Mayra Santiago has devoted more than half her lifetime styling people’s hair to help them look good.
Normally, she uses her expertise to tend to customers at Ulta Beauty, a products retailer with salon services in The Grove at Wesley Chapel.
But over the summer, Santiago joined a group from Vida Community Church on a mission trip to Colombia to cut hair for people living in a rural village there.
“I never, never, never in my life expected to cut hair in the Amazon,” the 43-year-old said.
Vida is a bilingual church temporarily based in Land O’ Lakes, with members primarily joining it from Lutz and Land O’ Lakes. Pastors Dwight and Lizania Miranda lead the church, which has a heart for missions. Vida aims to help people meet their needs, both here and in other countries, said Mayra and her husband, Eddie, who have belonged to the church for seven years.
When she heard there was a need for someone who could cut hair, Santiago felt compelled to go. She was pleased to put her talents to use for others because she loves being a hairstylist.
“It’s my passion,” she said.
Joining the mission trip, she said, was a blessing. The experience didn’t just help others, it helped her, too.
“I appreciate everything better now,” Santiago said.
She now has a deeper understanding of just how fortunate she and others are for the everyday comforts and conveniences that most residents of the United States take for granted, she said.
Santiago traveled to Colombia on July 16, and returned July 28. The 18-member church group flew to Bogota, then caught a connecting flight to Leticia. From there, they rode on a boat — which broke down during their trip — to arrive near the remote village where they stayed.
Once the boat landed, Santiago’s group walked the rest of the way, lugging their stuff for a 20-minute trek. Santiago marveled at the way the villagers — members of the Yagua tribe — function in the 21st century.
“The people live simple lives,” she said.
They have few connections with the outside world, aside from three hours of television during the day and three hours at night. They gather at a hut-style building to watch the programs together.
They sleep on the ground without mattresses. They eat fish they catch from the river.
They use a barrel to catch water for bathing and other uses.
The bugs are horrendous.
“I’ve never seen so many mosquitoes in my life,” said Santiago, who kept the bugs away with repellant.
She slept in a tent on an inflatable mattress, using a battery-powered fan to keep cool.
Santiago and other members of her group drank the bottled water they brought to avoid the potential of becoming ill from the local water.
Her days were busy. They ate meals that mostly consisted of rice, fish, yucca, plantains and oranges.
Santiago awoke daily around 5:30 a.m., ate breakfast, and then began giving haircuts usually between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. She generally finished working around 5 p.m.
Santiago couldn’t keep up with the demand, so she asked fellow missionary Mahalie Rivera to help give the haircuts. Rivera had no experience, so Santiago taught her the basics.
They gave haircuts to young boys and young girls, old men and old women, and everyone else in between.
As they worked, a line formed outside. At some points, there were as many as 20 people waiting, Santiago said.
Women typically wanted layered looks. The young boys wanted short cuts, although some boys wanted their hair to have the same style of some popular soccer stars. However, Santiago wasn’t able to grant their request because she was unfamiliar with the players’ hairstyles.
Santiago and her husband live in Wesley Chapel and have three children: Lucas, 19 — who attends Pasco-Hernando State College’s Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch — as well as Esteban, 15, and Bianca, 14, who attend Wesley Chapel High School.
The kids weren’t wild about the idea of their mom making the trip, Eddie Santiago said.
“They think it’s too extreme,” he said. “We keep telling them that they have to go with us one day, on one of these trips. It’s good for the young people to see how other people live, and all of the things they can live without and be happy.”
The experience was rewarding, said Santiago, who was not dissuaded by the humble living conditions.
“I’ll do it again,” she said.
Published October 8, 2014
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