Many people have a “thing” when they travel: maybe collecting sports team paraphernalia from the countries and cities they visit; checking out the local breweries and taprooms of whatever locale they find themselves in; taking photos at famous points of interest. My “thing” when I travel is getting my hair cut.
Last summer, I found myself in a salon in Mexico, having all of my hair lopped off (“No como Justin Bieber por favor!”) and dyed (unbeknownst to me, eyebrows were included in that deal). A few months ago, on a rooftop in Santa Clara, Cuba, I sat on an exercise bench (used for bench-pressing) while the owner of the hostel cut my hair, praying that I didn’t get MRSA from the pleather cushion.
Last week, I decided it was time to clean up the shaggy mess that my hair had become and pay a visit to a peluqueria. One of my friends is a peluquero and said he would love to cut my hair, so on a sweltering afternoon, my boyfriend, one of his friends and myself hopped into a maquina and set off for the La Lisa neighborhood of Havana to have Andres cut our hair.
When we reached the neighborhood, we disembarked and found the street that Andres had told us his salon was on. We wandered through a residential neighborhood, and I kept my eyes peeled for some sign of a beauty salon. We passed a clinic and asked the nurses (taking their smoke break) if there was a peluqueria nearby. They pointed to the house next door and told us to ask for Marta.
We opened the gate, walked up the path, and, in typical Cuban fashion, hollered for Marta. No response. Another shout “Oye…Marta!”. Still nothing. Tentatively, we knocked on the door. A curly headed blond opened the door, letting out the amped-up sounds of Rihanna’s wailing. We asked for Marta, and she pointed to the pathway on the side of the house and told us to go around the back.
Behind the house was a covered patio with a black plastic sink, a folding chair, and a half dozen bottles of professional-grade shampoo. We were in the right place. We poked our head in the door and saw the back room-turned-salon, where Marta was busy snipping away at a longhaired blonde’s mane.
Andres was nowhere to be seen. Apparently he had come in to work in the morning, but either forgot about our ‘appointment’ today (or just didn’t care) and decided it was a better day to go to the beach than cut hair. (Side note: Cubans take their summer vacations very seriously, and it seems to me that during the summer, they might or might not go to work, depending on their mood or what the day’s Olympic events are).
Marta told us to wait for her to finish with the blonde and the other boy and girl who were sitting quietly to the side, and we took a seat, little knowing that we would be in those seats for the next two hours, watching Marta work to a soundtrack of her endless commentary and her daughter’s blaring “Best of Rihanna” playlist.
Marta finished cutting, blowing out and flat-ironing the blonde’s hair while simultaneously going back and forth between dyeing the other girl’s waist-length mane and putting a mess of foul-smelling chemicals in the boy’s dark hair to create the infamous and ubiquitous jonky.
My nose wrinkled as the smell of burnt tires filled the air and Marta lathered something that looked like tar onto the boy’s tuft of hair, telling him to let her know if it started to burn. She set a timer for 15 minutes and called me up to the chair vacated by the blonde.
“What are we doing today?” she asked me, and I turned to my Cuban friends, not sure how to say “trim” in Spanish. Camilo explained what I wanted done—the same style, just shorter.
She begin to work, gently cutting off about a millimeter of hair. The phone rang.
“Pick it up” she told Camilo, and he politely answered her phone, playing receptionist for a few minutes. He told her that it was so-and-so who wanted an appointment for tomorrow.
“Tell him/her to come in the morning” she said, and went back to snipping off microscopic pieces of my hair.
The timer went off and she went to attend to the jonky, taking him to the back patio to rinse out the toxic sludge.
“You want more than that cut off, right?” Camilo asked me, “Tell her!”
When Marta came back, I timidly asked her to cut a little bit more off.
“Oohh you really like short hair, don’t you? I do too. I think it’s mas sexy, though my husband doesn’t agree. He’s always asking me to grow my hair out,” she told me, indicating her stylish cut, boyishly short in the back but longer and hugging her face in the front, “I won’t do it though. It’s too hot.”
“Most Cuban men don’t like short hair,” she informed me, “Your friends are just different.” She turned to the jonky and his girlfriend (the one with waist-length hair). “You like long hair better, right?”
Marta had been quiet when she first began cutting my hair, but once she began her tirade on the merits of short hair versus long hair and it’s cultural acceptance (or lack thereof), we were suddenly treated to an ADD stream of consciousness, mostly one-sided conversation with Marta that did. Not. Stop.
“We’re going to make you look more like Dido,” she told me. I was wondering why that was the short-haired icon that Marta deemed necessary to imitate, especially considering her daughter’s penchant for the usually pixied Rihanna.
Suddenly, Marta began singing loudly and off-key.
“When I’m working a long day, I go a little crazy and just start singing,” she said, belting out her heart’s song, “I really know music. God just didn’t bless me with a good voice.”
The entrance of a friend or neighbor, a salt-and-pepper-haired man carrying a plastic bag mercifully interrupted her singing.
“Do you want some cremitas?” Marta turned saleswoman. “They’re made in Matanzas, with the milk fresh from the cows. Six pesos each, but if you buy five or more, they’re only four pesos each.”
We declined and she finished thinning my hair, alternately mussing it up and fixing it until she was satisfied, still yammering on: about her husband’s ability to sing a complicated Mexican ranchero song, an apology for fixing jonkies (“usually my place is filled with young people with beautiful hair”), a stop to answer her own phone and catch up on some piece of gossip.
“Munequita manga,” she said proudly, which loosely translates to cute little Japanese anime doll.
My hair looked fantastic (a combination of Dido and Sailor Moon) and it only cost 20 national pesos (less than a dollar). One day, when my Spanish is better, I want to come back and visit Marta. I would love to know her opinion on everything, if she would be quiet long enough for me to ask her a question…