Last summer when I spent a month in Cuenca, I chose not to purchase a telephone. After all I was only going to be in Cuenca for a month. I had email access from my rental, and there were always the cabinas on practically every block which allowed me to make calls and pay for them by the minute. However, I found not buying a phone was a mistake, because arrangements with new-found friends, and last minute rearrangements were difficult to accomplish when I was not in possession of a cell phone.
This year I bought a cell phone with the intent of using it for local calls, and I would depend upon Skype for International calls. I, to the best of my knowledge, can not recall any of the bloggers posting about the wonders (read that as horrors) of using telephones in Cuenca.
First, I am mystified at the number of telephone cabinas that dot almost every block of Cuenca. Why do they exist!? Why does anyone in Cuenca have a need for their use? I have never been in a city so ubiquitous with cell phone entiendas (stores), kiosks, or side-lines of cell phones than what I have seen in Cuenca. One would think by now that every Cuencano has at least a dozen cell phones each. I mean, who is buying all these phones, and for what are they using them?
I have a sneaky suspicion that there may be some religious significance to the purchase of all these cell phones. Maybe, Cuencanos buy phones in honor of their patron saint, and other saints with intercessory missions to fulfill. For example, "this is the cell phone I use when I'm taking a test in school, in honor of the saint who intercedes on my behalf when I am taking a test". Come to think of it, as a former teacher, that must be a popular saint in the U.S. as well, considering all the cell phones sneaks that would take place during test times.
There are two major telephone companies in Cuenca, which share most of the market of these multitudinous phones. Claro is the largest company,and MovieStar is a distant second. If you are not purchasing a land line in Cuenca, you purchase a mobile phone with minutes. As those minutes are used, you then need to find a business which can charge whatever amount you choose to place on your phone. You are then back in business, until your credits are consumed again. The minutes you buy are only good for a month. If they and the bonus minutes are not used by the end of the month, then you lose them. Unused minutes do not rollover to the next month like most American plans.
Second,interestingly enough I discovered that many expats were clueless about details of the telephone usage, or gave me conflicting information. Many expats were not sure about many of the features and how they are utilized on the phone. One expat, said, "Don't worry about it, if someone wants to get hold of you, they will." Others had no idea how to retrieve messages. One expat was surprised to learn from me that she had a calendar on her phone. Some expats claimed unused minutes rolled-over, while others disagreed. Other expats claimed if you run out of minutes you can not make calls, but you can receive calls. Not so, when I ran out of minutes, callers told me they had called me numerous times, but I did not respond. I was totally unaware of any calls. Some expats said, "The problem's with your phone. Go buy a new one."
Third, for most of us who speak little Spanish, the problem is further complicated by computerized voice messages that leave me in a daze. Usually the message in Espanol suddenly ends with Claro ending the call, and I have absolutely no idea what was said. Nada! Other times the message may be a lead-up to leaving a message to the intended recipient of the call. The message in Espanol ends, and I haven't been cutoff, not yet. There's a long pause; then maybe a human voice, possibly first in Spanish then in English if it's a bilingual Ecuadorian who deals with both Spanish and English speakers--the essence of which is "Leave a message"; then another long pause, a tone, and then my chance to leave a message. It took weeks for me to figure out how all this works, and to figure out how to retrieve messages.
The frustration is further aggravated by the fact that if I check more than ten times in a month to see how many minutes I have left in the month, I can no longer check without paying an extra fee each time I attempt to monitor my minutes. The worst is when I run out of minutes. Last week I had to wait twenty-four hours before I was in a position to access a store where I could recharge my phone. I simply go up to a cashier where phones can have additional minutes added, pay whatever amount I want added, and the minutes are automatically added to my phone number. The problem is as the month approaches its end, just how many minutes should I buy? If I buy too many, I lose the extra coinage at the end of the month. If I don't buy a sufficient amount of minutes, I'm forced to do so with the month almost over and the coinage is wiped clean again into Claro's pockets as a new month begins.
Interestingly enough, are the calls I receive particularly from my Ecuadorian friends, who are very vigilant about their allotment of available minutes. Their calls go something like this. "Jim, its (insert name), I will meet with you at 10:00 a.m." Me, I try to ask a question. Caller, "I can't answer that now, I'm almost out of minutes. See you at 10:00" Or, a text message, "Jim, where are you?", which means call me back at your expense.
Fourth, then of course, there is the holy corporate war between Claro and MovieStar. To call a MovieStar recipient while you are a Claro customer will cost you and arm and a leg. There are times when the calls just are not placed, with whatever explanation is given in Spanish. Some expats claim that if you buy bonus points, for example, on Claro when such offers are being made, the bonus points can not be used to call a MovieStar customer. Oh joy! Nobody explains any of these intricacies to you when you first buy a phone. You really are on your own to work through the labyrinth of Ecuadorian phone surrealism.
Two days in a roll I went solo to the Claro office, which thank God someone spoke English. I wanted to know why I have time left on my phone, but every time I attempt to place a call, the phone message reads, "Can only use in emergencies". The gentleman took out the chip and reinserted it, and it worked just fine. The next day, the same thing happened, I returned, and he did the same thing. He told me whenever the problem repeats itself in the future, just take off the back, remove the chip, and it will reboot itself. It's happened only once since, and it worked exactly as the Claro technician said it would. But why should I be having this problem in the first place!?
Fifth, an Ecuadorian friend has been after me to take out the twenty dollar a month plan. I hesitated for a few days, but decided I spend about that much anyway, and with the plan I won't have to worry about running short on minutes, or taking time to go to a business to recharge. The plan includes in the twenty dollars the 12.5 surcharge. I receive 150 minutes per month. I am able to have one primary caller for which I am charged one cent per minute. I am allowed ten additional favorite callers for four cents a minute. All other callers cost me twelve cents per minute. Now, a call to a MovieStar client will cost me twenty-three cents by the minute, about half of what it cost without the plan. I can also call numbers in the United States for forty-five cents a minute, which means except under the most dire of imminent emergencies, Skype has not lost that share of the market from me to Claro. All these are substantially less than the per minute charges without the plan. The twenty dollars is automatically deducted from my Ecuadorian bank account each month, so that means one less line in which I have to wait.
The favorites list is not cast in stone, and the numbers can be changed by me at anytime. However, there is an additional charge of $1.12 to initiate my primary caller, and six cents each for the initiating of my ten favorite callers. Therefore, those of you living in Cuenca who find I am quick to get off the phone with you, that will be a big clue that you didn't make my top eleven list. I also had to procure a new telephone number, which is 088 315 970. It seems when I purchased my phone, the number was placed in the name of the proprietor from whom I purchased my phone, since credit was charged to the phone number it didn't matter whose name the phone was in. However, once I bought a plan and the fee would be automatically withdrawn monthly from my account, I had to procure a new number that is in my name.
The new number also resulted in a new chip. We copied down on paper all my contacts and their numbers. It seems if you placed your contacts only on phone mode, than all the contacts disappear when you change chips. If the contacts are saved to the SIM card, then they can be downloaded to the new chips without being reinserted one by one. I have no idea how that download would work, and I hope I will never have to find out. I hope everything I wrote makes sense. My heads been swirling for months with this phone foolery.
I would never in a hundred years encourage anyone who does not speak Spanish to attempt converting to this plan on your own. A bilingual speaker is a must. I also went with someone (and I can't emphasize this enough) who was already familiar with the plan, and initially recommended it to me. The fast service may also have been the boon that resulted from having a bilingual intermediary who had relatives and friends working in the office as well.
I did have to sign my signature a total of eleven times. I requested of my intermediary that she inform the gentleman behind the counter that I charge $100.00 each time I sign my autograph, and he was up to $1,100. My intermediary chose to ignore my request. Everything was in Spanish, and I was completely at the mercy of the good faith of my bilingual friend and her experience in these matters. Nevertheless, I did learn later when I actually tried to read the contract that I signed a two year agreement. Something that my intermediary failed to mention. I have no idea if the contract could have been taken out on an annual basis, but my mobile phone contracts back home were always two year agreements as well.
I have tried to peruse through the text of the contract. I can make out 1/3rd to 1/2 of the text as my understanding of Spanish improves. I do believe it reads something to the effect that the contract is irrevocable, and any attempt on my part not to honor it during it duration will result either in the confiscation of all my worldly assets; or if the United States government gets to my assets first, then I will meet with immediate extermination by Claro. Imagine, and all because I wanted to make a phone call. Sure makes me wish for the good old days when all one did was pick up the phone, and a live operator said, "Number please", and you just had to give her the number.