Getting a haircut is not a major consideration in most men’s lives. It gets too long, you have it cut: simple.
But when you have recently moved to a country with a different ethnic mix, different fashions etc, you have to be just a little bit cautious. Often a hairdresser will send you away looking how he or she thinks you should look, rather than how you want to look.
Suriname is a cultural melting pot of people of African heritage, Indians (they call them Hindustanis), Chinese, Indonesians and Brazilians. And because it is a former Dutch colony, there are a few white people too.
I’ve been barbered on Caribbean islands where they had never worked on a head of straightish European hair before; I’ve tried to explain what I wanted in Spanish; I’ve had it done in women’s salons – and all with varying degrees of success.
There have been instances where I came out shorn, slicked back and dripping with hair oil, looking like a Cuban drug lord. I don’t like wearing hats or caps, but sometimes you have to take refuge there for a few days while it grows a fraction and settles down. A new country is a new challenge and you have to be careful.
And so it is that I am roaming around the capital, Paramaribo, weighing up the options. There are kapsalons (I think that means hairdressing) all over the place, just like there are car washes and supermarkets where you would least expect to find them, with people working from home to save on rent and trying to maximize their profits in a country where no one seems to be able to charge much money for whatever it is they do.
I’m wary of some of these side-street places. I don’t know anything about the people running them. They might be skilful, respectable folk providing a professional service. But without recommendations, you don’t know, do you?
However, you’ve got to do something, you’ve got to trust someone. Finally I come across a place in a small group of shops, with a professional frontage and a proper sign above the door.
I feel guilty about choosing this operation just because it can afford to have its name painted by a professional signwriter, but I can’t keep looking forever, so that’s it. This will be the one.
There are four chairs and the place looks like it is for women only. A young Chinese girl greets me, her breath reeking of cigarettes. She would like to be helpful but doesn’t understand my question, “Do you do men’s hair?”
A slightly older Chinese young man appears and takes over – he’s been on the Marlboros too. He understands me and ushers me into one of the chairs. At this point communication becomes visual only. I would like the back and sides done with the electric clippers but the top with scissors. He doesn’t have anything as crude as scissors.
The girl puts the towel on the back of my neck but he doesn’t like the way she does it, so he takes it off and repositions it. She retreats to the back of the shop for a smoke. The young man is keen to get started.
It pays to disregard a hairdresser’s own haircut. This guy has it shaved at the back and sides, and the top is long, dyed blond and swept forward. As I try to describe what I want, I have to fight the urge to tell him that whatever he does, I don’t want my hair to look like his. If he wants to look like a plonker, that’s up to him.
When he starts, he is all action, whizzing the clippers up and down my neck, contours on the sides and a reassuringly light touch on top. He seems to know what he is doing, and if it is all going to go horribly wrong, it is going to go horribly wrong quickly.
It’s all over in five minutes and my hair looks okay at a glance. He can’t understand why I don’t want some ‘product’ in it – wax or gel or putty or something – but lets me off eventually, grinning and waving the internationally-accepted thumbs-up sign.
“Another satisfied customer,” he seems to be thinking. “I’m too good for this place. One day I’ll have a salon on Fifth Avenue in New York and when I tell my life story, I will very briefly refer to the little business where I started, next to a rice-packaging plant in the south of Paramaribo. You should have seen this English guy I did once. Got it done in five minutes and he couldn’t believe it. Feeling round the back with his fingers even though I had just shown it to him in the mirror. He didn’t trust me, thought I was going be an idiot.”
Well I’m sorry. Yes, I was apprehensive. But I was wrong. Five minutes, 25SRD – about £5. Everyone’s a winner.