Thursday, February 12, 2009

Short Back and Sides -Cuban Style

I had spotted him a year earlier, in Santiago de Cuba while walking around the narrow streets and intimate squares of this home of rum and revolution on Cuba’s east coast.

A year earlier, I had watched him from across the street as he clipped with pride on his face and faded instruments in his hand, wishing that I had not had my hair cut before I arrived, and vowing that when I returned, it would be with a full head of hair.

One year later, my first thought was not of baseball in Havana, jazz in Trinidad or hiking in Pinar del Rio.

No, it was of that haircut in Santiago.

When we arrived at our hotel in the main square, my wife was keen to take a short siesta, so I left the room, walked out onto the street, imagining myself to be Mr Wormold heading off on one of his furtive missions in Graham Greene’s “Our man in Havana.”

I found it directly behind the hotel, and just as I had remembered it with its open door, three barber chairs, and a waiting bench.

I didn’t linger, because I didn’t want him to notice me staring into his shop. After all, this was a dry run, and I would return later.

“I found him,” I cried.

“So you made an appointment?”

“ No, later.” I said.

“What if he is not working tomorrow or the day after, which is the day before we leave?"

She was right. I had waited a year for this, and I wouldn’t forgive myself if I missed this chance.

We cleaned up, and headed back to the shop.

As soon as he spotted us from across the street, he stopped cutting and cried out, “Haircut Senor?”

Nonchalantly I called back, “Oh, OK. 20 minutos ?”

“Si claro” he responded, “20 minutos.”

I quickened my pace. “He remembered me, “ I said excitedly to my wife. “No, he didn’t” she said, “he says that to everyone!"

His shop was full of locals talking baseball, but the main chair was empty, and Roberto guided me straight to it.

I was not comfortable jumping in front of the line, but no one seemed in a hurry. From a drawer he took out a fresh blue cape, and with a flourish, wrapped it around me, tucking it into the nape of my neck.

He then took out his preferred set of instruments; scissors, clippers and razor, examining each carefully. Through his mirror he made sure I was comfortable, and nodded to his amigos that he was ready.

Roberto was an old style barber, not tall, but with a commanding presence. His neat gray hair spoke of experience and organization. Faded photographs showed off Roberto’s international clientele. Others confirmed his loyalty to the Party.

And then he started. He snipped and snipped, pulling clumps of hair through the fingers of his left hand as the scissors closed in with his right.

The only sound was that of clipping scissors. The bench warmers stopped arguing and watched me.

At one point they asked why I had come into the shop with long hair, asking for a short haircut. My wife explained that the current length of my hair was due to my wish for an authentic cut from Roberto. This response impressed them and got a small smile from the Maestro himself.

And so it went. Pull and Cut, Scissors and Clippers until I thought he was finished.

But then he started looking for hair elsewhere, and having done my pate, he moved on to my moustache, which he trimmed and balanced with precision, and then checked my ears and nose.

Finally he shaved my neck, and once satisfied, pointed me to the mirror. My nod and smile confirmed my pleasure.

He completed his performance with a matadorial swing of the cape and a brush of the loose hairs.

We had never discussed price, but I pressed a $5 bill into his hand with a whispered “suficiente?”

“Si, Senor," he responded, flattered and a little embarrassed.

This would have been just a haircut to most travellers, but for myself, it was a memorable experience, and one of many I enjoyed with the people of Cuba.

I hope to see the digital evidence of that experience on Roberto's walls, when we return.

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