The Barbers of Guiuan

Ten months after Super Typhoon Yolanda, Guiuan barber Alan Alcantara rebuilds his broken chair, puts up his shop, and hires two more barbers whose lives jobs were stolen by the biggest storm in living history

Text and Photos By Patricia Evangelista

8:18 AM, Sep 20, 2014

EASTERN SAMAR, Philippines – The barber from Guiuan is a large man. His arms are meaty, his belly round under his white undershirt. He says little, but smiles often. A cigarette hangs from the corner of his mouth. The ash he flicks to the floor, to join piles of discarded hair.

The barber’s name is Alan Alcantara, born 38 years ago to a family of barbers in Catbalogan City. In his twenties he fell in love with a seamstress named Mary, and decided to pack his razors and his pairs of scissors to follow his wife to Guiuan in Eastern Samar.

Life was good for Alan and Mary. They had four children, three girls and a boy. Mary had her shop and Alan had his, the storefronts squat against each other along Lugay Street in Barangay 8. The men came to sit on Alan’s red leather barber’s chair. They came for haircuts, but mostly they came to gossip.

“Whenever anyone has a story to tell,” laughs Alan, “they tell their barber.”

Then Haiyan came. Alan lost his shop the same way most of his neighbors lost homes and shops and families – in the typhoon, at dawn, with the winds blowing and the water surging through the streets. Alan sent his wife and children away with his razors and his scissors, then crammed himself with many others in a water distillation stall across his home.

This is the end, he thought. This is when I die.

When he found his way out, hours later, everything was gone.

“Whenever anyone has a story to tell, “they tell their barber.”

In the morning of November 9, 2013, Alan Alcantara stood in front of his barbershop staring at what was left of his red leather barber’s chair. His house had been flattened. His shop was destroyed. The village was in shambles. Down the street, he could see bodies being carried to the cemetery.

Then the men came. One by one, to ask for haircuts. Alan said no. There was no roof, there were no walls. They told him it didn’t matter.

“They said it didn’t matter if they were homeless, so long as they looked good.”

So even as he built his house from scraps of wood, he built rafters over the cement floor of what used to be his shop. He covered the thin beams with tarps, collected plastic chairs from the street, unwrapped his scissors from their cellophane wrapping, and opened for business. His razors were useless while power was down. He was shirtless and exhausted, but the men kept coming.

They told their stories, one after another, to the barber of Guiuan. They talked about the height of the waters. They talked about lost homes. They talked about dead relatives, and the panic fear of starting over. Alan would nod as he snipped away. We’re alive, he told them, again and again. We’re alive.

Guiuan is strong, he told them. The men of Guiuan will stand and fight.

And so they would leave, smiling sometimes. It may be a disaster, they would tell him, but damn we’re still handsome men.

“It’s good I don’t have a mirror,” said Alan. “At least the vain won’t be complaining.”

For as long as he had his scissors, he said, life will go on.

There is a barbershop along Lugay Street, in Village 8 of the municipality of Guiuan. The shop is small, barely a meter and a half across, a little more than two meters long. The walls are built of coco lumber, the storefront lined with thin sheets of galvanized iron that glow white in the August sun. Inside, the walls are rough and unpainted. Razors hang from the walls, long wires tangling from electric sockets rigged from the beams. Sweaty heat steams in from the open door and bounces off the mirrors

Soon a neighbor comes in, with his toddler son. Alan Alcantara stands and grins. The father sits down before a mirror. The barber picks up the boy, settles him down on his father’s lap, wraps a waterproof cape around the pair, and begins to trip around the small boy’s ears.

It is 10 months after typhoon Yolanda, and the barber of Guiuan makes good on his promise to fight. The aid is gone, so are the sacks of rice, but the barbershop along Lugay street now stands proud, built from the sweat of a man who said a Guiuan man must not fall.

It was hard, says Alan. Everything was hard after the storm.

“You’re exhausted all the time. You’re pressured by everything – at home, at work. You cut hair from morning until evening, the next day it’s the same. When you find the time, you pick up a hammer and pound while you can.”

The shop sits facing the street, squats beside a dressmaker’s shop. Inside it is packed and alive with chatter, 3 barbers stepping around customers in red chairs, passing each other in a complicated dance to the hum of electric razors and snipping scissors. Alan Alcantara is no longer alone. Two more barbers have joined him.

There is Bert Calbadores, the barber from Manila who moved to Leyte years ago to take care of his elderly parents, whose work in construction disappeared after Yolanda swept away his home. Alan heard of him from neighbors, and offered him a job.

There is his nephew Reggie Gayone, from Babatngon near Tacloban. Alan himself had taught Reggie the trade when his nephew was a teenager. The two had been out of contact for years, until Yolanda came and Alan went hunting for the boy and discovered Babatngong had been hit harder than Village 8.

There was no need to buy supplies for Bert or Reggie. Both had their barbering kits. A true barber, says Alan, will never let go of his scissors, even in a storm.

Alan rebuilt his old barber’s chair, then bought 2 others he could convert from a neighbor after the storm. He worked with welders, his wife bought the faux leather. In the afternoons, when the barbering slows, he sits in the old chair that he snatched from the storm and smokes a cigarette.

The next storm, says Alan, he’s saving not just the scissors, but the chairs as well.

“They said it didn’t matter if they were homeless, so long as they looked good.”

Of the 3 barbershops that stood before Yolanda swept in, 2 remain standing. Business is good, says Alan. Summer sends in men desperate for haircuts, the heat worse in Guiuan because the trees are gone.

The storm also brought in new customers – the foreigners, the white men, as Alan calls them, who are uncomfortable with parlor haircuts.

Alan does the job, but he is uncomfortable himself. The white men are sensitive men, and he is surprised by the demand his scissors sterilized. They also speak in English.

Yes sir, says Alan. No sir, says Alan. He laughs as he tells his story. Yes sir, no sir, are all he is willing to tell them.

But it is good money, and there are, after all, 3 barbers now in the shop along Lugay street. Every day there are maybe 20 customers who come in haircuts.

Life is normal now, as normal as life can get after getting punched by a typhoon bigger than any living man has seen. The children are back in school, his wife is back in her sewing machine.

Now the stories Alan hears are not about death or loss or fear. The young men are lying again about the women they say they’ve caught, the old men are back to lecturing on religion and life and the state of the nation.

Alan says maybe he’ll buy another pair of scissors when he has money, but he won’t let go of his old pair. He picks it up and demonstrates. He’s named it Survivor, and it hasn’t let him down yet. –