Travel & Error 404s: Reliable Connections Can’t be Found

This post was sponsored by TELUS, but the opinions and experiences are mine

“Can you hear me now?”

I turned my phone’s WiFi connection off and stepped into the night, with Cabo da Roca’s lighthouse beam swinging past, dappling light across the rental’s pool in Almoçageme, Portugal, a half-hour from Lisbon.

Success. The crackling delay was gone. The trick often saved me over the next four years from sketchy Skype and Fongo connections. WiFi off, step outside, call – the traveller’s secret to crackle-free chats.

This was December 2015, eight weeks into what would be a four-year nomadic adventure.

Can you hear me now?

This Colares-area beach is about an hour or so from Lisbon. In between the two sits the fairytale world of Pena Palace in Sintra. I stayed a block up the street.

Almoçageme is one of Europe’s most acclaimed beaches,  but the internet was so bad I made Skype calls standing under the stars and using my data plan rather than using WiFi in the house. A box set of The Wire DVDs entertained me, since Netflix was a bust.

Rather than being the exception in my travels, WiFi misadventures occurred in many of the 25 countries I visited as a remote-working nomad. You’d think my biggest fears would be safety and languages, but they were: Is the bed comfortable, and is the internet good?

“Yes, yes. Very good internet. The fastest!”

Croatia had bad internet for me in 2015… but I enjoyed my explorations in Istria nonetheless.

Online Struggles and the Nomad Life

When people think of the glamorous  travel life, they don’t consider the tiny things tripping nomads up along the way. Internet was a never-ending challenge because hosts never considered it as important as I claimed it was.

“Oh. When you said you needed to work, I didn’t think you would be working this much.” I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard that.

Nomads work full-time too, you know. People can’t fathom being away from home for four years, they don’t understand one trip bleeding into another and another. It’s not a vacation – it’s forever-shifting sands. When normal folk go on holidays with a bad internet connection, they complain but shrug it off because another destination or even a return home is around the corner.

But for nomads, every missed work opportunity is terrible because “around the corner” is another completely different unknown. I’ve had broken heaters, floods, power outages, cockroaches, rats, scorpions, and other things all interrupt work while abroad. But a terrible connection is the worst of the lot.  

When work doesn’t work, it’s lost income, lost productivity – even when working for yourself. And when nomadding, “lost productivity” means losing opportunities to explore incredible places. And so I learned that the truth is highly subjective. It’s fast internet for them, not for me. As frustrating as it could be, these people weren’t trying to trip me up when they said their internet was good – for them, it is.

boys running on a beach

Boys running along the beach in Almocagemes / Colares, Portugal. Stil just a block from my beachhouse.

That lesson began in Croatia, my stay before Portugal – a 500-year-old loft in a 1,000-year-old Venetian hilltown, Motovun. In email exchanges months earlier with the owner, I was assured of fast internet. But she never mentioned the cap of 10 gigabytes per month – something I never would have thought to ask. I mean, that’s a cell package!

So, naturally, Portugal followed with more bad internet, and other life lessons.

At the beach house, the Canadian dollar dropped 15 percent nearly overnight. A couple weeks later, in Porto, I lost about 65 percent of my income when a company I’d been writing for got bought out. My new financial realities meant I sought work constantly on the web while researching new destinations and other currencies that could be cheaper.

And that’s another reality of nomad life is the never-ending need to research – where we are, where we’re going, what it’ll cost, and so much more. It’s tough to be fully “in” a place because we’re always thinking about where’s next. So as my time wound down in the pricey Eurozone, I decided my next chapter would be in Mexico, where the Canadian dollar was still strong and Canucks got six-month visas.

After storm near the end of year one, in Merida, Mexico, just before my return to Vancouver. I’d been struggling for work and finally had prospects, but the internet was dodgy. I endured.

Telecom Troubles and Tacos

But Mexico came with one guaranteed uncertainty: Internet. With my finances where they were, I felt it was a calculated gamble.

I still had a part-time job doing closed captioning for film and TV, but it was minimal income. Before heading to Mexico, I returned to Vancouver to reconnect with the office. While working there, I downloaded several weeks of work movies and shows in advance. Using our office’s high-speed Telus connection in Yaletown to get ahead meant I could relax about settling into Mexico, which was to be my first place where I expected real culture shock and an adjustment. 

Good call. Turns out “high-speed internet” in a working-class neighbourhood near Oaxaca’s Zocalo isn’t quite in league as a Telus fibre connection in Western Canada. I had many issues with that new internet installation, including out-of-date firmware and other connectivity issues that frustrated me for the first couple weeks in Oaxaca.

On the upside, my writing career had dried up as badly as that Mexican high plateau around me, so at least my internet work needs were limited. It led to Mexico being one of my favourite photography experiences over the four years.

A Zapotect woman in the Oaxaca Valley. Licha is roasting cocoa beans for chocolate. We milled it together after.

Still, by the time my stay in Merida came around in August, four months into my six-month visa, I was at the end of my rope with internet.

Picking Places: Back in Europe

People always ask me how I chose places, and I wish the answer was simple. Sometimes, photography beckoned me – like when I splurged for a weekend in Prague. Other times, it was food, like spending two weeks in Madrid, noshing on jamon iberico. Sometimes, I knew I’d have good internet in an interesting place, like when I went to Sundesk in Taghazout, Morocco, all because I saw an advertisement for their guaranteed 100 Mbps connection while I was furious over terrible internet during my stay on the Greek island of Naxos.

Real “residential” Morocco in small-town Taghazout. It’s rustic, dirty, dusty, rundown, yet still full of magic.

That horrible internet on Naxos that makes me wonder how I ever decided to visit to Italy’s Ischia earlier this year. The allure of an Italian island was hard to beat, though, especially when I found what looked like a spacious, clean apartment for a real deal.

Work aside, Naxos and its people had cast a spell upon me, and I hoped Ischia would connect just as deeply if I stayed there in the quiet season. So, I wrote my host. How is the internet?

“It is low season,” Giuseppe wrote, “so internet will be fast, fast, fast! You will be happy!”

Ischia, a volcanic island off Naples, is popular with vacationing Italians. Stunning nature, great food (try the braised rabbit), and incredible beaches. Sunsets unlike any I’ve seen.

Internet, though? The worst in 25 countries.

I downloaded Netflix shows after I went to bed since it’d take hours just to download two episodes. This way, I’d watch offline . The island was practically closed, so cafes with decent WiFi were a non-starter. Eventually, I bought an expensive, crazy big phone package to hotspot for work when and where I needed.

For a month, this was my view as I worked everyday through an unseasonably cold January in Ischia, off Naples, Italy. The light did amazing things every day there, reminding why photographers like Ansel Adams returned to the same landscapes constantly — some forever change in daylight.

Unexpected Conveniences in Unlikely Places

Now and then as a nomad, I got lucky. I didn’t believe a host outside of Nong Khai, Thailand who swore he had a 35 Mbps connection. It was a tiny fishing village called Muang Mi, population around 2,000, and my place was a traditional teak house on the Mekong River, in a mango and lime plantation of about 150 to 200 trees. Next door was the owner, Richard, a lovely U.S. vet who’d fought in the Vietnam War and fell in love with Thailand. He reminded me so much of my dead dad, making it the perfect place to be for Christmas.

Hence, I spent seven weeks there, enjoying beautiful sunny days, chickens everywhere, children shouting HELLO every time they cycled by, a local dog adopting me and sleeping by my feet as I worked, and fast, fast, fast internet for the first time in six months.

Next was Siem Reap, Cambodia for a month. Abysmal internet again, surpassed only by Ischia’s 1.3 Mbps. At least Babel Guest House had the excuse of 50 or so people online at the same time (and they ironically updated to a new connection the day I departed). Siem Reap, though, was loaded with WiFi sources. An app* helped me find user-rated WiFi hotspots and led me to a café tuktuk distance away, where I’d drink beers under whirring fans as I got online.

young buddhist monks waving

My young friends who would wave to me and say hello, the novice monks from the monastry down the street in Muang Mi.

Appreciating the Little (and Speedy) Things

Today, I appreciate how important solid, fast, reliable internet is. I’m now of the mind that reliable, good internet is a basic human right. I’ve seen the difference it makes, how internet can be the great equalizer for those who can work online, whatever country they’re from.

So, when I finally got to set up my Canadian home, I splurged on Internet. I’ve got 150 Mbps and a mesh network, since hardcore geeks told me to get a modem and a router for the most stable connection with wall-to-wall reception.

I’ve probably thought more than most people have about what “home” means to me, especially leading up to this new post-nomad chapter. Now I’ve created a home that’s exactly what I needed and craved – a comfortable place where living is easy and internet’s so reliable, I’ll never have to step outside to find better reception.

Just hanging out at Angkor Wat, as one does. The hassles were worth it.

*The app later vanished from the app store and I deleted it for security concerns, I can’t recommend another, I’m afraid, but I’m sure good options exist.

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