Christie Shary

Traveler's Tales - Cornbraids in Paradise

Cornbraids in Paradise

I had this dream. I was sitting on a powdery white sand beach on the Caribbean island of St. Martin. Palm trees lined its shoreline, swaying with the soothing tradewinds. The sea was a perfect aqua-smooth, clear as the finest crystal. A potpourri of tropical fish swam by, weaving in and out of the coral formations beneath the warm water. I held something I my hand. A Mai Tai? A conch shell? No! It was a small packet of multi-colored beads.

Suddenly, I realized I was not having a dream at all. I really was sitting on the beach. Then I remembered why. A dark-skinned Caribbean woman with abundant breasts and short-cropped hair stood behind me. Her large hands skillfully drew a comb through my sun-bleached hair, forming hexagonal parts running criss-cross over my scalp.

She was the local corn braider. 'Brawds,' as she called them. "Brawd your hair on the beach!" she sang all day to tourist beachgoers as she trampled across the sand, her heavy earrings dangling like chimes.

How could I resist? While I'd seen several tourists sporting braids fastened with colorful breads since my arrival on the island the previous day, I assumed these women had visited the local beauty parlor. But what I didn't know was that it is right on the beach.

What a surprise! Rather than sitting in a sweat-shop filled with buzzing hair dryers, hot combs and the odors of perms and peroxide, in St. Martin the outdoor salon was like a picture postcard, done in shades of blue, white and green. Here my nostrils were filled with the salty scent of the sea, plumeria and hibiscus.

Yes, I would take advantage of her thirty-dollar offer to braid my hair like the locals. Why not?

Although my hair was much finer than that of the Carib women, it was amazing how many braids she was able to do. Laughing at the geometric and intricate patterns on my head, my two boys called me 'the walking maze,' and 'the traveling rainbow,', even 'bead brain.' For at the end of each braid, my hairdresser inserted two plastic beads of different colors, securing them with a tiny piece of aluminum foil, crimped tight.

While all this was taking place, my husband reclined on the beach in front of us, enjoying the bikinis and keeping track of my progress as the weight of the beads became heavier and heavier. Occasionally, I'd hear the camera click as he said he wanted to have an accurate record of the day I had antennas all over my head.

"But it looks good," he added, just as I was about to hurtle the package of beads at him. My hairdresser grinned, patted my head, and withdrew a tiny cracked mirror from her baggy skirt pocket. Timidly, I peeked. Yes, I did look like the locals-at least something like them.

"Can I go in the water?" I asked her.

"You can do anything," she said, stuffing my money in her skirt pocket, at the same time searching for her next patron.

Yet I was sure all the beads would fall out the moment I dipped into the sea. But I was wrong. They clung with the tenacity of octopus tentacles. Just to make sure, I dove under the water, frightening a group of black and yellow angel fish as my braids sprouted out in all directions, like fan-shaped coral. However, the beads remained as if anchored for life.

That evening when I showered, I tried washing my braids. Still they stayed. And my husband was amazed at how quickly I got ready as I only had to dry my bangs.

"Why don't you always wear your hair like that?" he laughed. "Think of all the time you'd save."

"And why don't I get a job in a carnival?" I suggested.

He responded with a hug. "And besides, I like them," he added, studying the braids with his engineering expertise.

Dancing at the outside restaurant that night was fun, except that every time I turned-bang-my braids zapped me in the face. And sleeping was near impossible. It was like having a pile of marbles for a pillow. So during my sleeplessness, I began to wonder if I had done the right thing after all. Was my vacation to be forfeited to insomnia?

After a near sleepless night, we departed the next morning for a snorkeling trip to uninhabited Prickly Pear Island aboard a catamaran. Sailing was beautiful as the sleek boat leaped over the blue water, the sun shining overhead. All the way, my braids whipped in the wind.

Another girl on the boat shared my same hairdo, except her beads were all black and white. We started talking about our braids and she told me she was on her honeymoon and had to have her braids redone because they fell out. I couldn't help but grin, knowing that she had to be having a pretty active honeymoon to loosen cornbraids.

Throughout the day we enjoyed the underwater reefs, where visibility was over one hundred feet. I kept checking on my braids to make sure they were secure. They were, and I began wondering if my beach beautician had fastened their ends with Super Glue. Although over concerned with my hair, I remembered to apply sun screen to my body and to the rest of my family. But I forgot about my head. After all, I'd never been sunburned there before. My thick hair always protected my scalp. What I had failed to realize, however, is that I had about fifty parts in my hair, exposing white skin that had never seen the sun.

On the way back to St. Martin, my head began to feel a bit warm. Not too bad, but I decided to put on my straw hat. By the time the boat pulled into the harbor, however, my head felt hot-like I was standing too close to a bonfire. And when we reached the hotel, it felt like someone with a blow torch was following me around!

Oh, that night was painful. The combination of a sun-burned head full of beads was not a good combination at all. And it was one that prevented me from getting any sleep, that's for sure.

For the next two days I was still in a lot of pain. But I didn't let that ruin our vacation. I toured the Dutch port of Phillipsberg and French-speaking Marigot with a scarf or hat on my head, and it looked like I had a big swollen head, and my kids told me I looked like the character at Carl Junior's who advertised hamburgers.

Then the peeling began. It soon looked as if I had a massive attack of snowflake-size dandruff and it pelted my clothing continuously. That's when my family really began laughing at me, my sons and husband telling me that I should be in one of those dandruff shampoo TV commercials.

But still I persisted to keep my braids. "My hairdresser said they'll stay in for a month," I kept repeating. Besides, I was determined to get my thirty dollars' worth.

My cornbraids stayed in for the remainder of our week in paradise. A few locks of hair slipped out, but considering the fact that I was swimming, sailing, snorkeling, jet skiing, sweating, and washing it every day, I was completely satisfied.

The morning of our departure from St. Martin, my braids were still with me. At the airport I ran into a girl with a very, very short haircut. She looked familiar. Then I remembered who she was-the honeymooner who had braids just like mine. Now she hardly had any hair at all. She gave me a sheepish grin and proceeded to tell me that yes, her braids had stayed in the second time. In fact, they had stayed in so well that she was unable to get them undone and had to cut her hair off. I almost started to cry.

Arriving home, I attempted to take out my braids since I was starting a new job the next day. Somehow the thought of arriving in rainbow-colored braids wearing a business suit didn't seem quite right. But the braids didn't budge. It was like they were laminated to my head. I called my husband and he gave it a try, and after three very painful hours we got them all out. But my hair was a wreck! Why it looked as if I'd been sitting around with my finger in a light socket.

Still, I wasn't sorry about corn braiding my hair. It was certainly an experience that I'll never forget. Besides, after washing and conditioning it, my hair was pretty much back to its 'normal' self-totally boring. And I had only the photographs to remind me of my colorful week in St. Martin.