The International Haircut

The vibration of the clippers against my head during last night’s pandemic haircut performed with the dancehall playlist pumping into my room transported me, if only in memory, to past international barbershop experiences. 

The barbershop, for many, presents an opportunity to connect, no matter if you are in Kampala or Oakland. If visitors can overcome intimidation by poor fluency in the local language or an incomplete grasp of local customs to enter, the barbershop can serve up a new world of heated political discourse and spirited shit-talking. Fully absorbing the encounter can alter a local visit or mold your worldview.

At home a mundane task, the haircut in a new culture has morphed into a welcome sign: I have been away from “home” for at least one buzz-cut interval.

It had been roughly two weeks since I had cut my hair, and it showed. Departing on foot from our river cottage rental on the edge of Chobe National Park in northern Botswana, I walked towards town following the verbal instructions laid out by the staff member at the front desk. 

I found the barber on duty in the half-occupied retail center a few blocks away. After using a mixture of well-enunciated English and hand motions to overcome our slight language barrier, and pointing at what appeared to be the “1 guard,” my head was evenly buzzed with edges reinforced. Lacking a handheld mirror, my barber photographed the back of my neck with his Blackberry. The grainy end result looked sufficient to me and I paid in Botswanan Pula. I had to get back to the cottage so we could pack; it was a travel day.

Ever since my haircut instructions transitioned to “just a number 1 all over” – prompted by a mixture of surrender to a receding hairline and a desire for simplicity – the space between clean cut and bushy had narrowed. Buzzing every 10 to 14 days could guarantee a consistent look; waiting beyond 2 weeks could signal poor self-care or impede my aerodynamics. Millimeters-long hair exposes even the slightest mistaken variation. 

Maintaining the frequency of this essential personal task when far from home has, for me, evolved into an event.

In Moshi, the smaller of the two base towns for Mount Kilimanjaro, I called the barber recommended to me by my fellow local junior doctor. “Travis” had translated into “Charvis” on the barber’s white Dry Erase board displaying the day’s reservations, but he took me anyway. I treated myself to my first-ever straight-razor face shave and capped off the salon experience with a therapeutic scalp rinse.

Once in Kampala, the Ugandan capital city, I found a more cost-conscious option on my walk downhill towards Acacia Mall. Instead of the pricey tile-floored salon in the mall, I found a one-room outpost in the adjacent neighborhood with booming music. Previously in Kisumu, the urban hub of western Kenya, I found the barber situated between a clothing store and the DVD shop in the Nakumatt shopping complex. In Mbale, a gem of a city in the east of Uganda, I caught a ride into town with my local home-stay “mother” on a Sunday for salon time for her and a buzz next door for me. The lively banter and laughter amongst the clientele and barbers, despite being in Lumasaba – the tribal language with which I was mostly unfamiliar – reassured me that I was in the right place. 

In Lilongwe, Malawi’s northern capital, I finally stumbled upon a barber shop geared towards male patrons. The barber encouraged a straight-razor face shave that aimed to artfully preserve parts of my week-long facial hair. My partner indicated she liked my facial hair when it was long, so why not keep it? The Malawian barber meticulously mapped out and executed precise strokes of the blade, producing perfectly rounded edges of dark chin hair against freshly shaved white skin. The result evoked an entertaining and perplexing mash-up of The Artist Formerly Known as Prince and Jafar, from Aladdin. 

Thanks to limited vacation time in US-based jobs, most of my travels have been roughly nine days or fewer. I simply buzz my head at home the night before we fly and again upon my return. So settling into an unfamiliar barber’s chair to accomplish this necessary bi-weekly chore conjures up a subtle joy and an uncontrollable smile prompted by this basic realization: I have the good fortune of being away from home for longer than 2 weeks. 

Last night, I buzzed my own head and my partner helped straighten the edges to ensure the back of my neck was presentable enough for my computer’s camera. If the international haircut is a reminder that I have been abroad beyond 2 weeks’ time, last night’s buzz was another reminder that I am sheltering in place to prevent the worsening of a global pandemic. 

That brief, yet profound nudge, made me wish my next haircut would require more of a search, some small amusing misunderstandings, friendly laughter amid blaring dancehall music, and a photo of the back of my neck to display the finished product. Without that, a potential event is just another haircut.

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