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the value of paper

Thoughts on being back in the US from El Salvador.


After one month of teaching abroad in El Salvador, returning to the US has been marked by two major milestones:

1) Recovering from internal and external illnesses, including a skin disease caused by mosquito bites and an internal parasite.
and
2) Attempting to reconcile the discrepancies between two societies, one in which students barely have paper to write on, and another where you can't get a job unless you have a certain kind of paper.

Working in El Salvador was one of the best experiences in my life. If ever a person is at a loss as to what the purpose and meaning of her life is, I suggest a trip to a different place, where life is culturally and socially unlike anything you know. Travel abroad usually facillitates such an experience.

Of course, travel abroad is also something that does not come easy to every pocketbook or citizen. For US citizens, consider the credit card-- forego the designer shoes, the home loan, kiss your rent, phone bill, and existing payments goodbye, beg your credit card for a cash advance, and skip town. This can be a very freeing experience.

When you return home, be prepared to stare at a stack of bills, pay a few late payments, and wonder where your next paycheck is coming from. You are now broke, but at least when you sleep, there are no critters in your bed.

The price of the clean bed and the airconditioned home though isn't just monetary. Consider the value of paper.

In El Salvador, it might take you an hour to buy a product that would take five minutes at a store in the US, you may work all day for five dollars, but consider the value of not being asked for the same piece of paper ten times on a special letterhead. In the US, heavyweight paper, appearances, and officiality are a big deal. In El Salvador, having any paper at all is a big deal.

There is something to be said about the freedom to live life without the pesky formalities. How many more cases of high blood pressure, persistent depression, and social alientation do we need in the US to realize that the conveniences of wealth are just one element of our social fabric, and that a fundamental resurgence of love and understanding are necessary to make people healthier and happier?

One day, I would like to enter a large bureaucratic office in this country, and be valued for more than just the weight of paper. Perhaps if everyone valued those around them more for who they are and what they have done, rather than for the formalities of paper, spiritual sicknesses would be drastically ameliorated, and people would feel a lot better about themselves.