I’ve been in Colombia for over five months now and I’ve been living in the beautiful city of Cartagena in coastal Colombia for over four months. During my time here, I’ve relaxed upon the tranquil beaches that surround much of the region and I’ve visited the historic Walled City that has made Cartagena the tourist capital of the country. I’ve come across all types of people in my journey from the lovely fruit vendors of the Walled City, adorned in colorful turbans and robes, to the bombastic bus conductors who parade into the street at busy intersections, attempting to attract passengers.
And with all these different folks from all these different walks of life, one of the things that has remained constant, apart from the friendliness and helpfulness of the locals, is the awe that they have of my dreadlocks.
People in the streets chant Bob Marley songs as I pass and the children at the school that I work at rush up to me just to rub my locks between their tiny fingers.
Prior to my big move, I was unsure how my locks would be perceived in Latin America. Much of the population has fine, straight hair and dreadlocks aren’t as common as they are in the United States. I was surprised that I had no trouble finding a candidate to retwist my locs. It was as easy as asking one of the vendors at Bocagrande beach if she knew anyone who could do dreads. In about 20 minutes, the lady returned with a coworker who was more than willing to spend her next two hours retwisting my knots with nothing but a small needle in hand. I thanked my beautician graciously for her efforts and she gave me her number in return. I haven’t seen her since then, but when my roots start to grow out, I know who I can call on. If you are in a new city and unwilling to retwist them yourself, the best way to find a dread beautician is to ask around.
A few days later, when I needed an edge-up, I headed to a mall close to where I live to see if I could track down a barber who knew how to manage a “Black” hairline. I stumbled upon a barbershop filled with many young barbers blasting Lil Jon hits from a decade ago. My arrival at their shop was akin to Lil Jon stopping by in-person. I was immediately ushered to the front of the line and, after receiving my shape-up, the shop asked me if I could perform a few promotional videos for their website. I left feeling like a rap star indeed.
I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed the celebrity status that my hair has brought me since I arrived in South America.
My first time at the popular Bocagrande Beach was accented by three young boys, who approached me as I was reading, and belted out an impromptu freestyle rap about my locks. Though their rhymes were in Spanish, I made out the word “locks” once or twice; further proof of the influence that dreaded hip hop stars like Fetty Wap and Future have made on the youth of Colombia. At least, they are learning English. The attention and the focus of their rap made me feel special.
That’s not to say that all reactions to my hair have been positive. A friend of my host mother blatantly told me that she did not like my hair upon us first meeting. I thanked her for her honesty. I guess not everyone likes a nappy head. However, most reactions to my locks have usually been that of astonishment and interest, followed by the question, “Are you a Rasta?” I am not Rastafarian but I do like the music and culture that stems from that religion, as well as the hairstyle.
Simply based on my skin color and complexion, I do not stand out much from the inhabitants of Coastal Colombia (that is, until they hear me speak). However, my dreadlocks give me a unique identity. I’m glad to be an expat, not only for African Americans, but also for “dreadheads” in Colombia. I will continue to represent them well by proudly displaying my locks.