Trying to buy a SIM Card in Bolivia

At over 3,500m above sea level, La Paz is the highest capital in the world. And, unsurprisingly, I’ve been suffering with altitude sickness for the past few days. You know, the usual – shortness of breath, shooting pain in my left shoulder, stomach cramps, vomiting,  jaundice, the shivers, crippling headache … you know, run-of-the-mill stuff.

So, at the start of only my second day at work, my colleague Fernando offered me some choice advice about how to acclimatise:

 “Anda suavito, Come blandito y Duerme solito.”

In other words (English ones), ‘Walk slowly, Eat simply, Sleep alone.’ Apparently it’s a popular saying here. It certainly got a big laugh in the office. Ha, the thought of me sleeping with anyone when my pee is the colour of Tango.  Hilarious.

But I wished he’d warned me about the far greater pain of simply trying to buy a new SIM card. Now, I’ve been to Latin America before. Trust me,  I’m no ingénu. But. This. Was. Ridiculous.

There are three main networks in Bolivia: VIVA, Entel and TIGO. Now, I’d been told to go for Entel and after looking online I saw it was quite a bit cheaper than the other two. But I’ve got an iPhone and I’ve got quite used to having internet on the go and TI-GO seemed to be the only one offering a simple deal for 3G access.

So, off I went (walking slowly) to find a TIGO store. That was simple enough – there’s one just up the road from my flat.

Now when I get there I explain what I want: “I’ve got an iPhone,” I say, “and I’d like to be able to use the internet on it. How much does that cost? It didn’t say on your website.” I wasn’t lying. It didn’t.

Turns out there’s no simple way of getting the internet without signing up to a lengthy contract or paying over the odds for what is still a monthly plan which forces you to buy a dongle as well. So, scratch that. Back to just a normal SIM: phone calls and texts.

All of which meant I should really forget TIGO altogether and go in search of ENTEL. But I couldn’t be bothered traipsing around, so I told the guy to just set me up with a pay-as-you-go SIM.

Alas, he wasn’t authorised to give me the SIM card, only tell me about it. Instead he handed me his business card while I waited for the guy with the necessary clearance.

Now, I have no idea why he did that, or why he even had business card. Surely that implies actually having some sort of responsibility within the business. It’s like giving one to the janitor at your local HSBC.

Now, this other guy was for some reason struggling to deal with another customer at this point. I say for some reason, it was clearly because he was inept. Irresistibly inept.

So I was left twiddling my thumbs while the business-card holding guy, who had so accurately and painstakingly taken me through all the different payment options I didn’t need, employed his opposable digits in playing some sort of game on his laptop and phoning his mates to tell them to come visit him in what he called ‘the office’.

It was a 4x4ft booth in the middle of a shopping centre. I think the business card had gone to his head.

So, by now I’d already been waiting for about 15mins. Still no sign of the guy with ´the power´ wrapping up any time soon. Then, this woman stops on the side of the booth closest to him. Now, by now I’m feeling territorial. My eyes are narrowing. And sometimes you just get a vibe off someone – that vibe that tells you they’re willing to push in. Well, this woman was giving off that vibe, like a some rancid pheromone. And forget the fact she had her baby with her – no mercy – she was getting my best evils. You know the look that says: ‘Lady, don’t mess with me”. I actually started rehearsing what I’d say to her in Spanish if this guy dared to even acknowledge her before me.

“Hey, don’t even think about pushing in. Do you have any idea how long I’ve been waiting?”, I was gearing up to shout, playing it over and over in my head.

Luckily, it never came to that. She and her baby went away. Clearly she had more sense than me. I carried on waiting. Like a fool.

So, finally, the other customer left, without having got whatever it was he’d come for. But before he went, he turned to me and said: “Watch this one.” All I could manage was a wry smile in response.  A sense of utter fatalism had already started to sweep over me as this second TIGO turned to me and I saw a look of what can only be described as pure gormlessness plastered across his face.

“En que le puedo ayudar?” ‘How can I help you,’ he said.

“I want a pay-as-you-go SIM card”, I said. Don’t worry, it was in Spanish – it’s ok to say ‘I want’ and not ‘I’d like’ or even ‘If it’s not too much trouble.´

So, next thing he leans down, produces around 15 different SIM cards from a drawer and one by one starts dealing them out in front of me. I thought about asking him if his real dream in life was to be a croupier, but I thought the joke would be lost on him – his face now settling into an even greater state of entropy.

Anyway, turns out each SIM had a different mobile number on the back and he was offering me my pick. I plumped for the one that looked easiest to remember.

“Dame esta,” I said. “Give me that one” Again, it’s Spanish – it’s fine.

Right, I thought, let’s buy the thing.

Oh no, wait, turns out I need formal identification to do that and my UK driver’s licence, well, that just doesn’t cut the mustard. Has to be my passport apparently. There’s nothing he can do for me. I could try ringing the TIGO hotline if I want. But what´s for certain, he’s not authorised to sell me the SIM, his card-dealing hands are suddenly tied.

So off I went to work out how I was going to call this hotline just so I could make calls. Great.

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