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Lesson Learned: How A Salon in Brazil “Stole” My Hair’s Texture

So lemme tell you about that time I got a texturizer by accident in Brazil.

It’s summer 2012. I’m in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. I hear, “Assim Voce Me Mata” and “Where Have You Been?” on a daily basis, in addition to the Avenida Brasil theme song. It’s been three weeks of me wearing my hair in waist length braids.

After days upon days of meeting black Brazilians of all shades and hair types, talking about emerging black power movements and worldwide black empowerment, I was feeling the itch to touch my own fro… for lack of a better phrase. One day, I go to the bookstore and meet Isobel. Isobel has a HUGE afro, and an awesome tattoo of a Brazilian woman with the country as her hair. I’m mesmerized by the sheer size of her hair and the rarity of seeing tattoos on Brazilian people. So Isobel and I conduct a conversation in my broken Portuguese. I recite the familiar details about who I am, how I’m studying abroad, how I love to buy tiny books as souvenirs for myself. I compliment Isobel on her wonderful hair. She then becomes super animated about it and begins talking about how black Brazilians are becoming hyper aware of black consciousness, reclaiming their black features, and so on. I then tell her how amazing that is, how amazing it is to be in Bahia among a different kind of blackness, and how I miss, or have saudades, for my afro.

Isobel immediately reaches for a pen and a pad, and begins writing down the name of a hair salon. She explains they’re not too far from where we were, and how if I remove my braids, the hairdressers there could restore my fro. I’m super excited at the thought of feeling my hair free from the shackles of trancas, so I immediately return home and formulate a plan. There’s some leftover conditioner in the bathroom cabinet, some leftover aloe vera from the homestay girl before me, I can figure this out.

Two hours of takedown and one confused homestay mom later (“Why are you cutting your hair?! You wanted something new?”), my hair is free, but not really. If you’re an owner of natural black “4c” hair, taking down braids rarely leaves you with free-flowing individual hairs, but rather, hair clumped not only by its natural patterns a la ‘fresh out the shower’ but also by-product buildup and scalp residue. Being that I had been in and out of saltwater, beach bumming it practically every day, add salt water to the mix. My hair was frozen solid. No amount of leftover shampoo or conditioner could fix it, especially considering that I didn’t have my tried and true hair products from back home. After a long but not nearly long enough shampooing session because my homestay mom was very aware of my shower length like many mothers would be, I’ve made progress, but not nearly enough. My hair is still stiff. I decide to make an effort to go to the salon tomorrow on Saturday.

Saturday morning comes along, I undo my shrunken fro from some flat twists and request a cab online. They pick me up outside my homestay. The ride is a little long, long enough to realize I’m not longer near the city center. I memorize the way back, however, should worst come to worst and I need to walk back. I recite my spiel to the cab driver about who I am, why my Portuguese is so bad. Immediately I worry he’ll assume I have a lot of money because of where he picked me up from (a particularly rich street in Salvador) in addition to me being American and kidnap me. Thoughts of my first days in Brazil talking to the US Embassy representative and hearing her go over all sorts of nightmare scenarios flash through my head. I try to remember to alter my spiel for future interactions such as this. Eventually we arrive.

The salon is on the top floor of a building, and I walk up the stairs passing my soon to be hair stylist smoking on the balcony. He seems nonplussed about me, and seems to reluctantly put out his cigarette to follow me inside. This is not a good sign. I walk up to the counter and examine the range of hairstyles and prices. There is none. This is also not a good sign. The lady at the counter begins asking me what I want, but beyond that, her accent makes it hard to understand her. Baianos speak pretty quickly, and my ear has yet to acclimate to it. I ask, “Slower, please?” and the lady tilts her head. “Do you speak Portuguese?” “Yes, but I am not fluent. Can I write [this]? I write better than I speak.”

The lady passes me a pad and a pen. I begin writing about Isobel, she says she’s never heard of her. This is not a good sign.

Right around this time, one of the… I’m not sure, stylists? comes around to me with an iPad. He’s got Google Translate up. This is okay, but he’s way too friendly. He asks me, through the app, what I’m here for. I show him a picture of how my hair normally looks through my profile picture on an older inception of my blog, A Ticket for Two.

He nods and says, “Um black.” -With a Brazilian Portuguese accent, it’s ‘oom blackey.’

I thought this was a good sign.

He tells the formerly smoking hairstylist that I want a ‘black,’ and I’m escorted to get my hair washed. Here is where all of my feelings of hesitation reach a peak.

He begins to mix something…white and creamy. Having formerly lived almost half of my life with a relaxer at this point, I recognize a relaxer mix when I see and smell it.

I start to panic, and immediately spurt out, “I don’t want any chemicals! Without chemicals.”

“It’s not a chemical. It makes your hair easier.”

I know what that means. Manageable. Easy. Soft. Straighter.

I say again, “I don’t want anything permanent!”

“It’s not permanent.”

For some reason, against my better instincts, I let the guy plaster my hair and scalp with this paste, and I sit quietly, waiting for it to be over. The power dynamic in salons is interesting. It’s as if when you sit down in that stylist’s chair, you concede all power and just submit to their will. You tell the stylist you love it and you go home and weep silently into your pillow. For me, I was already in the red in terms of power, I told myself. Portuguese wasn’t my first language, so maybe I wasn’t being clear with my objection to permanent chemicals in my hair, eating it alive with their acid. And they had already invested a little time, so it seemed impolite to say no. Also, I had to catch a cab to get here, so if I left I’d be standing awkwardly in the street, waiting for a new cab. So I stayed.

They leave the product in my hair for a while, and when they dip me over the sink to rinse it out, I immediately recognize that my hair has been altered, and am secretly devastated. Let me break something down to you – I hate my hair straight. When I was younger, I always felt that my straight hair looked like it was eating my face, it just encircles my already round face, I came to hate that look. When I grew my natural hair out and cut out my relaxed ends, I was satisfied to have hair that defied gravity and went away from my face. It’s longer, so it doesn’t do that anymore, but it still grows away from my face, and I still enjoy that. The moment they started rinsing my hair, I could feel my hair remaining limp after being wet, instead of slowly rising back up like the defiant phoenix it was. Instead it was defeated, by misunderstandings.

From here, they blow dry my hair and cut it. A new stylist is asking me how I want my hair, and I try to explain that I wear it like a ‘blackey.’ No styling necessary really. This concept is strange even in the US, and free forming an afro isn’t the most popular of actions. But with my hair texturized, this is the only method I have that I know of in the moment. The stylist misunderstands me, so I reach for the dictionary in my pocket. While searching for the words to say I hear her mutter to another stylist, “A dictionary? She doesn’t understand me, she needs a dictionary?”

They blow dry my hair and send me on my way. I go up to the counter and the lady rings me up. Remember how I said that there were no prices listed? She requests $100 from me and I realize that I can’t debate or argue. Why did I agree to get my hair styled if I didn’t know how much it would be? While kicking my brain for this, I dig in my wallet and attempt to get the cash, but I only brought $70. I explain to her that I only brought $70. Exasperated, the lady behind the counter says she’s going to get my first stylist, who is out on the balcony once again, smoking.

In the meantime, iPad guy comes back around and attempts to apologize through Google Translate about missing prices. “It is not fair to have you buy without knowing prices,” He writes. I’m too pissed to engage him. Smoking stylist comes back inside and asks me if I have more money back home. I say yes, and he says, “We can drive you back home so you can get the rest of the money to pay us.” My brain kicks itself once more, annoyed that I got myself into this situation. This is the wackest sequel to Taken I’ve ever seen.

But that power dynamic, yo. I agree, and begrudgingly tell them that I’m staying in Edificio Koch on Avenida Sete de Setembro in the neighborhood of Vitória.

In case you’re wondering, Avendia Sete de Setembro is famous in Salvador for being the main location of their carnival and Bahian Independence Day. It’s also famous for being home to politicians and musicians. So Smoking Stylist, iPad Guy, some other dude, and I get into a car, and drive over to Edificio Koch. I often think about the MILLIONS of ways this could have gone wrong for me. But if I think about it for too long, I get heart palpitations and so paranoid that I’d never want to go back outside again. But I did that, so hopefully you wouldn’t have to go through that.

Alas, we pull up in front of Koch, and I get out and wave to the doorman. He’s been seeing me come and go, and immediately asks if everything is okay. His tone lets me know he finds it weird I’m getting out of a car full of a bunch of dudes. I say yes, and take the elevator to the apartment. I go to my room, get the extra cash, come back downstairs, and hand my money to iPad guy who is standing outside the car. He says, “Because of the car ride, it’ll be an extra $20.” I shake my head vigorously and hand him the extra twenty.

“Thank you, see you later! Have a great day!” iPad guy says. I wave goodbye, turn around and go back inside the gate to Koch. I go up to the doorman and let out a deep sigh. He points to my hair, “A blacky! No more braids!” I tell him I missed my hair, and I’m glad it’s shorter now. I then go upstairs and complain to my friends about my haircut. My friends tell me I’m being extreme, but I know my hair. It was different, and I’m not sure if it even grew back the same. But maybe I’m being dramatic.

This little excursion took up my entire Saturday, and I was somewhat disheartened by my stupidity and recklessness. Oh, and mad at that girl from the bookstore. Did she have a texturizer? Was she just a 3C/4A Brazilian woman? The world may never know. What I do know is:

Follow your instincts.

If you feel like you’re around folks that won’t respect your wishes or won’t attempt to understand them, leave.

When speaking different languages, trust yourself.

It’s very easy to fall into the trap that you don’t know what you’re saying, and while you may not be saying it correctly, chances are, you – grown, adult, making do with broken language- know what you want and what you mean. If you’re being misunderstood, take a step back, seek some help, write it down (most folks write better than they speak anyway), or take a break from what you’re trying to engage in until you feel ready to overcome this roadblock. Forging ahead can land you into some dude’s car as they drive you to your rich sky rise as you plan ways to jump out of his car into oncoming traffic to escape.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to learn from your mistakes.

Sure you nearly died and was kidnapped and murdered in the wilds of Brazil because of an irresponsible hair appointment, but what have we learned? It’s not advisable to make mistakes on purpose, act irrational and irresponsible just because, but don’t just mope about and rue the day you ever left your house. Just think, “It could be worse. I could have no hair.”

Besides, with my braids out, I felt a bit more like myself. My fro was still there, just not the same as before, but y’knowwwww, it worked out in the end.

Get into more of Kris’tina’s global adventures over at her blog: A Ticket For Two