Beneath the Black Sea: Connecting in Crimea - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Connecting in Crimea "Beneath the Black Sea"
Summer 2000

Achieving and maintaining a workable internet connection in Crimea is as tenuous as it is remarkable. This is being sent to you from a local archaeologist's cottage in the medieval fortress-town of Sudak, which is the main town just east of Novy Svet (we have no telephone at our camp). To connect into cyberspace, I take apart the Soviet-era military phone, which is hard-wired into the walls of the cottage. Then I have to unscrew from their mounts the two wires that feed into the phone using the sort of tiny screwdriver that you use for eyeglasses, and attach the stripped wires to a pair of alligator clips on a telephone patch-cord cable. On the other end of the cable is a standard telephone outlet, and I run a telephone line between that and my laptop. I'm using a friend's internet account that's based out of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, and the first time I tried to make a connection with this whole crazy setup I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw the message "Verifying user name and password," and then "Connected."

Access to this cottage phone is not always available, and I think that I have exhausted all other available options in Sudak. There was a glimmer of hope a couple of days ago, when Zelenko announced he had found an internet café on Sudak beach!

That evening I rushed down to the café, which consisted of four PCs in a small cement room, each manned by a teenage boy playing an interactive game or surfing western entertainment sites. To my dismay, I discovered that the computers were connected to a central hub via thicker Ethernet, rather than standard telephone, lines. The hub itself was linked to a hard-wired line in the local telephone office next door. The director of the café, who couldn't have been a day over 19, helpfully suggested a shop in town that sold computer accessories. Maybe I could finagle some way of hooking up into the hub....

I left the café a bit annoyed with myself. I had anticipated the most primitive communication situation possible--that there would be only direct telephone connections available and no other computers to rely on--before I left New York, and packed my equipment accordingly. I had replaced the floppy drive on my laptop with a second battery pack, unsure of the electricity supply in Novy Svet (which actually turns out not to be a problem). I purchased a Ukrainian telephone plug adapter, modem surge protector, and a patch-cord kit, with all of its attendant cables, clips, screwdrivers, and knives, but I didn't bother with Ethernet cables and serial cables. Here I was in, of all things, an internet café in a small Crimean town, and my technology wasn't up to snuff!

The next afternoon, I headed back to Sudak with Loscha, who speaks English with an impeccable British accent and usually helps me on errands when my caveman Russian won't suffice. It had been five days since I had sent my last dispatch, and I was getting worried. My boss probably thinks that I'm too busy eating bonbons on the Crimean Riveria to do any serious work, I speculated glumly. The tiny computer shop, which sold mostly circuit boards and household appliances, had nothing that I could use. "Why doesn't she just put her documents on a floppy?" the shop owner asked Loscha. "Her laptop has no disk drive," Loscha replied, at which point the shop owner looked at me incredulously. Stupid Westerner.

Afterwards, we hiked half a mile through the midday heat to the Central Post and Telephone Office. There was an internet counter there, where you pay by the minute to access their connected PC. "Sure, we have internet," said the boy behind the counter, "Just give me your disk." Same incredulous look. Loscha went to find the office director, and after 20 minutes of wrangling, I was able to connect the PC's telephone cord to my laptop. For about a half an hour, I repeatedly dialed eight different numbers using three different usernames. Every time the line was busy or I was abruptly disconnected. Finally I gave up and shut the laptop down. "Let's get out of here," I sighed.

I sat outside in the shade while Loscha tried to place a call with an archaeologist in Chersonesus. I was planning a day trip to the western Crimean city of Sevastopol, and Chersonesus, with its magnificent remains dating back to the Greek colonial period, was nearby. As I idly poked around the ports at the back of the laptop, I remembered that it was possible to run a direct connection between two computers using a direct cable connection. All I needed was a serial cable, and if the internet café computers were running Windows 98, I would be in luck.

On our way back to the internet café, we stopped at the telephone office next door. While Loscha tried to call the archaeologist again, I stared at the telephone, the cables running down from the phone...into a plug! "What if I could just unplug the phone and plug in the laptop?" I suggested excitedly, "Just tell the phone lady that I want to make a call to Kyiv!"


Crossing my fingers...

Success! This photo was taken about 30 seconds before I was disconnected.

In Ukraine, actually, in most of the former Soviet Union, using a public phone is a tricky deal. While major cities have payphones, in more rural areas you have to go to the telephone office, where you tell the (usually grumpy) woman where you want to call. After putting down a certain amount of money, you're given a plastic card with a number on it and proceed to the telephone booth with the corresponding number to make your call. If your calling outside of the municipal district that you're in, you're directed to a booth with a special phone. You place the call, and once someone on the other end picks up, you have to immediately press a little red button which tells the telephone lady to start timing your call. If you don't press the red button, you're disconnected in a minute. Even if you play by the rules, they disconnect you after a half hour anyway.

The telephone lady, who was unusually cheerful and courteous, gave us the go-ahead. She called over the technician, who dismantled the existing plug and pulled out two wires, explaining that these were the "red button" wires: Once I connected to the server, I had to immediately cross the two wires, or I would be disconnected. I removed the phone, set up the laptop and crossed my fingers. Loscha watched me with amusement. "This is terribly James Bond-ish, yes?" he joked.

The first seven attempts resulted in a busy signal or disconnection. It was excruciatingly hot in the little booth, and I was getting all sorts of stares from passers-by. Then the dialog box came up: "Verifying user name and password." I ducked under the little shelf and crossed the wires, holding my breath. "Connected." I let out a shout of joy while Loscha and the technician shared in my victory. I opened up my ftp program, connected to the ARCHAEOLOGY website server and began to transfer the first photograph...until I was disconnected. After another 20 or 30 attempts to connect, I gave up again.

My last hope was that the internet café had a serial cable to connect my laptop to one of their computers. "Serial cable?" one of the guys at the café laughed, "Look at these computers, this setup. Hell, we still have dot-matrix printers!" "And I have a laptop with no disk drive," I jokingly replied. He shrugged and smiled, "Different problems, yes, but same situation."

I had spent five hours in a futile search for a connection. I was sweaty, hungry and exhausted by the time we left Sudak, calling it a day. Enough is enough, I thought. Maybe I'll go eat bonbons on the beach.

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