on the internet. I had left the super touristy area of the island and walked nearly an hour to this much smaller village looking for a hairsalon I saw online. I left paved roads behind for dusty sand trails lined with palm trees. The address of this place didn’t exist on Google maps. Yet, there were six people sitting in the one-room shop waiting, two small children playing on the floor, and a grandmother holding a dog near the door. This place is busy! Good sign.
I was greeted with a nod and motioned to come in and sit, so I took off my flipflops at the door and shared a bench with several others. I was the only foreigner in the room, putting communication at the front of my mind. When it was my turn, with bare feet I stepped over plastic chicken toys on the floor and clumps of cut hair to take a seat in one of the two swivel chairs. I looked at myself in the massive mirror that extended the length of the wall and thought, I really hope this turns out ok…Adam thinks I look so ridiculous in hats. The woman working spoke a bit of English, so we were able to communicate some ideas…but to be honest, it was pretty broken up. I wanted a full head of highlights, but that means different things in different countries. I remember having an internal debate as to whether I should explain more or less..because too many words gets confusing…I told myself to just trust her expertise..she seemed to know what I meant…she definitely played with my hair a little…and she nodded a lot…but then she walked away…I had no idea what we agreed on.
My foot started to tap. I eyed my flipflops, pictured myself pushing small children out of the way with hair remnants flying all around in a cloud of commotion and running at top speed, deciding to let my four inches of grow-out live another day. But before I could say coconut curry, this lady was back and ready to paint. Crap.
One of the realities of traveling pretty consistently for the past ten years has been going to hair salons all over the world, trying to explain my situation and then watching the varied techniques unfold to interesting results. One thing you might not know is that for most of my life I have had a spot on my head that is the exclusive property of VERY white hair while the rest of my head is covered in a wild mix of brown and blond depending on the strand. This results in a skunk-that-has-rolled-in-mud look when it is allowed to take control. It’s not a big deal, but I like to dye it to make it all look pretty even.
I have found some amazing stylists, but had some really bad experiences as well, many of them my own fault. When I was working in Hawaii, I went to a woman who sat me down, started putting her hands through my hair, then said, “I feel sorry for your hair”, made a huge deal about how I was being “mean” to my hair by dying it, then busted open a gigantic beer and started chugging it while painting just the roots. Hmmm. The first time my bangs were burnt off was by a British woman while I worked on a cruiseline. I went to the onboard hair salon and her confidence blindfolded me from telling her to check the foils after bleach had been on my hair for a REALLY long time…she had taken a massage client and forgot about me. Bangs fried off. I also once had yellow hair spots along my faceline from the time that I used a Groupon to go to the salon in Chicago-I should’ve known. And my first haircut while living in Istanbul…the man sat me down, established he didn’t speak English, we started doing some hand gestures, he smiled a few times…then out of nowhere he started lifting up my hair in this crazy manner, flipping it all over the place in the air like some sort of follicle wizard, and waving and snipping the scissors like he was cutting it all. He then bursted out, “Look! I Edward Scissorhands!!” It was meant as a joke. Hilarious. I hope I laughed out of politeness. I now get super nervous about getting my hair done, with a pretty big fear of burning it all off, but eventually I cave in to my own pressure and do it.My Thai hairdresser came back to the chair with a bowl of goop, typical for hair coloring. I sat and watched my hair get slowly painted and wrapped in foils–looked like the normal process to me. Then I started wondering…does she dye thin hair very often? Thai hair is seriously different from mine…it doesn’t all work the same, does it? Then, I picked up a local magazine, flipped open to the first page, and the girl is modeling BRIGHT MAGENTA hair. The label called it “Wine Cherry Sauce?” I thought, oh, crap, I didn’t just order some funky color, did I? Is this a coincidence or a warning?
Then, I looked in the big mirror and was completely overtaken by a wave of appreciation and happiness. I was the only foreigner in the room. There was no English being spoken, more and more locals were coming in for hair washes, lots of men in fact, children were coming to say hi, this hair salon was a pretty social place. What an opportunity to see how people in this town actually live. Finally! I was watching people do a part of their normal day that had nothing to do with tourism, selling expensive food, necklaces on the beach, mango sticky rice–it was just normal life. Everyone was playing with the kids and dog, sharing food and drinks, making jokes. It was great. The love of travel surged back through my blood and I smiled like the goofy American that I am. After an hour sitting, watching and listening, being given little crackers and cookies to munch on from children, I was calm and relaxed, leafing through the pages of Thai magazines, enjoying the pictures of places and fashions I’d never seen. I was wondering what the articles could possibly be about…when my stomach started to rise into my throat again. I felt a tap on my shoulder. We were going to the sink to wash the dye out. If my hair was going to start coming out in chunks, I felt like it would start here. I put my head in the sink, water was turned on, I waited, I waited, the water was super cold which blew my mind because it was 90 degrees outside…I waited some more…hair still intact, pretty sure. I wanted to touch it…but then I didn’t want to. My head was then wrapped in a towel and put under a heat dryer thing…with steam coming out of it…never had this done before…then I went back and she washed my hair again 20 minutes later…I kept thinking, what the heck is even going on??? Needed to stay patient. Nearly three hours, and seven cookies later, my hair was being combed out. The finale was approaching. I watched for the lady to pull a comb through full of hair that had detached and walk away in disgust, but it looked kinda like the normal results. My hairdresser did exactly what I wanted! No cherry gravy color, no melted bangs, no frizzle frazzle gnarliness. Just a professional job and an unexpected adventure. I absolutely love days like this. By traveling for long periods of time, you are forced to start behaving more like the people who live in the areas you are visiting. You will run out of products you brought from home, your clothes will start to wear out, you will need to go to see a doctor or go buy a new converter because yours blew up, pay bills, all sorts of different things. The point is that you will have to start getting used to your new environment by shopping in stores that are very different from home, your style will need to adapt to what is available, and in general things will change. When I think about why I hope many people get a chance to try adventure work abroad, this day is the reason. I don’t care if you go climb a rock or surf on a kite–but if you have the chance to get uncomfortable, really uncomfortable, and take risks and push yourself, I do care that you at least try that. Getting past the uncomfortability is where change happens and creates stories that will eventually be the only thing you remember about the trip.
I was one of the last people to leave the salon, having watched so many people come and go, some to see friends and family, others to get cleaned up for something special, then continue with their day. Now, I was ready to go too, my belly full of sugary treats and grateful to have been part of a day with this community. Today was an invaluable adventure to me.