I was stranded in Bogotá, Colombia with my two children and no place to sleep.
"I'm sorry. There is no way you can stay in a hostel in Bogotá without a passport," the woman said. "It's a very strict rule and no hostel will let you stay."
I panicked. It is not an exaggeration to say it was one of the most stressful moments of my life. Nine o'clock on a Friday night in an unfamiliar city, and I was marooned with two young boys. We would be sleeping on the streets for the night.
"Do you have a computer I can use?" I asked. There was a slim chance this would make a difference, but when you're grasping at straws, you grasp them all. My hands shook as I typed out my plea to the twitterverse:
"I need help desperately. Know anyone in Bogota, Colombia? Please RT"
And then I waited to see what happened next.
My husband and I have long been travelers. Back in 1990, we hopped on a plane and pedaled remote roads in Pakistan and India. There was no Internet then (well, we didn't use it anyway). And to travel meant to be completely out of touch with the world save the four mail drops we arranged. Every month or so we wrote a long letter and sent it home.
The disconnection was powerful and profound, the loneliness both an obstacle and a thrill. As the Internet and 4G networks and Skype have marched across the globe, and even the most teeny-tiny, out-of-the-way places have been wired, it's hard not to feel a shred of ambivalence. Gone are the days when you are out of reach or out of range. It's a bit sad: The world doesn't seem so big anymore. But then again, that's wonderful, too.
Twenty years after our first epic journey, my husband and I decided to pack up our boys for another adventure. We would bike ride across the Americas together, from Alaska to Argentina. (I wrote about this for Salon in 2010.) By the time we started in June 2008, the Internet wasn't a novelty; it was a given. Of course we'd chitchat with friends and family from the road. Of course we'd post updates on our Web page and Facebook. It wasn't something I thought about at all -- until that night in Bogotá.
We had been cycling through Colombia for nearly two months. I'm sure some parents just choked on their coffee at the thought of putting their kids in such danger, but after more than a year of travel I assure you what was remarkable about our journey is just how safe we've been. Ours is a journey marked by rewarding rides and unforgettable sightseeing. It's one long family vacation. But after so much time on the road, certain precautionary measures had started to slip. In the two months we'd been in Colombia, we'd never had to show our passports. Each time we checked into a hotel, I presented photocopies, which had always been sufficient. Our passports remained buried at the bottom of our bicycle panniers and hadn't seen the light of day since we checked into the country.
When the boys and I decided to leave our bikes and gear with my husband in Manizales and take a bus for the eight-hour journey to Bogotá to visit friends, I didn't even think to pack our passports. If we hadn't needed them for the past two months -- why would we need them now?
But that's when things started to go wrong. Thanks to a minor miscommunication, I was unable to get hold of my friend when we arrived in the capital. That was no problem; we could easily stay the night in a hostel and meet up the next day. But then, our next speed bump arrived: The passport photocopies wouldn't work.
What to do? Where to go? Here it was: Our first real catastrophe after more than a year on the road.
When I got on the hostel computer, I logged on to Twitter and Facebook. All the scams and hoaxes out there online -- I wouldn't blame people for ignoring the plea. But they didn't. I sent my tweet -- and within minutes got a reply:
"What's happening? What do you need?"
"We have no place to sleep," I typed back. "Desperately need somebody who can let us sleep in their house tonight."
Tweets ricocheted through cyberspace. Questions poured in, and as I chewed on my lip, I typed out responses -- our story in 140-character bits, all of which boiled down to these three: We needed help. I didn't know anyone from Colombia, or know anyone who knew the country. My only hope was a blind one that somehow, somewhere, in the vast seven-degrees-of-separation social network that began with the blinking cursor on my screen -- someone would.
It was 45 minutes of agony. But finally, the tweet came back.
"My best friend lives in Bogota. What do you need?"
I dared not get my hopes up, but my heart skipped a beat or two when I saw it. I got the name of the friend and ran to the desk to ask for the number. Maybe, just maybe, this could work.
When the phone rang, and the hostel worker handed it to me, the floodgate broke and tears flowed down my cheeks. I started sobbing into the phone, "I need a place to stay."
"I'll be there in a few minutes," he responded.
Indeed, only a few minutes later a handsome Colombian man walked into the hostel and took us to his apartment. Then he took off to spend the night with a friend, leaving the apartment to my sons and me. There aren't words to describe how grateful I felt.
My boys learned all kinds of lessons on our adventure. Not just to cycle, but also to pacify and challenge themselves, to make goals and meet them. They learned how stunning the Americas really are, the differences between the country and the city and riding up a mountain and across a valley. But I'm glad to know they learned a lesson about the Internet, too. It is not simply a convenience and a comfort. It is a connection that can save you. It certainly saved us.