“Acre doesn’t exist”: Life on the edge for a millennial in Brazil’s border state

A mock-up of a traditional house in Rio Branco
A mock-up of a traditional house in Rio Branco

I went cold turkey today in Rio Branco (Acre)  after my second trip to the cellular phone store, Vivo (for Brits reading this, imagine a smaller Brazilian EE store). Since landing in Marina Silva’s home town the internet screen on my Brazilian phone has a permanent message “tap to retry.” Nothing happened when I furiously try to open a webpage. Kaput.

I’ve tried the public library where the wifi only connects for 2 minutes only to time out .

At first I thought I had run out of phone credit- but no, after a 25 Reais top-up the problem persisted.

I felt sick, nauseous at having to wait until I got to my hotel to reconnect with the outside world even then, YouTube told me I would need 4239 minutes to wait to upload a 5 minute clip. This is how bad the wifi is.

My trip to Acre is part of the  Brasil Além project,  a collaborative of three international media organisations including One World Media which helps young international journalists produce stories on the developing world. We are paired with Brazilian students to facilitate cultural interchange and to co-produce our audiovisual projects. One of the conceptual aspects of the programme is to find “off the beaten track” stories – hence my temporary home in Acre.

There is a famous saying in Brazil that “Acre doesn’t exist” this is partly historical, Acre was one of the last states to be “conquered” by Brazil.  Acre is also a border state, with Bolivia and Peru surrounding it.

Inside the Vivo store
Inside the Vivo store

My buddy Débora took me to the only Vivo store in town to sort out my internet issues. Unfortunately mobile phone shops don’t have the instantaneous sparky personal customer service experience offered by similar shops in the UK. When you enter you are given a yellow ticket with a code and you have to wait. For our first trip we spent 40 mins waiting for the computerised voice to call our numberr.

The second time round the wait wasn’t as bad.

Let’s back track a bit. I regret that I haven’t been able to blog as much as I’d like here. My first week in Rio de Janeiro was rough. However, one of the first things I quickly discovered was that it’s a deeply bureaucratic country, like France you need to present official identification (Brazilians need to cough up a Federal Number… I wonder how non-Brazilians live here without it) in order to buy a mobile phone chip! Coming from the UK I find this totally ridiculous – we can have as many SIM cards as we want. When I asked my Rio de Janeiro professor why there was so much red-tap around getting a number he said that this requirement is in place to protect against  prisoners who traffic drugs from inside, to protect against their tendency to dodge the police with several numbers.  Personally I feel this justification is overly paranoid and finicky – don’t these traffickers “have their ways”?

Back to Vivo.

I didn’t wait as long, we were taken into a back office and the sweet Indian-looking customer service advisor asked me for my Federal Number, at this point I almost popped off! “I don’t bloody have one dude,” ran through my mind. Eventually I told him that the cool Rio de Janeiro Vivo people allowed me to use my passport number. He asked proof of my ID AGAIN so he could look at my account. I nearly had a hernia but I handed over my photocopied docs. The he want away and fiddled with my phone at a terminal.

I told Débora, “If he manages to sort out my internet I’ll be his best friend.”

He returned. Then he broke the news. After several botched translation attempts I understood that he had been trying to say, “Because your chip is from Rio de Janeiro and your phone is British your phone cannot be configured for the internet,” I argued and argued “This is impossible, I can text and call but I can’t use the internet!” I Held my head in hands. I mean, I’ve been to India and used Indian chips that have worked just fine.

After a while I have up and with the instruction from a Unilever excecutive ringing in my ears (“When you have a problem don’t treat it like a problem, just “re-frame” it, see it differently”) I accepted that I would be internet-less for the next few days.

I didn’t think I was that addicted to the internet but I am. I have important emails coming in and it’s cheaper for me to communicate with my family and friends via social media. I’m ashamed to say that I’m like Eliza Dooley from ABC’s Selfie program, addicted to social media, someone who needs advice on real human interaction 😦

And another thing. If Acre wants to debunk its “Out Back” image they need to deal with these glaring technological glitches. How can you be open for business (by other parts of Brazil and by foreigners) or be taken seriously when you have connectivity issues?

The only thing I have to gain from being weaned off the internet is  preparation for the disconnection I’ll face for our trip tomorrow to meet indigenous people who live even further into this hinterland state.

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