It is February of 2012. We are living in the dusty town of Tiruvannamalai in India. We are here to sit in meditation at Ramanasramam, the ashram of the great Indian saint Ramana Maharshi.
It is hot. All the time. Every day mid thirties to low forties (in Fahrenheit that’s about 95 to 105). And humid. The further into the year it gets the more humid it becomes. Our bodies are damp. All the time.
Most Indian women never cut their hair, but occasionally I see a woman with a shaved head. Nuns of course shave their heads but these women don’t appear to be nuns though they may be. The seed has been planted. I have short hair, but not that short, not no hair. Over the course of a couple of weeks the seed germinates, and as we go on our daily walks we start to notice barbershops. Courage incubates.
Finally it is the day. I decide I will get my head buzzed. I go to the barbershop (I use the term loosely) near the ashram. It is not more than a hole in the wall really, but he is the king of barbers – rather than a chair on the side of the street and a mirror attached to a convenient pole or fence,
this barber has a small space in a building. And a big mirror. And on the walls all kinds of pictures of Indian saints including our beloved Ramana. Luxury.
I walk in and ask about a “number 2” buzz cut. I don’t really know what that means except that I‘ve heard my sister at some vague point in the past refer to a “number 2”, probably with regard to one of her sons. I somehow manage to make myself understood. I sit in the chair. The barber wraps me in an old piece of rag and ties it loosely around my neck. He then picks up the filthiest comb I have ever seen. It’s truly heinous. I don’t even flinch. He gets started with the buzzer and great mounds of hair fall to the floor. I sit entranced. When he is finished he picks up the filthiest floor brush I have ever seen and begins to brush me off, head, neck and shoulders. But he doesn’t stop there. It’s not complete until he also uses it to brush the hair off my face. I still don’t flinch. Finally it is over. An unexpected and jubilant feeling of freedom arises. I get out of the chair and start squealing with joy.
The cost is seventy-five rupees, or one dollar and thirty cents.
It’s Don’s turn next. When it’s over he just wants to rush home and shower his whole body until he’s clean again. We use an anti-dandruff shampoo in the hopes that it has some antiseptic qualities.
See that grey brush with the red handle sitting on the green shelf? That’s the brush he used on our faces.
Our Gravatar photo was taken by my sister almost immediately after that first buzz cut.
We have kept our hair buzzed ever since, and have experienced beauty salons, beauty parlors, barbershops, and even “beauty saloons” all over the world. Along the way we’ve had some interesting experiences.
In NYaung Shwe, Myanmar the barber didn’t have any guards for the buzzer and swore that the thickness of his comb would give the same length as a “number 2”. That was one particularly uneven cut. I tried to explain that I wanted my sideburns left natural, just buzzed and left as is. Something was obviously lost in translation. The barber put some kind of lotion on them and then shaved them straight across like a man’s cut. I was appalled! Then inwardly shrugged. What can you do? Hair grows.
In Lima, Peru we’d walked for hours to get to a huge central market to buy some things we needed for our trip to the Amazon, and by chance found a hair salon there. They did great cuts, but warned us we were in a very unsafe part of town and to leave right away and to definitely not be there after dark.
At Michael’s in Cyprus we were given excellent cuts. After we left Don told me that they’d charged ten Euros for his cut and sixteen for mine! What?! When we went back six weeks later I suggested that we should be charged the same amount for the same cut. Oh no! We can’t do that! Ladies hair is different! I left in a big huff, but it was Michael who was the loser. By being inflexible and unreasonable he lost repeat business. A few minutes down the road we found a barber who happily did us both for five Euros each.
And in a Siem Reap, Cambodia, beauty salon we shared the space with a woman having a pedicure.
We usually get buzzed about every six weeks, but sometimes go as long as eight weeks depending on our schedule. We don’t like it when we start to look shaggy. Every time, without fail, I am thrilled to have my hair buzzed back to nothing. I get out of the chair, rub my hands over my head and smile with joy. It feels so good, and looks so much better than anything else. We’ve recently “traded up” (meaning even shorter) to a “number 1” and I plan on going to zero next time, which is as short as possible without actually shaving. At this point I can’t imagine ever growing my hair again. The jury’s still out for Don, but for the immediate future he’s happy for us to continue looking like twins.
I’d forgotten that I’d written about this before. Oops. When I was working on one of the photos I had a strong memory of writing about the floor/face brush in India. I searched the blog and couldn’t find any reference to it so decided that the memory must have come from talking to someone about it. Then when I published the piece good old WordPress linked back to a post I’d written over a year ago, about Nyaung Shwe in Myanmar, that included some of the story of our buzz cuts. Anyway even if I’ve written about it before, I like this piece, so thought I’d go ahead and publish it anyway.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.