Stepping out of a familiar shopping mall the other day, something different caught my eye as we reached the entrance: an Aussie Telstra public phone, freshly minted in its familiar orange livery, had replaced the American-made ‘payphone’ which previously stood in that corner. One small step for mankind, a huge step for commonsense and convenience.
My travelling years have left me with something of a fetish about these mundane fixtures and their foreign incarnations, even though today’s traveller less often has to grapple with one. In Africa recently I picked up local prepaid SIM cards to use my mobile/cellphone more economically in Botswana and Zimbabwe.
In years gone by, footloose wanderers struggled mightily with foreign phones – who didn’t? – cursing the 1950s mindset of the American payphone network, with its laborious three-minute charging blocks, an impediment which could make or break old friendships. If you had access to a private landline account, you could charge up calls to that number – but had to keep one eye peeled for small ‘Venus fly trap’ long-distance operators which lurked behind PO box numbers in New Jersey, and somehow got to slug your bill with outrageous services charges if you didn’t heed the fine print. Russell Crowe, I understand perfectly.
Then there were the clunky and failure-prone handsets one found jostling for position on street corners – privatisation gone feral – across Malaysia and Thailand. In many countries you patronised private call booths, and the Wartel and the PCO/STD/ISD signs became as ubiquitous across Indonesia and India, respectively, as food barrows and tea shops. You might hope to use a tollfree Call Home or Home Direct number to reach a familiar operator in your own country, but this tactic, too, often faltered.
Now, wherever you go, the multinational mobile phone networks have taken control of the urban landscape. The Orange company’s hoardings and billboards have spread their signature colour across southern Africa, and the little guys selling scratch-it recharge cards populate every street corner. Whatever became of all those multicoloured phone cards we used to collect?