Barbershop Postcards—a True Cultural Travel Selfie
Story and photos by Bruce Northam

With a bit of luck, sometimes the mane event is the main event. A writer and tour guide documents his world travels with mirror photos from the barber's chair.

haircuts while traveling in other countries

Don't predict your trips, invent them, snip by snip. It doesn't take a wizard to realize that selfies are almost always second to memories captured beyond arms' reach. Alas, for some, it seems making temporary pals who will snap shots is a bygone ritual. Interaction has given way to looking inward.

My issue with selfies stems from my long journey as a travel writer. Today, selfies steer volumes of what used to be travel reporting. As opposed to traditional travel journalism, which asks its audience to see a destination with or through the writer, the selfie-driven writer model screams "Look at me!" The new volunteer army of self-obsessed raconteurs fails to mine a destination and address key issues like asking locals not where to eat but where they eat. When the place is just the background, there's no nuance of seasonal timing, safety, and what's really going on there beyond the eternally smiling face (or daily back of the head).

But not all selfies are uncalled-for. On every international trip, I get haircuts in local barbershops and use the joint's mirror to capture a shot that reveals the heart of each country. This selfie style makes the pictorial foreground a showcase of the hair products used in that country and the local language. Your in-action indigenous barber can star in the shot right alongside you. The background can be a circus of other barbers at work and feature headshots of where your mop has been transported. This improvised workingman's time capsule of where you've been is a story in itself.

 haircuts in Georgia

Don't judge countries by their State Department warnings. Everything you need to know about the right and wrong sides of town awaits in local barbershops. I often turn my "developing" country haircuts into happy hours by bringing snacks, notebooks, or beer for all—where a case of brew's price—tag equates to just one-fifth of a Noo Yawkh-style blowout (blow-dry). Try that in your hometown. I also probably give one of five tips the barbers will earn that year. Anyone who has worked for tips knows that outside America, tipping is often rare or nonexistent. Yup, the following scenarios makes being a fat-cat tipper easy as pie.

A Trim and Then Some in India

In mostly Hindu India, a disproportionate number of barbers are Muslim, so turning this service into a happy hour is a case-by-case venue. It recently dawned on me in a Periyar (Kerala) barbershop that everything is recycled in India, including dreams-and hair. A year earlier, while shopping for a trim in Delhi's Paharganj Bazaar, I was quoted 50 rupees (75 cents) in a dank back-alley barbershop. A thousand steps later, I was sold on an 80-rupee pitch made by Mohammed Arkan, who hawked his services standing in front of his open-air workplace. After an expert, no-gadgets cut, he swayed me into an Ayurvedic face massage that soon tumbled into a faint-inducing vibrator-assisted head rub. The facial treatment, which also employed the battery-operated vibrator attached to the back of Mohammed's hand, blended a skin-nourishing treatment with spritzed rosewater. The drab hairdresser cell transformed into a spa by default, as I'd achieved temporary health and wellness on Gandhi's home court. The head massage left me drowsy and in no mood to contest my final bill, which had ballooned to 250 rupees (under $4).

haircuts abroad in India

Mohammed, a Muslim, is an 18-year employee at the Hindi-owned Punjab Hair Salon (storefront sign also reads: Since 1947-The Evolution). After my healing triad, two street kids wandered in for a photo op. I lingered inside the dingy barber shop for another hour, discussing taboos, such as religion, politics, and Chinese tourists, with the multilingual Hindi owner who reminded me that 15-percent (approximately 200 million) of India's 1.3 billion people are Muslim. This hairdo-led overhaul was also a lesson in religious harmony.

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Read this article online at: Barbershop Postcards—a True Cultural Travel Selfie

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2019. All rights reserved.

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