Friday, October 22, 2010

I Get a Haircut - Insignificant Moments of Life Abroad

It’s time for me to get a haircut. I know because I now have to choose between gelling my hair to a concrete-like consistency, or sporting an Afro (which is nowhere near as appropriate in Africa as the name would claim). You’d think that after seven years abroad I’d be used to navigating the various pitfalls of foreign barbers, but I still hate it, and always put it off as long as I can find any excuse to do so. I’ve often thought that my “Bohemian look” in Czech Republic could be attributed less to my desire to “fit in” than my need for a reason to avoid barbers for several years. Sadly, that look didn’t make the cut, and unless I want to go down that slippery slope again it’s time to surrender to The African Haircut. Yes, “The.” If God is merciful there will only be one. What’s the big deal? I don’t think I’m the only one who gets a little nervous about going for a haircut, even in one’s home country. Just assume that it’s your first time visiting a new hairdresser, you have no information about the hairdresser’s ability, and more importantly imagine that the only communication you can manage is handing him the scissors and saying “go!” Also, to simulate the fact that in many countries there’s absolutely no guarantee or regulation of the skill of any would be “professional,” imagine that he’s blind; for all you know about his skill, he might as well be. Nervous now? “GO!” I remembered a likely looking barber’s shop on the other side of town, and walked about 45 minutes to find it. You learn to notice certain things and pin them onto your mental map long before you’ll ever need it; there are no yellow pages or services listed online to speak of, and if the need becomes urgent and you don’t know where to look you could wander futilely for hours. In the case of a haircut, for example, you have to spot a place that will cut your hair (many places are gender specific), won’t try to charge you 10 times the proper amount AND will be able to communicate somewhat (which means outside the expensive town center, but not so far that they only speak Ma or some other tribal language). I’d noticed a likely looking place a month ago and it was worth walking across town for it. It was closed. At 1:00 on a Tuesday. I started to develop theories, and then I remembered that my theories didn’t mean a fig. Time to wander! About 15 minutes later I find another, in a similar area, staffed by a young man, all good signs. “Habari!” He looks up from his newspaper and goes through the necessary triple-take at the tall white foreigner who’s materialized in his tiny shop. “Mzuri.” Silence. “Can you cut my hair?” Pantomiming accompanies. “Ndeyo, ok.” “How much?” I’m not going to elaborate on this for the pages and pages of anecdotal, cultural, and historical evidence that supports this advice, just trust me that you must always Always ALWAYS ask the price first for EVERYTHING. Always. “Hmm…” He’s going to overcharge me. Whenever someone who sells one thing all day long has to pause for 30 seconds to remember the price, he’s considering how much he can get from you. Sometimes the thing to remember is that that IS the price. The “real price” is not how much the thing costs, it’s how much you’re willing to pay for it. Still, it irks me and most travelers, and a pause like this can often be reason enough to just walk out. I shift my feet. “1,000 shilling.” $0.70. Or, maybe he was just trying to remember how to say “thousand” in English. “Ok.” I start to sit down, and remember. There are always unexpected idiosyncrasies to every element of life in every new place. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have, how many times you’ve gone through it already, or how carefully you try to make no assumptions; some things you will just have to learn the hard way. However, experience and observation CAN teach you what to watch out for. I’d noticed that the local men had two hairstyles: short and none. Neither were my cup of tea. “Cut, yes? Haircut?” Scissor motions. “Bzzzzzz no.” Sheering motions. “Ah, um…” He holds up an electric razor and points to his own well-sheered head. “Scissors? Snip snip?” “Ah.…” I still have to remind myself every day that in many cultures across the world it is rude to say “no.” Ever. Sometimes the best you can hope for is someone who won’t say “yes,” meaning “no.” It’s much more common than you might think. “Oh, ok. Hapana, asanti!” Exit. Wander. Amazing that just a year ago, in the same situation, I would have walked out of that shop 5 minutes later as bald as Bob Hope and glowing like a ball dropped on Time Square. About 30 minutes later I see a “Hair Cutting Salon.” “Habari!” “ah, mzuri!” “Haircut? No bzzzz, ok?” “Yes yes, ok.” “How much?” Always always always ask the price first. “Two thousand shillings.” “Ok.” I show him my desired length, of about 2 centimeters. “Yes, ok.” I settle back, then wince slightly when he pulls out a well-loved electric razor. Fortunately, he also has attachments. The three attachments are “short,” “shorter,” and “hair-no-more.” There’s something I’ve had to learn the hard way, over and over and over again: you must assert yourself, constantly, and the moment that you start being passive about anything you will be taken down a road you don’t want to be on - sometimes literally! I’m passive by nature, and inevitably have relapses every day, which is the main reason I have anything to write about (hey now, I didn‘t say anything GOOD to write about)! The appearance of the razor, the limited size of the attachments, and the compensating smile on the barber’s face all told me very clearly that it was time to walk away. But it was too late, I was stuck. And so, with a passionate Muslim sermon blasting out of the radio in Swahili and the barber nervously humming to himself, the haircut began. The first thing that was clear was that he had never encountered hair like mine. My hair is thick, thick like a Russian accent, and almost as unruly and unpredictable as the Russian himself. Remember what I said about gelling to a concrete consistency? Usually the prep work involves spraying on lots of water and combing, then scissor snipping through the bulk of the bush, but clearly that’s not the way things are done here. He switched on the razor, and dove in. But if he thought that he would just buzz through, he quickly had to abandon that idea. The next thing I noticed revealed a fascinating fact about globalization: although technology is becoming so universal that you can see the same modern items from New York City to an Indian mud hut, the creativity in using it is endless: I’d never seen anyone apply lubricant directly to the blades of an electric razor before! We all do the same things, but we’ll always find different ways to do it. We have to, the world will never be globalized enough to eliminate our need to assert our identity. And the key is that in so many places, there is and will always be only ONE way to skin a cat. Let an African see you doing laundry in the Indian style, or an Indian see you bathing in the Burmese way, and you will either be laughed out of sight or meticulous instructed in what you’ve done terribly wrong, how to do it right, and why the very fabric of time and space has been threatened by your foolishness. Evidently, the way to use an electric razor in Tanzania is to pour lubricant on the blade until it can glide through anything. It still wasn’t easy, for either of us, but this guy was determined and focused. He could have buzzed and lubricated his way through a brick wall if the price were right. As he charged onward and locks of hair fell around me like angel feathers in a lightning storm (hmm, there’s a new one), I squinted at the mirror trying desperately to assess the sway of the battle without the benefit of my glasses. After about 15 minutes I reach for my glasses and put them on, then look carefully at the mirror. Whatever face I made the guy thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. I tried to be stoic, but I’d already whipped off my glasses so I don’t know if I managed it. In any case, I recognized that I was once again in that familiar situation: caught in a cultural current without a paddle, and I’d have to sit tight until the river took me wherever it wanted to go. When it seemed like my head couldn’t get any lighter, THEN the scissors came out. On the second snip he nicks me. It’s a good thing I didn’t insist on scissors from the beginning! I’d be sheered AND scarred! I began to get really nervous when he started some “detail work” on my brow, which I know from many disastrous years of cutting my own hair is like trying to defuse a bomb: one false snip and you blow it. Knowing there was really nothing I could do, I decided to not look until it was all over. Being the exhibitionist that I am, I consoled myself by thinking that the worse the haircut the better the story and accompanying picture would be... You can see how desperate my optimism was trying to grasp onto something. He continued with the detail work for quite a while, sometimes so detailed that it seemed he wasn’t actually cutting anything at all. Well, we’re all guilty of doing “filler work” to seem busy, or to convince a customer that the service is worth the price. After all if you just “get the job done” and it’s all over too quickly... But that’s a different story. Anyway, I’m pretty sure foreigners get this “filler work” stuff most, based on the hope that the silly outsider might not know that a haircut should take 15 minutes and if it takes 45 they’ll pay more. “Sorry, buddy,” I thought, “but my money’s waiting for the moment when I finally put on my glasses and see the face that my friends will have to live with for a month.” The electric razor comes out again, with a new attachment. It wasn’t a longer one. Either this elaborate process had been carefully and ritually developed over centuries of African hairdressing, or this guy was really bored. And then it got interesting again. I’ve never seen someone use baby powder with an electric razor before! Using a shaving brush he liberally doused the back of my neck with what smelled very much like baby powder and then went at it with the electric razor again. Douse, shave, repeat. I started to think about probable attrition rates of African electric razors. Might be something to invest in.. and baby powder. Who knows, maybe baby powder is the “fix-all” of Tanzania, like duct tape in America... Now THAT would be a fast haircut! Maybe baby powder is actually more useful, which my barber clearly considered to be obvious as he doused me again. I’ll bet he’d also use it for skinning a cat. Having been sheered, buzzed, lubricated, snipped nipped and powdered, THEN out came the spray bottle of water and the comb. I could feel there was very little left to comb. Finally he motions I should put my glasses on, and I look. “Safi?” he asks. “Ndiyo, safi sana,” I say. Yes, very good. And it was. Now I just need to find a place that can take about 50% off my ears... On the other hand, it’s now certain that this WILL be my only African Haircut.


  1. I remember when I was a kid my brother and i would get "crew" cuts. Similar to yours but a little shorter. The barber did use baby powder and I rember him brushing off the back of my neck and this white stuff coming off. Maybe there is only ONE way of doing things? At least where it comes to cutting hair on the back of your neck.
    Much Love,

  2. at least you aren't in the army.....