Thursday, April 24, 2014

Through the Window

Ten-hour bus rides are fun. Especially when they turn into twelve hours when you get a flat tire on the road. All twelve of which you spent staring out the window, because the road is too windy and your stomach too upset to do anything else. And at first, you are frustrated, because you have a book to read and you really want a nap.

But start to actually look. Not mindlessly, not wishing you were doing something else. You start to look, and you see, and you wonder.

You see the landscape changing, from lush green

to spots of green

to mostly just brown.

You see construction sites, and their materials, and their methods. How does that work? Why do they do it that way? You know a little bit about construction here, and the differences, but why are they that way? Does it have to do with the climate? With the culture? Where do these differences come from?

You see colorful laundry and colorful carpets hanging on the sides of the road, draped over short walls and prickly bushes and what looks like wire. The carpets are for sale, but the clothing is there to dry. Why there? Why not on a clothing line? Is it that much cheaper, or is there another reason? And wow, think of the time it took to do all that wash, likely by hand. You think of the woman in 1984, the one who is described as spending her life doing laundry. Do these women ever feel that way? What would they say, if they saw you taking pictures of nature's drying racks?

You see men irrigating fields, and you think of the methods used on the farm at home, and you wonder how they compare. It looks like flood irrigation; where does the water come from? You know there's an aquifer- is that the main source? What are the common crops here, and how much water do they need? 

You notice the phone lines that get in the way of your photographs, and they make you pause. Not every town you pass has phone lines. There are satellites on many roofs, but not all of them. What is it like, to live without those? To live in a world where you don't need those? Does all our technology make our lives better, or would you be comfortable living where cell phone towers and Internet access don't dictate your happiness?

The bus passes through a city, and you get your camera up just in time to catch a picture of his man, wheeling a bicycle with cow hooves hanging off every side. Oh, the things you see!

The bus passes roadside stand after roadside stand, some more elaborate than others. You admire the pottery, the carpets, the knickknacks you see. They shine in the sun, like they want to present their best selves to you as you speed by.

You notice a field of a yellow grain - wheat, maybe? It's full of men holding a tool in their hand - a scythe? You don't know. You can guess, you can imagine, but you have no experience with this kind of crop nor this type of farming, so all your thoughts are pure conjecture. But pure wonder as well. They move so fast, these farmers cutting their crop. How do they do it? Their hands fly, and the wheat falls, and the bundle is tied and left behind before you have a chance to blink. It's beautiful, the field of half waving stalks and half cut and shining bundles.

You pass so many different types of topography- mountains, plains, greenery, desert. You notice the rocks change color during one portion, changing from the browns you've seen all day to a unique dark black. Interesting. You watch the cliffs flash by the bus windows, and you study the rock formations and the marks in the stones, trying to remember the geology you learned in school four years ago but also mostly just admiring nature's art.

You pass buildings and homes and fascinating architecture. People working in the fields, people working in the yard, people sitting in the shade and watching buses go by. You pass children playing by the side of the road, more games of street soccer than you can count. Grandparents and infants and pets and livestock; all these lives so different than yours. It's a privilege to witness them, if only through the window.

You stop in the city for lunch, and you see this adorable girl playing on the steps while her family waits for the bus to leave again. It makes you think of the families you know, here and back home and everywhere else. All these differences you notice, all these strange and interesting new things; it's nice to be reminded that we're all the same in the end.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Ladies of the Hair Salon, anthropologically speaking

My host sister leads me to a curtained doorway on a Moroccan side street and pulls me inside. I'm apprehensive, excited, anxious; I'm about to see the inner sanctum of a demographic to which I've never before had access.

The ladies of the hair salon.

Whether they abide in a physical hair salon, as is seldom the case, or whether they function among us, it is quite easy to spot an LHS (Lady of the Hair Salon) when you see her. She's fashionably dressed, capable of taking the most unfashionable discards and creating an outfit of beauty. She knows words like 'bronzer,' and her make-up kit is a marvelous thing. We know her by the way she walks, the way she holds herself, the way she presents herself to the world. She is an LHS.

It is hard, sometimes, to enter a group to which one does not belong, but this group has long invited me to enter. It was I who hung back, reluctant to give myself over, not knowing if I would emerge a changed woman. It is difficult to suppress your innate personality for the sake of integration, to give up the core of who you are in order to make yourself more like the peoples around you. My core personality could not be more perplexed by this group. When my fashion consists of ponytails and tennis shoes, when my make-up kit includes three items and one of them is toothpaste, when I had to Google the word 'bronzer' before I wrote that... it's clear that I am not an LHS.

Today, though, it was clear: they weren't taking 'no' for an answer. And thus, I found myself going behind the curtain and venturing into a whole new world.

I was greeted immediately by the Moroccan hairdressers, efficient women who were capable of divining my needs despite the language barrier and my lack of knowledge. I submitted myself fully, undergoing the most extensive transformation I've experienced in all my travels. My hair was sprayed and blown and pulled and clipped and a variety of other past participles that appear to be unique to this particular social group. This was followed by the transformation of my face, as layers of a variety of smooth creams were applied to my skin and eyelids and lips. I sat as still as I could, afraid to so much as blink in the fear that they might misunderstand my intentions and potentially drop mascara in my eye. It was difficult, I grant, as my eyes fought their attempts, but sheer will prevailed, and I was soon made over.

Next came clothing, as we left the salon proper and returned to the native dwelling. A blue jelaba (more jargon, which I understood to mean the style of robe native to Morrocco) was waiting, and the LHSes wasted no time in stripping me of my ties to the outside world and cladding me in its silken folds. My feet were tucked into lopsided white shoes, taller in the heel than in the toe, magically making me taller when I walked. Or, at least, they were meant to make me taller; I do not appear to have the genetic make-up that permits one to totter on such shoes, but perhaps it is something I can develop in time.

When my makeover was complete, I was led into a room full of friends, who cheered when they saw me. I felt a redness rising on my cheeks, but that may have been due to the pink powder that had been dusted over my cheekbones earlier in the day. We partied all afternoon, getting henna on our hands, eating delicious treats, dancing to Moroccan music. There was an aura of festiveness and revelry in the air that seemed peculiar to me, given that I was so dressed up. How can one be so festive when one's clothing does not let her breathe and one's makeup does not let her blink and one's shoes forbid her from moving?

I was intrigued by the behavior I saw, so like any anthropologist, I took advantage of my opportunity to observe. I was amazed to discover that the LHS aren't so different from you and me. First, in observing the atmosphere of the salon, I noticed that despite the efficiency, each woman was treated to a period of personal attention as she underwent her transformation. She put herself in the hands of a professional, relieving herself of the responsibility of caring and thereby freeing her brain waves for other things.

But more than her brain is freed. This appears to be a place where, despite the emphasis on being "made over," the LHSes can be free of judgement, whether their own or someone else's. She finds release there, an escape of sorts. Here, in the inner sanctum, she can laugh and joke and chatter with like-minded individuals, and she can do so without fear.

I do not feel this way when I step foot in a hair salon, but I can relate to the feeling. It exists in other communities; I feel the same when I dance, or when I read, or when I play a good game of soccer. When I let go of reality, when I enter a world of other people like me, I don't have to worry about how I appear to those around me. I am removed from myself, and at times, that is a joyous way to be.

I next attempted to understand the reasons behind the frequent forays to the hair salon. All of these women are beautiful anyway, and besides, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Why spend the money and the time to change your appearance if it doesn't need changing? It is a conundrum that I have long labored to solve, and I think I at last observed the answer. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The LHSes find their beauty in a hairstyle and some eyeshadow, and for them, that attitude doesn't fade when they step outside. In knowing that they feel beautiful, they become beautiful, which adds a spring to their step and a confidence to their actions.

Again, other social groups can relate to this feeling. I know what it is like to carry myself with pride, knowing that I just beat my 5K time or that a magazine wants to publish my work. These elements of my being and my life give me confidence, just as the LHSes gain confidence from their time in the salon, and both of us complete our activity with slightly higher self-esteem than we had before.

My final observation was this: revelry is also in the eye of the beholder. If you are most comfortable, most confident, happiest in silk robes and high heels, wear them. If you'd rather go wear jeans and a T-shirt and go square dancing, wear them. If you'd rather stay home and read a book, do so. Know who you are and what works for you, and don't apologize for it.

That said, go out of your comfort zone sometimes, not because you are told to but because curiosity is a blessing and the world is an interesting place. The LHSes and I have different ideas about how to party, but that's okay. Deep down, I still don't fit in the world of the hair salon, but that's okay too. We had a wonderful time together, and I came away with a deeper understanding on the elusive Ladies of the Hair Salon. Also with henna on my hands, which is pretty darn cool.