Agra is much like every other major city in India; crowded, loud, dirty, and vibrant. The streets are lined with garbage and sewage, through which mangy ferrell dogs and crusty old cows scavenge for snacks. Permeated with the smell that first triggered my gag reflex, but I later grew to love and now miss; a mixture of burning trash, beedie cigarettes, sweat, shit, food and humanity. The one (and pretty much only) thing that sets Agra aside from other Indian cities is that it is home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Majal. The ultimate tribute to the beauty of love, the Taj is truly a breathtaking architectural wonder. However my story does not take place within the cool echoing halls of this marble palace. Rather, mine begins with the humble search for a haircut.
I had been traveling for about four months, and it was beginning to show, so I took to the street one evening in search of a trim. Whatever you may need in India (be it perfectly normal or of a more questionable nature) can be stumbled upon if you walk long enough in one direction down any busy street. Everything is so utterly crammed together that whatever you require can never be too far, and there is always someone eager to deliver. As I had expected within a few minutes I came upon a tiny nook in a wall about the size of a walk-in closet wherein a cluster of men were sitting gathered around a single barber chair. The barber was in the middle of giving a man an old fashioned shave and carrying on a lively conversation. As I walked up their conversation came to an abrupt halt and they all stared at me with a mixture of confusion and amusement. “Do you give women’s haircuts?” I asked the smirking barber. All of the men broke suddenly into laughter at this, but none as loudly as the barber himself. I quickly gathered that this was probably not a shop frequented by women, and definitely not by 20-something white ones. Slightly embarrassed and put off by the men’s laughter, I turned to walk away when the barber yelled out “come come, I give!” He enthusiastically pushed the man out of the chair mid shave to prove to me just how willing he was to give me a haircut. I tried to tell him he could finish up first but it appeared as if the half-shaven man was as eager as the others to have me sit down. The men giggled to one another like boys at the nuance of seeing me duck under the doorframe into the tiny shop.
As soon as I sat down the barber pulled out a massive pair of rusted scissors that looked more like small hedge clippers. I tried to explain that I only wanted a small trim but he seemed affronted by my instructions, waving his hand at me and nodding his head as if he already knew exactly what I wanted, and that I should question his barber mastery was out of the question so I shut up and held my breath. In three long slow snips of the massive scissors he was done, cutting my hair in a (somewhat) straight line right across my back. Thank God he had cut off only about an inch, so the awful cut wasn’t all that noticeable, and my expectations were low so it was good enough for me. I smiled politely and nodded but when I motioned to get up he once again gave me the authoritative hand wave. “I give face massage.” It wasn’t a question so much as a factual statement. “Oh no no, it’s ok, thank you!” but I could tell he wasn’t convinced. “I give best face massage in all India, free for you miss!”
His smile was so eager and genuine. I thought to myself, when else in my life am I going to get a free face massage in a shithole, all male Indian barber shop? More so, at that point I would have hated to let down all of the men who were getting such a kick out of my presence! And so I surrendered to the moment (one of the greatest lessons learned on my trip) and let the barber, less than gently, tilt my head back in the chair. The face massage began suddenly with some unknown liquid being shot copiously and ungracefully out of an unlabeled squirt bottle into my face. I flinched but the barber seemed not to mind. He slapped his massive hands together and went to work violently rubbing my face.
Erase from your mind any prior knowledge you may have of what a face massage looks like at this time. There were no gentle little circles at the temples. Oh no. The man was kneading my whole face with the ferocity of a baker on steroids. Just when I was beginning to get accustomed to the insistent tugging of my face in every possible direction he unexpectedly stopped. I cracked open my eyes just in time to see a massive cloud of some talc like powder POOFED at my face. I coughed and laughed and sputtered from inhaling some of the mystery powder, which put all of the men into hysterics. I laughed along with them when I took a peek at how ridiculous I looked in the mirror, but before I had time to fully enjoy the image the barber again descended upon my face with even more gusto than before, rubbing up, down, up, down, for what felt like forever until my muscles surrendered and melted into a mush beneath his fingers. He then took a crusty looking towel that had obviously been used by many lucky customers before me and used it to scrape off the layer of gelatinous gunk that now coated my face. He finished off with a light spritz of some wonderful smelling perfume from a tiny glass bottle and took a step back to gauge my reaction.
It took a second to snap out of the shock of the whirlwind experience but when I reached up to touch my face, I swear it had never felt softer! The barber beamed with pride and all of the men nodded and smiled in approval. I asked the barber how much and he simply smiled and shook his head. Apparently the entertainment I had offered his waiting customers was payment enough. I have no idea what concoction he put on my face but my skin felt amazing for days after.
I waved goodbye to the barber and the waiting men and headed back to my hostel with a terrible haircut, glowing skin, and one of my favorite memories of India.