Cross Border Dial Tone Blues

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 12:45 p.m.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about holiday gift items such as cell phones and cameras.  Over the course of the last week, I’ve had the occasion to realize that if you want to give someone a headache, give him or her a cell phone.  When it comes to service, cell phone companies figure that, once you’re in their clutches, they have you over a barrel, and there’s nothing that you can do about it.

In Europe, it seems to be understood that one’s own country is not the only country in the world, and that someone who owns a cell phone would probably need that piece of equipment to communicate with others when abroad.  North American companies seem to think, however, that no one goes over the border.  Canadian and American companies have some sort of perverted agreement that if you use a cell phone out of your respective country, they have every right to charge you the most extreme prices that could possibly be allowed: over one dollar per minute of air time PLUS long distance charges.  I find it impossible to believe that the cost of making a phone call goes up exponentially as soon as it crosses the border, but it seems to me to be a very profitable excuse for mobile phone providers.

I have to go down to New York City to visit my father frequently and I’ve found only one  American phone company that seemed to have a plan that wouldn’t lock me into a contract, Virgin Mobile USA.  As long as I topped up my phone with twenty dollars once every ninety days, I could keep my phone number.  This seemed reasonable until I found out that there was one big hitch.  I lived in Canada.  Virgin Mobile USA would not accept a Canadian-based credit card.  That seemed crazy to me.  The only way to top up your phone if you are a Canadian with an American cell phone is to go down to the United States, buy a phone card and call in the pin number on the card or enter it on Virgin’s web site.

For a variety of reasons, I was unable to visit my father and was getting emails and messages on my answering machine from Virgin that I had better top up my phone or lose my number which meant buying a new phone, telling everyone that I had a new number when in the USA and going through a great deal of inconvenience. 

 Luckily, my son had to be in the United States so I asked him to buy me a card and give me the pin number so that I wouldn’t lose my phone.  He did so.  When I entered in the pin number, the web site told me that it was not a valid number.  So, I called Virgin Mobile USA’s phone number. 

A very hip computerized voice answered my call and offered me a variety of options, none of which would allow me to speak to a living person.  I screamed and yelled until finally the computer figured out that I wanted a “live adviser” which I would presume to be better than a dead one.  My live advisor found out that I lived in Canada and instantly suggested that I call Virgin Mobile Canada.  It took nearly ten minutes to convince her that I was using an American phone with an American number which I only used in the United States of yes, you guessed it, America, and that Virgin Mobile Canada would just send me right back to Virgin USA.

When I asked to speak to a manager, I was put on hold where the music of choice was rap music, and the music system was badly in need of repair as it crackled and changed volume repeatedly, probably a great means of getting people to hang up as one can only take that kind of torture for so long.  I never got to speak to the manager, by the way, she was busy!

I was finally advised to fax or email a scanned copy of the card which my son kindly did for me.  Two days later, I got the following rather terse email reply:

Hi Mrs. Goldfinch,  While reviewing your attachment, the top up card that was purchased is for Verizon Wireless Prepaid and not for Virgin Mobile USA. I apologize for any confusion. Thank you.

My son told me that he bought the only Virgin card in the store and as far as confusion goes, my son has a B.Sc. in Biochemistry.  He knows stuff that I can’t begin to fathom.  If he can be confused in the process of buying a phone card, what hope is there for the rest of us?  More-over, THEY HAVE MY MONEY.  If a computer can answer my phone call and transfer my call to a so-called live advisor, why can’t it transfer thirty dollars from Virgin Wireless Prepaid to Virgin Mobile U.S.A.?  It is a mystery, and the ways of cell phone companies are mysterious to any consumer who can’t fathom how they can get away with such murder.  Miraculously, they do.  Taking someone’s money without giving anything in return is what most consumers would call robbery.

Apparently, a new company, Wind Mobile, is being allowed to do business in Canada and rumour has it that the competition is going to make cell phone prices drop.  The media has advised people not to lock into contracts, now as prices will be dropping so keep that in mind when you shop, and remember, cell phones are the gifts that keep on taking…your money, that is.  

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Christmas Electronics - Know What You’re Getting Into

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 7:26 a.m. in , , ,
The one thing that is sure to botch up Christmas morning is an electronic gift. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again here. Everyone is a good mood opening presents delighted with the new laptop or cell phone or iPod and then the inevitable happens. It doesn’t work. It’s incompatible with your operating system or a part is missing or you were too tired to read the instructions properly so you messed up the installation. Electronic presents are an invitation to frayed tempers and general crankiness. Yet we keep on giving these because they’re flashy and they say that we care about the person enough to spend a lot of money on him or her.

It goes without saying that some of you who read this column will be swayed, as I am, by flashy television advertising and will be in the market for a cell phone, camera, iPod, etc. I know that I was fairly impressed with my American niece’s iPhone and started dropping a lot of hints to my long-suffering family…until I found out that hidden cost of the iPhone, The Plan.

I am a fairly light cell phone user. During the week, I hardly use it at all as I have a well functioning land line both at home and at work. I tend to turn it off. Teenagers and young adults do not understand this as they keep their cell phones perpetually on and forget to charge the battery. This is something that adults fail to understand when they try to call their children. It is an electronic generation gap.

The other part of the cell phone generation gap is cost. Neither of my adult children have a land line which is sensible because they are always on the go. So they are used to spending probably well over $70.00 a month for their phones. Given that my phone is usually turned off, $70.00 seems exorbitant but that’s what it will cost me to keep an iPhone alive, according to a column by the Globe & Mail and that’s just the minimum. It will cost more if I want to have voicemail on my phone (something that I like to have with a 90 year old father in New York City) and a reasonable texting plan which I need for my children who don’t live in the Townships anymore. Needless to say, I will be replacing my cell phone with something other than an iPhone though it saddens me as it is great to text with and you have easy access to the Internet everywhere with it - if that’s what you want.

In the camera area, I must say that I am very impressed with my little Canon Powershot. If you know someone who is about to go on a trip, it’s a great little camera. The photos are reasonably sharp and the camera is very easy to learn to use. I got it just before I went to India, played with it for one weekend, and was banging off pictures for the rest of the trip.

The small size is a real advantage. I have become accustomed to lugging heavy SLR cameras whenever I want to take pictures and though these give you amazing versatility and a wide range of options when you take pictures, they are huge and when you take a picture, you stick out like a sore thumb.
When I travel, I like to take candid pictures of people on the street. India was great for this. With a small camera, I was often able to take the shot quickly and slip the camera back in my purse. The Powershot is light weight and its automatic functions make it very easy to do this. It’s true that the folks who had a heavy Nike SLR came back with sharper photos of the Taj Mahal but the bonus for me was two weeks of comfortable travel without a sore shoulder. Besides, I got some very nice shots of the Taj Mahal too so I’m not complaining.

So if you must shop for electronics, I’d say that a digital camera is a safe bet for a more relaxed Christmas morning but be warned that cell phones are a gift that keeps on taking all year long and make sure that you know what you’re getting into.

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And Then I went to India

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 7:23 a.m.
“You haven’t written a column in a long time,” someone mentioned to me in passing. Yes, that’s true and I have some good excuses. I was chaperoning a trip to a student conference in India which included a one week pre-conference tour. It took me two weeks to get over jet lag and catch up at work and being a procrastinator, it’s taken me about another two weeks to decide what to write about.

The good folks at The Record have asked me to give my column a focus and in the last few months, my focus has been the world online: the Internet, cell phones, and the new technologies that are related to that world. Of course, coming back from a land and culture that seems so different, almost the complete opposite of the one that we know and love in Canada, I want to tell you about it.

One way that I can merge both of those is to give you an edited version of an email home. Now, at the time that I wrote the email, it was about 5:30 in the morning and the sun was just starting to come up. The overnight temperature probably hovered at about 30 degrees and that estimation might be on the low side. Day time temperatures rose above 40 degrees and the days were utterly scorching. I was told that this was hot weather even for them in October and all I could think of was that it would be impossibly hot as a summer day in the Townships! Early morning and night were the most comfortable times of the day, particularly because my students and I were staying at a boarding school in rooms in which there was no air conditioning.

The heat alone made it difficult to sleep but the fact that I was actually in India made it nearly impossible to sleep. Even after a week of adjusting to the fact that India is nine and a half hours ahead of Canada, I slept very few hours a night which explained why I was often in the dormitory’s computer room at sunrise typing an email to my husband on vintage computers from the 1990’s. The following email, however, was typed on a hotel computer, equally as old after one of the most challenging days of the trip:
Hi again, 

It's 6:15 here so must be 9 something or  10 your time.

I went to the Agra Fort today and just as my camera battery was dying, we went to the Mother Teresa Mission where there were mentally handicapped of all ages and orphans. We were all scooping up infants and holding them. The babies' legs were like twigs. The baby that I picked up had a very runny nose and a big smile. I couldn’t help thinking how much his life might be changed for the better if I snuck him back into Canada, even though I’m too old to start childrearing again.

As I was bouncing the baby around, I sang Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to the baby and to a girl who looked very badly off. She begged me to sing it over and over with her hand gestures. She smiled so widely while I sang. I almost cried - it was an amazing feeling to give someone a moment of happiness just by singing a nursery rhyme.

 The worst moment for me was meeting the little boy, Rahul, who had lost a leg and whose other leg was bandaged and badly scarred.. The scar on his stump was very difficult to look at yet he had a very bright face with a huge smile. He was selling water to a train and the train ran over his leg. He was 10, 12? It was all I could do to keep from crying. The sister said that Rahul had been in the hospital for 6 months and then the hospital handed him over to the Mission. The sisters are caring for him but they cannot afford to pay for any further medical care which is worrisome because his other leg was bandaged and there was a large stain on the back of the bandage that didn’t look good to my untrained eyes.

I got some pictures of the mission and one of my travelling companions took a lot of photos and promised to share these with me. I think people need to see them. The sisters here are caring for what is considered to be the dregs of this society. We were all blown away.

We collected the equivalent of 400$ U.S. from our group so the visit was well worth it for the sisters of the mission. That might run the place for a month-they run strictly on donations.


I have to tell you that one month later that little boy Rahul is still very much on my mind so I have written to the mission asking permission to provide help, not an email, but good old fashioned snail mail. I have shown my school, friends and family the one photo that I have and many people are interested in donating money to see that he gets medical care and perhaps - and this is my big hope - a prosthetic leg. If not that, at least crutches that will help him get around. Right now, this poor little boy can only crawl.

I can’t help thinking that this is a problem that money can solve. You and I cannot help all the poor children that I saw begging on the street. If you saw Slumdog Millionaire, you have a pretty good idea of the brutality that children experience each day. One of my own photos shows a young girl with a baby slung around her shoulder who is standing in the middle of traffic in 40 degree heat and begging from car to car every time the traffic light turns red. I cannot help her though I somewhat callously took her photo from my seat on the air conditioned bus so that I could tell her story or the story of that moment to others. Yet I do know where Rahul is and I think that he can be helped.

I hope that the sisters agree to this and I hope that I can find the way to funnel money to the right organization who can help Rahul. It’s not enough to feel sorry; sometimes you have to put your money where your mouth is and get a job done no matter how tough it looks at the beginning.

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