Habituated, Part One

Once I counted twelve dwellings in Cambodia, but that probably included a few days as a houseguest and time in guesthouses. These are the homes I had my first year:

After three weeks’ delay, I was moved into a small house leased by the American director of my NGO. It was musty and dim, and there was a cockroach who liked to come and take the air on the kitchen table in the evenings. I moved out after one month, and found out then that the director had been charging me a fifty-dollar premium on his own rent.

Next was a sublet found and then given to me by an American couple who had opted instead to take a job teaching on an island. The sublet came with a small black cat. It was rented by an Australian woman who was filming a documentary in Thailand. She was pregnant, though, and there began to be problems or at least fears about the baby, so she had to come back one month into the four I had been promised.

I was transferred to her two friends, who were out of their spacious apartment for one month and offered to let me stay for just a hundred dollars. Their apartment was sunny and clean, and came with a wide bed canopied with mosquito netting, but it was infested with rats. They kept out of sight until I spent five days overnight with my nannying charge while her mother was in Singapore on business. I came back to the apartment for a quick change on the way to the NGO and found rat drowned in the toilet.

Next I moved into a three-bedroom apartment with two roommates, both working or interning with local NGOs. One was a French woman and one was a German man; one in trafficking and one in sweatshops. The French woman was replaced with another French woman, and then both German and French roommates moved out together one month before my volunteer commitment ended.

I spent my last month in a sublet villa, for only a hundred or so dollars – the owners were a Dutch (Swedish, Danish?) family – two blond parents and three blond children – and they were on vacation in whatever Scandinavian country they called home.

The three-bedroom apartment was where my hair started falling out.

I contracted lice almost as soon as I arrived. I wore my hair long, like I do now, and down over my shoulders. I had no teaching experience, and it did not occur to me that I could catch lice from small children, even if they had been braiding my hair. My only experience of lice was hypothetical – we got the goldenrod half sheet in our cubbies in primary school, and our parents would take us to the pharmacy and comb the shampoo through our hair. We would wait out ten chilly minutes in the upstairs bathroom, and then they would comb out our hair, and then the lice would be gone. My parents swear that I was crawling with lice, but I don’t remember ever noticing them.

I had headlice for nearly the entire year I spent in Cambodia. I didn’t just have recurring outbreaks – I never managed to shake them the whole time I was there. I had no idea how to delouse myself. I’ve become something of an expert since. (For example, the British College of Pediatricians recommends against using pesticide shampoo at all, since thousands of generations of lice have become immune to everything but DDT-derived chemicals. You can apply mosquito pesticide to your scalp for ten minutes, under a shower curtain, but you will probably do as much damage to yourself as your nits.) In Cambodia at the time, there were no lice combs to be had.

The expat pharmacy sold a greenish pesticide treatment that smelled like mouthwash. The matron nannies at the NGO had a glutinous pesticide treatment that came in a brown glass bottle, like rubber cement. My mother mailed me RID-X from the United States, which came with a metal comb that carried off some but not all of the eggs. Then she mailed me a “natural” louse killer (it was derived from nettles or witch hazel or something similar, and had a translucent creamy texture) that came with a plastic comb that would not slide through my hair.

My strategy was to douse my head with shampoo, leave it on several times longer than was recommended on the box, and then rinse it out. Usually half a dozen full-grown lice and half a dozen nits would rinse out with the shampoo, but the rest would stay. I remember looking into my hair afterwards and seeing them picking their way along my part line.  The homeopathic pesticide came with a shower cap – you were meant to slather it on, then seal it with the shower cap, then wait ninety minutes and rinse it out.  I fell asleep with it on and rinsed it off five or six hours after applying.  

Before the two American combs arrived, I used a thin white comb, the finest one I could get from the local beauty shop. The teeth weren’t narrowly set enough to trap lice or scrape away eggs, but I did lift off a few lice by slowly going over the same area over and over again.

You can’t fight a war of attrition with headlice, though – if they aren’t eradicated, they’ll be back at full strength within a week. So this was my routine: hours each night combing lice out of my hair, and lice that surged and surged again, until my whole head was crawling, until I saw them on my pillow in the morning and in my fingernails when I scratched my head.

The shampoo and the combing made my scalp burn, sharply – I would comb out my hair and then lie in the dark and feel the top of my head recording the tracks the comb had made. When my hair started to fall out, I put it down to the lice or the shampoo or both.

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