When you travel in less developed countries, it hits you like a bad hangover on a Tuesday. It starts with sweaty palms and an itchy index finger, and progresses into a nervous tick, which may or may not ever go away. Unlike most travel conditions, the most vulnerable travelers are healthy men and women between 20 and 50 years old. It often has a lighter impact on the younger and older members of our population. I’m talking about Internet Withdrawal, and if you’re not careful, it’ll kick your ass.
A Travel Health Advisory
My family of four just started our gap year in Bolivia this week, and it hit me before I was even off the plane.
Right about now, we’re trying to run apps and load websites off a 2nd generation cellular network, and I’m trying to figure out why Internet Withdrawal isn’t one of the top travel advisories about Bolivia from the State Department. Or perhaps can we at least get a pamphlet about it in that medical kit we got from Kaiser Permanente? No ma’am, those folks only concern themselves with less common conditions like yellow fever and dysentery.
But I’ve got news for Kaiser: those diseases are fully treatable by competent medical professionals. It seems like I’m on my own when it comes to Internet Withdrawal.
OK, let’s be a bit more specific about what I’m talking about. If you live in the U.S. or Europe, you know that virtually everything can be done via the internet. Want to buy something? Amazon. Sell something? I use craigslist. Want directions? Google Maps. Deposit a check? Invest money? Buy insurance? Internet. How about a taxi, restaurant reservations, a movie, and a hot date? Internet, internet, internet, internet.
Now, how about if you want to do any of those things in Bolivia? You’ve got to go old school. It may not seem like such a big deal to you, but it hurts inside, at first.
The Internet Loop
Many of us have only a few websites or services that we check daily. Some of us check them multiple times a day. A smart phone in your pocket is like that little cartoon devil on your shoulder – it calls to you. Your personal internet loop is a repetitive, endless trap of the same sites or apps that wraps you up and sucks you in like a true sucubus.
For some people, their internet loop is social media and maybe an online forum or two. For me, it’s blog and news articles, financial information, and website statistics. None of these things are necessary or even healthy to check frequently – it’s just a habit. It’s a waste of time, and it’s a hard habit to break.
Plus it’s rude. How often do you check your phone while someone is trying to talk to you? Just admit it. You’ve probably done it more than you think.
The Real Reason I Killed My Internet Habit
There’s really two reasons why I’ve killed my internet loop. First, internet just isn’t used much in Bolivia. You can’t use it to find out where you need to go or how to get there. You can’t use it to compare prices or to buy anything. You can’t even use it to find a bus schedule or the hours of a restaurant. Internet use is pretty much limited to social media (which I hardly use), and text/email communications.
Second, it’s too damn slow. Cable and fiber infrastructure doesn’t reach beyond the city centers, and so most people have only one choice for internet: the cell network. And even that is not available in many places.
Old Cell Networks
So that’s the case for us – our only internet access is through our cell phone – on a second generation network that was never meant to carry data. Most apps don’t work because they time out before receiving a response. Basic email and text works, but that’s about it. So, my only choice is to make a dramatic cut back in internet use.
You can imagine how the internet has a chicken-and-egg problem in countries like Bolivia. People don’t use it much because it’s not widely available. And since people don’t use it much, no one has developed all the wonderful services and websites that have made our lives so much easier back home.
The good news is that now that I’ve broken my internet loop, I seem to have a lot more free time.