I was talking to a friend recently about attitudes to having relocated to Spain from the UK, and the reactions of some of those we had left behind, to the distances and challenges we had chosen.

I have explored this theme quite thoroughly at Beyond Mañana so won’t repeat it all here, but one thing I have been reflecting on recently is how much time and technology has changed relocating and emigrating.  What it means to keep in touch, and what people really mean when they talk about staying connected.

Quite a number of years ago, I won’t say how many but I was 18, I spent a year in rural Zimbabwe teaching English.  Somehow my mother bravely waved me off at the airport to go to a place that had the nearest phone in the village about 1km away, received a post bag once a week maybe, and was about an hour’s walk to the nearest tarred road.  We had water from a well, cooked on paraffin stoves, and had electricity some of the time

The arrival of that mail bag was the highlight of the week for me and my fellow volunteer, they always brought it straight round to our house because it was always full of things for us – it was our lifeline, our only connection with friends and family left behind.  Taking anything from 2 to 6 weeks to reach us, lengthy letters, folded airmail papers, funny postcards, random packages covered in ‘resealed by Zimbabwe Customs’ sticky tape (half a box of Tampax emptied and missing once – what on earth did they think they were I still wonder?) – these were our connections with everything that was familiar to us.

If the mailbag didn’t get through for some reason we wept with frustration, and frequently spent weekends hitch-hiking to nearby cities.  Not just to access luxuries like showers but also to hear MTV blaring in a bar, or just sometimes, to make a precious reverse-charged phone-call home.

our interconnected world

our interconnected world

A year ago I went to a reunion of the organisation which sent us, and still despatches bewildered teenagers around the world to try and save bits of it .  The experience brought home to me how much had changed in the world since that time…  During the presentation from the organisation’s chair they Skyped in a group of the current volunteer cohort in Uganda, who apologised that they could not show us around the project physically due to the only broadband internet in the school being hardwired.  They talked about lobbying for time on the few available and antiquated PCs for personal use, and the problems of getting a decent mobile signal out in the bush. First world problems in the third world..?

So this is why I smile inwardly sometimes when I catch myself railing about a videoconference freezing or there being a delay in an IM getting through, from Spain to UK.  Why I just smile at people from the UK who ask how on earth we could consider living here in the middle of nowhere – or people here who look at us as though we’ve just arrived from Jupiter, because no one in living generations has moved outside of their same pueblo…

The world in all its vastness and diversity is so TINY now.  You can reach around it in a heartbeat, the most remote places upon it are accessibly with literally a maximum of 1 second ping via a satellite phone – the same satellites that have mapped every square inch of it years ago.

Right now our daughters are in another country to me – not in rural Africa, just visiting grandparents in the UK – and as they stepped through the airport security my heart wrenched at the seams: my babies…!  But, I had a text confirming they had boarded on time, the Easyjet app tracked their flight and confirmed safe landing before my Mum got her phone back on to let me know, and between Facebook, Whatsapp and iMessage we have probably communicated more since they left than I generally get from the teenaged one in an average fortnight.

When she gets a bit older she may want to travel the world, and when I wave her off to a long haul destination I know that wherever she ends up I will be connected to her, not just in an emotional sense but also in literal communications terms.  Unlike my poor mother sending me off into the unknown there will always be ways to keep in touch, even if they require a little more ingenuity once you are outside of the 3G/wifi environment.

Of course she won’t have the privacy and freedom I did, and my mother was also spared a lot of our most worrying news until long after the events in question had happened (“so, we got a lift as far as Jo’burg” or “anyway I’m out of hospital now and doing fine”).  The world is also a very different place than the one I naively explored bits of a couple of decades ago, and I think I may advise against hitchhiking round southern Africa – which will doubtless be viewed as the greatest of maternal hypocritical unfairnesses. Wherever my girls end up I shall be keeping tabs on them like never before – we are so fortunate to live in such times as to have this unprecedented connectivity, and even when I miss people physically I try hard to remind myself of this wonder.

So anyway, right now I’m off to arrange a 3-generation Google Hangout!  Who are you connecting with today?

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  • Sue Sharpe

    How very true! I recall how my father would drop me at the airport as I embarked on another adventure – Sure, I’d send postcards & letters – but the next time I would speak to him would be when he collected me from either the airport or railway station upon my return! So different nowadays when we seem to get a running commentary (with pictures) of peoples travels via the social media.