Adventures with a laptop
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Whether you are blogging your way around the world, keen to stay in touch with family and friends, or just a technology junky, there are alternatives to sticky keyboards in internet cafes. Taking your technology with you can add a whole new dimension to being on the road, as Kirstie Pelling discovered when she found herself travelling a laptop she thought she didn't want. Kirstie is a director of The Family Adventure Project.

Adventures with a laptop
by Kirstie Pelling

I realized there were three of us in our relationship the day my partner announced his 'significant other' would accompany us on our family gap year. A six month cycle tour of New Zealand, an eco tour of Samoa and a backpacking and overland train journey through America and Canada, accompanied by his current and enduring love; his laptop. Or to be exact; his laptop, his mobile phone, a Tupperware box full of cabling and a compact collection of blank back up disks and other assorted software. And if my partner's hard drive failed to turn me on, the thought of lugging it around hot countries made me want to cash in the travel insurance and stay at home.

The tupperware and technology pannier

He must have got the wrong end of the joystick. It seemed fairly obvious to me that a year spent avoiding nasty bugs didn't necessarily mean carrying a copy of Norton Antivirus, and that the daily purchase of coffee and bagels wouldn't need a visit to e-bay to check comparable prices. It just wouldn't be polite to e-mail our families the details of gut rot from the dodgy goat curry, and how was I expected to wean the kids off Dora The Explorer if they were able to explore her website and entire DVD collection from the far reaches of a tropical island?

My other objections were as follows:
a) We were going abroad, so definitely wouldn't be able to find the right plug for the charger.
b) It would soon malfunction in the heat/grime/smog/weather.
c) I'd never get to talk to my partner without half his attention being on something else.
d) Our laptop was old and bulky and we couldn't afford to buy either a rugged PC or a palm pilot.
e) We would be mugged in Manchester Airport before we even got on a plane.
f) If I was restricted to one change of knickers and a paperback novel, why should he get to take his favourite toy?

I reckoned we could buy our technology on the road like everyone else; in bite-size chunks from internet cafés along with a nice chocolate brownie. After all, you can't walk down the high street of any tourist destination without tripping over the signboard for yet another internet café. Even in New York's Times Square, presumably one of the most expensive slabs of real estate in the world, the orange strip of the Easy internet chain sits uncomfortably near the famous yellow arches, calling you in not just for sausage in a bun, but a chat with Mum. And the intrepid traveller can now wish Granny a happy birthday with an e card before going off to 'find himself' in a buddhist temple. But I wasn't keen to find myself lumbered with a laptop, whether it was rugged, pastel coloured or the latest 'must have' in trendy backpacking.

Now a mobile phone is one thing but a mobile office?

On the morning ferry from Seattle to Victoria, the woman pouring coffee was just about the only person not logging on. She was looking over the shoulder of the nearby businessman, who was downloading video of the BBC world service news. Broadband hot spots have undergone a population explosion in the USA. With a laptop and a simple accessory you can check e-mails and surf the net for free just by stationing yourself in the lobby or car park of a Holiday Inn or Starbucks. Ferries and airports are also a great source of free net, a holiday from heaven for those with technology baggage.

On the ferry, I clicked the keyboard and confirmed our hotel for Boston; e-mailed relatives on Vancouver Island with our arrival time; checked the news about the London bombings; then booked tickets for the Lion King on Broadway. Yes, I had fallen in love, seduced by a sleek black surf dude with no wetsuit; indeed my holiday romance with the keyboard began to take shape even before I'd left the UK.

An innocent question I posted on an internet cycling forum almost threatened to end this happy relationship at the first hurdle. 'Do kids need to wear cycle helmets in buggies? What's the law in America?' The response to this question was immediate and scarey. I seemed to have started the International Helmet Wars, as people shouted their block capital answers, accusing me of being an irresponsible parent.

Our technology pack meant we could set up office anywhere, like this glamourous cabin for example.

It took some serious on-line retail therapy to calm my nerves and put the love affair on track. I began to source our entire collection of expedition equipment from E-Bay. Then my crush on new technology deepened with the design and launch of our own website about family adventure, and a daily blog which we would maintain on the road.

Once we were traveling I was forced to eat my words; earning money by writing and e mailing feature articles to magazines. Then I fell unexpectedly pregnant, (literally not virtually) and with the help of my beloved laptop I was able to consult a doctor by e mail to find out whether it was still permissible to cycle; to book a scan by internet; receive blood test results by e mail; and play re-runs of our 4D, twenty week scan of the baby on the built in DVD player.

My lust for technology became insatiable. Treatment for a family bout of impetigo and a nasty dog bite were identified by logging the symptoms into a search engine. Top hotel rooms in Vegas were located and booked for a bargain price, courtesy of Expedia and, and a wide range of motel rooms, transport and even campsite spaces were secured online. In the cities, flushed with desire for a good time I used Google's 'I'm Feeling Lucky' to suggest family friendly activities, and in the towns I sourced spares for bicycles, a broken oven and the ripped cover of a cycling trailer. I entered (virtually) and took part (actually) in cycle race in Wellington, and downloaded all our photo's onto the net. I never carried a single roll of film.

Or how about this beach fale in Samoa? Enough to make you work overtime?

And if there were three of us in our relationship before we even left the house, we picked up many more casual partners by the end of the trip. Through our website and the accompanying publicity, a network of virtual strangers began to contact us and follow our journey. Those on our route invited us to come and have dinner and stay the night; a kind of family blind date. Others began guiding our route, suggesting must-see tourist attractions, quality accommodation, places to eat, and sights to see. We were rarely alone with our laptop. Yet we never met another backpacker or cyclist travelling with one. Perhaps this brave new world was still just developing? Or else the techno heads were all travelling in the other direction. Before we set out on our trip, other travellers advised us to leave the technology at home. From the States, the Eber family, cycling round the world on a charity fundraiser read our website and e mailed to caution us about the extra weight of travelling with laptop.

"How to reduce from the bloated overstuffed Western lives we have, to the simple life of few but necessary items? Bag the laptop. Everyone we met on our ride who had started touring with one always sent it back within a few weeks. Use Internet cafes and cell phones and keep the rest of your electronic attachment to the world minimal; one small camera and one or two cell phones is enough. We hate to say this but after one week of pedalling in NZ you will be at the post office mailing about another 20% of your possessions home. It's a required rite of passage for all long distance cyclists. Don't know anyone yet who hasn't done that."

But our laptop lasted the distance. Our group e mails and website kept everyone in touch with our progress, and the inspired idea of advising them on our estimated time of arrival secured us a surprise welcome home party at the station.

And when the work is done, well it's a mobile entertainment system

Back home, I seek out whether there are other backpackers out there having a long haul affair with their laptops. The net seemed the obvious place to look for them, as I can't afford another round the world ticket. I log on and search for their tracks. They are faint, but they are there. On the backpacker forums, they pick each others brains about hostel security for laptops and the availability of cheap rugged PC's. A Google search picks up their blogs. My latest on-line shopping trips unearth adverts for specially adapted laptop backpacks, and solar panels that fold into notebook size cases. "specifically aimed at students and backpackers looking for power in the wilderness." Where a warm can of Carlsberg was once an adequate power pack for the student with wanderlust, now he gets drunk on technology.

A year in the company of a laptop makes my desktop feel like starship command. For a while I put aside my childish crush and the laptop sat unloved and unused. But this week I am due at the maternity ward for the birth of my third child. I have my technology bag all packed. With the birth announcements to design, the e mail to write, the cot to source and the nanny to find, I'll be busy on the way to the hospital. And yes, of course if it's a girl I'll be calling it Apple.

©2006 Kirstie Pelling Reproduced here with permission




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