It's a little known fact, except to those who have known me since college, that I started going gray at age 16; by age 23, I was coloring my hair regularly. Since then, every 6-8 weeks, I have had to find a qualified hair color professional and pay him or her a lot of money or run the risk of people asking me where my dangly earrings and Volvo are (but not my sensible shoes -- those are the only kind I wear anymore).
For this I blame my ancestors, but at least I'm graying and not balding.
In less itinerant times, I had a standing appointment with the colorist of the hour. There was never any uncertainty. The "recipe" never changed. When The Producer and I left for the big trip, my Portland colorist wrote down my recipe. I carried it with me, alongside my list of allergies and my emergency contacts. Unlike those other items, which were a lot less important, I laminated it.
On the road, it was pretty worthless. A hairdresser with whom I didn't share a language would always scrutinize it carefully, nod sagely and do whatever he or she wanted anyway. This is when I began to internalize the Zen koan that is essential to satisfying long term travel or life overseas: Do not want what you cannot have and be happy with what you get.
Now, as long as I still have hair on my head -- and none of it is visibly gray -- when I leave the salon, I am happy. If the color doesn't wash out the next day, it's considered a raging success.
In the new lifestyle, uncertainty is the operative word. Selecting an appropriate salon in a new city requires a complicated algorithm. I usually prefer a gay man, but identifying one can sometimes cause a lot of embarrassment. English-speakers are always preferred, as is general cleanliness. There comes a point, however, when the most important goal is getting color. A poster in the window --no matter how faded -- of an identifiable brand is good enough. But the fact is, women all over the world color their hair and as long as you can keep the hairdresser away from the bottle of canned heat (CIS red) and the "highlights," you'll probably be O.K.
The longest time I ever went between coloring was three months. We had been traveling through Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda so I don't need to explain why I let it go that long. By the time we arrived in Johannesburg, my shoulder length brown hair was half gray. I was a fright. There was a very modern salon across the street from the guesthouse. We got off the plane at 1:30 on a Sunday afternoon. By 3:00 I was standing in the reception, watching them sweep up the hair and wind up the blow dryer cords. Even though South Africans do speak a dialect of English, no words were necessary.
"Oh honey. This is an emergency. You sit down right now and we'll take care of this."
I had also had it done in Lhasa, Tibet. I wanted to find a Tibetan-run salon, so I wandered the streets looking for one. I don't recall the criteria I used for determining a salon's ownership, but whatever. I couldn't find one. The Han Chinese hairdresser I chose was so detail oriented that I swear he colored, cut and dried each individual hair on my head. Since I have A LOT of hair, it took about four hours. The Producer was ready to send out a search party.
I identified a really good woman in Baku (I cursed her for taking so many weddings that I couldn't get an appointment last weekend). I found her because I was in charge of catering to a "Very High Profile Visitor" to Baku's every whim. Making this person happy was so important to me that I PERSONALLY tested out the hairdresser this person had requested, 'cause that's how I roll. She was great with the color and she made that Very High Profile Visitor look good as well. At least I found a good colorist in Baku for all my considerable trouble with that High Profile Visitor.
Yesterday, out of desperation (the point I always get to in a new city), I walked around my neighborhood looking for a place that "looked OK" and made an appointment.
I realize that you've read this far and you're expecting drama. You want to hear that my hair was turned the color of cheap merlot (that happened, but in a mall in Los Angeles) or about a bad perm made it stick-straight (that happened too, but a long time ago in San Jose).
I just don't have any drama to report. I got my hair colored today in an ordinary salon that happened to be run by a 60+ year old Turkish guy with a mustache, belly and striped polo shirt who looked like a plumber. He didn't wear gloves to color so his hands were stained black and he didn't speak a word of English. He was clearly the owner, maybe gay, and handed off lesser duties (color mixing, cutting, drying) to his minions. It cost me only a little less than I pay in the U.S.
My hair looks fine. Sorry. I'll try to do better next time