Online Freedom Around the World

Did you know that in Burma (Myanmar)  a screen shot is taken every 5 minutes of any computer that is online in order to monitor activity? Did you know that there are employees in China whose only task is to read e-mails all day?

Using the internet is such a natural thing to do now-a-days. We expect the internet to be available to use whether it’s getting mad when a building doesn’t have wireless or expecting the whole world to have 4G so we can access the internet from our phones. We Americans are obsessed with the internet, and we are expectant of the internet. We expect all sites to be available to us, and we expect all of our web surfing to remain private. Americans have been going crazy over the idea of the government spying on our telephone and internet usage.

I saw a clip in Time Magazine about Cubans and the internet, which sparked this post. As you know, Cuba is a communist country, so many things there are restricted, and the internet is one of those things. In Cuba, it costs $4.50/hour to use the internet when the average monthly salary is only $20. If you are found to have connected to the internet illegally, you can be thrown in prison for 5 years.

Reporters without Borders considers Cuba to be one of the top 10 restrictive countries in regards to online freedom. The full top 10 is as follows:

-Belarus

-Burma

-China

-Cuba

-Egypt

-Iran

-North Korea

-Saudi Arabia

– Syria

-Tunisia

-Turkmenistan

– Uzbekistan

In most of these countries the internet is state controlled. That means that the government decides what sites are able to be accessed, what search terms will bring up error messages, and if the going online means going on the internet (worldwide) or the intranet (within the country). For example, North Koreans only have intranet access, which means they can view only a small number of sites controlled by the communist government. Only a select few government officials can access the internet. In Turkmenistan, less than 1% (ONE PERCENT!?) of the population is online.

Self censorship is essential in these countries if a person wants to retain his or her internet “freedom”.  Currently in China, 52 people are imprisoned for expressing themselves too freely online. Bloggers in many of these countries are imprisoned or forced to shut down their blogs if the government deems them inappropriate.

In many of the countries listed, governments blame internet blocking on technical problems. However, Saudi Arabia is honest and straight up says certain websites and topics are blocked because of their immorality. For example, pornographic sites cannot be accessed, governmental opposition sites or searches are blocked, and anything about homosexuality is inaccessible. In the same manner, Iran currently blocks 10 million websites its government sees as immoral.

Much of my information was gathered from the Reporters Without Borders website, which can be directly accessed by clicking the embedded link.  Check it out for more details. US citizens should make themselves more aware of cyberspying issues and internet freedom issues here in America. Do you think think it’s only a matter of time before all governments in the world try to control the internet more? Are they already doing this and we don’t even know about it? How is it in your country? Be sure and leave your opinion in a comment and share this post on your social media site if you enjoyed it and want others to as well. Thanks for reading!

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Backpacking 101

A bunch of students at my school are getting ready to go on a study abroad trip to Europe. They’re going to visit England, France, and Italy. They know I’m a traveler, so several of them have been asking me a ton of questions. What should I pack? Should I take my laptop? What shoes should I wear? Well, here’s my guide to backpacking.

1) Pack light. This is kinda “duh”, but you need to be able to easily lift your bag, because, let me tell you, you’re going to be lifting, carrying, dragging, throwing it around A LOT! Only take a few mix and match items. You can wash clothes often while traveling; buy some laundry detergent once you get there. And remember you’ll probably buy a t-shirt or 2 or a piece of traditional clothing from the place you’re visiting as a souvenir, so you’ll have those to wear as well. And, of course, take comfortable shoes. When I am travelling where it’s warm, I hate taking sneakers. I’d rather take some type of comfy walking sandal, like a Teva. You can wash them and they dry quickly, or if you get them wet you don’t have that wet sneaker feeling.

2) Pack your own towel. Some hotels/hostels don’t provide them if you’re budget travelling. Have you ever tried to completely drip dry? It’s really not as easy as it may seem.

Also, don’t take your own pillow. I was asked about that specifically. It’s too annoying to cart around. If it’s a must to you, take a small travel pillow that can fit easily in a bag. But I still recommend no pillow. Your own pillow case is a good idea though. It will help things feel a little homier, and you’ll know what you’re laying your face on is clean.

3) Don’t take your laptop. In the US, we often leave valuables in our hotel rooms, and they are fine. But when travelling abroad, I never leave anything in my hotel room that is valuable. Too many people I know have had money, cameras, laptops, and so much more taken. So, don’t take so many gadgets that you can’t carry them on your person. Keep your camera with you. Keep your passport with you. I know a lot of people want to take their laptops for 2 reasons. The first reason is to stay in touch with people at home. There are SO many internet cafes that are dirt cheap. Make use of those. The second reason is to upload their photos. My suggestion is to buy a large enough memory card that you don’t have to do that. 8 GB should work for most people.

4) Take a messenger bag, something that you can sling across your shoulder. I prefer this over a backpack, because you can keep your eyes on it better. (Watch out for thieves!) I know guys don’t like to carry bags. We’ve all made fun of someone for their man bag before, right? But, you end up with a lot of stuff! You’re carrying your valuables, and you wanna throw a bottle of water in there, you get a ticket you need to keep safe. Everyone needs a purse! :]

5) Take a notebook and a few pens. Every night when I finish a day of adventure I write down where I went and what I did that day. After going to place after place, it is too difficult to just remember it all. I love looking back on the notebooks from my travels. I include what I did, what I ate, interesting people I met, and something funny or crazy that happened. Don’t assume you’ll always be able to e-mail or blog about it everyday. And also don’t think you have to write pages and pages. Usually by the end of the day you’ll be too tired. I usually just do bullets.

6) Remember, people in foreign countries do many of the same things we do- wash their hair, take showers, get mosquito bites. :] You don’t need to take a month’s supply of shampoo, soap, and itch cream. You can take a bit to start you off and then buy some once there. I also suggest leaving whatever toiletries you have left at the end of the trip there, so you have more room for souvenirs!

I’m sure I could come up with a list of 30, but I’ll stop for now. Most of these tips were learned by trial and error. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” Feel free to ask questions you might have.

And I’ll leave you with a few pictures of my experience backpacking through SE Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and China).

Me with my travelin’ gear in Vietnam

I loved this sign at my hostel in Cambodia!

Wearing my souvenir Angkor Wat shirt at Angkor Wat

Just Nod and Smile

Well, I have been trying my hand at some travel writing. I have had so many funny and unique experiences while traveling, I feel like I need to share them. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoy reliving the experience. Get ready to read about my adventure in crossing the Vietnamese border!

      I have found that my best response in life is a nod and a smile. This is especially useful when dealing with gun-toting, communist boarding crossing guards. After a very long and interesting 24 hour train ride from Hangzhou, China to Nanning, China, I was finally ready to make my way across the border from one communist country to another. We had to get off the bus and walk through customs and exit China, then walk across the Vietnamese border and do customs on that side.

      So, here I go walking through with my 30 pound traveler’s backpack on my back and my friend Danny by my side. Even though I haven’t done anything criminal or wrong, I always feel a little edgy going across borders. Are they going to deny me entry? Have I unknowingly let my passport expire, and they’re going to send me on the next slow boat back to America? After being pushed and pushing back to get to the front of the mass of people that should, in an American’s eyes, be a nice, neat line, I finally make it to the window.  

     As Danny finishes up at the window, he stands off to the side, as I start my smile and nod routine. There are two Vietnamese officers behind the grimy, plexi-glass window. They both look like they are growing weary of seeing 20-something year old foreign backpackers trying to enter their country. I hand one angry-looking man my passport. He flips it open, looks at it, looks at me, looks at it, looks at me. He’s grumbling to the man beside him as he slams a rubber stamp down on my Vietnamese visa. Then he looks at my entry paper. The second man starts talking rapidly to the man holding my precious passport. If only these two gentlemen spoke English and didn’t frighten me slightly, I might have had the courage to ask if there was a problem. Finally, after much deliberation in a language that I couldn’t even pick a single word out of, the man with my passport looks at me from under his little, blue hat and says in English, “Is dat man your husband?” while pointing to Danny who was already safely through the line.

     My mind begins racing. I am thinking they have discovered that Danny has smuggled some illegal substance into the country; maybe he is even hiding a small child somewhere in his backpack, and he forgot to mention it to me. I’m already picturing us being escorted to a back room filled with rats the size of my head. I quickly spout out an, “Um, no?” hoping that is indeed the right answer.

     “Oh good!” he says as he slaps the other man on the shoulder enough times to constitute as the himlec maneuver. “Because he thinks you are soooooo beautiful and is very happy dat you are not da wife of that man!” he says while crying with laughter. I glance in the direction of my admirer who is red in the face and is swatting at the hand on his shoulder. I figure that that information was supposed to be a secret between comrades. I take my passport back and tuck it back into my bag as I nod, smile, and walk away. 

Me with my travelin' gear