Friday, August 12, 2011

Chasing the Elusive Signal

Published by Speed Magazine, April 2008
The cell phone signal - It breathes along with the hum of the city. If you sit quietly still  for a moment, you can almost hear it pulsing.  But outdoors, up in the mountains where goats sit to contemplate on greener pastures, or out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where tiger sharks circle your boat, the powerful ever-present network coverage becomes the Elusive Signal. 

The idea of a respite to the remotest place possible, away from the city, away from the worries of an advanced world where everyone is connected, keeps us tramping on in the rat race.  But as much as we’d like to escape the drudgery of a crowded metropolis, a society so automated and computerized that it has almost lost its heart, we still seek the Elusive Signal, our last link to civilization, a world we greatly want to escape from yet still long for.

Batanes, Philippines

When Epson sponsored a press launch in Batanes, my first question was, how’s the signal out there? My second concern was if we would have internet access.  The third question was why Epson would want to launch their new batch of photo printers, the R290, RX610 and CX9300, at a place where most people still live in stone huts. Fortunately, the hills are alive with the sound of the phone ringing. Up in the northernmost part of Luzon, about 190 kilometres south of Taiwan, Batanes Islands thrives with lush landscapes, a carefully preserved culture, and up-to-date technology. Where the Pacific Ocean merges with the South China Sea, Batanes Islands harmoniously converges nature and technology where the heart of telecommunications network coverage pumps as healthily as the fat cows that sit on its verdant hills.

Sagada, Philippines

Out in Sagada,  Globe’s service follows the 9pm to 5am curfew. A mysterious figure, who introduced himself as the Lone Rider told us, over a blazing bonfire and a thermos of rice wine, that Globe’s cell site is still experimental. Lazy smoke from the fire swirled around us as we looked far out into the night, high up in the hills near the cemetery, where a single red light blinked  in agreement.

How long is a day without network coverage? For my friend, it was half a day. Out in Connecticut, where Bambi can often be sighted darting through the backyard and where you’re bound to bump into Hansel or Gretel if you wander far enough into the woods, is a place where you can escape the hustle and bustle of a demanding city. My friend from Silicon Valley had business at their office in Stanford, so I invited her over to stay a few nights in quaint Brookfield at my brother’s place. Upon arrival, she enthusiastically  took in the fairy tale charm of New England, but after several hours without Yahoo Messenger or a cell phone signal, she felt like she was trapped in a gingerbread house with a toothache. Promptly, we drove off to Stanford and checked in at the Hyatt hotel where her mobile phone became blissfully alive again.

At my brother's backyard in Brookefield, Connecticut

Before going to Connecticut, my brother had warned me of his place’s charming disconnectedness. It only made sense then for me to leave my mobile phone at home. It served as a great excuse to avoid calls from work. Besides, I would rather spend  my dollars shopping at Ralph Lauren’s factory outlet store in Maine than on ridiculously high roaming charges. But even without my phone, the Elusive Signal haunted me. I suffered withdrawal symptoms. Sometimes   I would hear the Godfather theme song, my ring tone, playing in the middle of the night. Its sombre and dark tune would float through the windows, causing me to jump out of bed, looking for something that wasn’t there.

Banahaw, Philippines

Back in the Philippines, in Banahaw, the phone signal is erratic.  While staying overnight at a friend’s family rest house, my friend and I were given the tree house where the signal would jump up to three bars. The rest of the compound suffered the Elusive One. After a hard day of trekking, we lazed on the floor sending text messages to friends about our adventure. Below, the rest of our caravan scampered around for a signal. Every now and then we would hear a  stubborn beep signifying, “message not sent.” It went on like that for several hours, people muttering curses under their breath, shoes scuffing the damp ground as they went around chasing the signal. Then suddenly, a victorious cry, “signal!!!” The joyous exclamation was followed by three successive spiteful bleeps and then a scream, or more of a wounded animal’s wail actually - “Nooooooo!!!!! Low bat!!!!”  

Nuts Huts, Loboc, Bohol

In the heart of the Loboc jungle in Bohol, sits a quaint hostel named Nuts Huts, a page right out of Alex Garland’s novel The Beach, where a European beauty with startling aquamarine eyes plays ping pong with a businessman from Hong Kong. On a hammock, a filthy Frenchwoman reads her dog-eared Lonely Planet guide. You may say it is another world all together kept secret by towering trees and thick vegetation. It would have been a perfect escape except for one thing, the stairs. The flight of  stairs that leads from our huts down by the river up to the communal area where they served food is quite steep. Going up about 200 steps for breakfast makes their famous Big Farmer’s Omelette seem almost unappetizing. It doesn’t help when you’re already upstairs, and then suddenly remember that you left the door to your hut unlocked. This was where I was extremely grateful that the Elusive One decided to make a presence out in the jungles.  All I needed was a single bar to call whoever was left downstairs to lock the door for me.

Thank God for the signal. It’s intangible, a silent but powerful presence that has become almost as vital as the throbbing heart. Without it we feel lost, disconnected. So we run around, chasing it, combing every inch of space in the outdoors  while a firefly buzzes around uncaring and the crickets thrill as if to mock us for our dependence. We raise our phones up high in the sky like  beacons, like the sword of Excalibur, beckoning the Elusive One to grace us with its almighty presence. One bar is all we need to feel safe, knowing the world is as it should be.


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