How We Did It
Around the World in 80 Megs : Cyber Travel 101
1 June, 1999
About the Trip
My wife and I started planning our trip when we were first engaged in late 1996. We didn't really know what we wanted to do, or where we wanted to go, just that we wanted to see the world, and spend a long time doing it. By the time we were married in April, 1998, we had laid out a rough travel plan, bought some plane tickets, and read a lot of travel books. In June we set out for what would turn out to be a year long trip around the world, starting in the far north of Sweden and passing through the Southern Island of New Zealand before landing in Los Angeles for a two month tour of the USA and Canada. During the planning stages, we had decided we wanted to remain in email contact with our friends and family while we were away, and concluded that the only way to do that was to take a laptop with us (we really didn't think we'd find Internet cafes in places like Poland, Croatia, Thailand, and Indonesia). So we figured that as long as we were going to take a laptop, we might as well take a digital camera too, take a few pictures and post them to a website. With this in mind, we arranged for a website and started trying it out. Soon we had acquired a digital camera, and then an ultra portable laptop, and by the time of our wedding we were ready to try it out, so we got some digital pictures from the wedding and put them up on the website. It was a big hit with the whole family - they loved being able to see the pictures right away, and since our families are spread all over the East Coast, it was the only way many of them were going to see any pictures for quite a while. Convinced by our wedding experience, we decided to bring the hardware on the trip, and our cyber-trip began.
How We Did It
Our trip was planned to be about a year, with extended stays far from tourist centers in places like India and Nepal. We wanted to maintain a website as we went that would keep a record of the trip and show reasonably up to date pictures of where we were and what we were up to. To do this, we got a laptop computer, a digital camera, a modem and a CompuServe account. We bought the laptop and camera at the start of 1998.
The laptop is a Toshiba Libretto 50CT, which weighs in at under 2 pounds. It's small and really portable, fits easily in a daypack and is light enough to carry around all day. It comes with a universal power adapter, so all we needed to plug it in were the power plug adapters, like you can get at any travel store. With it we got a modem; ours was from 3Com, but any modem will do. To connect the modem to the various telephone systems, we took a "Universal Telephone Adapter" which I put together from parts I got at Radio Shack, however, we didn't need it much, as in most places we could find a telephone with a standard modular connector that we could disconnect from the phone and connect to our modem (see When Adapters Fail below).
The camera is a digital from Toshiba, the PDR-2. It's positive features are small size, a built-in PCMCIA card for connecting to the laptop, and long battery life. However, the optics were not so good because it is so thin and the resolution was only 640x480. Also, it lacked a flash and zoom lens, so it was not good for indoor use or long shots.
Connecting to the Internet was accomplished via CompuServe, which has local telephone numbers we could dial in most large cities across the world to get to the CompuServe network, and from there to the Internet. Once connected to CompuServe, we could run any Internet application on our computer like a browser (Netscape Navigator , MS Explorer) or an email client (MS Outlook) or FTP (WS-FTP). The tricky bit with CompuServe was getting the right script for connecting. CompuServe achieves worldwide dialup by linking together a whole bunch of dialup networks in various countries. However, each network has a different login procedure, so for each you need the correct script for each. When I installed the CompuServe software, it didn't come with all the scripts for all the international networks, and I had to find them and download them, then figure out how to use them.
I recommend all the items listed above except the camera.
The Laptop - Toshiba Libretto 50CT
There are all sorts of different laptop computers available. When travelling though, size is the crucial factor, especially if you will be living in a tent or staying in areas where you don't want to leave valuables in your room. When you have to carry a laptop around all day, a few pounds makes a huge difference. The Toshiba Libretto is the only laptop (they call it a sub-notebook) I know of which weighs less than 2 pounds (without the external floppy drive). The small size is accomplished by leaving out a CDROM drive and making the floppy drive external. The screen is only 640x480 and the keyboard is a little cramped. Someone with large hands would not be able to use the keyboard effectively. We loaded all the software onto the laptop before the trip and then left the floppy drive at home, so the only way we had to get data in and out of the computer was via the modem. This turned out to work fine for us. The laptop has a Pentium 75 processor with 32M of RAM and about 900M hard disk space. This was enough to run Windows 95 and Microsoft Office, as well as Homesite. The battery leaves something to be desired, as one battery is only good for about 45 minutes. We took a spare battery with us, which helped, but usually we just didn't use it when we didn't have AC power available. We were very happy with the Libretto, and we especially like the little button mouse they have next to the screen. It's the best laptop mouse we've ever used.
The Camera - Toshiba PDR-2
The Toshiba PDR-2 is a very small, simple camera which takes adequate pictures. We really liked the small size and the built-in PCMCIA card. No cables required, just plug the camera right into the slot in the laptop and it sucks the pictures straight in. We definitely missed having a flash and a zoom lens, though, and the camera has flawed optics which cause the corners of the pictures to be slightly blurred and dark. We would not get this camera again.
The Modem - 3Com 33.6 Modem
This modem was great. Never had a problem with it. One interesting point is that I saw other modems advertised as being compatible with international phone systems. The only thing I could discern that this meant was that they had special filters to block the high-frequency pulses that are used in Europe for billing purposes. This modem did not have that feature, and we never had a problem with it in Sweden, the UK, Poland, Hungary, or the Czech Republic.
Getting Online While Abroad
Getting on the internet is the key to being connected from wherever you are in the world. The Internet is the Internet, matter where you access it from - everything on the Internet can be accessed from anywhere, but access speeds and reliability vary widely.
Good power is widely available, requiring only plug end adapters to connect provided you have a power supply that takes both 110 and 220 volts (actually, power comes in 110, 115 120, 215, 220, and 240 volts in various places, but anything which takes one from the low end and one from the high end will work anywhere). Most laptops now come with a dual-voltage power supply. Most places that have 220 volt power also run at 50Hz instead of the 60Hz found in the US. This is not a problem for laptops, since the AC is converted to DC by the power supply. The European standard plug is found in Asia, and many tourist destinations have outlets in the bathrooms for razors which have a dual Europe and/North American outlet which supply plenty of power for charging a battery.
Erratic power is not such a problem for laptops, since when the power level drops too low for the laptop to run, the battery kicks in automatically. Power surges, however, can ruin the power supply. I cannot speak to the likelihood of that happening, but I never had a problem with the power during 10 months in 18 different countries, so I wouldn't worry about it.
There are two choices for global internet dialup access - AOL and CompuServe. I used CompuServe on my trip, and found it to be widely available, though getting the scripts necessary for the different affiliated networks was tricky, and I couldn't test them out until I was actually in the country, and then if it didn't work, there was no way to get online to get help.
TIP - before you leave for a different country, make sure you have the local access numbers for that country - you can't connect and download them if you don't have a dialup.
Most major cities have at least one Internet café, or government office where computers with Internet access are made available. In more sophisticated installations, they may not allow you to use the floppy drive for fear of virus infection, so getting your digital pictures from a floppy up onto the internet can be a problem. Also, the staff at these places generally tend to know nothing at all about the computers, and are usually of little help when things go wrong. Lots of places are now setting up Internet access units which are coin or credit card activated and charge around $10 per hour for access. These usually have most things disabled except for the browser, so you can only surf or get to Hotmail, Yahoo, etc. Hotmail is the only service you can expect to get any help accessing while travelling abroad, since everyone uses it.
Email access is easy abroad, and Hotmail is almost universally used by the international travelling community. You can get a Hotmail account for free by going to their website (www.hotmail.com) and filling out a simple form. If you don't have a laptop, this is far and away the best email solution. If you already have a Pop3 email account, you can even use your Hotmail account to get the email from your Pop3 account.
TIP - When using Hotmail, if you're writing a long message, use a text editor like Notepad to write your outgoing emails and save them to the local hard drive periodically while you write. The problem with Hotmail is that if you spend 20 minutes typing a message into the box on the Hotmail send message form, and the connection is lost while you're typing, then it will fail when you try to send and you message will be lost. You'll have to type it all over again. To protect against this, type your message into Notepad and save it on the computer's hard drive. Then select Edit/Select All and then Edit/Copy from the menus. Go to the Hotmail Send Message page, fill in the email address of the recipient, and then Paste the message into the message box and send it off. If the send fails, you can do it again without having to type it all over.
The best way to get access to a Pop3 email account is through a Hotmail account (though you can only receive from the Pop3 account - you will have to send from the Hotmail account). Most computers at Internet cafes will have Outlook Express or Netscape Messenger or Eudora installed, which you can configure for your email account if you want (though some operators don't like you messing with the settings). You will have to remove your settings after you're done so whoever uses the computer after you can't send email through your account. Don't expect any support for this, the attendants generally won't know how to do it.
In order to use a dialup account, you have to have your own laptop with a modem. Then you need access numbers to dial from each city where you will be. If you do this, then you can have your email set up the same way you do at home. Get the CompuServe or AOL account set up before you go and make sure it works from home.
If you have an account with CompuServe or AOL, and you are in a city where they have a local access number, then the only thing you need is a phone line to make a local call.
Getting a Phone Line
Most countries around the world charge by the minute, even for local calls, so it is often hard to get someone to agree to let you use the phone, even when you say you're only going to make a local call. Often people will say sure you can use the phone, but change their mind after seeing that you intend to connect a computer to it, thinking that it might somehow incur some special charge.
The best way to get a phone line is to have a friend who will let you use their home phone. You will always get the cheapest rate that way, and you can reimburse them for the cost of the call (ask them to pull out an old phone bill if they don't know how much it costs, or call the phone company and ask).
If you don't have a friend who will let you use their phone, try sweet-talking the person at the front desk wherever you are staying into letting you use the office phone.
Find a metered phone. Normal payphones do not have anywhere you can connect the modem, but many places like hostels and campgrounds have a system that times calls and calculates per-minute charges based on the number called. The phone is usually a normal phone, and will frequently have a modular plug where the line connects to the phone, so you can disconnect the line from the phone, connect it to your modem, and place the call using your computer. You can assure a suspicious attendant that placing the call with the computer is exactly like placing the call with the phone.
The Least desirable method of securing a phone line it to use a phone in a hotel room. This is usually the most expensive way to make a local call, though it's a reliable way to get a phone line in a pinch. Of course, you have to shell out for the room in order to get to use the phone.
One other way to get a phone line is to find an Internet café that has computers with modems directly attached. Most small outfits are set up this way, each computer has it's own modem and phone line. You can pay to use the computer, then set up your laptop in front of it and surreptitiously disconnect the phone line from the back of their modem and connect it to yours. You are paying them for the time you use the computer, and as long as your dialup is a local call, it won't cost them anymore than if you had used their computer, so there's really nothing wrong with it. However, very few attendants will see it that way, and will invariably refuse to allow you to do it if you ask, since they don't know what you will be doing. If you don't ask though, they can't say no.
International Phone Connectors
Almost every country uses a different shaped connector for the phone lines, and this presents a great problem for connecting your modular plug into some foreign socket. One solution to this problem is to carry an adapter for every country you will be going to, or get a complete international set. Unfortunately a complete set consists of over a hundred different adapter and costs over $400! Fortunately, all computer modems the world over use the North American standard modular plug, and computers that are shipped outside North America with a modem also include a cord with the local plug on one end and a modular plug on the other. Wherever computers and modems are in use, such a cord should be available. Also, many telephones are made with a modular socket on the phone itself and a cord with a modular plug on one end. These cords will work if you just disconnect the end from the phone and plug it into the modem.
When Adapters Fail
When all else fails and you cannot find an adapter or a cord with a modular plug, you can still make the connection if you are feeling adventurous.
In order to do this, you need to know a little bit about phones. First, all phones use the same voltages and wiring, so the only difference is in the connectors. The North American standard connector is called the RJ11, it's the little square modular plug with the little clip that locks it into the socket. The RJ11 connector normally has four wires going into it, and four little copper connection surfaces that connect with four little wires in the RJ11 socket (the hole in the wall you plug the phone into). The inner pair of connectors carries line 1, and the outer pair carries line 2 when a second line is in use. When there is only one phone line present, the outer pair is not connected to anything. The problem you face abroad is you have a RJ11 phone plug and a differently shaped socket that you want to plug it into - the proverbial square peg into the round hole.
The way around this is to get rid of both the peg and the hole and connect the wires directly. To do this you need to get ahold of a pair of wires from each end and get them together.
To get past the square peg (your RJ11 connector), you need two items from Radio Shack - a female to female RJ11 connector, and a breakout connector, which consists of a short phone cord with a male RJ11 on one end and four bare wires on the other end. The inner pair of wires is the red and green pair, the outer pair is the black and yellow. You can tape the black and yellow wires back out of the way, since you won't be using them. You should also get two jumper wires, which is just a short wire with an alligator clip at each end. Try to get a red one and a green one, or at least get two different colors. I call this little number the "Universal Telephone Adapter". To connect, attach the female to female to the end of the phone cord coming from your modem that you would normally plug into the wall socket. Then plug the end of the breakout connector into the other end of the female to female connector. Now you have a pair of wires in place of your square peg.
Now for the round hole. Before taking anything apart, get a phone and plug it into the socket you intend to use to make sure that it actually works. In order to get at the phone wires, you need to take the cover plate off the phone jack or otherwise take the thing apart to get at the wires behind the socket. There is usually only one pair of wires actually connected to the back of the socket, though there may be more connected. If there are only two wires connected to the socket, then these are the ones you want. If there are more, then you can make and educated guess, pick a pair of wires and see what happens. If you don't have a dial tone, then you probably don't have the right wires. It's best not to disconnect the wires from the socket if at all possible - then you won't have to put them back when you're done. Just make sure that there is nothing plugged into the socket, like a phone.
Now to make the connection. Clip the free end of the green jumper to the green wire, and the other end to one of the pair that you have selected form inside the socket (it doesn't matter which one). Then clip one end of the red jumper to the red wire and the other end to the remaining wire of the pair from inside the socket. Now you should be ready to dial. Make sure you have a good connection and that the wires are not likely to be accidentally pulled apart. Even a momentary break in the line will disconnect your modem and force you to redial.
Digital Phone Systems
Some hotel phone systems have digital phones. You cannot connect a modem (which uses analog phone lines) to a digital phone system. If you do, you will not get a dial tone. If you connect to a hotel phone and cannot get a dial tone with your modem, but it works fine when the phone is connected, ask someone whether it is a digital system before trying to rewire anything. One sign of a digital system is that you don't hear the usual tones when you dial on the phone, just a click or a flat beep that is the same for all the numbers. This indicates that the number you press are being passed through a digital network and the actual dialing is done elsewhere. If you do have a digital system then you are out of luck.
My name is Paul Woods. I have been working since 1990 developing Windows software, first for the University of Maryland, then for software startup Compass Point Software, and recently as an independent consultant, working predominantly from my home in Woodbine, Maryland. For the last year I have been travelling around the world with my wife, a laptop and a digital camera, maintaining a website with photos and commentary from our travels, and hot-linked maps showing our pathway across the world as it happened.