I left my heart in San Francisco, but I left my hair in Ethiopia.
The danger sign was there, quite literally. The two hairstyle options apparently available to me at my Ethiopian barber shop of choice: Ricky Martin and Ludacris.
I was in northern Ethiopia with a mess I’d deliberately grown out for almost two months — saving myself, the African haircut virgin — and I was determined to navigate yet another haircut-as-cultural-experience. A World Wrestling Entertainment match, piped in from somewhere in the Middle East (who knew WWE needed subtitles?), blared on the television. All the men in the shop sported either dreadlocks or close cut afros.
Oh, the many forms of adventure travel we embrace.
Barber Shop Tourism. Why?
Sure, I seek traditional thrills while I travel. But I also pursue haircuts. I figure that barber shops serve as a window onto a culture. Haircuts have something to teach me about a place, and also my nerve.
I’ve had my ears torched in Turkey. I’ve enjoyed a 66-cent best-ever haircut in Peru (satisfying), a dazzling butt-cut grease comb in the mountains of Azerbaijan (horrifying), a birth control class with an Armenian barber in Yerevan (puzzling), a doom delivering barber in Malaysia (enlightening), and a street-side shave in Bangladesh that nearly halted traffic (unsettling), among a host of others.
I should note that Audrey, quite wisely and thankfully, does not share my curiosity.
A full account of haircut chronicles are forthcoming. To it I will add Ethiopia, a place that is known to me now as much for its deep culture as it is for its deep cuts.
The Hair Butcher of Gondar
I asked Fekadu, our dreadlocked guide, for barber shop recommendations in Gondar, a well-serviced looking town known for its collection of castles. Skeptical, he narrowed his eyes. In the most diplomatic tone he could muster, he tried to warn me off, “Ethiopia might not be the best place for a white guy like you to get a haircut.”
What did he know?
As it turns out, a lot.
The barbers looked a little thrown-off when I sat down in their chair. I might as well have been a fish. There was a distinct hesitation as to who would tackle this customer.
After puzzling for a pause, the one with a huge tattoo of Jesus Christ in a crown of thorns across his left bicep wrapped a cover around me. I pointed to the Ricky Martin poster in the window and offered a charade: “Ricky. Short on the side, little longer on top.”
He gave a quick nod in something that approximated acknowledgement and went to work.
It occurs to me that “work” here is a generous term. Wrecking balls do work, too.
Clippers. Lots of them. Attachments, too. Maybe a dozen. The odd thing was that the barber seemed to switch back and forth between various gauges of clipper extensions in random sequence and at random sites of my skull: number 4, then 9, then 6. Back, then side, then back again.
This struck me as unusual and dubious. Frightening and dangerous. In retrospect, I should have stood up, placed my hands together in a sort of gratitudinous prayer and walked out. Instead, I stuck with it.
My hair began to slough off in uneven chunks.
The barber and I shared no common verbal language. And charades carried their own special danger. There was no escape.
I retreated inward. “Maybe this won’t be so bad after all,” I attempted to console myself. I looked into the mirror, then to Audrey sitting along the back wall. I hoped she might intervene and save me. Instead, she buried her head in Ethiopian men's magazines.
I wouldn’t have watched, either.
For a brief moment, I became philosophical. Haircuts are instructive, I thought. For in haircuts — as in the whole of one’s life — there are no do-overs. Life is short. Abruptly, my hair was becoming so, too.
“Lean into it,” I thought.
As the buzzing continued, it was clear that I would look nothing like Ricky Martin or Ludacris, but rather their love child. Maybe even a little bit shorn, like Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3.
Just When You Think It Can’t Get Any Worse
What troubled me were all the little bits, bobs, and tufts that hadn’t quite been trimmed, rounded, tapered or faded properly.
The situation, however, would grow considerably worse.
The barber began to focus decreasing amounts of his already waning attention on my head and redirected it to the television. As his focus drifted to the TV, and greased bodies flew on the screen above him, so did his hand. He held the clippers in one hand and sparred in response to the fake brawl playing out on the television with the other. His movements took on a sort of involuntary quality, much like a dog’s might when you scratch its belly and you hit the spot.
Clearly, the wrestling match hit the spot for my barber. While he stabbed at the air with his left hand, his right hand got into the action. It was this right hand that really frightened me. In it were the still humming clippers and its vicinity was my unevenly shorn head.
This wasn’t so bad.
It was grim.
“Ummm, yes. My head,” I murmured quietly. I wished to make eye contact but I was afraid to move at all, for any sudden lurch might speed catastrophe. I imagined a zipper cut down a random lane of my skull.
Thankfully, one wrestler pinned the other, things simmered down, and my barber returned to work.
I’d exhausted any hope for the sides and the back. Thankfully, there was still a flappy tuft on top and flaky bangs in front.
Then he pulled out a short clipper and bee-lined straight for the bangs.
“But, but…” I murmured to myself, in that paralyzed “I’d like to scream, but I can’t” kind of sensation I’ve had during my worst nightmares. I could see the train wreck – like the one that spills over a mountainside and takes out an orphanage along the way — playing out in slow motion.
“He’s not really going to do this, is he?”
Then he did.
“Help…” A meek little voice cried out silently inside of me.
He cut straight under the bangs on the right side of my head. The shingle of hair that remained was probably less than a centimeter long. My head looked like a roof where the right pitch had been removed for repair.
I stared into the mirror in search of solace, paths of restoration.
There were none. The damage was virtually complete.
It was apparent my barber knew not of bangs nor of forward fringes. He left the tuft on top. I didn't take issue. Better to leave with the devil we know than to find the one we don't. As I alighted my chair and looked around the shop, no surprise. There were a few dreadlocks, and the others sheer afro cuts at the front of the head.
The barber tried to make me look just like everyone else in the shop.
How could I begrudge that?
I returned to meet our group for dinner, running my hand through the remaining hair to salvage tousle what remained, all in a painfully weak attempt to disguise the damage.
“Oh, it looks good,” they echoed. You know, the perfunctory bit everyone utters when she's shocked that you actually did THAT.
One of our companions took a first look, “Oh, not so bad.”
Then as she moved around, you could see the extent of the mess registering on her face. “Yes, it’s a little uneven.” As she wheeled to the back, “Ohh, yes…”
She didn’t need to finish the sentence. Easily, hands down to a hairy barbershop floor, it was my worst haircut ever.
Ludacris? Or ludicrous?
Fekadu looked at my hair and shook his head with a smile: “Yes. But, it was an experience.”
He was right. I got exactly what I’d come for.
Have a hair-raising moment of your own, or an odd travel routine that's your lens of cultural comparison? Sound off.