01 August 2012

Just Another Day at the Saloon

I was in Jinja the other day to meet some friends and important people in their lives that I'd not met yet. I wanted to look my best, naturally. Since I'd been out of water for several days and had literally no clean clothes, I decided the only way to look somewhat presentable was with a haircut and, since my beard trimmer broke several months ago and my beard was reaching near-Amish lengths, a shave.

I got the 4:30am bus that comes through town, hoping that the work that had been done on the Mbale-Soroti highway over the past few weeks – filling in potholes, flattening, paving: it's now more or less filled in and flattened all the way up to Kumi and paved about halfway up, which made the worst highway in Uganda, by far, slightly less worst – would make for a smoother ride and more sleep. It didn't. But at least they weren't blasting traditional Ugandan music, like last time I'd taken the early bus. I was able to catch a few minutes of sleep once we got out of Mbale and hit solid tarmac, and the bus got me to Jinja around 8:45, plenty of day left to clean myself up. So I checked into a hotel – The Crystal Palace, which sounds like it's named after a David Bowie movie, and is not as fancy as it sounds – and headed out to find a barber.

I walked past a few signs for, as they call them here, saloons, but they all pointed down alleys off the street, and I thought I could do better. After about ten minutes of walking, I realized that no, I probably couldn't. I passed another sign pointing down another alleyway and decided that was the one: A large mural of a barber giving a haircut was on the outside wall; they'd at least put that much effort into their shop, so they must be at least that much committed to their craft.

They didn't seem surprised to see a muzungu walk into their shop at nine in the morning, which I took to be a good sign, and both barbers were hard at work on haircuts already, which I took to be another good sign. The fact that they were both hard at work on Ugandan guys was beside the point.

When one of the barbers finished and his barbee – what's the word for the one getting a haircut? – paid, he went to slap me on the knee, sort of missed and slapped my inner thigh instead, was unfazed by the contact his hand had just made with my inner leg – “Yes, big man! How are you?” – gave me an enthusiastic high-five/handshake and told me I was next.

I sat down in the chair and explained what I wanted him to do – don't cut the top at all, just buzz the back and the sides – feeling confident because how hard could that be?

Very hard, apparently, and what followed was the strangest haircut experience I've ever had.

(Despite the fact that I once got an accidental and terrible buzzcut at a random barber shop, they usually do a pretty good job, and so I keep going back, rather than waiting til I'm in Kampala and paying 10x the price for someone who I know knows how to cut my hair.)

He began with fire. That's not a metaphor for his enthusiasm. He actually lit a small fire on the wood counter. “Some people don't do this,” he told me, as he held the clippers over the fire to sanitize them. “You don't say,” I said, my confidence going up in flames. After that, it quickly became obvious I was his first muzungu haircut.

He started to go at my head with the newly sanitized clippers, and with difficulty. He was going down, with the direction of my hair, and the effect was not what he seemed to hope it would be: In that direction, he literally wasn't cutting any of my hair. Discouraged, he grabbed a pair of scissors instead. My confidence came back a little bit: Usually these places don't even have scissors, let alone know how to use them.

He sized up the back of my head for a minute and then went at it with the scissors. However, instead of, as barbers do when they know how to cut white hair, holding a bit of hair between his fingers on one hand to measure it out while cutting with the scissors in the other hand, he just went for it – free-style, free-hand.

After two sizable cuts, I decided that was not going to end well – a couple weeks ago, we had given Nick a haircut and had quickly found out how hard it is to give good haircuts with scissors – and told him so before he could do any serious damage. “I think maybe the clippers will be better,” I said. He didn't miss a beat – how many chunks had he already taken out of my head? – before readily agreeing, “Yes, I think so,” and putting the scissors away.

The next thirty minutes: he figured out that going up with the clippers was better than going down; he still went down with them the majority of the time; he marveled at the fact – “So you will see a white man cutting hair??” – that we had barbers in America; he told me that, since I was from the United States, I was a son of Obama, and that since I was living in Uganda, I was also a son of Museveni; he marveled at the texture of my hair – “Eh! Your hair is smoooooth!” – and I decided not to tell him that it was because I'd been out of water for a few days and it was just greasy; at one point, he spent a good thirty seconds going over my face with the clippers, underneath my eyes, where there isn't any hair; a large Muslim man walked into the shop, removed his shirt, and left again (Ramadan fasting going to his head, possibly); and it became rather clear that, in his admirable attempt not to do a really terrible job on my hair, he just wasn't going to cut very much off so I told him that it looked fine and we gave up and moved on to the beard; this presented him with an even greater level of difficulty; there was a lot of baby powder involved; I spent a good two minutes trying to convince him to literally just shave it all off; then I just took the clippers and did it myself; finished, there were then four different types of lotion rubbed all over my face, and a good five minutes of face-massaging; then he asked me if I knew Nick, and I briefly wondered if this whole thing wasn't some kind of payback for the hack-job we'd done on his hair the week before, impressed with his planning and how he knew that I'd go into that particular shop at that time (giving him more credit than he was due: You just can't plan these sorts of experiences; he had no idea who I was talking about... allegedly).

Finally, I was able to extricate myself from the chair and his lotion-covered hands, paid and thanked him for his time, realized that we'd had an audience of four women and two men for the entire experience, waved at them, and left, my hair looking almost exactly the same as it had when I'd walked in an hour earlier. At least I got my beard trimmed.

All of that brings me to this: We had our Close of Service Conference a few weeks ago, and I officially end my Peace Corps service on September 20. Two years has flown by – “Someone was playing with the clocks, and not only with the electric clocks, but with the wind-up kind, too. The second hand on my watch would twitch once, and a year would pass, and then it would twitch again.” Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five – and now with only seven weeks left, I've started to realize some of the random little things that I'll miss about living in Uganda.

Thing I'll Miss About Living In Uganda #134: The kinds of experiences you only get when you get your hair cut in a random back-alley saloon.

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