(I must admit to stealing the image from Google here — I’m not such an Instagram whore that I take pictures of my haircuts. Also, if you are new to this story, I humbly suggest you start at Chapter 1. Best!)
I hadn’t had a haircut or a shave since Holly and I left Bali, a month and a half ago.
I’d gotten a spectacularly bad cut from some Balinese woman who had been more preoccupied with trying to sell me a massage than actually focusing on cutting my hair. The trauma had been such that I hadn’t even attempted to negotiate a hair cut in Taiwan, where English was significantly less common than Bali. Trust me, you don’t know “bad hair day” until you’ve tried to communicate what you want to a foreign hairdresser, using some mishmash of pictures, Hollywood stars, and estimating lengths using your fingers.
I was batting about .300 so far: two bad haircuts, and one which was probably the best cut I’ve ever had in my life. But the simple fact was: my personal grooming situation was getting unruly. My hair grows thick and curly. When it gets long, it refuses to be tamed without copious amounts of hair gel. I wasn’t traveling with hair gel, and even if I was, I wouldn’t have bothered.
I wore Holly’s hat every day, which did a good job keeping me warm and damping down the unruly mop on my head. I wore the buff most of the time too, which covered up the spindly beginnings of a beard which had emerged, slowly and in patches, over the last month and a half. But the beard was itchy, and frankly, the hat was getting hot in the sweltering subtropical heat. So when a balding old man on the side of a Kathmandu street offered me “Haircut, brother? 200 rupees.” I took him up on the offer. Immediately.
He beckoned me into the narrow hallway he had been standing next to. We walked twenty or thirty feet back into the building, and he took a left, into a tiny slot of a barbershop. This space was no bigger than the space between library shelves — probably smaller, if your local library has any amount of money.
A dusty barber’s chair sat in front of a cracked, clouded mirror. To the left of the mirror was an open-air window, looking onto a rubble-filled courtyard.
“Shave, my friend?” the barber asked me.
“100 rupees.” I nodded. A shave for a dollar didn’t sound so bad; plus, this itching was killing me.
He took out an old-fashioned straight razor, fitting it with a new blade. For a brief moment of terror, my mind’s eye thought about how easy it would be for him to draw the blade across my throat. No one would know. In this tiny little slot, I was at his absolute mercy.
I took a deep breath, and told myself if it happens, it happens. It won’t happen though.
I exhaled, and settled my anxious mind. Just in time too, as the barber lathered up my face with shaving cream, and set the blade against my Adam’s Apple. He lingered there for just a moment… and then began expertly swiping up, slapping the blade on his palm after every stroke. Shaving cream and beard hairs quickly accumulated on his palm as he continued the bizarre shave-slap-swipe routine he used to clean the razor without any water.
He did nick me, once, but it was far away from the jugular, and he quickly stopped the bleeding by rubbing an ice cube on the cut.
When he was done, I felt my face. It was the smoothest shave I’d ever had.
“Facial cleanser?” he asked, reaching (but not very far) for a bottle on a shelf.
“How much?” I asked him, suspicious.
“No, no, not much,” he protested. “Maybe… 100 rupees?”
I sensed this was a dangerous path to go down – no doubt he had an unlimited supply of products to upcharge me with – but the barber’s chair was comfortable, and I didn’t want to go back out to the unfriendly streets of Kathmandu. Not just yet. I nodded my affirmative.
He squirted the product onto his hands. Rubbing them into a nice lather, he made casual conversation with me. I asked him about the earthquake, he asked me about life in America. Done lathering, he told me to close my mouth and rubbed a surprisingly thick, tan cream on my face. It quickly hardened, and while it did its thing, he set about cutting my hair.
I didn’t even bother to give him instructions.
I felt the paste drying and tightening the skin on my face while the barber happily chatted and trimmed. Watching his progress in the mirror, I wasn’t horrified. It didn’t matter much anyways.
He finished cutting, and I nodded approval, since I couldn’t talk without disturbing the cleansing mask.
“Head massage?” the man asked, cheerfully.
I nodded, enthusiastically. I’m a sucker for a good head massage.
The barber rubbed some scalp oil into his hands, then massaged it into my head. After a stressful week of traveling to Hong Kong, splitting in the lobby of the airport, struggling into Kathmandu, and then dealing with a brand-new foreign city, the head rub melted the tension right out of my body.
He cleared the goop off my face with a cold compress, then asked if I wanted a face massage. He had treated my scalp so well, how could I say no?
I closed my eyes and let my attention drift. My concerns – Holly, my job, my safety, being all alone in a foreign city – all fell away for a few blissful moments.
He finished, and eagerly offered: “Back massage?”
He even started rubbing me, but I felt I had probably racked up a high enough bill already. I politely declined. His face fell a little bit, sad to see his golden goose go.
“How much do I owe you?” I asked.
“Hmm… I think…. 2,500 rupees,” the barber said.
I laughed. “You said 200, my friend!”
“Just for haircut!” he exclaimed. “Then shave, cream, and massage! It is not cheap!’ he said, gesturing at a bottle of product which surely cost less than a dollar.
“No no no,” I said back to him. “I won’t pay more than 700.”
We negotiated back and forth for a minute, and I ended up paying him 1,000 rupees ($10).
I could have gotten a better deal, no doubt, if I had bargained harder. But it was cheaper than I paid for only a haircut back home, and no doubt considerably more than he needed to charge to make his living. In this way, we both walked away happy.
I felt almost relaxed as I stepped back onto the bustling streets of Kathmandu.