Alo from the Top of the Mountain

25 aprilie 2007

Hello and greetings to one and all!

I’ve gotten a couple of emails asking if I was all right, and did I arrive ok in Romania and the answer to both is “yes”.

I’ve had the devil of a time getting online so I’ll just explain about that as a way of introduction. Plus I know a few people from the “home front” read this, so it’ll be kind of an “open email” to all of you ;)

My friend Princess B from Romania owns a small hotel or inn at the top of a mountain outside of the city of Cluj-Napoca. I arrived in Romania about a month ago and made my way here, thinking I’d spend a couple weeks here as “vacation” and rest and catching up with her and other people I know here.

All that went well. And then I began to look for ways to “live” here, including getting a cell phone and internet connection. While this is hardly Mount Everest up here, it’s a pretty remote location and there are no “fix” or “landline” phones to speak of. Therefore any internet connection was going to be something wireless, through the air, via one of the cell phone companies.

Without boring you with too many details, there are four cell phone companies here: Orange (used to be called “Dialog”), Vodafone (used to be “Connex”), Cosmote (new in 2005) and Zapp. The first three have some options by which you subscribe for a year and get a minimal amount of data transfer after you buy an extremely expensive wireless modem or cell phone which functions as a modem. The “good folks” at Orange for instance wanted 200 Euros just for the cell phone/modem combo. Cosmote meanwhile wanted me not only to subscribe to a data plan and buy a modem gizmo but also be a voice subscriber as well. Thanks but no thanks.

On the upside, Orange and Vodafone get very good reception here in the mountains. But with the price and not needing to commit a year of my life for a bit of online access, I went with Zapp because they were the only ones who had a prepay internet plan where you buy scratch-off cards and get X amount of hours of connectivity. It’s not exactly cheap (7 hours for 10 bucks) but then again there’s no commitment other than buying the modem itself.

Because I now have a “real” job on the internet and my last computer was becoming a museum piece, I invested in a new computer last year: an Apple (Macintosh) laptop. Well when I went down to the Zapp people and we were talking over the prices and options and I went to buy the modem and get some internet access, the Zapp Man’s face fell and he told me somberly that I was s–t out of luck because Zapp has no “drivers” for Mac for the wireless modem. They don’t have any in Cluj and they don’t have any in Bucharest nor in Portugal or Czech Republic or anywhere else that Zapp does business.

All would be lost except I had anticipated this very thing (hey I’m used to Romania now) and I had already done my research on the internet (in America of course) and found a “driver” (really just a script) written by a hacker in Czech Republic. Once I ran that and showed the Zapp Man that indeed you can use Macs with the Zapp modem, his face lit up like a Christmas tree. He then began whispering to me sotto voce that if I was patient he would “make some calls” to the big bosses down in Bucharest and I’d get a major reduction in the price of the modem.

Well friends, that’s exactly what he did. So in the off chance that you’re a Mac user and want to use a Zapp wireless modem, you now can thanks to little old me :)

So for a day I was quite happy. I had my nice Mac laptop and my nice little Zapp modem (smaller than a pack of cards) and in town I was connecting to the internet with ease. And then I came back up to the mountains here and that’s when the adventure began.

Zapp told me and I knew this already but they don’t exactly have the strongest signal here. In fact I can’t get a connection anywhere in any of the hotel’s rooms. I walked all over this mountain with the laptop, waving the modem around like Spock with his tricorder, trying to see where I could get a signal. I even climbed up to the top of the highest peak here seeing if I could get some kind of reception.

After much hiking, I found exactly three spots where I could pick up Zapp’s signal: at the edge of the garbage dump up the road, the attic of the inn here and at a set of picnic tables near the edge of the forest. The garbage dump is out and the attic is rather cramped so I began to go out daily to my “office”, which is to say the picnic table.

I’ve taken a photo of my “office” and once I’m back in town and straightened out a few other things I’ll show it to all of you here. But to get an idea of what it’s like, when I first got here we had a blizzard and then later the snow partially melted but it is still pretty cold. If we get up to 70F that’s a very hot day for these parts. So I’m out there like a nut on a picnic table with snow at my feet and surrounded by the obligatory (for Romania) mangy half-wild dogs, downloading my work at the blistering speed of 2KB per second.

And all of that was fine for about a week and I was communicating back home and getting some work done. And then one day after a few hours at the “office” my battery was almost dead so I headed over to the local bar/cafe to drink a coffee. And while I was there I asked the guy if I could “borrow” his electricity for a moment and charge the laptop’s battery. He said “sure” and that’s when I made my fatal mistake because that building is a Communist-era eyesore and we’re out here literally at the end of a dirt road and the electricity is not exactly well regulated. A surge in current leapt out of the socket (I saw the sparks) and fried my charger (power supply).

The good news is the computer itself is fine. The bad news is that this is Romania, I’m living in a tiny village at the top of a mountain and finding Apple products is practically impossible. So I’ve been here, there and everywhere calling and seeking out companies who might be able to help. At one point I walked into a grimy little office behind the BNR building in Cluj (for those who know it, it’s impossible to miss) and saw a guy with the same model laptop as I have, and he stuck his charger plug into my computer for a second and I begged him to let me borrow it for an hour but he said “no”. And neither he nor his affiliates in Bucharest have a charger, will have a charger or have any idea when in the rest of their lives they might one day lay an eye on a charger like I need.

So for anyone who uses a Mac in Romania you have a couple of options, you can either check out or go to the only authorized reseller I’m aware of at – they’re all very nice people but at the moment they don’t have the charger I need. Romanian websites are like Romanian menus in restaurants – there’s a lot of nice stuff written on there but it means nothing: you have to ask what’s available. And if you think Apple prices are high in America whew they are twice as expensive in Europe. Even if you’re going to Britain and use a Mac I’d stock up on anything you might need in America.

I ended up ordering the charger online at an American website and having it shipped over here via a friend. Even with the airmail charge and taxes and everything it comes out 50 dollars cheaper than buying it either in Romania (if they had it) or from an Apple store in Europe. Unbelievable.

So I am now waiting for said charger to arrive. How am I therefore online? Well once the “sport” hotel fried my laptop charger, I was desperate. I ended up scurrying around and borrowing someone’s ancient Windows desktop. It works fine but because it’s not a laptop, I can’t take it to my “office”. I now have to drag it up two flights of stairs, set it up in the attic, download/upload whatever I need, then disassemble the whole thing and cart it back down two flights of stairs. And on a good day I do that just once :)

And then if that wasn’t enough, last week I ran out of prepay online access. I knew I was running low and Princess B was going to Cluj (the city) and I gave her some money to buy me some more credit. She ended up not doing it for a semi-valid reason, on Friday I ran out of credit, the Zapp people took some kind of company-wise impromptu “holiday” on Saturday, no stores are open in Romania on Sunday, and I had a work project due first thing Monday morning. The “good news” is that Monday morning in America is Monday afternoon here. The “bad news” is I literally had to stand by the computer as Princess B went to the Zapp office when they first opened and then I had to scramble to get the assignment in on time.

Ah well, it worked out fine and it’ll just have to keep working out more or less fine until that charger gets here and I can eventually escape this mountain and get into town somewhere and get online anytime I want to (and faster than 2Kb/s). I have about pulled my hair out at times with all of this (and much more) but then I’ve remembered how much patience Romania has taught me in the past and indeed that’s true even now. A friend I’ve made since I’ve got here always tells me trece, which means “this too shall pass” and she’s right, it will.

I’ve got to get some work done here so for now I’ll end this here. In between times when I’m fiddling with computer stuff, I’ve gotten to know a lot of the local villagers here and that’s been a really interesting adventure unto itself and worth its own post, which must come later. Suffice it to say that it’s been quite a change going from urban USA to a remote village in Romania but definitely worthwhile.

Who can say when I will be able to write more but for now I wish you all a pleasant day or NIGHT from the end of the dirt road somewhere in the mountains outside of Cluj-Napoca, Romania.


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