I don’t know why, but haircuts overseas assume an importance they don’t at home. Perhaps it is the Forrest Gump chocolate box factor – you never know what you’re gonna get next. One of our drivers, Tyler, recommended a Pakistani barber near the police station. It was easy to find, just around the corner from my favourite Halal restaurant where I eat masala fish and chips. “Nadia’s Beauty and Hair.” On the pavement outside the shop was a pile of leftover, cooked rice, thrown out for the birds to peck.
I sat in the queue at 9am on Saturday morning. There was one man in the chair having his head shaved. He was going to attend a funeral and this is one occasion in Swaziland when a shaven head is de rigueur. He was having the Full Monty, a wet shave with a cut-throat razor, hot towels, the works.
The owner breezed in at 9:15 and ushered me into the next chair. He rolled my shirt collar in on itself and tucked in a plastic cape. He oiled up the clippers, squirted a mist of water on my head and we were off.
I find it’s always difficult striking up a conversation with a new barber. He broke the ice, “How does sir want it cut?”
“Not like his,” I said, nodding towards the customer in the next chair. “How about taking it back to how it was six weeks ago? Yes, short and the back and sides, but a little more off the top. I don’t like it when my hair gets floppy.”
“I can take ten years off, ” he said. “Okay, let’s give him free rein,” I thought.
Next, we discussed his daughter, Nadia, whose photo is tucked into the edge of the mirror. Actually, she owns the shop. It’s in her name. Her Swazi mum died four years ago and the barber wanted to ensure that she had some capital if he died suddenly.
The conversation turned to my occupation. “A doctor, eh? I’ve got something to show you here,” he said, putting down the clippers and smearing the front of his Samsung cell phone with oil as he flipped through his family photos. “I make precision surgical instruments,” he said.
“You do? How did you learn to do that?” I asked.
“I taught myself,” he replied, picking up a greasy comb and a pair of non-surgical scissors.
I was gob smacked. I took the phone and swiped through photos of forceps, clamps, retractors and dental equipment, all in gleaming stainless steel.
As long as he kept clipping, he had a captive audience. “I supply most of the private hospitals in Swaziland,” he said. “I undercut imported instruments from China and India by 50%. Best quality. Would you like to see some samples?”
I looked up from his phone and saw I didn’t have much hair left. I thought to myself, “I look like a convict. The only ten years I’ll get off is for good behaviour.”
Using a cut-throat razor with disposable blade, he precision cut the edges at the back and the sideburns. Then he took out some fine scissors and depleted my eyebrows, cleared out my external auditory meati and snipped my nasal hair. As a final touch, he stuck a finger in a pot of gloop and massaged my scalp. The hair stood up like spikes. I really did look like Nuk, the sick War Boy from Mad Max: Fury Road. On a bad day.
He whisked away the plastic cape and handed me a tissue to wipe my neck while he swept up my shorn grey locks. I doubted if these would find their way into a wig. I handed over £1.50 and wondered if it was value for money. The haircut would certainly last a long while. Stepping out into the sunshine, I saw the owner, Nadia, playing with a skipping rope, frightening the pigeons away from the pile of rice. I gave her 50p and slipped on my Aldi sunglasses, hoping I would remain incognito on my walk home. Luckily, the blazing sunshine forced me to wear a hat for the remaining two days of the Bushfire music festival.
I’m not sure of the accuracy of my grandad’s favourite adage, “What’s the difference between a good and a bad haircut? Two weeks.”