In late April I traveled to Guatemala for a missions trip and then stuck around longer for a bit of sightseeing. While I was in the jungle using my Palm Pre to connect wirelessly to the internet, I couldn't help but contrast that with Sierra Leone.
Soon after my arrival in Mattru, Jong in 1988, I was introduced to radio check. Twice daily we'd connect with the other UBC mission outposts, "Bumpe, Bumpe, this is Mattru..." If we missed the scheduled time, we wouldn't have a chance to connect until the next radio check.
Radio check prepared me for the 3 phone conversations I had with my parents during the 18 months I lived in Sierra Leone. Making a phone call meant going to a central office, giving the clerk the number I wanted to call, paying up front, and waiting to be told that I could enter a booth to complete the call. The connection was so poor that in order to avoid speaking over each other, we would make a statement and finish with, "Over," just like on the radio.
The final, vital, means of communication were the letters. In the evening by the light of kerosene lamp I'd pen tales from the day, then fold and seal the aerogram (I've learned that today no one has a clue what that is). I'd number them so my parents would know if any were missing. On Sundays, my parents would take turns at the typewriter and their aerogram, one of them starting and the other completing the weekly letter. Mom and Dad saved my letters...I wish I'd saved all of theirs.
Eight years later I found myself on the Anastasis in Madagascar and South Africa. I'd forced my parents to get an email address, adding them to my account before I left. As a result, there were a few moments when I could send unadorned, text only emails for 50cents each. I'm not much of a talker, so I didn't use the phone except for a single call toward the end of 5 months.
Fast forward to Tikal, Guatemala, April 2010. I paid $5 for internet access for the duration of my stay there (in Guatemala city it was free in the hotel). As a result, I could use my phone to send emails multiple times per day, letting friends and family know when I was heading to explore the pyramids, complete the zip line canopy tour or just relaxing in the hammock with monkeys playing in the nearby trees.
We've come a long way. We've gained something, but perhaps we've lost something, too. Moments of quiet, moments of escape, moments of reflection. Easy opportunities to just be without having to be in touch.