Finding Ricky Gervais in a Guatemalan Barbershop


Finding Ricky Gervais in a Guatemalan Barbershop

Barberia Willy was a testament to minimalist advertising with no signs or poles outside — the doors were marked simply with red and blue diagonal painted stripes. Had I not looked inside as I passed by, I might never have realized it was a barbershop. Christmas was fast approaching and I was surprising my parents with a brief visit back home, so I thought a trim was in order.

Stepping inside I found a classic scene seemingly flash-frozen, then chiseled out of the fifties and carried whole into modern times.

Two barbers were at work cutting hair and making idle chit chat with several men who sat around reading the paper, awaiting their turn in the chair. And what chairs they were: thick, padded red leather seats and armrests supported by a frame of stylized, rounded curves covered with polished chrome. I could die a happy man in a chair like that.

A leather razor strop hung from each one and the wooden walls were covered with posters, memorabilia and pictures of the Virgin Mary. Half a dozen chairs hinted at busier times.

I was waved to a folding chair to wait my turn and spent some time pretending to read the local newspaper (my Spanish is still thin at best) and listened in on the banter. This is one of the things I love most about barbershops: the casual joking and gossip that floats through the room. There’s always one older guy who reads out loud from the paper, usually sharing a tidbit that demonstrates how crazy things are now and how much better they were back then. Everyone mutters and shakes their head when he’s done.

And so it was here and though I couldn’t understand the rapid Spanish, I could kind of follow along, nodding at the right time and grunting in tune with the others.

I’d like to think this was possible because of my finely-tuned senses or my ability to read body language but I really think that we just all tend to talk about the same crap, wherever we are in the world.

It was then that I noticed the many styling posters hung high on the walls — a few were modern, with color photos of young men with precisely tousled hair or sporting muted faux-hawks. But the majority were antiques, prints of charcoal drawings of both hair and beard styles.

My favorite had names for the various ways to wear a beard: El Diablo had the classic pointy goatee, El Guapo (the Handsome One) wore a full beard and La Tourista looked like that guy from Abba.

Just photos of these posters alone would make a good blog post and I was digging for my camera when I felt the tap on my shoulder — it was my turn. Jose waved me to the chair and gave me a wide smile that displayed enough gold to start a bank.

Here’s one of the advantages of being mostly bald: ordering a haircut is incredibly simple. I pointed at the clippers, made a loop around my head with my hand and said “numero uno”. Done.

And he did a great job, settling me into the chair, quickly buzzing me, trimming around my ears and carefully dusting me off — the whole process took ten minutes. As I was preparing to stand up, he held up a straight razor and pointed at my chin. “Shave?” It was the only English word he had used so far.

Now, I’ve had a shave in just about every country I’ve visited. And every place is different — in India, they lather you up and shave you twice, then slap your head for several minutes like Benny Hill on a coke binge.

In Cambodia, I once received a full facial skin treatment, complete with a glued-on chemical-laden mask and some weird machine that blew a cool mist in my face while I smoked a cigarette that the barber had lit for me.

In Diem Ben Phu, Vietnam, I got a rough shave and the most thorough ear-cleaning I’ve ever experienced from a barber wearing a headlamp.

Of course I want a shave.

Jose pulled up the headrest and flipped a lever to allow the seat back to recline and I was ready for lift-off. It was then that I spotted Ricky Gervais.

Well it wasn’t really him of course, but his face looked down at me from a poster high above, one I hadn’t spotted until now. There were about a dozen hand-drawn images, all showing different mixes of hair style and beards and it had to be at least 50 years old. But there he was, in the bottom left corner with that nervous smile of his, the one you always see on the original Office.

Staring at me.

Indian barbers crazy about lather and will spend five minutes or more swabbing you with a brush to get a thick custard-like layer of shaving cream spread evenly over your chin, jaw, shoulders and lap before even touching the razor. Not so here: Jose grabbed a bottle of what I’m pretty sure was Windex, squirted it in his left hand, rubbed it over my stubble and went to work with the blade.

It was then that I noticed he was using an old-school straight-edge razor. At every barber I’ve visited so far, they used a straight edge razor where they snap a double-sided safety blade in half and slide it into a straight edge housing, giving you a disposable fresh blade. Not so here — Jose was wielding a razor that was a thick, single length of steel. And it was dull.

I knew right away that something wasn’t right.

He would make a couple of passes on my left cheek, then shift over to scratch a few whiskers from my chin before moving to another spot.Great. My barber has ADD. He was a young guy but held the blade with a steady hand — I didn’t get the feeling he was inexperienced. That said, I can remember being young, dumb and overconfident so who knows? I could have been his first. Gervais stared down at me and his smile had turned to an annoying grin.

This process continued for a half hour — Jose would scrape and scratch, clearing a spot about the size of a postage stamp before moving to the other side of my jaw. There was a major flaw in his technique: he would squirt more Windex in his left hand and rub it into my face, then try to hold my skin taut for the blade with the same hand. His Windex-soaked fingers would slide about and he would go scritch, scritch, scritch for a few seconds before having to reposition.

Finding Ricky Gervais in a Guatemalan BarbershopAs this was happening, I couldn’t stop thinking about that recent Rolling Stones interview where Gervais had posed with the word “Atheist” scrawled on his chest in blood — not really something you want to be thinking of while a man holds a razor to your throat.

I wanted more than anything to stop him and finish up myself back at the hotel but I knew that would be a major faux-pas, so I gritted my teeth and gripped the armrests tighter. By the end, he was leaned hard against my shoulder –foot braced against the counter– with a finger jammed up my nose and his tongue peeking out of the corner of his mouth as he carefully scraped the last whiskers from my upper lip. I’m pretty sure Gervais gave me a wink.

Finally, Jose put the razor down on the counter, grabbed a bottle of aftershave and quickly rubbed it over my face. I jerked and jumped in the chair as if I’d just been hit with a defibrillator. That hurt. Lo siento he said, flashing me that Wells Fargo smile.

I stood up and surveyed my face for open wounds — I felt like I’d just made out with a cheese grater. No blood was visible. I had hoped to take photos of the posters but the place had packed out while I was under the knife and someone was already jockeying for my chair. Jose charged me 40 quetzales, twice the price of the haircut but more than fair — in the half hour he had spent shaving me, his partner had turned over at least 5-6 customers.

My bus was leaving Antigua the next day at noon, so I decided I’d just come back in the morning and take some photos before they got busy. Unfortunately, the next day was a Sunday and the shop wasn’t open, so I have no photos to back up this tale. Perhaps there’s a lesson there in ‘seizing the moment’ and ‘getting it done’. Or maybe it’s a reminder to experience life and not sweat the details. I don’t know.

What I do know is that the next time I get a shave, Ricky Gervais can wait in the damned car.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Rease December 27, 2011 at 11:12 pm

hahaha, sounds like a disaster. My friend had a pretty bad dye job un Argentina and the way she described how she felt while it was happening is a lot like this. I am glad you made it out without any serious injuries!


John December 27, 2011 at 11:36 pm

My face stings reading this. At least you had Ricky to keep you company while the torture progressed. Or do you think he was the mastermind behind it all?


wes December 28, 2011 at 2:23 am

I think it was all his fault ;)


Ayngelina December 28, 2011 at 6:41 am

You know my best hair cut was in Guatemala for 2 bucks. I wasn’t very good at Spanish at the time but I liked her hair so I figured it couldn’t be that bad.

But you know, you forgot to show us a photo!


Erin December 28, 2011 at 10:02 am

Great story telling as always. The things we have to put up with on the road… Glad you made it our unharmed if a little traumatised.


Micah December 30, 2011 at 2:39 am

I think it’s the not “sweating the details” lesson. Sometimes it’s a little bit better to let the moment live in your memory – and the internet, of course. At least, that’s the mantra that makes me feel a bit better when I forget to snap a good shot.


wes December 30, 2011 at 3:06 am

I totally agree. I’d rather experience the moment than document (though both is nice too!)


TheGourmetCoffeeGuy January 5, 2012 at 8:14 pm

This sounds very painful, will definitely avoid such horrific experience! Enjoyed reading the post, felt like I was in the barber shop… fortunately not.


Jim @NeverStopTraveling January 6, 2012 at 10:51 am

Good story, but I started writhing in pain as I got to the shave. Oh God, time to regrow my beard.


Cale May 3, 2012 at 12:46 am

Ha, I’m just reading this now, and I had to write my laughter at “my barber has ADD”. The kind of thing that turn classic.


Forest Parks January 14, 2013 at 9:14 pm

Ha ha ha, I have had some odd experiences in foreign barbershops. The first time I went to an Egyptian barber I froze up when he started massaging mu shoulders! I still don’t know if he did that just because he liked me (or was tip hunting)!!!!