Before I begin this anecdotal blog, let me first say a very belated happy new year and all the best for 2015. Also, many apologies for the lack of updates over the past couple of months. The trials and tribulations of obtaining a new Bangladesh visa (which entailed a trip to India) in addition to end of term work pressure, locating homes for puppies, fun times in the UK over Christmas, and of course the usual lack of writing inspiration all conspired to keep me anywhere but on my blog.
However, inspiration always lurks ominously around a shadowy, unassuming corner, ready to pounce, and my recent decision to get a haircut proved to be all the inspiration I needed. I’ll set the scene for you if I may. The barber shop is directly across from my apartment building here on a narrow and often dim street in Chittagong. It’s a small, notably local establishment, and it seems to do ok for business. On the walls there are posters of ‘stylish’ men all with various levels of cutting edge/absurd hairstyles. One section is reserved for celebrities, who also offer an equitable level of absurdity.
Upon entering the shop you pass through a curtain and if you’re lucky, on the other side you’ll find a half naked man having oil rubbed into his back and in the middle of an evidently rigorous massage. If only one barber is working at that time, the rest of the long-haired men with tight shoulders wait patiently for the current customer’s knots to be worked out. This can take anywhere between 5 – 15 minutes, depending on the size of his shoulders and the severity of his knots of course.
On this particular day my luck was in (or out I suppose, depending on if you enjoy sitting through another man’s massage). My usual barber was stood outside and informed me the shop was currently empty, so taking opportunity of this, I entered. The television was on, and I was pleased to find that he was in the middle of watching Animal Planet and a fascinating documentary about monkeys. Jackpot. I settled into the chair and uttered the usual instruction of “medium please bhaiya.” He has cut my hair sufficient times now to know this means a classic short back and sides. A regulation haircut the fashion hungry men on the wall would no doubt scoff at. However, I’m a teacher and I already wear ‘gap yah’ bands on my wrist, so a radical haircut would be excessive and detract from the content of the class.
Things were going well. The scissors snipped at a productive and efficient speed, I enquired about his family, he asked me if I was married yet, and then we relaxed back into our shared mutual acknowledgment of the very evident language barrier. The monkeys on the television continued to display their humorous behaviour, and the documentary outlined their mischievous ways in the dusty city of Jaipur, India. Sufficient entertainment for one and all.
My barber’s colleague had re-entered the establishment by this point and was joined by another man who came and perched himself on the seat in the waiting area. He didn’t appear to want a cut, but was happy enough sheltering from the winter cold (comfortable temperature as I call it) outside, and his eyes were immediately glued to Animal Planet. The man had a sweater wrapped around his head and a heavy shawl around his shoulders. He’s largely irrelevant to the story, but I like the fact he seems to use the shop as a source of television. I presume this is the case as he uttered neither a single word to any of us, nor changed facial expression the entire time I was there.
Now, back to the tale. It was about at this time that events turned, and not for the better I should add. The cutting of the hair came to an efficient end. My barber performed a light trim of the beard, and as usual applied a razor to the lower back of the neck area to sharpen up the border. Great, well I’ll be off I presumed. A dangerous presumption it turned out as he proceeded to remove the lid from a small tub on the counter and placed a generous amount of an unmarked, bright green cream to his fingers. Without any word of warning he then applied this liberally across my face. I shut my eyes and cursed myself for not protesting sooner, but it was too late now. The green cream was there and he subsequently spent around five (it felt like twenty five…) minutes rubbing it vigorously over every area of my face. No nook or cranny was untouched. Now, I have a terrible habit of finding these types of procedure awkward, and when I feel awkward I tend to break out in uncontrollably awkward grins. This is precisely what occurred once the cream rubbing became too much.
Eventually he told me to bend towards the sink and washed off the cream. Relief abound, I again foolishly presumed the procedure was over. He made elaborate work of drying off my face and then kindly rubbed cologne over my freshly shaven neck. Well, I will at least walk out of here feeling quite refreshed and smelling good I thought.
I was mistaken about the walking out part. The fun had apparently only just begun. Once again without giving any indication or warning he sprayed water onto my hair and then proceeded to massage my head, twisting and pulling at my hair quite aggressivly and then pressing his fingers into my forehead and eye sockets. At that point I kind of wished I was one of those monkeys on the television at the temple in India. Freely jumping from wall to wall, stealing sandwiches and harassing tourists, but alas, I was sat here in a chair, a prisoner to this man’s grand ambitions of a full upper body massage. A massage that I had certainly not requested or envisaged only a few minutes prior.
He worked the face, and paid significant attention to my eyelids. Focus on the monkeys I thought. He stretched out my arms and clicked each of my fingers. Then he went for the sides of my torso and pressed and prodded. I squirmed due to the ticklish nature of the procedure, but he carried on regardless. By this point I’d gone. The situation was too much and my subtle grins stretched painfully to a resigned broad smile followed by very obvious laughter.
He glanced at me in the mirror and we shared a knowing grin. I think it was finally at this point he realised and acknowledged my comedic discomfort, and I presume this prompted him to abandon the next stage of the process. Thankfully the bottle of massage oil stayed firmly on the counter and I was permitted to exit the chair and make my way to the door. This was however not before he’d charged me four times the usual price! We debated about this for a while and then came to an agreement, which included a categorical promise that next time I’d come solely for a haircut and entertaining television.
As I left the shop that evening I felt like I’d learned a valuable lesson. I’m still not entirely sure what that lesson is, but I learned it all the same. I bid my farewells to the barber, his colleague and the stranger, and as the door slid shut I heard the rampant screams of the monkeys from Jaipur continuing with their reign of terror at the temple….
Here are two photos (in no way related to the story in this blog) that I took here in Bangladesh, which do show a fairly typical barber shop.