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The last time I had my hair cut was seven months ago in March. This is an exceptionally long time for me to go without getting a cut. I love getting my hair cut but the idea of finding a place abroad and trying to explain to the hairdresser who most likely doesn’t speak English what I wanted, seemed like too much of a hassle. Besides, if I could hold off a little longer, I could stretch my beauty budget farther.
But Nellu hadn’t gotten his hair cut in more than three months, which meant he was sporting a full fro. Add in the beard he started growing the first week of India and you had a pretty hairy-headed man. He was going to need to get a cut by the time we arrived in Thailand and I decided I would go with him.
I don’t remember how we settled on the idea of a beauty day in Bangkok but we did. We’d get haircuts and Thai massages. There was a place down the street from our guesthouse that gives hour Thai massages for about six bucks. After all the overnight trains we had, we certainly deserved it.
There were also lots of hair studios in our neighborhood but picking from among the pack was certainly daunting so we asked our guesthouse host where he got his haircut. It turns out he didn’t use one of the small neighborhood salons but goes to Hair Olympic in Thailand’s mega market the Big C, which was right down the street. We scoped it out the day before. It looked like your garden variety quick cut hair salon. But I also noticed a woman with short, fire-engine red hair that I thought looked horrible. If she was a hair dresser there, the idea of getting my haircut at this establishment made me nervous. But Nellu swore she was just a customer. When we returned to the Big C the next day, I told Nellu, “If the woman with the red hair is there, I reserve the right to go somewhere else.”
When we arrived, the red-haired woman was nowhere in sight so we asked for two hair cuts. We waited for a few minutes before they approached us for our shampoos. I would go first. As the young woman shampooed my hair, my stomach jumped with nerves. Was I really going to let a complete stranger cut my hair in a foreign country? I didn’t get a chance to find a picture in the magazine to explain what I wanted. What if they didn’t understand me? They certainly couldn’t get any clues from my raggedy head. I tried to calm myself down by reasoning that my hair grows quickly and how bad could it be.
The young woman who washed my hair led me to a cutting station and got out the hair dryer. Would she be my stylist? She was cute and had cute hair so that was a good sign. She even brought me a few look books so I could pick hair model. Perfect. But when I picked a style, she indicated that another guy would cut my hair. Ok, he looked pretty cool so I was probably in good hands.
Nellu, on the other hand, I wasn’t so sure. It turned out that the woman with red hair did work there and would be cutting his hair! I felt bad, but his hair grows even more quickly than mine so I kept my fingers crossed.
The hairstyle I picked had long layers and a little definition around the face. Yes, there was a side bang but it didn’t look like a deep side bang so I thought I could handle it. When my stylist came over I pointed to the picture and he just went at it.
All the hair cuts I’ve ever had in my life start with the stylist taking a little off the bottom. This didn’t happen. My Thai guy took the scissors to my hair in what felt like a flamboyant over-exaggerated manner and started cutting pieces from the sides and back – big pieces in deep looking layers. Imagine a comedy where Martin Short plays an eccentric hairstylist and pulled pieces of my hair high into the hair saying, “We’re going to take a little off here and a little off here.” I felt like I was staring in that movie. At one point I wanted to shout, “Stop.” But he moved so quickly, I knew it was too late.
After a fast few minutes, he sent my original girl back for more blowdrying. As she worked on styling my hair, I came to grips with the damage. “It’s okay,” I thought. “It doesn’t look too bad.”
Little did I know I was in for another round. Forget Hair Olympic, it should be called Hair Triathlon. My hair dresser came back and instead of a just making a few touch ups, he went back at it cutting just as much hair as he did in round one. After a few more minutes, it was over.
In total, I think he spent less than 10 minutes on my hair. This is a far cry from the treatment I am used to where my stylist spends more than a half and hour sculpting my do. And even though my Thai guy didn’t take any off the bottom, I would say I have about 45 percent less hair.
It’s not the best hair cut I’ve ever had, but its certainly not the worst. In someway, he was willing to take risks that my regular hair dresser never would. My regular hair dresser knows way too well that I am a J-crew wearing, relatively conservative dressing/looking professional woman. He doesn’t understand that I want my hair cut to say that I am a J-crew wearing, relatively conservative dressing/looking professional woman…with an edge.
I think Nellu faired slightly better looking more like his usual self, despite the woman with the red hair. We paid and headed back to the guesthouse to take our “after” pictures before going back out for our massages. The massages were uneventful but lovely. I am so glad Nellu suggested we take them last, knowing full too well how stressful getting our hair cut could be.
As some who have known me more than 3 months can attest to, my hair grows quite quickly. This was not much of an issue in South America knowing full well that we would return in time to get a “humanizing” trimming. On the second leg of our journey, decisions would have to be made; such as when & where to get a haircut. Molly first suggested India would be a good place and at the right time. While the timing would be right, the location would interfere with the facial hair I was sprouting and managing. The answer suddenly came to both of us: BANGKOK! We would both get haircuts and massages while in Bangkok.
We scouted the neighborhood for prices and a general look at the venues, going as far as checking out where our host gets his hair cut; at the Hair Olympic in the The Big C (think of it as the Thai Walmart). When we did the necessary walk-by, however, we noticed an older woman with flaming red top hair sitting down inside. We debated the situation: Molly speculated that she worked there while I thought she was waiting her turn in the salon chair. We both decided to keep shopping around the neighborhood. Communication problems arose at the other local establishments, so we both decided to go back to Hair Olympic for the slightly more expensive haircuts, but better communication options.
Arriving at the salon, we relayed our desires and were separated for the hair washing & head massage. Afterwards I was introduced to the stylist… the same red-haired woman we had seen on a previous day. Molly was right and lucky, since she has sworn the day before that the women with red hair (if she did work there) would not touch a hair on her head. To her credit, she spoke English well & performed admirable considering her shaking hands. I was even lucky enough to have kept both my eyes and ears intact. Half-way through the cut, I was directed back to the washing station for another wash and massage. With her assistant handing her scissors & combs, along with several washings & massages, I felt like part of a racing team… a well oiled machine. The rest of the time I spent watching Molly across from me as her stylist performed “a cutting ballet”. I wasn’t sure, but she looked a bit hesitant at the process. Overall, it was probably the longest haircut I have had and the back of my hairline hasn’t been quite this high, but overall I think she did a good job. Molly came out looking pretty good as well, but she’ll have to tell you what she thought about that.
Fresh from the shearing, we went back to our bed & breakfast to take the required “after” photos, before getting a taste of the Thai massage. For those that do not know me well, I do not like massages much. Up to this point, the only professional massages that I have allowed to be performed to me were all on our honeymoon in Bali. I find it hard to relax when someone is digging their elbows and hands into my flesh, causing me more pain than when I came in. After spending a month each in India & China (as well as 5+ months of travelling overall), a $5/hour massage seemed like a good idea at the time. I’d like to say that it was a painless process, however, a Thai massage does seem to involve pain and some odd stretching. By the end, you feel like a discombobulated yoga practitioner. My masseuse also seemed to get a good workout as she was unable to get me into some of the poses and was at least half my size.
All in all, our day of beauty & rest was well-earned. I’m not sure we will have the opportunity to do it again somewhere else on our trip, but I am definitively not dreading it.
India can be quite assaulting at times. I’ve heard people call it overwhelming. Lonely Planet calls it “bamboozling.” But let’s be honest. It’s assaulting.
First of all, there are the horns. Every single moving vehicle on the road from bicycles to auto rickshaws to cars to trucks have ear-piercing horns which drivers use about as often as they use the break and gas pedals.
But just when you thought the horns were assaulting, you meet the touts. As a foreigner in India, you are the primary target for all kinds of touts: vendors, drivers, would-be tour guides all wanting your money (and if they’re good enough rip you off) at every given opportunity no matter what time of day or day of the week. You are constantly being bombarded by “where you from?” and “where you going?” not because they care. It’s clear they believe by engaging you, you’re more likely to follow them into a store, get into their auto, or give them a tip for their information.
The scams are similar to ones that we’ve encountered in other countries including the simplest of them all: jacking up the price on everything from water to rides. But in India it feels institutionalized. And in some ways it is. When visiting the sights in India, as a foreigner you are often charged 25 times more for admission than Indian citizens. I understand they do this so their own citizens can afford to see the landmarks of their cultural heritage, which is very important. But it also sends a message to touts that its ok to charge foreigners more, they can afford it.
These kind of experiences make you so defensive that even when people are just being nice or chatting you up because they’re curious or really do want to practice their English, you’re waiting for the moment they break out the full sales pitch or demand money.
And you get stared at lot no matter what you’re wearing. I always thought we blended in but that illusion has been fully shattered. By the end of our time in India, I stopped noticing the stares for the most part. But every once and awhile it would still make me feel super self-conscious. My two favorite kinds of stares: 1) slow stare and 2) the backwards bike stare. The best example of the slow stare happened one day Nellu and I were walking home from the store. Eight shirtless, grown men stood perfectly still only slowly moving their heads with dumbfounded expressions on their faces as we walked by. I couldn’t help but laugh. I wanted to shout, “We really can’t be that interesting!” The backwards bike stare is just what it sounds like. People on bikes (motor and manual) stare back at you even as their bikes continue to move forward up the road. Sounds safe, right?
I don’t want to make India sound all bad. It’s certainly not. It’s just a lot more upfront, even honest, about it’s not so niceties than a lot of other place we’ve been. It’s bad and it’s ugly aren’t hidden. They’re all out there right in front of your face and sometimes in your face. Even the scams are relatively transparent and easy to spot once you’ve got your wits about you.
The good news is that the good is right out there too. We’ve certainly seen the good in a lot of people that we’ve met and the hospitality we’ve been given in so many places around the country. And sharing our experiences with our new friends only made things better. (It turns out that you don’t have to be a foreigner to get harassed every five seconds at Connaught Place in Delhi. I was feeling bad by having such strong negative reactions to the constant bombardment, but locals often feel the same way. Knowing that made me stop having such strong reactions.)
The food in India is diverse and delicious. And the country is chock full of color and beauty at almost every turn.
Oh and I almost forgot my favorite thing about India – the Indian nod. It is this strange head swagger response you get to questions that looks more like maybe than yes, but it means yes. Our friend Hamilton described it as the head gesture equivalent to “It’s all good.” I asked our host Nyamat, a Delhi native, to demonstrate:
The challenge for us on this trip to stop reacting so hostility to the bad. As full-time travelers, we already feel exposed, which makes any negative situation grate on us further. But we can’t let the bad dominate so much that we miss the good. In the weeks that we spent in India, I think we largely came to peace with all of our experiences there and even look forward to coming back.
You may remember from our earlier post that we attended a fundraiser for Nyamat’s work at the Real Medicine Foundation. At the party, we chatted up some of Nyamat’s American co-workers and other expats. We wanted to know if they had similar impressions of India. They did but added some insight, “India will give you both its best and its worst,” they told us. I don’t think we could have found a more honest assessment.