The evils of the internet

 An hour of internet (and mojitos), Cienfuegos

An hour of internet (and mojitos), Cienfuegos

Common wisdom (well, according to Sam, anyway) has the youth of today suffering from two evils – excess time in front of an internet-enabled screen, and lack of concentration or ability to follow-through on longer-term projects. I have the solution to both: Cuba.

Before we left New Zealand, we didn’t know what to expect in terms of internet access here. We knew it wouldn’t be 24/7 Wi-Fi from home, but had heard some sort of access was possible.

As it turns out, internet is possible, and (as we thought) - not at home. You can’t buy a router, sign up with a provider, and spend the nights binge-watching Netflix or YouTube. Instead internet is a communal thing - available via a few Wi-Fi-enabled public spaces in the bigger towns and cities. You sit on a bench in a public square. I would bet that keeps teenage boys on the straight and narrow with their viewing.

The solution to the second evil? Just getting access to that desirable Wi-Fi involves a wonderful, long-winded complicated, bureaucratic… Cuban... sort of process. Follow-through extraordinaire. This is our experience:

Step one: Finding out where to buy an internet card. When you arrive in a city, you enquire as to the location of the nearest Etacsa office. That’s the government telecommunications and postal company and (we think) the only purveyor of all things internet. Each city seems to have at least one, but they are hidden, or under refurbishment.

Step two: Buying said internet card. You make sure it’s not too early, too late, lunchtime, or a month with an “a” in it, and head down to the Etacsa office with your passport and some convertible (tourist) pesos. You queue in the street for the allotted time (can be a good hour in Havana, though less elsewhere), until a man in a blue shirt lets you into the air conditioned hallows.

 The queue outside the Etacsa office in Havana

The queue outside the Etacsa office in Havana

Then you join a seated queue in the large, empty office for a shorter period, and finally get ushered to stand before a woman in a kiosk with a screen in front of her and one of those transactional holes at the bottom (like you might find at a train station, or in a bank). It feels more like immigration than a transaction. You worry about smiling, being flippant. Could you get refused internet for saying the wrong thing? So you stand correctly and the woman notes all your details on a computer. It seems to take ages, but maybe it’s only 5-10 minutes. Once you are in the system, she gives you the option of purchasing a card with either 1 hour or 5 hours-worth of internet access. Depending on the day, the office, the city, and the lunar cycle, both 1 and 5 hour cards may be available, just one of them may be in stock, or none at all. So far we’ve only found 5-hour cards once. The cost is $1.50 per hour, but you can only buy three cards per passport per visit. And while $1.50 isn’t much for a tourist, it’s heaps for most locals.

You wouldn’t want it to be too easy.

Step three: Using said internet card. Scratchy cards in hand, you go back into the street and enquire as to where the nearest square is with Wi-Fi access. Or you wander the streets until you find an area where bunches of young people sit hunched on benches over phones. Or older people crowd under a tree on an unreliable, pixelated video chat with Aunty Gladys in Miami. You find a bench, unwrap your internet card, scratch off the bar code, put in the username and password, and (sometimes) voila! You get some internet. (If not, of course, you do what any 50-year-old does anywhere in the world, you find a teenage boy and get help.)

 Internet, Parque Jose Marti, Cienfuegos

Internet, Parque Jose Marti, Cienfuegos

Weirdly, in Havana we found tourists often couldn’t get access from the plazas, but instead had to perch in the lobby of a big hotel to get their card to work. In relaxed provincial Cienfuegos, however, visitors and locals alike vie for the coveted seats in the shade in a Wi-Fi enabled square. Best of all, of course, is a square with both Wi-Fi availability, and a café serving mojitos. Life doesn’t get much better than that.

The quality? It’s not ultra-fast broadband, but it’s not too bad for emails, Facebook, sending photos to one’s nearest and dearest etc. Not great for voice calling (WhatsApp etc), where it tends to cut out a lot.

Do we miss ubiquitous, all-consuming internet? Probably, though less as time goes on. Sam definitely does, but even he’s getting used to a once-a-day, or once-every-couple-of-days fix, with a limonade. Certainly we play far more card games than we do at home – or than we did in Chile and Peru, where we spent evenings hunched over our devices. Must be good for us.