[Editor’s Note: This article, which first appeared in lifestylebohol, was contributed by a foreign national who is married to a Boholana.]
In my time on this island, I am (and always will be) just a visitor granted permission to enjoy. Some parts of the life are easy to access and understand. Some are hidden away in plain sight, both seen and unseen, known but never really understood. One such aspect of Bohol life that I find fascinating but will never fully understand is that of the barbershop.
By barbershop, I do not mean spa, or beauty parlor. I mean the traditional barbershop where the men gather and take their turns as kings on a throne for a cut or a shave at the hands of a skilled artisan, sage and counselor. There are barbershops all over the world. They are all the same in some ways, but everywhere has their own interpretation. In my first country, barbers have a long tradition. They were the original doctors providing medical care. My grandfather was a barber, and his father before him. It is in my history and my blood. I am sure that if I ever fully understood the local barbershop culture I would find a similar long and deep history.
My fascination with Bohol barbershops started years ago when I was looking for a place to get a shave. A true honest shave is a luxury. I was sure it was possible on the island. But when I explained that it involved a man putting a straight razor to the throat, my wife and her family of young men with wispy Filipino beards looked at me like I was a fish asking for a bicycle. My wife eventually relented and took me to a nice salon where women were having their nails done and I was assured I was being presented with the best barbers in Bohol. I had my doubts. The ability to color and style hair to the latest fashion has little to do with sharp steel on skin. The delightful man assigned to me lost some of his smile when I asked about a straight razor shave, but he was not prepared to admit he had never attempted the procedure. He did his best. Nervous hands shaking. In the end there was a little blood and he missed a few places, but at least he tried. I confirmed afterwards I was his first.
A few days later, wandering around the neighborhood mercado I noticed many shops with barber chairs and men getting haircuts. They had always been there and I had seen them many times. But this time I actually noticed them. I paid attention. And eventually I stepped through a doorway and asked if they could give me a shave. After some exchange to confirm they were sure the foreigner knew what he asking for I was pointed to a chair and I sat. And for a time, I too was an enthroned king and the subject of a master bringing his blade to my face. Skilled and quick, I was made clean.
And now I pay even more attention to the barbershops around the mercado of my neighborhood and others. After a few years of observation and many shaves and haircuts, I have come to some insights on picking a barber in Bohol. One – they should share a block or be within sight of a mercado. Not a mall, but a real mercado where a pig’s face or “mascara” can be purchased if early enough, something I have learned is an essential ingredient for sisig. (Sisig being a whole other Filipino wonder and gift.) Two – a television, if any, should be showing basketball unless there is a good fight. Barbershop television priorities are first and foremost boxing if a Filipino is in the ring, then second, basketball. There may be another choice for the television but so far I have yet to see it. Three – a good barber is rarely, if ever, a beneficiary of their art and should be bald, have long hair, or some combination of the two. They are after all the unkempt wizards of their craft.
And now, along with the other treasures of the island, my routine on landing is to promptly find my way to my barber’s chair. I sit in his chair like a royal and he works his magic. We discuss the world, our families and things great and small. And when I sit, Audy, my barber of several years, takes care with a blade to my throat while in sight of the mercado, with basketball on the TV.