Chatting softly in Spanish, Marilys massaged my scalp and fed me mango slices — and for this refined lady’s hour of service, I paid a mere 10 bucks. Marilys worked her magic in a hair salon in the colonial center of San José, Costa Rica’s capital. As she blow-dried the last clippings off my cape, it hit me that I had developed a wacky — and cheap — travel obsession.
Adventure seekers can circle the world for the perfect piste, whitewater, or wave. Tchotchke lovers can hunt for trophies. Foodies can crow about Michelin star dining. My obsession is more, well, heady. I sniff out local barbers. I’ve never gone up the Eiffel Tower, but I can lead you to a fine Montmartre coiffeuse on the Rue des Abesses.
A barber in Paris (Photo: Pat Guiney/Flickr)
My family members roll their eyes when I recite my long-ago tonsorial triumphs the way a war veteran reels off battle campaigns: Avenida Central, old town Panama City, in winter 2006; Gothic Quarter, Barcelona, in summer 2005; Váci Street, Budapest, in fall 2002.
Learn to use your cranium, I tell friends. It’s not really about the hair anyway — I have hardly any left. This is about trying to crack the barriers between natives and tourists by becoming a regular customer. Perhaps it’s an illusion, but it works in small doses. In Morocco’s hip coastal town of Essaouira, a spry septuagenarian broke the ice in his tiny shop — auspiciously called Bismillah, which means “In the Name of God” — by asking, “Who are you rooting for in the World Cup?” And soon we were leafing through his family photos like reunited friends. Alas, an offer to marry his beautiful kohl-eyed granddaughter never came.
The author in Morocco (Courtesy: John Oseid)
In most parts of the United States, megamall salons with cheesy names such as Shear Delight have swallowed up local barbers, but elsewhere you can take pleasure in finding mom and pop still cutting, coiffing, and anchoring their neighborhood.
When I’m new in town, I usually scout my favorite options for days. But if local music is wafting from the shop, I’m jumping right in. On a lazy Cape Verdean afternoon, for example, a shave was made even more restorative by the archipelago nation’s famously seductive sounds coming from the radio. Also, during Trinidad’s Carnival, a beautiful stylist had me blushing by doing a local dance called “winin” in front of me to her favorite soca hits.
The author, getting his hair cut in Cape Verde (Courtesy: John Oseid)
Sometimes the payoff is particularly personal: When he noticed that I was studying a flier taped to his mirror, my barber in a bare-bones Dakar shop invited me to his Afropop show that night. At the door I bragged that I was tight with the band.
A proper ambiance, I’ve learned, makes the ritual even more satisfying. In a Mexican peluquería, a screwball telenovela had me chuckling and elbow-nudging with other customers waiting our turn. Well before the first snip, I was served a bracing eiskaffee one sweltering summer in a Vienna friseur. What delighted me most in the Malian capital Bamako were the ubiquitous hand-painted guild signs, portraits of young men sporting the latest styles, which sell as pricey folk art in New York and Paris galleries.
A Mali barber sign. (Photo: John Oseid)
My pastime has its perils, too. When a Mumbai apprentice with chiropractic ambitions finished the job, he put my head in a viselike grip and jerked my neck so violently that I expected to spend the rest of my days a ward of the Indian state. Later in the southern state of Kerala, I could only laugh as I got played midshave by a barber who pointed to his price list, written in swirling Malayalam script, and demanded the most outrageous charge. I think I’m still paying his kid’s tuition.
Barbershop in Mumbai (Photo: Magiceye/Flickr)
I even regret those that get away: Dashing to Lisbon’s airport, I spotted a grizzled barber standing in front of a glass door whose faded lettering read “Barbearia Campos” and revealed a magnificent 19th-century interior. I hope it’s still there.
Barbearia Campos in Lisbon (Photo: Julio Lobo Pimentel/Flickr)
I’d swear in Buenos Aires that the laconic barber in my Beaux Arts hotel had been sporting his razor-thin mustache and manning his chair since the last days of Juan Perón, surrounded in the basement’s old-world Turkish bathhouse by the same portly Porteños steaming themselves before me on loungers. On New Year’s Eve 2000, my stylist in the Addis Ababa Hilton boasted that he’d been snipping in the hotel since Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule. “The war is so stupid,” he said, referring to the border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea. “We’re basically the same people.” He wasn’t the first barber whose professorial streak trumped any historical insights I’d gleaned from official guides. I hope they sent him off with a swell retirement party.
It was the antiquated chairs in the Barbería Ralf in Cartagena that drew me to plop myself down, under wooden beams coated in dust since the days Sir Francis Drake laid siege to Colombia’s Caribbean jewel. For two hours I was stationed in the heart of a men’s club owned by the same family for 65 years, where the banter was all about política, béisbol, and chicas. Long after his clippers stopped whirring, the senior Ralf barber finally bid me farewell with a hearty pat on the back. I promised I’d send my friends.
Native Angelino, and long-time Brooklyn resident, John Oseid formerly wrote for Condé Nast Traveler and now blogs for ForbesLife. In hopes of further barber adventures, he prays to the hair Gods for an end to the recession up top.