Charging by the Head

Paul Keens-Douglas seeks out a quiet beach and gets embroiled in a furious dispute about the economics of hair-braiding

Illustration by Tomomi Kaharabata

When you think of the West Indies, you think of sandy beaches, blue skies, stately coconut trees waving in the breeze, calypso, reggae, cricket, beautiful women of every shape and shade, and of course the inevitable rum punch.

But there is one thing the tourist brochures never tell you, and that is that the Caribbean is the land of strange conversations. Someone is always wondering about something, usually out loud, and looking for the slightest sign of interest from whoever may be in the vicinity, stranger or friend, so as to start an “ol’ talk”. So beware: you can be drawn into some of the strangest discussions, about the strangest things, in the strangest places.

Not too long ago I was in Barbados, lying on the beach and minding my own business, trying not to look like a tourist. No West Indian ever considers himself a tourist, even in other people’s countries. A traveller, yes; visiting family, on business, even an immigrant. But never a tourist. But that’s another story.

Anyway, there I was, lying on this beach, shading my face from the sun with a towel, when these two legs walked into my line of vision and stopped a few feet away. Peeping through the folds in the towel I could see it was one of the women who have become a part of the Caribbean tourism business, what I would call a Braider. They spend their time braiding the hair of female tourists into tiny braids, which seems to be a craze among tourists these days. You can see them any time of day, sitting on the beach in the hot sun, with a patient tourist in front of them having her hair done up into these tiny plaits. I never really took it in before, just someone having her head done up to look like a pomme-cythère seed.

That was until these two legs began a conversation with no-one in particular, who of course turned out to be me. “I don’t know what’s the matter with them,” the legs said loudly. “They think it easy to do tourist head? Eh? Imagine they telling me I have to charge by the head, when I accustom to charging by the plait? You think that make sense? Eh? Suppose a lady head have forty plait, an’ a next one have twenty plait, is how I must charge the same thing?

“And you know how hard it is to plait tourist hair? The hair soft soft soft. If you twist it so, and you just ease up a little bit, the whole thing unravel. Black people hair different, I could twist it and bend it and leave it there and go to town, and when I come back it ain’t move one inch. And first thing them tourist does do is go and jump in the water with the braids, and when they come out, they saying how I ain’t plait good. I don’t care what the government say, I not charging by the head. Is by the plait. You ain’t find I right? Eh?”

The two shoe-tips were facing me. I was in the conversation, me who just learn to tie my shoelace just the other day, and now I have to talk bout braids. I tried pretending that I had not heard. I tried to look as if I was asleep. But these beach people can tell if you’re really asleep just by looking at your big toe. I did the honourable thing. I said, “Lady, you well right, is a shame.”

No escape. I had begun one of those Strange Conversations.