IQUITOS, Peru - A few miles downriver from this city in the western
Amazon jungle, Andres Alvarado hops off a boat and walks up a muddy
path to a hollowed-out log resting on a wooden stand. He beats the log
with a stick, sending a series of low-pitched tones into the rain
"This is what they call the 'telephone of the jungle,' " says
Alvarado, a tricycle taxi-driver and tourist guide. Moments later, as
children of the Bora Indian tribe come bounding down the path to
answer the "telephone," Alvarado's belt begins beeping: It's his
Iquitos and nearby riverside hamlets are among the more remote
outposts in South America's expanding mobile phone system, part of a
global network that is beginning to penetrate even the poorest and
most undeveloped corners of the world.
For millions of people living in countries where getting a fixed phone
line remains a bureaucratic impossibility, the cellphone revolution
has allowed them to leapfrog from archaic forms of communication
straight into the digital era and that is changing the fabric of their
In East Africa, the mobile phone has brought a first, tantalizing
taste of modernity to people who live on less than $10 a day. In
China, the world's biggest market for cellphones, they are embraced by
rich and poor alike, a tiny pocket computer with which to surf the
Internet, play video games or even do banking.
Here in Iquitos, where speedboats and lumbering old fishing craft ply
the brown, wide waters of the Amazon, fishermen grab the wheels of
their vessels with one hand and their cellphones with the other to
check the price their catch will fetch at markets downriver.
Alvarado uses his mobile phone to round up clients for his tricycle
taxi. And earlier this year, it beeped with the most important call
of his life.
"My mother-in-law called me from the delivery room," Alvarado
recalled. His wife had gone into labor with their first child, and he
raced to the hospital on his tricycle. "We all thought we were going
to have a girl, but it turned out to be a boy."
He flashed the news from the hospital to his sister in Lima via his
cellphone, the kind of call that might seem routine in the United
States but which still carries for him an aura of science fiction.
For Alvarado, a bright-eyed 23-year-old who has rarely traveled beyond
the river cities and hamlets of the Amazon, the change brought about
by the cellphone has been profound and rapid.
A few years back, when Alvarado's grandfather died in a town several
days' journey upriver, his family in Iquitos learned the news by
telegram. A mourning relative walked several hours to the telegraph
office, dictated the sad news to a telegraph operator, who sent it to
another office, where the message was typed up and delivered by hand
to the Alvarado household.
"By the time we found out, they had already buried him," Alvarado
The number of cellphones in Latin America has tripled since 1999, and
one in five people now owns one. In Peru, as in many other countries
in the region, there are more cellphones than fixed phone lines.
Today, the world's fastest-growing cellphone markets are in places
like Iquitos in rural South America and in sub-Saharan Africa, despite
"My cellphone gives me an 'address' just like any other businessman,"
said Baruwani Mbabazi, a money-changer who is part of a brisk trade in
U.S. dollars in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. His $20 purchase of a
used cellphone has liberated him from having to stand on the street
waiting for customers.
"I can't imagine my business without it," Mbabazi said.
Rwanda's cellphone boom has followed a pattern typical of many
developing countries. It now has more than five times as many
cellphones (134,000) as fixed telephone lines (23,000), according to
the International Telecommunications Union.
As in Rwanda, people elsewhere across Africa are coming to appreciate
and rely upon the magic of the cellphone; communicating with a
distant friend while under a baobab tree in Mali, for example, or on
the Kenyan savanna. In Senegal, farmers use them in their annual,
age-old battle against plagues of locusts, calling each other and the
authorities to keep track of the progress of insect "hopper bands."
In Somalia, men in loincloths flash their cellphones as they guide
camels to port. Masai warriors in Tanzania pull phones from their red
*shuka* robes to call gem brokers when they find glimmering
purple-blue tanzanite, a rare gemstone found only in the shadow of
But mostly, Africans use their phones for the same purpose as people
everywhere -- conversation. "We're a nation of talkers," said Kayode
Sukoya, a Lagos taxi driver known by the nickname "Guv'nor." He links
the cellphone's popularityto the ancient storytelling customs of
The cellphone is spreading, thanks to "prepaid" service plans, which
can lower the cost to a few dollars a month.
In Lima, Peru's capital, vendors sell prepaid phone time the same way
they sell peanuts: by standing between lines of cars waiting for the
light to turn green. You hand over the equivalent of a few dollars and
get a coded card, which you use to "charge up" your phone with time
In Peru, these consumers far outnumber "postpaid" users, who get a
bill for their calls each month.
"To get a postpaid cellphone, you need to have a consistent source of
income, and since the economy here is mostly informal, people don't
have that," said Juan Edgar Chavez, southern Peru sales director for
Telefonica Moviles Peru, the largest cellphone company in the country.
As in the United States and Europe, cellphones link people in the
developing world in ways no one imagined possible just a few years
ago. In South America, the cellphone has become a tool of rebellion,
and a *de rigueur* accessory for crime bosses who, in certain corners
of the region, act as a kind of parallel government.
In Brazil, drug kingpin Luiz Fernando da Costa was widely believed to
have used a cellphone from his prison cell to control his minions in
the *favelas,* or slums, of Rio de Janeiro, leading authorities to
install jamming devices outside the city's largest penitentiaries.
The cellphone is the communication instrument of choice for leaders of
the secessionist Aymara Indian movement in the highlands of Bolivia,
where it comes in handy when trying to coordinate strikes and highway
In China, which has more than 300 million users, the cellphone has
come to symbolize the national search for prosperity and self-
expression. On the streets of Beijing, along with on-the-go
businessmen, farmers chatter on cellphones as they drive their
vegetables to market in mule-drawn carriages.
Xiao Zhao, a 15-year-old purveyor of false documents, uses his phone
to keep one step ahead of the law.
"You can't glue yourself to a fixed telephone and still do the
business," he said. "Once the police get your regular phone number,
they'd be able to find out where you're living and have you arrested."
One enterprising Chinese author has written a novel meant to be read
in 70-word chapters transmitted by mobile phone text message. "Outside
the Fortress Besieged" tells the story of an extramarital affair in 60
chapters totaling about 4,000 words, according to China's state-run
The text-message explosion in China has not escaped the attention of
the authorities, who this summer announced a plan to employ new
technology to improve surveillance of mobile phone messages.
Officials said the campaign was aimed at cleaning up "pornographic,
obscene and fraudulent" phone messages. Some say the new scrutiny is
aimed at squelching political dissent.
Chinese police sometimes use text messages as an anti-crime tool: When
they find a cellphone that is being used for illicit purposes, they
use a computer to call the phone and flood it with phony text
messages, running up such a high bill for the owner that the phone
Xiao, the phony-document seller, said this has happened to him. "I've
changed numbers twice since last year," he said.
Providing the good, reliable service the market demands is not easy in
developing countries such as Peru, where engineers face a series of
technical challenges presented by untamed jungles and rickety
Each base station requires electricity. "In rural areas, the
electricity fluctuates," said David Holgado, Telefonica's chief
technical officer. "It's supposed to be 220 volts, but sometimes I get
160 or 250." Often, only battery power keeps the cellular station and
all the people using it to make calls online.
A donkey is required for the technician with the unenviable task of
performing routine maintenance on the antenna that sits atop a
13,100-foot peak above the city of Pasco, one of the highest in the
world. "There is a lot of equipment to carry, and of course there is
no road or any other way to get up there," Holgado said.
Telefonica covers Peru with 400 base stations, the circular towers now
a ubiquitous feature of the urban landscape in the U.S. On flat
terrain, each tower transmits a signal with an 18-mile radius. But in
Peru's mountainous topography, the signals are shadowed out or echo in
One recent evening, two Telefonica technicians sat inside a
nondescript office in the Lima headquarters monitoring the nationwide
cell system on a video wall displaying charts and graphs that pulsated
as if the network were a living organism. "What we look for are the
symptoms of trouble," Holgado said. "Because you see the symptoms
before you see the problem itself. Right now, everything is operating
One small square showed the base station at the jungle port of Puerto
Maldonado, on the Madre de Dios River near the Bolivian border.
Puerto Maldonado is so remote that the usual fiber-optic or microwave
connections linking base stations to the home network in Lima are
unavailable. So all the calls from the jungle outpost where Spanish
conquistadors once searched in vain for the mythical El Dorado are
routed through space.
In some villages, people climb to their roofs to get a good signal,
Holgado said. In others, they raise 60-foot-high antennas and rig
their phones to them. In villages without electrical power, people
charge up their phones with car batteries.
"You see all the ingenuity we Peruvians are famous for," said Carlos
Zamora Guanillo, a Telefonica engineer.
The fishermen of Iquitos know all about ingenuity.
Sometimes you have to be quick on your feet to sell your Amazon
catfish, or *zungaro* at the right place. Having a cellphone can
help you get a good price at the big markets in faraway Leticia in
Colombia, on the border with Peru and Brazil.
Juan Flores, who was elected president of the Artisan Union of
Fishermen of Iquitos in part because he owns a mobile phone, talks
about the phone signal in the same tone he might use to describe
shifting currents and hazardous sandbars.
"When you get to the fork of the Ucayali or the Maraon, it
doesn't work," he said, naming a couple of Amazon tributaries. "But in
Tamshiyacu, the signal is pretty good. By the time you get to
Yurimaguas and to Pucallpa, the signal is nice and strong."
The fishermen follow the signal upriver and down, in long, flat boats
with thatched roofs that look a lot like floating cigars.
The other day, one of the ships of the Iquitos fleet, the El Veloz
Quinto (Speedy the Fifth), hit a sandbar and began to sink. The
captain couldn't raise the local river patrol on his radio. Luckily,
he had a cellphone. He called their office and read them the riot act:
"What's wrong with you guys, aren't you listening to the radio? Get
out here quick, or I'm going to lose all my ice."
They saved the ship. But the ice was lost.
Times staff writers John M. Glionna and Yin Lijin in Beijing, Davan
Maharaj in Nairobi, Kenya, and Jube Shiver Jr. in Washington
contributed to this report.
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