I left my heart in San Francisco, but I left my hair in Ethiopia.
The danger sign was there, quite literally. The two hairstyle options apparently available to me at my Ethiopian barber shop of choice: Ricky Martin and Ludacris.
I was in northern Ethiopia with a mess I’d deliberately grown out for almost two months — saving myself, the African haircut virgin — and I was determined to navigate yet another haircut-as-cultural-experience. A World Wrestling Entertainment match, piped in from somewhere in the Middle East (who knew WWE needed subtitles?), blared on the television. All the men in the shop sported either dreadlocks or close cut afros.
Oh, the many forms of adventure travel we embrace.
Barber Shop Tourism. Why?
Sure, I seek traditional thrills while I travel. But I also pursue haircuts. I figure that barber shops serve as a window onto a culture. Haircuts have something to teach me about a place, and also my nerve.
I’ve had my ears torched in Turkey. I’ve enjoyed a 66-cent best-ever haircut in Peru (satisfying), a dazzling butt-cut grease comb in the mountains of Azerbaijan (horrifying), a birth control class with an Armenian barber in Yerevan (puzzling), a doom delivering barber in Malaysia (enlightening), and a street-side shave in Bangladesh that nearly halted traffic (unsettling), among a host of others.
I should note that Audrey, quite wisely and thankfully, does not share my curiosity.
A full account of haircut chronicles are forthcoming. To it I will add Ethiopia, a place that is known to me now as much for its deep culture as it is for its deep cuts.
The Hair Butcher of Gondar
I asked Fekadu, our dreadlocked guide, for barber shop recommendations in Gondar, a well-serviced looking town known for its collection of castles. Skeptical, he narrowed his eyes. In the most diplomatic tone he could muster, he tried to warn me off, “Ethiopia might not be the best place for a white guy like you to get a haircut.”
What did he know?
As it turns out, a lot.
The barbers looked a little thrown-off when I sat down in their chair. I might as well have been a fish. There was a distinct hesitation as to who would tackle this customer.
After puzzling for a pause, the one with a huge tattoo of Jesus Christ in a crown of thorns across his left bicep wrapped a cover around me. I pointed to the Ricky Martin poster in the window and offered a charade: “Ricky. Short on the side, little longer on top.”
He gave a quick nod in something that approximated acknowledgement and went to work.
It occurs to me that “work” here is a generous term. Wrecking balls do work, too.
Clippers. Lots of them. Attachments, too. Maybe a dozen. The odd thing was that the barber seemed to switch back and forth between various gauges of clipper extensions in random sequence and at random sites of my skull: number 4, then 9, then 6. Back, then side, then back again.
This struck me as unusual and dubious. Frightening and dangerous. In retrospect, I should have stood up, placed my hands together in a sort of gratitudinous prayer and walked out. Instead, I stuck with it.
My hair began to slough off in uneven chunks.
The barber and I shared no common verbal language. And charades carried their own special danger. There was no escape.
I retreated inward. “Maybe this won’t be so bad after all,” I attempted to console myself. I looked into the mirror, then to Audrey sitting along the back wall. I hoped she might intervene and save me. Instead, she buried her head in Ethiopian men's magazines.
I wouldn’t have watched, either.
For a brief moment, I became philosophical. Haircuts are instructive, I thought. For in haircuts — as in the whole of one’s life — there are no do-overs. Life is short. Abruptly, my hair was becoming so, too.
“Lean into it,” I thought.
As the buzzing continued, it was clear that I would look nothing like Ricky Martin or Ludacris, but rather their love child. Maybe even a little bit shorn, like Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3.
Just When You Think It Can’t Get Any Worse
What troubled me were all the little bits, bobs, and tufts that hadn’t quite been trimmed, rounded, tapered or faded properly.
The situation, however, would grow considerably worse.
The barber began to focus decreasing amounts of his already waning attention on my head and redirected it to the television. As his focus drifted to the TV, and greased bodies flew on the screen above him, so did his hand. He held the clippers in one hand and sparred in response to the fake brawl playing out on the television with the other. His movements took on a sort of involuntary quality, much like a dog’s might when you scratch its belly and you hit the spot.
Clearly, the wrestling match hit the spot for my barber. While he stabbed at the air with his left hand, his right hand got into the action. It was this right hand that really frightened me. In it were the still humming clippers and its vicinity was my unevenly shorn head.
This wasn’t so bad.
It was grim.
“Ummm, yes. My head,” I murmured quietly. I wished to make eye contact but I was afraid to move at all, for any sudden lurch might speed catastrophe. I imagined a zipper cut down a random lane of my skull.
Thankfully, one wrestler pinned the other, things simmered down, and my barber returned to work.
I’d exhausted any hope for the sides and the back. Thankfully, there was still a flappy tuft on top and flaky bangs in front.
Then he pulled out a short clipper and bee-lined straight for the bangs.
“But, but…” I murmured to myself, in that paralyzed “I’d like to scream, but I can’t” kind of sensation I’ve had during my worst nightmares. I could see the train wreck – like the one that spills over a mountainside and takes out an orphanage along the way — playing out in slow motion.
“He’s not really going to do this, is he?”
Then he did.
“Help…” A meek little voice cried out silently inside of me.
He cut straight under the bangs on the right side of my head. The shingle of hair that remained was probably less than a centimeter long. My head looked like a roof where the right pitch had been removed for repair.
I stared into the mirror in search of solace, paths of restoration.
There were none. The damage was virtually complete.
It was apparent my barber knew not of bangs nor of forward fringes. He left the tuft on top. I didn't take issue. Better to leave with the devil we know than to find the one we don't. As I alighted my chair and looked around the shop, no surprise. There were a few dreadlocks, and the others sheer afro cuts at the front of the head.
The barber tried to make me look just like everyone else in the shop.
How could I begrudge that?
I returned to meet our group for dinner, running my hand through the remaining hair to salvage tousle what remained, all in a painfully weak attempt to disguise the damage.
“Oh, it looks good,” they echoed. You know, the perfunctory bit everyone utters when she's shocked that you actually did THAT.
One of our companions took a first look, “Oh, not so bad.”
Then as she moved around, you could see the extent of the mess registering on her face. “Yes, it’s a little uneven.” As she wheeled to the back, “Ohh, yes…”
She didn’t need to finish the sentence. Easily, hands down to a hairy barbershop floor, it was my worst haircut ever.
Ludacris? Or ludicrous?
Fekadu looked at my hair and shook his head with a smile: “Yes. But, it was an experience.”
He was right. I got exactly what I’d come for.
Have a hair-raising moment of your own, or an odd travel routine that's your lens of cultural comparison? Sound off.
32 thoughts on “My Date With An Ethiopian Hair Butcher”
seriously one of the funniest posts I’ve ever read, this would be a Fantastic story to share in performance. And according to the photo, it really isn’t that bad, I was expecting so much worse. I read this entire piece outloud to my mother, guffawing the entire way through.
Love you guys and your zest for life and ALL it’s experiences.
Big big HUGS and hope our paths cross in person.
PS LOVE LOVE LOVE the new design of your website, so fresh and clean and uber Classy! 🙂 YAY!
Thanks, Kristin. Glad you enjoyed the piece and laughed the way through. That was my intent. I really enjoyed sharing this piece in person with friends. Much easier than trying to translate into a written piece, in fact.
Also, big thanks on the kudos for the site. Was a long journey, but we’re happy with the result. Glad you are, too!
As for the haircut, distance does wonders. That’s one of the reasons why I included the reaction of the people we were traveling with. In a draft version of this article, I actually included an epilogue about a visit to a barber in the U.S. who attempted to fix the damage. It went like this:
Prologue: The Fix
Weeks later, I found myself at a barber shop in the United States. You know: one with a red, white and blue barber’s pole. I enjoyed a sigh of relief in the comfort zone of familiar hands. I marched on up to the barber.
He took a look and cocked his head.
“Well, you see, in Ethiopia….” I told him the story.
He went to fixing. And upon the final go-round in the front, the site of the deepest damage, he picked up with two fingers what remained of my bangs, even a full six weeks after the incident.
“He didn’t leave me much to work with. Maybe it will get back to normal by your next cut,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief.
As he did, his partner walked by and gaped at my head. The look on her face approximated the famous painting The Scream.
“What happened there?” She said.
“Got his hair cut in Ethiopia.”
An experience, indeed. Make sure you try more in South Asia next time you’re in the region. I had, in Kathmandu, one of the dodgiest haircuts but greatest scalp massages in my life a little ways outside of Thamel.
Thanks for the suggestion, Stephen. I actually had a good cut in Pokhara after making our way around the Annapurna Circuit. Haircuts in India are always fun, inexpensive and often include a head massage bonus. Every time I return, I make a point to get a haircut there. I never emerge without an experience and a story.
our barbers have no experience for such ‘too’ soft hairs like the whites or asians , you may also notice ethiopians with soft hairs are also treated the same way , thousands of chinese out side addis ababa are suffering this
I completely understand. Like I say at the end of the piece, I couldn’t be angry at the barber for what he did. He was doing the best he could. I’m sure he doesn’t get many heads of hair like mine, either. And actually, that’s one of the reasons why I did this. I was curious. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do the same thing. All in good fun!
Hilhairious! Though your first mistake was asking a guy with dreads to recommend a barber shop…..
Karen, your comment makes me laugh. Fair point. You’d think that through all my travels I would have learned a thing or two about whom to ask for what 🙂
Love this! I wrote a piece on my Bolivian haircut and highlights (best of my many haircut-as-adventure-travel experiences by far!) here: http://cynthiaord.com/wp/blog/2011/09/24/bolivian-highlights-and-haircut-economics/
Glad you enjoyed it, Cynthia. Thanks for sharing your own haircut adventure.
what a dump?
you asked for a hair cut not a makeover. I bet he gave you a better look.
you can”t look like Ludacris nor Ricky Martin but just yourself.
Its sad how you post this, when there is a better thing to post and share about Ethiopian people. Is that what you came for? then trust me that’s what you deserve.
There is so many things to experience. just saying
Hi Elena, I’m sorry if this post offended you. Not my intent to offend, disparage, or cast aspersions.
If you are looking for a more serious treatment of our experiences in Ethiopia, I hope you will have had (or will now have) a chance to look at these articles:
Ethiopia First Impressions
If you read around this blog, I think you’ll find rare to the exception that we are always respectful. I don’t believe this article is any different. If anything, I make fun of myself intentionally. After all, who in their right mind makes this big a deal of a haircut? That’s the point.
Anyhow, I think you’ll find that we spend most of our time and words being quite serious about the places we visit, the people we meet and life in general. However, there are times when I (and others, I believe) need to lighten up. This article, for me, happens to be one of those times.
Been there, got the haircut. Well, not Ethiopia, but Ecuador. I was warned about haircuts there so I resisted for three months before caving in. I took a photo of what I wanted to look like and show the lady cutting my hair. She nodded and preceded to make my head look like every other man in Ecuador. I guess they have a law that all haircuts be the same…
Hi Bryan, I’m laughing…with you. I think that’s the beauty of haircuts. There’s a way they are done — a local way — and that’s that. By the way, not sure about you, but I’m more trusting of men cutting my hair than I am of women, particularly when they begin whip out the clippers.
Thanks for sharing your experience.
It doesn’t look THAT bad. I have had my fears about how people would treat my hair overseas though as well, so I definitely understand your apprehension!
True. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not so bad. However, take a look at my comment in response to Kristin: https://uncorneredmarket.com/my-date-ethiopian-hair-butcher/#comment-1459770
When other barbers looked at what was done (even several weeks later), they couldn’t believe what they saw.
As fears go, hair troubles are way down the list, except when it comes to extracting a little bit of humor from the travel experience.
I think we have exact opposite hair nightmares.
Hey Dwight. Great to hear from you. I just coincidentally came across this photo, which kind of reminds me of getting one’s ears lowered:
Hair nightmares? Do tell!
Oh how to I hate getting my hair cut in a foreign country but sometimes you just have to! You are right in that they are butchers for sure. I got my hair cut in Prague once and I walked looking like military. Oh P.S I like how they have a pic of Ludicrous on their front window. Hilarious!
Thanks for sharing your experience, Kevin. Funny you mention Prague. Worst haircut #2 for me. Early days during my five years of living there (2001-2006). At the point of that cut, I had just learned how to say “There is a difference.” Good thing. I took the hair stylist, a young woman, almost hair by hair on my head to help her correct the madness she’d created with her clippers and scissors. “There is a difference. There is a difference.
I should probably note for other readers that I don’t believe all barbers and stylists to be butchers, in fairness. Though those with Ludacris photos on the outside, beware.
This made me laugh! I don’t think it looks too bad though 😉 Dave recently got a cut-throat shave in Quito, Ecuador which left him bleeding a lot – not a great experience!
Thanks, Carmen. I appreciate the support. My tousle-touch for the photo helped. The reaction of the barber in the U.S. several weeks later was proof that the cut was pretty bad, though.
As for Dave’s cut-throat shave, I hope he’s on the mend!
My girlfriend and I were butchered by a ladyboy in Malaysia. I’ll just leave that right there.
Now I would think a ladyboy hairdresser/barber might actually feature the empathic best of both worlds 🙂
For me, getting a haircut abroad is right up there in the top 3 scariest things about travel. In southeast Asia, hairdressers LOVE to use those thinning scissors that turn your hair into fine wisps. I have thick hair and I like it that way, but Asia does not. And here in Mexico (where I am based right now) there are two major obstacles: first of all there is the language barrier, and secondly the hairdressers here love to use clippers even when I ask them to only use scissors. Sigh.
Thanks for sharing, David. That’s one of the greatest joys of travel: facing up to our fears. Also, a good excuse to pick up a little of the local language. As for the penchant for clippers, that seems a universal one, especially when it comes to men’s hair. Hang in there and keep on facing up to the fear of the foreign hairstylist!
This gave me the giggles! I wonder what the female choices are if the men’s are Ricky Martin and Ludacris lol?
Glad you enjoyed it, Jane. The same vaguely dated female reference points: Christina Aguilera and Beyonce?
It could’ve been a lot worse. I left a hairdresser’s with hair that looked slightly green. You were lucky. 🙂
Green? Wow, I’d be curious to see that photo, Jaklien.
This is too funny. You are the only person I am aware of that does the exact same thing. I ALWAYS get my haircut when I travel The only exception was when I was in Ethiopia. lol We were on the Simien Mountain trek in a small village and we passed a barbershop. I was tempted but decided not to go forward. Maybe that was a good thing given your experience.
I just returned from Georgia and Armenia and while I was there I got my haircut in Tbilisi. I was not exactly happy with the cut. Luckily, when I got to Yerevan I came upon a hipsterish barbershop named Dude’s. Pash, the barber, did come corrective cutting. Saved the day.
My favorite barber experiences were in Istanbul, Turkey and Gaimaraes, Portugal. In Portugal I was the only person in the barbershop. Shortly after the barber started cutting my hair a friend of his came in with a mandolin and started playing his instrument. I had my own private concert while getting clipped.
Shawn, I’m laughing. Better that you focused your attention on the Simien Mountains while in Ethiopia, rather than an encounter with a local barber.
Yerevan barbers are pretty funny, too. Good cuts. Don’t ever let anyone else in that region know that their neighbors had to correct their work, though. I still enjoy the Turkish fashion of taking a giant match and burning any errant hairs in and around the face and ears. Your mandolin concert beats the value of a $0.66 haircut in Peru:
Thanks again for sharing your hair-lowing experiences and helping to bring back some more memories.