I will not be the first person to tell you that in order to live a life of full-time travel, I had to make sacrifices. Everyone who has ever decided to travel for an extended period of time has had to give up something in pursuit of that dream—whether it’s cutting out daily trips to Starbucks or selling your car or your house—it’s no secret that people give up a lot in their pursuit to see the world.
But I might just be the first person to admit that one of the hardest things I relinquished in the face of our travel dreams was my hair. Specifically, my short hair.
It sounds like such a trivial, superficial thing, I know. I mean, is my vanity on par with, say, rehoming your pets or leaving behind the security of a job and a regular paycheck? (Both things that we also did, by the way.) Obviously not. And surely there aren’t any rules that prohibit women with close-cropped hair from getting on a plane.
All of this is true. And yet, as someone who has rocked just about every hairstyle imaginable from (regrettable) rockabilly mullets to banged bobs to perky little pixies, I knew that as much as I preferred having short hair accented with bright red highlights, there was no way I could maintain that kind of style on the road. Even removing color fade from the equation, in order to upkeep any kind of short style, I’d be committing myself to packing hair styling products, a straightening iron AND a hair dryer, and I would need to find myself in a stylist’s chair once every 6 – 8 weeks. Given how much drama just ordering food in Japan caused during our first few weeks of traveling, I knew that as fun and flirty as I find short hair to be, it would also require a level of maintenance and add a dimension of stress (could I really trust random hairdressers with perhaps no grasp of English to cut my hair?) that just wasn’t compatible with the trip we were taking.
So I decided to grow it out. I had had long hair before, but usually that was the result of laziness or the stubborn pursuit of a goal (for instance, wanting to wear my hair in an elaborate “up do” for prom). Although there are women who default to long hair for most of their lives, I am not one of them. Inevitably I get fed up with having long hair—it’s so heavy and hot, it takes hours to dry, my hair resolutely refuses to hold a curl and I can barely braid it so I never do anything fun with it when it’s long—and in a moment of wild abandon, cut it short.
Not so this time. I let the fire-engine red strands fade to burnt copper then to blond and final to albino white. I weathered months of awkward “inbetween” lengths where it looked like a chia pet grew atop my head as my pixie slowly morphed into a chin-length bob. My hair inched towards a nondescript-but-benign shoulder-length style. I was being practical and tamped down on my rebellious streak that dared me to cut it all off as style apathy set in—every time I looked in the mirror and felt frustrated or bored, I remembered that every inch of hair was a sign of my commitment to our goal.
I don’t pretend that something as simple and impermanent as hair could ever define me, or anyone else for that matter, and I had always thought I had a pretty healthy, balanced approach to my own hair: no matter what happens, it keeps on growing, so have fun with it and don’t be afraid to try something new. It wasn’t until I grew my hair out, sacrificing personality for practicality, that I realized how much joy having a fun haircut brought me, how much of myself was reflected in those daring, playful cuts. When my hair reached my shoulders and could easily be pulled back into a ponytail, I could look at myself in the mirror and feel I looked generically pretty. However, I didn’t really feel like me. It always felt like this was something I was doing for the trip.
Despite what this post might lead you to believe, my life really doesn’t revolve around the outside of my head (the inside is another matter entirely…), and I ultimately accepted and grew accustomed to my long locks. When we finally left for Japan with just a travel hairdryer in tow, I knew my sacrifice had been worth it. Sure my hair was forgettable, but it was also easy to do exactly that: forget about it. It never looked awkward or weird, even if I let it air dry, and there was little easier than putting it up in a ponytail. Moreover, I could go months without getting it cut, and on the two occasions where I did step into salon (once in Borneo, the other in Chiang Mai, Thailand), even with the general Asian tendency toward glam beauty queen blowouts, I was comforted knowing their questionable styling would wash out with my next shower, but the simple trimming of a few inches seemed to be foolproof.
For the most part, my thesis that long hair is optimal for traveling has proved true, but there have still been moments when I have desperately pined for a close crop. Standing ankle deep in shower water because my hair has plugged the drain—again—and emptying bottles of shampoo faster than a wino downs a bottle of moonshine, aren’t much fun. Dealing with my hair when diving is always nightmarish as my mask inevitably gets tangled in it, causing yelps of pain whenever I rip it (and some follicles) off during surface intervals. I don’t like how after a certain length, no matter how fastidiously I condition, the ends get so dry they resemble stalks of wheat that knot and get caught in my brush… a sure sign I am due for a trim. But overall, these little inconveniences have seemed worth the tradeoff and whenever I find myself saying how much I wish I could have a sassy short hair cut, I remember all the perks and snap myself back in line.
I always promised myself that even though I could never foresee a day where I was excited to return home from our travels and slide back into our old lives that I would make the best of that eventuality by doing the one thing for myself that I felt traveling had kept me from: I would cut off all my hair and celebrate the next chapter of my life with a cute fun haircut.
When Tony & I found out a few weeks ago that this return home would take place this summer, it’s safe to say I was thrown for a loop. It wasn’t unexpected, but I still didn’t look forward to it. Even though I knew this moment was coming, I woke up every morning hoping it never would, wishing that the kind of magic exists in the world that if you want something bad enough, you get it. I love my life so much right now and there is still so much of the world that I want to see, still so many adventures I need to have. I am loathe to give up what we’ve created, and if I’m being truthful, after two years of learning to go after the things I want and finding the value in choosing and prioritizing happiness, I’m more reluctant to forsake traveling now than I’ve ever been. I like feeling like I can create joy in my life, that any limits holding me back are ones of my own making, not anyone else’s, so I can tear them down when the time is right. Before we got the call from home, I looked to the future and though I didn’t know the exact path that would take me to it, I knew it was a happy one.
Then, all of a sudden, it felt like everything—our trip, my happiness, my potential, my true life—was being cut short.
I was miserable and shaken for days, spiraling into panic attacks and bouts of bleak despair. I felt out of control.
Ultimately, I’m a survivor and a fighter and even if it takes me a while to get back up from the mat, no matter the beating, I always do. Through my grief, I started to look for positive fallout from this quake, like the tentative tendrils of grass that poke out amongst the ruins of a collapsed building. Having a deadline to this trip forced us to re-evaluate our priorities for the next few months; we’ve become so comfortable here in Asia, maybe a little too comfortable, even perhaps sliding towards complacency. We had been drifting as though we had all the time in the world, but suddenly, a clock was ticking and time was running out and there was still a whole lot of world waiting. Knowing this period is ending prompted us to refocus and helped us decide that we need to get back out there and continue exploring. We’ll have time enough soon to sit inside in front of our computers and try to make money, but with time ever diminishing, every second is infinitely precious now. So we decided that after we head to Laos (our first new country of 2014!), rather than returning to an old favorite, we’ll head to Sri Lanka instead and hopefully discover a new one. After that? Well, you’ll just have to wait and see.
The impending end of our journey was a reminder not to push aside the things we really want because to pursue them and make them real might be difficult, inconvenient or scary. Maybe it was this that caused me to pick up the phone and make a hair appointment at one of Saigon’s top salons. Or maybe I was just tired of waking up in the morning to find a thick rug of my own hair scattered across the floor, as though I’d been undergoing nocturnal chemotherapy. You decide.
Regardless, I decided, why wait until I am back in Toronto to cut my hair? Why not herald the start of a new chapter right here and now. Armed with a photo, walking into the salon, I swelled with excitement. “This haircut is me taking back control,” I thought. “It’s actually cool how symbolic it is: getting cut short can actually be a good thing.”
Sitting down with the stylist, I showed him the picture I had found while browsing online, explaining that I was open to removing some length but that I didn’t want to go too short.
“I travel a lot,” I said. “Like, all the time. And I travel really light, so I don’t have any products or a straightening iron, just a hairdryer. And when my hair gets too short, one side gets this weird wave and flips out. So don’t go above my chin at the most. Oh, and I might not get another hair cut for months, so I need something that doesn’t need much upkeep and will grow out gracefully.”
The stylist assured me he understood and would give me a cut that made me look better than the picture. Nothing to worry about. So, I sat back and let him get to work
He gathered my hair into a thick rope and scissored through it. I smiled as a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders. Literally.
Alas, my elation was short lived. As more and more of my hair fell to the floor, stirrings of unease began to flutter in my stomach. I’ve had enough haircuts to know that even a great one doesn’t always look promising in the middle of the process, so I pushed my concerns away and tried to remain optimistic. But the more he cut, the worse I felt.
I tried to remind myself that everything I was seeing could be wonky styling and that maybe after I got home and did it myself, I’d like it more. Then I shifted to thinking that even if it wasn’t my favorite haircut of all time, it would still be ok. Eventually I got to the point where I was reminding myself that it was only hair and would grow out, that this wasn’t permanent. Finally, I found myself wavering between giving myself a pep talk that even if this wasn’t the haircut I had anticipated, I could still rock it like it was intentional, and wondering whether it was worth it to cause a scene and refuse to pay.
As I sat in the chair and stewed, trying not to let my anxiety bleed on to my face, I wondered what throwing a fit would accomplish. My hair was way shorter than I had requested, but there wasn’t really anything that could be done about that now, except to wait for it to grow.
When the stylist finally stopped his ministrations, he whipped out a hair straightener and began yanking it through my hair. He pointed out that I just needed to pack a little one because my hair has a body wave and this would help tame it. A little bit of product would keep it sleek all day. He had tried to cut it chin length like I had said, but my hair is so thick, he thought the only thing to be done was go shorter. Also, he had cut the sides slightly asymmetrically, to make it more playful. In essence, I looked nothing like the photo I had shown him, and he had incorporated all of the things that I had very clearly said I did NOT want into the style.
In a fog of shock, I quickly thanked him and squirmed on the spot while Tony paid. I darted outside to our motorbike and, in response to Tony’s question about what I thought of my new look, voice quavering, I blurted, “I HATE it. But it will grow out, right?”
And then I burst into tears.
Let me get one thing straight: in my entire life, I have only cried about my hair once. I think I was 12 and my dad had taken me to a SuperCuts, where the person there proceeded to also cut my hair asymmetrically (though that was unintentional). I actually think that this, along with a few other less than flattering haircuts, conditioned me to be rather blasé about my hair since all I could do was wait for it to grow out and try again. I liked getting my hair cut short because it was a dare that always undid itself in a few months. I would routinely scoff and throw shade about the girls on America’s Next Top Model who would bawl their eyes out and throw hissy fits about having their hair cut. Didn’t they know short hair was fun?
Now I was one of them.
We made it about a block on our motorcycle before my weeping forced Tony to pull over and try to comfort me. He assured me it really wasn’t bad, and tried to take a picture to prove it to me. I took one look at it and doubled my sobbing.
I was a little distraught.
Tony asked me what I wanted to do—did I want to go back and get them to fix it (“The only way to fix it will be to cut it into a full blown pixie!” I cried “And that will just make it harder to maintain.”) or to ask for a refund? I was torn because although I hated my haircut, I also knew that getting back our $20 (which is peanuts, I know, but actually a lot of money for a haircut here in Saigon) wouldn’t really make the situation any better. Still, I was so upset that Tony insisted we go back and said he would request the refund.
Coward that I am, I waited outside while Tony went in to explain the situation. Within seconds, my erstwhile stylist—accompanied by the owner of the salon—had rushed out the door to find out what was the problem. What followed was a largely unproductive he-said-she-said in which I said all the things I did not like about my haircut, and he tried to deny responsibility. I was in shock because I had never seen my hair so short before. Not true, I countered, I have had it much shorter before. He couldn’t read my mind. Fair enough, I allowed, except I had shown him a picture so that he didn’t have to. I was supposed to have an open mind and wanted something fun… and everyone has a different definition of fun! Also true, I said, except I was very clear about what I did not want and he managed to ignore all of that. And the bottom line was that I hated my hair.
The end result was that they gave me my money back and said that I should take a few days and adjust. If I still wanted them to do something about it, I could come back and they would fix it when my emotions weren’t so heightened.
We got home, I looked in the mirror, and burst into sobs once more.
I covered up all of the mirrors, like a Jew sitting shiva for her hair, all the while negatively comparing myself to a host of celebrities.
“ I look like Edward Furlong from Terminator 2!” I wailed. “I have the haircut of a 13-year-old boy. From the ‘90s!”
Cue the hysterical sobbing.
An hour later: “I look like Gwyneth Paltrow from Sliding Doors! It’s so ‘90s!”
Finally: “I look like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music! I look like a nun fleeing the Nazis… in the ‘90s.”
And still the tears did not stop.
For days I avoided mirrors and prayed we didn’t run into anyone we knew, refusing to make eye contact with our landlady (despite her excitement over the cut) and meekly hanging my head in shame. I felt so awkward and uncomfortable. I lamented that, for the next few months, I could not be in any of our photos because I didn’t want there to be any evidence of this follicular catastrophe. When I did peek at my hair, hot tears leaked across my cheeks as I declared how much I hated it.
Eventually, I was able to look at myself in the mirror, short-haired but still a stranger, and acknowledge that even though I didn’t love it, maybe my hair wasn’t quite so dire.
It’s been about a week since the debacle and I still don’t love my hair, but I’ve accepted it for what it is. What else can I do? The truth is, sometimes you take a risk and it doesn’t pan out but fails spectacularly instead. Sometimes things get cut short and it sucks. Sometimes it’s your hair, sometimes it’s your trip. Sometimes all you can do is wait for a bad situation to get better. The key is to never stop believing that it will.
I hope that come the summer, my hair and the future both look better. But for now, all I can do is wait.