Head Lice and the Power Of Suggestion

It started in Bangkok. The itching, I mean. I needed a haircut so I stepped into one of the salons in the Khao San Road backpacker district and followed the girl to the back of the shop to get my hair shampooed. When I returned to the front of the shop two of the stylists were curled up on a sofa next to the entrance, one with her head in the lap of the other, who was slowly picking through the hair of her fellow worker. Oh my God! Lice, I thought. I can’t believe they allow their employees to do this in full view of the customers. My scalp starting itching that afternoon but I knew it was all in my head (pun intended).

Then I went south to the Phi Phi Islands. Everywhere I saw pairs of women grooming one another’s hair. They sat on front stoops, in the entryways to retail stores, even in chairs in restaurants, picking nits. The itching in my scalp grew worse. By the third day on Phi Phi Don, whenever I scratched, my fingernails came away from my scalp with small, hard white grains that resembled lice eggs. I told myself it was just embedded sand from the beach.

When the itching got so bad that I could no longer deny the problem I went in search of lice shampoo. If I had been in the States this would have been simple. I would have just gone into a store where they didn’t know me and bought the shampoo. But in Thailand, I couldn’t read the bottles. I thought I’d be clever and just look for something with a picture of lice on it but I couldn’t tell the insecticide from the shampoo so I was forced to ask for help from the pharmacist. The ensuing conversation was a combination of his very little English, my worse Thai, and much pantomime. Imagine trying to pantomime lice – pretending to pick nits out of your hair while trying to explain that – Oh, no I don’t have lice, I have just seen so many women picking lice that the purchase of the shampoo is just precautionary, etc. From the way he looked at me I knew what he was thinking – sure, right, that’s your story and you’re sticking to it – while his eyes were laughing at me. Eventually, embarrassed beyond mortification, I gave up and left the shop without buying anything. And I continued to itch.

I got my golden opportunity, however, when I left Phi Phi and stayed one night in Phuket on my way to Chiang Mai. Nobody knows me here, I’m only in the hotel for one night, and I’m never going to see any of these people again, I thought. Bravely, I walked into another pharmacy and went through the whole pantomime thing again. This pharmacist spoke a little better English and while I don’t think I convinced him that I didn’t have lice, he was very sympathetic, agreeing that there were more cases of lice in the islands than elsewhere in Thailand. I left with my shampoo, safely hidden in a white plastic bag and used it that very night, before my head touched the pillow. My scalp stopped itching immediately – what relief! Now all I have to do is use it twice more in three-day intervals.

Except for one thing. Last night, upon returning to my hotel in Chiang Mai, I found three young Thai women gathered around a long wooden bench in the hallway that separates my room from the pool and courtyard. One of them was seated on the bench and the other two were standing over her – you guessed it – picking through her hair. Good God! Suddenly, I noticed that one of the girls was holding a pair of tweezers. I’ve never seen anyone pick lice using tweezers. Curious, I decided to ask them what they were doing. The seated woman held out her hand, displaying half a dozen white hairs. “We take out white ones – they itch,” she explained. I completely understand. But I do feel a bit foolish.

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