Pavos, Flecos, Bangs!

Posted on: May 16, 2012 Written by
Pavos, Flecos, Bangs!
      Photography by: iofoto from iStock    

This is something every cross-cultural woman faces with dread: getting her hair done. This may not seem like a big deal—until you try it. I remember the first time I attempted it in Costa Rica. We were three months into language school when I braved the beauty salon. I ended up asking for them to cut my horse.

“Eh?” they asked.

Mi caballo,” I repeated. Then I caught my mistake: “Cortar mi cabello.”

Another notch in my I-feel-like-an-idiot belt.

So I sat down, and before she did anything she began to play with my hair. Anything lighter than jet-black has always appealed to the Latin crowd. Ask our son Jonathan, who has had more people touch his blonde hair than he cares to remember—which, when you are four, is downright scary.

“Do you want pavos?” she asked.

My mind raced; I had heard that word. Oh yeah! That means turkey. What? Do I want what? Was she offering a sandwich? What was she talking about? Growing a bit impatient, she asked again.

“I don’t know. What is that?” I replied.

Pavos!” she said, pointing to her forehead.

Ahhh, bangs. Why in the world do they call them turkeys? Then again, why in the world do we call them bangs? And why in the world do language schools not offer a vocabulary class for all things feminine?

I survived that year of learning (among other things) beauty salon parlance. Then we arrived in Mexico. Of course, as hair does, mine grew. It was time to find another beautician. Sweaty palms looking through a phone book, fingers tapping nervously as ads are judged to see which one looks worthy. (Ms. Psychologist, please note this for your next study on missionary stress-factors). I found a place, made an appointment, and went. I asked the girl to please give me turkeys—er, pavos—but not to cut them too short.

Que?” the girl looked at me in confusion, her eyebrows popping up.

I repeated myself. She looked at her coworker, then back at me.

Really, does the student now have to be the teacher? So I pointed to my forehead and repeated, “Pavos.”  The light went on and she…laughed! She turned to her coworker, who also laughed. So that day I learned that in Mexico, bangs are called flecos, not pavos. I also ended up leaving there with my trimmed hair pulled tight into a ponytail with huge flecos that stuck out about two inches and curled under almost to my hairline.

I looked like every other Mexican in Chihuahua. That in itself is not bad, but the style was so not me! I quickly let my hair down, but my bangs would not budge for the amount of spray they had. My husband looked scared; my boys snickered.

About a year later, I decided to cut and highlight my hair. I went to another salon on a friend’s recommendation. I asked for rayos, the word I had heard for it. She started asking me a series of questions, and I had little idea what exactly she was saying. Finally, I caught the word luces (lights) and agreed. It had sounded right, at the time.

It is a miracle I made it home without an accident, since I kept glancing at myself in the rear-view mirror. She not only chopped too much off, she frosted my hair! I wanted highlights, not frosted hair! And this was not just a few strands…it was my entire head! Short, frizzy, and frosted! Visions of what I imagined Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, a character from my childhood reading, to look like danced in my head.

I was hoping to get some affirmation when I got home. Instead, my six year-old’s eyes grew larger than silver dollars, his jaw dropped open as he slowly took a step backward, and he finally said in a slight whimper, “You look old!” Now you know why I buy my hair color in the grocery store.

Today, I once again undertook the brave adventure of finding a salon here in Oaxaca, since I have not yet found one that I am sold on. I need to add here that I have not had my hair cut in five months, since we were in the States and I visited the JCPenney salon near my parents’ house. It had now become long, wild, and bushy. My husband kind of liked it, but enough was enough, and it needed trimming.

I told the stylist what I wanted: a little taken off in the back, layers all around, and the front down to my jawline. I took off my glasses and listened to the snip-snip of the scissors; I was feeling good about myself. My daughter sat and watched. The hair dresser then began drying and styling my hair, and, like every woman reading this, I began imagining myself sporting the exact cut I wanted. Fresh. A bit youthful. Maybe even snazzy. I could hardly wait to put my glasses on and check out my new look.

My reverie suddenly popped and came crashing down with my daughter’s voice, “Hey, Mom, you look like Grandma!”


© 2012 Women of the Harvest.

Question to Consider: What’s your Hair Story?…we know you have one!

About the author

Ilona lives in a Zapotec village in Mexico and has four kids, one husband, a lot of interests and a few gray hairs. She blogs about faith, family, and missions at

View all articles by:
  • Barbara Koehn

    After years of frustration, I began cutting pictures out of magazines, JC Penney catalog, etc. This has worked pretty well for me – at least it comes fairly close!
    22 years in Colombia, 10 years in Chile.

  • Rebecca

    Now you know why I cut my own hair! This article made me laugh so much. Here in Brazil, EVERYONE colors their hair. I don’t want my colored, or too short, or too layered. I’ve been so terrified to go to the hairdresser that I just go at it on my own… It’s not perfect but it’s not horrible either. One less multicultural stressor!

    • Completely agree with you, Rebecca! I cut my own hair too and my husband helps straighten it out. Tried explaining that during my language classes and they all assumed I was saying the wrong thing. They couldn’t believe that together, my husband and I, had cut my hair. No language blunders on our part but still pretty funny.

  • Amanda

    After a couple very expensive and not satisfying haircuts, a friend told me about a barbershop/salon on a local university campus for a fraction of the price of the “fancy” hair salons. My friend went with me, told the barber what to do, “The same length all around.” I was pleased, as was my wallet. The next time, that barber shop was busy so I went to the one next door. The girl knows me now, so I go in, sit down, and she trims/cuts it so it is long enough to put up in a ponytail. She doesn’t even use thinning shears! I am so thankful!!

  • Sue

    We have served in two very different fields during the 20+ years of missions experience. 13 1/2 years in Australia and only one person ever touched my hair. I am so thankful for Carmel who kept my style what I asked for during all those years. The problem was what I was asking for!!! I look back now at that style and say – “What was I thinking?” Short, curly and frosted! I am much happier now with the way it looks, after getting much needed advice from our daughters who came back to the US for college and whose fashion sense was much more ‘hip’ than mine. Then, a few years later, we spent 2 1/2 years in ministry in Puerto Rico, I had some not too pleasant experiences with the challenge of getting my ‘gringa’ dark blonde hair cut and highlighted by someone that had never or rarely seen anything but dark hair. I finally decided after a couple of unsuccessful visits to only get my hair cut and highlighted when I was back in the states. It was a blessing that there were reasons to return through our home base several times while living there and always on the schedule was a visit to my favorite hair cutter.

  • Jane

    I started out cutting my own hair very young and in high school cut hair as a side job, so in Peru it was fun to do haircuts for others. We had a discipleship program so I cut hair for all the students, and my sons, daughters and husband. Well, this still didn’t keep me from venturing out to salons and I share the same dred.
    I have had some funny experiences and similar wild hairdos that I am sure were bygone eras. Luckily I could trim them up at home.
    We gain so much though in venturing out and learning to share beauty styles with others in our area. Don’t be afraid to go, and remember hair grows quickly! Share and make some new friends. When they asked about me I shared a book I was reading…the bible…but I told the story of Ester and her beauty treatments for a night with the King! I hope they later read this for themselves.

  • I am in my sixties and have lived in Mexico for the majority of the last 25 years. Getting my haircut is always a challenge–and requires great courage on my part. My thin, fine hair is just a novelty here. The fact that I wash it and blow dry it every day is unheard of. That I do not color my hair is very rare. I have learned to always take a photo of what I generally want–and discuss it before hand. Then, I pray, close my eyes, and hope. I have never seen a curling iron in a salon here–and I also use one of those every morning—so, I come home from the salon, wash out all the weird product and start over. Also, I have yet to find a stylist that will work with my many ‘cowlicks.’ My present girl actually shaves the one in front–which just cracks me up because in a week or so, I have a totally out of control small part to my head. Oh the adventures of cross-cultural living….And for women, this IS a BIG one….

    • Sue

      Hey, Ramona! Finally found a good one here and she’s only 3 blocks away!!

  • heart4orphans

    In Indonesia they do this amazing thing called a ‘cream bath’ where they put this ‘cream’ in your hair and then give you a head and shoulder massage, and it’s very cheap, and very wonderful. I would get all relaxed with this treatment, then after rinsing out the cream they insist on drying it and to dry it they pull very hard straight down on my naturally curly hair because they thought it should be straight, and I walked out with a headache. The next time I left with wet hair, which they hated.

  • You go girl!! I laughed and laughed. You’re a good storyteller!
    I’ve had “rayos” and “mechas” along with lots of tears and lots of laughter. Before we left for Paraguay in 1972, I made sure my highlights were made in the U.S.of A. But, after a few weeks, I needed to go for a trim. My girl COLORED my highlights BLUE (while my glasses were off).
    In Ecuador, my stylist said as she clipped away, “Señora, you need a more modern hair style.” When I put my glasses back on … my hair was gone–I had a very, very short “wedge.” Her reply, “This hair style looks good with your long gringa neck.”
    And, one more tale: southern Chile, early 70’s, I sat in a straight chair, tilted my neck back until I thought my head would break off, while the stylist poured cold water from a jug onto my head. The water ran down into a bucket placed on the floor behind me.

  • Mary Beth

    The first ‘hair story’ the comes to my mind is twenty years ago in the Philippines. My mother and I went, with fear and trembling, to a local hair salon for permanents. This was a big event for them to have two American customers. This was also an enjoyable event for all passing the open-fronted salon. (Come and watch the Ameircans get a perm!) Customers shared three small towels and communal glasses filled with combs and brushes. The ‘stylists’ liked the perm solution we brought from the U.S. but insisted on diluting it to use three times. While the strong perm chemicals were on our curlered hair, the stylist slipped out to work at another salon. When it was time to rinse out the chemicals, we had to go out through the market with covered odiferous curlered hair to find the stylist to finish our hair.

    After haircuts, I console myself with: “My hair grows fast.”, “No Americans will see me.” “I can go home and ‘fix’ this up.” and “It only costs $2.” After many years, I have low expectations for the end-result of a haircut and only try to prevent the ‘bald eagle’ effect. My belief is that each stylist knows how to do five styles. When you come in and tell them what you want, you will end up with one of the five styles they know.

  • Julie Smude

    I laughed out loud when reading this post! My fine blondish/grayish hair fascinates everyone who comes into the salon and there seems to be a universal understanding woven within other cultures that it is totally appropriate to finger through the foreigners hair, touch her belly and sicker while commenting on her fat, reminding her every five minutes that “this isn’t the Thai way”….. and the list goes on!! Learning to laugh at myself has become a sincere and truly healing coping mechanism. So, the next time a Thai woman wearing a size -8 (yes, MINUS 8) dress walks up to me and touches my hair, laughs at my fat and comments on how I’m not doing it the Thai way, I will simply smile and remember “bangs” and know I’m not alone!!!!

    THANK YOU SO MUCH … I needed this!!

  • Thanks for making me laugh. yep. Been there, done that. It is still stressful, even after years of living here. Thanks for the needed chuckle.

  • Ann

    Great story! Curly hair is a bit of novelty in Japan, so I usually come out of a beauty salon looking like a Kewpie doll (lots of thinning shears) or Boozo the clown (they just had to blow dry it). I finally found a British hairdresser (recommended by a friend) in a fancy upscale Tokyo salon and the results were very nice, but the price was about $80 in US dollars. So I save my money and get it cut yearly!

  • Jennings

    Great story!! When we lived in Nairobi, there were several salons where they knew how to cut “mazungu” hair. But now that we’re in Congo, I’ve had a friend cut it, and now my husband and I tag-team: I do the front and sides (what I can see) and he does the back. And I’ve learned to relax a bit and not worry too much about how it looks. I don’t color it because here you actually get more *respect* if you have grey hair. But when I go to the States, I usually do color it at least a bit… at my friends’ insistence.

    • ann

      yep…I live smack-dab between two cultures: our target culture respects age, so gray hair is an asset, and the host culture, which is very youth-oriented. I want my husband to have a wife that looks good in the community where he is building a business to support us, and yet we want to relate well to the people we’ve come to serve. Talk about feeling torn.

  • Theresa

    My time in Bucharest, Romania in a hair salon down the street was quite an adventure as well. Not only did they have me pick out my own highlight color from pieces of hair on a board, but it didn’t quite jive with my blonde streaks and those streaks were now green in color. I thank God for my sister in the U.S., a wonderful hairdresser. After many mishaps now even in the Philippines where they don’t know how to even make blonde, I bring my own box color over.

  • Thanks for the chuckles. Like others I can relate. I moved to Cambodia 5 and a half years ago with long, slightly wavy hair half way down my back. After 3 months of cold showers plus swimming I headed into a local salon and had it all lopped off. They actually did a reasonable job and I continued going there for several years. Almost 2 years ago I decided it was time for long hair again and so, apart from the fringe, which I cut myself, it hasn’t been touched in that time. I know it desperately needs a trim, but I’m holding out until I go “home” in July and can get it cut by someone who speaks the same language as I do (I hope). Maybe when I come back I can find someone who can maintain the cut without using a razor blade!

  • Chris

    Oh, can I relate to this! Thanks for the great story… but it did remind me that I need a cut again… I’ve trimmed the front a couple times since the last cut but can’t quite manage the back (I let my husband try that once, but never again!).

    Someone at home asked me once what one of my biggest “daily life” challenges is. I think they were rather surprised when I said, “Getting a good haircut.” Thin blonde wispy hair just doesn’t work with the same kind of cut as thick black hair. Really. Once in the middle of a cut, it was obvious that the stylist was surprised to find that he was “out of hair” before he had finished the style (yes, probably of of the 2 or 3 styles that he knew how to do…).

  • Great story, Ilona! I love it. I’m another woman who now buys her hair color at the grocery store. Last year I went to have my hair highlighted to camouflage the gray, but I ended up totally blond, with just a few accents of my natural hair color! Just the opposite of what I wanted.

    That said, Turkish hair dressers, in general, are wonderful. They know what they’re doing and they give a GREAT haircut for pretty cheap. The only drawback: they do what THEY think will look good on you. Not necessarily what you describe you want. However, I suspect that in most cases they are right! Hair COLOR is a different story….

  • Jill

    Great story! I could really relate! In Brazil, they always want to straighten my naturally curly hair and seem to have no idea how to layer curly hair! I laughed so hard reading this!

  • Joyce

    Great story Ilona! In Peru they’re “mechas”. I laughed so hard too! Some of the comments are equally as funny. I can certainly identify! I finally got brave enough to try getting a haircut here and wound up with my hair super short. I also consoled myself with the fact that my hair grows very fast. The next time I went to the same girl—maybe a year or more later with the idea that I would have to explain better and tell her exactly what I wanted. I thought I explained it well & it seemed she understood—WRONG!!! Once again, it was super short & I hated it! I think that was the last time in the twenty years we’ve been in Peru. Now I either cut it myself or get it done in the States. Occasionally, we’ve had a hairdresser come down with a team though and that’s always a blessing for me!

  • Liz

    I can so relate. My first try in Mongolia – rather than ask for an inch off I asked for my hair to be cut down to an inch long. Yikes. Luckily that was in a practice session with my language teacher :0 It feels like such a conquered feat to come out not looking too bad.

  • Who would have thought this would create such a bang? (sorry – couldn’t resist. It’s not often I can practice puns in English!)

    Something so utterly common that brings out a great story in most of us. Love it! Thanks all for sharing your stories too. It’s good to laugh (and sometimes cry) together. Maybe an upcoming cross-culture communal thoughts can be on….childbirth?

  • Mike

    Yes, your husband likes long, WILD and bushy…

  • This cracks me up! I once told a lady hairdresser in Kenya, “I don’t want to look 40 and like a missionary” The lady said, “isn’t that what you ARE?”
    I have a friend who goes in to have her hair done, grabs hold a a section in front, and tells them not to cut that section..and she holds onto it the entire time!! ha ha!

  • I’m going in for a haircut today (Mexico). May we pause for a moment of prayer? 🙂

  • Karen

    You truly made me smile and laugh. While living and moving around China for 3 years I went to several hair salons. In the first city, one of the ladies in the hotel went with me to help translate. She noted we were going to the best salon in the city. When we arrived to have my color done, they were totally baffled. They had no light brown hair coloring, only black hair color or red hair color. Since I look absolutely terrible in black hair I had bright red hair for the next 3-4 months. The hairdresser was so proud of the way it turned out, I didn’t have the heart to say anything negative. Now when I share pictures of that time, people are so surprised and laugh at my red hair.

  • Elaine Thiessen

    We seem to have an overload of sad stories, and my own ones (with fine hair, too) are plenty. My daughters basically never got “real” haircuts, since I can do better than most salons where we lived and so my eldest daughter was 14 with glorious long auburn hair when we got a one day job as extra’s in a movie being filmed locally. My husband struck up a conversation with another “extra”, who disclosed at the end of the day that he was a hairdresser, from France, living in a tourist spot in our nation. Would we please come and let him cut our daughter’s hair. So we agreed…. It was an experience I will never forget!

    He snipped and snipped, then did her flecos/pavos with a technique I’d never seen, or rather two or three techniques, then he had her hang her head forward, and he twisted her “main” (she has gorgeous plentiful hair, did I mention that?) into a “roap” and he snipped away at that with flair. I felt like I was watching a sculptor.

    And when he was done, it was stunning–amazing, unprecedented or repeated since. We paid him the astronomical fee of 12 dollars (locals get paid 2), all the while admiring his handiwork. And then he told us–“Good thing you came today. Tomorrow I’m moving back to Paris”.

    I told my daughter if she wanted a cut like that again, she would have to go to Paris and it would probably cost ten times what we paid.

    So, one story to balance the general trend here. Every now and then, God gives a 14 year old TCK a really good hair day!

  • dawn

    wow i guess i really needed a laugh because i just couldn’t stop laughing half way thru this. i had to walk away as i was laughing so hard tears clogged my eyes and i couldn’t even read. thanks for sharing, it’s good to laugh!