Let’s face it. The internet has completely changed the world and is a powerful tool for travelers. I’ve seen it expand from it’s infancy… my first e-mail address in college in the early 1990’s, chat and internet shortly thereafter. By the time I took my first sabbatical in 2004, not only did I do quite a bit of research but I also keep my first blog. Back in those days, there was no such thing as wi-fi. Using the internet on the road involved going to an internet cafe and paying anything from 25 cents an hour in a Thai gaming facility to 50 cents an hour in an Ecuadorian internet store to several dollars an hour in Africa for extremely slow service. Here we are 12 years later and the world is much more advanced… wifi everywhere, often free if you’re staying at a hostel/hotel or buying a drink. But, Cuba has been left behind. The government has control over the internet. Wi-fi in Cuba is limited to some selected wi-fi enabled parks. To use the internet there, the legal way was to go to the local government communications store, wait in a very long line, and then pay about $5 for a scratch off card good for one our of very slow wi-fi access. Alternatively, you could buy some bootleg cards from guys in the park that are secretly offering access like they were pushing drugs on you. Presumably they were buying wi-fi access cards for locals, which were much cheaper than the $5 card, and reselling for a nice mark up.
There also appeared to be some dial-up connections. In our Casa Particulares in Havana, several times I heard the distinctive squeal of the dial up, a familiar sound I hadn’t heard since the late 1990’s. A casa owner in Playa Larga on the Bahai de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) exclaimed there was no wi-fi in his tourist town and there were only 3 computers that were hooked up to the internet. Each day he took rode his electric motorbike up to town to check his casa bookings.
With such difficult, expensive, and poor quality internet access, I made a decision to stay totally disconnected for the two week duration in Cuba and it was wonderful!! Disconnecting improved communications with local people and other tourists. Rather than surf the net, I found myself walking up to a local cafe to listen to some live music, or talk to the casa owners. Avoiding news also felt great. I had been a bit of a new junky leading up to the elections, and reading too many nasty comments on yahoo news but didn’t feel like I missed anything by skipping the news. In fact, the biggest world news happened in Cuba on the night before we left – Fidel Castro died. But, we didn’t find out until arriving in Mexico City the next morning.
The experiment to disconnect for two weeks was successful and I will look for chances to do it again. What do you think? Could you disconnect?