Monday, May 28, 2012

Internet in the San Blas

While sailing in the Eastern Caribbean, we found wireless internet (WiFi) in most places. Our product The Wirie helped us with that and – running a business – Irie turned into an office most days. We would either find decent internet or nothing at all. If not, we took the day (or a couple of days) off, or more likely, we would move to a different anchorage to get back online. It isn’t the most fun way to cruise around in the Caribbean, but we had our priorities and this arrangement worked; random frustrations aside.

The San Blas islands are another cup of tea. WiFi is non-existent and we had heard from friends that the 2G service, through cell phone towers, worked adequately at some times of the day. Mark and I wanted to slow down the work anyway and put our minds towards taking the internet situation as it came. That was the plan… We had bought a dongle in Colombia and upon arriving in Kuna Yala, the search for a SIM-card and a phone to activate Digicel internet plans started. We were successful with the SIM-card early on and borrowed the phone of a Panamanian police officer to get started. Whenever we were “in reach” of a phone tower, we could s-l-o-w-l-y access the internet. When out of reach, we spent one or two days enjoying the area and moved on. Once again, we found ourselves in search of “the internet”.

We picked up a second hand phone in Nargana and the following five weeks, we managed to get in tune with the internet availability and “speed”. For every four hours Mark spent online, he’d get one hour of work done. I would give up after two hours of trying or when my computer battery was empty. It was infuriating at times, but hey, we were in paradise, so we would take some inconvenience with that. During our month long stay near mainland Panama, we expected great things to happen, but once again, the Digicel tower disappointed and (free) WiFi was unavailable.  Speaking of underdeveloped countries; we are in the prime example (for more reasons than internet availability alone). We struggled on and I went to Captain Jack’s one day to get the more serious stuff (read: things needing more bandwidth) done. Upon returning to the San Blas, we had temporarily caught up with our online chores.

For the first month back in paradise, things went “smoothly”, albeit VERY slowly, but the internet did its job and about half the day was spent on it. Then, one day in April – the day on which winter turned into summer without warning – it started to rain, the wind dropped and the bugs joined us. After that fateful day, nothing was the same anymore. The change in the weather caused a change in the internet availability. Why? Who knows. The cell phone tower in Nargana had problems and we found ourselves moving closer and closer towards it with little prevail. Mark was online most of the day to do what he had to do. In Nargana, we visited the “internet cafĂ©”, a classroom with laptops, available to the public every weekday from 5pm to 6:30pm for $1 an hour. It works a little bit better than we are used to. Sending one high resolution picture (for articles) takes about 20 minutes, but it is possible! During that time, all the computers are taken by teenagers checking Facebook – Yes, even in Kuna Yala, Facebook is popular. It explains why the connection totally drops when trying to use it from the boat.

After weeks of frustration, we decided to move to the western part of Kuna Yala. We’ve had better luck with the Porvenir tower and hoped for the best. By now we have to motor everywhere, because the wind has disappeared. Summer time! Back in this neck of the woods – it is very pretty here – the struggle continues. While, near Nargana, the nights would bring “decent” internet from around 11pm until 6am, here nothing makes sense. The tower breaks down for a few days and restores itself to offer excruciatingly slow internet again, sometimes. It is tedious, it is tiring, it is annoying, it is frustrating, it is unbearable. But… we are out of options. Elephante Bar in the West Lemmons offers satellite internet for $3 an hour, if it works. Not really convenient for Mark who has to get on several times a day for an indefinite amount of time. Is it time to leave the San Blas islands? Unfortunately, we DO need the internet, more than any other cruiser…

Required internet times (if available):
-          Loading Outlook: 30 minutes; loading “all” the emails: another 30 minutes; sometimes never
-          Loading Yahoo Mail: 30 minutes
-          Sending an email: 20 minutes after it’s written; resending three or four times (and waiting) might be needed
-          Loading Google: 15 minutes
-          Loading Facebook: 10 minutes - eternity
-          Posting a blog (with resized pictures): 2 hours or never
-          Sending/ posting full size pictures: impossible
-          CNN home page: 10 minutes
-          Getting into our bank accounts: 40 minutes
-          Using our bank accounts: up to 2 hours or never
-          Surfing the web: from 30 minutes per page to impossible
-          Booking flights or transportation: impossible
-          Running the business: ALL day

We haul our dongle up the flag halyard (with two active extension cables) to hopefully get better reception. Even though the electronic part is in a plastic baggie, every time it rains, we have to drop it back down and take it inside. And... it rains a lot during the rainy season!

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