A Ping in the Middle of the Ocean

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

When I moved in 1985 to Toronto, Ontario from Montreal, Quebec, where I was born and lived most of my life, I was surprised to find that my beloved IBM Selectric typewriter would no longer suffice. Not if I wanted my copy to present a current image. So I was kindly informed by a colleague who wanted to help me “integrate” into the Torontonian professional milieu.

Not long before, I had toured the offices of a major Montreal newspaper with a writer’s group. There was still only one computer in the news office, which we regarded with great respect as we were given an informational talk on how the newspaper’s environment (still full of typewriters just like mine) would not only soon become replete with computers, but it would also become paperless.  Shock and awe!

But in business-like Toronto offices, the computers were already there. Everywhere. It didn’t take long to become “hooked.” How had I lived for so many years without a computer? Clueless at first, I had taken reciprocal lessons from an Israeli computer genius who needed English lessons for his young (hyperactive) daughter. So we traded expertise.

At that time, I was learning on a WordPerfect 3.I program that my genius teacher installed in the second-hand computer I acquired from him, and I still appreciate the invaluable advice he gave me: “Don’t read a manual,” he said. “Never. Learn from the machine. Press all the keys, one by one, and it will teach you everything. Don’t be afraid. Nothing will happen. If you make a mistake, you can fix the code.” In those days, the visual miracle of Windows with its drop-down menus had not yet arrived on the personal market. Before Windows, you still had to press “Reveal Codes,” and lo and behold, a mathematical vision appeared on the computer screen. The code underlying the keys. So you learned to “fix” things by learning to read the code to a degree and deleting the mistakes you had made. (Who knew then that in the 21st century some people would be cyber-hacking into computer codes for nefarious reasons?)

Then around 1990, everything changed again. The Windows program was the new imperative along with that world-changing vehicle, The World Wide Web. Now I could put my writing business on the Web, and suddenly people all over the world could access it. The Internet. Accessible with a few keystrokes. Who needed an office any more?

Twenty-seven years had elapsed by the time I found myself, in 2017, Guest Staff Rabbi on a cruise headed for the South Pacific.  I couldn’t imagine life without my computer and cell phone. Neither could my daughter who, putting her own business on hold, had accompanied me. Sadly, even though there were supposed to be “hot spots” on the ship, and even though my daughter had invested in an Internet package, it was almost impossible to “connect.” Even when occasionally we did, the expensive connection was so slow that we couldn’t finish a single email before it was “lost” once again. Other passengers had the same problem. No Internet. No cell phone. And you can’t go to an Apple store for help in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

We didn’t exactly have a funeral for our lost access, but we did have to adjust to life unwired, however temporary. It was a 47-day cruise.

And then we landed on one of the 80 islands of Vanuatu, 65 of which are uninhabited. These once volcanic islands are located in Oceania between Australia and Hawaii. In fact, they are about 1,000 miles east of Australia, and closest to New Caledonia, the Fiji islands, the Solomon Islands, and New Guinea. Over the years, the Vanuatu islands have been plagued by large earthquakes, danger of tsunamis, and repeated cyclones. But they are gorgeous, surrounded by turquoise waters, and fine sandy beaches. It’s small wonder that when the first people arrived there some 4,000 years ago, they stayed. Unfortunately, they were decimated by disease once the Europeans arrived. In 1606, the Portuguese explorer, Pedro Fernandez de Quiros sighted these islands, which he called Espiritu Santu. By the time Captain James Cook found them in 1774, he renamed them the New Hebrides. In the 1800s, traders arrived to exploit the island’s fragrant sandalwood. Then, for a long time, the New Hebrides were under British and French control. With the advent of World War II in the 1940s, the Americans arrived, and in the 1980s, the Republic of Vanuatu emerged as a parliamentary republic.

It was at the most southern of the islands of this Republic that our cruise ship docked. Popularly called Mystery Island, it is uninhabited, and its real name is Inyeug (which is close to the main island, Aneityum). Islanders refuse to live in Inyeug because they believe it is inhabited by ghosts. Even today. Although a few entrepreneurial islanders will come to sell trinkets to tourists by day, at night they have all vanished. The tourists have returned to their cruise ships.  It’s eerily dark on Mystery Island.

Of course, our ship arrived there in daylight. When we disembarked, we were informed that we could walk around this entire island paradise in less than an hour – 45 minutes perhaps. So I set out with my daughter, and as we “oohed” and “aahed” our way around the flora of this beautiful, empty place, her phone pinged. A ping in the middle of an uninhabited island in the South Pacific? Did we hear right?

Amazed, my daughter picked up her cellphone. “Hello,” said the person calling her from California. “Good to hear your voice.” What??? There was reception on the island??? There must be a cell phone tower somewhere nearby. How could it be?

That’s when, halfway around the island, we noticed that a modest grass airstrip ran along one part of the beach to the other side. Planes could land here too! As my daughter continued her business conversation with the U.S., we learned that some of the islands of Vanuatu had been used for the remote locations of the popular television series called “The Survivor.”

Mystery Island was a mystery no more. Modern civilization had been here. It pinged.