Originally created 05/17/98

Cornrows a Bahamas vacation thing



NASSAU, Bahamas -- There was something not quite Wall Street about Jerome Nash.

The attire -- T-shirt, Bermuda shorts and sandals -- was tropics, appropriate for the 51-year-old New York investment banker as he sauntered past street vendors and tourist shops.

It was the three thin braids adorned with gold-colored beads dangling from Nash's diminishing head of hair that gave one pause.

"The minute I stepped off that cruise I had to get them," Nash said excitedly, sipping a rum punch. "Like getting tanned and drinking great drinks and eating fabulous seafood, it is all part of the Caribbean thing.

"It is all part of losing yourself down here and making the break from the identity you assume every day going into the office."

It is no longer just the younger generation of tourists who are having their hair braided on islands like the Bahamas. The 40-, 50-, 60- and even 70-something crowd is taking the plunge as they try to maximize the ambiance of their tropical getaways.

And, no, it is not only women anymore.

"More men and more older people are going for braids," said Peggy Gedeon, a Bahamian hair braider who works at the Prince George Dock here where cruise ships touring resort islands make port calls. "For many people it is a ÔWhat the heck, I'm on a vacation' thing."

The craft of hair braiding has been a cultural phenomenon in the region for centuries, brought to the islands from Africa when the slave trade developed throughout the region.

"Hair braiding is a generational thing in the Bahamas; it is part of our culture," Gedeon said. "Just about every woman from the time she is really young, say around 6 years old, knows how to braid."

The style became popular -- especially among white women -- after the release of the 1979 movie "10" in which actress and sex symbol Bo Derek sported hair with long, beaded plaits.

"It really took off after the movie," local braider Sandra Deveaux said.

Today, hair braiding is one of the most popular aspects of this nation's tourism industry, which last year generated about $1.5 billion and attracted 3.5 million visitors, 1.6 million of whom arrived here on ships.

To walk along Bay Street in the heart of the capital city or through the numerous hotels in Nassau, Freeport or Paradise Island is to witness a sea of braided hair. In one instance, an adult couple and their three children who were poolside at the Nassau Marriott all had their hair in cornrows.

"This is a family affair," said the mother, Elaine Staples, visiting from Chicago. "We can all share this together and take it back with us as a memento or souvenir of our trip."

For tourists, most of whom are Americans, the reasons for braiding their hair are manifold: for fun, for style, for an escape from stressful professional lifestyles.

Marshall Law, 43, a country-rock musician from Kentucky who had his longish hair braided last September as a present from his girlfriend, likes the fashion appeal.

"It is just a cool, laid-back thing. When I went back to Kentucky I got some strange looks, but after a while people got used to it," he said. "In Nashville, they are eating it up because they are not used to it."

The braids generally last eight to 10 weeks and at the Prince George Dock braiders charge adults $30 to do a quarter of a head of hair, $60 for a half and $100 to style a full head. A single cornrow goes for $2 while a French braid costs $10. The job can take anywhere from a few minutes to two hours, depending on the amount of braiding and how thick the hair is.

Generally, 50 self-employed braiders are at the dock, waiting to solicit passengers coming off cruise ships.

"It gets people in the Bahamas mood. On a good day, we could maybe get 300 or 400 people," Deveaux said. "And on a really good day, I could make $300 to $400."