Libbie Zucker, my husband's 88-year-old grandmother, wanted to visit Israel again, but her doctor said no. We decided to take her with us anyway--via the Internet.
Our idea was to create a Web site, write a daily travelogue of our adventures, upload photos and text at Israeli Internet cafes, and have Libbie log on back home to read it and write back to us.
Not that either one of us had ever created a Web site, by the way. Or had owned, or even used, a digital camera before. And forget that Libbie had ever even used a computer, much less checked out a Web page and sent e-mail. Okay, so it was a crazy idea.
But, in the end . . . it worked. And despite the effort, the time and the hassles, it was definitely worth it.
We expected some technological hassles, and we found them. But learning to program a simple Web site turned out not to be among them. The first few chapters of "HTML 4 for the Worldwide Web: A Visual Quickstart Guide," which teaches you the programming language of the Web mostly by using pictorial examples of what you're supposed to do, taught us all we really needed to know.
After that, I logged on to www.geocities.com, a Web site that let me create and edit a Web page pretty easily, for free. But when some friends tried to view it, their computers froze. So I tried www.tripod.com, another site that lets registered users publish their own Web pages. Tripod had two strong advantages: Not only did it not crash people's computers, it gave us an easy-to-remember Web address, http://members.tripod .com/hertzman. Our Geocities address--www.geocities.com/TheTropics/cove/8701--had been a lot less inviting.
The Web site problem under control, we then looked into digital cameras. Digital cameras save images on internal memory chips or on floppy disks instead of on film. Pictures from digital cameras don't have to be developed before being placed on a Web page--they can be uploaded directly from the camera or disk.
Our initial priority was a camera that took the best photos, since we had heard that digital image quality wasn't as crisp as film's. Our first choice: the Olympus D-400 Zoom ($700 at the time), which did indeed take near-film-quality photos. But after we bought it we realized that in order to get the pictures onto our Web page, we'd have to install special software on our computer. And what self-respecting Internet cafe would let us install software on its computers? And what self-respecting vacationer would want to take the time trying?
Time to reprioritize. A friend recommended the Sony Mavica FD81 ("My mom can use it, it's that easy"), so we returned the Olympus and got the Sony. For $799, the Mavica saves images on normal 3 1/2-inch disks--no software required--but the photo quality is significantly lower (we had to take a real camera as well, to save important memories on film). The Sony does have two bonus features: It takes great low-light pictures and has something called MPEG "movie" capability. Thus we could capture for Libbie Israel's sights, like a nighttime view of the Western Wall and Dome of the Rock, as well as its sounds, like a muezzin's call to prayer and the competing religious chants echoing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
One "minor" problem remained: Teaching Libbie to use a computer. We created a basic set of 14 instructions for turning on the machine, using the mouse, connecting to the Internet and using e-mail. Teaching Libbie to send messages to our Hotmail e-mail account was key to the "interactive" experience we were trying to concoct. The Web page would allow her to hear from us, but we wanted to hear from her, too. So we spent two weekends and several hours on the phone talking her through the instructions. After a dozen practice messages, she had it.
With our Web site up, a camera that worked and Libbie online, we were ready for our high-tech holiday.
Our first stop was modern Tel Aviv and its historic neighbor, Yafo. After a day of touring and picture-taking, we headed to InBar, an Internet bar, to update our site with our day's pictures and stories. That day provided a study in contrasts; it began with a walking tour of 4,000-year-old Yafo and ended with a near-real-time e-mail conversation with our 6-year-old cousin Sarah in Winchester, Va.
At InBar, meantime, it took about 2 1/2 hours to check our Hotmail and then upload that day's Web page, a practice we repeated elsewhere and soon streamlined. Reading our messages took some time, though. We had told family and friends of our plans--"Join us on a cybertour of Jerusalem," our Web site invited--and more people than we expected took up our offer. We received more than 70 messages while overseas.
Cybertouring redefined the term "ego trip." Reading our "fan mail" made us feel as though we were on the leading edge. My college friend Robert described our Web site as "a postmodern version of 'The Canterbury Tales.' " My mom wrote from work that the lawyers in her firm were following the site more closely than some court cases: "Your travels are the talk of some of the partners, from your Pre-Travels to the present." Friends who had never been to Israel said reading our pages was like being there.
We tried to include an equal amount of text and photos, to tell a complete story. The combination often veered toward overload, as in our description of the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv:
"The constant calls of 'Shesh shekel! Shesh shekel! Shesh shekel!' combined with the mixed smells of strawberries, garlic, spices, fish, polyester clothing and silver polish was almost too much to bear. Highly amusing nonetheless. Monica was amazed by the olive selection; neither of us had ever seen such a variety before, and in such quantity."
Libbie--in whose name we were undertaking this technovoyage--wrote to us of her excitement and how she shared it with others: "I had just finished looking and was still ooo- and ah-ing, when my friends Sarah and Blanche rang my doorbell. I told them what I wanted to show them, and gave them a choice: 'Give up half an hour of Scrabble, to see something thrilling, or else!' They decided to do as I strongly suggested, and they were absolutely as thrilled as I was, and I got to see the material a second time!"
Those who had visited Israel recommended things for us to see, do and try. A few of our better meals--such as lunch at Le Tsriff in Jerusalem's historic YMCA--came from these suggestions.
Libbie, who'd been to Jerusalem repeatedly, provided many touring ideas. In Jerusalem, she wrote, "Grandpa and I used to love walking in the old Jewish Quarter, and one day we noticed that there was the beginning of a new excavation. They had dug up two huge Roman columns and were using some heavy machinery to erect them on their bases. Upon inquiry . . . we heard that this was thought to be a street built by the Romans, wide enough so that they could ride their chariots over it!" We printed the message at Jerusalem's NetCafe, our regular haunt. On our walk the next day, we passed the now-excavated columns and realized we were on the Cardo, the street Libbie had described. I snapped some pictures, which I later uploaded with the text of her message.
"Well, Granny," I added, "we think the photos to the right and below are the same columns; when we saw them, I immediately thought of your message. It was almost like having you there!"
Libbie continued to write, but her messages got progressively shorter. A week into our trip, her entire message was: "Sunday eve. Tour pix are great." At least we knew she saw them.
After we returned home--and Libbie gave us pages of printouts of all the messages she had sent--we realized that, although some messages arrived days after she sent them, many never arrived at all. Hotmail experienced technical problems during the second week of our trip; it once took 30 minutes just to check whether we had any messages.
That week proved technologically frustrating. After being spoiled by a fast Internet connection at NetCafe, we spent a whole day in Ein Gedi, on the Dead Sea, with no Net access at all. In Eilat, a jumping, Ocean City-like resort town on the Red Sea, BJ's Books offered the best Internet access, but it was slower than our modem at home. Eilat's Internet bar, UnPlugged, was even slower.
Petra, the ancient city in Jordan, emerged as the sleeper hit of our cybertour. The Petra Internet Cafe's connection seemed nearly as fast as NetCafe's or InBar's--and infinitely faster than that at BJ's Books. But Jordan's phone system was erratic, we were told, so we had budgeted barely an hour for the Petra cafe; moreover, Hotmail's connection remained glacial and ate up half that hour.
We therefore had to wait until the last night of our vacation, in Tel Aviv, to upload the previous six days' images and update three pages on our site. It took almost five hours. But, finally, our digital romp was complete.
Curiously, cybertouring allowed us to feel less like tourists. The common theme in Internet cafes is technology, and the locals who worked at or owned the sites quickly befriended us. NetCafe's Niv Goldberg provided tremendous insight into Israeli politics, business and technology, and Petra Internet Cafe owner Hisham al-Masadah made us feel at home in a very foreign country.
Each Internet outlet had a different atmosphere, literally. Of the six places we tried, only NetCafe didn't allow smoking; its competitor, Strudel, was a real Internet bar, with smoking allowed. Petra's Internet cafe had the feel of a typical Middle Eastern coffeehouse, complete with hookahs.
Recapping each day and putting the text and images online as we traveled have allowed us to remember this vacation better than any other. And hearing the reviews of our digital handiwork, both while we were gone and when we returned, certainly made all the effort worthwhile.
But knowing that Libbie once again "saw" Israel, through her grandchildren's eyes, was the best part of all.
Monica Neal Hertzman is director of publications for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Once you have a Web site set up, you really don't need to know much code to upload photos and text; if you're a little creative, the first few chapters of "HTML 4 for the Worldwide Web: A Visual Quickstart Guide" (Peachpit Press) should explain all you need to know. But cybertouring requires some preparation that no book will teach you. Here are a few pointers we learned on the way:
1. Before you leave, do an online search of Internet cafes in your planned destination, but don't be surprised if it's not accurate; www.cyberiacafe.net/cyberia/guide/ccafe.htm is a good place to start, or do a search for "Internet cafe."
2. Set up "shell" Web pages before you leave on your trip, one for each day, but don't link them until you use them.
3. Sign up for more than one e-mail account, in case one isn't working while you are gone, and practice using them before you leave.
4. Set up your home page as a "What's New" page so visitors can click on your most recent entry easily.
5. If you use a Mavica camera, buy several packs of new disks (we used nearly 40); this is extra insurance against computer viruses infecting your camera.
6. Use your camera to review each disk before uploading images; list the photo file names and contents on paper. This will save you time, and therefore money, when online. (At cybercafes you pay by the hour.)
7. If you don't write the text when you upload pictures, you probably won't go back later to add it; don't procrastinate.
8. If traveling with a companion, it saves time if one writes the text and the other fiddles with the computer. Trade off roles each day so both get to write text.
9. Unless you're a Web expert, don't try anything too fancy; having text wrap around photos may look nice, but it's much easier simply to place the image and have the text below it.
10. Save frequently!
CAPTION: Libbie Zucker prepares to jack in to her family's daily Israel Web journal.