As the woman running the hostel took down my information, I noticed a pair of scissors stuffed into a cup with pens and pencils. “Can I borrow these for a sec?” I asked. I grabbed the scissors, leaned over a garbage can, and cut my bangs. First and only hair cut in months and the whole operation was complete before she’d had time to copy passport number.
Haircuts can be a tricky business when you’re away from home. I have naturally, or as I more accurately call it – “accidentally” curly hair. Cut it too short on the sides and I will have batwings- pointy, horizontal locks which could probably take someone’s eye out. It’s hard enough when I’m at home to find a hair dresser who can do it right. How am I supposed to deal with it when traveling for months on end?
My solution has been not to deal with it. I get shaggy, braid the mop to keep it away from my face, and make the most of it when a pair of scissors crosses my path. This isn’t the only strategy. Short hair is much more comfortable, so if you’re not afraid of an overseas trim, or if your trip is short enough, that may be the best way to go.
A friend who I traveled with in China (who also had curly hair and did end up having an unfortunate hair-cut experience- how would a Chinese hair dresser know hot to deal with curly hair?)- would wad hers up into a bun and then use a chopstick to hold it in place. Since the chopstick was always handy she would sometimes pull it out of her hair and use it to stir her coffee. Was she adding hair gel to her beverage or coffee color to her hair? One night after lying down in her berth on a train, she sat up and wearily lamented, “You can’t sleep in a chopstick.” Indeed.
And of course, some travelers go with dreadlocks.
Hair is the tip of the iceberg. How to keep yourself up when you’re keeping on is an area of continuous negotiation. What beauty and grooming habits am I willing to let get go for a few days, weeks, or months? How ugly am I willing to be?
Be warned. Sometimes a temporary decision can become permanent. At the age of 22, I took a credit card, a train pass, and $400 and headed off for two months in Europe. I had decided that I could forgo wearing make-up for that time. The two-month Europe trip ended up lasting 15 months and extending into the Middle East. And a funny thing happened during all that time without make-up. I became accustomed to my face.
While working on a farm in Israel, I was invited to a wedding. The women and girls fluttered around giving me a make over. When they were done I peered into the mirror. Looking at myself made-up after so many months of seeing only my naked face, I found it hard to decide. Which was it? Did I look like a clown? Or did I look like a whore?
I’ve never gone back to painting my face. Some days I see myself in the mirror and think “not bad” and other days I think “yuck” – exactly the same as when I did wear make-up. The difference is that now I’m not wasting any time or money on it, and not giving my support to an industry that I believe to fundamentally sexist. It feels good.
I’ve learned to carry a nail clipper and file on even the shortest of trips. An overgrown or misshaped nail is really annoying. So annoying in fact, that I find myself tempted to resolve the problem with my teeth. Sticking your fingers in your mouth when you’re trying to stay healthy on the road is not a good idea.
And the perils of not being able to properly trim your toe-nails. Ouch! If there’s one thing I believe in, it’s taking care of your feet!
Shaving is something I’ve stuck with though I do tend to slack off for longer and longer periods of time. I just don’t feel like my deodorant works as well when I’ve got fur in my pits. And since I’m carrying I razor for that, I shave my legs as well to avoid going through the “itchy” phase.
Finally, a warning to all you young ‘uns: needs and priorities will change with time. Middle age has brought the advent of chin hairs and it’s important to be prepared at all times. These are not small, blonde and benign, but thick, black and ferocious as barbed wire. It’s amazing how distracting they are! I could be talking to the most fascinating people, or visiting a site I’ve traveled half the globe to see, and yet all I can think is, “I gotta get home to my tweezers.” Pluck that!