February 17, 2011

Toppin' Up

I just got back from toppin’ up. Sometimes I struggle to find things to write about for blogs. Life here now, for me, is just life. But life here, now, for me, is still a mystery to many people back home and I need to remember to take pleasure in how different everything is here. And I need to start writing about every little thing
So today I am writing about Toppin’ Up!
In America cell phones and the way they work is a bit different. You have to worry about the monthly bill and if you can actually afford to communicate with your friends that month. There are the beautiful options of endless amounts of text for call the same cost, unlimited internet, and unlimited minutes. In Zambia…nothing is unlimited…except for sunshine.
We’d been in country 3 days before we got our phones. The astounding differences between American phone companies and Zambian phone structure had us all a little stressed out. A day into the new system we were all hooked and I know that I am going to hate Verzion, AT&T, Sprint and all of those bull shit companies when I get back.
So we get our phones…the one I got cost less than $20. You can only imagine the spectacle that 50 clueless white people were making over a phone system that we thought was complete bullshit at the time. All the while we desperately wanted to just get a fucking phone so we could talk to our friends and family back home. We get the phones, only to find out that we then have to purchase a SIM card, which will in turn tell us our phone numbers. People who have traveled abroad for extended periods of time understand this part of the gig probably, because per usual the rest of the world has it figured out, and America is a little behind.
Now there is a mass of white people standing around in a tiny little store that might pass as a cubical in a normal work place asking what we do next. And you know how these things go when there are many people standing in one place all asking the same question because no one appears to really know what the fuck is going on. You know the chaos that ensues on kindergarten field trips. Especially when parents are along for the ride. Even as a kindergartener I remember knowing how insane that whole process. But I digress….
After what seems like hours about knowing which plan we needed to sign up for. “Is there unlimited plans?” “Which plan is the one that I sign up for so that I can call America whenever I want?” “How do I even text on this damn thing?” “Will it text in English?” And then without nothing really happening we all leave the store. None of the questions got answered. I just remember filing out of the store in a mass state of confusion. At the time I blamed it on jet lag and the fact that there were 50 people who didn’t know what was going on and one experienced PCV who couldn’t answer all the questions.
Then just like a kindergarten field trip from hell we get into the vehicle to go back home and we start really asking each other questions about how we can send a text message back home. I think that someone actually receiving a text from America while in the car inspired it. In that mass confusion someone got an answer out of someone or was technologically inclined enough to figure it out themselves.
“How did you do that? How did that happen? Did you just get a text from America? Help me, show me how you did that.” We all ask in one breath all at the same time.
“I bought talk time. “ They said. Then they went on to explain the whole magical system. Instead of paying for the damage at the end of the month when you find you’ve already shot yourself in the foot with too many charges you pay a little at a time up front and then it just subtracts a little bit at a time. They have these phones in America…track phones, tract phones…I have no idea. In America they seem annoying though.
All of the systems that are in place in America to make sure that you don’t run off with some major corporations little bit of money can’t really exist in a place like Zambia. There are no SSN to track people down with, and with poverty coming in ebbs and flows that change from week to week it would be impossible to do anything with some sort of “unlimited” plan.
The beautiful thing about toppin’ up in Zambia is you can literally top up anytime anywhere. Wondering in the middle of the bush, haven’t seen a person for a couple of kilometers and then all of a sudden you will see a little thatch shop that will be selling “talk time”. And then it is like the lottery every time you need it…but only because you have to scratch off the back with your fingernails to get your magic code that sends money to your phone.
You can buy it in really small amounts like 1,000 Kwacha that will send a few text messages. 1,000 Kwacha is about $.25. There are 2 major phone companies, Airtell and MTN. I’ve been told that MNT is the biggest phone company in the world. I’ve never checked into that fact. So text to text/phone call to phone call between the same companies is the cheapest way. Text to text can cost literally less than a penny, which is how most people in country communicate. In America we constantly criticize how there is only texting and people never talk on the phone anymore, here it is all people do.
Thank God for texting to. After a day full of not speaking English or understanding a single word that people around me are saying I totally look forward to when the clock ticks 18:00 after I bathe and I turn on my phone so I can text my friends about everything that happened to us during our always crazy days.
Toppin’ Up is totally rad.

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