I’ve been building up to it for over three weeks. I just didn’t get around to it on my last day in Bala where I usually pay about £5 for a haircut. Daniel primed me with some useful Kmai phrases like ‘not too long’, ‘not too short’, ‘take more off’ and so on. Sokha went to the money changer to get me more Riel because I have only dollars left. We had a good lunch together of sweet and sour pork with vegetables (and boiled rice) just in case it was my last. We delayed a little at the key cutter for a spare padlock key so I can use the office out of hours if I survive. Then I had no more reason to avoid the inevitable encounter with the cut throat barber by the river bridge.
Cut throat razors are pretty effective instruments especially when they are well sharpened and in the right hands. I watched him with eagle eyes as he trimmed the hair of the man before me. He went on to shave with dexterous skill all the little hairs on the nape of the neck, the side burns and the ears. I never saw one nick or fleck of blood appear. He seemed expert at his work and I relaxed a bit more. In the shack next door the tailor was clacking away with his sewing machine cheerfully making shirts to measure for a paltry sum. Passers by stopped for a chat and admired the barang’s new crash helmet and tried to make sense of the flag stickers which they hadn’t seen before. Y Draig Goch and St David’s cross intrigued them and I explained that they are from Wales. Puzzled looks. I tried again and used French. Pays de Galles. Still no wiser. Everywhere I’ve been everyone knows Onglay (Anglais) – that’ll be England – but they haven’t heard of Wales. Not yet anyhow.
On the other side of the barber’s shop some builders are trying to shore up the front of another shack using a large pole and their hammering and heaving threatens to knock the barber’s mirror off the tin sheet wall. He stops work to see what they are doing and to rescue his mirror. Finally it’s my turn and I’m invited to the chair. I have my notes in my shirt pocket so I can pull them out and instruct him of my requirements but before I know what’s happened he has me wrapped in a towel and a sheet and I can’t get the notes out. I may as well be in a straight jacket.
It goes well for a while. I am completely silent and accept a Standard Cambodian Cut whatever that may be on a barang with very little hair on top. Maybe I’ll look like a monk. He turns me this way and that and swings the chair around to get the best of the light as he works. Before long the shaving part of the process arrives and he reaches for his razor. Now I don’t know the word for ‘Oops!’ in Kmai but I can interpret a sudden sound and a sharp intake of breath as he cuts the hairs off my left ear. That sounds bad. It’s the kind of thing we try not to say during a major operation when the patient has a spinal anaesthetic and stays awake. ‘Oops!’ is a worrying comment and not very reassuring to the nervous disposition. Here am I pursuing my philosophy of ‘go with the flow’ and he says ‘Oops!’ I’m as still as a mouse. It’s definitely not my fault. I can’t feel any thing trickling down my neck aside from the sweat but I start to do mental calculations.
In Cambodia nationally the HIV rate in 2010 was 2.9% in males. I’ve been reading the national and regional data. In Mongkul Borei hospital the rate in females last year was 10.1%, four times the national average. Perhaps that’s why they offered me a second pair of surgical gloves in the operating theatre – their surgeons wear double gloves. I declined because I’m being cost conscious and I don’t think I will stick myself with a needle, besides the 60-year-old lady is likely to be HIV negative as she is well and might be expected to have succumbed to AIDS at a younger age. Nevertheless when I picked up the needle in my fingers they made the ‘Oops!’ noise with the intake of breath I heard from the barber just now. That made me realise I needed to demonstrate good practice to the medical students who were looking over my shoulder and I was pleased to note that the staff are well aware of the HIV transmission risk.
HIV transmission. One small slip for man, one giant problem for mankind …
The local rate for HIV in males is also higher than the national figure, currently standing at 6.4%. That is the chance of the barber’s clients before me having HIV but I don’t know how often he nicks the skin nor how often he might clean or sharpen his blade, either of which process would reduce the risk of transmission. Having insufficient data my mental maths comes to nothing and fortunately I’m soon done and seem to be unscathed. He smiles a broad smile as he invites me to stand. I manage a ‘How much?’ and ‘Thank you very much!’ and wander away lighter in my steps at surviving again and lighter in my pocket by 2,000 Reil. That’s 50 cents.
Just the cost of a coconut.