Extreme teleworking: A Reg hack reports from the internet's frontier
SPB carves new cyberspace out of frosty mountain notspot
"You lucky, lucky bastard," was how a fellow Reg hack responded to my announcement back in 2004 that I was upping sticks and establishing a Vulture Central outpost in rural Spain, far from the rain-lashed shores of Blighty.
In September of that year, I was sardined in cattle class on a London-bound train packed with misery-washed commuters as we crawled at 30km/h through "vital engineering works" which had, according to local lore, begun in 1873 and were scheduled for completion some time before the heat death of the universe.
By mid-December, I was standing in the freezing cold of a Spanish mountain village, clutching the keys of the ancient house I'd just bought which had, according to local lore, been built in 1873 and, according to my missus, was unlikely to be entirely renovated before the heat death of the universe without the intervention of a team of builders endowed with superhuman powers of construction.
So, I'd given the expat-packed Costas a wide berth, resisted the temptation to spunk all the available cash on a newly built property, and landed in the province of Avila's enclave of Los Narros: elevation 1,100m, population 10, donkey to human inhabitant ratio 1.2:1.
Los Narros: Population 10
My first priority was to establish communication with the outside world via the internet - on which the whole success of the relocation rested. Fat pipes are a bit thin on the ground out in here, so I was obliged to rent office space in the local town of El Barco de Avila, and get in touch with the Great Satan of Spanish telecoms, whose name is whispered by trembling locals with a mixture of fear and contempt.
Yes, Telefónica, I'm talking about you. I still owe you one for forcing me to work in a cybercafe for two months, surrounded by shouty yoof playing Counter-Strike, while you tried not very hard to find a crack team capable of bridging the ten metres between the phone cable in the street and office's broadband modem.
Telefónica gives another customer a right seeing-to
Finally, two Ecuadorians in a white van rolled up bearing a ladder, a pair of pliers and some wire strippers, and the deed was done. With a net hook-up that only fell over a bit when it rained or was a bit windy, or during a full Moon or an unfavourable alignment of the planets, I was able to settle into the daily 16km round-trip commute between my delightful country residence and work PC.
My delightful country residence. Trust me, it's even colder inside...
I use the term "delightful" in the same way Brit estate agents might use "quaint" to describe a timber-framed cottage tortured by rising damp and deathwatch beetle, and built over a disused mineshaft filled with nuclear waste. With no central heating, the house's stone construction displayed the quite remarkable ability to maintain a interior winter temperature colder than outdoors, as if the walls were equipped with some kind of alien tech chill generator, perhaps developed by distant ice-world beings to keep their embryonic offspring at the optimum level of freeze.
The difference between life and icy death
We managed to bodge in a wood burner on the first floor, but to leave the one-room sanctuary where the mercury rose to a balmy 15°C on January nights was to take your life into your hands. "I am just going outside and may be some time," declared my son as he ventured downstairs to the kitchen to make a cuppa, only to return a few minutes later looking like he'd spent the time sitting outside with Kurt Russell in the final scene of John Carpenter's The Thing.
We survived, though, and as the frozen earth slowly yielded to the spring sunshine's gentle caress, I began to consider phase two of my grand plan for a pure teleworking experience: to get an internet connection in the village.*
I didn't much appreciate stumping for an office space when I could just as easily work at home, and enjoy the latest addition to my country estate: a 3000 square metre field next to the house where at some stage a garden and garage complex would rise from the earth in magnificent tribute to hardcore DIY.
Suffice it to say, I'm still working on the complex, and if it weren't for a chance meeting in town a few years back, I'd still be doing the day job in a rented space through Telefónica's "copper cable of uncertainty", as it had become known.
Next page: The coming of the WiMAX
I was quaffing a beer in a local bar and was approached by a young woman who asked if I was the Englishman who wanted a broadband connection at the "end of the world". This is what we call Los Narros, in honour of its distance from civilisation both literally and figuratively, and I was delighted to note the phrase had caught on.
SPB chief, in traditional local headdress, patiently awaits the arrival of WiMAX
Said young woman was a rep from Iberbanda** - a WiMAX outfit keen to spread its tentacles into our small corner of the world. For around €50 a month, she explained, I could have one meg net and phone services. Not cheap, but a quick beermat calculation showed that I'd save more than that in petrol every month, so the deal was done.
In years to come, people will still talk about the day the internet came to the villages, in the same way today's old timers tearfully recount the memorable moment they got connected to the water and sewage systems, before which they were crapping in buckets and slogging 20km for fresh water while being attacked by wolves, Communist bandits and indeed Communist bandits disguised as wolves, if they're to be believed.
Just two weeks after inking the Iberbanda contract, two Spanish subbies in a white van rolled up bearing a ladder, pliers, wire strippers and the magic WiMAX receiver, which they swiftly bolted to the TV aerial post.
Draw a chair up to the fire, young man, and I'll tell you about the day the internet came...
Half an hour or so later, the extreme teleworking network was live. My commute was instantly reduced from 8km to five metres, or perhaps 15 metres if using the laptop outdoors in the "Battle of the Somme re-enactment park"***, as my son unkindly describes the building site where one day my garden and garage complex will triumphantly rise, etc, etc.
The Battle of the Somme re-enactment park, as seen in October 2012.
So I really am a lucky bastard - for some of the year at least. Yup, it's all blazing sun, barbecues, beer and burro rides during the summer, as the village fills with emigrant families returning to their roots, keen to hear granddad's fabulous tales of Communist bandits disguised as wolves.
Grandma, your taxi's here
Evenings are filled with the happy sound of children playing, punctuated by shouty yoof hanging around my door and bemoaning the fact that my Wi-Fi network is password protected. Mobile phone coverage is equally elusive here, so some of these wretched creatures have been known to suffer two whole days without Facebook and Twitter. To see packs of brutally disconnected teens aimlessly wandering the streets in search of entertainment is a wretched sight indeed.
If they're lucky, they won't inadvertently run into gramps, who'll be quick to tell 'em they don't know they're born, and that when he was lad he was up at five in the morning to feed the cows - if he could find them under the 3 metre overnight snowfall - and then it was off to chop firewood so the shivering family could have some boiled gruel for breakfast.
In this case, the old timers have a point. I very much doubt urban youngsters would survive a winter here, and for at least three months of the year I'm glued to the wood burner, eyeing the skies in case an emergency run for supplies is in order.
Rural life can be tough, especially when it's -12°C outside and there's a vicious wind blasting snow into your face as you battle your way to the van in order to drive to town for vital bread, milk and, essentially, lots and lots of beer.
'I am just going outside and may be some time'
For those of us who remain at the end of the world - and every year the grim reaper comes calling to further depopulate the local villages - the internet is a lifeline which enables us to remain both connected and sane.
Obviously, my job depends entirely on that connection, and without it there'd be one less person on the rapidly-diminishing electoral roll.
What the future holds for the area is uncertain, but with agriculture pretty well dead in the water, a radical change of tack is required. I hope that gradually I'll be joined by others who realise if you earn your crust in cyberspace, you can live and work pretty well anywhere. ®
Los Narros, July 2011. L-R: Pilar, Agustina, Arturo, Me, Eve, Juan, Pepe and Venancio. Sitting at front, Luis.
* I looked into satellite, but it cost an absolute packet.
** Since swallowed whole by Telefónica. God preserve us all.
*** Scene of the Portuguese builder in a hole outrage.