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THE WANDER YEAR

A Case of Hair Today, Shorn Tomorrow

the wander year: WEEK 37: MOROCCO * A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

October 22, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

FES, Morocco — I miss my family, my friends, my dog. I also miss Shannon Weeks.

Shannon cuts my hair. When I'm home, I see her every five weeks at Ralph's Hair Place in the Hillcrest district of San Diego. I didn't fully appreciate her until I left on this journey without learning to say "Just a trim" in multiple languages. If Shannon had been cutting my hair these past months, I'd still resemble someone my mother recognized rather than a survivor of an industrial accident.

You can travel the world for a year without visits to the doctor and dentist. But unless you want to look like Jeff Daniels in "Dumb and Dumber," there's no avoiding the barber. You'll likely end up in the chair of a man with a sharp glint in his eye and a pair of dull scissors in his hand, as I have many times on this trip. The upside is that it's usually cheap. It also gets you close to an authentic cultural experience--sometimes too close.

In Nepal, the barbers also act as quasi-chiropractors and massage therapists. I wandered into a one-plywood-chair shop in Pokhara, the kingdom's second-largest city, and heard several loud pops as the barber swiftly rotated a customer's head, cracking his neck. When it came my turn, the young barber meticulously snipped away for 45 minutes, giving me the best haircut of the journey. I waved off the spinal manipulation. Looking wounded, he launched into a neck-and-shoulders massage.

He motioned for me to lean forward in the chair and rest my head on my folded arms atop the counter. Before long, he had my shirt hiked over my head. I hadn't seen the previous customer in this position, so I figured the barber was giving me extra massage time in lieu of a neck adjustment. I closed my eyes.

When I opened them, I saw the curtain in the doorway had been drawn, preventing anyone from seeing in. I realized that I might have misread the situation, and I grew ever more tense as the massage headed south. I bolted from the chair, paid the man and left.

In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I had my hair cut by possibly the oldest barber in Southeast Asia. He had to be 85, but I'm bad with ages, so he could have been 100. He had a chair in his family's tailor shop. He was a stooped, frail man who had to turn away often to unleash a deep, phlegmy cough.

The haircut was an ordeal, and I wondered if it might go faster if I knelt on the floor and gave the barber the chair. I shuddered and said "no" when he pulled open an antique straight razor with his shaking hands. He resumed with the scissors, giving me my 70 cents' worth.

His work didn't look bad in front, but I could tell he'd cut skin-close in back. It was 90 degrees outside, and when I hit the street my head felt cold.

By the time Andrea and I reached Morocco, I was pretty shaggy. In Marrakech, I bargained for my haircut. The barber wanted $6, I offered $2, and we settled at $4. I knew it was too much, but I was paying for the atmosphere. His shop was on the main square, where snake charmers coaxed cobras from baskets and a man walked barefoot across broken glass.

I got careless and dozed in the chair. Andrea, back from shopping in the souk, woke me with a guffaw. The barber had clipped me nearly bald, leaving a pancake-sized patch of hair in front. I now had a buzz cut with bangs, the wackiest 'do I've sported since my grandfather gave me a Mohawk in second grade.

After a week's trip through the desert, we arrived in Fes, where I made the mistake of glancing in a mirror. I looked as though I were growing a goatee on my head. I asked Andrea to crop the patch, but her only scissors were for fingernails, and the scissors for sale in the market were the blunt-edged kind you use in kindergarten.

I searched the crooked streets of the medina until I found a barbershop open on Friday, the Islamic day of prayer. I used sign language to show the barber I wanted my patch clipped. But he started on the shorter hair, apparently thinking I desired the patch accentuated. I gesticulated wildly, to the growing confusion of the barber and his partner, who worked on another customer. At last the partner grasped what I wanted, and the two barbers swapped heads mid-cut. The new guy had me shorn down to an even butch in no time. It was still technically summer, so I called it my summer cut--good for this summer and next.

I'll be glad to get back to San Diego and Shannon. I just hope I'll have something left for her to work with.

NEXT WEEK: Four continents in two days.

Did you miss a Wander Year installment? The entire series since it began in January can be found on The Times' Web site at http://www.latimes.com/travel/wander.

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