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I’m traveling with an uglified IBM X30 that I bought for $50 three and a half years ago. It’s running Ubuntu 10.04 with the option to boot into WinXP, mostly for netflix streaming compatibility. This machine is not unlike a typical netbook; comparable weight, slightly larger screen, no optical drive. It’s intended uses are communications (skype/email/blogging/file transfers) and entertainment (surfing, music and movies).  Movies will be tricky without a DVD drive, especially with cheap bootleg DVDs available everywhere. I’ll probably just rip them to a USB stick on a cafe computer using vobcopy. We’ll see.

When I traveled in 2007 I relied on internet cafe computers, even for secure access to financial institutions. I would boot into a live linux distro (I was using Slax, but it’s no longer maintained, Ubuntu should work fine these days), check for physical keyloggers and carry on with my business. In this way I bypassed all of the spyware that those public machines were infested with. The cafe employees were usually curious and always accommodating. This wasn’t a bad way to go, but this time we’re going the other way.

The advantages: Theoretically, we can get internet access in the home. This makes 10 hour overnight backup uploads and slow, lengthy downloads much more feasible. We can pay for mobile broadband, but the prices (comparable to US) and contract tie-ins may make this unattractive in our situation.  In some areas we should be able to pluck wifi out of the air, as I have a pretty serious rig in place. Some of this will be free, sometimes we’ll arrange access for a fee. We can watch movies, listen to music, play games and all of the other activities that you do when you’re not sitting in a cafe paying by the hour.

The disadvantages: Weight, fragility, likelihood of attracting unwanted attention.

We seriously considered trading it for a jailbroken ipod touch, though now I’d probably opt for an Android device if we went that route.  In the end we decided it wasn’t worth pumping hundreds of dollars into until we have more experience on the ground.

In either scenario, personal laptop or cafe towers, you’re going to want a server to upload files to along the way. People (photographers especially) used to store their data on SD cards and (snail) mail them back home periodically, but now there are plenty of better options. Whether you use a backup service like Mozy, online apps like those offered by Google or a private FTP server in some friend’s basement, you’re going to want to put your files somewhere safe in anticipation of loosing all of your electronics at knife point.

While I’m generally a desktop user you’ll find laptops far better suited for Latin America. The local power isn’t especially dependable, so having a battery to weather quick blips is a serious plus, as is being able to compute during longer outages. Also, power tends to be expensive (less subsidized than in the US) and laptops use far less of it.

I’d rather not provide a full breakdown of all of our electronics, but I will point out what other travelers find handy:

GPS: These are nice for geocaching, hiking, etc.  Years ago a friend and I traveled Nicaragua for a couple of weeks with a GPS and never used it; to be honest, we completely forgot we had it.  Since then I don’t bother with them myself.

Ereader: I keep asking the expat lists if they’re using Kindles or similar devices in Central America and I’ve never gotten a single response.  I have no idea why.  The group members don’t seem especially technically savvy, but they aren’t clueless either.  English language books are a hot commodity in a lot of these areas, so ereaders offer all kinds of perks.  It’s hard to imagine settling permanently without one.

Cell phone: In Central, like in most of the world, you just buy a new SIM when you enter a new country.  You then pop that SIM into your phone and you’re good to go (either because you have a contract of bought a prepaid SIM).  The only complication is that not all Latin American countries use the same bands (frequencies), so you may end up having to pick up a cheap local phone (~ US$30) if your existing hardware operates on the wrong bands.

Smoke detector: We’ll carry a smoke detector with us because 1) they’re commonly absent 2) the wiring can be dangerous 3) they’re cheap, light and can easily be fashioned into a makeshift burglar alarm

Music:  I’ll be carrying a cheap 2nd gen ipod shuffle.  Should suit my needs just fine and at US$30 I won’t cry if it get’s ruined or stolen.

Flashlights: LEDs all the way.  They’re so efficient that they greatly reduce your battery need.  This greatly reduces your pack weight.  You have a million variations to choose from: headlamps, hand cranks, tiny single LED key chains and probably plenty that I’ve never seen.  I’d suggest getting something dependable and of a reputable brand with multiple bulbs and then supplementing it with 5 of these cheapos.

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