April 21, 2005
Boat cards are popular in the cruising community. They typically describe a boat, identify who is on board, and indicate how to contact them. When we first left to go cruising in 1994, we didn't have a boat card. We associated them with the business cards we used to exchange at meetings at work and the last thing we wanted was something to remind us of the jobs we were leaving behind. But we soon discovered that everyone we met was eager to trade cards with us and felt snubbed if we didn't have anything to offer them. Presumably, they wanted to keep in touch with us. Scribbling our names on the dust jackets of their cruising guides didn't go over well. A couple of months after we cast off the dock lines, we reluctantly walked into a photocopy shop and ordered a box of one thousand cards with Little Gidding, our names, and our mailing address printed on them. Realizing there was little point in paying for a bunch of cards if we weren't going to use them, we began handing out boat cards to anyone who expressed the slightest interest in knowing who we were and even to some people who hinted they really didn't care who we were or, for that matter, if they ever saw us again.
After pretty well emptying our box of cards we found that we weren't receiving mail from boaters in far flung corners of the globe. In fact, we weren't getting much in the way of mail at all, except for those envelopes with the little windows in them that you'd really rather not receive. With uncanny timing, we had invested in boat cards just when the rest of the world had given up on writing. Somehow, a mere five or so millennia after some smart Egyptian had scratched the first hieroglyphs, we had missed the dawn of the electronic age.
It was almost exactly eight years ago that we stumbled onto the information superhighway. We were sitting at a tiki bar on the beach in Placentia, Belize, bemoaning the fact that, for all the effort we had expended in crafting clever letters and for all the money we had paid in stamps, our friends and family had apparently abandoned us, refusing to reciprocate with even a trite greeting card or two. The ex-pat French bar owner pointed to a laptop computer which was plugged into a phone line and offered, for a price, to let us use it to send and receive e-mail. He'd even show us how to set up a free Hotmail account for no additional charge. He wasn't stupid. Soon we were hooked and spending more money for Internet time than for beer. It warmed our hearts to discover how many people wanted to communicate with us after all, although most of them seemed to be primarily interested in selling us low interest loans, prescription drugs, or their girlfriends.
There's been no turning back. In the ensuing years, we've handed over a fair bit of the cruising kitty to various Internet service providers and sunk money into acoustic couplers, cell phones, and radio modems so we'll have e-mail access wherever we happen to be. We acquired a second laptop computer to allow both of us to write e-mail at the same time, and then bought a third so we'd always have a backup if the other two failed. We reprinted boat cards with just our e-mail address indicated -- no street address, no phone, no fax.
We left Florida early in the New Year with our ISP accounts in order and all of our computers and electronic peripherals carefully stowed, confident we'd remain connected to the rest of the world in the relatively remote reaches of the northwestern Caribbean. Two days out, in the middle of an e-mail session over the high frequency radio, computer number two flashed the Blue Screen of Death and promptly gave up the ghost. We should have expected its demise; it was one month past the expiration of its three-year extended warranty. But not to worry, we still had computer number one, this year's spiffy brand-new acquisition; and computer number three, our very ancient and much abused back-up.
For a while, all went well after our arrival in the Bay Islands of Honduras. Every morning, we'd connect computer number one to the radio and receive weather data and e-mail messages. If we were anchored near a settlement, more often than not we'd make an afternoon trip to shore and lug computer number one to an Internet cafe for more e-mail and a bit of web surfing. We found a bakery in West End, Roatan, that provided free wireless service (as well as excellent baguettes). We were ecstatic.
A couple of weeks ago, we left the Bay Islands on an overnight sail to Guatemala. The morning after our departure, with the entrance to the Rio Dulce looming ahead of us, we turned on computer number one to receive our regular weather report. For no obvious reason, its external power supply quit without a whimper. We checked the status of its internal battery. We had three-and-a-half hours of operating time left. Normally that would last us one day, two at the most. We stared at each other, the colour slowly draining from our faces. "We'll have to get out computer number three," Eileen whispered.
Computer number three is seven years old, has about as much memory as a seagull with Alzheimer's, doesn't have a network connector and isn't compatible with our radio modem. Its screen is held together with a combination of popsicle sticks, crazy glue and duct tape. There are wires sticking out of holes that shouldn't be there. But it works...at least for the moment. Assuming we're in reasonably civilized surroundings, we can use it to compose e-mail messages, copy them to a disc, and trot off to the nearest cybercafe. If we can agree to share it (we're not very good at sharing), David can also use the computer to write articles and download digital photos from his camera; and Eileen can use it for her music programming. After years of benign neglect, it remains to be seen if the poor machine will survive all of this renewed attention.
When we were in the Rio Dulce in 1997, the main town of Fronteras was just as its name suggests, a frontier settlement. It comprised a scattering of small shops and dusty eateries on either side of the gravel road leading north into the largely uninhabited Peten region of Guatemala. The electricity, public phones, and water supply were often out of order. One of the gringo businesses had a computer connected to a private satellite phone service. If you wanted to send e-mail you paid the lady who owned the computer to type your message and transmit it via her server. If she received any return e-mail for you, she'd call you up on the VHF radio and you'd collect it on your next trip to town.
When we visited Fronteras last week, we discovered that the road was paved and lined with all sorts of new businesses, including three banks, five ATMs, a large supermarket, and -- best of all -- several Internet cafes. Eileen saw the Internet signs and sighed, "We're saved."
Our main mission now is to revive computer number one. At a cybercafe we looked up the web site of the Guatemala office of the manufacturer of computer number one. It was a very nice looking web site, but it was as non-functional as our power supply. Clicking on any of the hypertext links only yielded error messages (in Spanish). We borrowed a cell phone and phoned the contact number given on the web site. It was out of service. We went back to the cybercafe and found the web site of the company's Canadian office, through which we had originally purchased the computer. We sent them an e-mail explaining our plight. We received an auto-reply suggesting we might get a proper e-mail response in five business days. We borrowed the cell phone again and phoned the number we had for the company in Toronto. The person who answered our call told us to phone the toll free number for Sales to order a new power supply. We explained that we were in Guatemala and that North American toll free numbers don't work here. She said she would connect us and then cheerfully cut us off.
We gave the cell phone back to our friend so he could add more minutes to his account and then we called Toronto again. On the third attempt, we got through to Sales and ordered the power supply. Sales told us they don't ship outside of Canada. We instructed them to send it to our friends Peter and Carolyn in Toronto. We contacted Peter and told him to expect a power supply in the mail and asked him to send it by courier to a marina in the Rio Dulce. Apparently, there isn't door to door postal service in this part of the world, so the marina's address is a post office box number in Morales, twenty-five miles away. We were told the courier company will only ship to street addresses. We contacted the yacht club in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, where Eileen is scheduled to perform music next month. It has a street address and, after a few e-mails back and forth, the manager told us he would be happy to hold the part for us when it arrives.
At this very moment, as we're nervously composing this log entry on computer number three, our new power supply should be winging its way to Mexico. We might see it in a few weeks. It's merely taken several hours of cell phone and Internet time, the assistance of many friends, and a fast diminishing credit card balance to make these arrangements. Now if only computer number three will hang in there for a little while longer....