S5, E6: The Unexpected Magic of a Turkish Barbershop

This week on Travel Tales by AFAR, a plan-loving traveler discovers what happens when you throw out the to-do list.

Beth Santos—founder of the women’s travel community Wanderful—is a planner. Her husband is not. On the sixth episode of Travel Tales by Afar, season five, she discovers the power that can come with tossing out the to-do list—and embracing travel serendipity.


I saw a meme the other day that spoke to my soul. It showed a straight couple, a man and a woman, sitting in a car. The caption read: “There are two types of people in this world: the person who books the flights, sets the hotel reservations, and plans the itinerary. Then, there’s the person who just BRINGS THE VIBES! And those people tend to marry each other.”

Never before had I felt so seen.

My husband, Marvin, and I are polar opposites when it comes to a lot of things. Despite that, we travel incredibly well together. I tend to be the one who organizes just about everything—where we’ll sleep or what train we’ll take. I even remind him to request time off from work. I thrive on checklists, building detailed itineraries and scoping out Yelp reviews. I have never known a vacation where all I do is lay on a beach all day, preferring instead to stay busy exploring. Marvin, on the other hand, would be happiest on a sandy shore with a margarita in hand for seven days straight. He follows a fluid itinerary, which essentially means no itinerary. He manages things much more on the fly and tends to make a lot of friends along the way.

Usually, this works well. Sometimes, though, there are hiccups. Like the many date nights where I put him in charge and we end up walking around a city for hours, trying to find a single available restaurant because he didn’t make a reservation anywhere and figured he’d “wing it” on a Saturday night. Or the time we got trapped in the middle of a highway toll booth in Portugal because he was convinced he could drive a stick shift after just one lesson. And . . . definitely couldn’t.

But here’s an adventure that takes the cake: We’re traveling to a wedding in the Greek Islands. The flights are pretty expensive, so after loads of research I discover a great travel hack: If we fly through Istanbul, Türkiye, first and stay there overnight and then hop a local plane to Greece the next day, we can actually save hundreds of dollars over flying direct, even after the cost of a hotel is factored in. It seemed like a winning idea—not only would we save serious cash, but we’d also be able to explore a new place that neither of us had been to before.

We only have 24 hours in our new destination. And let’s be honest, at least 8 of those hours will be spent sleeping and/or recovering from jet lag, so our actual active time is much shorter. I’d spent some time making a list of all the things I wanted to do during our short visit to Istanbul. It was just about everything you’d find in a top 10 list: visit the Hagia Sophia, of course. The Blue Mosque. Go to a hammam. Try shisha. Maybe even visit Topkapi Palace, if we could fit it in.

As the plane hits the tarmac, I’m all but pulling out my list, ready to hit the ground running.

Marvin turns to me and he says, “So what I really need to do is get a haircut.”

In that moment, time stops. The plane is suspended in the air. The flight attendants freeze mid-sentence. The orange-vested marshallers on the ground pause, the lighted batons in their arms still as statues. I look at Marvin, bug-eyed. Did he really just say that he wants to spend our precious time in Istanbul running errands? He’s got to be kidding!

But actually, Marvin is very serious. He didn’t have time to get a haircut before the wedding, he pleads. He really wants to look nice. He promises it won’t take long.

But Marvin has never been to Istanbul either. We have no idea where we’d even begin to start looking for a barber. As a Black man, he also has no idea if anyone even knows how to cut his hair. And we have no clue how long any of it will take.

Somehow, Marvin wins the argument. I just can’t resist his puppy dog eyes and his sparkling charm. I guess you could say that’s why I ended up marrying him.

A couple of hours later, we find ourselves walking through Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, a deeply historic part of town filled with magnificent mosques and majestic palaces, street vendors selling freshly made kebabs and ornately woven scarves.

We turn onto a small side street, our eyes peeled for any sign of a barbershop. If there’s anything, it’s certainly not going to be on the main drag. We keep walking, and, frankly, I see nothing—but then again, I’m not really even sure what I’m looking for, exactly. But it seems like Marvin does, because it’s as if his barber spidey senses have just kicked in. While neither of us has been to Türkiye, Marvin was deployed to Afghanistan for a year with the Marine Corps. Maybe the barber shops there look similar, being in a similar region of the world. It’s the only explanation I can give, because he looks down another side street and takes my arm, directing me to follow. And sure enough, as if he knew all along, he sees it: an older man standing outside a door. Marvin and the man lock eyes and he makes the universal “scissors” gesture with his hands. The man nods and motions for us to follow him inside. We’re in. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve just found ourselves a barbershop.

And this isn’t just any barbershop, by the way. This is a tiny, hole-in-the-wall barbershop in downtown historic Istanbul. The shop itself is the size of a large closet. There are two chairs inside, and Marvin sits in one. The barber invites me to sit in the other. Off in the corner is a small black-and-white TV playing Turkish television. Around the room are tons of old photos pasted on the walls, presumably with happy customers or visiting Turkish celebrities, some photos looking as many as 40 or 50 years old. Clearly this barbershop has been here forever.

We don’t speak Turkish and the barber doesn’t speak English, but he spins Marvin’s chair around and starts cutting without hesitation. We don’t know what we’re going to expect, but at this point, the shiny sharp scissors in his hand remind us not to question him. Instead, we sit there silently and watch the haircut unfold. The barber clips away with remarkable precision. He cuts closely along the bottom, giving Marvin a clean-edged hairline, then clips the top slightly longer, a version of a high and tight. “OK,” I think to myself, “I guess he does know how to cut Marvin’s hair!” I catch Marvin’s eye and clearly he’s thinking the same thing. The barber doesn’t ask a single question or even motion for our opinion. He cuts as if he’s been doing this his entire life. Which, fairly enough, he has.

And then: Have you ever seen fire as a tool used in a haircut? Nope, I hadn’t either. Until now, that is.

Towards the end of the haircut, the barber swings Marvin’s chair around so that he’s facing away from the mirror. He then takes a Q-tip and lights it on fire. He dabs it quickly over Marvin’s ears, singeing his ear hairs, the smell of burnt hair incensing the room. Marvin isn’t fully aware of what’s going on, until I tell him, that is, because I’m absolutely losing my mind with delight. By far, this is the coolest haircut that I have ever watched!

When Marvin’s haircut is finished, we pay the barber and leave. I walk out with a look of complete astonishment on my face, and it’s like I can’t wipe it off. As we walk back to the hotel, the streets that we walked down initially suddenly feel even more magical. We talk about the haircut experience. The tiny, hole-in-the-wall place. The fact that Marvin had found it with no problem. The old photographs. And, of course, the fire.

Despite the fact that I’m an experienced traveler, I’ve learned a valuable lesson today, and this is it: Everywhere, magical things happen. And the coolest part of it is that sometimes, the most magical things that happen during travel are the most normal, average, everyday experiences because those are the experiences that can truly surprise you. Every day, regular people go about their regular lives doing things that for them are completely uncommentable. But everywhere in the world, those things are ever so slightly different from each other. When you travel, you get the pleasure of seeing these everyday experiences with fresh eyes.

Did I make it to Topkapi Palace? I never did. Would it have been absolutely incredible if I had? Probably. I won’t doubt that part for a second.

But I also wouldn’t trade our day at a Turkish barbershop for anything.

Without Marvin’s influence, I never would’ve found myself inside a tiny, hole-in-the-wall barbershop in Istanbul, looking at photos of old Turkish celebrities and smelling the burn of ear hairs on an inflamed Q-tip. I mean, talk about bringing the vibes.

That experience taught me to (sometimes) let go of the to-do list and embrace the everyday parts of travel. Because for a traveler, they’re extremely far from everyday. In fact, they’re exactly what travel is about. Stepping outside your comfort zones. Trying things that are different. Embracing a new perspective. And sometimes, even the smallest things can trigger that.

So when you visit a new place, take a bit of advice. Go to the grocery store. Ride public transit. Stop by the library. Or even . . . get a haircut.

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This has been Travel Tales, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composed and produced by Strike Audio.

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