Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ethiopia: The Barber Shop

During my second week in Ethiopia, my hair had become too shaggy to ignore. It was time to venture out to the barber shop.

There are plenty of barbers to be found in Addis Ababa, but I decided to try the shop closest to my house. It was about half a block away.

The shop had two chairs, but only one was in use. The second chair was holding a pile of laundry. There was a handy poster on the door showing a variety of hairstyles, but alas they were all for African hair. Just outside the door, there was an old woman roasting some type of grain on a small clay stove.

When I entered the shop, the barber motioned for me to take a seat. Then he covered me with a drop cloth and secured the neck opening with a strip of paper. He then began to ready his equipment. All the while, neither of us had spoken a word.

For his preparations, the barber pulled out his shaver and laid out several guide combs of different lengths. Then he squirted some purple fluid in a small metal trough and lit it on fire. At first I thought he was lighting incense or something, but that wasn't the case. The fire was for sterilizing the shaver. For the better part of a minute, the barber ran the head of the clippers back and forth through the flame. Then he extinguished the fire, attached a guide to the clippers, and started shaving the side of my head. Still, not a word had been spoken.

Once he finished the right side of my head, he broke the silence.

"Is that short enough?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. I'm a pretty easy customer.

"Make the rest the same?" he asked.

"No," I replied. "Let's leave the top a bit longer."

"OK," he answered and went to work.

He shaved the left side to match the right, and then he attached a longer guide comb to use on the top. Before he continued, he pulled out an old toothbrush and cleaned off the shorter guide and put it away. This guy was meticulous about keeping his work space clean.

Not long after he started on the top, he stopped and changed guide combs again. Personally, I couldn't tell any difference between the two guides, but I'm no expert. As before, he cleaned the one he had finished with and put it away.

He must have spent ten minutes shaving the top of my head, and he changed guide combs probably ten times. I got the sense that he wasn't used to cutting "European" hair, and he was learning as he went along. After our initial brief conversation, he didn't say anything more. Language barrier aside, I think he was too focused on the haircut for chit-chat.

Once he had clippered my hair down to his liking, he switched to scissors. He used them to cut individual hairs that had eluded the clippers.

When he finished with the scissors, he went back to the clippers and started working on the top again. Very little hair was being cut at this point.

By now, another customer had appeared, and the old woman had set aside her grain roasting to watch the action. She was leaning in the doorway.

When the top was finally ready, he started the trim work. He removed half my sideburns, as I requested, and cropped the front of my hair short. Then he shaved around my ears and the back of my neck. For the final touch, he squared my temples with hard corners.

Then he dusted me off and removed the drop cloth.

"I wash, or you wash at home?" he asked.

"I'll wash at home."

All that was left now was for me to pay, so I asked him the price of the haircut.

I could see the wheels turning in his head as the barber conjured up the price.

"25 birr (about $1.40)," he announced.

A few days before, I had popped into a different barber shop and asked the price of a haircut. That barber had told me 15 birr, which meant that my barber was most likely tacking on a 10-birr faranji mark-up.

While I was aware of the mark-up, I didn't really mind. It was a small amount of money, and besides, he had done a pretty respectable job on the haircut. I gave him the 25 plus a tip.

That said, I will probably shop around next time in hopes of finding a barber who isn't such a man of few words.

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