April 6, 2009
Staying Connected...

If you've ever seen me on the road, you know how I am about email. I'm committed to finding a connection and responding within 24 hours. Some people would say "obsessed". But for me, it is an obligation to not let my travel interrupt customer service.

I was asked recently if there were any particular memories or stories about staying online internationally. .

Bad Dial

Well, fortunately connections are getting easier than they used to be. I've found cables in Vietnamese hotel rooms, WiFi in Mexico, computers in the business lounge in Hong Kong, and free passwords at the information desk at three in the morning in the Singapore Airport. And all of that has been in the past three months! But it wasn't always that easy.

I'm not really all that smart about this stuff and how it works. But I've tried to be prepared and practical. In 1995, we signed up for a dial-up account and we still maintain it as a back up. So if there are not terminals or a wireless signal, I can just make a quick call. I download into my machine, disconnect, answer emails, then connect again and send responses.

So if you get one of my emails from the festival in Cape Town, know that I'm in kitchen of the B&B, plugged into their phone, and paying for an international call while the mail transfers.

In 1998, I was sharing a hotel room in Tasmania with Peter Lynn. There was a phone, but it was hard-wired into the wall. I used my leatherman to unscrew the wallplate and get access to the raw wires. Back then, I even carried a kit with a modular pug, wires and alligator clips. But despite my efforts, I couldn't get a dial tone.

So I walked down into town with my laptop until I found a book/computer store open. I gave them a credit card and asked if I could buy a call to the States. Downloading mail should take less then three minutes. But in this case, someone sent me a photo attachment the size of Rhode Island. Twenty minutes later, it finally cleared -- and fortunately, so did my credit card.

The B&B in Weymouth England doesn't have telephones at all! For a while, I'd walk into town and use the Internet cafe -- at 1 pound (nearly $2 back then) for every 15 minutes online. And of course, I had to use their machines and check mail live online. That would explain my rushed typing.

Since the cafe was not open in the morning before I was due on the beach, I tried walking around the neighborhood with an open laptop, "dousing" for an unsecured connection.

No Phonel

A friend of mine once told me that he cancelled his internet service contract and just piggybacks on his neighbors service. He wanted to know what to say when the neighbor used the computer too much and slowed his connection time...

In the pre-wifi days getting a decent phone connection was often challenging. Old hotels often had old wiring. In Barcelona, I'd have to dial five or six times to get a strong-enough connection. (My record is 18 tries.)

Adaptors

In Korea, there were no phones in the room, so they let me call from the front desk. Problem was that people kept walking up and asking me for their keys or something. In Germany, the phone was analog and the computer digital (or something like that). So the manager had a conversion kit that he would loan out one-guest-at-a-time.

I now carry phone adaptors for each country I visit. Like the electrical plugs, phones also differ as you travel. Japan was the first place I found modular plugs in pay phones. Of course, In Japan, you can find everything in a pay phone...

On Safari in Africa, I had to walk to the camp office to check mail each afternoon. They wouldn't let you go at night. There was a risk, they said, of being eaten...

WiFi has made life much easier.

I was nervous in Istanbul. For a week, I was in a hotel where phone calls had to be placed through the front desk. You'd call the desk, give them a number, and 5-10 minutes later, a call would be connected back to the room. And of course that didn't work with a computer so I was walking to the festival office ten minutes away each morning. Then I discovered that a nearby office was generating a signal. It was one bar - weak - but enough to get though if I was patient. And by now, I was screening out large attachments.

Monster Phone

In Malaysia this year, the hotel offered in-room connections in one-hour increments. Log on, and stay connected for up to an hour. If you disconnected sooner, you were done. But in the back of the hotel, there was a free signal. So we'd just take our machines back there.

Magic

I now carry a phone that works anywhere in the world. But that means sometimes it rings in the middle of the night and I get expensive calls from friends who think I'm still in the States. Still, it is good to be accessible. My newest acquisition is a gizmo called MagicJack that allows me to make phone calls through the internet for free.

As technology has evolved, I've thought about getting an IPhone. But my sub-notebook is easier to type on, easier for me to read, and contains copies of the web page and all my business records. I'm portable! And often, people I've writing to don't even know I'm out of the country.

Susan has tried emailing me from the cruise she takes with her mom each year. The cost was outrageous, but calls were even more expensive. But she once emailed me to check a specific web-cam site at a specific time, and I got to see her on deck waving as she passed through the Panama Canal. And now she takes my phone with her -- and gets my friends calling in the middle of the night.

My best experience? Lufthansa tested in-flight wireless web access a few years back. That made ten hour flights much more tolerable. Which they had continued the experiment. But I'm sure the time will come.

Back when we went online in 1995, I thought we were behind the curve. And in many ways, we still are. But the Net lets us reach customers around the world, helps us communicate with them, and allows us to travel and keep on working

In spite of the occasional challenge -- it's pretty amazing when you think about it!

Scanning

Folks in the Forum suggested that we invite readers to send in photos, comments, and anecdotes to combine for our 500th Update. We've received a few, but not all that many.

If you have something to share, please send it in by Monday so we can get things together. Otherwise, you'll get another travel report from me next week! ;)

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