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Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Communication challenges

I have chosen not to move on for the moment. There is nothing special in this city. It is the capital of the province. It is fairly modern in an Asian sort of way. Streets are fairly wide, some are tree-lined. Traffic flows fairly well but I've had to adjust to bicycles and motorcycles that insist on right of way in their lane even when I have a green light telling me to walk and their light is red.

The attraction for me at the moment is that there are few other tourists here. This means there are few, if any, people trying to exploit tourists. I can walk down the street in peace. Most alternative destinations in this province attract tourists and perhaps those who seek to exploit them. I prefer to simply observe how real people go about their lives in this town.

I like travelling alone. When you are with company there is less chance that someone will talk with you. When travelling alone I find it is common for someone to strike up a conversation. Perhaps that is less so here but it is starting to happen.

I found the area in town where there are many electronic shops. I thought perhaps there might be an internet cafe in the area. I had my laptop with me in the hope of finding one. But there are so many nooks and crannies here it would be easy to miss it.

As I walked around the corner of a major intersection I was hit by the blast of air conditioning from an open door. It was a hot day and it drew me in. I wandered around counters selling mostly mobile phones. There were some escalators leading to the basement. I peered down and could see row after row of computers. I ventured down.

There was a counter selling drinks and snacks. I asked a teenage girl, 'Do you speak English?'

'A little.'

I explained what I wanted. It took a while. Perhaps I repeated it in a few different ways but she eventually got the picture. She took me to the main counter and tried to bring the girl there into the conversation but she was a little shy even though she apparently knows some English.

The upshot was that I returned to my hotel room, got my computer and returned to the internet cafe. The girl from the drink counter told me I had to pay 10 yuan and I would get two hours. This is more expensive than the going rate in this country but I thought 'What the heck, perhaps it is a bit faster than the others. I can only give it a go.'

They put me in a private room and plugged a cable into my computer. It didn't work. With the help of Yi, the girl from the drink counter, we fed numbers into my computer and tried again. And again. For half an hour we kept trying. Eventually it worked. Now Yi told me I had three hours. She was keen to practise English with me and while all this was going on was trying to teach me some of the local language.

The speed was terrible. Often it would time out before the page downloaded. But with persistence and patience I was able to get a few things done. I was able to post a couple of blogs. But for some reason I was not able to see them. During all the time I was there those blogs would not show up but whenever I went to any admin pages on the site they downloaded quite quickly.

I had a similar situation with my flickr photos pages. It took a while to get in but my photos were all showing. I uploaded some more. They went quite quickly. All the old ones showed but the newly uploaded ones showed broken links.

I started to wonder if there was a pattern here. Both the blog and the photo captions mentioned the name of the country I am in. Is it possible that there is a filter that prevents blogs or perhaps pictures with the name of the country to show on computers connected to the internet within this country? I had had a similar situation with my blog the previous day when I uploaded at the university. My sister checked the blog for me and it was readable there in Australia. So why not here?

I did what I could and must not have used my full three hours. They gave me three yuan change.

By now it was well into the evening and the city was busy with people walking the streets in this area of shopping malls. I walked on to where there is a closed off street with many vendors and open-air restaurants.

I found a stall that makes noodle soup with tofu. I'd been there before but had avoided the sauces because I had no way of knowing what was in them. This time two women, also customers, spoke to me in English and helped me to choose a suitable sauce. One of them sat beside me as I ate and we chatted. I asked if she lived in the town and she said 'yes'. I asked what she did and she said, 'English teacher.' I told her that I was having difficulty finding people who could speak English. She said that their method of teaching English focused so much on reading and writing that while people could read and write fluently they were incredibly shy when it came to speaking English.

I asked where her school was. It was about 15 minutes walk away so I offered to come to the school so her students could practise speaking with a native speaker. Unfortunately the school is on holiday and will not return until after I have left the country. She finished her meal and went on her way.

It seems there is a reason that few people in this town engage me in conversation. However, I'm sure if I stay here a little longer I'll meet more who are prepared to take the challenge.

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