Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Great Laptop Divide

or "California Incommunicada"

Traveling “laptop-free”--and cellularlessly--in California, I find it impossible to stay connected. Even in Silicon Valley, home of the microchip. My forays to my home state--the land of Starbucks, T-Mobile, Google, and Frye’s--open the floodgates for my email inbox and answering machine back in San Nicolas. After spending the recent holidays in the eerily beautiful desert town of Joshua Tree, California, a cybernetic hailstorm of messages pelted me when I returned home and flicked on the PC and and picked up the phone. (Did you notice this blog took a break, too?)

It is downright impossible to stay plugged in the Golden State without my own personal electronic devices! Alas, my Argentine cell phone doesn’t work abroad, and I’m not gonna carry my desktop PC! So just what do other cell-less, laptop-less foreign tourists do when they need to call home? Check or send e-mail? Or simply check on eateries and lodging in other cities? The hapless California tourist is more likely to bump into Governor Terminator than to happen upon a public PC or coin-operated phone that works.

This, ladies and gentleman, is the beginning of a laptop divide! In California, it looks like public access to communication is going the way of public access to transportation: private, individual means is the rule! So pack your global phone and IBM ThinkPad along with your passport! (Why is it easier to rent a $40,000 convertible than a phone and laptop?)

Of course private access is a great alternative--for those who have private, individual means. Look carefully and you’ll spot business folks computing away via Wi-Fi in Starbucks parking lots. But what about the rest of us? The Kinko’s chain will rent you a very nice machine for a whopping US$12 an hour—which seems like Internet highway robbery next to the 50-cent hourly charge here in Argentina. Just look for little storefronts advertising “cabinas” and “Internet.” Keep your eye out for the sky blue and white or dark blue and fluorescent green signs of “Telecom” and “Telefonica,” respectively, the two major phone companies: almost free and equal high-speed Internet access for all in every pueblo (see photo) and on every city block.

You’ll find phones too, in private booths, with good national and international rates there too. This is important, actually, since many poor locals here not only lack laptops and PCs, they lack phones. Surprisingly, though, some who lack cars, heat, hot water, and other basics, might very well have a cell phone. Argentinians walk and drive and eat while chatting up their friends and family via “celulares.” No one here wants to lose touch! (Sometimes I think that solitary confinement would be a worse than capital punishment for an Argentine.) As lots of folks are self-employed as well as underemployed, the cell phone takes the place of the nonexistent secretary.

So come on down! Okay, you may tote that global cell phone for emergencies, but leave your laptop at home. Connect with the marvels Argentina has to offer—including warm, friendly people who love to socialize endlessly, savoring great cooking with lots of incredibly affordable and delicious wine. Sure, you could visit the latte-less Internet cafes, but chances are that you’ll easily forget all about checking that office email!

P.S. As for me—a global cell phone and laptop are at the top of my wish list!

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