I’ve had alopecia for roughly two-thirds of my life. And as a person who loves to travel, my bald patches have seen more than their fair share of weird and wonderful places.
In fact, if you look closely, my head sort of resembles a globe; the hair that’s left like continents in a vast, bald sea.
I’ve had very different reactions to my hair loss during my international adventures. So I thought I’d share the more memorable ones here.
A mixed bag, but an interesting one. In Bali, market ladies laden down with cabbages giggled and tried to pull off my headscarf as I sat with them in the back of a bemo. When I used gestures and pidgin English to explain that I’d nothing underneath they unleashed peals of surprised laughter, then contented themselves with rubbing my cheeks and holding my chin.
The local beach boys in Lombok seemed less impressed. It was like they were personally offended by the sight of my bald head joining in the surf lesson and pleaded with me to ‘grow it back. Then you’d be so sexy’. Erm… sorry but it ain’t that easy, guys!
Still, Indonesia is where I found that healer and the miracle medicine man who temporarily made my hair grow back. So I can’t really complain.
The Burmese love a good laugh, especially when it comes to foreigners, and my alopecia was a constant source of entertainment. The stares and points were a bit disconcerting at first but once I knew there was no malice whatsoever involved, I got used to it. The warmth and joy that define so many of these people stopped me from getting upset over it. As did their continued fascination with holding my chin.
During Myanmar’s annual Thingyan Water Festival in Mandalay, I learned to embrace my mohawk for the first time abroad… decorating it with flowers to make it more of a style choice than an obvious necessity.
It was nerve-wracking at first, baring myself in this way, but it made me a lot of friends. Although one creepy drunk guy did lick the entire side of my head with obvious relish and without invitation. Bit too far, maybe.
By the time I reached Vietnam, I was used to being openly stared, cheered and laughed at. So it came as somewhat of a surprise to find that I pretty much blended in in my new home of Hoi An. Either people there have had their fill of strange tourists with stranger looks parading around the place, or they’re simply too busy to notice.
In any case, it was a bit of a relief to walk down the street and not be bothered by curious mamas like in Bali and Myanmar. I did miss their giggles sometimes, though. Not to mention the chin holding.
Also, I found it a lot harder to access treatments In Vietnam. In Hanoi’s renowned ‘traditional medicine street’, I couldn’t explain my problem in broken French and they didn’t get it in English. So unfortunately, the odd-looking roots and leaves were unavailable to me.
I did end up getting acupuncture in Hoi An that resembled electric-shock therapy, though. And a strange herbal bath in Ha Giang, which was both very relaxing and quite uncomfortable… considering that I’d met the old woman who tenderly washed my bare head and shoulders only seconds before.
A bit like in Vietnam, I was able to go about my business undisturbed. Not that the people didn’t notice – at this stage I had a teeny tiny bit of hair bunched in the centre of my head like some sort of unfit Irish samurai – but they were far, far too polite to make a big deal about it.
I probably could’ve walked around with my right boob hanging out and no one would’ve said a thing! ’Tis the Japanese way.
Tokyo was a little different. Again, most people didn’t take notice as they’re waaaay too cool to notice a mere mohawk attempt like mine. But I did stay with a lovely Couchsurfing host who mentioned my ‘very cool hairstyle’ in her review. And in the crazy kitsch district of Harajuku, a drag queen in pink fluffy feathers pointed at my head before giving it a thumbs up.
High praise indeed.
‘Are you from India?’ ‘Are you Muslim?’ ‘As-salaam alaikum!’ These questions and greetings were directed at me on a daily basis in Sri Lanka. As a female foreigner, I was going to be stared at anyway. As a strangely tall, massively bald female foreigner… well, who needs a cricket match when you’ve got this spectacle?! Luckily I’d had time to warm up to stares in other countries.
Because the stares in Sri Lanka were even more blatant. And the people there definitely had a more hands-on approach. As I ate rice and curry one day, the auntie running the show stood behind me, chatting animatedly and playing with my few curls in fascination. There was actually something really lovely about this disregard for personal space!
Still, after wearing my head out and proud a few times and having every group of people stop talking when I approached, burn wordless holes right through me as I passed and burst into laughter after I’d gone, I resorted to the safety net of my headscarf for a while.
In any case, it was far too hot and too dangerous to not have that layer of protection!
Unfortunately, my turban style did not get me any less attention. Hence all the India/Muslim-related questions. I couldn’t win!
After a few months there though, I learned to take less afront to being confronted so often. They were just curious, after all, and their interest came from the loveliest of places. Plus, Sri Lankans possibly have the most luxurious hair of anywhere I’ve been, which is why I must’ve been so alien to them!
So after all these reactions I get globally, what’s it been like at home since I announced my alopecia to the world? Again, a pretty mixed bag – usually depending on the amount of alcohol that people around me have consumed. Walking up Dublin’s bar area of Camden Street on my way home, I would get stares, ‘wows’ and the occasional high five. Randomers came up to tell me how beautiful/funky/inspirational I was.
But I’d also get crowds of teenage boys shouting: ‘Fuck off, you dyke!’ as I nervously tottered to my Christmas night out with the girls – one of the first times I wore my bald look in Dublin and certainly a memorable one.
Later that evening, my best friend looked on in horror as a drunk guy weaved his way over to stroke my head in amazement. ‘How do you not want to punch him?!’ she exclaimed. Used to this treatment from my travels, I simply explained that he was curious and it really didn’t bother me.
Recently, a guy sent over a bottle of wine to my sister and me, coming over moments later to say it was because I was ‘doing a massively brave and ballsy thing’. Might as well reap the benefits, I guess!
After all, if I’m going to make the decision to stand out, I have to be ready for the reactions my statement makes.
Good, bad or indifferent, they probably do affect me on some level. But I’m not going to let them stop me travelling, being myself or enjoying my life – wherever I am in the world.
If you like what I’m reading, maybe you’ll like what else I’m into:
1. Yoga – Read my review of a special retreat centre on Ireland’s west coast.
2. Meditation – Learn how it can help with hair loss and happiness!
3. Nutrition – Some handy dietary tips, whether you’ve got hair or not!
4. Travel – My thoughts on how travel can affect your health.
5. Silly Stuff – Like the bald celebrities I’ve got a crush on.