Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Not as cool as a beehive

I tend to get my hair cut about twice a year. I’ll be merrily going along my way, my hair a glorious halo of split ends and uncontrollable frizz, when one day, the stars align, the mood strikes, and the conditioner runs out, and I know—really, truly, in the fiber of my being—that I need a haircut.

And when such an insight strikes, delay is impossible. Did Einstein roll over in bed and say, E= something squared, but I’ll work it out in the morning? Did Julia Child say, I’ll cook up those leeks tomorrow, let’s get take-out?

No more can I look at the stringy ponytail in the mirror and say, I should make an appointment to get my hair cut next week.

Thus, in December, when my regular stylist in DC (by which I mean she’d cut my hair twice before) was unavailable when I called at 10 am looking for an appointment that day, there was no choice but to take whoever was available.

To my great advantage, it must be said, as it turned out to be one of my best haircuts ever. Not because of how my hair looked at the end (my hair always looks the same, except sometimes it’s shorter). But because somehow, despite having almost no hair of his own, this man truly understood mine.

I arrived in his chair, in my typical way, with a vision. A vision of smooth, silky hair, flipping about my face in a stylish, elegant fashion. I sat in front of his mirror pane, tugging at strands, marking off lengths, and describing the celebrity I would resemble, as he stood behind me, watching my reflection in the mirror and listening seriously.

“Except,” I finished, in a nod to modesty, “my hair is kind of curly” (modest, but still maintaining my positive spin) “so I’m not sure it will really work.”

The stylist “uh huh”ed and said, with complete sincerity, “Of course it won’t work. That would look terrible.”

My hopes shattered, I laughed lamely and tried to recover. “Right. But, I just have this dream, that one day, I’ll get a haircut, and it will magically transform my hair into something fabulous.”

He laughed with me, and said, “but in the end, all I can do is cut the hair. When I’m done, it’ll still be the same hair. Just shorter.”

He was right, of course. And so when he described what he could do with my hair, I calmly agreed, and walked out with my hair looking exactly the same, only shorter.


For a while, in Senegal, I had pretty good hair. That was when I first got here, and rain was a long way away, and I slept with a blanket at night. These days, even though I’ve still only seen rain twice, it’s hot and humid, and the frizz factor is high.

After months of gigantic hair and ponytails, the Moment struck last week. I needed a haircut, and I needed it that day.

There are salons de coiffeur on every corner in Dakar, and if I wanted braids or a weave, I’d have a sea of choices. Of course, when I wanted braids, I just bought the fake hair and Marie-Suzanne got to work in the living room.

A haircut is more of a specialty item, although many of the salons also offer coupes. The question becomes, however, do they cut white people hair.

There exist salons in Dakar that cater to white people. Or so I’ve heard. Rose and Michelle have both gotten haircuts in Dakar and each recommended their stylist—Rose more highly than Michelle. But I didn’t really know where to find them. Directions in Dakar tend to be along the lines of, “it’s in Neighborhood X, sort of across from landmark Y, down the third little street on your right.” All the streets have names, but no one knows them, and if they do, they know the name from 5 years ago before somebody or other decided to put up pretty new street signs with brand new names.

So on a sunny Saturday with Michelle in Toubab Diallo and Rose off with a friend, I figured I’d just try my luck at the place around the corner, whose sign advertised “coiffeur mixte” which I’d heard was a euphemism for “we cut white people hair.” Plus, I’d seen the shop featured on “Elles sont Toutes Belles” (Ambush Makeover: Senegal Edition). Admittedly, the girl in the episode was Senegalese and got braids, but overall, I had a good feeling.

I collected Yolande, a Senegalese friend of Marie-Suzanne’s (and mine) for moral support, and headed over there. Where we were promptly informed that the appropriate coiffeuse was on vacation and we’d have to go elsewhere. They suggested another place down the street, and we toddled off.

This place did not advertise their expertise in white people hair, euphemistically or otherwise, but Yolande assured me that they’d promised her they knew what they were doing. Except then they handed me three “look books” to choose a model for the hair that I wanted, and it was full of black people with braids and weaves, and the occasional chemically straightened hair.

I flipped through the books, my dread growing with each fabulous up-do and creative braiding. I even grabbed a French Elle and scanned the high fashion shots to see if I could find something approximating my would-be-glamorous look, but after a few minutes, I fled.

Yolande made my apologies and I started to question the sanity of this project. I had a pretty good idea where to find Michelle’s stylist, and if I hopped in a taxi right then, I’d probably be there in 10 minutes.

Two things stopped me. First, the cost. Not only would I potentially have to pay for TWO taxis (at least $2 round trip) but Michelle’s white person salon charged white people prices—somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 for a haircut. The salon I had just fled would have charged me $10. (Yes, I know. I suck. But remember, I’m skating the edge of unemployed here, and while I still take my fair share of taxis and all, I was tempted by saving money).

The second was… Well…. Say it with me: “I was already committed.” For better or for worse, once I’ve started something, even when I begin to see disaster looming, even when the skywriter finishes spelling out “D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R” and the plane flies by with the banner behind it reading, “This wasn’t a good idea, Naomi, seriously” and the little birdie on my shoulder chirps “nobody will be mad if you change your mind”… Well…. I’m already committed. That’s just all there is to say.

So when the second salon Yolande led me to didn’t offer haircuts, but the third did (for only $6!), I ignored the tremor in my gut, and sat right down.

What’s the worst that could happen? I thought to myself. It will make for a funny story.

And anyway, my hair always looks the same after every haircut. Just shorter.

And when the stylist didn’t seem to realize that wetting my hair with a spray bottle wasn’t quite the same as washing it, and when I had to ask specially for conditioner, I still didn’t flinch.

And when she did a passable job of cutting it straight across the back (very, very carefully) and a not completely terrible job of cutting some angles in the front in my bangs, I didn’t collect my chips, and walk away from the table.

I said, “I’d also like you to do some layers in the back.”

Now, perhaps if at this moment she’d said, “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about” I might have had the courage to walk away. But in Senegal, in all cases, people give you the answer they know you want to hear, regardless of the truth. “I’ll be there in ten minutes” even though they’re an hour away and don’t have transportation. “The bread is oven-fresh” even though it’s the same bread that was two days old yesterday.

And, in this case, “Layers in the back? Of course! That will look really good!”

And so she began to cut. A second layer. Not “layered”. Not “angled.” Just two lengths of hair going around my head.

She began in the back, and I had an inkling of what was happening. But it wasn’t until she got to the side that I could see what she was doing, and my fears were confirmed. With the pit in my stomach now rock hard with regret, I stopped her and tried to explain what I wanted and what she was doing wrong.

But she had no idea what I was talking about. And faced with the hard facts of my hair and her scissors, she had no choice but to admit it. At this point, everyone in the salon had circled round, and they were all trying to interpret my weird white girl, broken French, descriptions. Even translated into Wolof, I could tell that none of them had gotten it. And besides, it was too late. She’d already cut half of my hair that way.

So I just said, “don’t worry about it. It’s fine. It’s great. Just finish.”

She looked slightly offended and kind of worried, but she kept cutting. Three-quarters of the way through, on the other side, I finally saw her cutting a gradual layer. When she’d finished the bit, she grinned at me sheepishly, and said, “that was what you meant, wasn’t it?”

I laughed. “Yeah, that’s what I meant. But it’s not a big deal. Anyway, the other side is already cut.”

“No, I can fix it. The other side is a bit longer. I can even it all out.”

With no other options, really, I agreed. And when she was finished, she was so pleased with the result that I couldn’t bear to disappoint her. “It looks great!” I said, wondering if it was still long enough to pull into a ponytail, and if I should just buy some fake hair on the way home so I could braid my hair until it grew out.

I got home and examined it in the mirror critically. Then I called my friend and my sister on SKYPE and we laughed at the disaster and at how typically ME this particular disaster was.

But a week on, I have to admit, that I’ve gotten over the hate. It’s short, which is nice in the heat. And it’s kinda cute, in a curly, short hair kind of way. When I fluff it up and wear earrings, I even kind of like it.

And anyway, it looks like my hair always looks. Just shorter.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The times, they are a-changing

Last night, it rained. Just a sprinkle really, with some impressive sounding wind. Not that the scattered drops weren’t plenty to leave the kerang-kerang** road in front of my apartment a muddy, puddly mess. The only question now is whether we’ll need boots to slosh through the mud once the rainy season really picks up, or if we’d be better off with hip waders.

This was only the second time I’d seen rain in Senegal, and I may sound properly wary and cynical of the impending disgustingness that will be Dakar: Version Wet, but it’s a front. I’m still giddy and excited to see rain, feeling the need to point it out to everyone I pass (I am nothing if not a master of the obvious), and happy to walk through the drizzle without a jacket or umbrella for the sheer pleasure of feeling the drops on my skin.

In other developments, I’ve moved. In keeping with my plan to do everything Rose does, (including the part where I become a successful, self-sustaining journalist), I took over the second room in her apartment after her previous roommate left Dakar. Which makes it sound like one or the other of us chased her out of town. Totally not true. I swear. I’m pretty sure it was the maid who left the sheep’s head in her bed. And it was just a cultural misunderstanding anyway.

Regardless, the room was empty, and I pounced. I now live a five-minute walk from a gorgeous beach. You can see the ocean from my bedroom window.

I love living by the ocean. LOVE. And, because I don’t really have much work on at the moment (let’s not dwell, m’kay? Freelancing is hard. I’m working on it.) I have plenty of time to take advantage.

Today, for instance, I will be heading over there (as soon as I finish this blog entry) for some attaya and djembe drumming.

See, I’m not the only person in Africa with a little time on her hands. There’s one or two others who are… underemployed. (Is that considered an understatment if 40% of Senegal’s working age population don’t have jobs?) So when I showed up at the beach on a weekday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, I met a beach bum/musician who hangs out there all day, everyday.

One thing led to another, and before I knew it, he was teaching me djembe drumming. (One thing being an invitation to sit over by the parasols near a snack/drinks shop, and another being an invitation to teach me djembe drumming). I was somewhat wary, but he neither declared his love for me nor did he ask for my phone number, so I think we might actually be able to be friends. Friends who teach each djembe drumming. Rock.

Before I go, however, a random story that will only interest those of you who have seen my hands.

I have… sort of weird thumbs. They’re kind of… Toe-like. Or, the one on my right hand is. The one on my left hand is closer to normal.

I’ve always been vaguely embarrassed about it, but then, I figure everybody’s got their own toe-thumb deformity (double-jointed this, extra long toes that, what have you). Plus, people tend not to notice until I point it out. Not like a sixth finger (which, by the way, a woman in one of our Guinean million-places had, growing right out of her pinky. Now that was freaky).

But yesterday, I was hanging out with Michelle and I discovered the she ALSO has the sameweird mis-matched toe thumbs. No wonder we’re friends.

**kerang-kerang: Wolof for… a bad road. Bad pavement, potholes, poorly graded, what have you.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Yes. Yes, it can always get worse.

Rose and I are sitting on the gravelly shoulder of a road. Again. Some more. This time in Senegal at 11 o’clock at night.

The other passengers of the 7-place are arranged along the shoulder or sprawled out on the rocks further off the road. The driver, a couple of the male passengers, and a driver from another passing 7-place are fussing under the hood, an activity that has occupied them for at least half an hour.

We’d been on the road for nearly 40 hours. The glamorous coating of dried sweat and red dirt gave us the healthy glow of a fresh mystic tan. The last real meal we remembered was some rice and sauce in a town 25 hours back during another breakdown. Since then it had been bread, mangoes, and, because I couldn’t—COULD NOT—eat more bread, a box of hard-to-find (in Guinea) imported Turkish cookies. And, just before crossing back into the luxurious arms of home, sweet Senegal, there were grilled beef skewers.

And. In Labe. Cold Fanta Citron. We’d been dreaming about it since the walk to Guinea, when I’d promised Rose I’d buy her the coldest Fanta Citron in all of Mali, if only the mountains didn’t kill us. There was no Fanta Citron in Mali, nor, for that matter, were there any cold drinks at all. But three days and hundreds of kilometers of terrible mountain road later, I made good on my promise. We bolted them down in 35 seconds while the driver gestured impatiently (not at us, it turned out). It might have been the best 35 seconds of the trip. Certainly the best 35 seconds of that day.

Now, nearly 30 hours later, we were so close to Dakar, I could taste my bed. The hot shower. The clean clothes.

Rose: I’ve never been on a trip like this before. I mean, you get the occasional landslide—

—she was being literal, referring to a trip in Asia, where she escaped a midnight landslide by hitching a ride in the pouring rain on a tractor with no headlights driven by a drunken Chinese man—

—but not landslide, after landslide, after landslide. Every time I think it can’t get any worse…

But every time, it did get worse. This was our 4th 7-place in two days. Except in Guinea, they put 11 people (not including children) in the same car, plus any number of people on the roof. We’d spent the entire previous day and night crammed into the middle row of the station wagon so tightly our hips were bruised and the people on either side had to lean their heads out the windows.

We’d broken down so many times we’d lost count. We’d crossed a river on a hand-cranked ferry at midnight-—and watched two other cars stall out every time they tried to drive onto the ferry, until all the men had to hoist one them from a dead stop with chains and brute strength. We’d spent two hours the previous night sleeping in our Guinean 11-plus-place on the side of the road, while we waited for our driver to come back with a spare part to fix the car that he couldn’t get moving anymore, even with all the tricks he’d used the previous 25 times the car wouldn’t start. Then we spent 3 more hours sleeping in the next town, 45 minutes on, waiting for the sun to rise, because he’d given up on trying to get the headlights working.

And, finally back in Senegal, in a car with the same number of passengers as seatbelts (if the car actually had any seatbelts), we’d grown cocky.

When we’d stopped at sundown for the Muslim passengers to pray, I’d called Théo.

Naomi: Guess where I am!

Théo: Are you back?

Naomi: Well…. No. But I’m close. I’ll be sleeping in my bed tonight. We’re supposed to be back in Dakar before 1 in the morning.

At 8:30 am, dirty and exhausted, traumatized, near tears, and laughing hysterically, I finally collapsed into my bed.

“How was Guinea?” people kept asking over the next few days.

“Well…” I’d say, and pause. “It was beautiful there. The mountains are spectacular.”

Dame de Mali