Andres from Switzerland, his girlfriend, Paola from Brazil and I were riding on camels in the Thar Desert outside of the western Indian town of Jaisalmer. We were in a spot as remote as I’ve ever been, 21 hours by train from Delhi, just 60 kilometers from the border with Pakistan. It’s a flat, arid locale, punctuated by sand dunes and populated by only villagers, camel wallas and shepherds with their flocks of sheep and goats. To me it was a place that time forgot, more like the Middle East than India. It probably hasn’t changed much at all in a thousand years. I felt like a silk or spice trader heading west into the desert. I was deep into my reverie on a camel named Michael when suddenly my thoughts were interrupted by the Nokia ringtone. Dadadadadadadadadadadadada. It seemed our guide, Ali, was a very popular man. For the entire camel safari his cell phone rang. It rang on the sand dunes, it rang under the tree where we stopped to have our vegetables and chapati lunch, it rang at sundown while we were drinking our beer. It rang after we went to bed under the stars and it was the first sound I heard at sunrise. The Nokia ringtone, piercing the tranquility of the desert.
The Lonely Planet guide book said the power generating wind turbines that have sprouted around Jaisalmer were altering the historic and mystical qualities of the area, that they made it harder to transport yourself to another time and place. But I barely noticed them. I found it was Ali’s cell phone that kept me coming back to now. I had a similar experience while working at the Olympics in Beijing. Dean, Jim and I took a day trip to hike the Great Wall of China. We climbed in Hebei Province, in Inner Mongolia, about two and a half hours outside of Beijing. We took a 10 kilometer trek from Jinshanling to Sumatai. Up and down stairsteps in a place far out of the way. Yet there was cell service. No place this remote would be served by AT&T in the U.S.A. My colleague, Jim, who probably shouldn’t have been on the adventure because he was so busy with his Olympic assignment as the head technical supervisor of the Bird’s Nest Stadium, spent the entire trip talking on his cell phone. I have no idea how he managed to catch his breath as he scrambled up and down the mountainside. It was truly the most difficult physical challenge of my life, yet he yakked the whole way on his mobile.
We have gotten to a place where we are so interconnected that you can no longer escape, even in some of the most remote spots on earth. While in India I have stayed in touch with friends by Skype, email and Facebook. I tuned in to an computer chat on http://msnbc.msn.com that my friend, Kerry Sanders, a correspondent for NBC News, was holding as he covered the rescue of the miners from Chile. There was really no update from family, friends and colleagues that was inaccessible to me from a half a world away. And even though I am grateful for all the technology and connectedness at my fingertips, and understand the need of the camel walla to stay in touch with his people when he travels through the desert too, I still wish the only sounds that day were my thoughts, the wind and the camels, and not Ali’s incessant Nokia ringtone.
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