Star-Date March 2015: I spent the day walking across most of Monteverde, Costa Rica, in an effort to pin down a house we could potentially rent should we make good on our migration this direction.
In the morning I’d passed a small storefront that advertised “barber.” It was about noon at the time, and the posted hours indicated that the shop opened at 11:30. The fact that it was now 30 minutes past that appointed time with no sign of the barber makes perfect sense on Tico time. I waited outside for a couple of minutes just in case, but had then continued on my route.
At 5:00 p.m. that same afternoon, post many miles of walking up and down hills I found myself back in front of the barbershop. Reggae music blared through the crack of the almost-shut door. I peered in and saw a young, skinny man sitting on a small stool, lost within the murky depths of his cell phone. I hadn’t passed any other barber shops in my travels, and my hair was fast approaching game-show-host levels of altitude, so I decided to go for it.
I opened the door and stuck my head in. “Esta abierta?”
The young man casually got to his feet and pointed to the only other chair in the cramped room. This rolling chair, once upon a time, was probably located behind a desk somewhere in San Jose. The years have not been kind to it, but it did appear capable of holding my weight. Probably.
I put my backpack down on the floor and sat down gingerly. The aged chair creaked and groaned but did not immediately collapse. I was already hot from my long bout of walking in the heat of the dry season, but I soon realized that the room was considerably hotter than what most humans can tolerate. Sure, it was 88 degrees outside, which felt more like 100 in the equatorial sun at a high elevation, but it had to be well over 100 in terms of the actual, measurable temperature in this room. There were no windows – just panes of glass covered over with posters — and the only potential way to reduce the heat would involve opening the door that he just closed behind me.
I don’t know how it slipped my gaze previously, but I noticed that my young barber is wearing Elvis-meets-circa-1976-Elton-John-sunglasses which take up over half of his face. This accessory was obviously a lifestyle choice, not something dictated by the environment as there was no lamp or light bulb in the room itself. The only light comes via the what leaked in from the outside between the posters and what now appeared to be a sheet underneath a layer of posters on the main pane of glass.
“Lo siento. Hablo como un niño.”
He laughed, and then pointed to a series of pages that had been taped to the wall in front of me around a smallish mirror. The pages showed a variety of haircuts. Most of these haircuts involved vivid, involved patterns created by carving into the hair with a very fine razor.
I thought hard for a minute about whether or not I wanted a T-Rex emblazoned on the side of my head for the remainder of this trip — and however long thereafter it took my scalp to reforest the affected area. For a moment I considered going for it, but I then remembered that I needed to have meetings with prospective landlords over the next few days. I didn’t know when, if ever, I’d be free enough to walk around bearing dinosaur artwork on my scalp, but that level of freedom would not be achieved today.
Off to the side of this montage was a picture of a man with a relatively normal haircut. The only obvious downside to this haircut was a bouffant aspect, which would go quite nicely with my barber’s sunglasses.
“Come eso,” I pointed to the bouffant pic but then added, “Pero no…” I then completely gave up on attempting to speak Spanish and instead went with the old stand-by – hand gestures.
My young barber, about at eye level me even though I’m sitting, laughed in response to my efforts to convey a desire for a flat area where the bouffant would otherwise go. With his dark sun glasses taking up almost all of his face it was hard to tell if the laughter was with me, or at my expense.
I decided to pull out the big guns in my Spanish lexicon and asked, “Como se llama?”
The barber has obviously put quite an effort into being cool. He’s got his own place, which he’s decorated in Jamaican colors. He’s got the reggae music — which seems stuck on an amazingly long song talking about how seizing the weed is going to compel the locals to burn the cane fields — the giant sunglasses, and a collection of wrist bands that seem likely to overwhelm his skinny arms. My question, however, had potentially blown a hole into this mystique.
He muttered something, shaking his head at the same time.
“Mike. Mi nombre es Mike.” It wasn’t actually Mike but something equally innocuous and non-revolutionary.
That wasn’t the name I was expecting, and he didn’t seem too excited about sharing it. It seemed like he could’ve just told me his street name — I assume he at least thought he had a street name from his time on the rough and tumble, tourist-laden, streets of Monteverde — or simply come up with something cool. Perhaps the sweat streaming down my fat face inspired honesty.
I reached into the well that is my Spanish and went with the next logical question. “De donde eres tu?”
This question seemed to put him back on his game. He spread his hands and bobbed his head to the music. “Aqui man. Aqui.”
He then turned my head towards the mirror and got down to business. His two sets of electric clippers took turns dying as he cut through my mop of hair. I continued to stare at the hair-art taped to the wall in front of me as he fussed with the clippers, occasionally raising up his sunglasses to get a better look at what was jamming them this time around. I suspected that a big part of the problem was the four gallons of sweat I’d already pushed out in this attic of a room but it was his world and I was just visiting it.
We quickly reached a point where it seemed like all involved had done all they could with the clippers. The hair on the top of my head still seemed dangerously high, but his lone pair of scissors looked like they were stolen from an elementary school and he didn’t seem interested in using them.
I started to get up but he put a hand on my shoulder and reached past me to a display of razor blades that I’d somehow missed. The display, which looked like it belonged in a hardware store, featured about 15 little pockets of individually wrapped razor blades. Davis grabbed one of the razors and gingerly peeled off the paper. I wasn’t really nervous before. I was now.
Grabbing the top of my head with one hand, he cautiously used the edge of the thin razor blade to trim the edge of the hair line of my right temple. For the first time in this entire process, he seemed like he was actually concentrating. For a lot of reasons, this didn’t make me feel any better. He went over the same spot a few times, then made a clucking noise and removed his giant sun glasses.
He smiled at me and, now that I could actually see his face, I confirmed mentally that he was no more than 18 years old. He started back in with a bit more vigor, but stopped again when the noise of small engines on the road outside drew near. He put down the razor and left the room, shutting the door most of the way.
From my seat I leaned back and peered out to see him talking with several other young men, all of whom were riding small dirt bikes. Each of the young riders had a helmet which featured horns or other protruding objects. I sat inside, tempted to go out and get some air but concerned that I’d then lose the will required to reenter the hotbox. After a few minutes of exchanging pleasantries the small engines fired back up, the horned youth tore off, and Davis returned to the task at hand.
A few minutes, and several more gallons of sweat later, I emerged with a thoroughly shaved scalp line to accompany my provocatively bouffant haircut. It was time for a shower. I’d then change and go look for a place where I could buy a hat.
Note: in September of 2015, post our migration to Monteverde, I witnessed Mike closing his door with a sad look on his face as he trudging up the hill, struggling under the weight of an overstuffed backpack. This would be his final act as a barber. The small room that was previously his barbershop sat empty and, without its posters, exposed for a number of weeks before it came back to life as a local trinket shop. The rumor mill, and believe-you-me this small town has a rumor mill, suggested that Mike was shut down by the local police department for distributing a substance well-known in the Bob Marley community. I have no idea if this is true, but if it is I know I was deemed to be too square to imbibe, yet somehow cool enough to pull off an Eraserhead haircut.