February 18, 2005

The Internet at the End of the World

It´s easy to lose perspective on the reach of the internet when our usual vantage point is one of instant ubiquitous access to each other and to the events of our daily lives and the world. We have PDAs in our pockets, cell phones in our cars, and always-on connections on our desktops.

My husband and I recently tested the limits of the internet and discovered its reach to — literally– the end of the earth in Ushuaia, Argentina. Ushuaia is the world´s southernmost city, just a gull´s flight from Cape Horn and the jumping off point to Antarctica. There were two internet cafes and we caught on on email in one of them, which boasted a satellite connection and 41 work stations.

This cafe, with its amenities of cigarettes and soft drinks, was way more cool than the ratty internet stop next to a dim and dismal pool hall that we found in Montevideo, Uruguay, where Google came only in Spanish — or the airless, sweltering cubicle at the general telecommuications office in Puerto Madryn, Argentina, where most of the other customers were booking phone calls — or the 3 work station space in a damp and chilly closet at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, where our first 90 seconds of the DSL connecting ate into the 20 minute access card and our time for a pint at the local pub.

But who could complain about creature discomforts when each stop brought quick and reassuring messages from home: “Everyone is fine; keep having fun!”

Anecdotally, Gmail was the star, loading quickly, then opening and sending messages without delay. It crashed the system once in Montevideo, but I suspect it was the machine´s fault, not Gmail´s. AOL took longer to open load, then presented a series of pop-ups and a slow-loading inbox that was filled with spam.

My work email account loaded fast, although the prompts appeared surprisignly in Spanish. I think I managed to “reply” and “log out” correctly.

In Uruguay, we had to beg the manager to keep the change from the single US dollar we presented for nearly an hour apiece on two separate computers. In Argentina, we had trouble running up a bill beyond the 5 pesos, just over $1.50 US for almost 2 hours. In the still British Falklands, that 20 minutes set us back 3 pounds sterling, or nearly $6.00 US.

On to Chile!