I became a blogger without realizing it. Accidentally.
It was 1996 and I’d snagged a cool email address, something quite inspiring and sexy along the lines of firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was heading off into the big wide world of Africa for six months but being bad at math I would be gone more than three years.
As a freelance writer and journalist I would painstakingly record life around me. Armed with my brand new email address, I would whoosh stories off into the ether, delivering my flawless copy directly into the laps of eager editors.
Or so I thought. You see, I had an email address – most of them didn’t.
Those pesky editors on whom I depended for my next meal were throwbacks, stone age holdovers who should immediately have been put out to pasture.
A few actually asked that I fax my stories – but only if they were breaking news. Otherwise could I please snail mail them (in those days it was just called… mail).
A one-page fax to the US from Africa could cost up to $10. A long-form piece (which we quaintly called a feature story) could cost up to $100. That would leave me with – well, not a lot.
A few luminaries did have email.
To reach them I would use a modem with a wraparound velcro band. I would gently deposit the phone’s receiver into this cradle, velcroing the whole thing so it wouldn’t move.
I would then request permission – usually from a bemused hotel clerk – to ‘send my story’. Few had ever seen a modem and eyeballed me with suspicion as I attached their telephone to my gizmo, sparking the kinds of sounds we’d come to expect from the Transponder Room on Captain Kirk’s Starship Enterprise.
Today of course you just click a little icon to send and receive. My my, how far we’ve come.
And then there was the blog.
When I left on my travels I had a novel idea: I’d stay in touch in ‘real time’ rather than through outdated postcards or letters I’d never have time to write.
Since I had email, I could get my missives out to the world. Unfortunately, among my friends I could count only one with an email address (thanks David!) so we made a deal. I would email him my monthly trip report; he would then print it out and mail it (snail mail of course) to friends and relatives who had signed up for ‘Afrigram’ – as in this is a telegram from Africa, people! Eventually it would be followed by Asiagram and Cubagram and Mexigram and… Nuff said.
When the list became too long and more friends acquired email addresses, we created ‘hubs’ to redistribute the ‘grams. We had hubs in Geneva, Montreal and Bangkok. Each hub would print out the missive and mail/post/passenger pigeon it to its own network, making it go the equivalent of ‘viral’.
In restrospect, I think I had a blog.
It might not have technically been a weblog, since it wasn’t hosted on the web and the word blog wouldn’t emerge for another three years. My shortened version of ‘telegram’ was as close as I could get to conveying the immediacy of this groundbreaking medium.
For the first time in my travels, I would be able to keep in touch in real-time. Fine, almost real-time.
Armed with a list of telephone numbers for the world’s air traffic control telephone system (SITA) I would be able to connect my modem to their network in any city that had a nearby airport. This list was invaluable, almost guaranteeing I could disseminate written words almost instantaneously.
Things didn’t always go as planned.
Sometimes, phones didn’t work, the lines downed by storm, sand or machete. That would require standing in line at the post office with my new-generation laptop, the first many people had seen. You could always count on a post office’s phones working; they were government monopolies, after all.
At other times the air traffic control phone line was out of commission, reminding me not to rely too heavily on this newfangled technology. These obstacles would dash my expectations, forcing me to wait until the next country, or city, or post office.
Come to think of it, much of my time during that first year in Africa was spent standing in post office lines.
Looking back at my travel journals I see I was already aware of the ‘backup’ concept. I might type a story on my laptop but I’d first scribble it out in my notebook. Just in case.
Recently, I found all my old Afrigrams, neatly printed out and filed in a binder covered with the dust of several moves.
Maybe I’ll turn them into a book. Or repurpose them onto my blog.
Somehow, I think I’d like to give those words a second chance – especially now that the technology is a bit more reliable.