Communication, Let Your Fingers Walk Or RUN

For the first six months that my wife and I lived in Honduras, we had no vehicle and no form of communication, save a short wave to listen to the BBC Caribbean report and a station out of Quito, Ecuador. Situations arose in that period of time that led me to understand the value of at least the ability to communicate with someone else. In my humble opinion, a cell phone and a ham radio are the best tools to accomplish this goal.

In many Third World countries, the phenomenon of “Technology Skipping” has taken place. This means that third world countries do not go through the progression of technology, that first world countries have to, in order to reach a given end point. For example, in most modern countries, communication started as landline infrastructure being put in place over the course of many years and many dollars. Now as technology has progressed, cell phone towers are being placed and communication technology moves forward. Many third world countries never had the resources to place a landline network, so they went without, except for urban centers. Now the landscape of many third world countries is dotted with cell towers and no one even thinks about putting in landlines to most of the country. They skipped that part of the technology.

This enables the traveler to arrive in many countries and purchase a cell phone and minutes for the cell phone right at the airport or at least in a store somewhere. Depending on what your plans are, you may want to get an extra card for minutes. I bought my latest phone for about USD 60 and spent USD 30 on phone cards (about 500 minutes). As soon as I set it up (if you don’t speak the local language, you may need to get help doing this at the store) I automatically had access to anyone in the world at the touch of a button. In Honduras from Megatel, the phone came pre-programmed with the phone number for the Red Cross, Police, Fire Dept on speed dial (in the San Pedro Sula area). Once you have your phone, you can start filling up the memory with phone numbers for anyone you may need to contact or, more importantly, anyone that can help you out when plans go awry. I collect business cards from anyone I meet and put their name and number on the phone and make a note as to who they are and what they do. I also have all the emergency contacts, friends, and family, in Honduras, the US, and Germany programmed in. One of the nice things about the Honduran system is that you can make international calls when you are on a pay as you go system. My first cell phone required a USD 200 deposit for international calling and monthly bill payment. Not exactly practical for a traveler passing through, but it made sense when we lived there. Note of caution: international calls will eat your minutes for lunch, be careful

In order to get some good contacts, you should seek out expatriates and NGO workers. They will have a better understanding of how the system works in that particular part of the world, thus are better able to provide you with quality assistance when the hammer drops. A good place in Honduras, and I am sure it is similar in other countries as well, is the grocery store. On any given Sunday in San Pedro Sula, you can find the bigger grocery stores full of non-Hondurans. Sunday seems to be the best day to get provisions for those who live in the sticks, as well as those who live closer to, or in, urban centers. Strike up a conversation and find out something about the person. You may even get an invitation to visit a cool operation if you are nice!

Nicer hotel bars are also common watering holes for expatriates living in a given area. They will be able to give some good advice about your travels over a cold one.

The ham radio is used by many NGO workers as a more dependable form of communication than anything. As long as the repeater is working (usually put in place long ago and maintained well by other NGOs in the past) you don’t have to worry about cell towers being down. Once again, seek out NGO workers and find out the frequency(ies) they use.

Now if you get all your stuff stolen, oh well, you tried, but if you are in some kind of other emergency, medical, lost, broken down, etc. having good communication capability can get you out of a jam.

Personal Example:

After a 37 hour odyssey involving two countries and adrenaline induced insomnia, my wife and I found ourselves in the back of a Landcruiser with a woman giving birth to breached twins, her husband, her screaming mother, and a driver that was in a state of rapid mental deterioration. At this point we didn’t have either a truck or a phone and we were relying on the driver in meltdown (a really nice guy from our village who had the only truck, I have to give him credit, he gave us a ride when most wouldn’t have) who had both. As we finally approached what we thought was the end of our long long long day (you only get the dramatic conclusion and some bullet points here, I don’t want to type the whole story), we could see the outskirts of San Pedro Sula. There is a toll booth at the edge of town and we were feeling good that we were there. I had already gotten one twin out with the aid of a flashlight and motivation from the screaming grandmother that the end was near. The second twin had one arm sticking out and I could not retrieve him through the long trip. Dad was holding the first twin and I kept looking out the window to see how much closer we were getting. It was 3 am and we were attempting to break the land speed record (I didn’t know an old Landcruiser would warp the space time continuum). Almost on cue, the truck died right at the toll booth. In my naïve thought process (we hadn’t been there long enough to learn yet), “I figured hey there is a police road check here, all is good, we’ll just call someone.” As we rolled to a stop on the side of the road, the cops manning the roadblock walked over and watched the drama. With all the possible compassion they could muster, it was agreed among the cops that the new mom and both babies would probably be dead soon. Ignoring their empathy, my wife asked them if they could radio for an ambulance. Turns out Honduran cops don’t get radios, the government can’t afford them. Fine, we will use the driver’s cell phone since we were now in range. Phone didn’t work, remember my previous article? On to “Plan B”. The cops decided it would be best to call headquarters and get the Red Cross to come out with a truck. Nobody, however, had any idea how to get that accomplished. Note to self: DON’T RELY ON LOCAL COPS FOR HELP! Finally my wife, a woman hardened by being a refugee after defecting from the former Soviet Union, kicked in the door of the toll booth and demanded to know if they had a land line (I was still working with the patient). Turns out they did (funny the cops never thought of that) and after a while of calling anyone that would answer the phone, she got the police department to send a pick-up truck to us. We loaded the lady and her family in the truck and turned it into a makeshift ambulance and finally finished the trek to the hospital. It later turned out that the phone did work, but the driver, who was found the next day walking in circles around the truck in a state of complete breakdown, was so freaked out he just couldn’t function on any level.

Moral of the story: If we had our own phone or a radio, there were fifty people to choose from, in the city, that could have been there to help us in 10 minutes. First baby lived, second baby was dead on arrival, mom lived. You can’t change the past, but I always wonder would baby number 2 be alive if we knew a little more about how things worked and had our own radio and phone. It would have been worth 100 bucks.

A month later we bought a 4-Runner and a phone, we didn’t lose another patient after that.

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