Saturday, August 19, 2006

Cheaply calling Mary. I was going to title this post "Calling Mary Cheap", but not only would this be grammatically incorrect, it simply is not true. Moving on:

We can buy a calling card for Kenya here in downtown Miami for about 4.56621 cents per minute. There is a store-front operation in a run down building in Miami where one may purchase a card in $2, $5, and $10 denominations. The store-front operation is a fascinating place, not only for its services but also for its customers. The store wires money around the world, and I see Latino workers from the many construction sites here walk in with cash and wire the money home. Because I speak a little Spanish, I know that most of the time the money is going to Mexico. The place also serves tourists, cruise ship crews, as well as dads whose daughters are overseas.

There are also calling cards behind the counter, hanging on little hooks in multi-colors, for places all over the world. There are also small desks with computers for internet access and booths for telephones. The people behind the counter are courteous and Latino as well. I notice that they treat the customers with respect and patience, notwithstanding that many of those that are construction workers, are often hot, tired, and dirty after working all day. When I enter, my presence gets everyone's attention. But everyone is nice to me too. (In the Latin culture, having gray hair gets you something other than the more familiar urban contempt.)

Because Kenya is an unusual place for even this store, there are no calling cards hanging on hooks behind the counter. Instead, the clerk researches the right vendor on a computer screen, then takes a blank calling card of the particular vendor, slips the card into a telephonic device, and calls a number, not unlike how a credit card transaction might be accomplished through the phone lines. After just a moment, the device prints information on the blank side of the card and the clerk hands it to me. It has the 800 number for me to call and the PIN.

I called Mary a moment ago, and in the process of doing so, the computer voice at the other end first acknowledged that I had $10 in the account, the price I had paid for the card. Then it asked me to dial the number. After I "dialed" Mary's number ("dial" is archaic, I know; you have to be patient with me), the computer voice told me that I had "three hours and 39 minutes" in my account. That comes out to less than 5 cents a minute. (I think the computer had to know just where I was calling before it could compute the rate.)

When I got to the office after making the purchase, I went to the website of the vendor, Touch-n-Buy, which site is printed on the card. Apparently, one can buy the card over the web, so if you want to call Mary (and of course you want to), then you can buy some cheap minutes. You may not get the same deal that I got, because I believe the price per minute is not only based on where you are trying to reach, but also on where you are initiating the call. (The price also depends on whether you are calling to a cellphone or a land-line. Calling to a landline is cheaper, at least in Kenya. It does not matter, apparently, whether you are calling from a cellphone. When ordering the phone card, you do not specify whether you be calling to a cellphone or landline. The computer apparently takes that into account during the calling process, after you enter the number to which you are calling.)

The information that was printed on the card under the PIN also states: "services provided by: VOIP ENT AND TGI." I don't know what that tells me exactly, but obviously part of the digital trip of our conversation will be over the internet.

The problem with buying the card over the internet is that you will miss the trip to the store where I bought my card. I think I will continue to go to the store.

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