View of the islands in Raja Ampat

Barely attached

Sitting on a deck in Raja Ampat, the water fading to black in front and beneath me, I perform a strange ritual. Like the four other people on this deck or at the tables behind me, I am waving my arm slowly overhead, searching for a signal.

In this corner of the world we are barely connected. The idea of a global network is alive, just out of reach. Once or twice a day TELSEL E springs to life and delivers the occasional email. More frequently it delivers only subject lines, leaving us curious as to the writer’s intent. Instagram displays pictures from several days ago with enthusiasm.

On some evenings between 6 and 11 pm, when the generator is running, there is satellite wifi. It is a finicky thing, ephemeral and varied. Weather affects it, I hear, or the breeze. In my own observations it works hesitantly or not at all. Waiting for these brief slivers networking is a tedious and laughable exercise that brings mosquito bites as often as data. Luckily all present are taking malaria pills.

The Internet, when found this way, in slivers of roaming or satellite data, feels far more fragile than the conduit of knowledge we’ve grown used to in the US. This is life not “on the edge” but on the remote coasts of the world. Overhead here Orion is upside down and the moon sets early, a tiny sliver. Out in the bay between islands the occasional skiff motors, drawing a straight line between points, unconcerned about traffic.

The next morning we circumnavigate our private island with ease in a kayak, enjoying these flat seas. Here at the equator the world is beautiful and time goes slowly, just like the networks. We hear of the owner’s plans for a second resort, for more solar panels to supplement the generator’s few hours. He bemoans the lack of infrastructure, how machine parts have to come from Jakarta. The capital city is a five hour flight, a two hour ferry, and a thirty minute speed boat ride away. Nothing arrives next day. This is no great distress when fish can be caught and eggs gathered on island, but would concern everyone if water ran low.

To my right the next evening, on a raised wooden walkway connecting the eating deck and the shore, the resort owner sits, arms around his knees and hands on his phone. Like us he is searching for the signal, happily alive on this island but barely connected to the wider world.

Small job, big world

In a photo from decades ago two men hang over the prow of a large ship, painting it while under way. In white t-shirts and dark pants, some twenty feet below the deck, they eptiomize so much of the world to me. Long after the source of the photo has disappeared, I see them, tiny figures against the hulk of steel and the spread of the ocean below. They are two men with a regular job, a task of understandable skill if special magnitude and place. Painting, on a hot summer day, a giant expanse of metal.

Painting a giant expanse of metal while dangling from it, alone, in motion, at sea. As with everything, the addition of context zooms the lens to overwhelming scale.

This sense of scale, of the undertsandably human against the largness of the world, is what pulls me to climb buildings, to hike hills, and to travel, no matter the destination. I find this feeling staring out at Tokyo from the top of a skyscraper in western Shinjuku, standing atop a hill in Santa Cruz, approaching or departing from any airport. The feel of the view pulling back is the sensation I love most.

For the last several months my favorite source for it has been Nat Geo Found, a collection of old images from National Geographic’s archives. Spanning the world, the last hundred and twenty five years, and a huge variety of lives, this collection gives rise to a view of the world that is not simple, or lonely. Instead it shows, without claim to own, how amazing and how diverse, how rich and how personal all our lives are. Widely available, easily accessible, the site is a reminder to me too of how wonderful the internet is, and how much I appreciate this access, unthinkable only decades ago.

Standing in front of a group of friends last week explaining in a few moments why I spend so much time in small factories and border cities, I applied the miracle of Google Maps to the problem, isolating a factory and zooming out to reveal the location. Sitting high on a mesa in the desert, this building has no glass for windows, only holes, and the workers alternately sweat and freeze, depending on the season. And yet seeing it from space, though it draws gasps, will never have the same staggering touch as standing on the edge of the plateau, staring out across the empty landscape. Being there, a tiny single human in the middle of a huge expanse, trapped with others by circumpstance and employment, brings a sense of fragility, and of amazement. That sense, found in the monumental stacks of shipping containers in Shenzhen, in the winding canyons of Colorado, and at the edge of the Pacific on all sides, is reason enough to keep going, to find jobs that take me further out of the city I inhabit.

Like those two men painting their ship, so precariously alone in the ocean and yet part of something larger, understandable from a wider view.