Staying wired around the world

Staying wired around the world

Keeping in contact with civilisation during a six-month bicycle trip via e-mail and the Net can be fun and games. Eric Lyness recounts his experiences . . .

My computer crashed the other day, but not in the usual way. My wife and I were cycling along the Mekong River when she waved to a child, swerved, and knocked me into a ditch. I fell head over my Apple MessagePad 2000. I was a little bloody, but I was more worried about our $US2000 investment. I zipped open my front pannier, where the Newton had ridden just inches away from my front tyre for 5700 fantastic miles, through heat, sleet, and months of monsoon. I peeled aside two plastic bags and took it out of its case - a Rubbermaid sandwich container. It still worked. That's the good news. The bad news was that I still couldn't connect to the Internet from all over the world, like I'd hoped when I'd first bought the Newton.

In May 1996 I quit the best programming job I've ever had to bicycle around the world with my wife. Before we left we spent many nights studying a world map that dominated the hallway of our San Francisco apartment. We planned to take 18 months off to follow a route that would include British Columbia, Alaska, Costa Rica, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, and most of Southeast Asia. I figured we could use the Newton to connect from most of those places. For seven years I'd helped develop computer systems for subways, steel mills, and chip fabricators, working as both an internal IT staff member and an independent solutions integrator. I figured that if I could do that in industrial settings, making the Newton fetch e-mail should be easy. Now I know better.

Having the right hardware has little to do with staying wired. It all depends on phone lines and log-in scripts-finding them and getting them to work with your computer. When things didn't click, my wife heard me mutter, "This is '70s technology! Why won't this work in 1998?" First, I should say that our travels have been great. What follows is a chronicle of just the technical problems. In the beginning everything worked.

International charges

In British Columbia, we reprogrammed our personal toll-free number (it came with our MCI One calling plan) to redirect incoming calls to our ISP, Best Internet Communications in California. That way the Newton could connect to Best without forcing us to pay international toll charges. But the toll-free number didn't work from Alaska. We tried to call the lower 48 states directly, but that didn't work either. Satellite delays made long-distance data calls impossible.

We ended up connecting through what I call the SEC solution - someone else's computer. We borrowed or rented computers from friends or businesses already wired to the Internet. By Costa Rica, we had signed up with CompuServe, which has a dial-up there. That didn't help. The number required a special log-in script that CompuServe technical support couldn't give us over the phone. They e-mailed the nine-step log-in process a month later, but by then we were in Hawaii. CompuServe wasn't a total bust, however. It worked fine in California, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia. In Australia we wanted to do something unusual. I once heard Australia's largest river, the Murray, described as the "antipodal Mississippi". Having canoed on the Mississippi, we wanted to try the Murray, too.

It took only a few hours to buy a used canoe and arrange to have it shipped by train to the river. But it took days to figure out how we could check e-mail during our float. Melbourne has many mobile-phone stores. We asked employees at five or six of them if they could get our Newton working with a cell phone. Most couldn't help us for less than $1000. We finally met an enthusiastic gadget guy who thought he could find an inexpensive solution.

Wayne Roberts, a salesman for Telstra, called all over the country for us. We needed three things: a GSM (global system for mobile communications) phone, a Newton modem that could communicate with the phone, and a SIM card - a prepaid card with an embedded chip that activates the phone and debits money from your account as you call. We found a used Nokia 2110e phone for about $200. Roberts sold us a SIM card for about $80. He also found us a Newton World store in Sydney that shipped us a modem that made the whole setup work.

Huck Finn goes digital

Floating down the Murray was awesome. For three weeks we camped on sandbars, watched kangaroos in the evening, and ate huge sandwiches from our esky. I was in paradise - without a care in the world, just like Huck Finn - and doing it all with cold beer and e-mail. Though most of the river didn't have cell coverage, we were able to get it near towns. We e-mailed right from our tent. Then, on New Year's Eve, we learned that bringing your own phone line doesn't always keep you connected. Although my wife, a freelance writer, was on deadline, we were out of coverage range. We paddled hard for more than 40 miles to the next town. We arrived at sunset, turned on the phone - but no coverage. So we floated on as the Aussies partied onshore. Soon the river narrowed, and we came close to an especially loud party. One guy yelled, "Pull in and have a beer!" My wife and I had the same warped thought: it wasn't "free beer!" but rather "they might have a landline!"

The group turned out to be cattle farmers having a college reunion. We survived their death-grip handshakes, the drunken attempt to help us dock, and enormous quantities of Victoria Bitter (and gin and tonics). By 2.00 am we had e-mailed from a landline, and the gang was calling me "bungee" and singing For He's a Jolly Good Fellow in my honour. (Is bungee good? We never did find out.) Indonesia, nearing revolution when we arrived in January, had many great $2 hotel rooms, but the rooms didn't have phones. We tried to connect from a wartel (phone office) in Bali. As a confused operator watched, we jammed into a booth, connected the Newton, and held our breath.

CompuServe's Jakarta server connected to our modem, but, as in Costa Rica, the Newton couldn't log in.

We called US technical support and talked to friendly people who couldn't help us. They promised to e-mail answers later, but we never heard back. Unlike support operations I've worked with, CompuServe's frontline people apparently have no place to turn if they can't solve your problem.

Fortunately the SEC solution worked, since Internet cafes abound in Asia (though home PCs and phones are rare). We've configured Hotmail and Yahoo! mail to get e-mail from Best Internet Communications. We've checked e-mail in 35 different cafes in nine countries for rates of $0.80 an hour (Malang, Java, in Indonesia - our speediest connection at 33Kbps) to $30 an hour (Vientiane, Laos). Most locations have charged a buck or two per hour. But we've ended up paying three times: $20 a month to Best (to keep our main e-mail address) and $10 a month to CompuServe (in case their dial-ups ever work again), plus Internet cafe rentals. We have also had to retype everything before sending it, since we compose on the Newton. It irritates me to convert a text file from one digital format to another. Thinking back to when I was a teenage computer geek in the early '80s, I thought file transfer would be easier by the turn of the century.

Apple Computer's Newton MessagePad 2000 with a 4MB flash-memory card, carried in a Rubbermaid sandwich case has overall proven a most worthy travelling partner.

It has survived 12 months, 5700 bicycle miles, and 425 canoe miles. Friends ridiculed our choice, and Apple abandoned us, but we have no regrets. It's small, light, sturdy, and works with an external keyboard that measures 3.75in x 10in. It's been nearly ideal for us. Perhaps that's the Newton's problem.

The perfect machine for low-budget bicycle tourists is going to have a small market. If I could change one thing, I would add a 3.5in drive so we could pop a Newton floppy into a rental computer instead of always retyping. It turns out that that option would be even more useful than the modem.

These were our experiences with some of the other equipment we tried:

The land link: A 33.6Kbps Hayes Optima modem card and modular-jack cable. Our first modem, the only hardware to break so far, failed in Singapore. We shipped it back to Practical Peripherals, which quickly shipped a free replacement to our US address. Every country we visited either already used the same phone jacks as North America or was converting. We bought phone-jack adapters for Australia and New Zealand but didn't always need them.

The mobile link: A Nokia 2110e GSM digital mobile phone, a Nokia cellular data card (DTP-2 Version II), and cable. The combination worked fine, but only when we could find cell coverage and a local server that talked to the Newton.

The juice: Our Newton runs on a 120/220 AC adapter, a solar adapter (Keep It Simple Systems' Luna II) or four AA batteries. Batteries in Indonesia cost us as little as $0.60 for four. The AC adapter fits directly into power sockets in some countries, including Thailand, the Philippines, and Laos.

E-mail service: Best Internet Communications, CompuServe, Hotmail, and Yahoo!. We started out using only Best and later added CompuServe so we could use its overseas POPs. But in Southeast Asia we mostly connected through Internet cafes (found in tourist strips, malls, libraries, post offices, and hotel business centres) to retrieve e-mail from Best.

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