It’s 98 degrees, and the sun has reached its highest point. The four of us have roamed Yangon’s broad leafy avenues for the past two days. We’re here as photographers to capture a city which has only recently come out of a 50 year army-imposed hibernation. Our cameras are at the ready to capture as much of its complex beauty as possible. We admire the fin-de-siècle architecture and enjoy the seductive street food. The narrow streets between the avenues provide respite from the midday sun.
Most travelers know that to eat with locals is to understand what fuels them. And to drink together is to learn each other’s truth. Zach discovered that getting a haircut locally is an additional cultural experience.
As the other half of our group ventures off in search of their third food market of the day, Zach and I make our way to a local barbershop. It came highly recommended.
In a previous life, Zach was a successful commodities trader in Hong Kong. That didn’t turn out to be too fulfilling, so after three years Zach decided to change course. He traveled the world and collected a diversity of impressions that changed his outlook on life. Meaningful travel tends to have that effect on people, and he started an organization called Passion Passport to provide others with a similar experience.
“It gives me a glimpse into local customs and rituals. The details and curious practices around getting a haircut jump out.”
“In one place, I’ve had my ears trimmed and cleaned with incredible attention to detail. In another, I’ve had my eyebrows tweaked and had my face massaged for several minutes. Each experience offers something new and a little bit different. It gives me a glimpse into local customs and rituals. The details and curious practices around getting a haircut jump out.”
Think of it as an exercise in trust. A unique way to peel back another layer of the host culture. To undergo a physical change informed by local ritual and craftsmanship is a unique way of connecting to a place and people.
When Zach and I arrive, we find the barbershop hidden behind a small delivery truck and shrouded in darkness. There has been a power outage, not an uncommon occurrence in Yangon. Our barber, Mgo Mgo, sits on his stoop waiting for walk-ins. Next to the entrance, a faded poster showcases the various styles available. It includes a photo of Justin Bieber during his “Baby” days. There is something strangely poetic about this juxtaposition. Vines run down the building, as local food vendors stroll by offering local snacks. In the distance a beautiful eastern temple appears as a golden exclamation point at the end of this most Myanmar of sentences. But right in there, we find an iconoclast shot of perhaps the most Western of pop stars.
As we approach, a young girl pokes her head out from the stairs that lead to the apartment upstairs. It’s Mgo Mgo’s daughter, joyfully laughing at the sight of unexpected visitors.
Mgo Mgo welcomes Zach into his chair, and the style conversation begins. Myanmar is the 11th country he’s had his hair cut in the past few years so he is used to what follows. Few words can be shared between the two, leaving hand gestures and smiles to do the work instead. Mgo Mgo lays out his tools and studies Zach’s features to determine his next step.
Off the bat, it is clear that Mgo Mgo takes enormous pride in his craft. His smile morphs into a serious game face as he picks up his scissors and goes to work. Over the course of an hour, he moves from haircut to straight razor shave and ends with a massage. We anticipated a much faster experience, but no one is complaining. Zach touches his face and finds it softer than from any previous shave. His face looks relaxed and satisfied. He looks like a million bucks. Country 11, check.
Mgo Mgo’s warm smile returns. He requests that I use his mobile phone to take a snap of Zach and him together. For the archives. They sit beside each other on the stoop out front, right next to the poster of Justin Bieber and various Myanmarese celebrities. I seem to be the only one that notices this little meta detail of a successful east-meets-west cultural immersion moment. It makes me smile. Meaningful travel tends to have that effect on people.