Technology is everywhere, as you can see at this coffee shop in Tirana
Letter from Albania
Technology Enhances Travel, Diminishes Adventure
TIRANA, Albania – Last night, the White Sox beat the Yankees in a 9-8 thriller at the Dyersville, Iowa ballfield made famous in the movie “Field of Dreams.” I knew the instant it happened because I followed the last inning on my phone here in Tirana, where it was 5 a.m. and 4,323 miles away. I immediately texted my cousin and fellow Yankee fan Greg Simon, whom I figured would be listening to the game. He was and responded.
Pre-cell phone and Internet, not all that long ago, I would have only known the result of the game while globetrotting by finding a copy of the International Herald Tribune, my all-time favorite newspaper. [Everything you needed to know in about 30 pages in a joint effort by the Washington Post and New York Times.]
For the first 30 years or so of my career as a correspondent the IHT, as it was known, was one of two sources of news of any kind. [It ceased publication in 2013.]
As for talking with my office and family, the standard pre-cell phone method was at the post office in any decent-sized city, where long lines of travelers waited for phones with international connections. You paid on the spot according to the length of the call. It was not cheap.
In 1984, while covering the famine in east Africa, I dictated a story to my newspaper by phone from a government office in Djibouti. I charged it to my credit card. When I returned home, I found a bill for $900+ for that call. It turned out the Djibouti government added something like a 200% surcharge to my bill. Fortunately, my newspaper covered it.
That scenario is unimaginable in today’s connected world.
As I move around this capital city, I’ve noticed something missing from gift shops targeted at tourists: postcards. When’s the last time you found one in your mail box? [You remember the standard message? “Hi there. Having a great time. Wish you were here.”]
The same goes for letters from family members and friends living abroad, describing in detail their experiences.
At home, I have a box of postcards and letters I mailed decades ago while living in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Spain that have been returned to me. They are invaluable at this time in my life because some of the contents are appearing in articles being posted on this website. Had I not written the letters I would have long-ago forgotten the details.
You’ll recall I mentioned a second source of news in addition to the IHT. I always carried a small short-wave radio that connected me with the BBC World News service in London. A story comes to mind – one of many - that proved the value of that device.
In 1982 I attempted to walk from Beirut, Lebanon to Damascus, Syria – about 60 miles - after Lebanon’s newly-elected prime minister Bachir Gemayel had been assassinated and the Israeli army invaded the country, shutting the airport and all major roads. Along the way I was detained by a group of Gemayel’s militia, the Lebanese Forces, and held in an abandoned hotel in the mountain town of Bhamdoun. The soldiers were drinking heavily and in a foul mood. I wasn’t sure what was going on.
I tuned into the BBC, which was broadcasting frequent updates from Lebanon. As I searched for the channel I could hear church bells from the next mountain ridge to the north. At that moment a correspondent was filing a live report from Bikfaiya, where Gemayel’s funeral was in progress. I could hear the same church bells I was listening to in the BBC report. So now I knew what was up with Gemayel’s soldiers; they had lost their leader and were upset they were not at the funeral.
Nothing today could match the rush I got from those unique confluence of events. [If you’re curious, my captors eventually passed out, I escaped and continued my journey to Damascus.]
OK, enough of the nostalgia. Here’s the positive side of new technologies for a correspondent like me.
Communication-wise, my cell phone allows me to stay in immediate touch with my family and friends, important for obvious reasons. Here in Tirana my phone has directed me to all my interview locations and helped me find great restaurants. The list of invaluable benefits goes on as it’s no different from back home.
Here’s something else: During my pre-21th century reporting trips I carried a full-sized backpack filled with heavy cotton clothing that soiled easily and was hard to clean.
I also carried a cumbersome word processor – this was the pre-laptop era – and a small printer. I faxed my stories to my newspaper.
Since I’m also a photojournalist, I carried another bag holding three cameras, five lenses, a flash system, and 15-20 rolls of black and white, and color film. [Yes, this was pre-digital cameras as well.]
I had to stash the film in lead containers as the x-ray machines at airports in developing countries were so powerful they would have erased my images. I either mailed my film to my newspaper via courier service or if the images were needed immediately found an Associated Press office for assistance.
Here’s what I’m carrying on this reporting trip: A mid-sized pack that easily fits in my plane’s overhead compartment. Every piece of clothing stashed inside the pack is made from synthetic materials. That means that I washed yesterday’s outfit in my hotel bathroom sink last night [using the legendary Dr. Bronner’s Castille Soap] and everything was dry by morning.
The laptop I’m writing this story on weighs 1.5 pounds and easily fits in my pack’s computer slot. The photo you see here was shot with the only camera I’m carrying – a digital rangefinder that also has video capabilities. I have one 24 mm lens.
Previously, it would have taken me several hours to transmit this story with all kinds of potential obstacles looming.
Now, I push a few buttons and, well, here we are.
How can I complain about that?
I think the disturbing part – what motivated me to write this piece – is that now it’s so normal and easy to get you my news and photos it has removed all the challenges, thus lessening the adventure.
But, hey, it’s normal for each generation to lament – maybe whine is the better word - the passing of something they’ve held dear.
Enough said. Oh, by the way, how did I know it’s 4,323 miles from here to Dyersville, Iowa?
You already know the answer.
I Googled it.
Body part A when photo present
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Body part B when photo present
Editor's note: Second in a series of articles from a reporting trip to Albania Aug. 10-13, 2021