Burma Shave

Streets of Yangon

Streets of Yangon

The life-cycle of a beard is a curious thing. You begin clean-shaven, baby-faced and smooth, and within a day, your cheeks and chin are already darkened by a hint of stubble. For a few days that stubble grows, and with it a look of ruggedness suggesting a manly, western independence of the kind that once lured children to start smoking, or at least toward careers in the rodeo.

Sometime around day five post-shave, however, a sudden shift occurs, and that ruggedness is transformed – overnight or perhaps just too long away from the counsel of mirrors – into something much less appealing: a look of vagrancy, suddenly a tramp where before had been a handsome cowboy. Oh ho ho.

Nonetheless, many places in the developing world offer a very pleasant solution to traveller for this common problem: a by-hand straight razor shave in the stall of a local barber.

Now: my partner Dileeni and I were in Yangon (Myanmar) sometime around day eight of the shave cycle, and I had long since begun to look vaguely homeless. It was an aesthetic reinforced by my eating habits, and the tendency of my increasingly prominent whiskers to gather Shan noodle sauce as I dined.

Out into the morning streets of the city we went – into the light of the ramshackle centre with its taxis and temples and tea-stalls amidst canyons of mould-darkened edifices. Dileeni is gregarious: the first likely-looking man she could find she accosted, a middle-aged Burmese guy himself proudly sporting a wispy cub-scout moustache. “Oh, hi! A shave?” she asked. “Do you know?” she gestured broadly at me, “Where he? Can get? A SHAVE?” This pantomiming a razoring motion.

Needless to say, this is not my usual strategy when seeking for a bit of personal grooming abroad. I prefer to wander quietly, reconnoitring the shopfronts from a distance, carefully considering my options without the need to commit to anything prematurely. This, by contrast, was a full-frontal assault, and now the social contract had kicked in: regardless of where this man was to lead us, we were now obliged to follow, as we did for several city blocks to a ladies’ beauty salon owned (so Dileeni divined) by his sister-in-law.

The horror grew. A boy, no older than fifteen, was produced from the back room, grinning eagerly. I was seated in the barber’s chair while he rummaged in a disordered drawer for a razorblade, unsheathing it from its cardboard like a glittering curiosity unearthed on a beach. He fitted it into the handle and dabbed water lightly on my cheeks, then went to work.

If you have never been shaved dry by a fifteen-year-old while your girlfriend amiably chats up a barbershop full of wide-eyed people about the details of their native culture, allow me to dispel the mystery for you: it hurts. Absurdly.

Dileeni, pointing to circles of yellow paste on the women’s cheeks: “So what is this for? Makeup?”

Burmese women: “Oh no – sun! For sun! Is plant!”

Dileeni, clearly fascinated: “Oh, that’s fantastic! Natural sunscreen!”

Meanwhile, the boy tasked with shaving me was clearly having a rough go of it. He’d gone through first one new razorblade, then another, not so much cutting as ripping the hairs from my face. I flicked my eyes up in the mirror and looked at him as he concentrated. He was sweating with effort. My face was only one-third done.

“Oh – I’m Australian!” Dileeni was saying. “But my parents are from Sri Lanka.” The women were captivated. They cooed. Everyone save for the boy and I were having a capital time. He fitted another blade into the handle with a look a grim determination.

“More water,” I advised from the chair in the absence of any more suitable lubricant. The boy slapped his moistened palms against my neck, then scraped at it like a man removing wallpaper. The shave was now entering its fifteenth minute; I closed my eyes and did deep breathing like you do in a dentist’s chair when the novocaine hasn’t quite reached the nerve. Behind me Dileeni audibly continued to glean marvellous insights into our host country. I breathed and breathed and the minutes stretched out…

“All done.”

The words brought me back to myself, and I opened my eyes. On the counter before the mirror rested seven spent blades crusted with coarse whiskers. My cheeks were raw and red and I bled a sizeable trickle from a nick on my Adam’s apple. The boy hastily dabbed at it with a stinging block of alum, darting his hand in like someone who has left something incriminating on the coffee table only to realise it just as the guests arrive.

Dileeni turned away from her new friends, beaming, as I paid and gathered up my bag and we headed for the door. “Ooh, did you see there’s a cut right here?” She gingerly touched my neck.

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“How was the shave?”

“Marvellous,” I answered.

We linked arms and out we walked into the sun of Yangon together, blunted follicles beneath the skin already starting the cycle anew.

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