Helping out in the Hermit Islands: it takes a (global) village

Even without the incredible experience of swimming with whales, the Hermit Islands are indelibly impressed in our memory bank. We had a lot of fun in Bob’s company. His English is very good, and he’s happy to spend time talking- so we are able to learn a lot about the islands and the people who live there.

Computer lessons
Group computer lessons at Bob’s house

One of the first things Bob mentioned to us is that visitors from a small cruise ships that called into the Hermits earlier in 2012 gave them a laptop computer. He was away at the time, and his wife Evelyn kept it safely stashed for his return, but nobody knew how to use it. Could we help? Of course! It’s so nice to be asked for assistance that we can readily provide. Jamie spends a few days installing programs like Microsoft Office, Acrobat Reader, freeware photo editors, OpenCPN (the open source tool we use for chartplotting) and more. Then, it’s a few long sessions of Computing 101 (and 102, and 103)– first with Bob, then with other members of his family.

We run into a few hiccups getting the machine set up. First, we can’t get OpenCPN to install correctly. The route planning aspect of this tool is going to be very useful to the islanders, who routinely make extended journeys in open boats: months being away of fishing to earn kina, or multi-day trips to the provincial capital for anything they can’t grow, build, or trade for in their remote location. The loss of life at sea is a sad reality. They are gradually getting tools such as handheld GPS units and this is one more tool to help.

The problem is, despite having what we’re sure are all the right components, Jamie can’t get it to work. There’s no internet access, only text-based email through our radio. It feels frustrating, the end of a string of activities in setting up the computer that remind us how many companies presume always-on internet. Forget always-on. We don’t have anything!

Jamie thinks to get in touch with a cruising-savvy friend stateside, and ask him to tap into resources we can’t access. Tim immediately jumps in. He’s dialed into a number of cruising forums and message boards, so able to get the questions out to a relevant and interested group, and then digest and funnel information back to us. Jamie and Tim go back and forth over a few days with troubleshooting: we can usually only connect in the early morning, and then gain in the evening, so we can’t just “check email” anytime for a rapid dialogue on progress. But with Tim’s help from across the ocean, bringing forward into the ideas of other sailors and even getting in touch with the developers, the problem is successfully resolved. Hermit Island seafarers now have access to great routing and planning tool, and we have a great experience of the broad net of mutual aid.

Other problems crop up related to the lack of internet access. Most software manufacturers presume always-on internet, or at least on demand access. That’s not possible here, of course.  But this means we’re struggling to get a basic document and spreadsheet capabilities. These are both key, because Jamie has been working with Bob on putting information together to help islanders interact with visiting boats (to share their amenities and sights, and also ensure visitors know their guidelines) and a spreadsheet to help with community finances. There’s a copy of Office installed, but we don’t have the license key. We actually have an older, never used copy of Office on Totem- with the key- but internet access is required to activate the program. Otherwise, it will lock up after a limited number of times it’s opened.  And of course, we can’t just go download freeware.  It’s frustrating and gives a sense for some of the hurdles that exist for the people who don’t have what we consider basic digital utilities in the first world.

The arrival of our friends on sv Sea Glass is timely. They’ve got a sat phone, something that hasn’t fit into the budget on Totem. We outline the problem with Jon, and he’s happy to give sat phone data to enable the connection and get the license key registered. A short time later- success! The laptop for the Hermits is ready to go.

This is just one little peek into how disconnected life in the islands can be. Life looks idyllic, tropical-island-paradise on the surface. But people want to participate in the modern world, to have access to information and choices for their lives, and it’s not easy.

6 Responses

  1. Nice of you guys to help other people. If you need free software, you can use OpenOffice. It has the same functions as Microsoft Office but it is free. Of course, you need internet access to download it..

  2. So great of you to take the time to help the residents of the Island make life a little easier and safer. I love it when the giving is balanced. You are great ambassadors for the rest of us to follow.

  3. Olivier Onorato – As a side note, you might look at LibreOffice also. I used to use OpenOffice and LibreOffice has apparently been developed quite a bit more extensively now than OO. I sent the link to LibreOffice to Behan and Jamie. An interesting thing I noticed for LO – it comes in the Indonesian language 🙂 (OO may also, not sure). Not sure if one is better than the other.

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