By Kenneth Johns
Edited by Naturalight Productions
NB: Remember to click on the links in the article to see all the images.
Those who are familiar with the world of buzz-cuts know that one takes on such a style for a specific set of practical reasons: it's affordable, you don't have to comb it, and you'll never again have to spend the better part of an hour sitting in a hot barbershop listening to some hairdresser prattle on about weather reports and neighborhood politics. I, being a captain of do-it-yourselfedness, have adopted the cut since coming to Belize. This is a story of when the best planned efforts of men fail, or more specifically, a story of the time I found myself without a set of clippers.
I was surprised to find that amongst the mix of colorful Hispanic-Colonial buildings, cheap shops with Mexican goods, and newly renovated small hotels along the Toucan Trail of Corozal there was a tiny barbershop that looked like it belonged in Mayberry. It was complete with a straight-edge razor blade kit on the wall, a lazy overhead fan that would not disturb the piles of hair, and that guy who sits in the corner, seemingly with no purpose, that chats with the barber all day. I half expected to see the room in black and white, and already being out of my culture, felt as if I had stepped out of my generation as well.
The short, smiling barber went by the name "Petch," short for a longer Mestizo name that I gave up trying to pronounce after a couple of repeated attempts.
I decided that a quick cut here might not be so bad.
"I was born in 1960," he announced as he carefully prepared his clippers. I was a little surprised, since the man behind me in the dusty mirror looked to be almost 60 years old.
"1960?" I asked.
"No," he said, searching his mind for the right word in English, "How do you say… 1916! Right. I am 88 years old." He looked at me proudly. "I just learned English recently, and it is not perfect yet," he turned off the clippers, which he moved with careful deliberation. "If you ever want to learn another language, you've just got to keep trying. I never had a chance to take any English lessons, but I keep trying, and I begin to learn."
"Estoy aprendiendo español." I said, feeling a little inspired. With both Petch and his friend in the corner trying to understand my accent, we had a fairly decent conversation.
"How long have you been cutting hair?" I asked in broken Spanish.
"Since I was 14," he said, like it was no big deal. "I took lessons in exchange for one pack of cigarettes. Which is good because I never had any problem with cigarettes. Booze I had a problem with for a while, but not anymore. My doctor cannot believe I am 88. He say to me, 'Petch, I do not believe you are 88! Most people your age cannot move…cannot do such things with the clippers and scissors.' But I know how old I am! I know when I was born! 1916! My brother is 90 and he still cuts his own grass with the machete."
Petch put some mysterious white powder on the back of my head before continuing. "When I worked in my first shop," he said, "I would charge a kilo for a haircut."
"A kilo of what?" I asked.
"Anything. A kilo of rice, a kilo of beans, it didn't matter. I worked this way until I joined the army, and they say to me 'Petch, what is it that you do?' and I say 'I cut hair, sir' and they say, 'well, then you cut hair with us.'"
By the end of his story I was able to figure out that Petch had been cutting hair for almost three-quarters of a century. I have rarely met someone so old who was so proud of the life that he or she had lived. I began to wonder how many times he had had this conversation before.
"How old are you?" he asked me.
"Ahh, twenty." When I was your age I was…let's see…I was working for three years in Panama. A wonderful age is twenty. You can take on the world."
I suddenly felt really young. When Petch had finally achieved his dream of owning his own barbershop, my parents hadn't even been born.
Petch had just finished the sides of my hair and I slouched down so he could reach the top. It still looked like a little bit of a stretch.
"Back then," he was saying, "We did everything by hand. We didn't have these fancy clippers to do all the work for us." Petch took a long swipe of hair off and paused to clean the clippers with a towel. The haircut took 45 minutes with clippers; I can't imagine how long it would have taken with scissors. Although I felt a little like that extra time was built in on purpose.
Petch worked slowly and surely as ever finishing up the top and trimming.
"Ahhh, I am too old for this," he said taking a long break. I wasn't fooled. I could tell he was enjoying himself.
Soon enough he was right back at it.
He asked some of the standard sideburns and around-the-ears questions. I tried to make it as easy as possible for him. He was beginning to look a little spent.
"Would you like me to spray it with water?" he asked.
"Sure." I said. I don't know if there was a purpose to that but it was awfully hot out.
I pulled a twenty out of my wallet to pay. Petch pulled out his own empty wallet and showed it to me.
"Just ran out yesterday," he said. He waited patiently while I ran next door for change. I could already feel the sun beating down on my freshly exposed head.
I came back and handed Petch a five for the haircut and two one-dollar gold coins for a tip. He looked surprised and genuinely grateful.
As I walked back out into the crazy architectural mix of Corozal and the renowned Caribbean sun, I caught myself thinking that if I'm ever back in this area I'll have to come back and do this again… whether I need the haircut or not.
Editor's Note: Pictures within the text show a young man receiving a haircut. The young man is not the author of the article. The man giving the haircut is Petch.
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography