[Family Portrait. Lumbini]
A Kathmandu Haircut
“Here, baby, there, momma, everywhere, daddy, daddy,
Flow it, show it, long as God can grow it, my hair”
- Hair: The Musical
The significance of hair in human society is potent and should never be undercut - pun intended. At the top of physical expression, a full head of shiny locks shows the more voracious of mates that I am indeed young, healthy, and ready for the taking, (Juicy eh? For purposes herein I shall adhere to hairstyles of the head and refrain from journeying into lower areas best left to romantic lit.).
Hair is not just “the filamentous bio-material that grows from follicles found on the dermis”, nor is the utility of hairiness found only in camouflage or thermal regulation. Nope. Hair varies greatly and represents cultural values. It can make anarchic statements, like the Mohawk, or serve spiritual needs, like shaven or dreadlocks, or, it may also defy logic, like Victorian Judges' wigs or Donald Trump’s rug.
So here I am, a Kiwi-Clown in Kathmandu, on a three month stint teaching circus skills to Nepal’s only native circus troupe. It’s April and springtime and becoming hot and muggy. After an intense day of training at the local ‘Flexi-Fit’ gym, wherein, I was incessantly scratching my head, my wife Mim pointed out the obvious - “Babe, you need to get a haircut!” - It had indeed grown shaggy and unmanageable, revealing greying sides that belie my thirty-four years. Hmmm … but where in this developing country could I find scissors delicate enough for my artist’s coiffure?
Later that evening we walked several blocks back to our homestay in Jāwalākhel; a southern town in the Lalitpur District of the Kathmandu Valley. The streets and alleys are vibrant, dirty and dusty. Mangy dogs laze about. Power-poles lean with their lines weaving and tangling at head height, requiring vigilance. We arrive as half a ruby sun sets behind our apartment building. It is a modest four-story design topped by water tanks, common in the area. The not so common feature is its bland colour grey, an unsightly concrete tone outshone by its neighbours in striking yellows, maroons, pinks, and greens. It’s what’s inside that counts I think to myself, as we plod up the stairs.
We slump down in the kitchen where our Jewish-American flat-mates, Charlotte and Sam, are cooking dinner and jamming on the net. They’re the teachers we’re succeeding at Circus Kathmandu, and are a couple of weeks from leaving the country. Charlotte is a fit hand-balancer, in her early thirties, blonde-ponytailed, and wears black-rimmed glasses that slightly magnify her bright blue eyes. She is a sharp bubbly sort and holds a degree in Mathematics. Her older brother, she jokes, is a nerdy out of work PhD Physicist. She cooks her famous pancakes with exuberance.
“You want some guys? Help yourself.”
“Hell Yes! Butter please,” we dig in.
Sam taps away on his IPad. He is a tall stout young man of twenty four and an aerial straps artist. He wears a short-shorn beard that gives him the appearance of a lumberjack, and makes a nice frame for his grin. He is wearing a baseball cap and on perusal I notice something different about him.
“Have you had a haircut?” I pry.
“Sure have! I found a great little western style hairdresser by the Namaste supermarket today,” he replies in an American drawl, removes his cap, runs his fingers through his sandy-blonde locks. Where he used to have long hair just touching his shoulders, he now had a nicely shaped bob that curls under his ears touching his lobes. Sam then reveals that his full name is the Hebrew: Samson. The great biblical Samson whose power was sealed up in his hair, but his lover Delilah betrayed him and cut it all off while he slept, and he was left a hollow husk and captured by his enemies. Quite the namesake, Charlotte promises never to touch his hair.
“Whoa! Nice one. No shit man, I was just thinking about getting a cut. You’ll have to show me where it is?” I chime in.
“Sure thing.” He was forever helpful.
He pinpointed the salon on his IPad. It was a short mission from us of about seven kilometres toward central Kathmandu. “Ah! The wonders of Google maps” I declare.
“Yup! Give us a hot shower and internet and we’re happy” He is referring to us Westerners. We chuckle in agreement.
Until now, I envisioned the only hairdressers in Nepal to be of the barbarous sort. The local barber near us was the come, sit, and relax while I swipe at you with a cutthroat type. The kind I don’t abide by. I resolved to get my haircut at this flashy salon.
The day before my haircut, I observed the hairstyles of our Nepali circus troupe while at the gym. The ‘Girls’ (women) of the troupe have modest hairstyles typical of Nepali woman. Medium to long in length, black, and usually tied back and clipped away in a bun or plait. This is not just practical in the circus environment; it also reflects the conservative nature of their patriarchal culture. When woman let their hair down, so to speak, they are literally embodying a more sensuous and non-traditional look.
The 'Boys’ (men) on the other hand, exhibit the full range of modernised do, in black. There is Raj, with his medium length wavy hair, which softens his facial features into girlishness. Then there’s Aman and Bijay C, who sport variations of the Bieber-esque style, wind-swept and parted to the side that shadows the face and needs constant flicking away. And finally, there’s Bijay L, who has a hairstyle that appears fashionable amongst young men in Kathmandu. A sort of ‘American Indian’ meets the ‘Eighties’ motif. Closely shaven sides - a shock of jutting spikes on top - finished off with a mullet/rats tail that quivers down the neck. Remarkable! On reflection the style resembles the mighty peaks and meandering rivers that surround the valley.
The day arrives and we sleep in, laze about, and benefit from what’s known as ‘Nepali time’. Mim takes a photo of my shaggy ‘fro and moustache combo’ for prosperity:
“When I get back I’ll look like Daniel Craig again”, I say, playing on her obsession with the latest James Bond movie star.
“Mmmm sounds good to me,” she purrs. We kiss, and I set off on my journey.
I skip down the stairs and out the door into the stifling heat of the day. The sun shines and is defined, which is rare in this city of dusty haze, and bowl-like geography. Through the mosaic alley and darting round the corner, whoops; I nearly run into two school boys in uniform, who have neat haircuts, short-back and sides, and wear maroon ties that appear to have the Star of David on them. Out on the noisy street and into the messy realm of Nepali traffic. It seems that every third person owns a motorbike (which means a lot of helmet hair) and has their own rules of the road. The only shared rule is don’t ride too fast and honk to let me know your there. Fair enough, it works.
I barrel on to Jāwalākhel roundabout, where I’ll find my ride to the salon. I pass two demure young men with fags in their mouths and arms draped over one another like lovers, their white muslin shirts and long hair accentuates their softness.
This is not an uncommon sight; Nepali men are very tender to each other. I have a homely thought of a Canterbury farm boy/rugby head finding this image less than okay - and titter to myself. Further along, and a large black cow with splashes of milk-white across its hind quarter contently chews cud in the middle of the road, the traffic naturally flows round her, as a stream around a boulder.
I cross a street vendor’s stall and glance at his pictures laid on the ground, they’re religious: Shiva, Vishnu, and Ganesh, all wearing glorious golden head adornments embedded with rainbow coloured jewels. More modest in appearance are the Buddha in meditation with his top-knotted hair encircled by a brilliant halo, and Jesus, wearing his trademark humble robe, beard and shoulder length tresses.
The roundabout wiggles in a mirage up ahead.
I arrive and take shade at the packed bus-stop and gulp down half a bottle of water. My hair itches. It’s a large junction, on one side there is a market place full of folks, clothes, and crappy Chinese products under a vast canopy of iridescent umbrellas. And on the other, precarious high rise commercial enterprises large by Nepali standards.
Atop the buildings and all around are various billboards selling dubious products: “Zyada – Fair and Handsome” a skin cream designed to make your skin whiter, and a male Bollywood actor surrounded by Oscar awards in “Royal Stag Whiskey” with the caption “Have I made it large?” - My face furrows and reddens even more so.
A series of minibuses arrive brimming with people, but I pass on them and they leave. Then a couple of Tuk Tuks arrive. A Tuk Tuk, aka an Auto-Rickshaw, is a three-wheeled motorized cart with a carriage on the back for up to ten passengers. Of course there’s room for many more in this country of few traffic laws. I haven’t been in a Tuk Tuk, so I eye one up that has “Nepal clean energy development bank” written on the side in faded letters upon numerously dented and rusty panels.
“Kati Ho? (How much?)”, I ask the driver. He wears a dust mask, so I can’t trust his lips.
“Where go?” he mumbles back,
“That way” I point over there somewhere.
“10 Rupees” he bellows with a fistful of Rupees. Usually I’d haggle, but for the equivalent of twelve New Zealand cents, “Sweet as Mate!” I flick him a tenner. Score.
I jump in the back with an acrobat’s vigor and yelp “YeeHaa - Let’s go!” surprising the passengers. My travel buddies for this brief moment are three ladies: two of middle age and wearing traditional attire, and a young one opposite me dressed in school uniform.
The classy older ladies wear dazzling saris in reds, yellows, orange, and lashes of cyan, speckled in diamantes that twinkle in the sun. They have the red-painted ‘Tika” on their foreheads that smear back into the parts of their hair. The young lady opposite is dressed in black shoes and pants, plain white shirt and maroon tie (again with that Star of David), boring, but luckily her eyes sparkle like diamantes. I assume she knows English, “Hey! How are you, Miro nahm Danny ho. (My name is Danny)”, but test my Nepali as well.
“Hey! I’m Azure.” She shrugs coyly.
“Are you going to School?”
“Yes, I am learning Business,” she replies with an Indian head wobble.
A succinct conversation follows punctuated with awkward silences, but I think she enjoys the attention.
“I’m in my second year at University. I want to be a banker, but, it’s too hard to get a job in Nepal,” Azure laments.
“You should think big then, maybe consider going to China, Dubai, or even the West,” I retort.
She likes the prospect: “Yes! Maybe Brother.” My stop approaches and we shake hands.
“You are a smart woman, follow your dreams” I say, leaping out into traffic.
“Yes! Thank you Brother, I believe I can,” she shouts back. The two older woman look perplexed.
The Tuk-Tuk put puts away. We part with light hearts.
Over a chalky bridge I make my way past a white-gold Buddhist stupa placed upon a large grassy mound, it looks like a monk’s shaven head but with green stubbly hair. A beggar sits aloft; he’s completely blackened: clothes, feet, hands, face and thick matted dreads, but his bright white eyes beam down to the road below - where a colourful rubbish pile rolls about mimicking the fluttering Tibetan prayer flags above him.
Not far and I find it, nestled between the modern Namaste supermarket and the flashy Yak palace is: “KA” Ladies and Gents Hairdresser. I enter in and the door ding-a-lings. The familiar scent of hairspray, shampoo and drying hair washes over me. The salon is dim, the floors are marbled and the ceiling dark stained wood. Coldplay whispers from invisible speakers as people murmur and preen. I’m greeted and taken to the basin to have my hair washed, conditioned, and my head massaged.
Bliss! Itch scratched.
I’m seated and wait like a sodden cat eager to meet my hairdresser. She arrives “Namaste Sir, How are you?” says a radiant being with permed black hair that cascades over her shoulders. She wears glasses and has almond eyes set in a jolly plump face, like happy Hotai – the smiling Buddha. I answer “Very well thank you” and we pass pleasantries and reveal details. Her name is Tulsi. I try explaining in baby English that I’m a circus performer, she has no idea until I say “Gymnastics” and mime flick-flacks with my fingers across the counter in front of me, “Yes sir, I know! Ramro Cha. What haircut you want?” A chance to flex my acting skills:
“Cut it short, make me handsome, like Bond - James Bond” I raise an eye-brow to look debonair and snigger. Tulsi giggles at me, not with me. I admonish myself and ask her to make sure to get the greying sides, “I’m getting old eh? Where I come from we call it the ‘Salt and Pepper’ look”. “That’s funny Sir! I believe it makes you look wise” she replies,
Oh Stop it you! Here take all my rupees - Is what I was thinking, but instead said, “Ha! I bet you say that to all the guys”.
I ramble a bit and find out she’s twenty eight years old and hasn’t travelled outside Nepal. She has strong hands, I notice a ring on her wedding finger, and ask “Are you married?”
“No Sir, I not” she blushes.
“Sorry! In the west we wear our wedding rings on that finger” I point to my left ring finger and then to hers. She bubbles away into an adorable display of bashfulness. She takes the ring of her left ring finger and puts it on the index finger of her right hand.
“See, Sir! We put wedding ring on this finger” pointing to her right ring finger; the Nepali wedding ring finger.
“So when I ready, I put there, thank you” We both crack up laughing, a shared sense of meaning prevails. We simmer down and Tulsi continues cutting my hair. She is focused and precise, like the woodworkers I have seen about. It is her craft, she exudes pride in her work, I feel this, and relax into the safety of her hands. She will not butcher my hair.
We don’t speak. It’s nice.
She finishes, brushes off the excess hair, and grabs a mirror to show me the back, “Great! Dhanyabahd (thank you), my wife will be very happy” I praise her because she gave me a bloody good haircut. I’m happy, she’s happy, I pay, and she scoots around the counter and opens the door for me, her eyes full of affection.
“Why thank you, Madam,” I gesture a gentleman’s bow and leave.
“Swagatam. You are most welcome, Brother!” She bows her head in return. I have a strange sense that we’ve met before, and step out into the bright world refreshed, chiseled and serene.