When Things Don’t Work

While I’m working in Haiti, I use an unlocked Moto G smartphone to make calls and connect to the Internet. There’s two big telco companies here, Digicel and Natcom. Digicel’s the larger one, and it’s actually probably the largest company in Haiti. People joke that if they could run for president, they’d be elected (the Haitian government might own large chunks of the country anyway – at the very least, they’ve got connections).

All the vendors on the street take shelter under bright red Digicel umbrellas, and on every corner you can find a “Pap Padap” vendor. “Pap Padap” roughly translates to “Don’t get cut off” and you can recognize these guys by their red Digicel aprons. You hand them some money, they put it in their apron and type your number into their phone, and the money shows up in your account (minus a little bit for taxes).

Yep, it’s pretty nice to have access to all my contacts, maps, emails, and webpages in the palm of my hand…as long as it’s all working. In terms of Internet, I don’t have 3G coverage in all parts of the country – sometimes it’s just a little slower, and sometimes it’s so painfully slow that I don’t bother at all. I know, it’s pretty miraculous that I have a connection at all, but when you depend on the Internet to communicate with others working on the project and to test your equipment, it can get really frustrating when it’s not there.

Even more frustratingly, over the past week or so I’ve been having issues with my phone. Crossing over the border from the Dominican always gives issues, of course (you’re changing from the roaming network to the proper Haitian one); when I went over last week and calls weren’t going through I just blamed it on that transition. But hours later when I was still having problems (I made calls, but the people on the other end couldn’t hear me), I tried putting my SIM into someone else’s phone. Things worked fine then, so I knew it had to be a problem with my phone itself.

Sure enough, a few minutes later I got a vague message about how I had to accept updates for service to continue. A few minutes later, I actually received the updates. Now, I’ve got multiple APNs: one labeled “Internet” with the familiar “web.digicelha.com” but another for wap (“wap.digicelha.com”) and one more for MMS (“wap.digicelha.com” again, this is the Haitian version of SMS).
I just keep the dot on “Internet” and everything works fine, but it can be really scary when something so essential to all our operations, my phone, inexplicably ceases to function. It’s not like life would end if I lost it, dropped it in a puddle, had it stolen…I’ve got phone numbers memorized and written down, and all my contacts would just have to learn a new number, and I’d have to buy Internet again. But since this thing is with me all the time and is my one link to anything and everything, I’ve gotten pretty attached to it.

Addiction / dependency is just a side effect of technology use, I guess. Last trip, my computer screen broke, just in the corner, and I got a little taste of what it would feel like to lose the thing I use to write blog posts, do research, etc…

I had another scare just a few days ago, when I was testing out some of our Internet connection equipment. I put my phone card inside one of the routers, since it’s also an Internet card. Then when I tried to take it out, I discovered it was stuck inside.

Cue stressful search for someone with a special screwdriver that could open the weird screws on the box. After checking with auto and motorcycle repair guys, we finally found the guy on the street in charge of fixing cell phones. It wasn’t easy, but he managed to get the screws out, open up the box, and get the SIM out – without damaging anything either. I paid him $2.50 for his work and gave a big sigh of relief.
The quest isn’t over – after buying a new SIM card (my phone one was too small and the converter just got jammed inside) we’re still having issues getting this router connected to either the Digicel or Natcom Internet. I’ll be trying some more ideas over the next few days. Now that I’m not using my own personal SIM for testing hopefully this won’t happen again…but as people joke with me often in Haiti, “pwoblem pa janm fini.” I’m sure I’ll have more problems and solutions to report later on.

Anyone who thinks technology is going to make life easier…yeah, okay, you’re still right, but someone had to go through a lot of trouble first.

xkcd.com does a good job explaining it


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