A Stranger in a Strange Land

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My heart skipped a beat as I realised that the girl was tugging me along ever more narrow, dimly lit alleyways. Away from the bustling city centre and far from the sanctuary of my hotel. The language I heard around me had been a jumble of sounds that I did not recognise. But as we ventured, there were fewer people around and the surroundings became eerily quiet. Fear began gnawing at my insides.

I had come to this unfamiliar country on my own for a brief business trip of less than a week. However, it had stretched beyond its planned duration and six infuriating weeks had passed. With another lonely weekend stretching out before me, I had made the reckless decision to venture outside the sanctuary of my hotel. With each step, it was a decision that I was growing to regret.

Decisions

Away from home for six endless weeks, I was providing specialist computer services to a grateful, but ponderous, client. They kept requesting that I extend my assignment and, flattered and frustrated in equal measure, I was unable to refuse. In the office, we communicated politely and effectively, even if it was stiff, formal and without humour. However, we made progress, and the client was satisfied, but it was all accomplished frustratingly slowly.

It came as a surprise that the client had not invited me to socialise outside of work. Their team departed on time each day and I would not see them until the following morning. So, during the evenings and weekends, the country’s unfamiliar language presented me with an insurmountable barrier, isolating me from the world all around. What had started as a brief business trip, had transformed into a gruelling ordeal, sharing my time between the office and my comfortable, but basic, hotel.

One Saturday morning, I consumed a leisurely breakfast at my hotel while contemplating how I should survive yet another weekend without going stir crazy.

Because of the repeated delays with my assignment, one personal issue that had become urgent was related to my hair. At home I had my waist length long locks trimmed every two months without fail. The increasingly dry ends were well overdue for attention.

With my hair worn in a professional updo during the week, it was not an issue around the client. But at the hotel I preferred to wear my hair loose when the desperate need for attention was plain to all. I knew that I could not delay getting my hair trimmed, otherwise it would be a mass of split ends in no time.

But that decision begged the question of where I could go.

Directions

When travelling between office and hotel each day by taxi, I had surveyed the immediate surroundings of the hotel for a suitable hair salon. However, even allowing for the undescriptive words on the utilitarian storefronts, my observations suggested there were no nearby establishments that would satisfy my needs.

If my client had been less formal and more approachable, I might have asked for a recommendation. But they were not approachable, so I had not asked.

After breakfast, I explained my predicament to the stoney-faced hotel manager who was permanently standing to attention behind the reception desk. Tall and thin, he peered down at me with dark cold eyes framed by round wire-rimmed spectacles.

He acknowledged each of my requirements by saying, ‘I understand, Miss,’ after each sentence I uttered, and giving a curt nod.

Without any further response on his part, despite his words, I was not convinced that he did comprehend. So, in that irritating way of tourists in a foreign land, I reiterated my needs, but I stated them more slowly and more loudly.

Accepting my crass behaviour without displaying any emotion, he assured me that he continued to understand.

When I was about to risk one final stab at securing a recommendation, he held up a hand to silence me. He then snapped his fingers, resulting in a pretty teenage girl hastening through a door behind him. Their rapid exchange of words went over my head, but his tone suggested that he was commanding her to do something.

Oddly, the girl reacted by giggling, a response that the manager stifled at once with an admonishing glare. Spinning on the spot, she ran eagerly towards me and grabbed my hand.

‘This girl will take you to a nearby establishment, Miss,’ the manager stated politely but frostily. ‘An establishment that will meet your needs.’

As I thanked him, a cold smile played on his lips, causing me to feel curiously anxious. Consequently, I took a moment to reflect on whether my desire to get my hair trimmed was as urgent as it felt earlier.

Deliverance

My escort took away the decision on whether I should leave the sanctuary of my hotel when the girl nearly wrenched my arm out of its socket.

‘Miss,’ the girl urged, tugging me towards the hotel’s revolving door. ‘Miss, miss,’ she repeated anxiously whenever I showed any hesitation.

As we hurried along, I tried to introduce myself and be friendly, but she simply smiled and nodded her head. I deduced that her grasp of my language was on a par with my understanding of hers. When she decided that I expected a response to something I had said, she simply giggled and reiterated, ‘Miss.’

The girl led me through a labyrinth of narrow lanes that grew quieter the further we travelled from the hotel. Few people were readily visible, but I sensed shadows moving in doorways and the occasional face peering curiously through a window. I concluded it was not an area of the city that foreigners frequented.

After rushing us through the lanes, the girl abruptly stopped in front of a modest shopfront. Unpretentious, like others I had seen, with a pair of shuttered windows and a solid wooden door. Faded lettering above the window might have given a clue as to what went on inside, but I was unable to decipher its meaning.

The girl pointed eagerly to a large brass doorbell button, laughed, and then quickly disappeared into the maze of streets. With an eclectic mix of trepidation and resignation, I pressed the bell push, but I heard nothing. Unsure whether the substantial door had muffled the sound, or if the device simply had not worked, I accepted it as a welcome hint for me to make a hasty departure.

About to turn away, the large wooden door suddenly swung open on creaking hinges. A large hand attached to a meaty forearm shot out with alarming speed, grabbed my delicate wrist, and unceremoniously hauled me inside.

Destruction

Momentarily stunned by the rapid movement from inside the shop, I stumbled over the doorstep and found myself facing a woman of immense size and an intimidating countenance. She barked something unintelligible, yanking me further inward. Behind us, the door clattered shut, locking me inside.

Looking around, I was slightly reassured that the interior shared a resemblance to a hair salon, although it was much more basic than those that I frequented at home. It seemed peculiar that she kept her shop closed on a Saturday morning, but I put that down to the unfamiliar local culture.

Shuffling along, the burly woman dragged me over to a chair with a torn leather seat and cracked armrests. She almost flung me into it. She cranked a metal handle noisily and the chair rose up jerkily, until I was uncomfortably high off the ground.

A large white sheet billowed out in front of me, the thick material encased me, before she secured tightly around my neck. She stood behind me, rooted to the spot with arms folded, staring intimidatingly at me in the mirror before me.

I slowly and carefully explained what I would like done but I was convinced, by her failure to react, that my words fell on deaf ears. Speaking louder and more slowly made no difference.

‘Yes, yes, Miss,’ she barked, with a mocking grin, trampling over the end of every sentence that I tried to complete.

My worrying treatment convinced me that it had been a mistake to try resolving the issue of my hair while alone in a strange country. However urgent the need might be, not being able to make myself understood was an insurmountable barrier. So, I decided I must leave and try to find somewhere more amenable to my needs on the way back to the hotel.

I decided I would pay her a modest sum to compensate her. However, each time I attempted to stand, the woman irritatingly waggled a finger right in my face. Frowning menacingly, she pulled back on my shoulders and forced me back into the seat. It was a ridiculous, but scary, situation to find myself in.

I contemplated whether she had been planning to stay closed all day and she was simply annoyed by me ringing her bell. It might explain why my presence infuriated her, although the woman’s response seemed over the top.

Deciding my best way to leave, as well as getting what I needed, was to indicate that I only wanted the lightest of trims. I held up a lock of my long hair, pointed to the ends, and then held my thumb and forefinger close together to signify the smallest amount possible.

The woman burst into laughter. ‘Yes, yes, Miss,’ she acknowledged mockingly.

I relaxed, believing my unambiguous message had finally struck home. My relief was fleeting. From a hook hidden under the shelf bordering the mirror, she unearthed a pair of ancient-looking electric hairclippers. Although the paintwork and lettering on the device were with faded with age, the serrated blade shone extremely brightly.

I had no idea what she intended to do with the hairclippers, but it was a moot point as I had had enough. I was about to voice my disapproval and stand but, in a swift and merciless motion, she pinned me effortlessly to the chair with the vice-like grip of one of her massive hands. She flicked a switch and the threatening hairclippers roared to life in her other hand.

‘No, no!’ I cried, unable to move. ‘Stop! Please stop!’

‘Yes, yes, Miss,’ she chuckled scornfully.

Staring into the mirror, I looked on in abject terror, as she forced the shining and merciless blade of the clippers into the hair above my forehead. A bald patch widened as I felt her tugging the blade relentlessly through my precious locks. My reflection displayed a deep furrow carved through my thick locks like a bizarre wide parting.

Distraught, I saw long blonde tendrils tumbling in the air around me and sliding down the cape to gather in huge piles on the floor. Even when confronted by the evidence, I could not believe my own eyes.

Ruthlessly, without pausing, she relentlessly clippered my long, flowing hair, rolling my head around effortlessly to gain access to every remaining bristle. Even when she had removed all my hair, she pummelled my scalp with the blade just to be sure.

Finally, there was nothing to see but my smooth bare scalp. Pure white skin but reddened by her rough treatment with the hairclippers. I stared with disbelief at my reflection, unable to move. After the woman turned off the dreadful device, she whisked away the sheet, and silence fell.

Suddenly, the woman began vigorously massaging my scalp with a thick musky oil. Robustly, she then buffed my head with an old cloth until she achieved an unnatural gleam on my smooth dome, shining brightly like a billiard ball.

‘No!’ I bawled, tentatively examining my head, and feeling it was as smooth as glass.

‘Yes, yes, Miss,’ she chuckled mockingly.

I staggered to my feet on trembling legs and stumbled towards a desk that the woman now stood behind. When she rang up the price on an antiquated cash register, I threw down more than enough large bills to cover the cost. She scooped up the cash without a word of thanks, and she stuffed it into a large pocket of her apron. Then she held out her

‘Yes, yes, Miss,’ she insisted menacingly, her voice like a shrill siren.

I deduced that, to add insult to injury, she was demanding a tip. I hurled more bills at her, before rushing to the door and struggling with the catch. Eventually, I managed to tumble through the door into the unfamiliar lanes and tried to remember the direction from which I had arrived at the fateful place.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the door slowly swinging closed. The woman had swept my hair into a huge pile and was tossing it into a rubbish bin. She saw me watching.

‘Yes, yes, Miss,’ she cackled, pointing at my head and then at the bin before the door finally closed.

In the shaded alleyway, I gasped at the shock of the cool breeze on my scalp for the first time. Without too much thought, I chose a direction to travel and began walking.

Derision

I shouted the name of the hotel to passersby, raising my volume when they did not understand. I assumed that the sight of a distraught and bald foreigner would be a concern to those I asked to help, but I seemed to merit no more than an approving glance.

More by luck than judgement, I finally reached the sanctuary of my hotel. As I entered, I saw that the stoney-faced manager who had asked the girl to escort me, was standing stiffly behind the reception desk as usual.

As I approached, his expression softened into something between a smile and a smirk. ‘Good afternoon, Miss,’ he said, giving an almost imperceptible nod of approval at my appearance as he handed me my key.

‘Why did you send me to that awful place?’ I yelled, starting a tirade of protests over my reprehensible treatment at the establishment he had recommended.

He waited for me to run out of steam, merely staring at me silently, wearing, his usual stoney-faced expression. He did not even grace me with his usual calming “I understand”.

‘Well?’ I demanded indignantly when he did not respond to my monologue.

To my astonishment, rather than apologise, the manager’s expression changed to one of stern disapproval.

‘We do not have dressers of hair for women in this country, Miss,’ he informed me coldly. ‘Girls here have their heads shaved as a rite of passage into womanhood. With your unusual request, I had imagined that you wished to blend in with the culture of the country that has welcomed you, and to show courtesy to your hosts during your stay.’

His words struck me like a dagger. I had come to a country that tolerated my appearance to benefit from my business skills. But everyone I met had considered my very identity as an affront to their culture.

At home we might ask foreigners not to perform their own customs that would contradict our laws and sensibilities. But we would not insist. Would we? ‘In my country, we would not -’

‘Excuse me, Miss,’ he said abruptly, holding up a finger to silence me. ‘Telephone,’ he smirked.

Interesting. A telephone that did not ring, I mused, but the message behind his crude interruption was clear.

‘I understand,’ I hissed, mocking his usual rejoinder.

The smirk did not leave his lips. I spun around and headed towards the lifts, hearing a faint humourless murmur behind me. ‘Yes, now you really do understand.’

Back in my room, I realised that not only had the manager’s action robbed me of my hair, but it had robbed of my sense of self. Alone for the rest of the weekend, I retreated into myself, haunted by the cold, mocking laughter of the woman who had robbed me of my beauty and my dignity. My confidence dashed, I felt lost in a world where I was never meant to belong.

Denouement

‘Good morning, Miss,’ my client beamed when I arrived at the office on Monday morning after two days of self-recriminations and upset.

Unlike me, he must have had a good weekend as I usually only received a polite welcome and, if I was lucky, a thin smile.

‘Good morning,’ I echoed unenthusiastically as I put down my bag and began preparations for the day ahead.

‘I hope I may say this, Miss, but you look a delight,’ he grinned, pointing to my head. ‘It is a lovely gesture that you do this tradition in our country. My colleagues are all delighted, for sure.’

‘Oh, er, thanks,’ I said dumfounded by his change in demeanour.

‘Please will you come to my home and join my family for dinner this evening?’ he urged enthusiastically, ‘and I will also need to discuss with you some additional business that we would like to offer your company.’

Shaved to the bone was a high price to pay for improving the social relationship with my client. But, on reflection, it seemed right that having a head that looked as smooth and shiny as a glacier was all we needed to finally break the ice.

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