Amanda and I recently got back from a trip to the Caribbean – specifically, to the island of Saint Martin – and while it was tropical and warm and lovely (you can see all my pictures from the trip here), it was also a bit of a culture shock – but not for the reasons you might think.
It wasn’t the food – there are enough tourists coming to this island to ensure that there’s always some typical American-style food near at hand if you aren’t feeling gastronomically adventurous.
It wasn’t the language – almost everyone spoke English, except for a few people in the remoter sections of the French side (naturally).
It wasn’t the fact that they use different money – the Dutch side pretty much exclusively uses the US Dollar (although their official currency is still the Netherlands Antillean guilder), and although the French side officially uses the Euro, they also accept US dollars pretty much everywhere (although sometimes at a slightly unfavorable fixed exchange rate).
It wasn’t the people – aside from their crrraaaazy driving, they were pretty much like people anywhere else, with the usual variations for culture (Dutch/French) and for climate.
It wasn’t the culture – although it was quite a bit more “relaxed” than our often tense, high-strung east-coast culture here in the US, it was quiet and nice and not at all jarring.
No, the biggest shock to us was the almost complete lack of Internet access.
Now, as Americans, we’ve become accustomed (in just a few short years, if you think about it) to ubiquitous, free, unlimited high-speed Internet access (via both wired and wireless connections).
We’ve become so used to it that we sort of expect it wherever we go – we expect it to be always on, and always available, no matter where we go. We expect to be able to pull out our iPhone or whatever and update our Facebook page from wherever we are in the world.
And when we finally find ourselves someplace where this is no longer true, it can be a bit of a shock!
In Saint Martin, for example, we landed and found that there was NO signal whatsoever for Amanda’s iPhone – it just could not pick up anything. It detected some of the cell networks on the island, but it could not connect to them. (Ironically, my old, old, old Motorola RAZR phone connected just fine – but of course it can’t browse the web or send email or really do anything besides make calls and send text messages.) Even at the airport there was no Wi-Fi available (not even the paid variety!).
Our situation did not improve when we arrived at our hotel, either. Again, our expectations were tempered by what was commonplace back in the US – where a hotel without Wi-Fi, or at least a wired Internet connection in each room was considered an abomination.
Oh, the hotel had Wi-Fi – but it wasn’t free. In fact, it was ridiculously expensive (by our standards, at least). And it was also slow – a single 1 MB connection was shared by the entire hotel (both guests and staff!). And of course it was only accessible from your room – there was not enough range to keep using the Internet all the way down to the pool or the beach, even when the pool and beach were only a couple dozen feet from the hotel.
So in the end, our use of Internet was limited to short bursts in our hotel room, checking mobile sites (mainly Gmail) that were very light & fast, so that they didn’t feel abysmally slow on the pitiful 1 MB connection.
In truth though, it was a very eye-opening experience – a reminder that although the Internet has indeed become ubiquitous in many places, it is not everywhere… and even in places where it is available, sometimes that availability is much more limited than we here in the US are used to. It also made me realize just how much we take it (the Internet) for granted sometimes.
But at the same time, it was also interesting to “unplug” for a while – easy enough for me to do, actually – and remember what life was like before we were all electronically connected to one another.
Although I wait eagerly for the day when fast Internet is freely (or cheaply) available world-wide, I think it’s still worth having a few places where the Internet can’t reach, if only to let us “escape” it for a while. Even though going somewhere without Internet can be a bit of a culture shock to those of us who’ve grown up with it, I think it’s still good to get culturally shocked from time to time – just to keep us all on our toes, and remind us of how good we all have it.