One of the important things when going nomadic is being able to get connected to the internet to allow communications to friends and family after leaving the States. Recently, I had to acquire access while staying in a somewhat remote area just north of Akumal, Quintana Roo, MX. Being so remote I had very limited choices for services. There was a wireless wifi service available, but required the installation of a tower and antennae, also there was cable wifi available but short term access wasn’t available, so this left me with just using a USB modem with a cell sim card. An expensive option, but the only one available.
After spending some time familiarizing myself with my new surroundings including the thatch roof Casita where I was staying and having a quick breakfast. I packed up my laptop in my backpack and hoofed it to the highway to catch a Collectivo to Playa del Carmen where I was told is the main office of the cell phone internet provider, TelCel. I had no idea where in town it was, but got off the Collectivo in downtown and started walking in the direction of a TelCel distributor I spotted from the Collectivo ride into town. Five blocks later, I arrive at this little store only to find no one understood English and couldn’t help me. At this point, I realize that knowing some Spanish would have been helpful before arriving here. I did remember a McDonald’s restaurant near the main highway coming into town so off I went in that direction hoping to find another American that knew where the TelCel main office was.
Along the way I spotted what appeared to be an American woman and asked if she knew the location of the main TelCel office, but no luck. When I arrived at the McDonald’s, they still had their breakfast menu up so I ordered a second breakfast not knowing when I’d be able to eat next. I tried to access the internet but it kept asking for a user id and password. Later I found out you have to ask for it. In Spanish of course. Just before leaving I spotted a black fellow who had come in for breakfast. I asked him if he knew English and he confirmed he did. I think he was French though because of his accent. Anyway, he told me I needed to get to the other side of the main highway and walk about three minutes south until I came to a huge shopping mall and they are located with in it. Off I go and his idea of three minutes and mine were completely different. I swear it was more like 3 miles.
I did arrive and was glad to see Centro Maya. It looked like an American indoor mall. I was able to locate the TelCel store and when I approach a doorman opened the door for me. You don’t ever see that in the States. Inside it looked like a bank lobby with customer service people manning the teller stations. To my left was what appeared to be a receptionist, so I tried my luck “Hablo Inglese?” She said a little. I then tried to explain what I needed and she began to type something into a computer. She gave me a ticket she printed out and told me to go stand in line where customers were waiting in a roped off area. I asked for an English speaking representative and she said to go to #20, 21 or #9. I picked 20 he looked most American. Before I got to him, she intercepted me and directed me to #9. This gentleman knew English very well. He asked what I needed and I explain a USB port cell modem for internet access. So he prints out a contract in triplicate and told me where to sign. It was in Spanish anyway so it didn’t matter since it was pay as you go. I just needed internet and it looked like was going to get it.
After signing I was directed to go pay for it by standing in another line where all the money cashiers are, then come back and see him. These people were behind thick glass with just a small opening to transact business. Paid cash in pesos $249 (about $20 US) for the USB modem. After going back to the original representative he asked what plan I wanted. What plan??? He gave me a list to choose from. I figured I needed the biggest one so I went with the 30 dias, 3 GB for $399 pesos (about $32 US) called the alto30. He printed a ticket out and told me to go to the cashier to pay for it and come back to him. Apparently they don’t sell this plan too often because the cashier had to break up the transaction into two parts, one for $300 pesos and another for $99 pesos. Anyway I was getting closer to internet service. Back to the original representative and offered to set up and activate the USB modem stick so all I had to do was stick it in. He said it was good for anywhere in Mexico. Great, off I go to see what the mall looked like inside and maybe try out my new USB stick.
This Mexican mall was spotless much cleaner than our American malls. The floor were glassy looking tiles. Needed to use the “bano” so I spotted one at mid mall. Found a very interesting plumbing setup. Step flush urinals! Thought that was a great idea – no touching handles. I walked to the other end to discover a McDonald’s and a food court outside some movie theaters showing first run movies from the states. In Spanish of course. I sat down and fired up the laptop and plugged in the USB modem only to find I couldn’t connect. A guy was near me and I chanced he knew some English and explained my problem. He misunderstood and thought I wanted to connect to the mall wifi. When he realized what I was asked he suggested I go back to TelCel. Off I went again.
When I arrive a different receptionist was on duty so I tried English with her. She somehow understood and directed me to wait in line with my ticket. When I got to the customer representative, she spoke no English but through gestures and pulling out my laptop she understood. She ask to take the laptop back to the service tech and they were pouring over it and about 10 minutes later she brings it back with another gentleman that spoke English and he explained they installed a software program for running the modem and he showed me how it works and we have internet! Off I go again to the mall to send out quick messages that I made it to Mexico and was OK.
All the line standing made me hungry again and it was now late afternoon, so I took the easy way out and had an Angus Swiss Onion burger at the McDonald’s. Having my hunger satisfied, I decided to go to the grocery store at the mall to check it out for things to eat since I ate the only dinner I bought the day before. Consistent with the other grocery store I was at yesterday, this one also didn’t have ready prepared frozen foods. Anyway I did find a couple of freeze dried meals I could make. Packed all these into my backpack and went out to the highway to catch a Collectivo back to Rancho Amor.
It turned out to be a bad time to catch one because everyone was getting off work at that time. I walked for about a mile before one stopped. Interestingly, the driver had his family riding with him eating dinner. I was glad to get back to the Rancho and pretty tired from all the activities of the prior two days. I fired up the laptop and emailed family and friends.
Lessons learned: Learning basic Spanish would be useful, this isn’t the US and things are definitely different. Secondly, expect to pay high rates when located remotely for internet access using a USB cell modem.