Maybe I talk too much with the barber which has made getting a haircut in Santiago, Chile a surprisingly challenging exercise in personal hygiene. One would think that after a year covering politics and culture for a weekly magazine in Spanish, and digging deep into my family heritage I would have sufficient language skills and cultural references to communicate myself.
Getting your haircut is basically a trust and communication issue, which is essentially, a language issue. Unfortunately, “Cut a little here, and trim here, and please, a bit shorter there, yeah right there, in the back” is not in a spanish-english translation dictionary, nor a special section in the Spanish for Travelers dictionary. Your descriptors are reduced to fewer words than one knew to use in English. Furthermore, barbers wield instruments varying in sharpness so scissors and bone handled razors mixed with a fertile imagination and a obscure history and one has the recipe for conspiracy theories about why your haircuts almost always end in disaster.
Maybe its a cultural issue, too. Around the corner from Escuela Militar, a military officer’s academy (where Pinochet was trained, and coincidentally an English teacher friend was invited to a sauna), near where I was living, conversations with barbers naturally surged from my appearance of being a foreigner, and more specifically, from the United States. A barber had recently made a bundle of money working as a carpenter on the outskirts of Boston, Massachusetts and his image of Americans was positive. My experience as an American from the United States in Chile are generally seen as transparent, fresh open-mindedness and a lack of a sense of the class divisions and prejudice that indelibly marks Chilean society.
That was the first haircut, which was the only good haircut I had ever received from them. The second time around I insisted that they not cut too much off the top.
In the plastic, non-swivelling barber seat we proceeded to talk about why I was here and why I continued to stay. My life here revolves around a re-encounter with my identity through the Chilean roots of my mother and my job as a journalist. When I began to discuss those roots in Chile, an upper-class mix of new English arrivals and old Scottish arrivals (el borrachito escoces) I ceased to be the neutral, fresh-faced foreigner with rich details about life and liberty in the United States.
I was just another member of the class of people who think they are better than others, the dominant class in Chile. While I was enthusiastic about sharing my history because it was new the barber’s faces told me of little interest in incessant talk about apparently illustrious, and for me fascinating, Chilean roots. It reeked of an attempt to distinguish myself from the working class, and effectively, them.
The conversation died. The consequences were apparent when I got home and the sides were long and the top was short, with a shock of hair sticking up stiffly. I called to complain.
Deeper waters awaited or at least so I thought. A paranoid mind intently observing a country with many dark corners and a history of unaccountable exercise of power obviously leads one to talk politics. I shared a personal idea of the existence of criminal elements directly involved with the former dictator General Augusto Pinochet. A journalistic investigation into a dubious financial scheme sponsored by a key official in his military government triggered threats of violence to the editor of the magazine where I worked, hastily abandoned office spaces and Swiss financial web sites complete with an illuminati eye and pyramid.
Halfway through my time in the chair I was told that one of the regular clients of the barbershop was a former bodyguard of Pinochet. I froze because the barber’s too were part of that inner circle of people close to the man with the dark sunglasses. The thought of another horrendous haircut, this time with morbid consequences, surged forth. My ears and the nape of my neck became ripe candidates for accidental swipes of seemingly duller razor. The barber’s strokes became more brusque and each scrape of the blade sent chills up and down my spine. The tide had turned on the intrepid journalist looking for a haircut in a time when the historical legacy of the octeganarian ex-dictator was being buffeted publically by a series of court cases and financial scandals. Bad move.
An obsession with the “real”, untouched my modernity, Chile, as well as a good haircut drove me to search for the authentic haircut. I have sought haircuts from barbers who in my mind best represent the Chilean barbering tradition and least represented whatever was new, and most likely imported. From Puente Alto, to Bellavista then to Portugal con Matta and most recently San Pablo con Maturana, the barber shops were united by the elderly stature of the barber, the predominance of worn wood and polished steel implements and price, round-about 6 dollars, or 2500-3000 pesos, or about 6 dollars.
I thought I had found my salvation around the corner from the mechanics shop of a friend’s father, near the intersection of Portugal with Matta. The barbershop looked closed when I knocked on the curtained glass door, but a conversation with a client tailed off as he was walking out the door. They obviously had a long-standing relationship.
True to what I was looking for, this guy had been in that same location for the last forty years and had clientele who traveled, like I did, from all over Santiago, to get their hair cut here. He had one chair, and was the only barber, and to top it off was familiar with the work of the magazine that I had worked at, thus assuring me protection for my ears, at least in my imagination.
But not for my hair. After one phenomenal cut, that even he asked, “Did I cut this,” many weeks after the cut had grown out, I asked him to thin my hair as another explanatory mechanism to convey my aesthetic preferences. He proceeded to give me something that looked like a worn out toupee, where the fake hair had fallen out of its plastic roots, and on my head, the remaining hair lay limp.
Maybe this had been a helpful attempt to get my hair to grow back in a fuller way, considering I had been alleging the onset of male pattern baldness, which he denied was happening. On that point, I reached a truce by getting to agree with me that barbers will always lie to their clients on questions regarding baldness.
In my past barbershop experiences have been rich experiences. At Camilo’s, in Washington DC, we would talk about his home-town of Italy, wine, the state of DC roads and the eternally winning ways of my formal baseball coach, who would also get his haircut there. But he never really liked me. When he lost his touch, and his partner died, the Vietnamese woman who lived in suburban Washington became the second best barber. She made it a hetero-erotic experience. She had a way with her hands, seemed sincere when she asked me how I was doing and delicately used the razor blade used for shaving the nape of the neck and around the ears. Then she gave me a light massage and a squeeze on the shoulders as a way of signalling that she was done.
When I saw her back in Washington she commented about how damaged my hair was. My hair was now growing back, so I had to stop alleging baldness and obsessively taking pictures of my scalp. Now, the question became whether this was because Washington DC has cleaner air than Santiago, which I had theorized was a reason for my oncoming baldness, or it was because of the thinning of my previous barber.
I think I may have found a solution recently, as a barber around the corner from where I live just gave me an excellent cut. He has everything I need, a belief in the agricultural values of Chile, worn weathered floors, even a display case with polished old implements no longer used. He has been located in the same building for around forty years, where he listens to Chilean folkclore. He holds an emphatic belief in traditional neighborhood values holding out against incorrigible youth with no respect and too much freedom, and curses ugly residential apartment buildings which have been steadily replacing hundred-year-old adobe homes, marking the skyline and blocking the sun from neighbors.
While there was the regular insecurity that he was going to totally misunderstand what I wanted and leave a disaster area on my head, I didn’t care, especially because I had already known much worse, and felt generally safe. The cut was fine, and Ill return for a second try.
In other ways, if I talk too much and tell the barbers about my job, my experiences here in Chile, my thoughts on Chile, then I unknowingly stumble into a morass of cultural hangups, that make me, the white, clear-eyed, half Chilean, who seems to come from privilege, and maybe even the left-wing, a potential target for bad haircuts from malicious haircutters.
Maybe all my problems surge from an inability to express myself clearly in Spanish and an overactive imagination. For backup, I know a pretty Argentinian hair stylist who worked in Miami who would give me a discount, and I’m sure a very respectable haircut. I’m sure it would be an enjoyable experience, if not the least Chilean haircut I could possibly find. I think its ok at this point. If not the Chocopanda most likely awaits.