SIM cards

I don’t know what it is with me and SIM cards. I just can’t seem to keep track of them. I tend to shuffle between countries quite a bit and, not working for a large international corporation, I take public transport rather than rent a car, reside in cheap hotels, frequent budget restaurants, and I don’t have international roaming on my cellphone. Instead, I have a rather impressive collection of SIM cards, all of which have cute but unrecognizable logos and writing so small I need to bring a microscope. Well, at least one of those loupe things that i’ve only ever seen in dentist offices or in black and white movies when they are examining a photograph to show that the guy couldn’t have murdered the dame because of the date on the newspaper tucked under his arm. Adobe Photoshop is a lot more convenient but somehow lacks both the thrill and romance.

There was a time when I only had two cards; one for the US and one for the UK. Then it was possible to pretend I was some kind of spook, effortlessly slotting himself into a new role in a new country; new SIM card, new Identity. Speaking the local language so perfectly no one would suspect a thing. It also explained why I never traveled Business Class (too visible you know – a spook has to blend into the background).

But as my SIM card collection expanded it became progressively harder to maintain the illusion. It’s difficult to imagine Jason Bourne sitting back in coach, trying to contort himself to retrieve his loupe from the bag at his feet, and then having to plug in one SIM card after another and restart the phone to see if he can get a signal.

Even this was a relatively straightforward task until I picked up a “Smart’ phone running Windows Mobile (it was something I was forced into and which I’m not going to into here). Now, starting up the phone takes a good 5 minutes and by the time I’ve worked through all the cards I can be off the plane, through immigration and waiting at the bus stop with my luggage.

Apart from the bit where I’m having to use the little pointer stick to extract the previous SIM card that is jammed in place under the memory card, i’m probably indistinguishable from the suits with their Blackberrys who powered up the moment the seat belt sign went off. But, catching snippets of their conversations, I doubt they are any more productive. While I’m ejecting SIM cards with sufficient force to send them spinning across three lines of Immigration Control or clearing the baggage carousel in an elegant arc, they are issuing pointless status updates that could be summarized on the back of one of my SIM cards l: “I’ve just landed in Singapore”, “I’m waiting for the shuttle bus to the hotel” etc

And even when I do succeed in getting a signal, it can be a transient thing. Last time I went through Hong Kong International Airport I jumped on a local network with a Virgin SIM card. By the time I got to the Immigration line I was being asked if I wanted to join an Australian phone network and when I exited the other side the entire telecommunication network on the island was telling me to piss off. And yet, when I landed on the return trip I hopped on the work effortlessly and all my emails were automatically downloaded, which set me back 20 quid in roaming charges.

But even in China i’ve had my share of problems. I’m still scared of speaking Chinese over the phone, I need to watch the other person’s mouth to distinguish some of the words, so when my mobile rings I generally pull a sour face and gently push it away to the far side of the desk or or put it in a drawer if the caller is persistent. What this means is that I can go with a pay as you go plan, load up with five quid and it will last me for six months.

I suppose I should qualify that. It will last me for six months unless I lose the SIM card. I’ve got through so many of then most co-workers have given up storing my number, especially since I generally won’t bother to answer even if they do call. I lost the first card when I was riding my first moped – I lost that too, but in an unrelated incident. Anyway, I was tooling along when the phone rang, so like a good local I tried to answer it without stopping and promptly lost my grip on it when I tried to flip it open.

It probably would have been alright if it hadn’t gone under the back wheel. I found parts of the phone, but I never found the card. I headed across the road and bought a new one, but that wouldn’t work in Beijing for some reason. The third one disappeared along with my first Virgin SIM card when packing for a flight to London. I distinctly remember putting it on the dining room table but when I was about to head out the door it was gone. It wasn’t in my bag, and neither of them ever showed up, even when we were moving out the flat.

I could go on, most recently there was the US SIM card that disappeared in China and for which I got a replacement when I was in Dallas this summer. I managed to keep track of that one, but when I was flying back to the UK I found i’d lost the box that my new Virgin SIM card came in and which had my China Unicom SIM card for “safe” keeping. I still haven’t found it and had to get a replacement when I arrived back in China. This morning l accidentally threw the phone in the trash and didn’t realize until I got to work. So it’s back once more to the Unicom office. I try to think of it as meeting up with old friends.

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