The Back Roads of the Information Superhighway

17 Aug

The information superhighway, the age of the internet, and Google’s debated world domination have yet to make an impact here in my hot and humid little paradise. Sure, computers and the internet exist, although access is more limited. Very few people have home internet, for example, (What, you want statistics? Ha, good luck with that!) and even the university where I teach does not have wi-fi. But that’s not even what I mean by the information superhighway not quite reaching us. (And let me just preface this by saying that this is not so much a complaint as an observation to share; just your neighborhood sociologist reporting on her empirical evidence.)

What I mean is that the internet does not provide us with a wealth of relevant local information. In the U.S., for example, I can google “pediatricians Louisville, Kentucky” and find a list of pediatricians, complete with phone numbers, addresses, and probably reviews. Here? Keep dreaming. Want to look for a therapist? Wondering if there’s a decent gynecologist? Need a plumber or an electrician? Can’t figure out exactly who can fix your urgent drainage problem? Too bad. There is zero information at your fingertips.

Okay, maybe not zero information, but not much. There is a blog where the foreigners give opinions on the best things in Puerto- the best pizza, the best dentist, things like that. Many things are lacking from the list, though- any kind of maternity/gynecological care, and lots of kinds of professionals that are needed for taking care of houses, for example. And many of the things listed are considered the best because the professional/care provider speaks English or otherwise caters to foreigners, not necessarily because they’re the best in other regards (and they’re often very expensive for those same reasons). So I can’t say there’s nothing helpful online and local, but it’s not much that’s helpful for us.

Shopping, and even getting information about basic products, is often impossible online as well. Need a rain poncho and not sure where they sell such things? Want to know the cheapest place to buy an electric generator? Looking for safety pins? Well, be prepared to do a lot of walking and asking around. My boss wants to buy a sewing machine, and she was trying to figure out what kind of store might sell that sort of thing, which you can’t google, of course. “Just keep telling everyone you know that you’re looking for a sewing machine,” I advised her, sharing my tactic. “Eventually someone will know where to go or have one to sell you.”

My dad was trying to be helpful the other day, as so often happens with my family. He was telling me about some laptop-sized solar panels that his neighbor has that he says were pretty cheap and produce enough energy for a couple of fans. “Can’t you just get a couple of those?” he wondered. I am never sure whether to laugh or sigh in these situations. Not because of the wonderful helpfulness of my family, but rather because of the total irrelevancy of their suggestions 9 times out of 10. They forget that we live in a parallel universe where the same technology is not available, and neither are the same prices. If we want to compare prices on solar panels, we need to make a trip to the store in Huatulco (2 hours), a trip the one around here (somewhere, supposedly), and a trip the one in Oaxaca City (7 hours) that sells solar panels. I am not even 100% sure of the existence of the Puerto Escondido and the Huatulco stores because they don’t have a website that I can find. I found an email address for the Huatulco store but it doesn’t work. I found some phone numbers, but that is the most advanced information available. Going to all these different towns is not a real possibility just to compare prices. Luckily sometimes word of mouth does come through for us, though, and in this case we’ve heard it’s much cheaper to get someone to buy one for us in Mexico City and send it down. So we’ll see. The process continues.

You can’t shop online, either, except at Amazon, but then you have to see if the seller ships down here and whether or not the shipping will cost you more than the product. You also need to be prepared to wait 2-4 weeks if you decide to order it. There are a couple of online sites for big chain stores here, but you can’t necessarily get the products on the website if they are not here at the local store, so it’s really a waste of time to even look online.

Our current still-not-in-the-information-age adventure involves shopping for a car (hooray! Our life is about to get 100 times easier!). But used car shopping here is a different sort of process, of course. Our used car lot is a parking lot with about two cars per week. There are no ads in the newspaper to speak of, much less a whole advertising paper dedicated to sales. And you guessed it, there’s no online forum for car sales, or any other type of sales, for that matter. There’s not even a craigslist! There is hope for our car shopping; everyone we know in Puerto just about now knows that we are looking for a car- one that’s bueno, bonito y barato (good, pretty, and cheap), so they’re all keeping their eyes and ears open for us. Conan’s even gone to look at a couple cars now.

But it all takes time, and patience, and human connections. It is often frustrating and inconvenient, but more than anything it reinforces our interdependence as people. It reminds me that I can’t do much of anything if I try to go it my own way, which is interesting medicine for this extra-independent little gringa. I am pretty dependent on family members and friends and nice strangers to help me figure out where to go, what are the best deals, how to deal with bureaucracy, bribes, or other outrageous, everyday situations. And it’s not just because I’m a foreigner that I need all this help (although in some ways I need more than other people). It’s because life is just like that here. We need help, and the internet is almost never the answer. While I didn’t really set out to acquire this much patience, it’s a little revolutionary, too. So screw Google and bring on the neighborhood gossip mill. Like it or not, we’re traveling the back roads instead of the information superhighway, and there’s not much development in sight for the future. But in the end it’s the bigger adventure!

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