The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image


I was returning from the Himalayas after a couple of weeks of wandering — my facial hair was given a chance to showcase its natural glory. My beard not only grows at an unmatched speed, but it also curls fast, and every single strand has a different colour. I am quick to acquire the looks of a lunatic if I do not shave twice a day.

The weeks spent on the mountain were enough to grow a thick layer of facial insulation, and I was rather keen to get rid of it the moment I reached civilization. The concept of civilization is always subject to interpretation, this time around it meant a small transport hub in Himachal Pradesh that had at least one barber shop. I got my onward bus ticket, and, having an hour to spend, I entered the barber shop.

Monkeys in the Himalayas

Certain Himalaya residents never feel the need to visit a barber.

Unusual for any location in India, there were no people inside. The owner waved from the other side of the road, indicating that he would attend to me as soon as he managed to cross the road. It took him a few minutes, but he arrived with a grin on his face that reached from ear to ear. He had me seated. Ganeshji was sitting comfortably in the corner of the mirror. He seemed to have had a good shave that morning, so I began to ease up. I also spotted a drill-like device. I pondered in which hair-related scenarios the barber would apply it. In any case, I told the barber characteristically that I wished to be shaved in that instance. I received the typical sideways head bob in response, which normally means that the sound waves penetrated the listener’s eardrums, but the information may or may not have been processed.

He commenced cutting my hair, which was very nice of him, but I did not quite ask for it. I began to suspect that his English was within extremely well-defined limits. There was something distinctly Indian in the result of his cutting efforts, complete with a well-defined partition.

He used blades for the shave. I always cut myself at innumerable places when I do so; I was very keen on seeing how he was managing it with his 60+ years of experience. To my great satisfaction, once he finished, I was bleeding at two dozen places. It was not my skills, it was my skin that would not subject itself to the treatment of a blade.

He left my moustache intact, though, and asked whether I wanted to keep it. I said no, and made every possible non-verbal indication that no amount of hair should remain attached to my face. He bobbed his head sideways with a grin, so I knew he had his own ideas. He was up to date with the latest trends in upper lip embellishment, and trimmed my moustache to shape. With the rest of shrubbery removed, I distinctly looked like the next paan wallah. Then he spread a weird, salty facial cream on my scars.

A poster of a moustached fellow

The pictured gentleman was not up to date in moustache fashion

He was not finished yet, and I was starting to have a bad feeling. He removed the drill from the packaging. He began to operate the machine, he pressed it to my cheek. I was uncertain of his purpose, but it felt horrible. My brain vibrated as he attempted to create a alternative opening to access the inside of my mouth. He moved the equipment backwards, then up to the temple, detaching one of my saliva glands as he progressed. He pressed it harder on my temple, perhaps testing how much pressure my skull would take. I passed the test, and he stopped the torture.

My time was running out, I had a bus to catch, but he had more to do. The question came: Head massage, sir? No! Despite my protests, he gave me an Ayurvedic head massage, then repeated it. Once he finished, he applied the salty facial cream again to rejuvenate my dying skin cells.

Finally he used a towel to clean my ears. Considering that the towel was sloppy in the beginning, I did not want to know how many ears he cleaned that day with the same towel. The experience cost me about a hundred rupees, then I had to make a dash for the bus.

If India is a country where anybody will give you a haircut irrespective of qualifications, Japan is the country where barbers will not give you one. They dread foreigners. If you go there at 5pm, they will say that they are sorry, but they are closing. At 2pm, the answer is the same. They should be sent to India for cross-cultural training. Weeks passed by, and my hair was getting unruly. Eventually I figured that high-end hair salons will receive you, as they might have English speaking staff.

I found such a hair salon while ambling through the Ginza district in Tokyo, rather desperate for a haircut. Ignoring the stylish façade, I barged in dishevelled as I was, and announced my desire of receiving a haircut. A pause followed as the patrons and personnel of the barber emporium fixed their eyes on me. Finally a bloke walked up to me, and told me which was the way to the next vacant barber chair. He was a near-genuine ハードゲイ, and his English was almost fluent.

We were chit-chatting about Japan while he carefully adjusted the length of every strand of my hair one by one. He also bowed occasionally. I tried to bow back as much as I could, but it is not easy to bow while being seated. The whole process took a while, I was getting drowsy. I was wondering if there was also a coffee vending machine built in my seat, which was otherwise heated from below. Japanese people just love sitting on warm things, toilet seats being the most notable example.

A row of vending machines in Kyoto

The next challenge in Japanese miniaturization: integrate a row of vending machines in a barber chair.

He informed me of the next step: washing my hair. He asked whether I wanted a Western or a Japanese style hair wash. I chose Japanese style without hesitation. Hearing my reply,  he was regretting ever asking. He asked me whether I was sure. Sure I was, and I was also becoming curious. He called the head washer. They bowed to each other, and then to me. Apparently there was a hierarchy of jobs in the salon, and the professional hair washer was not on the top.

He gave a long, rambling speech in Japanese to the hair washer, instructing him how exactly my hair should be washed. In the process, he asked me twice whether I was really sure that I wanted a Japanese style hair wash and not a Western style. Then they bowed again, my barber temporarily disappeared, and my hair wash commenced. I failed to detect what was so quintessentially Japanese in the proceedings. It was a meticulously executed hair wash, no doubt, but there was nothing remarkable about it. The hair washer bowed away, and my barber returned.

I had been warned by expats that weird happenings might surround a haircut. That part followed. A haircut in Japan entails shaving one’s forehead and temples, and removing hair from around the ears even if they are invisible or not there at the first place. People proudly sporting a unibrow might also want to make a point in advance, otherwise they will become the owners of ordinary bi-brows. He also applied a cream, which was not salty, thankfully.

It was pitch dark by the time we finished. He probably spent more time on my hair than I did in the preceding three years. I was bald for the better part of those three years, but even then, it was one extraordinarily long haircut. He gave me his business card, and I paid. It cost me about 21.978 times more than the skull-drilling exercise in the Himalayas.

Barbers can always find ways to waste your time even if their skills are not exactly top-notch. Wandering through Bobo-Dioulasso’s market in Burkina Faso, I was, again, weeks overdue for a cut & shave. I stumbled upon a shabby whole-in-the-wall barber shop, and I hesitated no further. Upon entering, a surprised youngster greeted me, and made me sit down. So far so good, I thought. Then came a long ramble in French, which did not have any connection to the transaction we were to perform — although my French understanding was about as good as my Teochew. I made no secret about the level of my linguistic skills, and made a variety of hand signals to disambiguate my intentions of entering the shop.

Roadside ad for a traditional pharmacy

More than a barber: treat your haemorrhoid here.

His rant continued. I gathered something about London and a visa, and also about me helping. He fished out his scissors from an undefined location, but he looked like he was handling the tool for the first time. He slowed down his speech ensuring I was able to follow. I replied in my broken Spanish with a fake French accent — that was my way of speaking the language. The velocity of his cutting matched the pace of his monologue.

He was dying to move to London. His geography was somewhat jumbled, placing the US next to the UK with no body of water in between. Ireland vanished in the tectonic rearrangement. I encountered this way of thinking in Western Africa before: Europe is a French-speaking country with a massive shortage of unskilled labour, and I am the ambassador doling out visas to those who ask. I am also capable of helping people getting a superbly paid job, especially if they are illiterate. With my false French, I conveyed the idea that it would be unlikely to nail a job in London without a decent command of English. He would learn English there, came the crafty reply.

The efficiency of his manoeuvres with the scissors was low, but after an hour, he announced my hairdo ready. I dared not to comment on it. He then lathered me up, fished out a used blade from the same place where the scissors emerged from, and continued the verbal daydreaming. In the end, I duly bled from uniformly distributed blood sources on the shaveable area of my face. I also made a note of checking the HIV rate in the region, that blade was probably the most dangerous item I ever came to contact  in my life, discounting a hungry crocodile.

For non-exotic barbers, look no further than Singapore. The lovely island has several chains of barber shops that offer a haircut in five minutes for S$10. These joints are also good places to meet people who do not speak English. The only style they know is called the “Respectable Chinese Man in His Forties” style. Everybody gets that, even women. The joints are notable for being clean, and they also emphasise perceived hygiene. Combs are placed in a box with blue light for five seconds. That is supposed to kill micro-organisms. I am certain that those combs bread out an ebullient species of bacteria that thrives in those conditions. Gone are the days of reused ear-cleaning towels and recycled blades, hail the blue-light loving, dandruff-eating superbacteria!


  1. Kathleen says:

    Awww, where is the pic of you with a massive multi-coloured beard? 🙁

    1. Peter Peter says:

      You have no idea, my beard is getting out of control again. Yesterday I counted five colours, ranging from grey to dark red. A Beijing barber is likely to be added to my sample soon.

      1. Kathleen says:

        I hope the other three colours are gold, purple and cyan. LOL.