Margaret and Dick   


July '08: The wide wide world of Internet cafes
If you’re strolling down the street in Europe or India or Guatemala, you’re probably within easy email access at an Internet café.  Forgot the address of that restaurant?  No problem.  Ah, the joys of traveling light!

If you’re in the US, you’re out of luck.  Okay, if you’re shleppin’ your laptop, you can get Wi-Fi access in Starbucks, hotels, airport lounges, and soon just anyplace.  It’s expected.  And since Americans’ discretionary income is (admit it) typically sky-high, everybody’s shleppin’.  The local cyber café is an endangered species.

For the rest of the world, the ubiquitous Internet café is a lifeline, providing low-cost connectivity to the masses.  Not everyone can afford the capital expense of a computer.  For the equivalent of one or two dollars per hour, you can rent a PC in a hot little room sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with people like you.  An additional perk, and the genesis for this story, is the people-watching.

For travelers, a visit to an Internet café is a window on a very different world, definitely a step outside the protective bubble of your typical tour.  The Internet café in New Delhi where we wrote The India Chronicles was a little warren of rundown cubicles with antique computers badly in need of cleaning.  Regular users knew what we soon learned:  back up your work every few minutes.  When the power goes out, as it often did, everybody packs up and leaves.  It won’t come back on in a hurry.

Traveling in the remote mountains of Guatemala, we were frequently surprised to see the word INTERNET painted on a shed in a run-down village.  Upon reflection, we realized that these Internet cafés serve the families of the men who cut the lawns and the women who clean the hotel rooms of America. 

Jump now to an Internet café in the university town of Bologna, Italy, that we visited last week.  The clerk is North African; the patrons are typically from North Africa or Asia.  We were by far the oldest patrons, the others being twenty- and thirty-somethings.  Most were using Skype, a free Internet phone connection with video webcam that provides a visual link to your correspondent along with the audio.  Most users were talking with family, probably back home.  We suspect they spend a lot of time online, keeping in touch.  We assume that these foreigners are in Italy to work or study.  Bologna must be providing great opportunities for them, but it also must be tough to be away from the family for a long time.  The web-phone helps bridge the loneliness. 

The environment in these cafés removes the veil of privacy we usually enjoy at our terminal.  Do we peek at our neighbors’ screens?  You bet!  The North African woman next to Margaret was chatting loudly to the husband/boyfriend shown on the screen, their conversation open to anyone who understood Arabic.  But in this cyber-café lottery, I hit the jackpot:  the Asian man next to me, chatting with his wife and adoring children, had opened a second window to watch live gay porn and was alternating between the two images.  His secret is safe with me.

So next time you’re on the road outside the US, get out of the bubble and take a walk on the wild side.  Step into one of those crowded little rooms, pull up your grotty keyboard, and collect a travel memory that you’ll never find in the guidebooks.

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