Who am I to blow against the wind?

First published: LinkedIn on Dec 23, 2021

Adrianus Warmenhoven after ISP in Tanzania works

These are my seasonal wishes to you, thinly wrapped in a story about my past. Nothing really of any cybersecurity importance here. Just a well meant effort to get your spirits in the mood.

In the mid 1990's I had the awesome fortune to get sent to Africa with a Cisco 2511 in my yellow Samsonite (which is still the suitcase I use to this day) and 50 dollars in my pocket.

My task was to build a commercial ISP, using satellite via Intelsat because landlines were hideously expensive.

I knew next to nothing about Africa, satellite communications or any customs related stuff.

So, my first visit to another continent started off with me social engineering the customs officer that the Cisco was a piece of music recording equipment and that I would be recording music for my birthday (my birthday is around the festive season).

What followed would form me in a way I could never have imagined.

I started working on the ISP (no laptops, no Internet to look stuff up, just very expensive email) on my own. I was there with the people that tended the garden, the guy who tended the house and my 'driver'.

My driver changed my life. He was introduced to me as my 'driver and bodyguard'. He was about 1.60m, around 50kg. I was around 1.82m and 95kg. Cool.

Because I needed to wait a lot (a smallish building was custom made for the 2 Linux servers, the Earthstation, the Cisco and 10 Tornado modems) we took to checking out the city. At some point we became friends. He took me to where he lived with his daughters. We had dinner and participated in the local customs and celebrations (Pombe...).

In the evenings I was smoking and having coffee with the nightwatch; three elderly men who sat around a campfire and just talked. At first I just listened, but obviously could not make heads or tails of the Swahili they spoke (or any other Swahili, actually). Quite a few evenings went by without me saying a word, silently listening to the men talking, pausing for thought, adjusting the coffee pot on the fire.

At the compound there were a few Dobermann's of which one took a liking to me ("Do you want to take that one back with you?" the owner asked on my last evening there) and she cuddled up to my feet and we listened. Listed to people talking about things I could not understand because I did not speak the language, talking about problems I could not understand because my life was so different.

Sometimes, in that dreamy slow time, I asked questions in English, and we talked. The profoundness of some things that they said to me still sticks with me to this day. Wisdom is something completely different from knowledge or skill or fortune.

As it happened, the owner of the house that I was staying at was fond of Paul Simon and especially the album Graceland (which is no surprise, it is heavily influenced by Africa). So I listened that a lot. And it fit my time there perfectly.

Working on the ISP went slow (also because our copper lines from the TelCo to the modems were stolen twice, and used for fences and washing lines) so I had a lot of time to get past the culture shock. And from what I gathered, they slowly got over the culture shock of having that large long haired hulk visiting all the local markets (my long hair, which I never wore in a ponytail or anything at that time, was a curiosity, so much so that girls started to giggle and the bravest one ran up to me and held my hand for while whilst walking over the fish market).

That meant I could make some plans with my driver to have trips that would take us farther away from the city.

As my birthday came up, he said he had prepared a surprise. He had arranged that I could take a few days off so we could go on a trip to the most well known nature park in Africa, the one near a very tall mountain. It would be special because a relative, who was a park ranger, would take us on a trip through it.

My employer gave me a birthday gift (a bottle of whisky and a carton of cigarettes) and we went off.

There is no doubt I could write at least a chapter or two or three about what happened along the way (Like, I got to the top of that mountain, put snow in a thermos flask, brought it down and used it to throw a snowball at a zebra, much to the wonderment of my travel companions, except for my driver who already had decided that I was benignly crazy), but that is not what this post is about.

On my birthday itself, we camped, in that park. And that was something different altogether. When lying in a hammock looking straight up, there is nothing but stars. You don't see anything but the universe staring at you.

So, my birthday was that. In a hammock, animal grunts and noises around, a fire for food (and coffee, always coffee) and not much else. The silence was fitting because there is not always a need to fill it with talking.

That was when a thought struck me that never left me. I remembered some lyrics from the song "Boy in the bubble": "These are the days of miracle and wonder, This is the long distance call, The way the camera follows us in slo-mo, The way we look to us all", "These are the days of lasers in the jungle" and I really felt it that way. I was right there. In one of the most natural parts of our planet. And I was doing tech stuff a few hundred km away.

The wonder I felt at that moment was enhanced by the fact that a few days after the trip I finally managed to get the uplink and the modems working properly and reliably (it turned out that the secret was to leave the fluorescent lights OFF) and I had a 'by proxy' conversation with my mother via IRC. Basically, I typed my text, a friend of mine at the other end had my mother on the phone and told her what I was typing. Then he typed what she was saying, and so on. Around 8 seconds lag, but hey, it worked!

Now, why this long story about a time long ago?

Because my wishes to you are that you may get that same feeling of wonder ((back) again).

These really are the days of miracle and wonders (and the camera really looks to us all, how prophetic that line was, but it is our own camera). The amount of things we can do, no, alas, it is 'could' do, is increasing every year.

We could use robotics, AI, worldwide communications, a worldbrain in your backpocket (your phone), so much in-depth knowledge of (invisible) thingies, all the joy of creators, all the cheer of kids, to make the world a really nice place where we can all be vibing on our own score.


Merry Christmas, and have a wonderful new year.