While "living off the grid" may mean an ascetic or rustic lifestyle to some, we try to use technology to keep the deprivation factor to a minimum. We have two cellular phones and Internet service through the cellular network. A Sirius satellite radio is playing almost constantly through the stereo system. We recently bought two Amazon Kindles that are small wonders: Through the slightly subversive-sounding communications system known as "Whispernet," we can download a 600-page tome in less than 30 seconds.
We even have--or had--a satellite television system that brought us all manner of programming, ranging from the magisterial Charlie Rose to the over-caffeinated wackos on the Food Network's Iron Chef America who run around peeling, slicing and dicing everything in sight as if cooking were some sort of circus act.
Yes, a satellite television has crisis developed in San Miguel over approximately the past two weeks. First we lost the major networks and then several days later we couldn't get any programs at all, except the listings at the top of the screen. About three days ago even the program listings disappeared, though they returned yesterday. This morning MSNBC and CNBC came back only to vanish a couple of hours later.
Losing one's satellite TV connection would not be a five-alarm crisis in most places except that in San Miguel it is the main link to U.S. and world news for many ex-pats who don't speak Spanish. With all the extra spare time retirement brings, many of them also enjoy watching three episodes of "Everybody Loves Raymond" back-to-back, or four-year-old Home and Garden TV shows of giggly young couples buying their first home before the real estate market crashed.
Compounding the crisis is the not so minor detail that U.S. satellite TV service in San Miguel is, well, essentially bootleg. It gets here pretty much the same way so many DVDs, CDs, videos and other entertainment options arrive in Mexico: Over the transom, under the table or through the kitchen window, depending on your vendor or technician.
When something goes awry, your customer service options are well nigh non-existent, except to complain to the local guy to whom you paid about US $900 for the hardware, installation and the setting up of a mystery billing address in the U.S. Usually these guys gladly and efficiently fix glitches in billing or programming. When a TV satellite 20,000 miles up over North America starts acting weird, that's another story.
A few days after the satellite signal vanished, a friend phoned the satellite service provider in the U.S. to ask what was wrong. I explained to Ron his query might be considered by some as an example of brass cojones, akin to buying a pirated DVD for 80 cents and then calling Warner Bros. to complain about the picture or sound quality.
Except that in the case of satellite TV we not only pay for the equipment and installation but also a monthly fee of nearly US $70 depending on the programming package. This is full-price bootleg.
News of the satellite crisis spread quickly by word-of-mouth and on the Civil List, an Internet bulletin board where gringos voice all sorts of concerns from lost dogs to clogged sinks. Almost instantly the message string on this topic grew to dozens of comments and hypotheses, with some of the latter becoming more and more far-fetched.
The fact is that in a small environment like San Miguel with no hard local news outlets or reliable sources of information--and many people with too much time on their hands--bullshit grows rampant, like crazed bacteria gurgling out of a Petri dish.
Three days ago Stew and I went for lunch to La Palapa, a modest dining establishment located on a dusty lot under a plastic tent and which serves the best and cheapest shrimp tacos in town. An older gringo at one of the plastic tables loudly drawled on that the problem was that solar flares had knocked our TV satellite out of orbit. Judging by his grizzled, sleepy-eyed appearance he may have developed his theory over a bottle of bourbon the night before.
We've also been told that the errant satellite might bump other TV satellites creating sort of a celestial pinball effect that could eventually plunge North America into the TV equivalent of a nuclear winter. Or that Satellite 119, which apparently provides much of our TV service, had crashed somewhere in Russia. We heard the last one at a party yesterday.
Those hypotheses could have merit except that Stew's brother in Minnesota informed us his satellite TV service by the same company we have was fine, solar flares or not.
That takes us to most prevalent explanation, one involving Carlos Slim Helú, owner of the telephone company in Mexico and seemingly most anything that makes money here on in Latin America. He even owns a substantial bloc of New York Times stock. Slim is one of the three richest men in the world, along with Bill Gates and Warren E. Buffett. Indeed the March 2010 issue of Forbes declared Slim to be the richest cahoona in the world.
Though many admire his business acumen, in Mexico he is often regarded suspiciously and criticized for his monopolistic tactics. Anyone who has that much money, some Mexicans would tell you, must have some shady deal going on.
One of Slim's recent ventures was--aha!--to acquire the Dish TV network franchise in Mexico, a factoid that immediately set local conspiracy theorists abuzzing: That oily billionaire is somehow blocking American Dish TV reception to force folks to switch to his Mexican network instead.
Aside from the fact that the number of subscribers to American Dish TV in Mexico is insignificant to a multi-billionaire like Slim, it's also most improbable that the average American or Canadian ex-pat could be forced to watch Mexican television even if it were the last entertainment option in town and someone had a gun to their heads.
Whatever the real reason, here we are in the tenth or twelfth day of no TV.
Satellite radio offers some relief, including daily broadcasts of MSNBC, with Chris Matthews' screaming, Keith Olbermann's scowling and Rachel Maddow's smirking and eye-rolling--but without having to look at them. Now that's an improvement.
On the other hand, without the diagrams and horrific footage, 60 Minutes' recent exposé of the BP oil spill would have been incomprehensible.
Some have suggested subscribing to a Canadian satellite service, eh, which offers most American TV fare plus CBC and presumably all the hockey a human being could want. On their list of offerings there's also something called the "Sex Channel." Canadian sex doesn't sound very exciting at first but imagine what those eskimos in Yellowknife do with during those endless winters. It could be interesting.
Besides if someone doesn't fix this damn satellite soon, we could get desperate.