Bicycle Africa Tour cyclist

Bicycle Africa

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Pedal Bike and Handheld Computer Go To Africa
Dave Mozer
Dave Mozer lets us peek at his journal as he cycles around Africa!


F
or 15 years, Dave Mozer of the International Bicycle Fund and Bicycle Africa has led adventure cycling programs throughout Africa. In the past, he has lugged along reams of paper containing resource databases, contact lists, and personalized reference materials. This stack of facts has grown over the years — to the point that it's no longer fun to carry on 60-mile-a-day rides.

In October, Dave traveled light with a Sharp Mobilon HC-4500 Handheld PC powered by the Microsoft® Windows® CE operating system. Using the pocket version of Microsoft Office, he loaded his "knowledge base" onto the Handheld PC and took it on the African road. He's using:

Pocket Outlook™ Contacts to hold his database of travel resources, with information on food, lodging, sites, and people he's encountered in all countries he's visited.

Sharp Mobilon HC-4500 Handheld PC David's Handheld PC replaces the reams of paper he'd normally have to cart around.

Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, and Pocket PowerPoint® to develop reference guides that go beyond what's available in encyclopedias and dictionaries, including annotated historical timelines and notes on customs, language, health, politics, culture, and personal anecdotes.

Not only were David's resources now in a much lighter package, but he can automatically synchronize and upload new information to his desktop PC when he gets home. No more wasted hours entering data into his PC.

Sharp® Digital Camera Card allows David to easily take photographs and manage them on the H/PC.  Pictures are saved in the JPEG file format ready for use immediately.  Take a look at David's Malawi Bike Tour Photo Album

How Do You Say "ISP" in Malawi?

When planning this month's trek across Malawi, David hoped to use his Handheld PC's digital camera card and modem to transmit pictures and travel information back to America. Here in the United States, we take such tasks for granted, but how do you power up and connect to the Internet in Malawi?

digital camera card
This camera records directly into the H/PC.  See the results.

Here is the story.........

Mixing Simplicity, Complexity and Idiosyncrasies: Computing With An H/PC In Africa

by David Mozer

What happens when you mix the simplicity of a bike, the complexity of computers, digital cameras and the internet and the idiosyncrasies of Africa together. 

The simple answer is the computer experience is almost more eventful than bike touring. The bike tour was a combination of interesting manmade and natural sights, engrossing discussions with people and the modest challenge of finding places for lodging and meal in very rural Africa.

The computer, on the other hand, was one problem solving exercise after another--though I must also add that when everything is going right the Handheld (H/PC) never stops impressing me and I am tickled pink to have it. I also didn't have to do most of the problem solving and troubleshooting by myself. Val Mallinson, of Wes Rataushk and Associates, was a great help discussing solutions, getting equipment and finding resources with answers prior to my departure.

BACK IN THE BEGINNING

The first obvious need to "Africanize" the computer was to have longer-term power supply. It was quickly clear that the computer's batteries could barely run the PC-card camera on a fresh full charge. In Africa, I would have periods of three and four days when it wouldn't be possible to do any recharging of the batteries. Some of the initial ideas that were discussed were a solar cell for recharging the main battery and getting a second main battery and a docking port so I could charge more batteries when power was available. The availability, specifications and size of the solar cell made it impractical. Multiple main batteries were also going to be of limited use because even with a fresh full charge they were barely powerful enough to run the PC-card camera. After spinning our wheels for a while on this dilemma, fortunately we came across Portable Energy Solutions, www.portable-energy.com/ . They put together a six-volt thin cell unit that worked like a dream www.pwrplant.com/batt/windowsce.html. It is about the same size as the H/PC, only about one-third as thick and probably ten times more powerful than the computer's standard battery. Fred, the tech man, and Deb, customer service person, at Portable Energy Products were great to work with and never hesitated at a request or a question. They couldn't have been easier to work with.

In the end, I used the PEP battery for every picture I took with the H/PC.

There are a couple small inconveniences of the thin cell. The battery requires a different charger than the computer (11 oz.). And, unlike the computer's charger, which handles 110 volts to 220 volts, the only chargers I could find that were appropriate for the thin cell could only handle 110v. To use this charger I was also required to carry a power converter (15 oz.) for use with the 220v European and African power systems.

The North American plugs on all of this apparatus required adapters to fit overseas power outlets.

TROUBLE IN THE SUN

A second problem that became apparent during my pre-departure test equipment was doing photography in full sun it is impossible to see the viewfinder (computer screen). One solution might be to wear a large sombrero but this was going to be impractical on a bike tour. I figured a more practical solution was to design a folding shadow box to set the computer in for picture taking.

I also had a couple of other minor issue to resolve at the same time. I wanted a protective case to carry the computer in, and I needed a place to store the thin cell so that it would be readily available for photography or when the computer's battery was low. The solution was to design of a multi-purpose case to act as a shadow box, battery storage/holder and abrasion protector. It had to also allow the lens to peek out to take pictures.

The solution took several generations of prototype models. I started with several cardboard mockups. Each new edition had some modifications aimed to solve a glitch. When these were "near perfection," I then moved on to a cloth and plastic prototype. Again, I made some adjustments. Finally, I sewed the case using pack-cloth, Velcro and plastic stiffeners. And it was still only "near perfection." While the contraption still worked better with a long billed hat that reduced the light reflected off my face, even by itself, the case helped to allow me to see some image on the screen. (In bright sunlight I still had trouble determining what was in the frame.) In its other capacities, the case worked great for storage and carrying the thin cell. It works fine for holding the thin cell during photography. And, the case was great for keeping the computer clean during travel and inconspicuous if I need to carry it in public.

I NEED A PHONE, JACK

The next challenge was preparing for phone jack variations. It was hard from the literature to know what to expect. I knew that Malawi is a former British colony and there was an indication that there would be British phone jacks there, so this is what I prepared for. This required an adapter that changes RJ-11 (North American standard module jacks) to British jacks. This easiest place for me to pick-up one of this was at Radio Shack. Ironically, during a layover in London, I plugged in directly with a RJ-11 when I sent some e-mail. In Malawi it was a mixed bag. A lot of the jacks into the Malawi phone system are British, but if you are plugging in via a telephone, computer or other apparatus it is likely to take an RJ-11.

To be able to send data back we had to sort out the options and enlist an Internet Service Provider that would not only support the H/PC, but also attachments, and offer international service. The wizard on this is Chris De Herrera, www.cewindows.net/. There is an ISP in Malawi. They proved to be expensive and difficult to sign-up with in advanced. (I learned later that there are similar feelings in Malawi. And by virtue that the owners are related to a minister of government and they have a monopoly, things are unlikely to change soon.) Chris led us to the IBM network (and Portable Energy Products). While IBM does not have a server in Malawi, we hoped to be able to access their serve in Republic of South Africa (RSA). A test from Seattle showed that it worked.

And finally we needed a back up. I wanted to be able to be able to back-up my data, and in case it proved impossible to send data out, we wanted a way to physically send data back. Val came through again with a 16mb flash card that could hold everything.

UPON ARRIVAL

I arrived at Lilongwe International Airport on a Sunday afternoon. On the way in to the hotel I started taking pictures. Just in case telephones were hard to find, and so the project had something to post, Monday morning, at 8 o'clock, when then Lingadzi Inn manager arrived, I started trying to send out pictures. It quickly became apparent that this might not be too easy. Of all the phones in the Lingadzi Inn there was only one that had international direct dial capabilities. (Malawi Telecom keeps this access to a minimum.) The hotel's direct dial phone is in Mr. Khupe's, the manager, office. Like so many others on this project they couldn't have been more accommodating. The manager showed me his phones and left to go about his business. I spent the next two hours trying to send though RSA. Between no dial tone, busy signals (it was not possible to determine if this was a problem with getting an international line out of Malawi, with the server in RSA, or both) and non-authentication problems once I seemed to connect, this effort was unsuccessful. Even after trying a myriad of combinations of settings I had no success. Besides the time spent, the most discourage aspects of this was the indication that it was going to be hard to find phone with direct dial capability and even if I could, I still hadn't solved the vagaries of getting connected. I resolved to make my next attempt during an off peak hour.

During the effort to transmit data the main battery ran down so I finished the effort on the PEP battery. With the battery attached and the computer "on" everything seems to work normally. With the battery attached and the computer "off" there is a steady battery recharge light on. With the normal AC adapter charger the recharge light eventually goes off, indicating the battery is charged. With the PEP battery attached the battery charge light starts to blink after a much shorter period of time than it takes to get a full charge from the AC adapter. This is not explained anywhere in the literature, but it is like the computer trying to say "warning". Because the battery is hot from recharging, it is a little scary. As in, "this thing is about to blow-up." Not understanding what was going on I hesitated to do any recharging with the PEP battery, though it is clearly powerful enough to do this.

LOW BATTERIES AND HIGH BUMPS

I continued to take pictures Monday and Tuesday. There were no battery recharge or telephone opportunities either day. The main battery was again show low battery readings. Wednesday morning, I took a picture about 7:30 with the PEP battery. I stopped to take another picture at 8:30, attached the PEP battery, plugged in the camera and turned on the computer. The H/PC gave me a "master reset" wizard.

I was able to charge the batteries that evening in Monkey Bay and get the computer working, but all the new data (digital photographs) were lost, as well as the camera program. The is a backup battery in the computer that had always read good and it continued to read good when I got the computer back up. So, I devised a couple theories on what caused the problem: A big bump, but the bumps in the last hour were generally small than many of the day before. And, static electricity, but neither of the other items (a watch and camera) with microprocessors that were being carried in the same place seemed to be affected. My final theory is that the main battery was exhausted and one of the bumps broke the connection of the back-up battery for however many milliseconds it takes for the system to crash. The lesson is that using the PEP battery to quick charge the system is probably better than having the system crash - though this has not been validated by any technical experts on such matters.

Though there is a Post Office with a pay phone in Monkey Bay, you can't make international calls from pay phones in Malawi. We also came across some cell phone at a beach resort, but I didn't feel comfortable asking to borrow one for an international call that I knew would be expensive. I guess I could have used a satellite phone.

I wasn't able to get to a phone that could make international calls until Friday (operator assisted, voice only). Because my Outlook contact file crashed, I didn't have any email addresses or phone numbers. The potentially useful phone number I could remember were my wife's and my dad's. My wife generally doesn't and didn’t answer a half dozen calls, so I called my dad. I got through but it wasn't cheap and the connection was probably to noisy to handled data transfer even if I could have plugged in. In the course of the call I was able to give him information to try and find Val, get the software for a desktop, connecting cable and the camera program, and DHL the package to me in time for my return to the Lingadzi Inn. I did what I could but could not be sure of the out come.

Not knowing what success my dad my have I continued to try and send back messages. Monday afternoon we visited the University of Malawi. Their computer technology people are in the physics department. They have modems and plenty of hardware but it is only used for an intranet. It turns out that though they have had a proposal in with the government for some time, the government won't allow the university to hookup to the Internet. The conventional wisdom is because the government doesn't want the university community to have access to that much information and communications.

By Friday I was in Blantyre, another city with modern facilities. Among the resources there is the Communications Center (an "Internet cafe"). Like so many people they were as helpful as they could be, but this was limited. The government won't give the direct dial international line so I couldn't hookup to the RSA server with the H/PC. Their computer are wired into a local area network and we lacked the fitting (and probably the software) to tap into that with the H/PC. In the end, I used one of their desktop computers to get my mail via Malawi Net and using Hotmail. Malawi Net's server was running like cold molasses that day so this was an extreme tedious task. (Had I depended upon Malawi Net I would have been further frustrate because two weeks later, when I was again in Lilongwe and in a position to send, Malawi Net's server was again down for at least three days.)

ON THE ROAD TO RECOVERY (AND MPONELA)

I doubt my mother couldn't have collected all of the paraphernalia by herself, but in the end, the documents on the DHL package said it came from her. Aren't mothers (and fathers) grand. The records show that it arrived in Malawi in six days, leaving several days to spare. DHL had called the hotel that the package was in town. When we called for it on Saturday afternoon they brought the package right over--with the Windows CE CD-ROM, the camera program, hardware and some data files that I hadn't backed up on the flash card.

So with the help of the Mr. Kuzomba, the deputy manager, we determined that the Lingadzi Inn accounting department's computer had a CD-ROM drive. With the characteristic generosity of the of Lingadzi Inn, I was given full access to the computer and start plugging my patch cord, loading programs, popping in floppies and dragging things around the screen. In short order I was again back up to full capacity. After the crucial need, I again had addresses and phone numbers for everyone.

The next order of business was to hurry around Lilongwe taking pictures. One of the reasons for the hurry was Dave, one of my clients, was flying back to the States the next day and the fastest sure way to get material into the project was to have him carry the flash card. I spent much of the evening writing photo descriptions, notes, catching up on the editing, and recharging batteries. Sunday morning, I accompanied Dave to the airport, taking more pictures as I went. As he checked in, I tapped in more photo text, backed everything on to the flash card, handed the card to Dave as he headed for customs, and said good-bye to both of them. Once again, I had done what I could but could not be sure of the out come. I cycled off to Mponela, Mpherembe, Nchenachena and points north.

Well, finally it seems something worked smoothly. Dave arrived in Minnesota safely, slipped the flash card into an express mail packet, mailed it, and the next day it was in Seattle. Someone must I have figured out how to get the data off of it because not long after that the photos were up on the Microsoft Magazine site.

The moral of the adventure is, with the proper accessories and acumen the technology is great - as long as you don't go past the last "telephone pole".

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