by Darrin DuFord
Sometimes it takes a machete.
Three dollars. It can’t even get you a beer in a New York City bar. But it’s the going rate for a haircut in Panama City. Peppered all over the El Cangrejo neighborhood, the barbershops, too many for the available number of scalps, all advertise the same rate. Then again, I never saw a Panama City dweller with a hair out of place.
When in the capital, I decided that I must have stood out. My cowlicks flared at will, encouraged by the humidity. I was something to gawk at. My four-pocketed guayabera shirt, a standard of the capital, wasn’t fooling anyone, so I assigned myself the mission of acquiring said three-dollar cut to complete my disguise.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t have to walk far to find the closest barbershop. I just followed the cheerful neon shouting abierto. The inside of the salon, however, sulked in cinderblock drabness. In one corner of the waiting room (or was it a burrow?), a magazine hung in front of a man’s face like a cigar. A child, probably his son, dragged a toy around on the stubby carpet. Enthusiasm hovered at an ominous low.
Without moving the magazine, the man gestured to me to pick up a catalog that featured nothing but pictures of some of the timeless Central American male hairstyles: neat, greased up, geometric crops fashioned from short bursts of black hair. They were the kind of styles that complement pimped out slacks and a smooth salsa step. Pity I possessed neither the pimped out slacks (I traveled light) nor a dance-floor dominance (mostly forgotten).
The man lifted his gaze, revealing a doughy, cratered face slickened with sweat, or some kind of anti-pimple ointment. His coffee-bean eyes hid somewhere under his brows. He had the kind of unsettlingly oversized head you’d expect to find on a marble statue, not on someone who will be whizzing blades around your face. In a soft murmur, the dough parted, and he asked me if I was ready.
Even though I couldn’t find a fitting cut in his catalog, and even though I felt like a hobbit compared to his jawbone, my desire to support the local economy kept me gazing at the cinderblocks. Maybe he could give me another kind of style? Saying that I wanted a short cut that’s a little pointed up at the front–like what one could find at the barber shops in New York City’s East Village–wouldn’t help. So I gave him a hopelessly vague answer: could he give me my current style, but shorter?
He didn’t respond as he led me down a hall, darker and deeper into the burrow. At the end, his cutting room, free of windows, relied on a dusty fluorescent bulb that colored the countertop a cigarette-filter yellow. Everything was chunky and dull, like communist-era surplus. Why did he have to bring me so far back into the building? Didn’t he have to keep watch on his son?
It occurred to me that this secluded corner of the building would be ideal for harvesting someone’s wallet and/or organs. I considered telling him that I changed my mind and didn’t fancy a trim after all, that I actually intended to offer myself as dorky fodder for hustlers and pickpocketers.
But isn’t one of the benefits of travel to experience the unfamiliar? By that logic, I chose to stay. I decided it would be quite an accomplishment for him to steal a kidney or two using only a pair of scissors and a comb (now that would make a hell of a pub story). I just wished I were able to extract an ounce of intent from those secluded eyes of his.
When he held up his comb, I noticed something that was–well, unfamiliar. The comb was covered in a blob of dark hairs, a lush anthology of probably three hundred dollars worth of past services. In his other hand, the scissors boasted their very own hair-cakes, impossibly thick, like the glue-on mustaches the cops wear in grade-B, teenage horror flicks.
It was entirely possible that I’d end up with more hair stuck to my head than when we started, along with whatever egg-laying critters that might happen to enjoy camping out in pomade and salsa sweat.
Surely, with a chuckle, he’ll notice the lapse of hygiene and wipe off his instruments, I said to myself. But he didn’t chuckle. Instead, he began approaching, hairy scissors cocked, lunging in a relaxed pace, affording me just enough time to silently gasp.
Now, allow me to interject with a little of my wanderlust philosophy. When I travel, I like to go about life as the locals do. If they slurp up an unnamed meat stew, I hand over my bowl for a helping. If everyone shares luggage-carrying duties on a bus, I fall in line and serve as a communal sherpa. Perhaps the barber’s sanitary economy was perfectly normal for the address. Let the ugly Americans be as ugly (and clean) as they want inside their hermetically sealed coach buses.
But at this turn, I broke my own rule. My triple-ply, plastic-bagged American upbringing had temporarily hijacked my travel sense. I violated the prime directive. I asked him to clean the scissors. With an apologetic por favor.
He stopped in an unnatural, pained freeze. I finally saw the whites of his eyes. “Gringos, damn princes!” grumbled the thought balloon above his stare. Then he disappeared into another room.
I imagined that he might want to thank me for my criticism of his barbering technique by returning with a machete. “Is this blade clean enough?” he’ll ask while solving that pesky long hair problem in one swing to the jugular. The things I do to support local economies…
Before I could contemplate either a more drastic apology–or an escape–he returned sans-machete, his eyes reverting back to their normal size and temperature. For my approval, he displayed the pair of scissors, its mustaches completely shaved off. The comb was bald. Nowhere for lice eggs to hunker down, I said to myself more than a few times.
By the way, I should mention that my knowledge of such little insects is based on past brushes (no pun intended) with them in Panama, since head lice are a fact of life in the tropical country, albeit more prevalent in some of the rural areas. In Kuna Yala, an autonomous archipelago where the indigenous Kuna live in cozy formation on tiny islands, I’ve seen the Kuna lovingly pluck the pests out of each other’s heads. Just another afternoon errand.
Such a good deed actually changed the country forever. Delousing was one of the many activities that the Panamanian police, who occupied the Kuna islands until 1925, viewed as uncivilized. The police beat any Kuna caught in the act of plucking and tossing. The Kuna responded to the colonial choke chain with the Kuna Uprising of 1925, which ended up tossing the police off the islands (such a poetic form of delousing) and awarding the Kuna with autonomy. So as you can see, humble little lice can be seen as accomplices to a revolution, in an unkempt, punk rock kind of way.
Either that, or I was trying to rationalize the possibility that I’d return to the States with a dozen six-legged, undeclared, duty-free hitchhikers. And I doubt that the stranger sitting next to me in coach on the flight home would indulge me, with tweezers in hand, in bringing that number down some.
The barber was already going at my hair. Mashing his forehead into an oddly channeled concentration, he snipped in slow arcs, as if his mind were only half-focused on the task. And half-focused on what else? What was going on behind those dough-brows?
If I ended up with one of his catalog haircuts, complete with a shellacking of grease, maybe that would be a good thing. Maybe the bloodsucking insects would slip right off my head, riding down my hairs like slides in a kiddy park.
“Is that OK?” he asked me.
I turned in the mirror and stared with a strange, timeless pause. Not only had he succeeded in reverse-engineering my hairstyle–he had given me the best haircut I’d had in years! Even hairstylists in the East Village, with the aid of pictures on the wall, sometimes flub it up at four times the price. All those peculiar glances in mid-snip turned out to be nothing more than the barber peeking at his son in the other room.
My wallet remained in my pocket. All internal organs remained properly connected to one another. And he accomplished the cut without the help of a single louse. I guess I am just not punk rock enough for Panama. I’m a rebel without a parasite. But quite a dapper rebel, I should add.
When I relate the above in person, my listeners tend to back away from me in careful steps. Even though I unfairly underestimated the sanitary habits of the barber (I think), I still like to add a little flair to the storytelling by giving my head a scratch here or there.
Darrin DuFord has yet to find such a decent haircut in his hometown of Queens, New York. He has written for The Panama Report, where “The Comb of Rebellion” previously appeared, as well as GoNOMAD, Transitions Abroad, and Perceptive Travel. His book Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car was chosen by ForeWord Magazineas a Book of the Year finalist. Read his latest articles and recipes on his web site, www.OmnivorousTraveler.com. This story won the Bronze Award for Funny Travel in the Second Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.