A calamitous haircut in Freetown, Sierra Leone...
Not every holiday can or should be an adventure, but I do like building little micro-adventures into even an all-inclusive stay. One sure-fire way of meeting locals and of having a cheap and safe little dip into a foreign culture is to have a haircut on holiday.
I've done this ever since I can remember. Such an ordinary chore back home can often be turned into something enjoyable, insightful, or at the very least just downright cheap...
Though one haircut in Freetown, Sierra Leone, went horribly wrong...
A makeshift barbers on the steps of a derelict building in Freetown. Photo Richard Green
I visited in order to write a travel story on the fact that the country is long since at peace and is a friendly and fascinating and poised to welcome tourists again. And contrary to many other West African nations that bear the scars of the slave trade - usually in their string of coastal European built forts - Sierra Leone was founded for freed slaves to be repatriated to live a new life in. Hence the name of the capital city is Freetown, and the small archway by the shore isn't a door looking out to unimaginable suffering, but one looking inland through which newly freed slaves passed on their way to starting a new life in Africa.
The street buzz is terrific, as are the colours and cacophony, and the city feels extremely safe. Certainly on my visit I found that it felt every bit as welcoming and safe as Ghana, Senegal or The Gambia, Freetown felt on a smaller scale than Accra, had more character than Dakar, and a hell of a lot more too it than Banjul.
So having a little down time in Freetown I wandered towards this derelict old building that someone had told me was the former main building of the Fourah Bay College, the oldest university in West Africa. It was now a skeleton with a few small stalls around it, and a makeshift barbers at the top of the grand entrance steps.
The former Fourah Bay College, founded in 1827, and going strong today at a newer hilltop campus. Photo Richard Green
Paradoxically I don't actually enjoy having a haircut, which may be why I have my hair cut when travelling, as a distraction from the humdrum nature of it. It was certainly a little odd sitting at the top of the steps under a tarpaulin and attended to by this bare chested local lad.
The likely lad barber who said "My brother has the same hair as you". Photo Richard Green
The poor chap was quite nervous and it didn't take long for me to realise that something was awry. He lined up the scissors with my head carefully and then with a Jacques Tati tennis lunge, made a diagonal hack that sent hair falling down my face. Then he did it again, but on the other side of my head, and then made a bizarre parry to my right fringe.
Detecting that I was becoming nervous myself, he assured me that "my brother has just the same hair as you", and then using my indecision as cover he made a few more hacks at my hair. Even after a rather English and uncertain suggestion that he could stop now, he was still at it. The determination on his face imploring me wait just a little longer, when presumably he thought he could turn the situation around.
Beaten and a little deflated, he gave me up as a bad job. But we had a laugh over it, I paid him his 5,000 Sierra Leonian Leones (about 50p) and we shook hands.
A haircut about to go very wrong. Photo Richard Green
I then walked into a more conventional street and found a more conventional hairdresser. It was a little pink and loud for my taste, but it was a little emergency after all.
Before I said a word, the local woman stood behind me and forced her comb through the tufts on my head and shrieked hilariously - "What have you done to your hair?" She pulled at tufts with her fingers, saying "Why is your hair shorter here and at the front than it is here and at the back?" Her colleagues giggled as they passed behind me and much mirth was derived by the shambles on my scalp, but all in a very good natured way.
Mountain Cut, an immensely characterful street leading down to the sea in Freetown. Photo Richard Green
Her emergency repairs worked, and though I paid about five times the amount I'd coughed up to the bare chested bloke, I could at least feel a little more comfortable about walking the streets.
A side of the road barber's that I didn't get chance to try. Photo Richard Green