Sage and Amanda crept into the small room filled with bunk beds where I was reading. It was election day, or at least the day we could go to the US Embassy in Managua and vote. “Hey MaryB.,” Amanda said. “Don’t freak out, but we just checked and we both have lice.”

“What,” I replied,  my brain sluggishly processing the words and their corresponding meaning. 

“Lice,” she repeated. “So, we need to check you and figure out where to get shampoo and combs.”

It was month three of our eleven month mission trip. The trip took us to eleven countries in eleven months, where we would partner with local churches and organizations and do whatever they needed.  In my preparation and research, I learned that many teams get lice at some point. In order to minimize this possibility, I walked into my salon and asked Jim to chop off my hair. Ever the preemptive problem-solver, I decided that several inches of hair were a small price to pay for a lice-free eleven months. 

Month two was El Salvador. We spent that month living in an orphanage in a suburb of San Salvador. We taught English, made minor repairs to the homes, and set up fundraising pages so the kids could attend a private school that would set them up well for the rest of their lives. As our team consisted of seven women, we stayed in two rooms tucked away at the end of the hall on the second floor of the girls’ house. While we were there, they had an outbreak of lice. 

We were charged with cleaning the house and the girls of the brutes. Though we had never done it before, the “tias” (house moms) instructed us to strip the beds, gather the dirty laundry, and wash and dry everything. The girls washed their hair with lice shampoo, and we set to work combing and picking. 

A week after our tearful goodbyes, it was not a complete shock to hear we had picked up lice. We went to a pharmacy and bought combs and shampoo. We followed the instructions–wet hair, massage shampoo into hair, let sit for ten minutes, rinse– then set to doing for each other what we had done for the girls. 

Each head of hair presented different challenges. Sage’s hair was thick and wavy. My hair was the same color as the lice eggs. Abby’s hair was too fine for the combs to work properly. It was meticulous work, as it would only take a few errant lice eggs to make all our efforts fruitless. 

It was a vulnerable position to be in, I realized as I sat picking and being picked. None of us could de-louse ourselves. We were entirely at the mercy of the precision of the teammate combing and searching our hair. My steadfast independence was ripped from my hands by a tiny bug with an impossibly high rate of spawning. 

In all of this, there was one teammate who remained louse-free. How? We were all living in the same house in tight proximity to each other. How had she escaped our shared fate? The answer eluded us as we sat in a gross version of a massage train picking bugs and eggs from each other’s hair. 

After our initial lice party, we realized how woefully unprepared we were to address our problem. A week later, we checked each other again, only to find a thriving colony in most of our tresses. With the exception of the one who didn’t have lice before, in whose hair we found a single louse. 

That’s when we went into purge mode.

To be continued…