The chapter in my class textbook this week focused on fads and trends, so we’ve been discussing phrases like, “Over the past 20 years/during the past 20 years/for 20 years,” trends like silly bandz, Harry Potter, Twilight, The Simpsons, Britney Spears, a hair-style that my students call “The Alf” (a semi-pompadour that resembles the hair of the TV character Alf) and baggy clothes. The textbook also suggests linking the study of trends to historic events vocabulary like, “achievement,” “assassination,” “discovery,” “epidemic,” “invention” and “terrorist act.” It was pretty remarkable how the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death worked so well for this unit (thank you US Government for your unexpectedly good timing) and my students had a variety of opinions about the event, including that it didn’t actually happen because there is no photographic evidence, and that killing Osama was a good thing because he was a very bad Jew. Amazing.
Many of my students used their new vocabulary words to talk about the invention of the cellphone as a great achievement, and of course I agreed, despite my persistent reminders to my students that they should not to be used in class. Cell phones are ubiquitous in developing countries and most of my students even have Blackberries, which should definitely come with a guide on etiquette.
I made a stop sign at the beginning of the year that had the word “Spanish” with a slash though it on one side and a cell phone with a slash through it on the other and would consistently hold it up to the class when they used either. And now that there are only 2 more weeks left in the semester, the sign is tired and so am I. The students at this point know better than to even hold their phones in their hands, but they are addicted.
Since they can’t seem to stop using in class, I taught my students the slang term, “Crackberry,” which they were all very amused with, and it wasn’t difficult to point out examples of Crackberry addicts in my classes. I’ll turn around to write something on the board and when I turn back to face the class, I see at least five hands in backpacks, checking phones and texting. Students answer phones in class, whispering that they are in class and will call back later. They tell me that if they don’t answer, the caller will keep calling over and over again. (This is known as Colombian calling and I’ve fallen victim to it. If someone doesn’t answer, instead of leaving a message, I just call back again two or three or four times in a row. You don’t pay for the call if you hang up before the voicemail comes on, and somehow this isn’t considered stalkerish.) I tell my students just to turn off their phones so they won’t be tempted by them, but then they give me this very disturbed look and say, “Noooo, teacher! My mom she calls me and could be emergency.”
Since my arrival in Colombia, I have been less and less attached to a phone, for a number of reasons. I don’t have many friends here who I would call, so I spend a lot less time on the phone than I did in New York, where I used my phone mainly for texting because talking on the phone was really starting to fall out of fashion.
Being here for less than a year prevents us from getting contracts with a phone company. There are five companies operating in Colombia, and calling to the same company that provides your service is cheaper than calling to another phone company, which means that often people will carry around more than one phone because perhaps their family has Movistar but their girlfriend has Comcel, so they have one phone for Movistar and the other for Comcel and allegedly that saves money.
Finally, the phone I bought here is a piece of crap. I chose the phone from the Movistar catalog like I choose my wine at restaurants: the second cheapest. It’s an Alcatel flip phone with practically zero capabilities and therefore a lower probability that thieves would want to steal it from me (which was something that we were told to take into consideration when purchasing our phones).
Without a calling plan, I have to continually add minutes in order to place calls. For this, I go to a pharmacy and ask for “saldos,” “prepagos” (pre-paid, or pay as you go), or “recargo” and the pharmacist or whoever is working there will enter my number into a phone and it will magically add minutes for me. I haven’t done this in over a month, which means that I can’t make outgoing calls or send texts, but rather use my phone as a directory and a way for people to get in touch with me. When I want to make calls, I go to a “llamadas” (call) stand, which is a little make-shift phone station, sometimes at a fruit or arepa stand, sometimes on its own, where a vendor has a few phones and you ask for the company that the person you are calling uses (which means you have to know which phone company they use). These calls are generally very cheap, like 3-5 cents a minute and since you’re speaking about a foot away from the vendor stand, they are also usually impersonal, much like the other type of prepago popular here in Colombia.
I learned the term prepago while walking on the beach in Bocagrande during my first week in Cartagena. I was enjoying the sunset with Patricia, Libardo, Lindsay, Danielle and Brittany and we passed by some very scandalously-clad women with enormous breasts, butts and hair who were surrounded by a grabby group of guys.
Patricia turned to me and matter-of-factly said, “prepagos” which I thought just meant “prostitutes.” I have since learned that prepagos are more like escorts who yes, more than likely do end up sleeping with their Johns, but are often educated women who are just doing it on the side for spending money.
Some women speciously think that being a prepago will elevate their social class because the men using them have extra money to lavish on them. I asked a friend here if being a prepago is looked down upon by one’s family or if it’s viewed as just another way to earn money. She told me that it depends on what kind of family you have. Some families see the attainment of wealth as a status symbol, and pregagos enjoy receiving gifts of jewelry, clothing, implants, you name it. But of course, you can’t buy class.
One of my students is a prepago, and it’s likely that others at the university are as well and I just don’t know it, nor do I want to. My student is a beautiful girl, and I can see that she has a certain desire to experience the world in a way that her classmates may not. She wants to be cultured and well-mannered and she strives to learn English, potentially just to be a more desirable escort (she could graduate to English speakers!).
My hope for her is the same as it is for all of my students; that they will use their education to help themselves get ahead and have more opportunities in their lives rather than relying on some Pretty Woman happy ending fantasy. Now that would be quite an achievement and something that will never go out of style.