This post was contributed by Chimdi Ihezie.
It was on the fifth day in a row of tugging, teasing, stretching and pulling my kinky 4c curls back in a ponytail–that would then be hidden from the world in a funky wrap–that I finally threw down my wide tooth comb. I had enough. I was living in Lisbon, Portugal as part of the work and travel program Remote Year (we live and work together in a new country every month for a year. You’ve got that right, 12 countries in 12 months. You might ask yourself, “Is this for crazy people?” The answer is yes. Yes, it is. I signed up as soon as I heard about it.) Listen, I thought I knew what I was getting into. I love everything about hair! I love doing my own and someone else’s. I lose hours watching and making Youtube videos about it, and I get excited when folks create new styles and play around with bold reds, deep blues, neon yellows and pinks, and everything in between. I very intentionally wore my natural hair to Lisbon instead of throwing it in some box braids, and I held my loose, deep curly wig close to my chest for a full minute before deciding not to pack it.
I was ready for the challenge of styling my hair internationally. I was ready to be at the mercy of language barriers, product shortages and whatever else Europe (and soon Africa, Asia and finally Latin America) would throw at me.
But in reality, I was wearing my hair in wraps because my Bairro Alto community in Lisbon had rows of three-story homes painted in a rainbow of pastel colors; one-room shops packed with rows of cereal, sardines, cleaning supplies and, of course, wine; stunning domed churches with bells that would chime every quarter hour (Oh, you thought you were sleeping in? Ha.) and exactly zero beauty supply stores.
There was nothing resembling a hair store in my neighborhood or in the ones next to it for that matter. The Minipreço (Lisbon’s go-to grocery store) had nothing for me. If I wanted products that had even heard the ingredient shea butter uttered in the same factory, I was going to have to pull out a map, pack a day bag, and go on a trek, Fellowship of the Ring-style. No, I could not simply walk into Mordor.
But the time had come. With one last look at my wide tooth comb, I was off.
But you see, I had come into this fight with a secret weapon. I was not going to just hop in an Uber and wander the streets.
Earlier that week, I was wandering back from the Alfama neighborhood, comfortably lost in the cobblestoned hills, hugged by the warm air of the Tagus river, and I was greeted by an uncommon but welcome sight–another black woman!!! With the tell-tale apron of a waitress adorning her hips, I knew this was someone who was local to the city and when I saw her box braids, I made a beeline straight for her.
“WHERE DID YOU GET YOUR HAIR DONE???” I asked with just a hint of derangement in my eyes.
In her best English, she explained that she did it herself, which of course was perfect, because that meant she could point me to a supplier. She then described Colombo shopping center to me, clarifying that it would be one of the shops outside, and not the mall itself, where I would find my kanekalon treasure.
So this was the address I plugged into my Uber. I prepared myself to hike the hills around the mall, generally lost, looking for a shop that would sell hair.
Y’ALL. Let me tell you.
I hopped out of my Uber, walked less than a minute and was IMMEDIATELY greeted by rows kanekalon and marley hair, shelves of Shea Moisture and essential oils, a line up of wigs and combs and bundles. The answers to all of my natural hair prayers were literally an uber ride away, and if I had ventured out sooner, I could have been deep conditioning my poor dry coils weeks earlier.
I bought 7 packs of 20” Boho Satin Braid hair, less than 5 euros each, and my heart and imagination raced as I thought about the insane number of styles that were now mine for the making.
Sure, it’s not the same as the States where there’s a beauty supply on every corner and the local Target carries Camille Rose Naturals. But my experience in Lisbon taught me that there are solutions for those that are willing to look.
So if you’re a kinky chick reading this and you’ve convinced yourself that the struggle of styling your natural hair abroad is a good enough reason not to travel, I’m gonna need you to Shut Up and Go.
Meet Chimdi: Chimdi Ihezie is an artist, vlogger and videographer based out of Washington, D.C. She is currently embarking on a 12-month, 12-city world tour to showcase the opportunities available to women of color to travel internationally while remaining true to their melanin. Keep up with her on IG.