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A SIM Card Debacle (Cartagena, Colombia)

Welcome to the first 24 hours of Colombia. There are plenty of words to describe it so far. Easy, effortless, and painless would not be any of them. The plane touched down around 230PM, right on schedule. Passengers began being let out of the plane from both the front and back exits. We shuffled out of the tight aisles, engulfed in the heat, and life felt good. Thinking about the brisk winter that was going on at the very moment in New York only made it feel sweeter.

Flight Beginning to Land in Cartagena, Colombia

We knew before we got to Colombia that people who spoke English were going to be rare at best, but I was positive that we could handle it. I’d traveled through places like Vietnam by myself without knowing a simple ‘hello’ in Vietnamese (although, I did learn a little as I went), and I got through without much more than a hiccup. Plus, I’ve been taking Spanish in school since ninth grade, and always did well. Getting by in a Spanish-speaking country was bound to be way easier than Vietnamese-speaking ones, right?


The moment we went up to the information desk and attempted to ask where we could buy local SIM cards, we knew we were in for a learning experience.

“Uh...Yo necesito..Uhh..un Sim card?” I spoke sheepishly.

It took me nearly two weeks to muster up the courage to say “thank you” in Thai for the first time. Spanish is a language I’ve been “learning” in school since I was a kid. After so many years of study that it felt like forever, I figured I could at least halfway confidently articulate a sentence to a native speaker. Instead, I cowered like it was the first sentence I’ve ever spoken in my entire life.

The woman behind the desk could sense my fear. She looked up at me from behind the information desk and spoke so quickly and smoothly that I couldn’t make out one single word.

“Pardon?” I asked, giving her a look that quietly begged her to slow down.

She repeated, equally as quickly as before with a little more annoyance in her tone. This time I managed to grasp a few words. The main ones being ‘no’, ‘no’, and ‘no’. I looked back at my friends, filled with defeat, knowing that these SIM cards were crucial to us being able to get anywhere. After a little bit of aimless searching, we headed down the streets of Cartagena in the 100 degree heat, our massive backpacks stuck to us like turtle shells.

Eventually, we landed in front of a store, which had familiar looking pictures of options for SIMs. Movistar, Claro, and Tigo brands were posted around the barred window where a no-nonsense looking Colombian man sat eyeing us. I went up to the window, mustering all the confidence I had left to the surface, and said, “Hola, como estas? Necesitamos tres SIM cards, por favor”.

Headed into the Walled CIty

He responded even more quickly than the woman at the airport information desk. I’m fairly sure that he was explaining the difference in plans to us, but I still can’t be sure. A few haphazard exchanges later, he was popping the tiny squares of life into our phones. My friend Garland was first. A few buttons, a turn on and off, and boom. He was refreshing Instagram as easily as he was before. My friend Tali and I handed over our cells next.

Everything seemed to be going smoothly at first, but suddenly he stopped. Just like the airport information lady, he threw a series of strong ‘no’s’ our way before handing us back our phones with our original SIMs. We attempted a few times to hand our phones back and have him try again but he adamantly refused. Somewhere in the commotion, another woman came up to buy a SIM who spoke fluently in English and Spanish. She translated for us. She explained that me and Tali’s phones were locked. It was something that I came across in my research before Asia, but had specifically asked the guy working at Verizon store about before I purchased my new phone. He said, without a doubt, it definitely wouldn’t be locked. Turns out, in 2019 Verizon started locking their phones for the first two months after purchase.

I was pissed. Actually, I was beyond the realm of pissed. I was adamant about asking Isaac (the Verizon employee who fed me false information, ha ha) this specific question. He seemed so sure. So trustworthy. Now, here I was, in Colombia and it was looking like I was either going to have to pay ten dollars a day to use my phone or not have one at all. Panic was setting in and my friends could tell.

It’s times like this, no matter where in the world, that my instinct tells me to do the same thing: Call Mom. That’s just what I did. We went into the restaurant next door to hoard their wifi and attempt to fix the problem. I rambled the issue at my mom over the phone and begged her to use her Jewish, Brooklyn mama magic to finagle my phone into being unlocked.

An hour passed. Then two. We had to start migrating towards our Airbnb, as the sun was escaping us. Along the way, my mom’s updates were sporadically popping up on my phone whenever I entered a wifi zone. She had been on hold for 40 minutes before Verizon hung up on her. My hope was dwindling, and my start in Cartagena was becoming underwhelming at best. In my mind, I was starting to formulate what the hell I was going to do if my mom couldn’t argue Verizon into unlocking my phone. It was terror, and that wasn’t at all dramatic.

We arrived at our Airbnb after only an hour of searching the block for the correct building. Our host was in the middle of explaining the amenities of the apartment when my phone let out that joyous ‘bing’ of a new text. It was a text from Verizon, which read “this phone will be unlocked when a non-Verizon SIM is input”. A wave of excitement and calm rushed over my body. A kind of excitement and calm I’ve never experienced from interactions with my cell phone provider. I was going to be able to have a phone while traveling, and not go broke doing so.

The moral of the story is simple. No matter where, no matter when, and (most importantly) no matter how, a Jewish, Brooklyn Mom will always get the job done.


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