It was January 1991 and the visit to the mountainous area of the Philippines had been less than happy; the hosting agency seemed to spend the resources it received in inflaming tribal resentment against ‘lowlanders’ (a suspicion later confirmed by the bishop of the diocese, a radical who complained that dragging people into the past and encouraging enmity was not a path to development).
There was no possibility of calling home before returning to Manila days later. A three minute telephone call had to be pre-booked; it cost the equivalent of £6 Sterling. Those three minutes still remain fresh in the memory, inquiring after a baby son, by then just seven weeks old, and expressing a wish to be back in Co Down as soon as possible. At exactly three minutes, the operator disconnected the call. The next chance to speak would be in a call box in Hong Kong airport some ten days later.
Returning to the Philippines ten years later, after it had enjoyed years of being a Tiger economy, the hosts gave us a mobile phone and we bought a card at the cost of £5 to top it up with credit. How many calls home there were has gone from the memory, but they were made from when and where we chose.
Travelling to Rwanda and Burundi in 2009, the mobile phone I carried did not seem to work with the local networks, even when using a local SIM card. The only telephone calls possible were made by my wife to the house of a friend in Bujumbura and to the mobile phone of a friend in Kigali. A year later and having switched to a Blackberry, there was still no connection possible.
Travelling to Rwanda and Burundi last year, the Wifi in the hotel was so good, I could follow the results of the Irish presidential election. Crossing the border from Burundi, a text came from a friend in Ireland, ‘let me know when you are across the border’; it arrived as an immigration official handed me my passport.
Sitting this evening watching Leinster play rugby against Edinburgh in Dublin, with a Scots Gaelic commentary on BBC Alba, and then switching over to S4C for a Welsh language coverage of the match between Cardiff and Teviso seemed an ordinary sort of thing to be doing – even if the television set is in a house so far south-west in France that one can see the Pyrenees.
All that is need now is for all the television satellites to be linked in a way managed by the mobile phone companies, then the world will have shrunk.