Wednesday, November 14, 2012

S&M haircut

Every six weeks or so, I treat myself to a haircut. Not the ordinary shopping mall barbershop kind, but an authentic Indonesian military-style cut, deep in the bowels of Pasar Cikini, the ramshackle market that's home to a hundred surprises just a short stroll from my front door.

It's not the haircut itself that I look forward to - although the buzz cut is a decent one - but the head and shoulder massage that comes with it. It's tough and rough and can leave a few marks, but it's also a fantastic form of stress relief.

Many foreigners and well-to-do Indonesians here like to indulge in a "cream bath", where for an hour or two they can be gently pampered, scrubbed and massaged, all while reading out-of-date women's magazines. My massage is not like that - it's like venturing into an S&M dungeon, being roughed around a bit, smiling and asking for more.

Lucky for me, this morning was haircut time. So down to the market I wandered, through the middle-aged ladies tending their fruit and vegetable stalls, past the carefully denuded coconuts, the raw animal parts hanging on hooks and the fresh fish display peppered with flies.

I reached my hairdresser, a small room off the main laneway, about the size of an en suite bathroom. The place is run by a couple of easy-going men in their 20s, brothers or cousins I think, who live with their family in the home directly above the ground-level shop. The two guys are lean and fit, with the ragged T-shirts and spiky haircuts that are in fashion among young Jakartan men who feel they've got something to prove.

There are a four plastic green chairs lined up by the door, and they're often occupied, but rarely by customers. This barber shop is a place for men, young and old, to hang out, spread gossip, read the Topskor sports newspaper and snooze. A haircut is one of many reasons a person might venture through the door.

But that's what I was there for. So I stuck my head in the door, and was quickly ushered into one of the two salon chairs, my protestation that the people in the green seats should be served before me met with a gesture that made clear I wasn't taking anyone's spot.

"Nomor Tiga" I said, pointing at my hair and waving three fingers in the air to indicate the blade I wanted on the shaver. "Dan juga massage," I said, getting a nod of acknowledgement. So fairly swiftly he set to work, methodically cutting away the dark locks that had been irritating me for the previous few weeks, flicking them nonchalantly to the floor.

The TV in the corner hissed away, broadcasting an inane sinetron soap opera with lots of lingering shots of heavily permed actresses looking emotionally distraught, interspersed with advertisements for dishwashing liquid and instant noodles and energy drinks, touted by fun, uncomplicated 20-somethings reciting cheesy catchphrases.

The top of my head taken care of, my barber grabbed a single shaving blade and set to work on the back of my neck. Indonesians grow very little facial hair, and so their efforts to wield the blade usually don't involve shaving cream. After all, if your aim is to target individual hairs, it's easier if you can see them. So in smoothing the back of my neck, the barber opted for a dry shave, scraping the blade on my weathered skin, enough to catch the hairs but thankfully leaving the skin behind.

The haircut done, he lifted the smock theatrically, and shock its contents on the ground, folded it and put it aside. Then he doused his hands with a mix of oil and aftershave, and planted his hands on my short-haired scalp, as I sat with eager anticipation. He paused for a moment, the liquid gently dribbling down causing a slight burning sensation, then squeezed his fingers slightly to indicate the massage was to begin.

Soon he was kneading the flesh on my scalp mercilessly, pinching then releasing mounds of skin and lightly separating them from my skull. The fingers worked their way around my scalp, moving toward my face and yanking my forehead, lifting my eyebrows and leaving my eyelids little choice but to follow. My temples were forced together and released, the crown of my head pulled towards both ears at once. He lifted my head as much as my neck would allow, twisting it to both sides.

Then my pianist ventured for some lower notes, undoing the top two buttons of my shirt and working his way down my spine as a sat, transfixed.  He pulled and poked at my shoulders, and ventured to just above where my clavicle gets close to the surface of the skin. He moved his hands in small concentric circles, zeroing in on a spot that was a mass of tightened tendons and muscle, the physical manifestation of the stress I had been feeling. Once he'd found the spot, he went hard, squeezing and releasing, pounding away with considerable force.

The impact prompted me to hunch forward slightly, too proud to admit to the barber that he was using too much force and should ease up a little. After a while he relented, and set to work on my arms, right first, then left. He pulled each arm sideways from my body, as far as they could comfortably go - then yanked a little more. Satisfied the arm was fully extended, he set to work on each finger, rotating it a few times before giving it a short, sharp tug. The cracking sound with each knuckle gave us both a jolt of satisfaction. Then he'd dig his fingers into my palm as if with enough effort he might make it out the other side, and continued the approach as he ventured up the arm toward the shoulder.

Then finally he worked his cruel magic on the back of my neck, his thumb and forefinger pinching a hunk of flesh until it hurt, then releasing. He worked his way either side of the spinal column, persisting through my occasional flinches as he made contact with the spots best known to people undertaking pressure-point training.

"Sudah," he said, making eye contact with me via the mirror as he gave me a firm pat on the head to tell me both our work was done. I took a few deep breaths and conducted a quick mental check of my body, noting where the stress had been relieved, and new aches and pains had potentially been created.

I handed my man 40,000 rupiah - about $4 - and headed back out to the main alley of the market, feeling more alive than I had in a while. Now that's a haircut.