Technology means home is never too far

Preparing for my family’s overseas adventure, I knew I would need technology in order to work. I also anticipated it would be nice to be able to connect with friends and family back home, but I had no idea technology would play such a large part in determining the overall success of our travels.

Let me step back a bit. Our destination was Latvia, a small country directly across the Baltic Sea from Sweden. Latvia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and is currently emerging from post-Soviet chaos as it prepares to enter the European Union.

In other words, it’s a place that’s gone from zero consumer technology to fiber optic cables, updated telephone systems and complex Web design in only 13 years. The perfect place to test the latest technologies, and see what it’s like to connect in a foreign environment…

Where to begin

Without the right equipment, cables and passwords, we would have been nowhere. But far more important was the Internet connection, which gave meaning to all the equipment we lugged with us.

Latvia’s one and only fixed telephone company, Lattelekom, has a Web page and fortunately we were able to read up on the various connections available and set up a time to get connected before we left Canada.

Three days after our arrival, an engineer arrived and for LVL 30 (CAD 72) installed a phone line, and for another LVL 40 (CAD 95)  hooked us up to the Internet (price includes one month’s usage). Surfing ain’t cheap. But it turns out access to anything other than .lv during business hours is not part of the price. We had to fork out another LVL 9 (CAD 22) a month for outside-Latvia World Wide Web access during business hours.

The only terrifying moment was after the initial send and receive, which happened to coincide with the release of the Bugbear virus. For one sleepless night I imagined we had screwed up with our wireless network and that post-Soviet hackers were making their way into our system… and any system we were connected with. Perhaps a case of jetlag. More likely too many Matrix-type movies.

Getting it right

During our six-week sojourn we were happy to discover that our anticipation of what hardware we’d need was bang on.

Notebook computer: The iBook I had on loan from Apple was perfect for overseas travel. The biggest bonus was that it was equipped with an Airport card (wireless network card in PC-speak), which meant I could move around the apartment and even do my writing in the kitchen and bedroom. This also meant we didn’t have to stress about the Lattelekom guy drilling holes all over an apartment we didn’t own.

The iBook had a CD burner which was perfect for backups (in case the laptop got lost or was stolen). Even better, we could make CDs of the hundreds of digital photos we took (and even give them away), and listen to new discs we acquired.

Here’s the biggest plus and one worth considering. I’m a Macintosh user, and the iBook allowed me to stick to my platform. Not only does this mean I was comfortable with the system but it also means that once I returned home I was able to copy my entire desktop back to my G4.

Printer: Before I left Toronto, I searched around for a printer that would be “small enough to fit into a suitcase, yet powerful enough to make you feel like you’re in business, even though you’re thousands of miles away from home.”

The Hewlett Packard Deskjet 450 mobile printer fit the bill, and I’m totally convinced it would be perfect for the cottage and any other roaming environment. It weighs only a few pounds, is the size of a small radio and is so easy to use that it brings you back to the days when technology was just two buttons and a plug.

But the best thing is that the Deskjet 450 is wireless and battery operated. This means that you can take it with you wherever you go and even if you don’t have infrared capabilities required to print wirelessly, you’re not stuck searching for power. Moreover, when you’re in battery-mode, the printer is smart enough to shut down if you’re not using it.

Cell phone: Before I left for Latvia, a friend wrote to tell me that I wouldn’t be considered human unless I had a cell phone. How very true. People in Latvia—and as I understand it, all of Europe—live on cell phones, no matter what their income bracket and where they happen to be. In fact, many people don’t even carry watches, because they rely on their mobile phones to tell time.

While text messaging is catching on in Canada, over in Latvia it’s so hot you wonder how we do without it. That’s in part because PC ownership is not yet as widespread and partly because text messaging is considered an aspect of modern mobility. It’s just not polite to make phone calls at midnight—even if the midnight sun is still high in the sky. Another reason to text message: It’s cheaper than voice.

Fido’s Sony Ericsson T300 GSM world phone was my first go at anytime, anywhere, no-mess mobile connectivity. (Fido is a leading Canadian mobile phone provider.) The system automatically links up to local carriers, meaning that when our plane was delayed in London I just picked up and dialed to Latvia to inform friends of a change in plans.

The next time I pulled out the phone, I was on a dirt road in central Latvia. Again the phone located the local carrier, and I did my banking in a place that has never even seen Canada Dry.

The only catch is that in some parts of the world, such as Latvia, you pay a hefty price for this service. If you’re staying anywhere for a lengthy period of time, it’s much cheaper to get a local phone and connect directly to the local carrier.

In this respect the European system also differs. In Europe, phones are separate from their numbers, meaning people swap phones and just stick to their Smart cards. I ended up borrowing my cousin’s Nokia, and later upgrading to a Siemens C55. Each phone had different benefits when it came to typing, and the Nokia was by far the most intuitive.

The final cell phone bonus was a perk that will probably take a few years to perfect. After lots of communication with the local mobile phone company, my husband managed to set up a GPRS connection, which provides an always-on wireless Internet connection via the USB connected cell phone. Theoretically this allows us to beam images from anywhere to anywhere. So much for being away.

Eye to eye across the Atlantic

I’m saving the best for last, just because these are items I could have lived without, but with which life was just so much more, well, exciting.

Thanks to our DSL connection, we were able to have video hook-ups with Canada. The first time was absolutely incredible. Midnight in Rīga, 5 p.m. in Canada. My sister was getting ready to serve the kids dinner, we were ready to head to sleep.

While the setup took many hours to perfect, and still wasn’t perfect (we often ended up with either the video or the audio and filled in the gaps with text), it nonetheless allowed us to communicate, and proved technology can bridge the gap.

In what ways and to what extent it can do so remains a question. While we know how to communicate via voice and the written word, Web-camming takes some getting used to. This was illustrated best when my 6-year-old nephew made faces on the Canadian end, while my husband and father did the same thousands of kilometres away. Somehow the most primitive language seemed to work best.

The DSL connection also allowed us to upload digital images to our Web server back in Toronto, giving friends and family immediate access to our adventures.

In the age of immediacy this is more critical than we had anticipated. For one, the pictures provided the thousand words we never got around the writing. After all, who has time to repeat all those stories upon returning home?


A notebook computer, such as Apple’s iBook, makes a good companion when travelling abroad. (Photo courtesy of Apple Computer Co.)

Mara Gulens is an editor and writer based in Toronto.

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