A Very Close Shave

Hello Mutter

Evenings in a Muslim country are generally lacking in evening entertainment options. As a lone wanderer of cities, I often find myself traversing every possible alley within a city, peeking into household windows, watching evening commerce, and partaking of the occasional food stall.

Rickshaw chaos in Dhaka at night

     One such night in Dhaka, I was apparently panhandled by a young boy, though his gestures were unclear. He was around seven years old, and hadn't yet figured out the universal hand gestures for "give me money" so he simply looked at me with longing eyes and muttered something in Bangladeshi. My rule of thumb when traveling is to give to people who I have already seen begging indiscriminately, and since this boy targeted me clearly because I was white, I had no grounds to know whether he was a starving orphan or just a clever boy who knew what white skin meant. So I shrugged him off and continued walking.

     But I had attracted a cling-on, a persistent breed of young beggars, who are unwilling to take no for an answer. He continued to follow me, muttering in a language that I couldn't understand.

     "I don't know what you are saying any more than you know what I am saying." I told the kid, doing my best with body language to express ignorance and unwillingness to help. He responded with his mutter.

     I pinched my pockets and extended them from my pants to demonstrate that I was out of change, which is usually a good deterrent. No dice. Mutter.

     Continuing my way down the sidewalk, I made faces, which usually gets a smile out of a begging kid, and usually ends the exchange after some good humor between the two of us. Not this time. Mutter mutter.

     OK, on to the body stunts! Generally one of my favorite beggar ploys, I cupped my hands together and began making a rhythmic farting sound. Eh? Isn't this fun?! Mutter mutter. Look at me! I can make it look like I can detach my index finger! Whaddya say?! Mutter mutter.

     Christ. Now, at this point, it was getting really annoying. He clearly wasn't going to lay off, and just on the principle of his not being able to put a hand out or gesture for food, I wasn't going to give him a damn thing! Mutter mutter.

     "What do you want? If you want food or money, you are going to have to tell me that!"

     Mutter mutter.

Child's silhouette in Dhaka

     At the end of my patience, I started looking for other ways to give him the slip. I took sudden turns, squeezed between cars, and edged him towards a ditch, just to indicate to him that I needed my space and was done with his pestering. Mutter mutter.

     I can only be cruel and heartless for so long, so when we came upon a bustling little eatery, I pointed inside, and made the universal gestures for hunger and eating. The boy muttered, touched his tummy, and I took that to mean that he was in fact hungry. I'll be damned if he knew how to properly communicate it, but hell, perhaps it would satisfy him and get him off my tail.

     Inside, I figured out that there was some sort of combination meal of some dhal and a bread. As I turned from the server to the boy, I was shocked to see that he had multiplied. Now there were two. Both looking at me with the same longing eyes. Oh Jesus, at this point it was going to be more work than it was worth to object, so I indicated to both of them to sit at the stools at the counter. I explicitly ordered their meals to be eaten in the restaurant, paid, gave them both a nod, and got the hell out of there.

     I probably didn't make it more than a block before the cling-on was at my side again, muttering something, and carrying his meal wrapped in paper in one hand. I was furious.

     "You got what you wanted from me! Now just leave me alone!" I thought that a slightly raised voice and some angry facial expressions would take care of the situation. For Christ's sake, this kid had been following me for the better part of a mile at this point!

     Mutter mutter.

     And then, I saw just the thing: something that would solve both my cling-on problem, and give me some evening entertainment, for a little while, anyway. A streetside barber shop.

By the Hair of my Chinny Chin Chin

Hot water was hard to come by in South Asia, and Bangladesh was no exception. The common feeling is that it is bad for one's health so most hotels, even mid-range places on the third-world budget, simply had a single cold faucet and a bucket in the tiny sarcophagus they called a bathroom. As a result, I often went several days without a shave, due to my unwillingness to shave with a now-dull blade under cold water.

Sidewalk shave in Calcutta

     Getting a shave would be the perfect way to spend some time and have a cool local experience.

     Stepping inside, the room had walls painted that common color of minty-third-world green, as is often the case painted many years before my arrival. The paint was streaked with traces of decades-old grime, and most of the equipment in the room was broken, filthy, or otherwise shoddy in one way or another. There were two dissimilar chairs, both occupied by middle-aged men and attended by twenty-something men. Two other youths leaned against the rear walls, clearly there solely for the barbers' moral support. I waited my turn, and refused to look outside, where I hoped the cling-on had finally taken leave of me.

     When one man vacated a chair, I worked with sign-language and grunts to establish that I wanted a shave, nothing more. I complied when he instructed to take my glasses off. I winced when he went at my head with the scissors, as I only wanted a shave, but he was just trimming the temples.

     Next, he pulled out a can of Gillette gel and started dabbing it around my left cheek. And my chin. And my right cheek. And then right up around my forehead... and over my nose, and under my eyes, and finally over my eyelids. I thought for certain this guy was taking the piss at me, to the benefit of the other patron and hangers-around in the shop. But through squinted eyes, I didn't see any laughter or hilarity, and when a moment later he had a 4-inch straight razor at my throat, who was I to question his judgment?

     The shave began with a quick whisk down my right temple and around the cheekbone. He cleared off my chin and worked his way across my face. I found it to be an intense yet intriguing feeling to have a straight razor pulling the hairs off the face; totally different than the feeling of a safety razor, and with a much smaller margin for error. After each stroke, the barber wiped off the stubble and lather on a dirty rag, and then ran his thumb against the grain of my beard, establishing whether he had accidentally spared a hair. Quickly enough, he had cleared away my face to the point that I looked like the opposite of most pre-shaven faces: lather from the forehead down to the end of my nose.

     I thought that was that, expecting him to wash off the for-comedy-only lather across the upper half of my face, but he pulled out the Gillette can again and re-lathered the clean parts of my face before going for a second going-over. No hair was to be at his mercy. I have never been shaven this thoroughly or closely. I could feel myself losing a layer of epithelial in the process, and at times, particularly on the second round, it was bordering on painful. The shaving cream covering my eyelids was creating a cold burning feeling that was increasingly intense as time went on.

     The barber attacked from all angles, gently pulling out my lip or cheek to establish a flat surface to pull the blade along. All I could do was force my muscled to relax and be pliable to his will. Upon returning the lower half of my face to the anti-preshaven look again, he naturally proceeded to shave the lathered portion of my face.

Shave in a barber shop in Chennai

     Every instinct told me to protest, and to squirm. I couldn't open my eyes as he repeatedly brought the blade precariously close to them. I was a bit fearful for my eyebrows, but again, we couldn't talk and he had the damn blade. So I held really still as he shaved my nose, my nostrils, my forehead, and yes, my eyelids. If old wives' tales are to be believed that hair grows back thicker when shaven, I think I now understand why many Bangladeshis have thick tufts of hair coming out of the strangest places. Needless to say, that's the last eyelid shaving I should need for a while.

     Indeed, I think the whole experience, which ended with a few face massages, lotions, and an application of aftershave that made me finally understand why Macaulay Culkin screamed like he did in Home Alone, was much like a colonic: I probably got rid of whatever the equivalent of impacted bowels are when it comes to missed whiskers, and I think I can go back to my old shaving routine for quite some time before needing a deep-shaving like that again.

     The whole thing came to 60 taka, after a 30 taka tip, which worked out to less than a buck. And the entire process took the better part of an hour; perfect for an evening's entertainment. It just hearkened back to a simpler time when there wasn't much to do with the day aside from work but take a nice shit and get a good fucking shave. And then go home where there'd be a High Life in the Frigidaire, and the wife had already cooked a fine meatloaf.

     Looking in the mirror as I departed, my tender face was a few shares paler, and I looked more like a teenager than ever. And surely the experience had not only removed the hair from my face, but had to have removed the cling-on from my side, right?

     Sure enough, as I stepped back into the street and acutely felt the cool night air hit my exposed nerves, I looked down to step over the open ditch and noticed my favorite little cling-on standing next to me, who looked up and muttered the same damn thing he'd been muttering all night. Mutter mutter.

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