I wasn’t far off either. The only connection Americans living abroad had were the two international newspapers, the International Herald Tribune and the USAToday. Somebody on our team got the IHT every day and everyone read it cover to cover. On Tuesday I would grab a USAToday to check out the NFL scores (games weren’t over in time for the Monday edition) and read the paragraph news summaries on Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri – the three states I’d lived in up to that point.
I wrote close to a dozen letters a week to my family, my close high school friends and my college team mates. To their credit, I don’t remember one single time anybody left me hanging – they always wrote back. Which made the lunchtime mail call at Ocean World Dolphinarium in Yeilui, Taiwan (I got transferred out of HK ten days after arriving) the highlight of my day.
I did bring along a few comfort items on that first trip that I continue to bring – although their format has changed wildly. I brought along a walkman recording deck; a case of Grateful Dead bootlegs I’d recorded; a crappy camera of some ilk (kept losing them) and my guitar. Looking around my room today the guitar is still there albeit an $800 Epiphone, a much better axe than my $200 Lys. Thanks to my sister Sue, The camera has been upgraded to a snazzy hi-res digital that shoots video and fits in my pocket; and the walkman & case of tapes have morphed into an 80-gig Ipod. There’s more music on that puppy than I’ll be able to swallow by the time I leave India. And thanks to my friend, Tom, instead of 12 Grateful Dead tapes, I’ve got almost every show they played from 1967 to 1975.
On that first trip to Taiwan, the only television I saw was a bunch of MTV videos on small TV screens hung above the tables at our local pool hall – which was called ‘The MTV Bar’. Three months into my stay I found out the Tien Mu (the western enclave we lived in) American Legion post had NFL games videotaped and Fed Exed to them from Los Angeles. Unfortunately, by the time I discovered this, it was Super Sunday so I only caught one game.
As the years went by I took long contracts in Holland and France with the only immediate home-spun gratification continuing to be the two newspapers and mail call. The only time I ever had any daily contact with the U.S. was when I lived in the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai). We were on a four-month tour and stayed in hotels with TV’s. This was 1987-8 and cable TV usually meant a dozen channels coming in without having to adjust the horizontal hold. Saddam was in power in Iraq and he declared war on the U.S. which compelled Reagan to send a few battle ships into the Gulf. Along with the Navy came Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS).
In Abu Dhabi, if I bothered to get up at 7 a.m., I could catch Carson followed by Letterman. If I really wanted to make the effort they aired live US sports, but it came on at 4 a.m. For some reason the head of AFRTS couldn’t find it in his head to repeat the games later in the day, so I never caught any of them. Again, I settled for a taped Super Bowl, this time at a Mexican bar run by Philippinos (the resemblance to Mexicans was 100% convincing). The idiot local business man who videotaped the game just so he could hang out with the Americans, cut it short in the 4th quarter. Thank God it was the Doug Williams, Redskins v. Broncos blow out otherwise the guy would have had plenty of angry sailors in his face. Instead they were all just drunk and didn’t notice. We, on the other hand, had evening shows and soberly let the guy know what a dill weed he was.
For the most part I spent six years knowing very little about the daily lives of my family and friends or the fate of my teams – Packers, Brewers, Bucks and Illini.
Fast forward to 2010 and the world that seemed to be so huge, is only as far away as my computer; the new comfort article I’ve been traveling with since 1997. Through FaceBook and email I’m in constant connection with everybody I’ve ever met. I can be as avid a fan of any of my teams as I care to be. If I had a quicker connection – which is coming here within the next year or two – I would be able to video conference and watch The Daily Show. And I’m 6000 ft. up in the Indian Himalayas!
Oddly enough the newspapers are gone now, but when I go on-line at work I’ve got more information than I care to digest. I can even pay my car insurance online and pull money out of my bank from the local ATM. Did I mention I’m in the freaking Indian Himalayas?
So is it a good thing? Sure it is. Pining for the no-contact days, would be like an old NFL QB saying how great it was in the days of the weekly concussion. I can’t tell you how much easier it is to get medical supplies up here than it was in even 2000. But I can’t help feeling that students traveling abroad are missing a big part of game. When I was diving off a cliff in the Gulf of Oman, I really felt like I was on the far side of reality. Nobody I see in the internet cafe where I'm typing has any idea what I'm talking about.
Today I found out a friend of mine who I haven’t seen in fifteen years had a broccoli omelet for breakfast – and hated it. I’ve been here for six weeks and I don’t know the price of a stamp. I'm not giving back any of my gadgets, but I do have to remind myself from time to time that I'm 12,000 miles from home!