Paper Labyrinth

By Amelia Earnest

Like the crowded streets, my everyday routine in Lima is strewn with little bits of paper.

A boy playing with a view of the crowded city (Earnest/TYG)

Every day I use three combis to get to work. These small, frenetically unpredictable and reckless means of public transportation are preferred only by the thick of heart and the thin of wallet. After leaping aboard and pressing my coin into the sun spotted hand of the driver, I receive a slip of paper, a receipt of sorts, to prove I have paid for my passage. In theory, no one is allowed off the bus without showing this paper. Reality, however, is another animal entirely. Since commuters dive on and off of these lurching jalopies without heeding even their own personal safety, it is really no surprise that there is not much worry over improper disembarkation documentation formalities.

Three combis, three papers. I finally disembark onto solid ground, only to have two tabloid papers and sixteen leaflets forcefully apprise me of where I can eat, find God, shop and get my hair cut.

A trip to the pharmacy only lengthens my paper trail. To buy something as simple as toothpaste, I notify a clerk behind the counter so that she can write down my selection on a small pink form, which I then hand to the cashier behind his window along with enough money. He then prints my receipt, puts an official stamp on the first piece of paper, fills out a third piece of paper, and staples it so the whole tome will keep together long enough for me to show it to the first lady, who is now finally authorized to bring the ludicrous show and dance to its climactic finale—the retrieval of my hard earned, and exceptionally highly regulated, cavity prevention.

My time shadowing a doctor reinforced the veracity of my perceptions on Peruvian paper dependence. The hospital is transitioning to a computerized system, ironically making it, for the time being, less efficient. Every doctor must fill out the same information three times, once online and twice by hand—a record for the hospital and a record for the patient. But what I found in the emergency room really takes the cake: amongst the starched beds, steel medical instruments, and ceramic religious icons, lies a book, the size of which you would only expect to find up Jack´s beanstalk or in the dusty cloister of some ancient church. But inside, instead of the waltzing scribbles of some long-dead monk, I find a log of incoming patients, with corresponding contact information, diagnosis, and release details. This book is the only standing witness to it all— who came, who vomited, who arrested, who died, who paid. And if I were to spill my coffee over its pages??? Well. At least it would add to the yellowed old-world feel…

A patient log in a poor urban hospital (Earnest/TYG)

Like most countries in rapid development, Peru´s progress is characterized by sporadic leaps, bounding forward in some areas, while remaining virtually stagnant in others. This painfully slow transition to the digital norm has been the most obvious metaphorical acne of this nation doubled over in growing pains. Costly printed x-ray images, thick paper manuals, shipping information tracked on clipboards rather than networks—all are quotidian reminders of Peru´s paper addiction. And boy oh boy is it hard to quit cold turkey.

Amelia Earnest is a junior in Pierson College. This article makes her fifth and final dispatch from Lima, Peru. Contact her at