The shave was going great until my barber started making eye contact with one of his buddies who had popped into the doorway, chatting away in Ledakhi while continuing to slice away at my jugular with his razor.
I mumbled gently to him, urging to him to cease multitasking and focus on one of the tasks at hand, realizing that I was one stroke away from a lot of terrible inconvenience and loss of a lot of blood. Much to my relief he did so, sending his pal on his way and finishing my first-ever barber shave, concluding an hour-long salon experience at a tiny barbershop in a narrow alley in central Leh.
I had waited in line at “Ajaz Hair Drasser” for Ajaz or a young man I would assume was his apprentice to tackle my thinning head of grey locks. Locals, tourists and an occasional cow strolled by as I sat on a wooden bench in the alley, waiting my turn.
A local guy cut in line for a brief paintjob on niggling grey streaks on his temples, and he stood next to me as the barber applied some gooey black stuff that made the grey fade to black. I slid into the chair and waited for the haircut to begin, briefly considering a touchup on my aging grey to return to the black hair of my youth. I figured he’d run out of paint before the job was finished, so I settled for a simple cut.
No such thing, as it turned out.
For the next 45 minutes the young guy sliced, trimmed, clipped and shaved around my ears and back of my neck, focusing carefully on every misplaced hair and blowing gently to clear the residue. His breath was foul enough to set my head afire had an open flame been nearby, and my stomach double-clutched a couple of times as he blue hairs from my eyebrows.
The shave was the idea of my friend Phillip, who has traveled extensively in India and promised I’d have the closest of my life. A must-do, he said, though he warned me of an unsettling experience he had had with a barber with an uneven disposition years earlier. Overlooking that detail, I gave my barber the green light and rested my head on the uncomfortable wooden headrest for the procedure.
I was lathered and shaved twice, as my barber set out on a quest to eradicate each follicle of its hairy incursion. This was a serious undertaking, and he flicked the razor centimeters from my eye to the nape of my neck.
Another 30 minutes or so later, the guy finished carving me up with no perceptible loss of blood. He then launched into an exhaustive massage, pinching, pounding, stretching and stroking every inch of the real estate north of my neck. He kneaded my scalp, dug the shaving cream out of my ears and stretched my face in all directions before finishing up with a good old fashioned hair-pulling.
After he finished by slapping me around with a combination of noxious aftershave and foul-smelling water, I leapt from the chair and asked how much the whole thing cost.
Ajaz shrugged. “Whatever you think, sir.” I pressed for an answer. “Three hundred,” he relented. I gave him 500 rupees, which is about $9. I figured a great cut (and it was) and an interesting shave (another once in a lifetime experience) was worth the extra money, and I give the marathon an A-.
The experience made me reflect on the haircuts I have had over the past three years. Here’s my top list in descending order.
Dr. Follicles, Melbourne, Australia – Clearly the best of the bunch, Dr. Follicles’ funky staff plays loud heavy metal music too loud for them to hear instructions while serving ice cold Cooper’s Ale to customers. The guys dance, slash and slice away with great flourishes, and they know what they’re doing. The cut was great; beer was fabulous. Even at $20, value was A+.
Lycofra, Phnom Penh, Cambodia – The tiny Vietnamese guy who cut my hair many times over our three years in Phnom Penh gave me cuts ranging from great to horrific. His nervousness was typically his undoing. I always left with a shorter cut than I’d wanted but with a big smile on my face after the best hair wash and head massage anywhere, and all for $4. Value B-, but only because of the inconsistency. I always tipped generously, as the entire staff would line up at the door to say thank you.
Some barber shop near Bumrungrad Hospital, Bangkok – Gabi and I popped into an tiny air-conditioned stall for a quick cut, and I left with my locks harmlessly shorn without making me look ridiculous. The young woman who tackled the challenge did so with halting English and a great sense of humor. She charged me $5 including tip. Value was C+.
Hair salon in Pattaya, Thailand. While on one of my long morning walks through Pattaya I popped into a salon just opening on a street near the beach. The woman who managed the shop turned on the air conditioning for me, brought a towel to wipe the sweat from my face and neck, and got to work with a pair of electric shears. She chatted away in good English, charged around $6, and was the only woman in Pattaya who didn’t ask me if I wanted a date that night. I left refreshed, shorn and pleased. Value was C+.
Barber shop near Pham Ngu Lau, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Here I got the worst haircut of my life by a grouchy Vietnamese woman who clearly wanted me out of the chair and gone as soon as she could pry money from my wallet into her sweaty, chubby palms. My instructions and frantic gestures to slow down and cut less fell on deaf ears. Upon review after the assault Gabi tried to ease the shock of by reminding me that it would grow back. I was too traumatized to remember the cost, and the value was D-. Only the air con saved this joint from a failing grade. And no, there was no tip.