Burma: Support Women-Owned Small Businesses
On my recent trip to Burma, I was completely off the tourist track, taking local river boats 300 miles up the Chindwin River. On one of our first stops, as I sipped the standard Burmese daytime drink--strong black tea enriched with sweetened condensed milk-- I became fascinated by a curtain strung across one corner of the otherwise open and airy riverfront tea house. What was going on behind that blue sheet with the yellow duckies printed on it, through which women came and went?
Peering around a corner, with a smile that I hoped would be taken as an apology if I uncovered something immodest, I was charmed to discover a hairdresser. One woman was having her hair styled and another was stretched flat on a padded table, having her hair washed. Since I have hair that reaches half way down my back, washing it is always a chore when I journey in places where running water isn't available. This was for me!
And what a treat a Burmese hair wash turned out to be. My hair was suds'd three times and rinsed by scooping cool water out of a bucket. I could have opted for warmed water, but with the temperature in the high 80s, cool water was much to be preferred and felt deliciously refreshing to boot. But that's not even the best part. For most of those 45 minutes, I received the world's best above-the-shoulders massage, my scalp and neck regaled with such a variety of pinches, plucks, kneads and pounds that when I stood up I nearly toppled over from all the blood that had rushed to my head. It was total ecstasy, all for $3.00.
The chance to sit in a lady's salon, while another woman had her hair styled in Burma's latest upriver mode, charmed me, as did the owner's happiness to have me in her shop. After that experience, I sought out the salon in every village we stayed in, all of them women-owned and employing other women. Each was shielded from prying eyes by a curtain, despite the fact that women washed their own hair in full view down by the river and that barbershops were open for everyone to see the gentleman in the seat getting a shave or a snip. In each, I found a slice of female society where I was welcomed simply because I was female and had hair on my head. My whiteness and foreignness, those two barriers to feeling a part of what's going on, melted away.
So I urge you, next time you're in a place that feels a bit out-of-the-way, whether it's small town USA, or a village in SE Asia, find out if there's a place where you can get your hair washed. Soak in local society, thumb through a tattered fashion magazine, listen to the chatter and laughter that bonds women around the world even if they can't understand each others' language. Not only will you be supporting the local women, you'll walk out with a shiny head of hair.
My travels take me to all kinds of unusual and interesting places. To read more of my very personal, but insightful and definitely helpful travel tips and to find a list of outstanding books about far-off places, click here. I invite you to read more about Burma, and to peruse the funny and vivid accounts of my journeys here.