The $2.50 phone bill

Even for those with good language skills, getting things done in Kyrgyzstan in the mid-1990s was a challenge. A seemingly straightforward task, such as banking or paying a utility bill, often turned out to be a complex, time-consuming activity that required visiting several offices, filling out forms and slips of paper, and obtaining signatures and stamps. Sometimes, it involved waiting around for the only person authorized to conduct the transaction to return from lunch. A case in point was our phone bill.

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            Living in the central district of the capital, Bishkek, our phone number began with the number 26. Stephanie and I were told we were fortunate to have that number. Bishkek’s Soviet-era telephone system was more reliable than most, but some exchanges in the city were notorious for dropped calls and crackly lines; by contrast, the 26 exchange usually worked. It’s all relative, because there was always noise on the line, occasionally interrupted by mysterious clicking sounds; it could have been the secret police checking on our dinner plans, but more likely it was simply the creaking and groaning of the arthritic switching system.

            Although claiming we had a working phone seemed a stretch, we still had to pay for it. The phone had already been cut off once because the bill hadn’t been paid, but the landlord took care of it. We had just received a recorded phone message and figured it was a reminder to pay the phone bill, so we brushed up on bill-paying phrases and headed off to the main post office. To pay the bill, you first need to know how much you owe, and that’s recorded on a printout on a table. We scanned through it but could not find our number; apparently, another customer had removed that page rather than make a note of the bill. The post office staff said they did not have another printout; they just took money and gave receipts, but had no records. We were directed to the building next door where the records were kept, but the office was closed for lunch. We came back later, went up to the window for our station (number 26), and had the clerk enter the amount. Then we went back to the post office to pay and get a receipt and the obligatory official stamps. We had spent almost two hours to pay a 41 som ($2.50) bill.