July 2, 2007

Cultural differences: The cell phone

Selling cell phones on credit is very popular.
The cost is usually about 30% higher.

For many years it has been difficult to get a landline phone here in Honduras. Depending upon where you live, it is often impossible. There are no lines at any price in some areas. For that reason as well as the status symbol, cell phones are extremely popular.

It seems that everyone has a cell phone. That may not seem so different than the U.S. or any place else, until you think about the poverty here. The population is 7.5 million with 60% below the poverty line, but there are 3.5 million cell phones. That is a lot of phones when you also consider that 3 million of the population are under 15 years of age.
People who may only have one pair of shoes will have a cell phone. People who don't have electricity will have a cell phone. I see people riding bicycles or horses talking on cell phones. The people who don't have one want one so bad they can taste it.

Of course, once they have the phone, it is inexpensive. Oh, the price of calls in Honduras is among the highest in Central America, but no one ever has any minutes, so that makes it cheap. We don't pay for incoming calls in Honduras and text messages are free or cheap.

If you have an emergency and need to use someone's phone (with money in hand to pay for the call!), you can ask 10 people and I promise you that not one person will let you use their phone. They will all say that they don't have minutes.

Another odd thing about cell phone usage in Honduras is that calls are almost never returned. You can call someone and leave a message that you want to buy something or hire them for L.100,000 and most won't spend L.20 to return your call. Many business have
calls to cell phone blocked because they cost more than landline calls. That is cutting off a lot of potential customers to save a little money.

At best, if they really feel like they must talk to you, some people will call your number and hang up immediately before you can answer so that you will have to call them back on your minutes. It's not only poor people who do this either.

When a cell phone rings in Honduras, it MUST be answered. People can be at a wedding, in church, in the middle of a job interview, or performing surgery. It doesn't matter. That phone must be answered.

I don't feel that urgent need to have my cell phone with me every minute. If it is someone I know, the phone will tell me that they called. If their number isn't in my phone, then it's probably a wrong number anyway. But back when we were painting the house, whenever my phone rang, Julissa would grab it, break her neck to run out the door, down the stairs, and around the house to find me, and then climb up a 10 foot ladder to hand me the phone.

Read FH-1100 Pilot Bob's accounts here and here. In one case, two Hondurans, who were meeting with him to ask for a U.S. $20,000 donation, stopped the meeting to take calls leaving him sitting there waiting for them to finish their chats with "more important" people.

El Jefe and I were talking about this the other day. I said that I do believe if a typical Honduran was, say, handcuffed to a table in one room and his cell phone rang in another room, he would cut his hand off to go answer that phone. Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but for sure he would cut the leg off the table to get to the phone. ;-)

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