Whenever I'm in a wildly different culture from my own, I always seek out a service which teaches me more about the locals than any guide book ever could. Not restaurants, not night clubs, not beach bars or the like: I look for an old-fashioned barber's shop, the type invariably run by a man in his fifties or sixties whose father founded the shop in the 1940's, kind of thing. Anyone who's been to El Vendrell in Catalunya will know the Plaza Mayor with its memorial to the great 'cellist Pau Casals as well as its old barber shop, called, simply and logically, Peluqueria. Well, this establishment will cut your hair better than any salon costing ten times more. Your hair is washed with the use of a large jug of water the proprietor fills from the tap (yes, it's warm) and you can admire the bottles of Vitalis and the decades-old posters and adverts he has hanging on the walls, stained in a bygone age when smoking was compulsory. As you'll be the only unknown who has frequented his shop in the last ten years or so he'll bring you up to date with everything that's been going on in the town since he last had a tourist in the chair. I found the same thing in Mexico City. Even though we spoke Spanish, my man in Central America insisted on proudly using the one English word he knew: Trim, and was suitably happy when I understood first time without him having to repeat it. He brought me up to date on crime in the Zona Rosa, how the little green and white Beetle taxis should all be banned and the fact that the air is so polluted that birds in the Parque Chapultepec would literally fall dead out of the trees.
I looked in the mirror this morning and decided I had too much hair on the sides. If you've got a broad face like I have, it makes you look like a bad joke in a Hall of Mirrors, so I decided to check out an ancient little barber's I pass every day on my way to work. Blink and you'd miss it: it's just a small, ground floor plate-glass window with graffiti on the frame. The dingy grey net curtains just about put the words Caballeros y damas in relief. No contest, this was to be my place.
Inside was like a tiny sitting room with a single chair for the cut and another for washing, bolstered by a couple of cushions. Yes, for CLP$3000 (about €4) he'd be happy to wash and cut my hair. I was probably the first tourist he'd seen in many a long year so he told me all the things I should see in Chile and Santiago, asked after my family, told me about how the country had advanced since Pinochet and warned me about the people most likely to steal my bag. It was still pretty early so I went back home to do some work. Later, when I passed on my way to the 'office', I popped in to ask if I could take his picture (see below). Not a problem, and would I like a cup of coffee? Sadly, I didn't have time, but he's extended the invitation to whenever I want to take him up on it.
See what I mean about his sitting room? And this on one of Santiago's busiest streets in the business district. He looks a bit like Fabio Capello, actually. What's more, the cut is superb; he took off just the right amount and now I don't look like a Cheshire Cat as drawn by a seven-year-old, anymore.
So, if you're in the back-of-beyond and need a bit of info, just look for the local Sweeney Todd. It beats most other ways of genning up on a place.