We arrived in Colombo on the 8th June at 2.pm for fuel and water, because our next port of call would be Muscat in Oman and it was already getting hot and summer months in or near the Persian Gulf is an experience I can do without.
There was little for me to do so I decided to go ashore and have a haircut. The above picture was taken in Colombo about five years ago, not in 1968.
Being male, I did not go looking for a specific barber I just went in to the first barber shop that I found, which makes life a lot simpler.
I asked for a longish crew cut, because I wanted to be able to keep cool in the Gulf, plus this type of haircut would be easy to keep tidy.
I leaned back in the chair and he started on the crew cut, which did not take long, and I thought I’d have time for a quick beer before returning to the ship.
Suddenly the barber poured a liquid on my head and started too massage it in. I thought it was some sort of hair oil, but realised it was not when it started to froth as he rubbed hard on my head. I later realised that it was a type of liquid soap that he used as a ‘dry’ shampoo.
I expected him to wash everything off, but he wiped my head clean with a dry towel, and then repeated the process.
At the end of the second procedure my hair felt clean and cool, and then my head was rubbed with Bay of Rum. Only very occasional had I seen this procedure in the UK so sat back to enjoy the process.
I don’t know how true this is but in the sailing ship days sailors in the Caribbean used to rub themselves with a bay leaf so that the bay leaf oil would hide the stink of their living conditions below decks while they waited for the sugar cargo to be ready.
A by-product of sugar is molasses and the slaves realised that it could be fermented into a drink. The local brewers took the fermented drink and distilled it into rum. The sailors fed up with rubbing themselves with a bay leaf soaked the bay leaf in rum. The rum extracted the bay leaf oils and the sailors would rub this on their bodies – hence Bay Rum.
The locals added other herbs such as cinnamon, citrus rind etc and so produced a male cologne. This was popular in the early part of the 20th century, particularly during the prohibition period.
The manufacturer printed on the label for external use only – but at 58% alcohol people took risks by drinking instead of rubbing on the liquid.
Back to my barber – my head was massaged with the Bay of Rum and boy did he massage. It was the monsoon season, and very humid, and the shop was not air-conditioned, but the barber kept stopping and spraying my face with cool water – how is that for customer service!
The next thing is that my head is being dried with a hair dryer and this was followed by a cutthroat razor across the back of my neck and down the side of my face – I sat very still!
Suddenly the headrest was dropped down and I am lying flat with my head resting on the dropped headrest and I am looking at the ceiling.
I think that surely he must have finished with my hair, I only asked for a crew cut – he had finished with my hair, but not with me . . . he now starts on my face pulling hither and thither and rubbing other bits until he suddenly he pastes my face with cream (hello sailor) and rubs this in before producing a machine, by which time I am thinking how to escape. The machine has suction pads and he starts working them over my face.
At last he finishes and allows the chair to be up-right to its normal position. I make a move to get up, but he holds me in place as he powders the back of my neck with talcum powder and has another go with the razor – I still didn’t move.
The use of a lot of talcum powder is common in the East due to the humidity.
Next is the Brylcreem
A British invention created in 1928, which I have only ever used once, and did not like.
I held his arm and said, ‘No thank you’, so not getting my head creamed entitled me to another head massage!
All the above took just under half an hour, everything was completed very fast. The bill came to Rp 5.50 (five and a half rupees), which was about 8/3d at that time (eight shillings and three pence, or £5.16 in today’s money) or $1.00 USD about $12.60 in today’s money.
A simple haircut in Australia had cost me 7/6d so for another 9d (9 old pence) I had all the trimmings, and because I’d changed UK pounds on the black market the exchange rate was better than the banks, so the barber had a 30% tip and we were all happy and I was his best mate.
I was the only European in the shop and I did not see any others enter. They missed out on a great, if unexpected, experience,
I returned to the ship only to find that we were one steward short – he had jumped ship. He’d received a letter from home (he lived in Goa) that his wife was ill so instead of taking the advice given to him by the chief steward, which was to tell either the first officer or the captain, he decided to leave immediately for Goa.
The above map is a modern map so if you wished to drive / ferry (Ceylon is an island) / drive to Goa from Colombo, which is about 2000 km. The estimated driving time would be about fifty six hours.
In the 1960’s it was not unusual for crew members to receive bad news from home via various sources, such as friends or family, and at times the information was a lie, and all the individual wanted was to go home before the end of his contract.
If the captain considered the request genuine he would release the crew member and have the ship’s agent arrange flights for the individual to fly home at the company’s expense.
I heard that the missing steward was planning to go by train – then ferry – and finally train, but he’d left his passport on the ship, so now he was an ‘illegal’ in Ceylon.
The train service was called the Boat mail or to give it its full name – Indo-Ceylon Express. The first service was February 1914, so the steward must have been aware of the service.
The train would get as far as Talaimannar in Ceylon and then he would require the ferry to Dhanushkodi, which is in India.
The problem that he would have is that Dhanushkodi was destroyed in the 1964 cyclone.
Some of the remains of Dhanushkodi. The town was abandoned by the survivors and the remains are still visible today.
The remains have now become a tourist site.
I’ve marked in red on this modern-day satellite photograph where the town was located.
The ferry service in 1968 terminated at Rameswaram, which is on Pamban Is. about 40 km from Ceylon. (check the above map)
From Rameswaram the steward would have to arrange a train to Tuticorin, which is near the southern tip of India, where he would have to change again for a train to Goa.
From the mainland of India to get to Rameswaram there is a bridge, called the Pampan Bridge which was built by the British in 1914 to encourage trade between India and Ceylon, it is still in use.
The track is a single line track and the train moves slowly because of the wind. The bridge is 2.2 km long and the train in the video has twenty-two carriages. You can hear the wind in the above video link.
The bridge is a metre wide and has 143 piers. Trains are stopped operating if the wind exceed 58 km per hour.
The centre bridge was built by a German engineer called Scherzerit, it opens to allow ferries and other vessels to pass.
Without his passport I’d be surprised if the steward even managed to leave Ceylon. We sailed without him at 7.30 pm, and we were in port for only about five and a half hours, but this would have been long enough for the agent to book air tickets, if the captain considered that the steward was telling the truth.
I never knew if he made it to Goa or if he ended up in gaol in Ceylon.
Being a train lover from when I was a child, particularly steam trains, I thought these links might be of interest.
Bridge from the air aerial views of the most dangerous rail crossing in India.
Inside a train crossing the bridge click this link and fast forward to three minutes to see views from the train, and see how narrow the rail support is above the water.
Pampan Bridge at sunset.