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Staying in Touch

It seemed a brilliant idea at the time: eighty-six my job and backpack around South America. Even better, I'd throw in my laptop so I could check my E-mail. America Online had it all sorted out, with local access numbers for nearly every country south of Panama. What could be better?

My euphoria lasted precisely one day— until I tried to log on in Quito. Nada. Friends there snickered at my naïveté. The AOL number, they explained, hadn't worked in months, and there was no point in trying CompuServe, either; it used the same number.

A few hours spent trying to log on to a United States-based E-mail account when traveling abroad is enough to cure anyone of the notion that we're all connected. The major on-line service providers— AOL, CompuServe, and IBM.net— offer an impressive list of global access numbers (though none has a comprehensive presence in Africa), but even if the local access number works, phone jacks don't always match, and lines often have too much distortion to carry a modem signal.

Despite these pitfalls, all it takes is one successfully received E-mail message when you're alone in a Patagonian dust bowl to send you scurrying back for more abuse. So here are a few hints to help you retain your sanity.

1. Go cellular. One way around the physical connection problems is to bring a cellular modem and then rent a cell phone once you get there; it will liberate you from antiquated telephone kiosks and often provide a clearer signal than conventional phone lines.

2. Think locally. There are alternatives to AOL. More than 50 local Internet service providers offer global access through iPass (415/237-7300; www.ipass.com), a new partnership that hopes to challenge the on-line service behemoths.

3. Use a calling card. Accessing your local number in the States via a direct-dial calling card might be expensive, but at least you'll get a clear direct line. And bear in mind that in certain countries, on-line providers levy surcharges of up to $12 per hour.

4. Ditch your laptop. Do you really need it just to keep in touch?There remain few parts of the world where, with a bit of searching, you can't find a computer and a modem. (Even the southernmost town in the world— Ushuaia, on the island of Tierra del Fuego— has a cyber-café.) And most good hotels now provide a service for sending E-mail.

5. Double up. A good fallback option, whether you intend to schlep your laptop over the Andes or just log on from a hotel business center, is to get a second, free E-mail address through USA.NET or MailStart.Com. Both offer mailboxes accessible through their Web home pages.

6. Know when to quit. "Sometimes it's cheaper and simpler to use Federal Express," says political consultant Dan Buck regarding his travails in sending paperwork between Washington and southern Argentina. "A delivery service can save you from half a day in a phone booth, pounding your head against a wall."

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