The Wax Conspiracy

No incoming calls allowed

Payphones are disappearing fast. Money spent on phone cards disappears faster. The lonely traveller knows this all too well. But the plight of those calling home with a phone card is not just for those wringing the sweat out of their last pair of undies over the communal sink at the hostel. It's a shared experience that brings many people together as they rifle through their pockets for coins and bills to pay for another distant few seconds to hear someone they know.

Five will get you zero

Ina, a student on her first trip outside of Germany, is sitting in the Madrid-Barajas International Airport (MAD). She's waiting for her ride, but isn't sure when it'll be here. In her hands is a green phone card, the words "International Prepaid Phone card" across the face with a tiny map of the world in the upper left corner. It's bent back a few times and about to rip in half.

"The card gave me less minutes for twenty-five Euros than another calling card would have provided for five dollars," she says. She called up the issuing company to complain, but was rebuffed. "They first tried to tell me that this could not be true. When I called the police as they refused to pay my money back, they started freaking, telling me that twenty minutes of calling time for twenty-five Euros were good value for money." She tears the card in half. "Other cards provide several hours for five Euros or five dollars." She throws the pieces at the nearest payphone, two metres away. They fall at her feet.

It's a lot better than Michelle Viviers' experience. Sitting across the way, she leans in, the maple leaf pin on her arm sleeve rights itself. "I bought a SIM card here. Three hundred and twenty seven dollars down the drain - the card wasn't used once!" She's rather specific about the dollar amount, making sure it's written correctly in the notes. "Numerous calls and emails to the company only resulted in fake promises and heartache."

The amusement park takes you for a ride

John Achley overhears the conversation. He has an Irish accent and his vest made from an Irish flag all but confirms it. "It never worked," he says, remembering the time he was last through Madrid on his way to a wedding for an old friend of his. "The contact phone numbers declared that they were no longer in service." He recalls when he filed a claim against the company, but hasn't heard anything since then. "I suspect this is a Mickey Mouse outfit and I will have little chance of being re-credited with my thirty Euros which I paid by Visa. I should contact the airport and denounce the card as a scam."

"He is one idiot," says Marcos, a Brazilian. He's been stealing peeks at the notes. "Never trust those cards in the first place," he says, before turning over and heading off to sleep. His seat is in its full upright position.

Layover in Panama at the Tocumen International Airport (PTY). The food smells foreign.

The trick with these pre-paid international phone cards is to not use a public telephone. They'll charge a flagfall just for the poor souls who don't have a mobile phone on them, or can't beg time to use one from a stranger. The ultimate trick is to spend your last scraps of money on food instead. It's as expensive, but at least you'll have enough strength to go on begging.

Check the volume dial

There's a man shouting at the information desk. "I CONNOT USING MY PHONE. THE PIN OR PUK IS NOT ACTIVATE. WHY?" He slams his fist on the desk. A few pamphlets fall off the counter. "I AM IN PANAMA AND BUY MY CAR IN EL DORADO AIRPORT EN BOGOTA. THEY PROMISSED ME THAT IS OK FOR PANAMA."

A guard comes over and takes him down to the security office. Pre-paid phone cards fall from his hand. Other travellers watch on.

Eric Ward picks one up. There's an empty beach on the front. He sits down and proffers the card. He also offers his own commentary, covered in a Minnesotan accent. "I got a five dollar card to call Bolivia. Supposed to get two hundred minutes. Got less than sixty." He crumples the card in his hand. "It is a rip off."

Call home before you disappear

Ralia is passing through, on to Lebanon next and meeting up with her fiancé who took an earlier flight after a call from their dog boarding place. "They told me that the cost for my home call by was thirty to fifty cents per minute. When they sold me the card I discovered they were charging two dollars. A huge difference. They will tell you anything to sell a card." She looks around and then heads off to the toilets. A few seconds later she's back at the phone card dispensing machine, jamming a used tampon in the slot. It's definitely some kind of warning sign.

Toby Keating, at least as that's what the name tag on his suitcase says, is throwing up in the toilet. The local food does not agree with him. What they'll serve in economy less so. He's heading home to the United States. When he gets back to his seat in the waiting lounge he recounts his horrid tale. "I called their customer service and talked to a guy and he could not answer my question and just hung up the call. SCAM!! Bunch of suckers!! Leeches!!!" The last part he shouts into his sleeve arm, so as not to cause too much of a ruckus. He looks over, the smell of sick heavy on his breath. "This card is fucking nasty."

Final boarding call. Sleeping horizontally is only another day away.

Reverse the charges

The actual trick is to take down the printed numbers of a bank of phones and reel them off to your contact as you call them using actual coins. They should then be able to call you back at any one of the numerous pay phones and thus you've saved yourself a whole host of meteoric charges into the zero dollars/minutes abyss.

The plane lands and the passengers jostle for the overhead compartments as soon as the seatbelt sign turns off.

At the luggage carousel a man walks over. He only seems familiar because he's been on the last few legs. He's heard every word. He smiles, large, and takes out one of his earplugs. It's blaring some bomba beat. He gestures for a handshake and introduces himself as Juan Sierra. He asks, "I want to know how to buy dees wholesale phone cards for my business."

Based on actual emails. The names have been changed.

Published on Friday, 31 May 2013

By Ethan Switch Ethan Switch

Well doesn't that just look tasty.

The Wax Conspiracy

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