Can ET Call Home From Guatemala?

In August I wondered, on the 20th anniversary of my arrival in Guatemala: What one thing (aside from my hairline) would be wholly unrecognizable to a time traveler from the year 1988? The answer must be: telecommunications.

Back then, E.T. would never have tried calling home from here. But since I was only calling the United States, instead of the Mother Ship, I began looking for channels after I arrived here.

Calling the U.S. from my landlady’s landline was a theoretical possibility, but, in fact, you actually had to go somewhere and stand in line. That would be your neighborhood GuaTel office.

You went to the window, gave your datos, then sat in a waiting area. I preferred to stand and watch the operators peg their ancient switchboards and turn hand-cranks on museum-piece machines dating from the 1920s. Finally, the clerk gave you a manic wave and shouted cabina tres (“booth 3”). Then you went in, drew the hinged wooden door shut, and found that your party was already on line, saying, “Hello? Hello?”

You were not always alone. Sometimes, while conversing with my father, he would ask, “So who’s that woman yackety-yackin’ at us at 90 miles an hour in [Spanish]?” I neither knew about nor heard what he referred to. Neither did the woman know, judging from the insouciance of her chatter, which was about real or scripted soap operas. The problem was what they called líneas cruzadas.

The lines no longer cross, because they no longer exist. The location of my neighborhood GuaTel office has hosted a muffler shop since the first Gulf War, and GuaTel is now TelGua. In 1988, the penurious town of Independencia in Huehuetenango Department had 12,000 people and one —yes, one—telephone. It was likely not used for soap-opera updates, and the line of usuarios (users) was probably longer than the queue of extras waiting for Charlton Heston to part the Red Sea.

Nowadays, of course, every 9-year-old kid selling gum sports his own cell phone. Soap-opera talk is still affordable, but now it travels through atmospheric ethers rather than through copper wiring.

To be sure, there were mobile phones back then in Guatemala—maybe 10. In developed countries, where mobiles were more common, they were a mark of prestige and importance. They used another technology: local radio broadcasters set aside what we would now call dedicated bandwidth. Communications satellites existed, but using them required beaucoup hoops and gobs of money. A landline, on the other hand, was something almost anyone in the U.S. had. If you did not, you were a flake, a beggar, a credit risk, or all three.

In Guatemala, landlines were not something almost everyone had. They were still a mark of basic affluence in 1988. One curiosity that I recall from the time is that six-digit phone numbers and five-digit numbers somehow existed side by side. It was as if half the utility’s directors were thinking, “Oh, we’ll never have to convert the whole system to six digits.” My landlady had a five-digit number. No wonder that I still remember it.

At the turn of the current century, cell phones (to say nothing of touch-tone) had arrived, but they were still associated with the very well to do. If you had one before 2000, you were a good credit risk. If you had one before 1994, you also had a private chauffeur.

This prestige had an echo that has only recently petered out. A few years ago I learned, by accident, that I had made the day for a poor joven working in forest reclamation. At a meeting, his cell phone rang, and everyone stopped talking so he could talk to me. Pepe had been called on his cell phone! He may have had his chin up for the rest of the day.

Nowadays these interruptions are so common that dentists, even dentists with poor patients, hang a “turn off your cell phone” sign in their lobbies. Such interruptions no longer arouse awe, but annoyance and even contempt.

The great irony is that people who have only cell phones, and no landlines, have become suspect as flaky or insolvent. If you have a landline, then you are a homeowner or you rent in a neighborhood that has sewers, electricity and playgrounds. But any squatter can have a cell phone.

And what about credit? Well, if you ask your carpenter if you can borrow his cell phone and he replies, “I can’t. It’s low on card time,” then you might worry that your down payment will be spent on beer instead of wood for your project.

Outside of human settlement, the only place where cell phones are absent, you still see their microwave towers spangling the landscape. This means that time travelers from two millennia ago, as well as those from two decades ago, would have a new set of landmarks to deal with. The towers are not overly ugly, but they are by necessity in the wrong places: on mountaintops, where they cannot be missed.

None of this would have happened without the privatization starting in 1998 with Mexican capital and Italian technology. Italy won the contract to replace those hand-cranked machines, in part because Italian patents on new technology enabled them to underbid other countries. They used Guatemala as a lab for their newest gizmos, and, briefly, Guatemala had one of the most advanced systems on Earth. Italy overtook us, of course, after applying at home what was learned (sometimes painfully) in Guatemala. But here we are in the 21st century, after a conversion that brought eight decades of progress in eight years.

Now my father, who visits this month, can call me without the intrusion of soap-opera yackety-yack. That is progress!

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