Santo Domingo – Vam
“¿Quiere El Presidente,” – the local beer – “señor?”
“Sí, un mas, y mas fria por favor.”
This was the kind of day that I could sit and sip cold beer all day and this was the perfect cantina, cold beer: plenty of fresh steamed shrimp, a fantastic view of the Caribbean and beautiful Dominican women. This was two weeks in paradise, because as far as I could tell I was the only “gringo” in this tiny hamlet Puerta Pela. The women in this part of Santo Domingo were by far the most exotic I had seen in the Caribbean, they looked like they were the last survivors of the original native Caribes and Arawaks. The barmaid, Maria, was from an inland town, she spoke some English.
After I quaffed the cold beer, I decided to stroll down the beach back to my hotel about a half mile down the white sand. I paid Maria and started walking down to the water’s edge, the cool Caribbean washed my bare feet. The hot wind was stifling, and within less than 100 meters my tee shirt was clinging to my sweaty back.
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Up the beach there was a small crowd gathering, there seemed to be an air of excitement in the crowd that I hadn’t seen in this quiet hamlet. I followed the crowd up from the beach to Calle Grande, the main street in the hamlet. The only other local I had met who spoke English was Maria’s sister, Juana, who worked at my hotel and was standing in the middle of the growing crowd. I saw her and tried to attract her attention: “Holá, holá Juana, ¿que pasa aqui?” (Hey Juana, what’s happening here?). I managed to get her attention as the crowd gathered around the market square, el paseo.
“Oh señor, how are you today, everything today is very busy,” she said as she and I walked together through the gathering crowd.
I asked her again, this time in English. “Juana what is happening, where did all these people come from?”
“Oh, señor it’s because el barbero is here to… ¿como se dice? comparar el pelo.” I saw a line of 4 chairs set up in the middle of the market square and a crowd of girls and women lined up. In the middle of the crowd was a white man wearing a white linen suit smoking a long Havana cigar. Juana said, “He is the barber, he is going to buy hair today, sí, all these girls sell their hair today, mucho plata hoy.” (Lots of money today.) “O.K., he gonna start now.”
I sat on the low wall than enclosed the paseo about 10 feet away from the line of chairs. Juana sat next to me and said, “Señor you want to watch? This happens una vez del año.” (One day a year)
“Sí,” I replied.
The barber had his assistants posted behind each of the chairs, each chair had a box next to it and a tangle of cords that led to four large black clippers. In front of each chair was a short line of girls, most appeared to be between 16 and 25, their thick black hair in a single plaits that hung down their backs. Juana said, “He start now.” The barber walked slowly over to the girls in the first row, looking closely at each girl and examining her hair closely. He lifted up the thick black hair in his large hand, ran his fingers through the plait that he loosened, then with a thick black comb he combed the hair down to the roots, carefully inspecting the comb for any sign of nits. Then he measured each girl’s hair length, holding it aloft while his assistants held up a yellow tape measure. Then as he nodded to each assistant they wound the hair into a single ponytail and pulled it taut with a rubber band on the top of each girl’s head.
The younger girls, those between 16 and 18, were lined up with older women, who appeared to be mothers or grandmothers. The barber motioned to the first row to take their seats. They nervously complied, the older women holding their arms secure as the assistants assembled their tools. Then he reexamined each head of hair and gestured to the older women by holding up his fingers, either 2 or all 5. Juana said, “That what he gonna pay.” One by one the older women took the notes from his hand and the barber nodded to the assistant that the deal had been struck to begin. The barber stood behind the first chair and said “¡Comienza!” (Begin!) to his assistant, who lifted the girl’s ponytail and turned on the big black clippers in his hand.
The girl in the chair closest to me appeared to be about 16, she was terribly scared and trembling. The barber lifted her hair high in the air, and started to shave from her forehead up to the crown of her head, holding the ponytail. Gradually he reached the ponytail. Then he began clipping from the nape up to the crown. The girl was frozen: she clenched her eyes shut as the clippers slowly and steadily removed the ponytail and almost all of the thick black hair surrounding her brown scalp. The girl’s eyes were still clenched shut as the assistant removed the black guard from the clippers, and turned them on. Then he began to shave off the last remaining black hair from her scalp. He held her head fast as he laid the ponytail on the table in front of the row of chairs. As I looked at the other chairs I saw the other assistants finishing up their haircuts as well. The scene was very dramatic; the girls were all in tears, even some of the older women shed a few tears as they gave the girls scarves to cover their shaven heads.
Juana said, “My mother comparada mí pelo” (sold my hair) “3 times. Each time I hated it, each time they shave me then with una rasor, now they no do that,” Juana said, as she stroked her own thick black hair falling on her shoulders. “The last time I was 18 and all summer mama kept me shave at the barbero all summer because she afraid of insectos.” As Juana spoke the pile of thick black hair was growing on the table as the crowd of shaven girls was growing. That was quite an experience for me, having long been fascinated by women’s haircutting. Juana said, “They all hate it now but, they will get used to it, I did.” She held an old black and white photo. It was a younger Juana with her head shaven bald, judging from the reflection of the Dominican sun her head had been recently shaven.
I took a long look at Juana and at the picture, and said, “Why not make it four times?”