The city is happy in front of the Hotel Nacional in Havana: This port, founded in Spain, is just celebrating its 500th anniversary. Vintage Bel-Airs and Buick convertibles drive the streets painted in gummy bear colors. Fireworks and cannon fire fill the midnight sky and music pulsates in the bars on Obispo Street. The locals dance and drink rum along Calle Galiano, which is bridged by white and blue LED networks reminiscent of constellations. On the border with Habana Vieja in Old Havana, the dome of the newly restored Capitol shimmers like a polished helmet .
Seven flights below me, in the seat visible from my window, a bandstand floats on an island full of floodlights. By midnight, 100,000 people will fill this space and dance to a free anniversary concert for the 500th anniversary.
The hotel’s business center is five flights down on the mezzanine floor of the Nacional. The frosted glass doors are provided with jazzy gold letters: INTERNET. And as the old desktop computers remind me, I’m here to celebrate an anniversary too.
I performed a small miracle: I uploaded the first travel blog posts that were ever published on the World Wide Web
25 years ago, at the dawn of the internet age, I set out to travel the world – from Oakland, California, to Oakland, California – without getting on a plane. On the way, I performed a small miracle: I uploaded the first travel blog posts that were ever published on the World Wide Web.
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Cuba seems like a suitable place to usher in this milestone. The country is one of the least internet friendly places in the world. Less than 40% of citizens have access to the Internet under strict state censorship. But this, too, is a dramatic contrast to 1994, when the words “World Wide Web” drew confused looks from almost everyone I met on my world tour. Even so, Cuba’s relative isolation from the global addiction to netsurfing reminds me of those pioneering days.
But unlike my four previous visits to the island, I don’t need the hotel’s desktop dinosaurs hibernating in the business center. As a paying guest of the Nacional, I have received a username and password with which I can go online from the comfort of my room when the stars align.
In 1993 and 1994, I was a man on a mission during my nine month global odyssey. O’Reilly Media, a well-known editor of Data Science Guides, asked me to send back real-time stories from various stops on my journey. During this trip, I carried one of the first (perhaps very first) ultra-portable laptops. The Hewlett-Packard OmniBook 300 was a small, super-light marvel that ran on both AA batteries and AC power. It had an adorable pop-out mouse and a built-in modem.
O’Reilly (one of the first companies ever to be online) had created a website called Global Network Navigator. It was planned to publish my programs on his website under the name “Big World” and to link each story to its location on a world map. Click on the country and you would see the story. A chimpanzee was able to create the page today, but in 1994 it was a watershed. Mosaic, the browser that popularized the World Wide Web and made it easy to use, had only launched months before I left.
Back then you could count the number of websites on the web
The internet was the wild west; I could have bought pizza.com for $ 20. No one had ever published internet-based travel diaries before. Back then you could count the number of websites on the web (a list with The Exploratorium, Doctor Fun, and Chabad). However, there was no travel blog – the term “weblog” would not be coined for four years.
So I went into a world where even email was a novelty. Writing on the OmniBook was easy. The hard part came when I was trying to get my shipments home from places as far away as Dakar and Lhasa. My first story, mailed from Oaxaca on January 6, 1994, was called One Hundred Nanoseconds of Solitude. It took two days to retransfer to Big World. During that time, I was chasing the city’s central telecommunications office and babbling with the technicians (I didn’t speak Spanish) to eventually find someone who figured out how to send my 2,500 word shipment without sans photos, over the phone lines to California.
A quarter of a century later there would be more than half a billion blogs on the web
The process of finding internet connections around the world reliable enough to upload each of the 20 shows I ended up posting was insane. But it was also deeply haunting. In 1994, sending out a blog was an adventure: it essentially forced me to interact with people I wouldn’t seek out on a normal trip. In my scattered ports of call, I’ve made friends with local telecommunications managers (Turkey), diplomats (China), computer nerds (Kathmandu) and even ship captains (the Ursus Delmas crossing the Atlantic). Everyone was amused by what I was doing. The idea of posting travel stories on the internet was completely new, and few people thought it would catch on – but everyone saw the potential if it did.
Everyone, I think, except me. Little did I know, as I sipped Mexican hot chocolate with the manager of the Oaxaca data services branch when my first post was uploaded, that a quarter of a century later there would be more than half a billion blogs on the web – with hundreds of thousands covering them focus traveling alone.
Somehow I missed this particular boat (although I found a freighter to take me back to Oakland from Hong Kong). I continued to publish shows for various online magazines through the 1990s and early 2000s. But it never crossed my mind to position myself as a professional blogger. I never thought of “branding” myself or making a fuss about my relatively small, albeit groundbreaking, e-footprint. Until 2010, I rarely wrote travel blogs. Meanwhile, the ripples from the pebble I threw onto the World Wide Web have turned into a tsunami, and some travel bloggers (and their mobile students, Instagram influencers) are making small fortunes.
When I grabbed a Coke (one of the few American brands you’ll see in Cuba) from the mini-bar in my mini-suite and mistook it for a Havana Club, I asked myself why did I quit? I think it has to do with why I was inspired to travel in the first place. It’s not just about immersion; It is also about interference.
Years ago when I lived in Kathmandu part time, getting on the plane from San Francisco to Nepal was a complete relief. Whatever was undone or overlooked – whoever I forgot to connect to before puffing my backpack down the aisles of economy class – was now a thing of the past. Every trip was an opportunity to challenge myself again and to face an unknown that both shook and expanded my worldview. It was a way to reinvent my life and push myself out of my comfort zone.
In 1994, goose hunting, finding connectivity, and filing digital broadcasts was an exotic exercise. I had to rely on tech-savvy locals, whether in Senegal or Shanghai. However, at the turn of the millennium, blogging was more about isolating yourself in an internet café and paying by the minute. I did it when I needed to, but it no longer felt like a haunting or disruptive exercise. What was once an expedition became a commuter.
What was once an expedition became a commuter.
Do not get me wrong. This is not about a “right” or “wrong” way of traveling. While I’ve often resented the tradeoff between immersion and connectivity after 2000, I know they aren’t mutually exclusive. As with anything else in life, it’s about balancing priorities. When I read through my 2004 Israel broadcasts, or even my 2011 Cuba blogs, they are as haunting as anything I’ve ever written.
But from where I am – in my room with a view of the crowded Malécon, with the Latin American songo rhythms of Havana shaking my windows – I realize that writing this mailing and trying to connect it to the inconsistent WiFi of the Nacional upload, there is no malfunction. It’s a distraction. Where I really want to be right now is the chaos outside.
So now I’m going to sign out and go down there. Because a quarter of a century after I uploaded those original Big World shows, we live on a much smaller planet – a place where separation is the new disruption, at least for me.
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