Cambodian Journal 2011, Part 17 – A Trip to the Beauty Parlor

It is not exactly a secret that most women of a “certain age” have gray hair. While some women accept this as a natural look, others, including myself, choose to cover the grey with hair color, a process usually conducted once a month. In 2004, I wrote an e-mail describing my experience at the beauty parlor in the Juliana Hotel in Phnom Penh, where I had been sent at the recommendation of our hotel, the Le Royal. There had been confusion as to the color and my hair turned out a funny shade of light orange. Apparently, they were placing off brand color into legitimate boxes and made a mistake. Black should not have been a difficult color as Asian women as well as Asian men all dye their hair black. Also, I was not sure exactly what other services were being performed at that beauty shop as men kept walking past me, disappearing behind a small door. I paid forty dollars, an exceptionally high price considering workers were making one to two dollars per day. When they handed me the bill, there was a line item “customer supplied dye”. Now knowing I could not trust their products, I started to bring my own from home.

It was that time again, but as I have learned the hard way, when in Cambodia, trying to accomplish even the smallest undertaking is not always so easy. I was on a mission and not wanting a repeat of the previous experience, I knew I needed help. I needed someone to suggest a place and to do the translating. Sorting through my short list of local contacts, I knew I could count on Cinnamon.

Cinnamon is not her Khmer name but when we first met her working in our hotel in 2002, we took the liberty of calling her Cinnamon, because this was as close as we could get to her hard to pronounce Khmer name. We watched as she rose through the ranks to become head of the restaurant staff while at the same time, becoming more indispensable to our well being at the hotel. Even though she would probably claim she adopted us, over the years she became part of our Khmer family, which by extension included several tuk-tuk drivers. On her day off, she often showed up at the field for a flight and was always available to help me buy clothing for the village. In the late afternoon, I often helped her with her English studies. We would meet on a bench close to the hotel or at times, we would sit under a tree along the grassy banks of the Siem Reap River. I would ask her to give me the English name for everything she saw and then put the words into a sentence. Occasionally, the English lesson drew the attention of people just walking down the street and soon I would be surrounded by young Khmers pointing and calling out English words.

When it is time to leave, we give her everything we are not taking home which includes our plastic shelving unit. I assume she finds use for our shampoo, toothpaste, and the odd bottle of wine. She always gave back with what was available, which usually meant an increase in our stock of palm sugar artfully wrapped in bamboo leaves. Even though I would tell her to keep the shelving unit, she returned it each year, which actually proved convenient as it became increasingly hard to find one in the local market.

Cinnamon was born in 1978, just ahead of the baby boom generation born after the collapse of the Pol Pot regime in 1979. Her father and mother divorced and from what we can understand, her mother was not very responsible and left her to be raised by her aunt. Today, she is taking care of her mother and together with a friend, who we would meet later, they live in a small house on the other side of the river. Similar to most Cambodian children, she was forced into being independent at an early age. Today, she is working for an NGO and receiving $200.00 per month, which by Khmer standards is very good as the minimum wage stands at 62.00 per month.

One Saturday afternoon, after she finished work, I found myself on the back of her motor bike traveling out of town to meet her friend who owned a beauty salon. Clinging to Cinnamon with one hand and griping my box of L”Oreal hair color with the other, I was looking forward to an afternoon of small adventures, sometimes the best kind. Leaving the hotel, we crossed over the Siem Reap River and rode past the Psar Chaa, Siem Reap”s old market with its sounds of tourists haggling over souvenir kitsch and its ever increasing stock of new antiques, made especially for the burgeoning tourist trade. When we came to Sivatha Street, one of the main thorough fares, we turned left. The road we traveled headed south and followed the contours of the Siem Reap River, which eventually empties into the Tonle Sap Lake. Passing the area where water is readily available, rice paddies, like endless emerald carpets, unfurled into the distance. We cruised past fields planted with lotus, tall, stately pink, purple, and white blossoms rising out of fetid water, a pastel blur as we cruised past.

We stopped in front of a new concrete building with a hand painted sign in front advertising in English “House of Beauty”. The sign featured an attractive Western looking woman with black hair, definitely reassuring. Throughout Asia, it is not uncommon to see images of Western women advertising local services, apparently transmitting a certain élan to those paying attention. Her friend came out to greet us and even though she would not make eye contact with me, I placed my palms together, resembling the image of the Serenity Prayer, and in traditional Khmer style, returned her bow with one of my own. Having successfully concluded the welcoming ceremony, I stepped into what actually resembled a beauty shop. Taking a quick visual inventory, I saw two standard looking beauty shop chairs, each facing a wall lined with a large mirror. A small TV set with “rabbit ears” was occupying a small table. She had hung a piece of material to cordon off her bed and the cooking area so that after business hours, the room would become her home. There were openings on each side of the house that functioned as windows but instead of glass, there were metal bars and hinged wooden shutters that could be closed to keep out the sun or rain. The front of the house opened on to the busy street, the world of commerce, but stepping out the back door, revealed another world, a tropical paradise of leafy banana trees glittering green in the afternoon sun. A small dirt path, under attack by an old woman wielding a homemade broom of bound twigs, led to the Siem Reap River, where several wooden stilted houses, almost completely camouflaged by a grove of bamboo, clung tenaciously to the riverbank.

One chair was empty, presumably available for me, while a group of women engaged in animated conversation, surrounded the other. I peered through this feminine cordon and caught a glimpse of a young girl seemingly baffled by all this attention. Time out for some explanation as Cinnamon explained she was having her hair straightened and the posse of women was her mother and her friends. This made no sense to me since Khmer women, as well as most all Asian women, have perfectly straight hair. The fact that she was going to be engaged that night at a party still did not clarify the issue. However, as always in Cambodia, what is, is.

The friend went back to her customer and I was assigned to the assistant, Pia. After completing the Khmer greeting, we were ready to get going. Cinnamon explained to Pia that I would mix the hair color and her job would be to apply it. I did not see any sinks or faucets but she assured me there would be water for rinsing, though I failed to inquire from where. Looking around for something to cover my clothes, I was handed a ball of material that turned out to be a silky black cape with a red stand up collar. This must have had a former life, maybe as Dracula” s cape, but upon closer scrutiny, the manufacturer, probably somewhere in China, had made a mistake and covered the material with Spiderman designs. Pia was wearing an apron made out of connected bunnies and together we looked like we should have been going to a Halloween Party.

In a great state of anticipation, I mixed the color and sat down in the chair. The motor bike ride had added to the collection of tangles in my hair which Pia seemed determined to eliminate with her own comb. However, knowing what lurks in Khmer heads of hair, I dug into my purse and handed her one of my own. Ready to attack my tangle free hair, she loaded her brush up with hair color and was ready to begin. She tied off sections of my hair with clips and even though this procedure felt very unfamiliar, she seemed confident in her method.

In the back of the room, someone turned on the TV set. The children who had been kicking a soccer ball outside now gathered on the floor and to my surprise, they were watching Bugs Bunny and he was speaking Khmer. Because electrical power is not available or too expensive, a car battery powdered the TV as well as the fluorescent lighting tubes attached to the walls. The women, apparently satisfied with the hair straightening operation, began to glace over at me, eyes without curtains, filled with curiosity. Perched on the edge of my chair, I smiled at them and from the other side of the room, smiles were returned. These ladies seemed a friendly, jovial group and while they chattered noisily to Cinnamon, she explained where I came from, why I was there and of course, one of the most frequently asked questions, my age. Seemingly satisfied with her answers, they congregated around me. According to Cinnamon, they were offering up their advice and from looking at their hair, I believed they were the voice of experience. I just continued to smile.

Cinnamon told me these women were old friends who lived close by and gathered in this beauty parlor on Saturday. l am sure, like women everywhere, they came to meet their friends, share the local gossip, and just to enjoy each other”s company. Even though there was the usual language barrier, they seemed to be welcoming me into their group. In the background, someone was switching TV channels between Khmer MTV and a local soap opera and as I smiled, they smiled back. One woman took my hand and began to massage it. Refusing to let go, her manipulations sent shocks through my body, rather pleasant once I got past the pain. When another woman reached for my foot to administer the famous Khmer foot massage, I was able to prevent this by laughing and shaking my head. A woman brought out a small book filled with photos and soon I was looking through all of their photo books, seeing all of their children and photographs of various weddings. They seemed disappointed when Cinnamon told them I did not have photos to share. I gave each one my business card and if translated properly, I think they all promised to send me e-mails. The women and I were bonding and if the art of making friends in the West is complicated, here it is simple and soon a friend of a friend was becoming a friend.

The color had been applied and I was waiting the appropriate time before it would be rinsed out when a woman walked in followed by small boys carrying pots of cooked food. Cinnamon told me she always brought lunch on Saturday. Let the festivities begin as a table was quickly cleared and a white plastic tablecloth with frills resembling lace was put down, covered with bowls, chopsticks, and spoons. These were the same sinister pots of food found at cooked food stands, which I had so far managed to avoid. But now, I had become one of their group, a Saturday lunch lady, and could not refuse their hospitality. I was soon eating a bowl of rice covered with what I hoped was stewed chicken. If there proved to be life after this, then I could say, it was tasty. Having accepted their hospitality and graciously thanking them, I felt I was not being offensive when I turned down the plate of grilled tiny birds, a Khmer delicacy, more bones than meat and besides, it is always difficult to extract pieces of toenails and beaks out of your teeth. Together, we enjoyed the sliced watermelon for desert and soon I was eating their roasted sunflower seeds, throwing the husks out the window just like the rest of them.

The timer announced it was time to rinse off the color and I found myself following Pia into the back yard, thinking this was an odd place to set up a sink with faucets. We stopped next to a standpipe surrounded by a wooden bench on which someone had laid out a piece of plastic blue tarp, a plastic bucket, and a small bowl. Water is water and soon I was stretched out on the bench, covered with the tarp having bowl after bowl of water, dipped out of the bucket, poured over my head. The procedure was not one that I expected but a rinse is a rinse. We were finished.

My new friends were survivors from the Pol Pot years and the immeasurable lines of daily wear engraved on all their faces told stories without words. They are the ones left to transmit to the next generation the linear quality of acquired knowledge. It is impossible for me to write about these women without wondering about their past experiences but on that warm January afternoon, I was content just to observe the regenerative ability of the human spirit and I was thrilled to have become part of their Saturday afternoon tradition. Back in the house, Pia offered me a hair drier which was also attached to the car battery. Soon I was blown dry and ready to leave. “Som ket loi” (the polite phrase for how much) I asked, using one of my few Khmer phrases. Pia told me three dollars and I thought how I had paid $40.00 in Phnom Penh in 2004. This was the local price and when I handed her five dollars, she seemed to be very happy. As we were leaving, the young woman with the straight hair came over to show me her meticulously manicured hands. An entire garden had been painted on each fingernail complete with shining sun. I asked, ” som kit loi” to which she replied seventy-five cents.

As I climbed onto the back of Cinnamon”s motor bike, they all waved goodbye. I promised to return the next Saturday that is if Cinnamon was not too busy and there was more chicken in the pot. Soon the wind was rushing through my hair, bring the moisture, grit, and dust which gives it volume. Back in my hotel room, I viewed the afternoon”s work in the mirror and deemed it good enough. With a glass of wine and a book, I sat down on the patio just in time for the unexpected rain, which the local people call, the “mango rains.”


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