Friday, August 20, 2010

A tie that bonds, and binds

More than a decade ago, when I was in college, I got a call on my birthday from my high-school boyfriend. This wasn't unusual in and of itself; he's a thoughtful guy and did so for many years. But on that particular day, he was spending his January break in India, and told me he had walked -- I can't remember exactly, but at least a couple of miles -- in order to find a phone. It still ranks among the nicest gestures anyone's ever made toward me.

Now, living in Istanbul in 2010, if I want to call any of my friends back home, I just sit down in front of my computer, put on my dorky call-center operator headphones, and pull up the little dialing pad on Skype. It's essentially free (I pay $2.95 a month for unlimited outgoing calls to the U.S. and Canada) and generally of decent quality, though a sketchy Internet connection can thwart my good intentions at any time.

While I still find the idea of walking down a dusty road to find a phone or waiting weeks for a letter from home terribly romantic, it's hard to imagine how expats managed in the days before the Internets. Honestly, I'm not sure if I would have been made of tough enough stuff for it. In my somewhat pared down life, my trusty laptop has become stereo, television, telephone, newspaper and magazine subscriptions, and photo album all rolled into one. (I can't bring myself to ditch books yet.) When my hard drive started crashing, it felt like a crisis of epic proportions. When the Internet is operating at a snail's pace (not uncommon), I feel indignant, and when the power goes out (as it somewhat often does), I'm completely lost. As one of my fellow expats once described the all-consuming importance of the computer: "But all my friends are in there!"

Grateful as I am for the opportunity to chat with old friends online, read my hometown newspaper (for all its faults), and watch (technically banned) YouTube videos, though, I do wonder how much my experience here has been shaped, and limited, by the ready ability to keep close connections to home. Without them, would I have immersed myself more fully in all things Turkey, improved my Turkish, made closer local friends, spent less time inside? I don't know, but I also don't know if I'd want to find out.

NOTE: Whether for better or worse, the Internet has changed the way we travel. Check out other Lonely Planet travel bloggers' experiences getting online around the world in the Blogsherpa Blog Carnival: Internet Connections, hosted by Jason Malinowski of AlpacaSuitcase.

* This photo is, obviously, not from Turkey, but was taken instead in Tacarigua, Isla Margarita, Venezeula.

7 comments:

Tactless Wonder said...

I think what I found out from my foray into the world on the Irish Rose and very little electricity and only internets at few and far between cafes, that the friends I have now are those that hung on/stuck around...waited for me to get back to "civilization." I think it'd have been a much different homecoming if I could have 'tweeted' the whole thing :).

PS I am skype enabled at work...but I think you are sleeping when I am working...

Nick Krabbenhoeft said...

I made a serious attempt to limit my Internet time this summer. The closest hookup was at least 3 kilometers away and still I trudged that every day on the weekend. I had letters, even parents willing to pay international phone rates, and still it wasn't enough. At least I was able to separate life into Internet time and not-Internet time, which let me get a lot more out of each.

Jen said...

That's a great idea, Nick -- I may see if I have the willpower to give it a go. I like your blogs too; thanks for posting a comment so I could discover them. Hope you're staying cool down there in Alanya! I'm sure we've got nothing to complain about in Istanbul compared to that.

TW, the 10-hour time difference does make it tough, but I'll look for you on Skype :) Maybe I would feel differently if I'd headed out on this adventure with a partner (even one who turned out to be icky!), but as a solo gal I think I'd have had some tough moments without being able to reach out across the Atlantic. And after two and a half years and counting, even the most faithful friends might have been saying, "Jen who?"

David from Quillcards said...

Your comment about immersing oneself in the culture rings true with me.

I taught for several years running at a residential summer school for teenagers from all over the world.

Mobile phones had 'arrived' by the final year of teaching the course and I noticed that at the end of every class the kids would get straight on their phones and speak to their friends and family at home.

All the camaraderie that kids in previous years had built up with their 'foreign' classmates just didn't occur when the phones came on the scene.

Schaufensterbabe said...

I'm completely with you on this. I think it's possible I might die without the internet. When you're an expat, it's like a little piece of instant home.

MaryAnne said...

My first few years of travelling took place before the internet became an internationally viable option: in 1994 and 1995, in Germany, FRance and Ireland, I wrote a lot of (paper) letters to friends and family and became well acquainted with the GPO on O'Connell Street in Dublin. I held on to the few letters I received like comforting anchors on bad days.

A few years later, in Ghana, I had no electricity, muchless internet. Letters I sent home arrived a month after I left. I hiked down a burning hot red dirt road 3km to the nearest phone (rotary dial!) to try to reconfirm my flight back to London (back then, if you didn't reconfirm, they'd often bump you, esp on airlines like, er, Balkan, which I was on)

These days, in Shanghai, I have high speed wireless internet, a MacBook Pro, an iPod Touch with wifi, and a mobile phone. Even in freaking Myanmar last month, famed for its isolationist tendencies, I was updating my blog and chatting with friends and family.

It's a totally different feeling now, less precariously alone, less stranded (if that's the right word to use). If I don't want to feel like I'm in China, I have a million options to escape, mentally and emotionally. In 1994 in Dresden, I was definitely in Germany only. I kind of miss that forced immersion.

The Turkish Life said...

Even though I can't imagine life without my hit of "instant home" (great description, Schaufensterbabe!), I'm a bit sad that I never got to experience what you did, MaryAnne. And that no one writes letters anymore! I agree they're so much more satisfying to reread than an email when you need a lift.

Fascinating how this dynamic seems to have changed how so many people relate to the world, as David's story shows. This recent EuroCheapo article takes an interesting look at how it affects travelers, not just expats:

Traveling Offline: How to NOT use an iPhone abroad