The Barber Shop Cost of Living Index

During our first week in Tbilisi back in September, I got a haircut for four lari–or about $1.60. This was a win. The small hair salon, tucked in a cavernous space below street level in the Vera neighborhood (go to this area if you visit Tbilisi), proved quite the steal, despite the fact no employees spoke English. And my Georgian was limited to thank you, you’re welcome, and no (ara). Before the trim, I pulled out my phone and showed the barber a picture of myself with shorter hair. Thank you, iPhone. I figured ara might come in handy if the buzzcut to my receding hairline was somehow butchered. No problems emerged.

In Sharjah, UAE, I experienced my first local haircut for 10 dirhams, or $2.80. This was a steep increase from my Tbilisi trim, but still cheap enough to excite the pennypincher in me. But no beard trim yet.

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In the midst of a perfectly fine cut in Sharjah, UAE.

That would be my next step in local barber exploration, when a shop in Oman groomed me better than I’ve ever been groomed. Rebecca quickly approved of my newfound appreciation for beard and general personal upkeep, as it but part of my enthusiasm was due to an unexpected head massage and about three layers of creams, salves, and cleansing solutions applied to my face.

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Feeling pretty good about myself after this grooming in Muscat, Oman. A 45 minute beard trim, massage, clean…the works, for about seven bucks.

Then a few weeks ago, back in Dubai, I took the elevator down from the 45th floor Sheraton Grand Hotel apartment so generously loaned to us on a quest for a fresh cut. I walked through the lobby of the adjacent building, knowing a barber shop was on the first floor. I was not impressed.

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A peek through the window at the “hip” barbershop in downtown Dubai. Not for me!

For 155 dirham (about $40) I could get a haircut and beard tune up in this “artisanal” shearing shop. Heck no. I’d like this journey to extend as long as possible; finding cheap haircuts is one simple way to extend our funds. Another alternative is to return to my “Grizzly Adams” look, which I’d gladly do. I know someone, however, who will nix this idea.

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Borderline too-bushy-of-a-beard for Rebecca. But I see her smiling…

After bypassing the overpriced joint, I left the building and walked northwest towards the Persian Gulf, where you soon enter a more modest and older neighborhood. The towers lining Sheikh Zayed Road loomed behind me. And a pronounced shift was occurring, leaving the insulated opulence of glass towers for the bustle of more modest commerce. Small businesses wedged side by side, the smell of chicken shawarma, perfumes, and exhaust mixing in the air. No 40 dollar haircuts to be found, that’s for sure.

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Within this block, I had my choice of three barbers. The skyscraper back left in the background is the Sheraton Grand Hotel, where I started my walking barbershop journey.

I knew I’d have my pick of barber shops as they seem to be everywhere in the Muslim world. If you’re wandering in a local or older neighborhood, you will have options. I settled for a branch of the Al Sayan Gents Saloon and got a perfectly suitable haircut and beard trip for 20 dirham (5-6 bucks).  

This lighthearted tale about haircuts and beard trims relates to greater questions many of us face: What is the cost of living in various locales? Can we live the lives we’d like to given varying expenditures? What do we sacrifice and gain when choosing between places?

For us, choosing to live in a place that will demand two full time jobs just to simply cover rent or mortgage is beginning to feel especially absurd. Being exposed to a range of possibility of where and how you can live is certainly part of it. And it’s already tempting to dream about choosing a place from our journey (maybe we haven’t been there yet) that will allow us a lifestyle with less stress and more adventure, in addition to time to pursue hobbies, volunteer work, long visits with family, whatever….

Expatistan is an interesting site–folks living in cities around the world submit prices for commodities, housing, transportation, and other costs. Below, you can see the information you’ll receive if you compare places. Dubai, our last home base, is twice as expensive as our current base, but that was seriously offset by free housing.

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Expatistan will also give you more specific breakdowns and examples of costs within each category.

In the meanwhile, I’ve yet to find a barber in Tanzania, but the time will come:).

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Snapshots From Georgia: A Glimpse Into Our Two Months

We’ve said to several of our family members and also our new Georgian acquaintances: We’ll have to be careful to not compare the next places we go to Georgia because it has been such a wonderful country to begin our travels in. Can anything top it?

Vacations and travel are never perfect of course. As travelers, Rebecca and I aren’t immune to the shitty and/or tedious things we all encounter in day-to-day living. We’ve already had plenty of afternoons lounging around with a little bit of cabin fever. We’ve dealt with colds. Taxi drivers occasionally try to rip us off. And so on. But there were so many positives during our time in this small country–we’ll let the image gallery do the talking. Here is a link to the above images plus about 70 more.

Please let us know if you have any questions about any of the images!

What does it mean to truly know a place?

When I was 17, I made my first trip to Kentucky as part of a church youth group service trip. We stayed in the Martin County seat of Inez. Towns named Lovely and Beauty are also in the county, which is in the heart of Appalachia across the Tug Fork River from West Virginia. I remember winding roads, hollers, and burning debris we removed from an old woman’s house that was accessed by a rickety foot bridge over a gurgling creek.

It didn’t take long for Martin County to make a strong impression on me. Holy shit, this is what poverty looks like, I remember thinking, passing dilapidated trailers and vacant store fronts in seemingly abandoned towns. My experience growing up in the prosperous state of New Hampshire with parents holding advanced degrees from Ivy League schools might as well have made me from another planet.

And I had this strong reaction despite not meeting too many locals. Or having the opportunity to dig deeper into the essence of the place. I was a teenager along for the ride, hoping that our volunteer work would be valued. But physically being there for five or so days, seeing just a fraction of the county, made an impact. I didn’t know the place, but I sensed enough that it began changing the way I thought about the American Experience.

At the time, I had no idea that I’d make Kentucky my home for thirteen-plus years.

Kentucky is the 15th smallest state, and while living here, I made a decent effort to cover some ground exploring my new home of Louisville and beyond. Locally, there was the “Quest for Q,” an early attempt to discover the most mouth-watering BBQ in the city:

Standing in the parking lot of a Pic-Pac supermarket on the corner of Market Street and 25th, we glanced around but didn’t see The King.  We were the only white folks around in the highly segregated west end of Louisville, but when you’re on a Quest for Q you have to leave your comfort zone.  Angus, Austin and I continued to scan the parking lot and surrounding neighborhood but still no luck.  “Should we go inside and ask someone in Pic-Pac?” Austin said.  No response was necessary—all of a sudden, a burgundy-colored pickup truck rolled slowly down 26th street and we started jogging over to let The King know our intentions.

There were also Sunday morning bike rides, roads quiet, deliberately getting lost in parts of town I hadn’t been to. Invitations to posh horse farms on bluffs overlooking the Ohio River for receptions and fundraisers. University of Louisville sporting events, hikes in Jefferson Memorial Forest, the Kentucky Derby (twice). Volunteering at citizenship classes for refugees. Neighborhood porch sitting and bourbon sipping.  High school football games–Friday night lights all over town. I definitely think I got to know Louisville well, but Louisville different from Kentucky-at-large in the same way that, say, Austin is different from Texas.

Out in the state, I have fond memories of exploring the Owensboro region with two friends hailing from the area. Bow-hunting for white-tailed deer, perched up in trees, seeing my breath in front of me as night fell in the forest. Visiting Mammoth Caves, staying at B&Bs. Camping at Red River Gorge and attending music festivals where bluegrass music and marijuana-smoke commingled during jam sessions. And more, of course.

So all in all, I’d say my life was rich in various experiences in Kentucky, but I only spent two more nights back in isolated Appalachia, where deep-rooted poverty, local tradition, declining coal mining, and natural beauty collide to form a much-judged but rarely-visited place. I never made it much farther west than Owensboro, and the Bluegrass State stretches several hours further towards the Mississippi River.

So how long does it take to truly know a place? What does that even mean? Is there more value in becoming intimate with a small slice of a locale, neighborhood, or city, or learning and experiencing as much as you can about a more diverse set of places?

I’m not regretful in any way about what I didn’t get to experience in Kentucky–being on the road is a powerful reminder about how vast our world is. Georgia is roughly the size of South Carolina, which is smaller than Kentucky. Over almost two months here, Rebecca and I have captured strong impressions and snippets of what we think life is like in the country.  But is possible to truly know a place if you aren’t from it?

Writer Tara Isabella Burton wonders if she is caught in a charade while living in Tbilisi, the place we have made our short term home. “If there is a game…I haven’t learned its rules. I confuse effusiveness for sincerity; I can’t work out the bus timetables. I do not know when to let strange women buy me tea in the marketplace and when to refuse. To be Georgian seems to me to be engaged in a collective national performance — one in which I cannot participate,” she writes.  

At times, I’ve felt like I’ve figured things out in Georgia; at other times, I have no idea what the hell is going on. I know, for instance, what the expected rates for taxi rides are–there are no meters, so you’ve got to haggle before jumping in the back seat of a cab, which is often an old Mercedes Benz with a cigarette-smoke saturated interior. I also know that, in general, traditions relating to food are essential here.  But I don’t know much about the ubiquitous Eastern Orthodox religion, the language–despite being here almost two months–or the politics. And those seem to be pretty darn important elements for me to truly understand Georgia, that’s for sure.

As we move on to Dubai next week, we’ll be bombarded with all that entails being in a completely new place. While it’s a lot to expect to gain a deep understanding of the expat and superlative-laden Emirate in a short time, I won’t be surprised if something happens like it did back in 1998 in Martin County, when finding yourself in a foreign place triggers a new revelation about yourself, a place, or the world-at-large.