talking to grandma in falls church via skype, watching the daily show online, listening to WBEZ streaming complete with local traffic updates: sometimes i'm not sure we're living the foreign service as it was intended. (the internet is amazing.)
It really is amazing how connected I can stay despite living so far from family and friends. And it is not just facebook, skype, and e-mail. Netflix, Hulu, online newspapers, and internet radio all make it like I haven't even left the United States. This isn't necessarily a good thing.
Compare this to just twelve years ago when I went to Italy and I wrote letters to friends and family practically every day. The fact that communication took time was important. It helped me develop friends and learn to solve my own problems. I truly became immersed in Italy on this trip, something I haven't done on any trip abroad since (although the definition of an immersion has probably changed as well since most host families probably also use facebook).
The point of this post, however, isn't to talk about the changes in living abroad, but how to take advantage of staying connected to the United States (if that is what you want). Below is a list of the most important technological devices/products/services that I have found to stay connected.
- A VPN (Virtual Private Network) - whether you are living under an oppresive regime or just want to keep up with the latest episode of Grey's Anatomy, no service is more important than a VPN. (Do people still watch Grey's Anatomy). The VPN establishes a secure connection between your computer and a server in the U.S. (or U.K. or where ever you want) and then tells the rest of the world that you are in that location. Many American websites, including Netflix, Pandora, Hulu, etc. have restrictions on allowing access to the content outside the U.S. This allows you to still watch your favorite movie or TV show while abroad.
- There are dozens of commercial VPNs out there, but I have had great success with StrongVPN. They have a variety of options which should be able to suit your needs and only costs about US$55 per year. StrongVPN can be used by multiple computers or devices, but only one can be logged in at a time.
- In order to have multiple devices logged in at once, I purchased a separate router from Sabai Technology. This specific router is designed to work with your StrongVPN account and will broadcast a wireless VPN connected signal. Although the router is a bit pricey at $140, they have fantastic customer service if you need help setting up (you probably will).
- Magic Jack - Some people swear by Skype, but I personally prefer Magic Jack. This awesome device lets me have a US phone number and call anywhere in the US for free using a real telephone. I plug the telephone into the computer and voila! The reason I prefer Magic Jack is I find it easier to call family on their cell phones than arrange for skype dates. For only $20 a year, it is a great deal. I haven't really looked into calling non-US numbers yet on Magic Jack. I know it's possible, but not sure of the costs.
- XBox 360, Wii, or PS3 - If you are a gaming enthusiast, then you probably already have one of these systems. If you do, you can generally connect it to the internet and use it to stream Netflix and other programs. I have used Xbox and while I would recommend it over nothing at all, I am not in love with their service and the inability to pay with a credit card that bills a DPO or APO address.
- Roku - What I would recommend is the Roku. This tiny device fits into the palm of your hand and connects your TV to the internet via its various channels. The five key channels are Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Amazon Instant Video, and MLBTV. I have not had the Roku long, but it already is going to surpass the XBox for streaming to my TV.
- Netflix - If you haven't heard, Netflix now offers streaming video and TV shows. The movie selection is quite limited, the TV show collection is quite extensive. For $7.99 per month, it is totally worth it. I, personally, like to also get the DVDs through the mail as it allows me to see some movies quicker. Given that there is no way to rent movies in Belize, it is worth the extra expense for the extra options.
- Hulu Plus - Almost all currently running TV shows and many older ones. You can get the most recent TV show episodes for free on your computer through regular Hulu. Hulu Plus expands the inventory and allows you to stream to your TV. (I haven't tried this yet).
- Pandora - It's awesome.
So, as you can see it's like I hardly left at all.