My initial look at Freeport, Bahamas was of a concrete lot filled with overflowing stalls of island crafts as I peered out of my cabin window that first morning. Just minutes later my feet hit the pavement and I am swept up in the excitement of haggling for the goods scattered about. Spotting a woman placidly sitting on a cardboard carton braiding another woman’s hair, mounting fascination propels me towards the pair.
Her nimble fingers entwine hair at a speed I never thought possible. Money then quickly exchanges hands and the next woman in line moves up to the braiding stool. More conversation and the braiding begins again.
I get in line and within minutes I am the one on the stool being transformed into an aging Indian goddess – a woman of the sea and the earth. I feel the emergent power stemming from the three braids dangling from my right temple. If three can wield such energy, how exhilarating would be a whole head full? I shiver at the thought of such sheer indulgence.
My husband grins when he sees me and encourages me to get more.
“Maybe,” I hedge coquettishly.
Hours later, I am sprawled on the beach watching the hordes of tourists go parasailing. A brightly dressed young woman saunters over and says, “Hey, Bahama Mama, how about some more? Twists. Don’t stop at three!”
At first I don’t understand. She explains easily. “For $80, I will braid your entire head.”
I look at her in disbelief. And shake my head no.
“Oh come on, sweet lady,” she implores.
“Eighty dollars is way too much,” I reply with vigor.
“A dollar a braid, missy,” she says boldly. “A dollar a braid.”
“Nope,” I shoot back brazenly. “Way too much.” I’m beginning to enjoy this bartering.
This woman, wise to the ways of the tourist, is not daunted. “Okay,” she asks me softly, “how much DO you want to spend?”
“Twenty-five,” I say daringly.
“You’ve got a deal, Bahama Mama.”
And so the ritual begins.
She points to a rock and instructs me to sit down and make myself comfortable. (On a rock? I laugh to myself. Back home, it’s padded, reclining chairs with arm rests, free coffee, and air conditioning. She must be kidding.)
She’s not. She sets a massive sack of beads and bands on my lap and instructs me to pick my colors as she sets to work separating my hair into sections. I relax as her nimble fingers wield her craft as she begins the ageless process of braiding. The outer left strand passes over the center one. Next, the outer right strand passes over the first one, which is now in the middle. And the process continues until the braid strand is finished. Soft and steady. Gentle and repetitive.
Unfortunately, though the process of braiding remains steady and repetitive, it does not stsay soft nor gentle. First, an isolated jolt of pain. Then a few intermittent tugs and pulls that sting the scalp, forcing my mind from any pleasant musings to full concentration on the source of the discomfort.
Then the hurt becomes constant as her fingers begin weaving in corn rows along the base of my scalp.
“That hurts,” I say reproachfully.
“Ah, that’s what they all say,” she murmurs soothingly as her skilled fingers continue on their murderous route.
Three hours later the braiding is complete. My euphoria has long since evaporated. My back is sore. My neck is impossibly tight. And the braids are pulling ceaselessly and uncomfortably on my scalp. I ease my stiff body up to standing position, pay her and watch her as she walks away, already approaching another unsuspecting tourist on which to exercise her finger power.
My husband loves my head of hair fully braided.
Me? I have endured and will continue to endure the discomfort that I soon learn will go on unabated for another few days until new hair growth eases the tightness of the braids. Nonetheless, I feel empowered. Connected to the multitudes of women who came before me and sat as I sat – by oceans or fire sides – in wagons or perhaps caves – lending their scalp to another’s skillful fingers to weave some magic.
No matter the scalp pulling, I feel both mighty and connected.