Me: “Namaste. English?”
Barber: *hand waggle* (Indian to English translation: “Nope.”)
Me: “OK let’s try this…” *finger scissors around sides of head, point to hair on top and cross arms in a ‘NO’ sign, karate chop motion on both sides of bearded face* (Kyle to English translation: “Please take a bit off the sides, don’t touch the top, and shave my beard clean off.”)
Barber: *head wiggle* (Indian to English translation: “You got it.”)
This series of hand gestures I gave the barber in Udaipur are part of a vocabulary I’ve developed to get inexpensive haircuts abroad. Everywhere I’ve gone has had no shortage of roadside barbers who will gladly give you a trim for under $5 USD (and most times a lot less). As I found myself at the end of my trip in India, I decided to get a clean up before meeting my family in Abu Dhabi; a clean up that would include a substantial landscaping around my jaw as a gift to my mother who always wishes she could have her first-born baby boy back. After giving haircut instructions through hand signals, I took my seat on the side of the road.
I’d become fairly accustomed to sitting in a plastic stool at other street barbers but this venue was a step up. First off, we had a tin roof enclosure to protect my soon to be hairless face from the Rajasthani sun. The chair, likely brought from a regular barber shop, included and adjustable head-rest to lean back into and a platform to place my feet. The road, on the other hand, was a busy one and had no shortage of rickshaws and bikes whizzing by to my right. I faced a brick wall with a hanging mirror and a small wooden table with a variety of ‘street barber gear’ (which is pretty similar to ‘barber gear’ but with a bit more character).
I realized after the haircut began that I had not asked for a price. Rule number one in a flexible price economy is to agree to a cost upfront, as the customer is in no position to negotiate after services are rendered. This mistake had already bitten me in Delhi and Jaipur where I got into rickshaws with what I thought were functioning meters. But now, away from the hustle and bustle of the major cities, I had slipped back into my everlasting faith in the honesty of strangers. Does the barber really have so much to gain from ripping off one tourist? And if yes, can’t I actually afford to make this mistake once in a while? I decided to let myself enjoy the experience no matter how much it might cost. I closed my eyes and let him take the straight razor across my cheeks…
After cleaning up my face with the alum block the barber produces some oils and creams. What followed was a full 15 minute ayurvedic massage on my face, shoulders, and arms. At one point I look up and waggle my hand, trying to say “no thanks, I don’t need a massage right now”. But he just smiles and pats me on the shoulder before resuming. Maybe this was the con: let the tourist settle into the seat and give them the deluxe experience before charging a boatload. He’s got me under his thumb (and other four fingers) and I’m far to comfortable to argue.
“But jeez, how much is this going to cost?” I started to think. Certainly still less than the equivalent in the States but I hoped that I wouldn’t need to embarrass myself with an ATM run; I only had about 600 rupees in my pocket. He pats me on the back and gives me a thumbs up in the mirror. “How much?” I ask, while standing up and reaching my hand into my pocket to indicate I’m ready to pay. The barber holds out his index finger… “1”. I sheepishly hold out some bills with a shrug, not understanding his finger to mean ‘one haircut’, ‘one thousand rupees’, or ‘wait just one minute’. The barber smiles and takes one 100 rupee bill and touches his head with it before placing into his lock box. ($1.53 USD). Feeling rewarded for my faith in strangers, I hand him a second 100 rupee bill as tip. “For you”.
His head wiggles in gratitude and mine wiggles back with a big hairless grin.