'It's easy to take the internet for granted'

Travelling round Sri Lanka and Indonesia using local internet cafés, I've grown used to watching goats fight and cows amble past while waiting for websites to load. My favourite net café is in Arugam Bay, on the east coast of Sri Lanka. With the terminal placed in an unglazed window on the only road through town, everyone walking past would say hello. I'd watch tuktuks zoom past throwing up clouds of dust. I could ask people walking back what the surf was like and find out what they were doing later.

It didn't matter that the café suffered power cuts so frequent they often tried to charge me regardless of whether the computer had worked or not.

I can't forget the poignancy of a deserted internet café in a tsunami-hit town on the south coast of Sri Lanka. Six dusty terminals in a darkened room waiting for the tourists to return. Using the internet abroad makes you realise how much we take for granted. East coast Sri Lanka is still struggling post-tsunami. A reliable electricity supply is often a precious (and political) commodity in developing countries. In one town in Indonesia I had to crouch over an internet terminal in a crumbling concrete building that was the local grocers, next to the only deep freeze in town, while attempting to deflect the attention of the local business mafia.

The instant connection offered by the internet can bring unwelcome reality into my backpacker idyll. Before leaving England I signed up for the Foreign Office e-mail travel alert service. One memorable day I received alerts for every country I'd registered for. This included useful updates on the more unstable areas I plan to visit, but also warned of a possible tsunami risk for New Zealand and gave the bizarre news that alligators "appeared" to have eaten at least three people in Florida in the previous month. Tourists were advised not to walk pets near water after dark.

In May, I was in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, when there was a suicide bomb attack by the LTTE on the army headquarters. The internet became vital for finding out as quickly as possible which areas were being affected. I was kept closely informed of the subsequent increase in violence through SMS from local friends, but often knew more about unfolding events thanks to India Times online and Reuters.com. At the moment I'm planning trips within Indonesia with help of seismology websites.

Easy access to e-mail has its own inherent dangers when abroad. I've guiltily learnt how difficult it is to distract my former work colleagues. Friends now tend to ignore me when I e-mail them twice in four days to tell them this is the most beautiful country I've ever seen. Another peril is "traveller spam" - the lengthy generic group e-mail. I and about 40 other people receive regular e-mails from a brief acquaintance, describing at length his drinking binges throughout south east Asia. I tend to keep my own beautifully crafted, yet lengthy missives for those who haven't e-mailed me in a while.

But I've been rumbled. Three months into my trip, friends have realised there's a conspicuous lack of photos. I sent the photo attached to this article using www.yousendit.com - useful for sending large files if you lack access to broadband (thanks are due to Legian Cyber, Bali for the tip). It still took 12 finger-tapping minutes to send though. Attempts at loading pictures to www.flickr.com using a dial-up connection in Bali failed dismally.

Websites here in Indonesia and in Sri Lanka, aren't the vital tool I'd become used to in Britain. The websites of major companies offering tours in Sri Lanka were permanently down for "maintenance". The Air Asia website ( www.airasia.com) is great and takes online bookings. Same with www.hostelbookers.com which I've used to book accommodation in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. But within Indonesia, if Merpati and Pelita Air have functioning websites I've yet to get on them.

Despite these problems, it's really easy to take the internet for granted.

I forget that the last time I went travelling, in the mid-Nineties, keeping in touch meant waiting weeks for airmail letters. But there are still things the internet can't do.

Online, I can't have spontaneous drunken chats with my best friend or hold the new-born babies my friends are producing. I can't email the smell of clove cigarettes and dried fish that is Indonesia, or (possibly because I lack the necessary equipment and know-how) transmit the "vaddai vaddai" shout of Sri Lankan food sellers on trains.

In return I'd ask to be sent the long evenings that are the best part of summer surfing in England. What internet access has done though is help me stay part of the day-to-day life of my family and friends, and that makes being away feel like having the best of both worlds.