Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Credit Card and Cell Phone Struggles

I originally had planned to spend three days in Macapa because I had no idea how long it would take to get from Oiapoque to Macapa.  Given what I thought I knew of the road,  I gave myself a full extra day in case we were deeply bogged down in mud.  Since that portion went so smoothly,  I decided to try to get myself out of Macapa earlier.  And there my troubles began.

I had not actually bought a plane ticket from Macapa to Manaus,  figuring I might do something interesting like take a boat to Belem first.  I was still considering that last night when I was looking up plane ticket prices,  and they're now quite expensive.  So I bit the bullet and began to make my purchase.  Then the TAM airlines website wouldn't process my request.  I logged in to my credit card online site and saw a warning message about my account being closed.  I tried to buy some other things from some other sites,  and couldn't tell if I was successful or not.  ( charges your card sometimes well after you've placed an order).  I contacted customer service via an online form,  and they said my account wasn't closed.  I was eventually able to successfully purchase plane tickets via Expedia.  Orbitz didn't seem to think there was an airport in Macapa, Brazil.  Good.  I went to sleep,  more or less comfortable with the situation. 

I woke up this morning and bought a few more tickets,  a night's stay in Manaus,  and my eventual ticket that I'll need from Rio de Janiero to Brasilia.  The hostel reservations went through,  the plane ticket did not.  I logged in again to my account,  now there is a new warning message that says to contact customer service.  Great.  The method for contacting customer service via online email had stopped working in the mean time,  so now I'm trying to figure out how to place an international phone call with a phone I purchased in Curacao.  No go.  I eventually had to go out,  buy a Brazil SIM chip (relatively easy and successful),  and then find out how to buy additional minutes,  which was not so easy.  How,  for instance,  do you communicate "I would like to purchase additional minutes for my SIM chip"  using hand gestures,  a notebook and pen,  and body language?  I wasn't able to,  but eventually they found someone who spoke enough English to translate for me.  I then came back to my hotel and tried to place a collect call to Citibank Mastercard,  no luck.  I then tried calling the directly,  no answer.  Eventually I figured out that Skype is installed on my borrowed laptop,  and was able to configure that,  and ultimately able to make a toll free call via Skype.  Awesome!  I think my credit card is working again,  but this took me all day,  I didn't really venture out to explore any more of the city until 4pm.

Okay.  That's the worst of it.  The rest of it is good and entertaining.  :)  First off,  SIM chips are available by purchase directly from girls who are dressed up in various telecom advertising shirts,  they stand directly on the sidewalk,  and you simply walk up to them,  and they help you out.  Pretty outstanding. TIM turns out to be the name of my telecom of choice,  the two girls were not both named TIM.   Getting additional minutes proved more difficult,  eventually I was led into a department store,  directly to a clerk,  where,  between the two girls selling SIM chips,  the clerk,  and the impromptu translator,  I was able to purchase a significant amount of credit.  How many minutes that adds up to depends on whether I'm calling internationally,  calling a land line in Brazil,  or calling another cell phone in Brazil.  I was able however to learn how to check my balance,  so that's handy.  Adding additional minutes later will be an equal challenge,  I have no doubt.  But for now I'm good.

Ok.  enough boring details about my day.  Let's talk about a few things I've noticed.  First off,  a lot of my friends and relatives are concerned about my safety.  I've had lots of advice on what to eat and what not to,  how to avoid bad situations,  and the like.  So far,  aside from some unexpected violence I've witnessed,  I have never felt in any danger at all.   The biggest exception to that is the simple act of crossing the street.  There are few traffic signals where I am in Brazil,  and lane markings are only casually observed,  as if the drivers see the faded lane markings and think,  "well,  that certainly is an interesting suggestion.  I'll take it under consideration later."  and go about their way.  Crossing some of the busier roads in town has been an excellent way to bring back my rusty old Frogger skills.  Also helpful is watching locals cross,  and crossing with them,  or crossing the same time a motorcycle does,  although the latter case,  you have to be careful that the motorcycle doesn't want to turn onto the street you're crossing,  lest they turn directly into you.  This experience hasn't been unnerving,  but it does require a much greater concentration to do a basic street crossing than it does in the US. 

Here's another story:  While crossing through BR-156 on the way to Macapa,  our Hilux driver stopped at a small dining establishment in the middle of nowhere.  There was a bathroom handy (learning the Portuguese word for bathroom is also handy),  and so I made use of it.  Inside was a tiny frog near the small window,  but that frog was making noise,  and with all the echoes off the tile floors and walls,  it was earsplittingly loud.  I think that frog was barely 2 inches long,  but it's sound,  shall we say,  filled the room.

After the credit card and cell phone woes were over,  I went out to explore the town a bit more.  This involved mostly just walking around and paying very close attention while crossing the street.  It's easy to find clothes vendors here,  they're pretty much everywhere,  and all I need is a shirt to wear when I'm doing laundry with my travel shirts.  So,  nothing special.  I found a guy,  and we talked a little bit in Spanish, I indicated what i wanted,  told him I'm fat so I need a big shirt,  and he sent his daughter off several booths down to grab a larger shirt for me.  Sweet.  I learned two things from this.  The first is that when he asked me where I was from,  he did so by asking me if I was French.  Now,  I don't know if this is just because we're still pretty close to French Guiana,  or if it's because I look French,  but either way,  I'm pretty entertained.  Everyone so far in Brazil has asked me if I'm French,  and some have even started speaking to me in French (wtih a Portuguese accent,  which,  really,  is beautiful,  even if I don't understand a word of it). 

I found out today that the Portuguese word for "Net Nerd" is "Internauta"  I like it.  Its a female verb,  and kind of makes me think of mashing up "Internet" with "Astronaut."  Pretty awesome.

Finally,  a bit of an update on packing.  I've found that I've done a pretty good job,  there are really only two things I haven't yet used,  one is a mesh metal device that goes around your backpack,  locks it closed,  and locks it to something.  Haven't used it.  The second is my lightweight rain shell,  but I do expect to use that soon.   Without a doubt,  the most useful thing that I brought is a small notebook and a pen.  I keep this in my shirt pocket,  and it is filled with notes that I make to myself during the day,  and the results of haggling over prices.  It's got phone numbers in it,  flight plans,  and pretty much anything else I need.  Yeah,  sure,  the sun tan lotion is important,  so is the passport,  bug spray,  watch,  travel guide,  you name it.  But this little tiny notebook has been absolutely fantastic.

That's it.  No pics today,  After being stressed all day about credit cards and cell phones,  I wanted nothing more than just to walk around a bit and eat a nice dinner.  Which I did.  At the far end of the pier from the photo I posted yesterday.  The pier sits out well into the Amazon river,  and the restaurant served enough food for two people.  I accidentally ordered a second large beer,  so I'm pretty satisfied.  Tomorow is a travel day,  then I get up early to head into the Amazon rainforest,  where I think there is no internet connection.  Could be a few days before you hear from me again.  :)

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