One Tactic to Get Past the Tourist Barrier

Guest blogger Phil Deering, April 2017

When traveling far from home, many of us hope we’ll meet the regular, everyday people of the nations or towns we visit. But it’s tough. In foreign lands or even tourist towns in the US, we’re ensnared in a tourist economy that is anything but normal. That economy is designed to make sure we have fun, are comfortable, and feel safe. It makes sense; tourists spend more and are likely to return another year if they feel safe and welcome.

But the relationships often seem shallow. Did you ever have the feeling that the guides, hotel staff, shopkeepers, etc., have been through the “friendly” conversation you’re having about a million times? That all the answers are rote? That the laughter is a bit forced? You were probably right.

There’s one place I’ve been able to escape (for a little while) the established ritual courtesy of the tourist economy…..Local barber shops.

Whether in Antalya, or Ankara, Hanoi or Sapa, Brooklyn or Hanalei, I’ve had great experiences getting my hair cut. Barber shops are made for easy conversation. Barbers are skilled conversationalists, and those in the other chairs are often eager to chime in. A foreigner in their barbershop? That’ll be something to tell the wife about!

Here are some highlights:

  • turkish barber shopAnkara, Turkey, 2004: A shave and a haircut in Turkey is one of the great experiences you’ll ever have. There’s a massage with a sudden chiropractic move on the neck, lots of before and aftershave, the alcohol flame on a cotton ball used to singe away any pesky ear hair, and all for a few bucks, including an intermission tea break. I walked into a neighborhood barbershop on a busy street (not in the hotel, or near any tourist shops, or recommended in a guide book). After establishing that I didn’t speak Turkish and they didn’t speak much English, the barber and they guys waiting in the shop explain how they felt about America….USA, good! thumbs up! Bush, bad! thumbs down. They were completely horrified by the invasion of Iraq. They wanted me to know they didn’t hate me, but that the hated our nation’s bellicose foreign policy. By the way, for the next two weeks, people would come up to me, speaking Turkish. My new hair style helped me blend in.
  • Hanoi, Vietnam 2006: Back then, Hanoi had more motorbikes than people. I was new to SE Asia and was gritting my teeth to prevent my screams from distracting my driver as the motorbike-taxi I clung to sped through incomprehensible traffic. Traffic slowed along a park-like area (green grass, big old trees) where open-air barbers had folding chairs set out. I got my driver’s attention and asked him to stop. He was stunned.  I wanted a haircut? Yup.  With the moto-taxi driver’s help (he did speak some English), my hair got cut and I got schooled on corruption in Hanoi (and saw photos of the barber’s kids.) Adding to the fun was that the sight of a big, hairy white guy getting shorn in this poor man’s salon snarled traffic for blocks.
  • Tucson, USA 2015: A cactus thorn nailed my bike tire while we were on a car-camping tour of the Southwest. We went to Bicas Bike Shop (the sign outside announces: Women, Transgender, Femme Workshop Mondays). I asked the skinny tatted guy who was changing my tube where to get a haircut nearby. He said, “Everyone at this shop goes to (I forget the name).”  I walked the four or five blocks and went in. This time the heavily tatted guy was burly and Hispanic. I was the only customer. We had a long talk about his growing up in Colorado, how he always felt like an outsider, and his hopes for the future. Talk about getting off the tourist track. I felt more like a wise relative than a customer.

Next time you’re out of town, get out of the hotel, walk away from the tourist traps and open the door to a local barbershop. You’ll end up learning more about the people and the place and you’ll look clean and sharp.

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